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Debate takeaways: Bernie needs a foreign policy vision

Takeaways from the debate:

Hillary won on the gun exchange. She crushed that, and otherwise her and Bernie sparred back and forth without either candidate scoring a real blow. There were moments where they both seemed a bit unsure of themselves as well. Lester Holt gets MVP for keeping O’Malley in check.

Most interesting was Sanders’ call to normalize relations with Iran over time. I don’t think any big-league politician has said that yet. It suggests that Sanders is actually more in tune with Obama on Iran than Clinton is, and based on the diplomatic breakthoughs in the past week, it’s a good play.

But he needs to expand on it because Sanders still has no vision on foreign policy. He needs a broad narrative to tie together his position against regime change and unilateral war alongside a preference for multilalteral diplomacy and engagement with Iran and Russia.

It’s not impossible to conceptualize either. Sanders can easily invoke FDR on foreign policy in the same way he invokes him on domestic policy. Recall that FDR too sought a great power concert strategy (what Sanders is really talking about), one that involves engagement with all major Eurasian powers against a single common enemy (or alliance). It easily leads into a renewed commitment to international law and institutions as a legitimate form of international politics, and one fully cemented by FDR as well as the basis for the post-war global order.

That could be Sanders’ foreign policy vision. If he can articulate it, he can open a new front against Clinton and undermine one of her supposed strengths.

Empire and state building in Afghanistan

The Washington Post ran a report on Thursday about a little known aspect of US policy in Afghanistan: sponsorship of informal militias that pursue US counterterrorism threats. In Khost province, the CIA runs a paramilitary called the Khost Protection Force, a political-military entity that supersedes the authority of the nominally sovereign Afghan state and has committed its own atrocities:

In Khost, the KPF is more influential than the Afghan army and police, and unaccountable to the provincial government, often acting outside normal chains of command. Locally, militias such as the KPF are called “campaign forces,” an informal name Afghans use for pro-government armed groups.”

“One commander, who left the force last month, said that CIA operatives regularly hold planning sessions and that in October he received his salary directly from them. “The orders came from the Americans,” he said. They were “the real bosses.”

“Only in name is the KPF linked to the NDS,” said Mohammad Qadin Afghan, a provincial council member and former KPF fighter who maintains close ties to the force. “They still work for the CIA.”

The covert use of such proxies has been a constant and primary feature of US policy in Afghanistan since 2001. If not controlled directly by the CIA, such militias have been controlled by local warlords who become clients of US Special Forces or the CIA. These warlords then build informal power structures that undermine the formal authority of Afghan state institutions. This has been especially true in Kandahar province, the heartland of the Taliban, where the US has sponsored Gul Agha Sherzai, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and Abdul Razziq. Other regions in Afghanistan have also been ruled by warlords with ties to either the United States or other regional powers. Most prominent are Abdul Rashid Dostum of northern Afghanistan and Ismail Khan of western Afghanistan.

What’s most interesting about this detail of US foreign policy is how it resembles the ideal structure of imperialism discussed by Nexon and Wright in their classic piece about indirect rule. Nexon and Wright argue that empire is defined by patron-client relations of brokerage in which central authorities devolve power to local intermediaries. In turn, those local intermediaries enact forms of rule in the interest of central authorities, but have their own autonomy and pursue their own interests within their particular sphere of influence.

Empire works for both central authorities and local intermediaries because they can take advantage their of central positions of brokerage within the overall structure of relations. Strategically, this leads them to embrace divide and rule strategies in which the terms of rule are heterogenous among different local intermediaries. This systems is stable as long as those individuals subjugated by different local intermediaries do not communicate with each other about the terms of their subjugation, or can compare such hierarchical relations to other norms of authority that may emphasize homogenous forms of rule which should also apply to warlords.

But this is precisely the situation the United States has created. The public policy of the United States is not to rule Afghanistan through local warlords, but to support the emergence of a sovereign Afghan state which sufficient capacity to rule over its own territory based on impartial law and through formal security institutions. The United States, particularly the Defense and State Departments, have spent billions of dollars on building Afghan military, police, and judicial institutions, yet these institutions are so weak that rule of law is nonexistent and the security forces have recently lost a major city, Kunduz. What is yet to be acknowledged by these agencies is that their state building objectives have always been fatally obstructed by the terms of informal rule established by the CIA and US Special Forces.

How does indirect rule through proxies undermine statebuilding? Since warlords and militias are sponsored by the United States – the same sponsor of Afghan state institutions – they have always had the privilege and capability to wield force and violate rule of law. For leaders who have institutional roles, the fact that the United States acknowledge alternative authorities and provides them with resources to establish their own rule forces state authorities to bend the rules to deal with the power of non-state American-sponsored warlords at the expense of Afghans not associated with warlords. Thus, proxies can exploit and oppress subnational groups, and reward their followers with acquired resources.

The result is the polarization of subnational group identities and delegitimation of any claim to authority by formal state authorities. Faced with subjugation, those excluded from warlord patronage turn to rebellion.  These are the conditions that enable the Taliban to thrive and build their own alternative power that has now grown to threaten the very existence of the Afghan state.

In relational terms, the US never delegated authority in Afghanistan to a truly autonomous and sovereign state that was the sole broker of power resources. Instead, the US engages heterogenous contracting with the Afghan state and proxy warlords and makes alternative commitments of coercive support to intermediaries operating under terms of rule that ultimately contradict each other. Since the United States has sponsored multiple actors with coercive capabilities and on different terms, there’s no way the Afghan state can legitimize and enact its own claim to sovereignty unless the US ends its relationship with its counterterror proxies.

It almost looked like the United States was going to end its relationship with warlords and militias last year when the CIA made clear that it was disbanding its militias as part of the overall US withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, the Taliban sacking of Kunduz has demonstrated the minimal coercive capabilities of the Afghan state. Given the potential for collapse, the United States remains dependent on warlords and militias to prop up the state itself and prevent a major loss of territory to Taliban insurgents. Yet, as discussed above (and shown in the Washington Post article), those same warlords erode the legitimize the Afghan state.

Ultimately, our foreign policy in Afghanistan ultimately works at cross-purposes and perpetuates the very threats that counterterrorism and statebuilding are supposed to resolve.

Robust action and the patronage of Shelly Silver

Former Speaker of the New York State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, was convicted Monday on seven counts involving his corrupt abuse of office. A “sphinx-like power broker,” a “master of political chess,” Silver was renown his ability to keep his true objectives hidden while directly controlling billions of state funding. This strategy yielded unchecked power that made possible his corruption, and it lies at the heart of Albany’s corrupt ways.

Shelly’s modus operandi isn’t novel to his time or even democratic institutions, but is typical of politics defined by patronage.  Shelly excelled at robust action, a strategy originally discussed by Padgett and Ansell in their analysis of the rise of the Medicis in 15th Century Florence. Robust action is the ability to exploit a central position among weaker clients by making contradictory promises of future support. This is technically known as multivocal signaling but colloquially as “talking out of both sides of one’s mouth” or “playing both sides”. This a brokerage strategy enables a patron to maximize freedom of action while avoiding present commitments to clients that limit future choices.

When we think about the power of Shelly, we’re really considering his mastery of robust action and control over his own patronage network. As “the Sphinx”, Shelly never revealed his true interests during the all-important budgetary and legislative cycles. He promises his supporters that he’ll do the best he can in the context of ‘three-men-and-a-room’, the backroom negotiating process that defines Albany lawmaking. If he can’t pass a client’s interests into law, he blames it on the Governor and the Senate Majority Leader and says maybe next time.

That doesn’t mean that all clients are equal. Some have resources and influence that Shelly himself needs, and so they tend to get rewarded than their weaker counterparts. The opaqueness of Shelly’s intentions as well as the secrecy that involves negotiations among the leaders and governor serves to conceal the true nature of alliances and loyalties within the Capitol.

Take two clients of Shelly’s patronage with diametrically opposed interests: the renters lobby and the real estate lobby. Every few years, these interest groups battle over new rent regulations and tax loopholes and abatements that developers use to reduce property taxes on luxury housing.

As the legislature’s leading Democrat, Shelly’s liberal-progressive ideology would suggest that he (and the New York City dominated legislature) would go to bat for the renters, who represent the working and middle class of the five boroughs. Yet millions in potential campaign donations and the support of the most powerful and wealthy landlords in North America make the real estate lobby a potential friend of anyone in Albany.

We always wondered how Shelly managed to juggle these competing interests while bargaining with the Governor and the State. Generally the tenants always got the raw end of the deal, and now we know why. Shelly made millions in legal referrals for tax certiorari work initiated by Glenwood Management, the state’s top political donor (they gave a million to Cuomo in the 2014 cycle). Part of Preet Bharara’s successful conviction of Shelly stems from the implicit quid pro quo offered in this deal: Shelly gets referrals from NYC real estate while he looks out for them in Albany.

Shelly always told the tenants the Assembly was on their side, and then they learned he played them the whole time. His arrest and indictment led renters’ advocates to wonder why Shelly got minimal positive changes to rent regulations in 2011, yet spun the outcome as a great victory in the defense of affordable housing.

“Silver was not forthcoming about what he was working to achieve,” McKee says. “Silver always presented himself as pro-tenant, but who knows what happened behind closed doors?”

Shelly’s game was multivocal signaling, promising competing clients to support one side against the other while veiling his final position. His ability to engage in robust action is a function of his centralized and personal control of budgets and lawmaking, which was sold to a handful of other highly influential actors while making promises to weaker ones which were never fulfilled.

While we should damn Shelly for his monumental corruption, we should take a lesson from his lawyer’s defense during the just completed trial. Steven Molo argued that Silver was just following the ways of Albany, that his activities were just the way business is done.
And he’s absolutely right. But the problem isn’t simply the illegal actions of Silver (and perhaps the entire process of Albany lawmaking). Albany’s corruption relates to the way state government concentrates power in the hands of its leaders, a system that Peter Galie has called “democratic centralism.” The fact that lawmaking takes place via backroom negotiations rather than through an institutionalized legislative process of budget drafting and ending in a conference committee enables leaders like Shelly to pick and choose winners and losers based on who provides the most personal benefit.

Of course, democratic centralism isn’t the only problem. Leaders are incentivized to string social advocates along while rewarding New York’s power elite because the latter line the pols pockets, legally or illegally. Not only must the secretive process of lawmaking be transformed to prevent double-dealing, but so must the campaign finance system, so that representatives no longer have an incentive to choose the few while making empty promises to the many. That includes a system of public campaign financing which would dilute the monopoly on campaign participation currently held by powerful interests like the real estate lobby.

Short of a popular rebellion against Albany, don’t hold your breath waiting for that.

Yes, some things are worth dying for

“Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?”

David Foster Wallace, “Just Asking”

Columbus Day and the Whiteness of Italian-Americans

It’s Columbus Day, which has many people wondering why the United States has a national holiday for someone who initiated a half millennia of ethnic cleansing, a passive kind of genocide. What’s interesting is how Columbus day is about recognizing Italian-Americans as ‘white’, but simultaneously reinforces dominant racial categories that devalue non-white ethnicities of indigenous culture. Italian-Americans are recognized as ‘civilized’ alongside Anglo-Saxons, yet this narrative simultaneously represents ethnicities of color as the ‘uncivilized’ recipients of Eurocentric culture, provided by those same Italian-Americans.

Columbus Day celebrations began in New York City around 1792 and were very popular with immigrant Italian-Americans, millions of whom arrived between 1890 and 1920. The symbolism of Columbus for this group is what matters here: Columbus helped define the Italian diaspora’s identity by confirming their connection to their homeland and also their identity as Americans. In this way, the Columbus narrative discursively assmiliates Italian-Americans as an equal part into ‘white’ American society, initially established by Anglo-Saxon Protestants who otherwise looked down on the ‘ethnics’ of Italy and Ireland. The integration of previously ‘non-white’ Italians becomes complete with their successful promotion of Columbus Day as a national holiday, which is recognized by Roosevelt in 1937.

The problem with Columbus Day is that many people recognize him as an aggressor, one who begins a new historical era defined by the subjugation of entire swaths of non-European populations from around the world. Columbus is associated with the near genocide and domination of indigenous peoples, who are alternatively displaced and cleansed from their existing territory in North America or pressed into indentured servitude in Latin America. Among peoples of African descent, Columbus opens the ‘New World’ to slavery as an institution of labor exploitation. Both these groups are represented throughout the history of the Americas as being ‘non-white’ and ‘uncivilized’ as compared to the ‘white’ and ‘civilized’ European settlers who govern colonial societies.

Colombus is the historical actor who lays the foundation for these racial categories and institutions that we generally understand as white supremacy. His great ‘discovery’ is also a claim toward expropriation and the denial of indigenous claims toward not just land but status as members of a common humanity who must also be treated as equal persons.

And so today, when Colombus is celebrated with a national holiday that implies the assimilation of Italian-Americans as Americans, his image serves to remind non-white groups of their continued exclusion and subjugation, especially among Native Americans who have been confined to reservations. This is the paradox of Italian-American whiteness – we become American while reminding others that they are not. Becoming part of civilized society requires reproducing categories of racial dominance by displacing them onto indigenous and African peoples. Terms like ‘dago’ and ‘wop’ may have gone out of style, Italian-Americans should remember that they too once lived under such conditions and relationships relative to dominant whites.

The question for Italian-Americans then becomes: how can we celebrate our heritage without reproducing white supremacy? Ditching Columbus as the symbolic figure of Italian-Americans would be a big start, and certainly there are more impressive figures than he. Why not Fiorello LaGuardia, the Italian-American mayor of New York who led the city through World War II and is known as one of the most important city mayors in US history?

Even better – Italians-Americans should recall when they too were defined as ‘ethnics’ and stand in solidarity with peoples who continue to be subject to racial domination. Recognizing holidays like Indigenous Peoples Day alongside Italian-American celebrations would demonstrate mutual respect of each group’s history in the United States and promote equality instead of perpetuating white supremacy. More simply, we should stop just trying to be white.


This is the personal website of Stephen Pampinella, assistant professor of political science and international relations at SUNY New Paltz. Within international relations, I study war and conflict, statebuilding interventions, and American foreign policy. I also am deeply interested in New York State politics, a product of growing up on Long Island and living in Albany for 11 years, where I did my undergraduate and graduate work.

On this website, you can find my CV, research, and a blog that features ideas about the world around us. You can find me on Twitter @stevepampinella, and feel free to email me with any questions at

The image on the home page is a painting by Francisco Goya entitled “Duelo a garrotazos,” or duel with cudgels.

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