Monday, June 29, 2015

You and Me Forever by Francis and Lisa Chan (Book Review #52 of 2015)

You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity
The Chans self-published this book in order to make it free, although donations are accepted and versions and a study guide can be purcahsed. It was the free download of the month at ChristianAudio.com in February. My wife and I listened it together on a car ride. We both found it humbling, convicting, and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it to anyone who is married or engaged. There is much more in this brief book, so read it for yourself.

Francis Chan is one of the few Christians who really lives out his theology. If Jesus says our blood relatives aren't the most important thing, and Romans 8 is true for Christians, then why do we act like it's such a sacrifice to send family overseas or get angry at God if a child dies "prematurely?" Don't we know that all things come from God's hand and sovereign love? Don't we know our time here is momentary and the purpose is to be ambassadors for Christ alone? Why don't we act like it? That was sort of the point of Crazy Love and this book is no different.

The book does not give specific how-to tips on dealing with conflict, intimacy, and communication issues. Plenty of other books have been written for those. This deals with putting your marriage on mission and looking at marriage in light of eternity. The book is Scripture-soaked with more references and long quotes than perhaps any other marriage book I have ever read. I found out about the book while listening to Chan's guest appearance on John Piper's podcast. This is very much Piper's Desiring God and Don't Waste Your Life set to marriage.

Chapter One is titled "Marriage Isn't That Great," making the blunt point that marriage is temporary and that our love for our spouse (or children or grandchildren) should pale in light of our love for Jesus. If you'd rather see your kids grow up than see Jesus, then your family is an idol. If you worry what will happen to your kids when you're gone, then you've misunderstood God's providence. The ultimate prescription for marital health is getting on the same "team" in regards to mission. The Chans compare it to a sports team working toward a common goal-- the individuals of the team are diverse and may not get along as friends, but they build camaraderie working toward a prize they can only win together. That's marriage.

In the chapter on marital conflict, "Learn to Fight Well," Chan holds up that our conflicts would vanish if we would truly consider our spouse as better than ourselves and surrender what we selfishly see as our rights or entitlements. Husbands should give themselves up in service just as Christ gave himself up for the church, and wives should follow his leadership. Husbands should point their families to Jesus in all that they do (p. 78):

"Practically speaking, this will mean encouraging her in her time alone with God. Sacrifice to make sure she has time. It will mean reminding her not to love the world or the things of the world. Keep her focus eternal. It will mean guiding her towards acts of love that will result in eternal reward. Men, have you ever considered your role as a husband in these terms? This is huge." 
We should love our wives so much and so extravagantly that it should be remarkable to those who see it, and that opens the door for us to share the Gospel (p. 80):
"Here's a blueprint for marriage:
1. We become overwhelmed by Christ's care for us.
2. So we shower our wives with the same love we receive from God.
3. Then, people are shocked by our extravagant love toward our wives.
4. As a result, we are given an opportunity to tell them about the love of Christ that compels us.
Sadly, very few marriages work this way...But this can all change. It starts with you rejoicing about being a member of Christ's body...This has to be our motivation." 

I appreciated his thoughts on grace in parenting, similar to Elyse Fitzpatrick's Give Them Grace. Our children's salvation does not depend on us, but is up to God. This frees us from works-based parenting where we put pressure on ourselves to bend our children's behavior toward God somehow. He does recount the long and difficult period of praying for a daughter who went wayward, sharing the joy of seeing her choose Christ and go on mission with the family. We should weave the Gospel into every situation and speak to their hearts. "Don't let a day go by without talking about heaven...We have raised kids who aren't overly afraid of death....(they) are prepared for the time that mom and dad go to be with Jesus" (p. 169). "This mission is too important to squander because of our insecurities, our longing for comfort, or our fears" (p. 180).

"If I am in a third world country helping to find solutions to poverty and starvation, and my kids are home crying because they miss me, my wife quickly reminds them how blessed they are to have a dad who is out caring for others...The moment I come home, I reassure them of how much I missed them and how I wish I could just stay with them all the time. And then I remind them again about the mission...it's important for them to understand that the mission involves saving people from eternal torment, so we must all be willing to make sacrifices for a greater purpose. In fact, if they don't see the sacrifices made, they will later question whether or not we truly believe what we say we believe" (p. 167). 

Chan posits that 75 percent of church-raised children leave the church when they turn 18 because "they see the gap between our supposed beliefs and our actions and decide not to join the hypocrisy."

The book also reads a bit like Platt's Radical. Chan holds up examples of families, including his own, who have taken in homeless people into their crowded lives in order to minister to them. Of radical adoptions and financial poverty, etc. One can think of a myriad of examples that would be difficult to flesh out in reality. His advice on financial matters is sort of the opposite of Dave Ramsey's Legacy mentality-- don't worry about leaving an inheritance to your kids as that might "[impede] their growth as servants" (p. 165). He argues that "God likes seeing children care for their parents" rather than the parents insuring they need no support.

The Chans close the book with a powerful prayer for marriages (P. 190-191).
"May we spend our married days reminding each other of Your glory, Your gospel, Your love, Your power, Your mission, and Your promise of what is to come." 
4.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin (Book Review #51 of 2015)


The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence
2.5 stars. This book comes highly recommended by Tim Ferriss (who bought the rights to the audio version) and many Ferriss-types who frequent his podcast. I found it fell far short of the hype. Perhaps it was groundbreaking at the time, but I read a lot of articles and books related to behavioral economics, the brain, learning, psychology, and self-improvement and didn't find anything new here. I just read Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness for Beginners and found it more useful in thinking about breathing and awareness than anything Waitzkin writes in this book. I believe that he is somewhere on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Waitzkin's perception of the world reads similarly to books by authors with Asperger's like David Finch's Journal of Best Practices and John Elder Robinson's Look Me in the Eye, both of which I rated more highly.
At its core, this is an autobiography by a typical self-centered athlete/celebrity who thinks he's discovered secrets you can use for your own success.

If you're looking for the latest science on how our brains process information, retain memories, and adapt, there is little here. Likewise, if you're looking for tips on how to do things more quickly and efficiently, this is not your book (try the 4-Hour Body, the 4-Hour Chef, or something like Matt Perman's What's Best Next). This book will also not help you learn to win friends and influence people. As such, I feel the book was mistitled. Waitzkin does begin with looking at how "learning theorists" differ from those who believe our abilities are limited by genetics. Learning theorists basically believe you can do/learn anything you put your mind to. If you're skeptical of brain plasticity and an ability to learn, then maybe you wouldn't read this book anyway. But Waitzkin was dubbed "prodigy" for a reason: he could see the chess board differently than 99% of other people from the start. So, talent, neurobiology, whatever you want to call it, was already in his favor, he was just able to hone it through years of training and concentration. This same intuitive advantage helps him in Tai Chi, he writes. He sees chess when doing Tai Chi and vice-versa, if that's you, then you'll like this book. If not, meh. Waitzkin claims to have been able to peform remarkable feats with his mind-- like mentally transferring the physical work he was doing with one arm to his other broken arm such that it did not lose any strength despite being unused. He does not really describe how to do that for yourself, so take that for what you will.

Waitzkin writes of his process in becoming chess champion and later world Tai Chi champion, now he's a consultant helping "great" athletes become "truly elite." But many of his observations have been observed by athletes and non-athletes for millenia, I found Waitzkin's writing to be pretty shallow-- he seems not to have read for depth or breadth in his lifetime. Every experience he has he almost assumes is unique to himself, like he's a pioneer, not recognizing that there is truly "nothing new under the sun." 90% of the book is focused on chess and Tai Chi, but it's hard to relate the lessons learned from these solitary competitions that depend on psychological warfare to team sports where one is simply a fraction of the whole and has to work to make others better, and let them make you better as well. For example, I found little in this book that I could use to improve the learning and efficiency a team of employees who struggle with communication and trust, and very little I could use to strengthen my marriage. Most of the books Tim Ferriss recommends (and most of the people he interviews) are written by unmarrieds with no children to concern themselves with, and Waitzkin is definitely of that ilk.

Anyone who has run a mile or given birth understands the importance of breathing and pushing through when your body says "stop." Anyone who has experienced middle school understands the difficulty of dealing with bullies and staying mentally tough when life is unfair; you don't need to read Waitzkin to know these. There are very few school/social experiences in the Waitzkin book.

I appreciated the validity it added to the Searching for Bobby Fisher movie, which I am currently watching again, and Waitzkin's description of how being thrust into the limelight by the book and film made his life more challenging. It helps to watch certain scenes and see how Waitzkin describes what processes were going on in his head at that time in his life. There were many more psychological games going on-- Russians were quite good at it-- that Waitzkin had to learn to deal with and overcome. Noise distractions, tapping on the board, kicking, blatant cheating, etc. You can't just ignore these injustices, but you have to accept them and channel your feelings about them into a focus on overcoming and winning.

Here are some insights from Waitzkin that I'd argue you could get from any personal trainer:
Short-term goals are useful if and only if they are part of a long-term plan. You need to build your own habits that help you maintain your incremental progress. Create your own triggers for generating creativity. Become at peace with the discomfort around you. Minimize the repetition of errors. Sometimes less is more. Be comfortable with imperfection, and use your own imperfection and weaknesses to your advantage. Internally create inspiring conditions, be self-motivated. Don't change your personality (his best chess coaches recognized it was best to let him be himself) but use it to your advantage.

Waitzkin recommends "chunking," the process of combining things that can be learned together. This is often used in language study, don't study and memorize words, but memorize them in the context of a sentence or phrase-- a chunk of language. Recovery periods are important, every high-performance athlete must be able to "let go" and spend time on the bench resting/recovering. (What athlete doesn't already know this? Sabbaths have been around for millenia.) Elite competitors are cool under pressure, they don't crack. We have to learn to love waiting and embrace it to help us recover.

What do you do when your antagonist is a relentless bully and justice is nowhere to be found? Don't block out your emotions, channel them instead. "Dirty players are the best teacher." Learn to have no fear, in many cases he was thrown around by dirty Tai Chi players because he ultimately feared them. Once he faced the fear, he could anticipate their attacks better.

There are lengthy descriptions of Waitzkin's push hands competitions, what was going on in his head, and how he overcame himself and his opponents mentally. The book ends with his becoming world co-champion in Taiwan after the locals continually changed the rules and cheated to try and defeat the foreigners (I'm convinced by Waitzkin and others I know in internationally in kickboxing, wrestling, and other martial arts that martial arts is the most corrupt sport, their bodies make FIFA look upstanding.)

Again, there is little information about Waitzkin's relationship with his fellow man. Does he look to serve anyone than himself? He writes about girlfriends but gives no information as to how his Art of Learning related to his relationships. He loved his parents, that much is clear, and he did learn a few life lessons from his dad. But if you're juggling a couple jobs, a spouse, kids, and civic organizations you will find Waitzkin's life (like any professional athlete's) mostly irrelevant to yours. I found the book to be just an autobiography pretending to be a self-improvement book.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Podcast of the Week (6/14 - 6/20, 2015) The Gospel Coalition roundtable "Biblical Foundations for Seeking God's Justice in a Sinful World"

Tim Keller, John Piper, Thabiti Anyabwile, Voddie Baucham, Don Carson, and Miguel Núñezin an April 15 panel discussion. "Biblical Foundations for Seeking God's Justice in a Sinful World" Audio and video available here.

Among the topics are where do we get a biblical foundation for justice and human rights? Should the U.S. intervene abroad in the name of justice?

I think Piper wins the latter topic with his "I don't know if America should police the world" and the point is made that the U.S. has gotten so used to fighting the never-ending war on terror that we (Christians) no longer ask "Is this just? Are we considering the cost?" One of the panelists seems to think strongly that we should intervene, another makes a good argument that Romans 13 also requires us to respect other nations' sovereignty, which leads to a question of where we draw the line at an injustice worthy enough for a U.S. military intervention. Which the U.N. debates all the time, seems sort of a waste to discuss it as such in this forum. I don't think anyone in this discussion is sufficiently educated in the evolution of foreign policy. But it's useful to hear the initial viewpoints of Christian thought-leaders.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Book Review #50 of 2015)


Mindfulness for Beginners

I provide a bit more to this than a normal book review. I give this book 4 stars, it is exactly as advertised.

Pray. Meditate. Don't worry. Relax. Breathe. Have a quiet time. These are all things we know we're supposed to do but neglect to do. They require intentional desire and discipline. This book is about how to practice being intentional about it.

This book is a short summary and introduction into the exercise of mindfulness. The author has a PhD from MIT. I became intrigued by mindfulness after watching the author in this 60 Minutes piece.  Tim Ferriss interviews a lot of Silicon Valley entrepreneur types on his show and practicing some form of meditation seems to be a common link among all of them. I blogged about that here.
I recently saw a profile of the CEO of health care giant AETNA, and how he offers yoga and meditation courses to employees, which are quite popular. They've seen a drop in health care costs that they attribute to the practice reducing stress.
"Employees report a 28 percent decrease in stress levels, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality and 19 percent reduction in pain. "

I listen to several fitness podcasts and the elite athletes and trainers all practice some form of meditation and yoga as part of their mental fitness and physical recovery. Yoga (a difficult form) is included in P90X and is something that I appreciate and don't do correctly or often enough.

Most Christians think of Eastern meditation as emptying one's mind, whereas that does not appear to be the case with mindfulness. Zinn reportedly developed his style by combining his studies with Buddhist practioners "with science." It's instead a practice of focusing one's mind, and as such I find it compatible with a Christian discipline of meditation.

I read a couple books on spiritual disciplines last year, meditation and prayer are two points covered that are similar. Tim Challies has a brief "faith hacking" post on meditation on Scripture.

In another post, he interviews Joel Beeke on how the Puritans used the word "meditation," and I find it quite compatible:
Puritan meditation engages the mind with God’s revealed truth in order to inflame the heart with affections towards God and transform the life unto obedience. Thomas Hooker defined it like this: “Meditation is a serious intention of the mind whereby we come to search out the truth, and settle it effectually upon the heart.” The direction of our minds reveals the truest love of our hearts, and so, Hooker said, he who loves God’s Word meditates on it regularly (Ps. 119:97). Therefore, Puritan meditation is not repeating a sound, emptying the mind, or imagining physical sights and sensations, but a focused exercise of thought and faith upon the Word of God."
...
"Here is a method for meditation based on Puritan writings. First, pray for the power to focus your mind on the Word with faith. Second, read the Bible and select a verse or two. Third, repeat those verses to yourself in order to memorize them. Fourth, think about what those verses say and imply, probing the book of Scripture (other verses on the same topic), the book of conscience (how you have believed or disbelieved, obeyed or disobeyed), and the book of nature (how this truth appears in experience and the world). Fifth, stir up your affections unto love, desire, grief, hope, zeal, and joy as appropriate. Preach the text to yourself with powerful application. Sixth, arouse your soul to the specific duty which the text requires, making holy resolutions for the glory of God. Seventh, conclude with prayers for divine assistance, thanksgiving for graces given, and singing psalms of praise to God."

The Psalmist wrote (Psalm 131) "But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child is my soul within me"

There's a quietness about it. There's a prayer closet we have to build, either physically or mentally throughout our day, to be like Jesus and move away from the crowds and pray (Mark 1:35-37). To appreciate that God is moving every molecule in our universe, including those in our immediate surroundings. "Multitasking jams the voice of God."

Zinn says that "mindfulness is a way of being, not just a good idea." It's about living in the present moment, not worrying about the past or the future (Matthew 6:34). When the Apostle Paul wrote "Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5:16-18) I think he gave us a command to be mindful of the truth of our salvation and how God is working His will in our lives all the time. Trusting in truth and accepting reality are an essential part of mindfulness, according to Zinn. Where a non-Christian gets his self-identity and truth from are another matter, but for the Christian it's important to think about large chunks of truth like Romans 5 and Romans 8.

Then, once we have taken the time to meditate on these truths, we have a basis on which to act. We can love others because we remember that Christ first loved us. "Let the doing come out of being," says Zinn.

Zinn invents the verb "awarenessing" which involves using your mind and all of your senses to appreciate your surroundings. You can "appreciate the senses individually as miraculous." Even focusing on something as simple as a raisin, as Zinn uses for his example. We Americans simply throw down a handful while we're sitting at our desk hurrying onto the next thing. Instead, think about the raisin that was once a grape that grew in a miraculous process repeated for millenia. It was picked by someone you don't know and literally thousands of people's effort went to bringing it to market for you to purchase. The process of chewing and digesting are all remarkable. When you slow down and think about it and really appreciate it. It's simple, but we don't do it.

Zinn states that a beginner's mind (like a child) sees infinite possibilities, whereas an "expert" mind sees only two: right and wrong. This brings to mind Jesus' admonition to "become like little children" to "enter the kingdom of heaven." A child marvels at the smallest and simplest things. A child doesn't doubt that God is capable of anything, whereas we lose that faith as adults. Mindfulness is somewhat about getting back that childlike marvel.

In the end, Zinn leads the listener in an exercise of breathing and focusing on the present moment, meditating on truth, and bringing your mind back in focus when it wanders. Any of us who have sat down to pray have had the problem of a wandering mind, the trick is to "lovingly bring it back."

Some prominent Christians in the media have decried mindfulness meditation as nonsense without understanding what it is, or looking at the scientific data on the health benefits of meditation and yoga generally. Yet they also seem to value having a quiet time, prayer, and meditating on scripture. It's a shame they don't recognize that non-Christians have become the developers of a practice once honed by Christians-- including the Puritans.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Fat tails, nuclear war, Google, and lack of planning

Today's XKCD comic really struck me today.
http://xkcd.com/1539/

Earlier in the week I was listening to a Russ Roberts EconTalk podcast with Martin Weitzman, co-author of the book Climate Shock. Weitzman seems to have moved Roberts toward the let's-take-action camp by appealing to the Nassim Taleb argument of climate change having "fat tails." Taleb and Weitzman use the term "fat-tailed" to describe an event where there is a low probability of a catastrophic outcome. The argument is that the greater the uncertainty, the greater the impetus for doing something because the outcome could be even worse than you think or perhaps more probable than you calculate. (I reviewed Taleb's Antifragile here.)

This had me thinking about all of the fat-tailed events that we generally ignore, and the fallacy of applying this logic to every human action. Flying commercially is a fat-tailed event: There is a low probability of anything going wrong but if something does go wrong you will not likely survive it-- catastrophe. This is different then, say, driving on the interstate where you still have a pretty good chance of survival if something goes wrong.

I thought about nuclear weapons, especially now that Vladimir Putin announced he wants to increase his arsenal. What do you think more likely, that the earth's temperature will increase enough in the next 30-50 years to cause disastrous and irreversible harm to our species or that we'll use (or have an accident with) the nuclear weapons we've scattered around the world aimed at one another and housed in decaying electronic infrastructure?  There used to be an impetus on reducing those arsenals, but we still see nations (Iran, N. Korea) striving to obtain them even as we have reduced the overall amount since the 1970s. There is still plenty to blow the world up many times over.

I would say the probability and consequence of nuclear war higher than the risk of climate change, yet we're doing nothing about it. That does not come up in the conversation with Dr. Weitzman. Roberts makes the point about opportunity cost-- what if it costs us 50% of world GDP to make the change, is that really worth it? I think we've decided as a world that it's not worth even a fraction of that cost.

Monday, June 15, 2015

My Share of the Task by Gen. Stan McChrystal (Book Review #49 of 2015)

My Share of the Task: A Memoir
I read this immediately after reading Broadwell's bio of David Petraeus. This book is exponentially better. It opens with his foreword that publishing was delayed by a year due to editing and security screening by the Pentagon, and his frustrations with that process. As a result, he states had to alter some of the content, facts, details, but felt that the stories were still close enough to maintain their integrity. That's a good note for reading any modern war memoir-- remember that it's been made less-true by the Pentagon. This book is a bit dry if you're not deeply interested in tactical operations and planning of special operations and the lives of officers. While the Epilogue contains the outline for his next book on leadership, there is not a lot of explicit leadership teaching that takes place in the book. Being from the first-person, you have no idea what others really think about him or how effective they saw him. One caveat to this book is that you do not get the dirty reality of combat from the ground-level as in Filkins' The Forever War, American Sniper, or Lone Soldier, which cover some of the same territory and operations. I would also recommend Thomas Ricks' The Generals which covers the breakdown of accountability in command of the U.S. Armed Forces to get an appreciation for how rare it is that McChrystal was fired. But some of the reality seeps through as McChrystal sees Iraq deteriorating in 2004, is disgusted by Abu Gharaib, is furious over civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and lacks words to explain to his soldiers why they're there. The only f-bomb tirade in the book comes when he takes command of ISAF and makes a point that they have to stop killing civilians to have a shot at turning the country around.

Like most Americans, my view of McChrystal was colored by the Rolling Stone article that led to his resignation (as well as the 60 Minutes piece that highlighted on his rigorous physical discipline of running). I think the recent exposure of Rolling Stone's publication of proven falsehoods (the false rape at UVA), subsequent retraction, and determination of The Columbia Graduate Schoolof Journalism that Rolling Stone failed to follow "basic practice" of journalism is enough to make that a blurb, not to mention that McChrystal was cleared by two Pentagon investigations that discovered no violation of ethics standards or eyewitnesses supporting the journalist's account. But anti-military types might reject this book out of hand. I give this book 4 stars out of 5.

McChrystal comes across as introspective, constantly observing the culture around him as well as what is going on inside his own head. He has an MS and served as a fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations along with spending time at Harvard, so he's not a low-IQ individual. He listens to audiobooks on his long runs and lists several that impacted him when deployed (Freakonomics being one). At the time of publishing he was teaching a course on leadership at Yale.

The author was the son of a Vietnam veteran and grew up playing with GI Joes and reading juvenile biographies of various war heroes. He grew up near West Point and took it as a given that he'd go there. He struggled with math and science but excelled at history. He continually earned demerits for his "behavioral nonsense." He married the daughter of a veteran, and while her perspective is missing from the book he seems to want to express his love for her throughout the book; while leaving out much of the rest of his family life. He was at West Point in 1971 at the height of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and was finishing school at a time the Army's morale had sunk to new lows. After joining the Green Berets he noted the poor morale, discipline, and leadership demonstrated by drug and alcohol abuse.

After the Iran hostage rescue debacle and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. Special Forces saw increased investment from the government and a great deal of reform. Much of this book is about the reform and evolution of the Special Forces through the 80's-90's and after 9/11 and Iraq.
He served in a mechanized infantry battalion before joining the Rangers in the 1980s, but he was stateside when Reagan sent them into Panama and his wife had to talk him out of his disappointment. McChrystal would go back and forth between Rangers and the 82nd Airborne, initially under Gen. Abizaide. During the '91 Gulf War he worked with a British SAS commander and forged a friendship that would last through his Afghanistan deployment. After his "good experience" at Harvard he returned to the Rangers and saw deployment in Afghanistan in May 2002.

The largest part of the book focuses on his assignment in Iraq to capture Al-Zarqawi and degrade his terrorist network as part of Task Force 6-26. It has much historical value in showing how tactics evolved as the enemy evolved, and the difficulties of both winning hearts and minds as well as capturing a high-value target. As McChrystal was head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC, which he calls "Task Force 714") he shuttled between the U.S., Afghanistan, and Iraq and the jobs blur together. While he notes his disgust at Abu Gharaib he highlights how his men upgraded prisons. But, I notice that there were several stories over that period of how his men controversially engaged in enhanced interrogation procedures in Iraq. In contrast, in the book he describes in detail the long, pain-staking process of getting information from prisoners without torture. Similarly, McChrystal describes at length the Pat Tillman affair. Tillman was awarded for the valor of his maneuvers, not for being killed. McChrystal claims that he assumed others in contact with the family would inform them of the friendly fire. He notes that he was accused of cover-up because his communications in regards to Tillman were classified, but he notes that as JSOC commander all of his communications were required to be classified.

It is interesting, but somewhat dry, as Task Force 714's hunt for Zarqawi continues. McChrystal is coordinating with CIA analysts, incorporating more sophisticated signals intelligence and other technology such as drones, and patiently waiting on leads from prisoners and informants, all while others worked with the Iraqi government to bring about stability and democracy. When "experts" talk of defeating ISIL in Iraq today, they seem to be ignorant of the years of ground work that had to be done to dismantle a much more localized network of terrorists.

McChrystal was "surprised" in 2002 to see how the Bush Administration seemed to be focusing less on Afghanistan and more on Iraq. He registered concern after the total number of the army of Iraqi defectors supposedly eager to fight Saddam was fewer than 100, noting that the "signs were there" that the Iraq war was not being sold at face value. He writes of meetings where Rumsfeld differed with the military staff and the friction between the civilian and military leadership, noting that both are good-intentioned. He did not like the "triumphalism" of L. Paul Bremer and the Administration after Saddam was captured and other key events, noting they missed the ball to let Iraqi's make key announcements as the liberation looked more like a U.S. occupation. One awkward meeting between himself and President Bush, Bush asks him whether he wants Zarqawi captured or killed. McChrystal thought he'd be more valuable alive, whereas Bush indicated he just wanted him dead.

He details the "surge" in 2006 and the Sunni Awakening that made success possible. He writes that the surge was about shifting from fighting Sunnis to fighting Shia, which is not perhaps what most Americans think of but explains some of the difficulty we have in supporting Shia-led militias against ISIL today.

The last quarter of the book focuses on his brief time as ISAF commander in Afghanistan, which has a markedly different tone than the rest. In Afghanistan, McChrystal got to know the people and the culture more than he did in Iraq. He clearly still has affinity for the place and his wife serves on the board of a charity there. I was surprised how much deference he showed to Hamid Karzai, whom he considered a trusted ally. He is constantly giving him the benefit of the doubt. Every other book (Gates, Clinton, Panetta, Broadwell/Petraeus) and article I've read on Afghanistan savage Karzai in retrospect as a corrupt, untrustworthy partner who undermined the coalition. McChrystal paints him as a man constantly under threat of assassination, trying to build a coalition of unfriendly parties while constantly being undermined by the West's seeming indifference to mounting civilian casualties in drone strikes and night raids. He also cautions others against listening to what Karzai says to the media (which alarmed many Senators) and instead what he does. Karzai invites McChrystal to various shuras and this meant a lot to the General. In Washington, the General accompanies Karzai to a hospital where he sees an emotional Karzai talking to soldiers horribly wounded on behalf of his country. He was aware of criticism that he was too close to Karzai:

"I questioned whether I was too respectful of him and his position, whether I'd gone native. Shouldn't I take a harder line? But in the hall-of-mirrors politics of Kabul, I looked to his actions, not his words...Karzai wanted night raids to stop, and yet we'd quadrupled the number of...raids...(Although) I knew he was deeply skeptical of our logic for brining more foreign forces to his country, he'd agreed to support my recommendation to add forty thousand..." (loc. 7969).

McChrystal's main concern is reducing civilian casualties, reforming prisons, fostering a broader commitment from U.S. forces to nation-building, and borrowing "clear and hold" tactics from both the British in the 1800s and the Soviets in the late 1980s. He was the 12th ISAF commander and did not feel a great deal of optimism-- he felt he had six months to execute a strategy, but thought the Taliban could be marginalized such that the democratic Afghanistan could function across a large area. He developed the idea of "Afghan Hands," units of volunteers (they were later not volunteers) specially trained in Afghan languages and culture that would rotate into Afghanistan, back stateside, then return to the same region they had previously operated in order to maintain continuity and show the locals they were committed to keeping their promises. While this seems like a great idea, it's untenable given that Obama had a stated draw-down date preference and the Army was not committed to the program-- a frustration for McChrystal. During this time, he sensed the "deficit of trust" between the Obama Administration and the military and said it was unintentional but harmful. Like the Broadwell account, the Administration seems overly paranoid and sensitive. Interestingly, McChrystal relied on books like Daniel Ellsberg's account of the Pentagon papers for guidance in thinking about power and ethics.

Unlike Iraq, there was no civilian administrator who could coordinate all the efforts between USAID, the military, the U.N., and others. McChrystal asked Karzai permission to execute orders given to him by POTUS, which is amazing and was appreciated by the Afghan President. The police needed to be built, and this was harder than building an army. Corruption and tribal links were hard to overcome. McChrystal never addresses the economic factor-- the war on the opium trade that many Afghan farmers (and the Taliban) rely on. His wife and family now needed extra security in the U.S. Towards the end of his time, he meets with an American platoon that has just lost one of its own, the soldiers are asking questions like "Why are we here, sir? What's the point?" He writes:
"I couldn't solve the platoon's problems that day...I lacked the eloquence to assuage their concerns and could only epxlain the strategy they were a part of. I tried to show them I understood, and cared."

Just as things get rolling along, McChrystal is blindsided by the Rolling Stone article which seemingly came out of nowhere. The reporter had embedded with them for months and he and others thought he had witnessed the moments of remarkable cooperation of international troops and Afghan locals and that the story would be positive. Again, later investigations could turn up no eyewitnesses corroborating key statements and events in the article, but the damage was done. McChrystal simply took the blame, flew back to Washington, and resigned in a 20 minute "conversation" with the President. He got to keep his pension and enjoy a military send-off, and was later asked by Michelle Obama to work on a project for military families, showing no hard feelings. His wife seemed please that they were out of the Army and could still "be happy." "Life would go on," writes McChrystal (loc. 8117).

The book closes with an Epilogue of McChrystal's observations and thoughts on leadership, which probably is a preview of his new book Team of Teams on leadership and team-building. Here are the highlights of the epilogue (loc. 8144-8210).
"Leadership is difficult to measure and often difficult even to adequately describe."
"(Leadership is not command. Some of the greatest leaders commanded nothing but respect."
"Leaders are empathetic. The best leaders I've seen have an uncanny ability to understand, empahtise, and communicate with those they lead."
"Leaders are not necessarily popular."
"The best leaders are genuine...Simple honesty matters."
"Physical appearance, poise, and outward self-confidence can be confused with leadership--for a time."
"Leaders walk a fine line between self-confidence and humility....I learned that it was better to admit ignorance or fear than to display false knowledge or bravado."
"People are born; leaders are made....whateverleadership I later possessed, I learned from others."
"Leaders are people, and people constantly change...well into my career I was still figuring out what kind of leader I wanted to be...bouncing between competing models...As I got older, the swings between leadership styles were less pronounced and frequent as I learned the value of consistency."
"Leaders make mistakes, and they are often costly."
"There are few secrets to leadership. It is mostly just hard work. More than anything else it requires self-discipline."
"In the end, leadership is a choice...A leader decides to accept responsibility for others in a way that assumes stewardship of their hopes, their dreams, and sometimes their very lives."

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sermon of the Week (6/7 - 6/13, 2015) Matt Proctor on Romans 1-2

One conception of megachurches like Southland Christian in Lexington, KY is that they water down the message, otherwise why would so many people show up? As an example against that stereotype, I present the sermon from 5/3/2015 which could be titled "The Wrath of God." If you've never heard "the wrath of God" (Romans 1:18) used repeatedly in a megachurch sermon, here you go (iTunes or Vimeo). Matt Proctor preaches on Romans 1-2 (the church has been walking through the NT book by book). Proctor is the President of Ozarks Christian College in Joplin, MO. He makes good comments about self-serving bias and the importance of truth. The summary gets it:

"Guest speaker Matt Proctor teaches on the book of Romans, which begins by highlighting the consequence of mankind’s refusal to worship God. In Chapter 1 Paul highlights all the moral wickedness and depravity that comes in the wake of Gentile idolatry. In Chapter 2 Paul reminds the Jews that just because they have the law they are no better because they too commit sin, just in a different way. Apart from God’s grace, mankind is enslaved to sin and unable to experience true righteousness. Paul specifically highlights the way in which sin damages us. No one ever gets the best of sin, sin always gets the best of us. Sin always uses us and tarnishes the beauty of God’s image in us. Luckily, as we see later in Romans, we have not been left in our sin!"

Enjoy.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Raw Vegan Bodybuilding by Sivan Berko (Book Review #48 of 2015)


Raw Vegan Bodybuilding: How To Gain Muscle And Stay Fit On The Raw Food Diet (Vegan bodybuilding, Raw food, Bodybuilding, Raw Vegan Diet, Raw Food Lifestyle, Fitness)
I bought this book because I am a lacto, ovo vegetarian who does weight training and I have read other books on bodybuilding. The comment every bodybuilding book and website makes about a vegan diet is that it's hard to get enough complete proteins. Berko disagrees, especially if you go raw vegan as cooking leeches nutrients from the vegetables. She recommends the Graham diet of 80% carbs, 10% protein, 10% fat which is much different that most others I've seen.

The pros:
Berko gives a basic overview of the muscles involved with bodybuilding. Basic exercises and routines are described. The book includes some anatomic diagrams of the muscular system. She also provides some examples of meal plans. Berko explains vegan science without adding much political rhetoric or calling it the cure for cancer.
There are some (apparently) patented techniques in the book like MaxPain. This can be either a pro or a con. MaxPain is simply a diminishing set where you have a goal to do 70 reps of a lift in as few sets as possible (aiming for 4). Only 2 minutes of rest between sets.

The cons:
English is not her first language, evident immediately from the unedited foreword. Whoever edited the actual text did a decent job, but there is still a lot of awkward English.
Her daily diet consists of 2-3 heads of lettuce. The second meal of one day includes "a head of lettuce." My target calorie intake to add bulk for weightlifting is over 3,000 calories. That is a whole lot of vegetables!
There are no diagrams of the exercises described. There is no system of Day 1: A, B, C for D reps with E minutes between... etc. You have to put it all together.
She always has you train to failure, which other body builders disagree with on the merits. When you're lifting, this requires a spotter so you don't kill yourself in your garage (ie: wouldn't work for me at 5am).

In all, I give this book 2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

All In by Paula Broadwell (Book Review #47 of 2015)


All In: The Education of General David Petraeus
It would be interesting to know whether Petraeus' wife and other associates would have determined that this book was written by a mistress if it had not been leaked by an FBI inquiry. It's clear, especially toward the end, that the author either had too much information or was making things up, and is blatantly biased. How does she know, for example, what his expression was when he was the "only one in the room"? How does she know what he was wearing when he went out "jogging alone"? Broadwell writes in the foreword that she took "full advantage of Petraeus's open door policy" is thankful for her "luck." Knowing the full history of her level of access makes it particularly awkward. Things he confides to "another close friend" in the book are probably things he confided to her alone.

There is no criticism raised of Petraeus (or many others under his command) that Broadwell does not immediately and repeatedly rebut. A couple of Petraeus' speeches are quoted at length, making it much more of a puff piece than a true historical work. Which is a shame, because there is probably real value in the historical information; Petraeus is one of America's most decorate and most-experienced generals. Much of the detail in the book come from Afghanistan where Broadwell was embedded and posting reports from the front line on Thomas Ricks' blog. There is value in the historical overview of the Afghan war under Petraeus and McChrystal and the decisions which were made, but it will be left to future historians to determine how much was shaded by Broadwell's bias.

The structure of the book was not completely chronological. The book begins with McChrystal's firing as ISAF commander in 2010 and follows Petraeus' appointment to replace him up to Petraeus' appointment to CIA in 2011. Between these two points are roughly chronological flashbacks to earlier parts of Petraeus' career from West Point to the 101 Airborne to Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan with a stops at Princeton and the Army War College. This makes the flow of the book somewhat hard to follow.  The minute details of the time in Afghanistan make up most of the book as Broadwell was present.

Petraeus was the son of a Dutch immigrant and married the daughter of a 4-star General who became a mentor and inspiration to Petraeus. Gen. Knowlton had led the inquiry into the Mei Lai Massacre and developed a reputation for his hands-on approach on the ground visiting troops under his command in Vietnam. One gathers that Petraeus is ultra-competitive, especially in the athletic realm. He's a prostate cancer survivor and has experienced near-career-ending accidents both on the shooting range and while free skydiving. He pushes himself to train harder and do more push-ups than enlisted men half his age.

Broadwell refers to his "Team Petraeus" staff but deflects criticism by others (most notably in my mind Defense Secretary and CIA chief Leon Panetta in his memoir) that Petraeus was an egotistical primadonna. Broadwell writes that Petraeus got that reputation, in part, from his being aide to several top generals. She responds that the generals did not pick him for political reasons, they picked him because they saw he was able to get things done that others couldn't. Panetta remarks in his memoir that Petraeus' office was a "shrine to himself" with his challenge coins, metals, flags, etc. Broadwell never really details that, but it's clear Petraeus is the alpha dog eager to prove himself better than others and remind them of it. The title "All In" comes from Petraeus' demand of President George W. Bush during his decision on the Iraq "surge"-- if the decision was made, the government had to be "all in" giving Petraeus' soldiers everything they needed for as long as they needed it.

If anyone comes across badly in the book, it's Afghan President Hamid Karzai followed by US VP Joe Biden. Karzai is repeatedly caught in a web of lies and corruption, trying to play the media to his advantage and the U.S.' detriment. Biden, and unnamed entities in the White House, are portrayed as second-guessing and paranoid about Petraeus and other U.S. commanders trying to undermine Obama, something the Rolling Stone story on McChrystal exacerbated. The paranoia and awkwardness of the Obama Administration and the military are captured well in Robert Gates' memoir and, to a lesser extent, Panetta's book. The concern was that the generals were trying to "box Obama in." Petraeus was at least once quoted anonymously in an unflattering light by a source close to him. Broadwell defends the General at all points and writes that Petraeus repeatedly remarks that he is the most loyal general that Obama has and felt perplexed that he could be considered disloyal.

I was hoping the book would have more on Petraeus' leadership and management skills. When he first took command of ISAF he held 20 meetings a day. Whatever senior staff decided would be posted in key locations and sent out in bullet point memos to commands across Afghanistan. Petraeus' strategy focused on the following:
1. Get the ideas right.
2. Communicate the ideas effectively.
3. Aggressively oversee their implementation (Petraeus was criticized by some for micromanaging).
4. Get continuous feedback.

Petraeus considers himself a "relentless communicator," and Broadwell recounts those he contacted for advice in the early ISAF days. One friend who served with him in Iraq pointed out that the "dirty little secret" of COIN, the counterinsurgency strategy, in Iraq was that the police were never competent. The Americans just made the army good enough that the problem was overlooked, a point on which Petraeus disagreed. One key point that Petraus pushed in Afghanistan was the need for the State Department to provide more FSOs to work with both the central government and regional governments to build cohesion. There needed to be cooperation between local tribal leaders within a region and the central government in Kabul.

COIN involves managing expectations, "under-promise and over-provide." It evolved out of Petraeus' graduate work in the 1980s on low-intensity conflict and evolved as Petraeus oversaw some nation-building efforts in Haiti that prepared him for Afghanistan. COIN's implementation in Iraq is what earned Petraeus the phone call to take on ISAF. Thomas Ricks' points out in The Generals that Petraeus got many things wrong about the Iraqis that went unpublicized. Petraeus, according to Broadwell, took inspiration from T.E. Lawrence. In Iraq, he was dealing with the aftermath of de-Baathification, hubris in Washington, and trying to train up police forces without adequate resources. What Ricks and others have pointed out is that COIN is quite expensive-- you essentially pay the enemy not to fight while at the same time you spend a lot of money to build and repair infrastructure, on top of supplying your troop base. The Coalition spent roughly $10 billion/year for army and police in Afghanistan at one point.

Broadwell takes on Joshua Foust's account of the razing of villages in Kandahar in the book under Petraeus' orders. Foust has angrily responded, noting that Broadwell's own accounts of what happened are contradictory, and that she glosses over what other pro-American reporters have written. At the end of the book, Broadwell notes that villages that were razed were rebuilt with stronger infrastructure and that violence had fallen and reportedly trust regained. It's worth noting that Petraeus' son was deployed in Afghanistan so his orders directly affected him. Broadwell writes of the "mask of command" worn by Petraeus, not to betray emotions.

Petraeus reportedly wanted to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs but Sec. Gates visited Kabul and told him it was "out of the question." Outside of that position, Petraeus only wanted to be in a position that would continue fighting the Taliban and suggested CIA himself, according to Broadwell. Panetta opines in his book that he was skeptical of having primadonna Petraeus over the CIA, but Gates was "excited" about the idea.

In the end, Petraeus makes an emotional decision to take of the uniform in order to head the CIA and move back to Washington. It's there that the details of the book become too intimate and glowing for obvious reasons.

In all, I give this book 2.5 stars out of 5. It contains valuable information and history about the war Afghanistan but not a great level of detail about Petraeus' work in Iraq and elsewhere. If you're looking for insights into leadership and management look elsewhere. It's written by a biased source who works hard to defend her subject/lover.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Sermon(s) of the Week (5/31 - 6/6, 2015) Hershael York and Bill Henard on Prayer

Two local sermons this week, both on the same topic, both with a notable passion, and both on an area I struggle with.
Hershael York (Buck Run Baptist) begins a series on Elijah "A Man Just Like Us," beginning with James and looking at what James wrote about prayer.
Bill Henard (Porter Memorial Baptist) recently finished a series on "Victory over Sin" by looking at the life of Jesus. This sermon is on Matthew 14:22-33 and emphasizes the importance of daily prayer.

Note that York takes the passage to be about healing and not about restoring someone who has struggled under persecution (see the note on this passage in my review of the book The Most Misued Verses in the Bible where Berherhof argues this is still taking the verse out of context). Both Henard and York appear to take a non-cessasionist approach on what can be accomplished through prayer. Both sermons implore the congregation to take prayer increasingly seriously.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

World Order by Henry Kissinger (Book Review #46 of 2015)

World Order
This book allows you to read a political history of the modern world as well as a book by a Secretary of State. I had just finished Fukuyama's Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Decay, so those books are in my comparison. This is the first book by Kissinger that I have read. My opinion of Kissinger was primarily shaped by two other books, Nixon in China by Margaret MacMillan and The Case for Democracy by Natan Sharansky. The first book showed Kissinger's wiles as a diplomat, the second was highly critical of Kissinger's detante policies toward the Soviet Union, arguing that it prolonged Communism and the suffering of pro-freedom Soviet dissidents.

I actually enjoyed the Kissinger book, for the most part finding it quite readable, he sweeps through centuries of history in a few paragraphs. His arguments are not always precise and he does not give the same attention that Fukuyama does to the role of the rule of law and the evolution of political institutions. There is no grand hypothesis he's trying to prove, and his arguments about the Westphalian Order have been made by others. Kissinger's goal is not so much to look at how countries developed internally but rather how they've come to their place in the world order, and how the balance of power between East and West has shifted over time. It is also a warning about the present need to defend the Westphalian Order and an analysis of why that is difficult today.

Some have criticized Kissinger's statements in the book for being contradictory to what he has said publicly or written elsewhere. He also avoids taking hard stances, it's hard to tell what he'd do about Syria or Crimea today. He writes that he supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and praises President Bush personally, but does not like how it was managed. Right, next time could be different. He seems to take a pro-Israeli stance, hailing Israel as a Westphalian island in a sea of chaos, but parses his words in examining certain governance movements in the Arab world, like the Muslim Brotherhood. Actually, there is much less inclusion in this book of Kissinger's personal experiences or contributions to "world order" than I expected. John Micklethwait of the NY Times writes that "it is a book that every member of Congress should be locked in a room with — and forced to read before taking the oath of office," and that is a bit much. But there are many things that Kissinger's dealings with various countries have taught them about their overall cultures and values that are educational.

Kissinger's expertise is obviously America, so the book is heaviest in America's role in the world and how it became the guardian of the Western order. His basic theory is that the Western order arose at Westphalia where the treaties of Münster and Osnabrück were negotiated, ending the Thirty Years' War between Protestants and Catholics in 1648. Kissinger does not address much of the history and previous failed treaties leading up to this event, but looks at subsequent treaties as a basic continuation of the Peace of Westphalia. The treaties were agreed upon by 200 representatives from multiple states with diverse backgrounds and established a balance of power such that no one could dominate another. Borders and sovereignty were established. This both "shaped and prefigured modern European cooperation."

The Order of Westphalia is one of pluralism and a respect for different ethnic and religious viewpoints. Ambitions of any one nation over the other could be curtailed, and this idea was tested with the rise of Napoleon, Hitler, etc. Britain played the original guarantor of this Order by using its industrial might to defend the weak against would-be conquerers. The Congress of Vienna (1814) continued the spirit of Westphalia in re-drawing borders and restoring a balance of power to maintain peace after the Napoleonic Wars. Kissinger writes that Europe "thrived" on its divisions and contrasts this to other cultures-- like Islam-- with their monostate model.

Kissinger plays the role of national psychologist, examining the psyche and goals of various nation-states over time. Like Fukuyama, Kissinger notes that Russia suffered under extractive Mongol rule for centuries, leaving scars that matter today. While Fukuyama faults the Russian Orthodox for not establishing and upholding a canon rule of law in Russia, such as the Catholic and later Protestant churches did in the West, Kissinger writes that the Orthodox Church always say itself as the defender of Christendom against Islam after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Russia has always seen itself as a "third Rome" and clinged to a belief that Russia would eventually be hailed and admired by the West and no longer an "orphan" cut off from the rest of the developed world.

The aftermath of the Congress of Vienna was the rise of nationalism and self-determinism in the European states. The Crimean War started initially as a dispute over rights of minorities (Catholic versus Eastern Orthodox) in Ottoman Jerusalem and other territories, but led to greater questions about the rights of minority peoples within European states as well. The Industrial Revolution had wrought greater speed of travel and militarization, and suddenly a united industrial Germany under Bismarck threatened the stability of the Westphalian Order. While skipping the details of WWI, the authors describes how the Treaty of Versailles condemned the Allies to vigilance and guaranteed imbalance. As others pointed out at the time, the Treaty demanded reparations from Germany which could only be enforced at the point of a gun-- something the Allies were no longer willing to use after the Great War's great cost. The League of Nations had no clear definitions of order in its charter, using words like "aggression" that could be interpreted in many ways. Stalin and the USSR weaved between international rule of law and fascist power-grabbers, basically waiting for the capitalist countries to start the next war.

He skips WWII but examines the postwar order, treaties, and balance. He recounts George Kennan's "Long Telegram," and supports Kennan's idea of containment. Kissinger includes an analysis of Stalin's psyche from history and his own conversations with Soviet ambassadors. Stalin was ultimately an idealogue who believed that peace among capitalist countries were always the means of creating the next war. The author also critiques FDR's naivete in handing Stalin at Yalta, FDR misunderstood Stalin's intentions. He quotes FDR as believing Stalin would ultimately work toward world stability and even democracy. I find this criticism of FDR somewhat concerning given that Natan Sharansky wrote similar criticims of Kissinger and Nixon's detante toward the USSR from the viewpoint of a persecuted Soviet dissident. Sharansky wrote that dissidents hated detante and that Kissinger was taking too soft a stance, they only saw freedoms granted when the West took harder stances. Kissinger examines NATO from a Westphalian lense and opines that the EU is a "global version" of Westphalia that the U.S. should support.

Kissinger pivots the Middle East where he describes the rise of Islam. He remarks that treaties were never considered permanent because the end goal was to create one united world under Islam; treaties simply gave time for the troops to regroup. After the death of Mohammed and debates over succession, he skips ahead to the Ottoman caliphate. The post-WWI Arab territories, through colonialism, were brought under the Westphalian system. The post-WWII Arab states saw the rise of Pan-Arab nationalism and Baathist ambitions taking on religious jihad. In an awkward note, Kissinger gives a disclaimer about not favoring one school of Islam versus another, but examines the divide between Shia and Sunni. He chronicles the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood beginning with the treatise of M'alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones), written by Sayyid Qutb from his Egyptian prison. Milestones, Kissinger writes, is the manifesto of Wahhabism and the Islamic State that we see today. Qutb wrote that Sharia law was incompatible with and superior to man-made laws, and any ruler who ignored it should be overthrown. This movement is obviously incompatible with the Westphalian order, so East versus West continues.

Kissinger doesn't quite mention that the Arab League often acts as sort of a Westphalian order in the Middle East. The Saudis and Qataris are spending money both to keep ISIL from gaining territory and also working to keep Iran from tipping the balance of power militarily through the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Instead, Kissinger oddly examines Westphalia-like orders within nations; such as the Saudi royal family's deal with wahabbist clerics. He writes that U.S. and Western military intervention in Syria against Assad or ISIL is not feasible as it requires a cohesive world order and long-term military presence. What, then, shall we do? Kissinger concludes that "pragmatism" should guide foreign policy. Well, duh.

Kissinger writes that the Persians have always had a feeling of cultural superiority which greatly affects its negotiations and interactions with the West. Under the Ayatollah, it has maintained a "Westphalian" balance of power internally. An elected President and Assembly, with an Ayatollah who controls the powerful Revolutionary Guard. Is Iran a country or a cause? It must decide. He chronicles the West's softening on Iranian negotiations, Kissinger seems to prefer a harder line as Iran has "moved the red line." The Ayatollah still preaches that he is pursuing jihad, so that casts doubt on the legitimacy of any nuclear agreement. In the end, Kissinger reminsices about how Anwar Sadat stood up to extremists, preached pluralism, and made peace with Israel, for which he was killed. He hopes that a similar leader will arise and make peace based on ideas rather than "reality." Good luck.

On Asia, Kissinger gives a fast overview of development in Japan, India, and China. Japan will make its foreign policy decisions going forward based on what is sees the U.S. doing and how permanent the Obama "pivot" toward Asia actually is. India was not a nation until Britain made it so. Kissinger writes that China has always seen itself at the center of the world and all nations as tributary. China does not look on other nations as "peers." Although China does not seek conversion of others into its sphere (Tibet, anyone?) it seeks to induce respect. Kissinger does a better job than Fukuyama on the psychology of culture but one wonders how accurate (and how offensive?) Kissinger's words are.

Lastly, the author delves into American history and strategy. Like all countries, America sees itself as special, and Kissinger quotes Winthrop's "City on a Hill" sermon. But Kissinger is no Niebuhrian, he evidently believes in American exceptionalism. He notes that President Obama believes in this idea "less so" than previous Presidents. America's role, according to Kissinger, has been traditionally to make American intervention unnecessary in the future. In "making the world safe for democracy," the U.S. supports the Westphalian order among nations and regions, so that they can police themselves. You will not find the idea of American interests (oil companies, defense contractors, etc.) influencing foreign policy or shaping treaties or trade agreements to their benefit. This is rather facetious, in my opinion. He writes, however, that Manifest Destiny was America's version of imperialism and that the Spanish-American War changed the world order and made America a colonial superpower. He largely ignores the role that the Monroe Doctrine has had on development in South America, which is something Fukuyama addresses in Political Order and Political Decay.

Like many in government and foreign policy schools, Kissinger hails Woodrow Wilson; he considered Nixon to be a Wilson disciple. Wilson believed that self-determination would lead to universal democracy. As minority groups demanded more rights and were given their own states, they'd be brought into the Westphalian Order. I think the European land-grab in the Middle East after WWI shows that Europe was never on board with Wilson's self-determination, nor was American foreign policy. The consequences of self-determination in the Middle East of both the pan-Arab nationalist/socialist and the religious jihadist notions (as shown above) have been incompatible with democracy.

Americans always debate the role of foreign policy as isolationism gives way to interventionism in major crises such as Pearl Harbor and 9/11, then back again. Kissinger writes that national consensus broke down after the Kennedy assassination, exacerbated further by Vietnam. The nuclear policy of mutual assured destruction was unpopular and containment as a policy broke down in Vietnam. South Vietnam itself had never been a functioning state with a history of liberal institutions. America's defense of dictatorships as a better alternative to communism or religious fundamentalism is part of the "reality" of foreign policy that Kissinger says has to be figured out all the time, there are no absolute rules.

He then provides a fast overview of American foreign policy since Nixon and poses questions that he doesn't answer: How do we forge a regional order (India, Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran, etc.) to help maintain peace in Afghanistan? How do we build and defend liberal institutions in Iraq without a long-term costly military presence and intervention? How do we balance the risk that democratic elections will lead to radicalism, such as in Palestine or Syria (and Nazi Germany and other places where bad outcomes were chosen by voters)? Does technology help or harm foreign relations? The author holds up research showing that our culture of texting and wikipedia creates short memories and lack of familiarity with our history and societal foundations. There are now so many meetings and so much communication between ministers that it's become almost impossible to forge a long-term strategy. The destruction of privacy has decreased the supply of capable people willing to go into politics and get involved in foreign policy.

"Every international order faces two inevitible challenges: Redefinition of its legitimacy or a realignment of its balance of power." When the values are altered by those who maintain the order, the latter happens. Americans used to assume that liberty was a universal value, but now terms like "liberty" and "human rights" are debated even though they are still defined in the U.N. charter. The post-war optimism of capitalism and democracy spreading liberty all over the world and a new world order of cooperation now in doubt. There is now a rejection of Western market-based ideas in the aftermath of both the 1998 East Asian financial crisis and the 2007 financial crisis, where problems with the U.S. housing and financial markets were exported globally. The weakness of the Westphalian system, Kissinger writes, is that it does not supply a direction or define "how to generate legitimacy." When previous powers become unwilling or unable to maintain the previous order, the order collapses. This appears to be the risk now as Russia has invaded the Ukraine, and annexed Crimea, and launching submarine patrols in the North Atlantic. "Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement into a test of strength." The West no longer holds to the same Westphalian values, it appears, so Russia and China (South China Sea islands)-- like Napoleon, Hitler, and others before-- see a weakness they can test militarily. While developed countries de-proliferate and disarm, developing countries are pursuing arms and greater military power.

Is there an end goal to U.S. foreign policy, or is it ever-evolving? He writes that one pressing issue is for the nuclear superpowers to agree now on what they will do if smaller countries nuke each other. But in general the current state of the world order is lacking in four dimensions:
1. The nature of the state itself has been attacked and dismantled. Europe has tried to transcend nation states by forging a loose political and firm monetary union and this has not gone well. ISIS in the Levant, and warlords in North Africa are also attacking the idea of the state.
2. Political and economic organizations of the world are at odds with eachother. Globalization ignores frontiers whereas policy observes frontiers.
For example (from Fukuyama), Southern Italy and Greece not in sync with rest of Europe. Prosperity is dependent on globalization, but globalization often fuels political reform and revolution (witness the Arab Spring).
3. Lack of effective mechanisms for cooperation. He notes that this seems odd given that UN and other institutions for cooperation exist like never before (G8, apec, etc.. Work against long-run strategy. But there are too many meetings, not everyone is able to gather at one time, everyone wants a seat at the table, etc.
4. I didn't catch the fourth dimension if it actually existed.

Kissinger writes that the celebration of universal principles must still respect cultures and histories of others. A genuine world order requires the modernization of a Westphalian system (200 delegates). "History is a matter to be discovered, not declared."

I found a list of questions Kissinger posed in a 2008 essay in the Washington Post that were repeated in this book, again without answers.
http://www.henryakissinger.com/articles/wp040708.html
"No previous generation has had to deal with different revolutions occurring simultaneously in separate parts of the world. The quest for a single, all-inclusive remedy is chimerical. In a world in which the sole superpower is a proponent of the prerogatives of the traditional nation-state, where Europe is stuck in halfway status, where the Middle East does not fit the nation-state model and faces a religiously motivated revolution, and where the nations of South and East Asia still practice the balance of power, what is the nature of the international order that can accommodate these different perspectives? What should be the role of Russia, which is affirming a notion of sovereignty comparable to America's and a strategic concept of the balance of power similar to Asia's? Are existing international organizations adequate for this purpose? What goals can America realistically set for itself and the world community? Is the internal transformation of major countries an attainable goal? What objectives must be sought in concert, and what are the extreme circumstances that would justify unilateral action?"

If you're looking for policy prescriptions, this is not your book-- it is annoyingly devoid of them. If you're looking at an examination of the evolution of world order and foreign policy in the West, this is a decent overview of the post-Cold War period. If you want a thought-provoking piece on the questions facing policy-makers, then this is decent. You will not find Kissinger trumpeting his foreign policy successes here, nor will you have much introspection on the long-term (forseen and unforseen) consequences of past foreign policy decisions (which could have made this book better). I have yet to decide whether to check out other Kissinger books. 3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, June 01, 2015

School Success for Kids with Asperger's Syndrome (Book Review #45 of 2015)


School Success for Kids With Asperger's Syndrome: A Practical Guide for Parents and Teachers
This book does a great job in providing a concise overview of Asperger's Syndrome (categorized separately from autism prior to DSM-V) for parents of school-aged children and educators who might have a child with AS in their classrooms. I give it five stars because it's the first book I would recommend to any parent whose child has just been diagnosed with high-functioning autism and wondering "What do I need to know? What do I do next? What do I need to plan for in about five years from now?" There are plenty of other works referenced in this book that the parent will find helpful for further reading.

I'm the parent of a 7-year old high-functioning autistic child with characteristics similar to Asperger's. (According to the book, he may actually fall into a category of NVLD that overlaps with Asperger's). We've now had a couple of years involved in the IEP process at a public school. This book nicely summarizes the laws regarding special accomodations for students, and relevant recent court decisions, to help the parent advocate. The authors give some examples of best practices found at (mostly private) schools around the country that have special programs for Asperger students.

The authors include a brief history of the diagnosis, some common myths and misconceptions regarding AS, and an overview of research regarding counseling and therapies found useful in Asperger cases. There is mostly presentation of facts and research with little opinion from the authors themselves, which I appreciated. There is even some general advice about the difficulties that parenting a special-needs child can have on marriages.

While the book is already dated (and pre-DSM V) it is still very useful. While we're satisfied with what our son's caregivers are providing for him, it helps to think ahead to a strategy for when he's going to need to keep a locker, deal more with bullying, etc. While career-readiness is addressed in the book, it is done so only briefly. Some colleges have systems set up to help autistic students choose career paths, make schedules, and obtain life skills. Temple Grandin's book The Autistic Mind, which I highly recommend, gives greater advice as to career-readiness that I felt the book was weak on. There is also a lack of looking at sensory processing disorders in this book, which is an area of research that Temple Grandin has found lacking.

The biggest weakness is guidance to parents who are seeking out public assistance as well as insurance reimbursement for services, which is available in many states. That is the biggest "practical" piece missing in the book, but would have required about twice the length.

In all, this book is a valuable addition to the library of any parent with an autistic child.