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October 30, 2008

Robert Gates and America's Nuclear Future

If you haven't done so already, you should head on over to the main page and read the speech that Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered to the Carnegie Endowment on the future of America's nuclear weapons.

In it, Gates discusses the future of deterrence. He says:

Today we also make clear that the United States will hold any state, terrorist group, or other non-state actor or individual fully accountable for supporting or enabling terrorist efforts to obtain or use weapons of mass destruction – whether by facilitating, financing, or providing expertise or safe haven for such efforts. To add teeth to the deterrent goal of this policy, we are pursuing new technologies to identify the forensic signatures of any nuclear material used in an attack – to trace it back to the source.
This is something that sounds right at first blush, but I wonder how feasible it really is. We know that two Pakistani nuclear scientists met with bin Laden in 2001. Should Pakistan be held responsible for (God forbid) a future act of nuclear terrorism by al-Qaeda? What about rogue scientists or military officers acting without the knowledge of the government? How do you weigh the impact of stealth cooperation among various government officials or scientists? How do you determine culpability?

And what about Russia? There is ample worry that a conspiracy (or just sheer inattention or corruption) among corrupt military officials could see nuclear material transferred to terrorists - if not a working bomb, then significant components or fissile material. If that were the case, clearly the U.S. would not launch a nuclear attack against Russia. They could nuke back!

But it's more than just that. Consider that any of the potential proliferating states would be dictatorships or autocracies - countries like Russia, North Korea, Pakistan (a democratic outlier) or potentially Iran. These governments would not be carrying out the will of the people but, in all likelihood, the will of a very small clique of crazy or corrupt officials. Yet for the U.S. deterrent posture to be effective, we would have to administer a blow that could kill tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of perfectly innocent civilians who wanted nothing to do with striking a nuclear blow against America.

And this is where the rubber of deterrence meets the road: if a nuclear bomb goes off inside an American city and was the work of a transnational terrorist group like al-Qaeda, it would take weeks to determine culpability. It took years to unravel the proliferation ring of Pakistan's A.Q. Khan, and among the guilty parties were European businessmen.

In the time it took to walk back an act of nuclear terrorism on U.S. soil to determine who did it and how, the world would essentially be waiting for the U.S. to launch a nuclear strike in retaliation. What would those days and weeks look like? We'd have a much clearer understanding, thanks to media reports, of the populations in the major urban centers of any potential target. We'd presumably see the nuclear forces of the suspected countries put at a high state of readiness and those nations would, one would think, issue their own warnings to the U.S.

The president would be forced to either stand down in the face of poor information, make a moral decision to stand down in the face of good information (and thus lose whatever deterrent credibility our nuclear force was meant to preserve), or order the deaths of potentially hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

The groups that would execute a nuclear terrorist attack cannot be deterred. The actors that would enable a terrorist attack may do so unwittingly or without official state sanction. Even in the instance where a state deliberately facilitated an act of nuclear terrorism, it's unlikely be an instance - for example, like Japan in World War II - where the U.S. was confronting the collective will of a state. I doubt there are tons of people inside a supposedly pro-Western Iran who want to be burned alive for the sake of attacking the U.S.

Gates' formulation sounds good in theory, but tell me how it works in the real world.

UPDATE: Ask and you shall receive. Elbridge A. Colby, who served in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, pointed me to his article in Policy Review addressing just such questions. More soon.

Robert Pape on Obama & The Middle East

Writing in The American Conservative, the University of Chicago's Robert Pape comes out for Obama:

From my work on suicide terrorism, it is clear that America’s military presence in Muslim countries—especially heavy combat forces—is a powerful factor in the rise of anti-American suicide terrorism around the world. The Persian Gulf, however, is too important for the U.S. to cut and run. We need a new strategic approach to the region, one that moves American combat forces “off-shore,” relying primarily on air and naval forces stationed on ships or bases on the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula. Obama’s policy is heading precisely in the right direction and is crucial to our future security.

I want Pape to be right, but part of me thinks this is wishful thinking.

One of the central issues in this election is the question of whether it would be wise to use military force to impede Iran's progress toward a nuclear weapon. Both camps have done the perfunctory throat clearing, of course, but it's pretty clear that McCain is more amenable to using force against Iran than Obama is.

That means that on Obama's watch, Iran may well go nuclear. As I observed a bit earlier in RCP, Obama hasn't really repudiated the broad contours of America's Cold War-derived Middle East policy. So, unless he is ready to do a major and totally unexpected about face in U.S. policy, the Obama administration is going to have to strengthen its military commitment in the Middle East under the aegis of containing a nuclear Iran.

Perhaps this containment can be done exclusively "off-shore." But I suspect it won't be, particularly with regards to Israel. Nor do I think that such a distinction is as relevant in an age of mass communications.

So it's very likely that both administrations may end up reinforcing the same dynamic that, as Pape has documented, drives radical terrorism against the U.S.

Taiwan Needs a Serious Opposition Party

If physically assaulting a visiting dignitary is proof of a vibrant democracy, then please, bring back Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek!

This can't be all that Taiwan has to show for being Asia's freest society.

With another Chinese delegation scheduled to visit next Monday, topic No. 1 on everyone's mind is whether they will receive proper protection. A protest is scheduled. A demonstration is planned. And perhaps another assault is being mulled. All the more reason the Taiwanese need a new opposition to replace the ideologically bankrupt Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The DPP had been a transformational force, the vanguard that helped usher in true democracy to Taiwan after years of authoritarian rule under Chiang and his Kuomintang Party (KMT). It won the island's first free and fair election in 2000, bringing about a peaceful transfer of power as Chen Shui-bian took office as president.

But in the intervening eight years, it all went south. Chen proved to be a corrupt political opportunist, doing everything he could to funnel funds to his and his family member's bank accounts. He rigged the election in 2004 to stay in power, and in the meantime, has done little other than stir the pot to raise the temperature in the Taiwan Strait.

The collateral damage to Chen's incorrigible behavior was his party. The DPP, under his stewardship, became a one-trick pony: Being anti-China at all cost. The party's only platform and raison d'etre was, and is, the promotion of fictional Taiwan "independence," and with it igniting ethnic tensions between the mainlanders and islanders.

But the Taiwan electorate, fickle but with growing maturity, resoundingly rejected the DPP in this year's elections. First, in the Legislative Yuan, the former majority party is now relegated to irrelevance as the KMT picked up an astounding three-fourth majority. Then, in the presidential election, KMT's Ma Ying-jeou won 60 percent of the votes to easily sweep into office.

Ma's campaign slogan was pretty much "It's still the economy, stupid!" With Taiwan's economy underperforming amidst a global boom, the Taiwanese wanted to get back in while the getting was still good. Unfortunately for Ma, his timing was awful.

And his political skills were equally inept. With a milquetoast personality, Ma seems ill-equipped to take command of his mandate and deal with opposition intransigence forcefully. He was right to open channels of communication with China, but so far he has not been able to effectively answer the criticism that he's "soft" on the communist dictatorship.

To be sure, Taiwan's frayed relationship with the mainland will require years of fence-mending; it can't be done overnight. Repairing that relationship will become more crucial to Taiwan's welfare in the face of sagging U.S. support. With the U.S. increasingly reliant on China to stabilize the current financial crisis, Taiwan will have little chance of receiving unflagging American backing should things get hot in the Strait.

Of course, the DPP, marginalized as it is, jumped on Ma's perceived weakness toward China as a tool for its own long march back to relevance. It orchestrated last week's unprovoked physical attack on Zhang Mingqing, vice chairman of mainland China’s semi-official Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), while he was touring in Tainan. Afterward, the DPP - and the always-bombastic Chen - had the temerity to insinuate that Zhang "asked for it."

Instead of unleashing a torrent of condemnation, Ma's reaction was muted, further enhancing his image as someone incapable of standing up to anyone. While China remains undaunted and pledges to stick with Monday's visit as scheduled, the situation is so out of control it remains to be seen if anything can get done at this time.

For Taiwan's democracy to survive, and thrive, it is necessary for it to have a meaningful opposition party that's dedicated to protecting the best interests of its citizens. The DPP isn't it. The party's sole agenda, if carried out, ensures the island's physical annihilation - hardly something worth voting for.

The DPP needs to reform itself, moderating the anti-China, de-Sinicization nonsense into something more in tune with reality. Taiwan may - and should - continue to fight for international space and deal with China. And there are other issues dear and near to Taiwanese people: The economy, first and foremost.

If the DPP is incapable of generating new ideas and reforming itself, it should get out of the way in favor of a more meaningful and moderate opposition party. The fear is not a potential KMT hegemony - it can easily lose the next round of elections - but what a return to power by the DPP may bring for Taiwan.

If last week's event is any indication, don't expect China to turn the other cheek the next time around.

Quebec Votes 2008

A few days ago, there definitely was en election 'buzz' in Quebec. Today, this 'buzz' morphed into an utmost certainty.

As is the case in all Westminster-style democracies, the Quebec legislature's fate lies in the hands of its Prime Minister Jean Charest. Many signs show that Mr. Charest has already made his decision, and that Quebec voters will go to the polls on December 8.

Why should international readers bother on what happens in federalized sub-states elections? First of all, because no election is completley uninteresting. Second, the results of Quebec elections will give us an idea of the relative strength of the sovereingtist movement (whose goal is Quebec's independence from Canada) versus its federalist adversaries (whose goal is constitutional status quo).

Let's take a look at the makeup of the present National Assembly (Quebec's sole legislative body), which holds 125 seats total:

Liberals (centrist federalist): 48
ADQ (centre-right federalist): 39
PQ (centre-left sovereigntist): 36
Independents: 2

The current minority government is formed by the Liberal Party and lead by PM Jean Charest.

Mr. Charest's main argument to dissolve the Assembly goes as follows: "During an economic crisis, Quebecers need a strong majority government." The main problem is, federal elections just took place ywo weeks ago and some liberals fear that forcing elections will encounter a backlash of voters who have grown election-fatigued. Of course, the only reasons why Mr. Charest wants to go to the polls is that he believes the actual polling numbers are good enough to allow him to form a majority government.

What about the polls? The latest from CROP gives this picture:

Liberals: 38%
PQ: 32%
ADQ: 17%

These numbers may seem favorable for the Liberals at first glance, but when broken down regionaly and by linguistic groups, the story becomes a bit different. Liberals owe their lead to their popularity in urban centres, mainly Montreal and Quebec City. However, among Quebec's Francophones (which make up to 83% of the population), the PQ is ahead with 38% as the Liberals trail at 30%. With these kinds of numbers, many rural ridings that went for ADQ in 2007 could swing back to the PQ, therefore effectively blocking a Liberal majority government. Depending upon the campaign, the PQ has a good shot at winning this election, or at least to come back as the official opposition after the historic beating it took back in 2007.

As far as Mr. Dumont's ADQ is concerned, 17% is a nightmare number that throws the ADQ into the back seats of the National Assembly. In a first-past-the-post electoral system, 17% means not more than five or six ridings. This would be a major setback for Mr. Dumont and his party.

Now, the campaign buses are rented, the candidates' official photos are taken ... Nothing can stop the electoral train when it starts. Of course, Mr. Charest could back off at the last minute. But his recent declarations suggest nothing of the sort. Quebecers, get ready, because we're going to vote on December 8 - for the fourth time in two years.

October 29, 2008

Iran and a Second Holocaust

A new study (pdf) from Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies documents Iran's biological weapons capability. One aspect the report makes clear fairly early on is that Iran has had - or at least, is suspected to have had - biological weapons for quite some time. Perhaps as early as the 1980s.

We're frequently told, by John McCain and any number of neoconservatives, that should Iran acquire a nuclear weapon it would deploy it against Israel or possibly the U.S. To allow Iran to go nuclear would be, in McCain's words, to invite "a second Holocaust."

Yet reading the Cordesman report raises an interesting question - if Iran were truly intent on striking a blow against Israel, why wouldn't it use its biological weapons? They're easier to conceal, easier to smuggle in and deploy against Israel, and are presumably harder to trace than a nuclear attack. The argument that the Mullahs are suicidal and should thus be attacked before acquiring a nuclear weapon never really grapples with the fact that Iran has actually possessed WMD for some time - and has not used it in a terror attack against Israel or the U.S.

That suggests to me that the Iranians are not willing to commit mass suicide to strike a blow against Israel.

The Fallout of Rwanda's Genocide Still Burns

Last night I plugged some good news in Africa; tonight, it seems more appropriate instead to point out one of its worst conflicts, which is threatening to spiral even further out of control, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, the fallout from Rwanda's 1994 genocide continues to grow:

Peacekeepers attacked rebels in eastern Congo with helicopter gunships Monday while crowds of protesters threw rocks outside four U.N. compounds, venting outrage at what they claimed was a failure to protect them from advancing rebel forces.

U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg said the peacekeepers fired Monday at rebel forces surging on Kibumba, about 28 miles north of the provincial capital of Goma.

In December, U.N. officials also used helicopters to repel the rebels, killing hundreds under their mandate to protect civilians in the vast Central African country that has been ravaged by years of dictatorship and civil war.

Rebel leader Gen. Laurent Nkunda has threatened to take Goma in defiance of calls from the U.N. Security Council for him to respect a U.N.-brokered January cease-fire.

The conflict has been ebbing and flowing since 1994, when Rwandan rebels took the country from the genocidaires and drove many of them across the border with the Congo.(For more background, see this International Crisis Group report, as well as this story and the related links from Reuters.)

A UN peacekeeping force of 17,000, the largest in the world, has been struggling to protect a population of 1 million displaced persons in the area, as a rebel force has taken a number of villages from the poorly armed and poorly trained Congo army.

The head of the UN force resigned after the protests turned violent (although the exact reason for the resignation doesn't seem to be clear). A quarter million people have been displaced by the fighting in just the last six weeks.

The last thing the world needs right now is another crisis, but if the situation isn't addressed quickly, there is a real risk that the conflict could spread much further and become even more devastating; 8 million people live in the area the UN troops are struggling to protect. Unfortunately, there aren't many options for the existing force, or many resources available from which to draw reinforcements.

I wish I had a suggestion for what could be done, but I don't. Is this an example of a problem that just doesn't have a solution right now? Or can some combination of clever diplomacy and a (very politically risky) commitment of new resources turn this increasingly horrifying tide?

For ongoing updates, see the amazing work being done by Michael Kavanagh with World Focus, who is trapped in one of the UN outposts himself.

Update: Anthony Gambino, with the Council on Foreign Relations, has also just published a very detailed and timely report on the Congo. It's a hefty 80 pages, but well worth a read for those who want to get a handle on this tragedy.

October 28, 2008

Nuclear Theft

The International Atomic Energy Agency's Mohamed El Baradei had some cheerful news yesterday:

The possibility of terrorists obtaining nuclear or other radioactive material remains a grave threat. The number of incidents reported to the Agency involving the theft or loss of nuclear or radioactive material is disturbingly high - nearly 250 in the year to June 2008 alone. Equally troubling is the fact that much of this material is not subsequently recovered. Sometimes material is found which had not been reported missing.

CATO's Christopher Preble says: be not afraid of nuclear terrorism. If only it were that easy.

Canadian Liberals: Who's Next?

The Liberal Party of Canada, a once formidable money-raising, power-grabbing machine, suffered its heaviest seat loss since 1984 (40 seats under John Turner's leadership). At 77 seats, Mr. Stephan Dion was able to save a few strongholds but this is mainly due to Canada's first-past-the-post electoral system, as the Liberal Party's performance in 2008 (26%) is even worse than it was in 1984 (28%).

After such a crippling defeat, it was inevitable that Mr. Dion's leadership would be questioned. Six days after the election, under intense pressure, he announced that he would step down as party leader, thus launching a leadership race. For now, all we can do is offer a brief survey of the top contenders since the election date and the finance rules are to be announced later on by party officials. I have separated them in categories, because the list is getting longer everyday.

Leftovers from the last leadership race, in 2006

- Michael Ignatieff: Both a leftover from the last race AND party heavyweight, Mr. Ignatieff is one of the most respected members of the House of Commons. This is somehow exceptional because Mr. Ignatieff has been in politics for only three years now. A former international law academic, he does have the credibility and the ideas usually found in acclaimed intellectuals. As opposed to Mr. Dion, who also was a respected intellectual figure, Mr. Ignatieff also has political instinct and charisma. He will definitely be one of the top contenders.

- Bob Rae: Mr. Rae also is both a leftover from the latest race AND party heavyweight. He has a few advantages over Mr. Ignatieff, but mostly experience. Indeed, Mr. Rae is a former NDP PM from Ontario, which makes him one the contenders with the most executive experience. However, Mr. Rae's years as Ontario PM are remembered by Ontarians as years of plunging deficits and economic crisis. His adversaries will pound him relentlessly on this issue.

- Gerard Kennedy: Mr. Kennedy finished 4th in the first round of the liberal leadership race in 2006. By aligning himself with Mr. Dion, who finished 3rd, he effectively made a king-maker out of himself. He still hasn't stated his intentions for 2008, but I would be very surprised not to see him enter the race.

Party heavyweights

- Frank McKenna: Mr. McKenna is a 10-year former PM of New Brunswick, former ambassador to the US and a successful businessman. Although he chose not to enter the race in 2006, pundits believe he might want to make the jump in 2008. Although his résumé is very interesting, he would start behind his opponents when it comes to his mastery of the French language: Mr. Mckenna is an unilingual anglophone, and that pretty much disqualifies him from winning anymore than 10 seats in Quebec. He pledged to learn French if he were to enter the race, but this factor will definitely play against him, especially when compared to anglophones such as Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae who speak good French.

- John Manley: Former foreign affairs and finance minister under the Chrétien government, Mr. Manley is part of the party establishment. I would not count too much on his candidacy though, as his lack of charisma and warmth have not allowed him to connect with base party members or voters.

New comers

- Dominic LeBlanc: A Liberal MP from New Brunswick, Mr. LeBlanc is the first officially declared candidate for party leader. He stated that he would run as a centrist, effectively attacking Mr. Dion's green shift that he perceived as a move too far to the left. For those seeking alternatives to Ignatieff, Rae, Mckenna and Co., he might be an interesting voice in the race. He also is fluently bilingual, which makes him a potentially competitive contender.

- Justin Trudeau: A political newbie, Justin Trudeau is the son of former Canadian PM Pierre-Elliot Trudeau. His last name is synonymous with multiculturalism, thus making him very popular among ethnic and religious communities and with the traditionaly liberal party base. But that which is seen as good in Ontario and in ethnic communities is not necessarily seen as good elsewhere: In Quebec, he is mostly perceived as arrogant and careless about Quebeckers as a national minority. Many in his party fear that his election would be tantamount to handing back Quebec to the sovereigntist movement.

If I had to rate these candidacies, from best to worse (in the perspective of a Liberal who wants to win a majority in the next federal election):

1. Ignatieff
2. McKenna
3. Rae
4. LeBlanc
5. Kennedy
6. Manley
7. Trudeau

Flight of the Realists

Chuck Hagel disses John McCain's Russia policy. Secretary Rice's former number 3 hammers McCain/Palin on negotiating with Iran in the pages of Newsweek. Matthew Yglesias muses about a defection of Republican realists into the Democratic coalition. Daniel Drezner warns the GOP about "ideological overstretch."

Ilan Goldberg concludes that the Republican foreign policy establishment is already at an end - with most of the establishment's heavy hitters either endorsing Obama outright, or endorsing his approach to national security issues.

Goldberg writes:

The dirty little secret is that all of these pragmatic conservatives have more in common with Obama's world view and that of the progressive community as a whole than they do with McCain and Neoconservatism. Right now most of them are sticking with McCain because of old friendships and loyalties, a desire to stay out of politics, or because they are social and economic conservatives.

But don't be surprised if Powell's endorsement will encourage more of these pragmatic foreign policy conservatives to come over to the Democrats over the next few years.

Perhaps. I suspect that Obama could peel away more Republican realist support in the years to come if he governs pragmatically (provided, of course, that he wins the election). If he starts firing up the troop transports for Sudan - as some of his advisers and his running mate desire - I doubt you're going to see a huge swing of realist support.

Of course, realists may no longer be welcome in the GOP. Reflecting on the brewing war within conservative and Republican circles over a post-Bush future, Daniel Larison observes:

It is significant, and depressing, that the main battles of the current conservative pundit war seems to be focused around Sarah Palin and her critics and not around the Iraq war and the attendant loss of mainstream conservative credibility on foreign policy. That almost all of the people involved in the pundit war over the campaign and Palin are more or less in fundamental agreement about Iraq and the “surge” and seem to be largely in agreement about U.S. policies overseas is an impressive testament to the staying power of Bushism.

It is remarkable, when you think about it, that a party and a movement that claims to promote "limited government" would have so little patience for realism.

More Good News from Africa

So, the world economy seems to be falling apart more every day, multiple conflicts are threatening to spin out of control, and to top it off, the final innings of Game 5 of the World Series have been postponed, seriously threatening my own mental and emotional stability, as well as that of the greater Philadelphia metro region.

But, it's not all bad, and maybe taking note of some unremarked good news is in order. Africa, for instance, continues to impress. Not only are the continent's economies largely growing, but they seem about as well placed as any to ride out out the economic storm - and developed countries are, so far at least, pledging to maintain aid to and interest in the place.

So today's good news from Swaziland comes in a good context. The tiny country of roughly 1 million people looks to have managed to become only the second country in its region to rid itself of malaria:

Hot on the heels of Mauritius, health experts predict Swaziland will be the second country in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to eliminate malaria.

Malaria kills more than one million people worldwide, most of whom are children under five years and almost 90 percent of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria killed five people last year in Swaziland.

The SADC Malaria Strategic Plan -- a malaria elimination programme that aims to wipe out the disease in the region -- lists Swaziland, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia as countries where malaria elimination is possible. Swaziland is likely to be the first country of the four to reach this goal.

If Swaziland manages to eradicate malaria for three consecutive years, the World Health Organisation (WHO) will declare the country a malaria-free zone and issue a certificate of elimination.

As is usually the case, a combination of innovative policies, stepped-up resources, and high-level commitment in the country and the international community have all contributed to the success. There's still much to be done, but small successes like these give hope that tackling the bigger problems is worthwhile. And, despite being on a good trajectory, Africa is still afflicted with problems that far outweigh anything the rest of the world can imagine - all the more reason to take note of the good news when it does come along.

October 27, 2008

Iceland Warming to EU?

Iceland currently finds itself, as does much of the rest of the world, in a financial crisis. Its currency, the króna, has plummeted 60% in the past year, while foreign transfers are at a standstill. As Iceland's economy continues to falter, the ongoing debate over EU membership is now as relevant as ever:

An October opinion poll places 70% of Icelanders in favor of at least a referendum on EU membership; 49% say they would vote to support membership, 27% are opposed, and 24% remain undecided.

It'll be interesting to see if future polling data continues to trend toward support for EU membership. Currently, I don't see the Icelandic government making any impulsive decisions toward membership, not least because their fishing markets are essentially the only natural resources they have. If their financial woes worsen, however, and Icelanders increasingly demand a referendum, the Icelandic government might have to consider sacrificing some of its sovereignty in the interest of economic stability.

October 26, 2008

Chinese Sphere: Interested But Cautious

As is the case in Europe and many other parts of the world, the U.S. presidential election has attracted great interest in the Chinese-language media. Every major newspaper in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore provides daily updates of the race, virtually tracking and explaining whatever the American press is focusing on including poll numbers, campaign contribution hauls, and even Joe the Plumber. Xinhua and the People's Daily, the Chinese government's official news agency and newspaper, as well as Ming Pao, one of Hong Kong's leading dailies, have entire websites devoted to news and analysis of the presidential race.

As alluded to in Nicholas Kristof's latest column, the race element in this year's election is an area of fascination. Many Chinese have a perception of American society as fraught with racial tension. When I was working in Taiwan, one of the most common questions I would be asked was whether as an Asian-American I had ever encountered racial prejudice. In Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore's largest Chinese-language daily, Zhong Bu writes that in the remaining days of the election, three factors will determine the winner: turnout of new voters, how undecided voters cast their ballots, and the Bradley Effect. Zhong states, "American race relations will be tested by whether the Bradley Effect reappears." In the China Times, a pro-China paper in Taiwan, Kuo Chenlung is even more pessimistic, arguing, "The race factor that this election has inflamed will leave a deep scar in American political history. Even if Obama gets elected, it would not eliminate racial prejudice in white people once and for all. And if Obama loses, black people would certainly not accept the results quietly."

In China, the government-controlled media's views of the candidates and the overall democratic process are tepid at best. In the China Youth Daily, the official paper of the Communist Youth League, Li Hongwen complains about how a Reuters article stated that since the only experience Chinese people have with democracy is through a homegrown version of the American Idol singing contest, they do not understand American elections. Li responds, "The writer is the one who does not understand. Chinese people approach serious issues with a trivial attitude, and sometimes they have a serious attitude when handling trivial issues. ... It is not that Chinese people do not understand the American election, it is that they do not want to waste time on other people's affairs." Li concludes with, "Elections are not always about making the best choice. It's more often about making what appears to be the least worst choice. That is what this election is all about."

Earlier this month, the Chinese Communist Party's official biweekly magazine, China Comment, ran a piece written by Feng Ju, a Chinese national working in Silicon Valley. Feng gives a blistering critique of Western democracy with a focus on how it is done in the U.S. Some arguments could find themselves right at home in McCain or Obama talking points -- outsized influence of special interests, irresponsible fiscal policies, and the absence of gun control. However, the author reserves the sharpest criticism for the American judicial system: "The failure of the American judicial system stems from the flaws of American-style democracy: it overemphasizes process at the expense of results; it overemphasizes fairness for the criminal and neglects fairness for the victim; it overemphasizes the rights of the criminal and neglects the rights of victims and their family members. Radical U.S.-style democracy has only resulted in absolute inequality." The writer concludes, "Western democracy is not a silver bullet. Pick the system that works best for you."

It is telling that in this condemnation of the judicial system Feng uses the term "criminal" instead of "defendant" or "the accused."

Russia: All Eyes on Future Relations

For the first time since the early 1990s, Russian media is expressing an intense and detailed interest toward a US presidential election. While mindful of the historic race and the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama, Russian media covers the election with an eye on the future development of US-Russia relations, trying to figure out which candidate would be more open to improving the relations between the two countries. Some media outlets try to predict who would win, others are trying to comment on the polls and attitudes in America and relying on the US media to furnish the results.

This report from business daily Vzglyad (Outlook) is typical - it cites data that Senator Obama has a 10 point lead over Senator McCain. A few online newspapers limit their coverage of the race to just such numbers, given the overall apprehension over the future development of US-Russia relations. Other media sites go a step beyond - the popular Lenta.ru online news portal has a large section dedicated to the American election news digest and opinion.

Overall, most Russians - including the government - do not foresee a major change in the bilateral relations. This particular piece symbolizes that sentiment- it's a summary of a call-in radio show in which listeners were asked on the future US relations with Russia and former Soviet states. The result? "The US has a long-term strategy towards Russia and FSU, and the presidential election would not alter such strategy to a great degree." Another answer is also more emblematic of the emerging Russian opinion: "It will be easier to just talk to Obama, while it will be easier to agree and negotiate with McCain."

Other news outlets are openly discussing the impending arrival of Senator Obama to the White House, citing the financial crisis as crippling to the Republicans' chances this year. Daily Gazeta on Friday discussed how just recently, Russian government was looking forward to McCain's presidency as "somewhat confrontational, but rather predictable in its foreign policy." However, now Moscow is "awaiting the arrival of the Democrats, trying to convince itself that they always adhered to a more flexible and multilateral foreign policy, understood the importance of international institutions and did not get involved in every conflict when one of the antagonists would talk loudly about democracy. However, everyone is trying not to bring up the war in Yugoslavia, which took place on the Democrats' watch."

Other news publications offer more direct headlines. "Obama Leads in Early Voting." This article in Strana.ru cites a large turnout across America for early voting, describing that registered Democrats far outnumber registered Republicans at this juncture. Nevada, Ohio and North Carolina are described as some of the areas where Democrats have a numerical advantage in early polls, thereby "greatly complicating Senator McCain's situation."

France: All Obama, All the Time

French national newspapers, much like the American ones, are sharply divided along ideological lines. The right is represented by Le Figaro and the left by Libération and Le Monde. But not unlike the major political parties and the overwhelming majority of French citizens, all three newspapers support Barack Obama for president.

On Monday, the focus was pretty much the same in France as it was in the U.S.: Colin Powell’s endorsement of the Democratic nominee. Le Monde reported that Powell’s endorsement had been seen in the U.S. as a hard blow to John McCain’s fledgling campaign, a view that was echoed on the same day in Libération. Le Figaro went along these lines too, but its article added that this endorsement did not come as a surprise and that for this reason it is not that much of a crucial hit on McCain.

Under American standards, these three leading newspapers would be considered liberal. (Cultural differences matter. In America, ‘liberal’ means left-wing. In France, it usually means right-wing.) It should then come as no surprise then that all three of them have pounded somewhat relentlessly on McCain’s VP pick Sarah Palin for her lack of experience, her populism and her views that, according to some, reach very far to the right.

Accordingly, Thursday’s story in the French columns and blogs that relate to the U.S. election is the Alaska governor’s $150k wardrobe provided to her for/by the Republican party since she was picked as the VP candidate by McCain. Interestingly enough, the most conservative of these three newspapers (Le Figaro) seems to be the one who enjoys hitting on Palin the most; it was reporting that Condoleeza Rice could not bring herself to support the Palin when asked to comment on her candidacy.

As much as they love to hate Sarah Palin, the leading French newspapers love Barack Obama more. In fact, most pundits in France have already called the election for him; the disproportionate number of articles speaking of Obama compared to those speaking of McCain gives proof of that. This opinion trend did not move anywhere at the end of the week. On Friday, Le Figaro focused its attention on the possible Democratic takeover of Virginia, stressing the importance, the wealth and the organization of the Obama machine. Libération, as its self-described ‘socialist’ stance would predict, pounded on McCain for resorting to national security arguments. Its punch line: "When things go bad for the GOP, they wave the red flag of national security."

At the end of the week, the only conclusion I can come up with after reviewing the French press’ covering of the American campaign: Boring. Dead boring. And dead predictable, too. And it’s not just the French press’ love affair with Obama: It’s the general attitude of "Dems good, GOP bad" that has prevailed in France and most of Europe.

Interestingly enough, a McCain presidency and/or a Republican Congress could be good news for the French government as it is trying to export its civil nuclear technology to Asia and North America. If president Nicolas Sarkozy wants to sell nuclear power plants in America, shouldn’t he root for the guy whose support for this kind of energy is the strongest, i.e. John McCain? My guess is, Sarkozy chose to support Obama because acting otherwise would have been tantamount to political suicide.

Brown and Cameron Clash

In case anyone missed it, there was a great exchange this week in the House of Commons between Gordon Brown and David Cameron:

Is it just me, or is the dialogue between Brown and Cameron infinitely more compelling than the U.S. race right now? Brits should be thankful they get to see this kind of passionate debate between party leaders on a regular basis. It may be a bit theatrical, but it beats talking about "Joe the Plumber" any day.

Take a look at other recent videos over at the RCW Video Log.

October 24, 2008

Department of Stupid Comparisons

This is ridiculous:

Amy Strozzi, who works on the reality show So You Think You Can Dance and has been Mrs Palin's travelling stylist, was paid $22,800, according to campaign finance reports for the first two weeks in October.

In contrast, McCain's foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, was paid $12,500, the report showed.

Not that the stylist was paid more, mind you - the ridiculous part is that anyone would be surprised. Of course you have to pay hair stylists more than foreign policy advisors for national campaigns! I highly doubt that Ms. Strozzi, whatever her creative merits, has contracted with the campaign because she believes that her style expertise could ulitmately change US foreign policy and, by extension, world history.

I'm absolutely certain that that's what's motivating Scheunemann and every other advisor engaged in these campaigns. These jobs aren't worth the headaches if you're only in them for the money, but they're worth everything you have if you're involved for other reasons. That's why legions of young interns troop to DC to work for free every year, why myriad apple-cheeked students out of college return to work for subsistence wages, and why hordes of graduate students mortgage their futures for tuition to pay for a chance to have influence. (And yes, I'm drawing perhaps a bit too readily on my own choices here, but they're not unusual.)

There are lots of reasons to criticize both campaigns here, especially on foreign policy. But as this race draws to a close, let's not get sucked into the stupid distractions. The stakes are too high.

Why They're So Tough in Australia

Photo courtesy of Cairns.com.au

Their spiders eat birds.

China Helps? How Dare They!

China has just joined the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), a multilateral lending institution in Latin America, by contributing $350 million. The move should be applauded: not only is China ponying up to help other countries, but it is doing so through a multilateral institution largely run by well-respected technocrats. Yes, China, is obviously seeking to extend its influence - but it's doing so about as responsibly as could be imagined, pretty much exactly how US and other policymakers have been encouraging them to do so.

So what does China get? Fear-mongering quotes like this (from the story linked above):

Analyst Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said the Chinese could be seeking to outflank the United States in its own backyard.

"The U.S. is well prepared to meet Chinese challenges in the Taiwan Strait or the high seas," Hufbauer said. "It is poorly prepared to grapple with Chinese financial diplomacy, both because 'our' institutions -- the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank -- are small potatoes compared to the Chinese war chest, and because Americans don't think of national security in financial terms."

This is silly. China may very well be trying to 'outflank' the US in Latin America with secretive investments, agreements with Chavez and Morales, or infiltrating intelligence assets into Latin America - those are all possible (although I have no specific reason to think China is actually doing that; they just theoretically could). And yes, China and the US have some pretty fundamental differences in foreign policy. But to chalk every attempt by China to act in a way commensurate with its ginormous economic heft up to some nefarious plot to best the US is a bit much. By that light, what would China do if it were not trying to 'outflank' the US? Avoid any and all involvement in Latin America seems to be the only possible answer - and not a very realistic path for China.

October 23, 2008

A Democracy's Growing Pains

Yesterday's report that, while visiting Taiwan, Chinese diplomat Zhang Mingqing was attacked, hit, and shoved to the ground by angry pro-independence Taiwanese should be deeply embarrassing to the Taiwan government, and indeed all Taiwanese. The video of the old man being knocked around is not a pretty sight:

Yet, after the diplomatic bluster fades, I hope the incident isn't seen as too much of a poor reflection on Taiwan. The place is a young, rough-and-tumble democracy, and really feels that way. I imagine it's not all that different from how the US would have felt even in the late 19th century, when fights broke out on the Senate floor and gangs roved the streets to gin up votes on election day.

True, Taiwan's legislature does occasionally devolve into brawls. And yes, most political protests feature a heavy dose of pushing and shoving on the sidelines. And alright, the island's (many) political news channels serve up a steady diet of political stunts, intemperate yelling, and poorly founded rumors. It's all sort of like watching an overeager 16-year-old driving a car - their heart is just a little too much in this whole democracy thing.

But I'd take Taiwan's uncouth democracy over China's autocracy any day of the week. The process may not be pretty, but the Taiwanese have a genuinely responsive government, and when they disagree, they can voice their disagreements to their heart's content (and they do). Scandals don't fester for years, and rural residents don't seethe in quiet anger that occasionally erupts into mob violence, and massive show projects don't go forward without widespread public debate.

Sadly, China's leadership will probably take this incident as a lesson in the pitfalls of an overly democratic system. I hope the rest of the world doesn't take the same lesson, because underneath the (truly lamentable) buffoonery, Taiwan's democracy still has a lot going for it.

October 22, 2008

Obama as Jimmy Carter

Writing in National Review, Peter Hegseth makes a pretty stunning assertion:

The American military, according to Obama particularly, is severely limited in its capacity, and therefore should be reduced in size and mission scope. Rather than grow the military to meet global needs, Obama-Biden will likely do the opposite — a dangerous approach in (what Joe Biden, at least, recognizes to be) a dangerous world. And a lesson not lost on America’s enemies.

I say this is stunning because anyone who's been paying even a modicum of attention to the campaign knows this is utter nonsense.

Just unpack it. First, it's not simply Obama asserting that the U.S. is overstretched. Here's Army Chief of Staff George Casey telling Congress the same thing last year. According to the AP, the Joint Chiefs have issued a similar warning directly to President Bush, albeit quietly.

Second, Obama has pledged, repeatedly, to expand the size of American military. Who knows, maybe he's lying. But Hegseth doesn't actually present any evidence for his claim that Obama "will likely" pare back the U.S. military.

In fact, in two debates (here and here), it was John McCain who suggested he would comb through the Pentagon's budget for cuts.

Stepping back, what I find fascinating about most of the conservative commentary on Obama's prospective foreign policy is that it is framed almost entirely as if the last eight years haven't happened. No conservatives are arguing that Obama is going to undermine all the good work that the Bush Administration has done on Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Africa, Syria, Arab/Israeli peace, etc. All we get is some talk about the surge - which is a round-about way of saying that the Bush administration incompetently waged the Iraq war for years before course-correcting. What an endorsement!

Conservatives and those sympathetic to the views Hegseth expresses in his article have more or less steered the ship of state for eight years. Anyone is entitled to believe that Obama will do incalculably more damage to American foreign policy than President Bush, but it's telling that those who are so quick to dump on Obama rest the entirety of their case on painting him as Jimmy Carter redux while studiously ignoring the record of the last eight years.

October 21, 2008

The Darien Gap

This is well worth a watch:

Ericka Andersen, at Culture11's The Confabulum, has the skinny:

Ever heard of the Darien Gap? I hadn’t until I ran into a Vanguard Video report on Current.com. Current’s news team travels around the world exploring untold stories in sometimes dangerous places.

Here, Jael travels to Yuvisa, the end of the Pan-American Highway, near the Darien Gap, where South America is separated from entering Central America. The Pan-American Highway runs from Alaska to Argentina, with a sixty mile stretch that isn’t paved. This is called the Darien Gap.

The Gap is referred to as the “stopper” because often drug trafficking is hindered here. There are no plans to pave the break as it prevents border violence and separates two continents. This reporter’s team ventured into the secluded villages located on the sides of the river gaps. One community had a high percentage of Albino individuals because they rarely mix outside of their community.

Watch the team bounce down the highway, sleep in cockroach-infested hotels, consider eating oversized rodents, risk their lives in the jungles and meet a community of people in villages we might never have seen otherwise. I couldn’t stop watching it and normally I have about a 30-second online video attention span.

One of many places I'd love to go in life, but sadly fear that my love of cold beer, warm beds, and not dying in suspicious circumstances will likely never allow.

UPDATE: The video might not be loading properly; check out the original here if not!

Debating the IFIs

One of the most notable features of the financial crisis for me has been the almost complete absence of international financial institutions (IFIs) like the IMF and World Bank from the debate. Neither institution had the money to mount rescues on its own, and evidently neither has the respect or authority among senior policymakers in the big economies to take on a leadership role.

Which makes a growing debate over how to reform the two all the more interesting. There have been rumblings about doing something new with the institutions for years now. Just a year ago, some claimed that it might be time for the two to wind up their lending functions and focus on providing advice and serving as a data clearinghouse. Now, though, it looks like reforms might go the other way - strengthening the Fund and Bank so that they could act to head off international capital imbalances.

Some see a missed opportunity in recent years, with the Fund's inability or refusal to do more to bring capital flows between the US and China - which were one factor fueling the bubble in the US - under control.

Nancy Birdsall, blogging at the Center for Global Development, sees potential in some upcoming talks:

That raises the question of what Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy said to President Bush at Camp David this past weekend, where they presumably wanted to pursue Brown's idea of a Bretton Woods II. Ted Truman argues that this is not the time to be rewriting fire department rules -- while the fire is raging. Sebastian Mallaby argues that global coordination is not the priority, since most financial system reforms have to be done at the national level. Is it possible that Brown and Sarkozy were not discussing the technical details of global coordination on a derivatives clearinghouse and Tarp vs. bank recaps, but actually suggesting to Bush that in his final days he could propose a dramatic reform of the governance of the IMF -- along with the World Bank? (Robert Zoellick and the World Bank Board are inching toward some changes there.) Wishful thinking, perhaps, but it would make for a more lasting legacy!

I'm skeptical that these institutions will ever be able to rein in the big economies, which after all are pursuing their fiscal and monetary policies presumably for some purpose; it will be difficult to really affect the incentives for economies as large as the US. Still, if Bush, Brown, and Sarkozy can hammer out a new international economic architecture in the waning days of the Bush Administration, it will be interesting to see what they come up with and how it's received.

A League of Their Own

The League of Democracies: the McCain campaign doesn't talk about it much anymore, but it was once an important part of the Senator's foreign policy platform (and remains on his website). More importantly, the idea has existed in a number of forms across the political spectrum for some time; a "Community of Democracies" in fact is still in existence, and has been since 2000 (the State Department has information here).

So, regardless of the election results, the idea - that democratic countries can usefully ally or associate in some way to achieve foreign policy goals that autocratic governments could otherwise resist - seems likely to stay a part of the debate for some time. Ted Piccone, a longtime foreign policy hand and democratization expert, however, has a sobering new report (pdf) out with the Brookings Institution. Drawing on his own experience working with the Community of Democracies, and deep knowledge of other versions of the scheme that have been advanced in recent years, Piccone comes to a sobering conclusion:

Yet despite its superficial appeal to our better angels, even some of [the League of Democracies'] advocates acknowledge that its real purpose is to legitimize the use of U.S. military force and destroy the United Nations. For that and many other reasons, the idea will not fly in the current geopolitical environment and will have to await the day when the world is composed of many more likeminded democracies than currently exist.

The report is sobering reading, and not just for neoconservatives. The underlying flaw in any scheme similar to the League of Democracies is that political concerns almost always trump democratic sympathies. In almost any conceivable situation, at least a handful of democracies are willing to bend the rules and either allow autocracies into the democratic fold or shield them from broader action. The Community has been far less effective in the UN, for instance, than other groupings based on far flimsier identities. The G-77, for instance, a holdover from the Cold War that groups developing countries that were unaligned with either superpower (far more than 77 of them now) is still a force to be reckoned with at the UN. But the constituent states of the Community of Democracies (more than 100 at present) just have not had the same shared interests.

Democratic governance has not prevented conflict in the past, but it has not proven an effective means for organizing action to achieve other goals. It was an enticing specter, but it looks as if the next US president will have to find some other means to organize and motivate other states if the US is to reassert global leadership.

October 20, 2008

McCain's Russian Financing

Apparently when John McCain looked Vladimir Putin in the eye, he not only saw the letters "K.G.B." but also dollar signs:

In the letter, McCain urged Russia's U.N. Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, to contribute anywhere from $35 (20 pounds) to $5,000 (2,912 pounds) to help ensure McCain's victory over Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama, currently ahead in voter preference polls.

"If I have the honour of continuing to serve you, I make you this promise: We will always put America -- her strength, her ideals, her future -- before every other consideration," McCain assured Churkin.

Moscow's mission to the United Nations issued a terse statement on the Republican presidential candidate's letter, saying that the Russian government and its officials "do not finance political activity in foreign countries."

Of course, it was all just an innocent mailing error.

Obama and Weakness

Ralph Peters summons his inner Alec Baldwin and uncorks an op-ed in the New York Post that leaves one with the strong impression that Peters is prepared to flee to Canada should Obama win in November.

Here's a taste:

Pandering to his extreme base, Obama has projected an image of being soft on terror. Toss in his promise to abandon Iraq, and you can be sure that al Qaeda will pull out all the stops to kill as many Americans as possible - in Iraq, Afghanistan and, if they can, here at home - hoping that America will throw away the victories our troops bought with their blood.

Got it. Obama wins, al Qaeda will try to kill as many Americans as possible. Obama loses, and al Qaeda remains content to do whatever it is they've been doing these past few years - what was it again, needlepoint?

UPDATE: Daniel Larison has quite a bit more on Peters here.

We Must not Allow a Sandwich Gap!

The Pentagon better ramp-up its bologna procurement.

[Hat tip: Joshua Keating]

October 19, 2008

The Implications of Episcopalian Schism

George Will comments today on a religious story that may say as much about globalization as it does about religion:

The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh recently became the second diocese (the first was in Fresno, Calif.) to secede from the U.S. Episcopal Church since, but not entirely because of, the 2003 ordination in New Hampshire of an openly gay bishop -- Gene Robinson, a classmate of Duncan's at General Theological Seminary in New York in the 1970s. Before the Robinson controversy, other Episcopalians, from South Carolina to Southern California, had disassociated from the Episcopal Church and put themselves under the authority of conservative Anglican bishops who serve where the church is flourishing -- often in sub-Saharan Africa, where a majority of Anglicans live.

As Will goes on to note, "Today, the typical Anglican is a middle-aged African woman."

What does it mean that some of the most conservative dioceses of a mainstream U.S. denomination are turning to Africa and Latin America for leadership? If more dioceses follow those of Pittsburgh and Fresno to break with Canterbury and associate instead with Abuja, will it affect U.S. ties with the developing world in other ways? It seems difficult to believe that there would be no shifts in attention or culture in churches that at least nominally take their cues from lands that, not too long ago, were considered missionary territory.

Protestant missionaries long defined much of the relationship between the US and Africa, China, and other parts of the non-European world. Missionaries far outnumbered diplomats and traders, far outpaced them in depth of engagement in and knowledge of these distant lands. Because of their ability to raise funds and shape elections, they also drove a good deal of US policy, though this role is often forgotten today.

Now, however, African Anglicans are standing up and asserting their own leadership, refusing to go along with doctrinal shifts on sexuality and marriage that they see as incompatible with Scripture. Rather than accept guidance from Canterbury, they are instead claiming the faith as their own and asserting their rights to define it. As the archbishop of Uganda wrote last year:

But however we come to understand the current crisis in Anglicanism, this much is apparent: The younger churches of Anglican Christianity will shape what it means to be Anglican. The long season of British hegemony is over.

The dioceses leaving the Episcopal communion are emphatically conservative - stereotypically unlikely to be concerned with the problems of the developing world. And it certainly is an unexpected example of globalization - globalization, after all, is usually seen as a close relative of progress, but in this case it is a reactionary movement against increasingly liberal mainstream values that is driving the process. But if more churches leave the Episcopal communion and look further abroad that England in search of spiritual leadership, those dynamics may start to subtly change.

Missed Opportunity or Futile Gesture?

David Axe, writing in the World Politics Review, examines the sobering problems facing the US military as it tries to retool for a world in which soft power is paramount:

The United States has a major perception problem in the two world regions where the Pentagon has decided to focus greater effort. Latin America and Africa represent new frontiers for a military that in recent decades has mostly concerned itself with Western Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific. In addition to Fourth Fleet's recent launch, in October the Pentagon formally stood up Africa Command, a new headquarters overseeing all of Africa, save Egypt. The so-called AFRICOM has proved deeply unpopular among everyday Africans -- so much so that only one country, Liberia, offered to host the command's facilities. Rather than risk further alienating Africans, AFRICOM instead chose to keep its facilities in Germany.

Similarly, in the Southern Hemisphere, Fourth Fleet has been a magnet for criticism. Upon hearing of the Pentagon's intention to stand up the new headquarters, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez accused the U.S. of deliberately provoking a new "Cold War" in Latin America. Chávez followed up his accusation by inviting the Russian navy to conduct exercises off the Venezuelan coast. Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa supported the invitation. "The U.S. Fourth Fleet can come to Latin America but a Russian fleet can't?" Correa said.

Seeing as the entire purpose of setting up the Fourth Fleet and Africom seems to be to present a more benign, constructive face for the United States, the hostility and suspicion is disappointing. But it's also understandable: throughout history, humanitarianism has long been a smoke screen for more nakedly imperialistic endeavors.

Given that fact, how does the US convince the objects of its wooing that it does indeed come to help? Better PR is probably not enough - it's the nature of the situation more than the publicity that is driving the suspicion, after all. There might be a role for more civilian involvement in running the programs and putting a different face on the military's actions, even on a day-to-day role. Or maybe the military needs to operate more in the background, helping and working with regional governments rather than directly with the populations. Or maybe the whole idea of soft power through humanitarian military work just won't work. Finding the answer, though, will have a big impact on the entirely of US relations with a whole continent.

Sarkozy Chooses His Side in Canada

French President Sarkozy arrived at Camp David yesterday to met with US President Bush on the topic of the financial crisis. He did, however, make a quick stop in Quebec City in which he changed two fundamental aspects of the Quebec-Canada-France love triangle.

First, let's remember why Sarkozy actually came to Quebec City. Celebrating the 400th anniversary of its founding, Quebec City is this year's host for the annual summit of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (International Organization of Francophone States). Given the very nature of this institution committed to building bridges between French-speaking states, the French President has always been seen as its natural leader. However, ever since Mr. Sarkozy took office, the French government's interest in the institution and the promotion of the French language worldwide have waned.

Among the first policy review that it conducted, the new French government sent all Francophonie files from foreign affairs to international cooperation (a much less well funded department). Also, Mr. Sarkozy, in an apparent bipartisan gesture, took Bernard Kouchner, founder of Doctors without Borders, as his foreign affairs minister. This is the same Kouchner who said a few years ago that English would be the new language of work in the Francophonie.

Persisting up to this year, the low interest shown towards the Francophonie by this French government took a new step forward this last week. As foreign leaders gathered in Quebec City, Mr. Sarkozy, who at first insisted that he would be there, then changed his mind, then changed it again, finally settled for a quick stop before he would go see President Bush. The very fact that he only passed by shows how little he cares about the Francophonie. Also, his speech never mentioned the future of the French language; it only spoke on the ongoing financial crisis. To say that Mr. Sarkozy does not care about the Francophonie would be an understatement.

Second, in a press conference along side Canadian PM Stephen Harper, Mr. Sarkozy made a plea for Canadian unity, saying that "the world does not need more divisions", a clear reference to Quebec's sovereigntist movement. Of course, this was music to Mr. Harper's ears, but as much as it delighted the federalist side, this quotation spurred some outrage on the nationalist side.

Former Quebec PM Jacques Parizeau reacted by asking Mr. Sarkozy if unity was the goal, why did France abandon its colonial empire? Does Mr. Sarkozy believe that in the name of unity Algeria and Haiti should give up on their independence? He also pointed out that France recently recognized Kosovo's independence. Personally, I would have liked to ask the French President how he would feel if nationalist leaders from Quebec went to France and called on Corsicans to separate from France?

In this way, President Sarkozy changed yet another aspect of France's foreign relations. Ever since the 70s, France's position towards Quebec had always been one of support, regardless of the party in power or of the popularity of either political option. Now Mr. Sarkozy changed that by throwing all his support behind the federalists who are now in power in Ottawa and Quebec City.

Waning support for the Francophonie, important changes in the Quebec-France-Canada love triangle, all that in the few hours that he spent in Quebec City this weekend. It seems that to Mr. Sarkozy, restoring relations with the US ally is much, much more important than keeping good relations with its French-speaking cousins in Quebec, Central America, Africa and Europe.

My guess is, Mr. Sarkozy knows not one thing about what it means to be a national minority whose language is constantly threatened by the growing popularity of English.

October 18, 2008

NATO Wages the Drug War

Fabrice Pothier says it's a bad idea to push NATO into the drug war:

No foreign army has ever succeeded in a counternarcotics effort of this kind. Drugs are fundamentally economic and law enforcement issues. At best, military force has made only a marginal impact, and in most cases, it has been counterproductive. Thailand, Burma and, to a lesser extent, Colombia succeeded in eliminating or gaining partial control of their drug trades only after decades of sustained political and economic development efforts. But Thailand, for one, had to offer its farmers a five-year amnesty to switch from illegal to legitimate crops.

And, the idea that some ISAF troops—mostly American, British, Canadian and Dutch—could engage only in “surgical interdiction strikes” against heroin labs and trafficking networks is more rhetorical than realistic. These facilities are embedded in a complex local environment, and any attacks will likely involve collateral damage. At a time when NATO is already struggling to minimize the civilian casualties of the coalition's air strikes, can it afford to engage in such a risky venture?

I'd say that the fastest way to dry up the Taliban's opium cash would be to legalize the stuff. In one fell swoop, Afghan farmers would have a legit cash crop to spur reconstruction and the Taliban could no longer hide in a black market economy.

But drug warriors never do seem to internalize the lessons of Prohibition.

Divided Loyalties

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke Wednesday about the importance of training and equipping Afghan forces to combat the Taliban insurgency:

But it is not just what our and their brave soldiers can accomplish on the battlefield that is central to success in Afghanistan. An enduring requirement is the ability to rapidly train, equip, and advise Afghan security forces – as we are doing to improve the size and quality of Afghanistan’s army and police.

Yet, what happens when these American-trained forces turn their American-funded guns against the Afghan government? As it turns out, such a problem already exists in the form of small, rogue Taliban groups like this one:

The reasoning behind this apparent shift in allegiance is self-evident. Afghan forces are being turned off by what they're calling "anti-Muslim behavior from international soldiers" -- drinking, prostitution, etc. Surely, American policy-makers and military leaders were aware of the potential for ideological disillusionment among Afghan security forces.

Still, the problem is harder to prevent than it is to diagnose. International forces -- especially American ones -- have to make sure their behavior toward and around Afghan trainees is compatible with Islam. If not, they run the risk of alienating Afghan forces, as has been the case with these recent defectors.

Take a look at other recent videos over at the RCW Video Log.

October 17, 2008

Going Live with Kevin!

RealClearWorld's own Kevin Sullivan will be on "Media Lizzy" today at 3:15 p.m. EDT to discuss Israel and the Middle East

Audio is embedded below. Login and comment! Or call in at (646) 652-2565.

Carter, the Shah and Blame

This piece on the overthrow of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in today's LA Times smells a little fishy:

Analysts and historians often contend that President Carter, a Democrat, fumbled Iran, allowing the country to eventually become one of the chief U.S. opponents in the region. But the report suggests that his Republican predecessors not only contributed to the shah's fall but also were inching toward a realignment with Saudi Arabia as the key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf.


The Saudis stunned OPEC by announcing at a December summit in Doha, Qatar, that they would boost production to 11.6 million barrels a day from 8.6 million barrels, driving down prices.

"We should get credit for what happened at OPEC," Kissinger told Ford. "I have said all along the Saudis were the key. . . . Our great diplomacy is what did it."

But it would prove to be a Pyrrhic victory in terms of one American ally. Iran was cash-strapped, having spent much of its reserves on American weapons and the shah's Great Civilization programs, which spurred inflation by flooding the country with money.

The shah was broke. Declining oil revenue amid continued inflation forced him to abandon ambitious plans to modernize his country.

"The collapse of the Doha summit, and the Saudi decision to undercut the price of crude and boost its output to try to flood the market, rushed the Iranian economy to the precipice," Cooper writes in his report.

The shah's government, shaken by the loss of oil revenue, imposed a harsh austerity budget that threw thousands out of work, collapsed investor confidence and panicked middle-class Iranians. Economic chaos and unemployment quickly spread.

Within a year of the Doha summit, the first mass demonstrations that grew into revolution broke out on the streets of the Iranian capital.

There's a lot of truth to this analysis, but I think the premise leaves a few gaping holes in need of plugging. While an unexpected plateau in oil prices did in fact hurt construction projects, it was more the perception of American heavy-handedness in the country (coupled with an obvious history of American meddling that needn't be broached here) that led to prolonged upheaval and revolt in Iran. By 1977, the Shah had "diversified" his global relationships. Prosperity in the first half of the decade emboldened Pahlavi, who used China and the Soviet Union as leverage against the United States as a warning to stay out of Iran's domestic affairs.

This created what amounted to an influence partition in the region. Sure, OPEC's decision to increase oil output hurt the Iranian economy, but the Iranian economy remained a heavily stratified one anyway. Poor domestic planning--especially in the area of agriculture--forced a booming population to head towards the cities for industrial work. Couple this with the Shah's own domestic terror campaign against all forms of public dissent, and what you ended up with was a network of mosques and Islamic religious circles serving as a de facto breeding ground for revolution. By 1979, nearly 10% (!) of the Iranian people were taking part in demonstrations against the regime. This is almost unheard of in the history of popular revolution. Job loss alone didn't foster such conditions.

This brings us to Carter. Unfortunately for our former president, much of the disdain for him in Iran was misplaced and cosmetic. The truth of the matter is, by 1978, the United States had less influence over Iran than it had during previous Democratic and Republican administrations. But what Iranians were seeing--most notably a growing American population in Tehran, and an all-too-cozy relationship between Carter and Pahlavi--made it seem as if it was 1953 all over again. The truth was a little more complex, and Carter's primary misstep was failing to gather better intelligence on the plight of Iranians at the grassroots.

Most of the problems were logistical. The CIA was at a crossroads in the late 70s, and we had too few Farsi speakers to properly monitor what the Shah was doing to his people in Iran. Thus, we relied heavily on the Shah's own domestic intelligence outfit, SAVAK. You can probably guess the kind of information they were feeding us, and most of it was unhelpful.

Jimmy Carter--a proponent of human rights, at least in theory--turned a blind eye to what Pahlavi was doing domestically, and repeatedly providied Ayatollah Khomeini with fodder for his revolution. Whether it was his insistence that Pahlavi was an "island of stability" in the region in 1978, or our allowance of the Shah's cancer treatment here in the states, the perception in the Iranian tinder box was that the "Ugly Americans" were cooking up another coup.

Carter's administration failed to adjust to a changing relationship with an unpopular monarch. As a result, the Shah ran up a large bar tab and skipped out on the bill. The United States has been paying for these errors for nearly thirty years.

American meddling wasn't the issue. Presidents Kennedy, Clinton, among others, actually influenced positive policy in Iran through coercive action and pressure on the regime. This isn't a bad thing. The mistake--and the lesson we should apply in 2008--is in the Carter approach: The United States must account for domestic politics in Iran, and we must engage the regime directly in order to better influence those domestic conditions. "Isolating" the regime won't work in the era of globalization, as China, India, Russia and an assortment of other Asian nations are proving. If we treat Iran like a regional pariah it will continue to behave like one; meanwhile, nations less concerned with internal conditions inside the republic will continue to invest and do business with the radical regime in Tehran.

This doesn't build influence, it squanders it.

Trade Liberalization Isn't Dead

With all of the uncertainty and difficulties the world's financial ructions are causing, it's nice to know that some governments are still taking positive long-term steps. That's how news today of negotiations between Canada and the EU on a massive trade agreement should be received:

Following a meeting in Quebec City, Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who is the president of the European Union as well, are expected to sign an agreement for preliminary negotiations meant to create a trade pact between Canada and Europe that would be even more sweeping than the North American Free Trade Agreement.

A person who is familiar with the government’s plan, but who did not want to be identified as upstaging an announcement by two heads of state, said the agreement would begin “a scoping exercise leading to the launch of talks.”

It follows the release Thursday of a 192-page study by the Canadian and European governments that concludes such a deal could increase exports from Canada to Europe by 20.6 percent by 2014.

With so much talk of the United States' declining global economic leadership, it's tempting to see this as an example of the potential for trade patterns to shift away from the United States. After all, the Canadian economy is likely to get hit hard by declining demand in the United States, and to welcome alternatives.

But as protectionist rhetoric heats up in the US, any increased trade by major economies seems to be a good development to me. It's not a good thing for the United States to be so central, frankly, because it helps when other countries are able to pick up the slack if and when the US economy takes a downturn. In a best-case scenario, the negotiations between Canada and the EU could encourage the US turning inward itself, and maybe open up trade with Europe even more as well.

Here's to hoping both US presidential candidates are paying attention to the fact that trade relations, even among developed countries, can still matter. And that if the US is closing itself off while others continue to open, then any declines in US economic leadership will only accelerate.

October 16, 2008

See Sam Stream

RealClearWorld's own Sam Chi will be on The Ed Morrissey Show today at 3 p.m. EDT to discuss Asia and the world financial crisis.

Video is embedded below. Login and comment!

October 15, 2008

Final Presidential Debate: Live Blog!

RealClearWorld will provide live commentary on foreign policy topics during the final presidential debate Wednesday night. RCW editors and contributors will blog live during the debate and readers may participate by submitting their own comments.

The live blog will begin at 8:45 p.m. EDT.

Canadian Election Results

Canada's election results are in, and Conservatives have secured a minority government:

Tories : 143 seats
Liberals : 76 seats
Bloc : 50 seats
NDP : 37 seats
2 independents

Overall, the Tories came 12 seats short of a majority. Harper delivered Ontario (51 out of 108) and British Columbia (22 seats out of 36), but the Bloc effectively stopped the Tory tide in Quebec. With 10 seats in Quebec (75 seats), this was the province in which the Conservatives thought they could make the most gains. Without Quebec’s support, they could not form a majority government. Had there been no Bloc, Harper would be the PM of a majority government today. Yesterday clearly was a vote of confidence for Mr. Duceppe, as the Bloc sailed to a victory by a very large margin. But still, if you leave Quebec aside, yesterday was a victory for Mr. Harper.

Mr. Dion, on the other hand, lost almost everything. Liberal strategists, knowing they were heading for a defeat, had put the bar at 95 seats. Dion only delivered 76. It's the worst Liberal showing since 1988, when John Turner only got 40 seats for his party. You can expect Mr. Dion to hold on to his job as the leader of the Liberal Party; there are signs, however, that other Liberal heavyweights might want to force him out. No sooner than last night, after receiving news of the crushing defeat suffered by his party, deputy leader Michael Ignatieff made clear that leadership would be an issue to discuss in the coming months. The message is clear: Dion’s worst enemies are now within his own party, and the leadership struggle has already begun.

Will the conservatives prevail in the U.S. election as well? All signs point to the contrary, but what Mr. Harper’s victory showed yesterday is that in spite of polls, right-wing parties always tend to do a better job of motivating their base to go out and vote, as the results indicate that the Tories got more support than polls suggested. Add this to the so-called “Bradley effect” affecting black candidates in America, and McCain could still win in November despite polls giving Obama a 7 percent lead.

Only time will tell.

Don't Fear Iranian Influence in Iraq


One of the staple concerns about an American withdrawal from Iraq is the fear about "Iranian influence." Here's John McCain during the second debate:

If we had done what Sen. Obama wanted done in Iraq, and that was set a date for withdrawal, which Gen. [David] Petraeus, our chief -- chairman of our Joint Chiefs of Staff said would be a very dangerous course to take for America, then we would have had a wider war, we would have been back, Iranian influence would have increased, al Qaeda would have re- established a base.

This always struck me as one of the least tenable objections to a troop withdrawal. Thanks to the wonders of modern cartography, we see that Iran and Iraq are neighbors. Therefore, Iran will always influence Iraq. And vice-versa. Indeed, even when the countries were arrayed against each-other, Iran influenced Iraqi policy. We learned from Saddam Hussein himself that his boasts regarding WMD were specifically aimed at Iran, not the U.S.

So inchoate references to "Iranian influence" don't amount to much of an argument. Of course, opponents of Iranian influence are specifically referring to Iraq's propensity to ally with its neighbor, instead of us. Or worse, to Iran's ability to subvert the Iraqi government to its own ends.

Which brings us to this report in the Washington Post on the continued difficulty that U.S. negotiators are having reaching an agreement with Iraq on U.S. forces: "Frustrated over what they consider Iraqi intransigence, administration officials have said Iranian meddling is keeping Shiite leaders from accommodating U.S. bottom lines."

In other words, the current Iraqi government - the one referred to by McCain and the war's remaining supporters as the fruits of our victory - is already aligning with Iran contrary to our demands.

I don't see any way around this. Outside of fundamentally up-ending Iraq's constitutional government and re-installing the anti-Iranian Sunni Baathists, Iran is going to exert a significant influence in Iraq. Even, or perhaps especially, if we "win."

Battle of Sadr City

Sunday night's episode of 60 Minutes included this fascinating report on the U.S. military's use of sophisticated UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) during the Battle of Sadr City in March 2008:

As Arthur C. Clarke once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

You can check out other recent videos over at the RCW Video Log.

October 14, 2008

Regional Solutions or U.S. Problems

The National Interest's Nikolas Gvosdev suggests a new mantra for the incoming administration:

“Regional solutions for regional problems” ought to be the cornerstone of any future U.S. foreign-policy doctrine. It would be a good step if either presidential candidate would endorse that line of thinking.

Indeed. Although I think that's unlikely. Barack Obama has proclaimed that “the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people.” McCain, meanwhile, is surrounded by the "benevolent global hegemony" set.

There's little indication that either candidate would be committed to the kind of repositioning Gvosdev suggests. Perhaps the limitations placed on American power by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the credit crisis, will lead the next administration to reluctantly share some of the burdens. But it would be a move born of dire necessity, not prudent forethought.

October 13, 2008

U.S. Leadership At Any Price

Reihan Salam has an interesting piece in Forbes on the question of American hegemony. He writes:

Yet we simply can't afford to look inward. Our prosperity is so deeply enmeshed in that of the rest of the world--and particularly with the prosperity of China, which has become our economic Siamese Twin--that turning away is all but unthinkable. Just as importantly, there is no plausible successor to America as global hegemon. You might say that we are the hegemon by default. The real question isn't whether America will still be called upon to lead.

Rather, the question is: Where exactly do we intend to go?

He answers: We need to encourage a more middle-class world.

I think that's right, but it also raises the question of why "global hegemony" is even necessary for such a task.

It's become common place to hear commentators suggesting that the world "needs" a hegemonic power to keep things in line. Politicians like to call it "leadership." This, in turn, leads to the perception that America must retain its global hegemony at all costs, thereby conflating the obvious need for a robust military with the need to defend our hegemonic prerogatives around the world. And around and around we go, until we're spending more money on "defense" than at any time since WWII while America is objectively more secure than it was than at any point during the Cold War.

More broadly, the record on this policy is clear. Empires, as Salam concedes, fall. Most never get back up. Like our credit-fueled consumption binge, it is an unsustainable posture.

It's also curious to hear Salam advocate for continued hegemony. It seems to me that a voracious military budget would sap needed funds for any of the policies he advocates in Grand New Party.

The Costs of COIN

Judah Grunstein has a sharp take on the wages of counter-insurgency and its impact on the economy:

Quite a bit of the actual productive work (the building of infrastructure, for instance) takes place in the actual theater of operations, not on the homefront. Add to that the fact that COIN removes a disproportionate amount of young men and women from the productive workforce (some of them permanently), and returns a disproportionate amount of them disabled (due to improvements in force protection), and it becomes clear that COIN amounts to an enormous outflow of American wealth, with little in the way of productive stimulus to counterbalance it.

So long as policy-makers in Washington view a pax Americana in the Middle East as the ultimate goal of U.S. policy, then the "enormous outflows of American wealth" have only just begun.

October 12, 2008

About That Grand Bargain ...

Last week I doubted the likelihood of any sort of "Grand Bargain" being reached between the United States and Iran. My primary concern? The lack of seriousness coming out of Tehran.

Well, consider me validated:

TEHRAN (FNA)- Vice President for Media Affairs Mehdi Kalhor said on Saturday that Iran has set two preconditions for holding talks with the United States of America.

In an exclusive interview with the Islamic Republic News Agency, he said as long as U.S. forces have not left the Middle East region and continues its support for the Zionist regime, talks between Iran and U.S. is off the agenda.

It is the Americans who are in dire need of reestablishing ties with Iran, he underlined.

Iran is not obliged to reestablish ties with the U.S., he said.

"If they take our advice, grounds for such talks would be well prepared," he said.

It is stupidity to hold talks without any change in U.S. attitude, he underlined.

October 11, 2008

Echoes of the Past, Moscow-Style

This may have gone unnoticed by the Western and American media, but less than two months ago, this rather interesting news clip was shown across Russia. Following Russia's convincing victory against the beleaguered Georgian forces in early August, Moscow drove home the point that it would not tolerate any action that it deemed counter to its newfound success in the Caucasus region.

This news clip on the Izvestia (News) website shows Russian special forces arresting a Russian officer of Georgian ethnic origin, Mikhail Chahidze. The voiceover calls Officer Chahidze "the most dangerous agent of Georgian intelligence services on Russian territory." According to the commentator, Chahidze "was supposed to gather information on the Russian forces in the Caucasus region, on his fellow ethnic Georgians who serve in the Russian military, as well as gather information on the commanders and senior officers of the Russian Army." The newscast claims Chahidze was recruited at the end of last year and that "in case of war" officers and commanders [of the Russian Army] were supposed to be targeted first."

The same website later published an article that sent a not-so-subtle message about ethnic Georgian guest workers and illegal immigrants currently working in Russia, especially in Moscow. At present, there are hundreds of thousands of Georgian men working on manual labor tasks all over the Russian Federation. They are drawn to Russia by the promise of a job and of a relatively good pay for their work - something they cannot get in their battered homeland.

Today, these people are caught in the middle between the nationalist aspirations of their Georgian homeland and the new reality imposed by the Russian August invasion. The Izvestia article dating to September 19, 2008 is titled "Georgia Fought With The Money Sent Over From Russia?"

The main point of the article is that legal remittances by these guest workers back to Georgia amount to between $1 billion to $2 billion a year - and illegal transfers may be much greater in sum. The author questions Georgian "audacity" in taking on the Russian military might, especially since the Georgian military budget prior to the war "amounted to exactly $1 billion," and hints that such remittances may have "at least partially financed the aggression against South Ossetia [by the Georgian forces]."

The tone of the debate changes on both legal and illegal Georgian business in Russia, citing that many wealthy Georgians made their fortune in the Russian Federation. The article is concluded by the author's visit to the dormitory that is home to Georgian guest workers in Moscow. The author describes how the men living there criticized Georgian President's policy towards the conflict and how much they depend on income generated in Russia in order to provide a decent living for their families back in Georgia. But the last paragraph is most telling - as the author concludes his visit, the ethnic Russian policeman who accompanied him whispered that the men cannot be taken at their word because "when the bombing of South Osettia commenced, they went to the [Georgian] restaurant Leon and drank to [Georgian President] Saakashvili's health."

The notion of "the other, the stranger" is gaining strength in Russia. Just like in the United States, the need for manual labor on a grand scale combined with loose or ineffective immigration policies and laws result in major friction with the core population of the country. But the ominous tone in the news clip and the article - emanating from the same source - are hard to miss. Ethnic-related violence has been on the rise in Russia for some time, but the August war may tip the scales in an environment that is already charged to the limit with nationalist and jingoistic rhetoric.

The portrayal of ethnic Georgians as a "fifth column" may garner fresh force and be utilized by the growing nationalist sentiment all across Russia. Such sentiment may affect even Russia-friendly ethnic Armenians who live in Russia in great numbers as both Russian citizens and visiting guest workers.

These news stories are not new in their tone or rhetoric. In 1894, a French Jewish Officer Alfred Dreyfuss was wrongly convicted by the French military for spying on behalf of Germany. Though later acquitted of all charges, the "Dreyfuss Affair" exposed the increasingly politicized anti-Semitism in France, and worsened anti-Semitism across Western Europe. The case of Mikhail Chahidze has an eerie similarity with the century-old French trial.

Part of the Dreyfuss family fortune ended up in German hands following the German 1870 victory against France, thus creating false accusations of spying. Following the trial, the Jews of France were often seen as a "nation within a nation" by various historians.

This may only be the beginning of an all-too-familiar story - or it may all end with just a few news clips. It is in Moscow's interests to maintain and uphold the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional nature of the Russian Federation in order to guarantee social and economic stability for the country's future. It is still too early to tell if non-Russians are going to be directly affected by the war in Georgia, as the general public was already negatively predisposed towards ethnic Caucasians for many years since 1991. But if history does repeat itself, then this is not the last we may hear about friction between Georgian-Russian officers and guest workers.

Michael Gerson as Kermit Roosevelt

In the course of reviewing American options when it comes to Iran, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson writes: "Attempting to destabilize the Iranian regime from within -- by covert action and support for dissidents -- does not seem realistic on a four- or five-year timeline."

And if it did? Does Gerson really like the track record here?

October 10, 2008

An Appropriate Reaction

Anyone watching the baseball playoffs last night might have been surprised to see that E*Trade is still advertising the joys and simplicity of purchasing stocks. Bad message for the moment, right? And yet, the ad seems more appropriate now than it ever was:

Yup, that about sums up my feelings too.

Back to 1984, Sort of

If you pay attention to video game releases, you would notice a very catchy new release from Tom Clancy - ENDWAR. The Ubisoft video game takes place in the not too distant 2020, when a battle for global domination rages between- who else? - United States and Russia. There is only one major distinction here - a European Union-like superpower that is one of the three major global powers in that dystopian future.

The game received major TV coverage - the game trailer that was run yesterday showed US forces battle Russians in the heart of Paris. While the quality of the game is superb, its not-so-subtle political message is as fresh as if it was originally designed in 1984, at the new height of Cold War tensions between America and Soviet Russia.

Tom Clancy has successfully transitioned his vast book content for consumption by the next generation of Americans - by launching video games loosely or directly based on his earlier work. His very popular "Rainbow Six," "Splinter Cell," and "Ghost Recon" game franchises have received major awards and attention, and brought new battlefield-like reality to millions of teenagers across the country. What sets Clancy's games apart from competitors is his eerie ability to almost accurately predict where and how the next conflict will take place that will require American participation.

In ENDWAR, Russia becomes a global superpower following a devastating war in the Middle East that greatly disrupts oil supply and and shipments. Russia, with the world's largest supplies of oil and natural gas, grows rich from sky-high oil prices and rebuilds its military strength. US, not to be outdone, takes the military buildup into space by developing space-based weapons. This was already done - not to the exact proportions, of course - in 1984.

Soviet Union, sensing that its ailing economy may weaken its superpower status, embarked on a major military buildup that ate up enormous portions of its GDP. This action was largely in response to American "Star Wars" program - part reality, part masterful deceit by the Reagan administration to put weapons in space to neutralize any attempt by the Soviets to launch a nuclear strike and inflict damage on America and her allies.

Soviet Union, in the race against America's expensive phantom battle satellites, strained its economy and society to the breaking point and finally fell apart by 1991. The newest video game, however, reflects Clancy's ability to at least logically perceive military- economic reality.

In his dystopian world, Russia can spend as much as it chooses on weaponry because the oil hits $800 a barrel. Until the recent economic crisis, the concern in Washington was with Russia's ability to use oil profits to buttress its military budget in an attempt to catch up to American military strength. Just recently, even in the midst of the financial meltdown that crashed a large portion of the Russian market, Kremlin still announced further increases in its military budget. Additionally, since the leading economies are not going to extricate themselves from their dependence on oil and natural gas anytime soon, Russia's coffers will continue to grow in the near future as its commodities earn it ever-increasing profits.

Today's electronic entertainment often reflects our desires and fears more than a reality. ENDGAME, however, reflects what many in America's political, intelligence and military establishment are concerned with - a stronger and more resurgent Russia that flexes its muscles on a daily basis and begins to once more take its military presence into America-dominated areas - South America, Mediterranean Sea and Asia.

Moreover, Clancy was almost "right" about the August war between Russia and Georgia that caught American military hardware, interests and possibly advisers right in the middle. In 2003, his "Ghost Recon" video game envisaged US special forces in Georgia as Russia sends in its military to aid separatists. Russian news agency RIA-Novosti made sure that fact was known to its readers on August 13, 2008, at the end of the actual conflict:

So Russia once again becomes America's competitor and threat No. 1.

Realistically, it is the only global power that is capable of presenting a credible threat to US interests, as the war in Georgia demonstrated. The next US administration has the unenviable task of dealing with Russia's economic and military resurgence. So far, we have heard only general statements from our candidates on what they are planning on doing with Russia.

One question remains after watching the ENDWAR trailers and reading its story - China is curiously absent from the lineup of global powers. What happened? And can China actually stand by and see Russia emerge as a Eurasian hegemon?

My bet is that Clancy's next game may feature the US trying to wade the minefield of competing interests and global aspirations by a handful of powers - but maybe that will be too boring than just aiming your missiles at Moscow and hope one of them makes it through. Either way, ENDWAR is a scary look into the future that hopefully will never take place.

Brown Finds His Moment

Buried in a typical, "look how the bankers are hurting" story in the Washington Post, several dozen of which have run in the past couple weeks, is an interesting political observation:

Brown's approval rating dived into the teens in recent months as the slow-to-smile Scot, the bookish son of a Presbyterian minister, was criticized as having the charisma and leadership skills of a moose lumbering through a forest.

But in the past two weeks, public assessment of Brown has shifted. He hasn't changed, but his low-key style is now widely being interpreted differently. Instead of dull, he is seen by many as unflappable, a voice of moderation and restraint amid a screaming horde of Chicken Littles.

Calvinism, it seems, is back.

"All of a sudden, it's great to look like you haven't slept at all," said Ann Treneman, who writes about British politics in London's Times newspaper. "He's an austere Presbyterian. And he's finally found a crisis that's as grave as he seems to be all the time."

Could this crisis save the electoral prospects of Gordon Brown and his party? Just two weeks their defeat at the next poll seemed assured; now, perhaps, he is redeeming himself. And, perhaps most importantly, doing it through a boring but reassuring command of the details and demonstration of adult responsibility and confidence. Something that perhaps the two candidates for US president could ponder in between pandering sessions.

Another Way to Rank

The other day, I posted the results of a relatively well-respected global productivity ranking that showed, in essence, that the US still wasn't doing all that bad. Well, today, I stand corrected, because the Chinese Academy of Sciences has come out with a new ranking of counties, the Health of Nations report, that puts us right back in the middle of the pack (via WSJ's China Journal):

Overall, the CAS ranked China 13th, two spots below the U.S., and keeping company with developed nations such as Japan, Germany and the U.K. In terms of “immunity,” which is based on natural resources, economic well-being and social cohesiveness, China came in third, after the very resource-rich Australia and Canada. China got a surprisingly high ranking on “national responsibility,” which factors in efforts at disarmament, poverty elimination, and environmental protection, among other things. China claimed the top spot as the most responsible nation, ahead of Mexico and Brazil, while the U.S. came in dead last in that category

Ah yes, I'd forgotten how responsible China has been in international affairs. Nevermind it's obstruction of UN Security Council action in Burma, Sudan, and Iran, and blind indifference to the development effects of its economic expansion into Africa - the nation does at least stand up, on firm principle, for the legal rights of odious despots to do whatever they want within their own borders.

(Yes, I've already argued that China has actually been surprisingly helpful in all of these issues, and I still believe that - but the government can really only be judged responsible relative to its own prior behavior. If other countries are the benchmarks, it still has a ways to go.)

The most interesting part of the report to me, though, is the widespread ridicule it's met with in the Chinese media:

On a discussion forum on Netease, one commenter using the name “From Mars” wrote: “Yes, China’s pretty healthy, it’s just that our babies have some kidney stones.”

The timing of the report, during the week when Nobel prizes are announced, is also inspiring jeers towards the state scientific research institution.

Blogger Wuyusanren had this to say in a post titled, “The Stupid Report Will Shine forever” (here in Chinese):

“I have no idea about the criteria those goofy scientists used to create the national responsibility list. As a common person, however, I sense that if a nation is not even able to provide its people with safe food or protect their basic rights, there’s no point in talking about national responsibility.”

That's the kind of healthy, biting sarcasm that most other developed countries subject their governments (which are all prone to stupid public relations exercises) on a regular basis. The fact that it's not only evident, but thriving in China, is a good sign indeed, "goofy scientists" notwithstanding.

October 9, 2008

The Wall Street Crisis Will Help ... Wall Street?

Michael Pettis knows more about financial crises than most people living; his book on the subject, The Volatility Machine, should have been required reading for anyone on Wall Street who thought that the rules of history had been suspended - he traced the mechanics of every previous major financial crisis, back in 2001, and was spot on in the basic dynamics that are again manifest today, and will certainly reappear in another crisis in a generation or two.

Now based in China and a close observer of China's emerging financial system, Pettis has a counterintuitive take on one of the likely results of the crisis that sounds right to me. Rather than heralding the end of New York and London, he holds that this crisis like others will actually reinforce these two cities' dominance in world financial markets:

The debate about the “paradigm shift” seems mainly to be between those who say that the current crisis marks the relative decline of Wall Street as the center of world finance and those who argue that it will maintain its relative position.

But I think the effect of the crisis will actually increase the relative position of New York and London as world financial centers. Why? I say this largely because previous global financial crises were just as brutal as the current one, or even more so (1825, 1837, 1873, and 1929 were all more brutal), and yet during the subsequent years the then-global-financial-centers became more, not less, central.

Why this happened is not hard to figure out, I think. During the liquidity booms, the great advantage of the primary financial centers – the fact that they are much more liquid than other markets – is usually sharply eroded by the huge increases in liquidity, trading volumes, and financial transactions across the world, and with them, the decline in the value of liquidity. In fact it was always during the long boom periods that secondary financial centers were able to grow in importance – just as Sao Paolo, Frankfurt, Delhi, Shanghai, Singapore, Dubai and even Hong Kong have all grown dramatically in the past 10 years.

After the booms, however, the sudden reduction in underlying liquidity and the greater value investors and issuers placed on liquid markets typically causes most of the secondary financial centers to die out as trading and issuance migrate to the deeper markets of the primary financial centers. This is simply a form of the old traders saw – “liquidity draws liquidity.” If liquidity truly dries up around the world and trading and issuance volumes collapse, the value for investors and users of capital of accessing New York or London will be greater, not smaller.

Cold comfort for those weathering the storms on Wall Street and in the City now, yes. But a useful reminder that the fundamental strengths that made these two cities the financial capitals of the world haven't evaporated overnight, and that they will remain central to the global financial system as it puts itself back together, whenever that happens.

Who's Winning the War on Terror?

Rasmussen Reports polled Americans who said, we are:

A majority of voters (52%) continue to believe the United States and its allies are winning the war on terror....While the percentage of those who think the United States and its allies are winning is down from the 55% level of the previous two weeks, the number who think the terrorists are winning is also lower.

World Public Opinion conducted a global poll for the BBC, and they discovered a more mixed picture:

Asked who is winning "the conflict between al Qaeda and the United States", the predominant view of those polled is that neither the US nor al Qaeda is winning, with 15 countries holding this view. In three countries - Kenya, Nigeria and Turkey - the dominant view is that the US is winning. In no country does more than one in five - 21 per cent in Pakistan - believe that al Qaeda is winning. Views are divided in other countries....

...Even in the United States only 34 per cent believe al Qaeda has been weakened. Fifty-nine per cent believe the 'war on terror' has either had no effect (26%) or has made al Qaeda stronger (33%). Meanwhile, 56 per cent believe neither side is winning the conflict; 31 per cent believe that the United States is winning; 8 per cent believe al Qaeda is winning."

Interestingly, the report also adds that "On average 61 per cent of those in countries surveyed say their feelings about al Qaeda are negative, 8 per cent say they are positive and 18 per cent say they are mixed."

To me, the more salient statistic isn't whether countries think we're winning or losing the war, but how they feel about al-Qaeda. If they're not big fans, I'd chalk that up as good news.

Majority Out of Reach for Harper

The Canadian election recently entered its last phase, as likely voters' intentions measured by polls now slowly but surely become reliable votes for Oct. 14.

A lot of movement in public opinion since last week's debates: The French debate seems to have solidified the Bloc's base in Quebec, making them the most likely winner in the province on Oct. 14. After a hard campaign start on the defensive, Mr. Duceppe's troops can now think of actually winning more seats than in the 2006 election. They are targeting key swing ridings in Quebec City and Lac-St-Jean, where the Tories made gains in 2006.

democraticSPACE's seat projection for Quebec (75 total) :
Bloc at 49 seats (38.8%)
Liberals at 14 seats (22.9%)
Tories at 10 seats (19.2%)
NDP at 1 seat (12.2%)
1 independent

A similar movement in public opinion has followed the English debate too. Mr. Dion's Liberal Party has made big gains in recent polls. In fact, the trend now suggests that the Tories and the Liberals are locked up in dead heat in Ontario. As I have stated before, Ontario will most definitely be the battleground province that will decide the color of our next federal government. Up to very recently, everybody conceded that the choice facing voters was between a majority and a minority for Mr. Harper. But now, talks of a Dion government are being taken with much more seriousness.

democraticSPACE's seat projection for Ontario (108 total) :
Tories at 44 seats (33.4%)
Liberals at 44 seats (32.2%)
NDP at 18 seats (20.9%)
2 ridings are real toss-ups

All added up, the numbers make for a seat projection for the whole of Canada (308 total):
Tories at 130 seats (33.8%)
Liberals at 92 seats (26.2%)
Bloc at 49 seats (9.6%)
NDP at 35 seats (19.4%)
2 independents

So we're still looking at a Conservative minority government, but Mr. Dion's shot at becoming PM have increased steadily over last week. Will he be able to turn the tide completely in his favor in just 5 days? Only time will tell.

What is sure though, is that the surge in support for Mr. Dion's party hurts both the Tories and the NDP in Ontario. In Quebec, higher support for the Liberals could mean that a few ridings that switched to the Bloc in the last election could come back in the Liberals' column. However, it also means that in some ridings the federalist vote will be split up between the Tories and the Liberals, therefore enabling Bloc candidates to squeeze by.

Only 5 days left, and the race is still open ...

Can We Cut Defense Spending?

Apropos of John McCain's pledge to expand the Army and the strains that would place on the budget, Matthew Yglesias says "the first rule of Washington budgeting is that money spent on the Department of Defense doesn’t actually count as money."

That's undoubtedly true. But isn't Barack Obama promising to expand the Army? And during both debates, McCain suggested he would review the Pentagon budget for cuts. Obama, perhaps understandably, made no such mention.

I'm pretty confident we're going to see some rather significant cuts to military spending in the next 10 years, no matter who's in office (barring, of course, some dramatic event). I'm hard pressed to see how we cope with the boomer retirement while simultaneously retaining our Cold War-era defense commitments. Something has to give.

October 8, 2008

A Bright Spot Amidst the Gloom

Well, the news isn't all bad this morning: the US has topped the World Economic Forum's competitiveness rankings for the second year in a row.

Of course, relative position doesn't count for much if everyone is in the same barrel going over Niagra Falls. But if the world economy avoids going completely over the cliff, the US is well placed to bounce back at least.

Victory in Iraq

A staple of Senator McCain's campaign rhetoric is that he wants to achieve "victory" in Iraq.

Yesterday we learn that a forthcoming National Intelligence Estimate might pour some cold water on that prospect:

A nearly completed high-level U.S. intelligence analysis warns that unresolved ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iraq could unleash a new wave of violence, potentially reversing the major security and political gains achieved over the last year.

You have to wonder just how successful the troop surge really was if all 16 major U.S. intelligence agencies believe the situation is still so precarious. It also underscores how counter-productive it is to use terms like "victory" and "defeat" in Iraq. The situation - as General Petraeus himself acknowledged - does not lend itself to those kinds of stark descriptions.

Will Reforms Lose Momentum in China?

Not necessarily, according to Wu Xiaolin, an official government economic advisor writing in Caijing, China's widely respected business magazine:

Thirty years of economic reform set a course for the enormous achievements now apparent in China's financial sector. By and large, a macro-regulation mechanism and a financing system are solidly in place, providing a proper environment for market development.

Nevertheless, China's financial services sector lags far behind the relatively sound system in the United States. Although the United States is currently plagued by an unprecedented financial crisis, it still plays a leading role around the world, with the U.S. dollar holding a dominant position.

China's economy has been integrated into the world economy; we cannot and should not close our door again. However, decision makers that set policy for the financial sector have been excessively cautious. The lack of a trailblazing spirit has created a bottleneck that restricts the further development of China's financial services industry and negatively influences efficient resource allocation.

It takes a brave soul to call for continued deregulation in the current climate, but Wu is exactly right. If the US was out at one end of the regulatory spectrum, with far too little oversight, then China is at the other. Many financial instruments are entirely lacking, and the government already owns most of the banking sector. The country had been making huge strides in putting in place a modern financial system, but recent remarks by some policymakers had called that path into questions.

Wu's arguments are a hopeful sign that the world - or at least China - won't swing too far in learning the lessons of this crisis and forget the benefits a financial system that is market based can bring, as long as it's not permitted to swing entirely out of control.

October 7, 2008

Presidential Debate Live Blog

10:35 p.m. -- Well, that's done. The remarkable thing about the debate on foreign policy was how little either candidate's positions have changed to reflect the emerging reality of the global financial crisis. This, despite the fact that both candidates said, explicitly, that our military might was underwritten by our economic health.

On the crucial issue of whether the U.S. should intervene around the world to prevent genocide, both candidates only stressed the downside of inaction. The costs of action, either in blood, treasure, or unintended consequences, barely merited a mention.

As with any debate, it's interesting to note what issues didn't come up. Nothing on globalization or trade. And no China. Can we really go through three debates without bringing up America's relationship with China? Surely a country of a billion people, with nuclear weapons, billions of dollars of American debt, sitting across a disputed territory that America is obligated to go to war to protect, merits some mention. -- Greg Scoblete

10:28 p.m. -- I really don’t believe that either candidate is very serious about Iran. Talk of a second Holocaust really seems to be a bit hyperbolic to me, and there is a much larger—and more immediate—list of bad Iranian behavior that we must address.

Sanctions can only work when you have leverage. Alternative energy is years away. We need to talk to the Iranians on a very incremental level, start with Iraq security, and see if we can move forward from there in some form of regional cooperation. We can give the Iranians security, and through Iraq and Afghanistan we should leverage that to affect their nuclear program, as well as their exportation of radicalism in Lebanon and Palestine. -- Kevin Sullivan

10:25 p.m. -- McCain has not actually said (yet) whether he'd send American troops into the Middle East on behalf of Israel. -- Greg Scoblete

10:24 p.m. -- There's very little daylight between the two on Russia. -- Greg Scoblete

10:15 p.m. -- McCain knows how to catch bin Laden? That sounds like something he should have told President Bush about that in 2001. -- Greg Scoblete

10:11 p.m. -- McCain seems be tacking a bit over the ideological map. On the one hand, he claims America didn't have the capability to do good in Lebanon, but that he's willing to pay any price to democratize Iraq. -- Greg Scoblete

10:07 p.m. -- McCain's position on Iraq, to me, really reflects the handicap his entire campaign is working with. Attacking Obama for his Iraq policy is sort of like arguing over the appropriate medication for an illness. It's hard to argue these days that Iraq deserved priority in the war on terror over states like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and even Iran.

Obama's "central front" argument is much stronger. -- Kevin Sullivan

10:02 p.m. -- Obama is hitting McCain on Iraq and the costs of war. This strikes me as effective, particularly in light of the economic turmoil. But he also seems to be suggesting that we end the Iraq war ... to start one in Darfur. -- Greg Scoblete

9:59 p.m. -- McCain just said "much" of the criticism about U.S. national security policy is valid. I'd like to hear which criticisms he thinks is valid. -- Greg Scoblete

9:43 p.m. -- Is it "clean up our climate" or "drill baby drill"? -- Greg Scoblete

9:35 p.m. -- Ditto on energy. If I hear "foreign oil" one more time I might lose it. It's called fungibility. -- Kevin Sullivan

9:29 p.m. -- McCain on defense spending is a Nixon-to-China moment. If Obama had said this, he'd be flayed alive as being a feckless liberal. Credit to McCain for taking a look at the DoD budget. -- Greg Scoblete

9:24 p.m. -- Just remember when any politician mentions "energy independence" - they are full of it. -- Greg Scoblete

9:20 p.m. -- Obama says we are 10 trillion dollars in debt. Just let that sink in. How powerful can a super-power be if it's leveraged to the gills to its potential competitors? -- Greg Scoblete

9:15 p.m. -- 15 minutes in, it's all Freddie and Fannie. There's probably a good chance there won't be much of a discussion on global politics - if at all. Let's face it, the townhall format does not portend for vigorous discussions on foreign policy. Ordinary Americans have a hard enough time finding Canada on a map. -- Samuel Chi

8:53 p.m. -- I'm in agreement with Greg on this. I fear we're going to get some Bill Ayers tonight, with a dose of Keating 5 for good measure. For our purposes, I don't know if we're going to get into substantive policy on issues such as Iran, Russia or Pakistan.

I hope we don't go round and round again on the "talk, don't talk" merry-go-round regarding Iran. It would be nice to hear the candidates address some substantive policy on the issue. -- Kevin Sullivan

8:38 p.m. -- Just a few thoughts before we get underway.

Before the last presidential debate, I asked a number of analysts which foreign policy issues they thought were flying under the radar in the campaign but that nonetheless deserved attention. Befitting the theme - those issues continued to fly under the radar in the first debate. Perhaps they'll finally surface tonight.

Second, will the candidates discuss China? I was surprised that we could have an entire debate devoted to foreign policy and not bring up the world's major rising power. Maybe tonight. -- Greg Scoblete

Revisiting The Grand Bargain

The New America Foundation is hosting an interesting event today on U.S.-Iranian relations. The topic will be on reforming American policy and fostering a "Grand Bargain" approach in dealing with the Islamic republic. In short, the idea goes as follows: Both nations sit down, throw everything on the table, sort out concessions and, ideally, reach a pact on each other’s respective grievances.

I'm very skeptical of such an approach, mostly because it has been tried (and failed) in the past. The leadership cabal in Tehran and Qom has never really figured out what such an arrangement might look like--their position is often unyielding and unforgiving of past grievances. Same goes for the American diplomatic community, which has its own lingering animosities towards Iran.

Nonetheless, it should be an interesting discussion. If you're in or around the Washington, DC area you should go check it out. The event begins at Noon EST, but for those of you who can't make it, we've embedded the live event stream below:

Update: They've moved on to the Q&A session. Nothing terribly novel here. I appreciate the sentiment from both of the esteemed speakers, but there seemed to be a little bit of historical revisionism going on here. Every American president--including George W. Bush--has made their fair share of overtures to post-revolutionary Iran. George Bush, Sr. did so openly in his inaugural address to the nation. Presidents Reagan and Clinton both viewed a comprehensive resolution with Iran as the preferable diplomatic track. In most cases, it was not the United States that failed to live up to their end of the negotiations.

Mr. and Mrs. Leverett agree that a "fundamental reorientation" is necessary to achieve peace with the Iranians, with Nixon and China as the working model for how this could be done. There are a lot of problems with this model, but first and foremost it disregards the ideological furor that's infused in the Iranian political and societal makeup. For the ruling class in Tehran and Qom to strike a "grand bargain" would be the equivalent of signing away their own claim to power. Even when the two nations worked together to map the invasion of Afghanistan, President Khatami needed--at least publicly--to denounce the operation as another example of American imperialism.

Shorter me: Iran's Islamic ideologues--who happen to comprise the bulk of the regime's ruling class--need our hawks to rationalize their very existence.

The very core of the Velayat-e faqih principle is that Islamic government is the only way to preserve a pure state on earth; free from the West's subversive and deviant influences. Those who would claim the mantle of Jurist in Iran need confrontation with the West in order to justify their terrorist support abroad. Hence, you get a prisoner's dilemma of sorts: Offer the Iranian leadership security, and you ask them to undercut their own power. While the idea may be nice, why would they agree to such a thing?

The speakers rejected incremental rapprochement with Iran, but neglected to address the feasibility of an all-encompassing deal. Repeatedly, on an issue by issue basis, Iran has rejected very reasonable and multilateral proposals from the world community to address their nuclear proliferation (which stands in defiance of multiple UN resolutions). The Luers-Pickering-Walsh initiative, for example, would've provided the Iranians with domestic refining capabilities through a nuclear consortium. This proposal was rejected, and similar proposals have repeatedly been rejected. If Iran can't meet the world community on nuclear proliferation--an issue that has garnered them world scrutiny and condemnation--where can they? What evidence is there that a "grand bargain" could be reached?

Furthermore, nuclear proliferation is an incredibly popular issue in Iran. With a presidential race rapidly approaching there, it seems highly unlikely to me that such a deal could be reached and actually produce substantive concessions from the Iranians. Nevermind the victor of next month's U.S. election. Both Ahmadinejad and all of his likely opponents--such as Majlis Speaker Larijani--support the program wholeheartedly. Their problems with Ahmadinejad are based more on style than substance.

Sadly, this lecture seemed to have more to do with failed American policy than it did the failures on the part of the Iranians. A "grand bargain" would require mutual concessions, and we've seen no evidence that the Iranians are prepared to meet us half way on that. The Islamic republic does have legitimate grievances with the United States, but the latter has approached relations between the two states with a much higher level of seriousness and maturity. Until that changes, I think incremental talks--highly focused on mutual security interests in Iraq, for example--are the only option we have with Iran.

The Rise of Global Populism

The FT's Gideon Rachman has some interesting conjectures about the long-term effects of the financial crisis:

The market for ideas – like the market for shares – always overshoots. Ideas become fashionable and get pushed to their logical conclusion and beyond, as their backers succumb to “irrational exuberance”. Then comes the crash.

What we are experiencing now is the bust that has followed the 30-year bull run in conservative ideas that began with the Thatcher-Reagan revolution of 1979-80.

Rachman's main point is that, deregulation, economic liberalism, and a faith in home ownership have fallen rapidly out of favor now because they'd been pushed to their extremes. They'll probably bounce back someday soon, once some other collection of more interventionist ideas runs its course. He notes similar trends in thinking over military intervention and democracy promotion, both ideas that gained force over a period of more than two decades but then rapidly hit a wall and now seem discredited.

Rachman expects support for more regulation to be the overriding consensus, and that will almost certainly be partly true. But there are many possible flavors of interventionism, and one to look out for is much older than the regulatory state: good old-fashioned populism.

The concept is vague, but generally recognizable in an anger at some broad "elite" and big business, a nationalist or protectionist economic approach, a preference for the rural or small town over the big city, and a concern with immigration. Populism manifests itself in different ways in different countries, and has incarnations on both the right and the left. More an instinct than a coherent ideology, populism often relies on an emotional appeal to masses that feel disenfranchised and cheated by forces that they don't understand.

Populist rhetoric is obvious in the turn that both US presidential campaigns have taken. Conservative populism is evident in French President Sarkozy's rhetoric, in a recent win by ultra-nationalist parties in Austria, and in the approach of new Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso. Left-wing populism has animated recent massive protests in South Korea and Latin American governments from Argentina to Venezuela and Bolivia. In China, populist impulses can be seen both in the nationalist rhetoric that filled the Chinese Internet in the months leading up to the Olympics.

It remains to be seen if these disparate political impulses coalesce around a common set of beliefs that drives global policies, as did deregulation and faith in the markets. But if they do, there is a real danger that these ideas will overshoot in a much more dangerous way - such impulses led to the shutdown of world trade in the 1930s through increasingly competitive trade barriers, and lay behind the rise of virulently nationalist ideologies in German, Italy, and Japan.

What Was That About US Leadership?

My how fast things can change. Two weeks ago, all of Europe saw the financial crisis as a distinctly American problem, and pointedly declined to join in any rescue efforts. Officials from France, Germany, and Russia all jumped on the post-American bandwagon, insisting that US woes were proof of a failure of US leadership.

After the last 36 hours, during which markets have melted down around the world, others might not be so quick to point fingers. The US may not have kept its economic house in order, but now it hardly seems unique. And more importantly, the US looks, yet again, to be the only country with institutions strong enough and well-funded enough to have a chance of putting a stop to the chaos.

European governments have so far been unable to unite on a common plan of action. European governments are warily eyeing each other, each scrambling to rescue domestic banks. Many of the banks may be too big for their governments to do much good. Despite pledges to cooperate over the weekend, there is no European Treasury to orchestrate an intervention, no group of legislatures in Europe or Asia that could tee up $700 billion in funds to mount a bailout. Japan, meanwhile, has barely emerged from its own decade-long financial problems, and lacks the fiscal and monetary room to do much. China likely has the juice to protect its own economy from the maelstrom, but with its relatively closed financial markets can do little to help stabilize the international system.

So, it looks as if it's up to New York and Washington to come up with some way to staunch the bloodletting. That's not a good thing - reflexive triumphalism or reverse schadenfreude at the rest of the world falling into crisis too would be the exact wrong reaction. Rather, these points are worth keeping in mind when the search for causes points to unique problems in the US banking and regulatory approach, or when the search for solutions focuses on these problems.

Moreover, it's something to keep in mind when the next round of books about US relative decline come out. That decline can be a good thing if it's a result of other countries' relative growth - because they'd then be more able to contribute to solving global crises. Things were bad enough when the US economy hinged on a handful of stressed officials in just two cities; with global markets now tanking too, these officials have fewer options and more problems to address. That's good for no one.

October 3, 2008

Next Stop: Darfur

During last night's debate, Gwen Ifill asked a very astute question about interventionism.

IFILL: Senator, you have quite a record, this is the next question here, of being an interventionist. You argued for intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, initially in Iraq and Pakistan and now in Darfur, putting U.S. troops on the ground. Boots on the ground. Is this something the American public has the stomach for?

BIDEN: I think the American public has the stomach for success...

I don't have the stomach for genocide when it comes to Darfur. We can now impose a no-fly zone. It's within our capacity. We can lead NATO if we're willing to take a hard stand. We can, I've been in those camps in Chad. I've seen the suffering, thousands and tens of thousands have died and are dying. We should rally the world to act and demonstrate it by our own movement to provide the helicopters to get the 21,000 forces of the African Union in there now to stop this genocide.

IFILL: Thank you, senator. Governor.

PALIN:... As for Darfur, we can agree on that also, the support of the no-fly zone, making sure that all options are on the table there also.

IFILL: Is there a line that should be drawn about when we decide to go in?

BIDEN: Absolutely. There is a line that should be drawn.

IFILL: What is it?

BIDEN: The line that should be drawn is whether we A, first of all have the capacity to do anything about it number one. And number two, certain new lines that have to be drawn internationally. When a country engages in genocide, when a country engaging in harboring terrorists and will do nothing about it, at that point that country in my view and Barack's view forfeits their right to say you have no right to intervene at all.

Neither Biden nor Palin seems to think there's any political payoff for prudence with respect to Darfur.

The Army You Need

Max Bergmann reads Defense Secretary Robert Gates and proclaims the end of the "Bush military."

There is a lot to praise in Gates' speech, but there's a lot to quibble with in Bergmann's gloss of it. Specifically, placing the blame for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with Donald Rumsfeld and the doctrine of military transformation.

It's true that the Rumsfeld/Franks war plan led to much unnecessary carnage, but it remains the case that American political objectives inside Iraq and Afghanistan are fundamentally misaligned with our resources.

Re-read Gates' speech and ask yourself if any of his recommendations can ultimately change the underlying dynamic we face in countries like Afghanistan or Iraq. That dynamic is simple: we are a foreign power attempting to implement political change.

Past empires handled this through a mixture of ruthless force and the cultivation of local (undemocratic) elites. We are doing this as well, but with much less brute force and with far more solicitation of the locals. That does indeed make us morally superior to past empires. It does not make us more effective.

The one time in recent history where the U.S. was unambiguously successful at this kind of gambit was in the after-math of World War II, where we occupied and transformed Germany and Japan into democratic allies. Considering what it took to produce quiescent populations in Japan and Germany, is it any wonder that every subsequent war the U.S. has fought has ended so ambiguously?

We have rightly recoiled from total war, while simultaneously insisting that we enjoy the societal malleability that waging such a campaign affords. Our inability to bring our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a politically satisfying end has, I think, much less to do with the composition, training, weapons systems and doctrine of our military than the objectives we have set before it.

This leads, I think, to two basic lessons. First, don't start so many wars. Not for nothing did the Founders invest Congress with the authority to declare war. Maybe they were onto something! Second, if you are forced to fight, keep the objectives simple.

As a stateless enemy, al-Qaeda does provide a unique and genuinely thorny challenge to the formula above. But I don't see how providing population security for Afghanistan, and dumping billions of dollars of development aid into that country, advances the fight. If we manage to suddenly turn Afghanistan into a functional state, al-Qaeda can simply move on--to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, or cyber-space. I find it hard to see how a democratic, stable Afghanistan even begins to addresses the very urgent threat of jihadism in Europe.

October 2, 2008

French Debate: Harper Plays Defense

Wednesday evening, the first of two debates featuring all four of the main parties on the federal level (plus Elizabeth May from the Green Party) took place. As usual, one of the two debates is in French and the other in English. For those less familiar with Canadian politics, the French debate is essentially geared toward Quebec, where 85% of the population speaks French as a first language. I'll first start with a general impression and then will evaluate all five leaders individually.

For our American readers, I would compare yesterday's debate with the debates that you saw in the primaries in both American parties: Cloudy and lacking clear direction. In my opinion, there's just no way that voters can get to know the candidates and their policies better in a forum where there can be almost no dialogue between front runners.

Quite frankly, I really don't understand what Elizabeth May was doing there. There has never been an elected Green MP in the House as her party polls below 10%. And on top of all that, her French is terrible, terrible. So terrible in fact, that a vast majority of Francophones with whom I watched the debate could not understand what she was saying. All she did was slow down the debate when it, at times, became interesting.

Now let's take a look at how the leaders performed, from best to worst:

- Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Québécois: In my opinion, Mr. Duceppe came out on top. And it seems that this opinion is shared by most Quebecers, as a CROP poll released this morning shows that 54% of Quebecers rate Mr. Duceppe's performance as "excellent" or "very good," compared with Mr. Harper's 18%. He put Mr. Harper on the defensive on cultural funding, the environment and on personal-attack tactics used by the Tories. He clearly was the most experienced of all debaters (this was his 12th federal debate!).

Two negatives for Mr. Duceppe though: first, his attack on youth judiciary reform fell flat as Mr. Harper defended himself well. Second, he did not directly speak in favor of Quebec's independence, which he should have done to energize his base for the last two weeks of the campaign. 8.5/10

- Stéphane Dion, leader of the Liberal Party: With the Liberal polling at its worst for many years in Quebec, expectations were low for Mr. Dion. He actually exceeded them by far; I would say he was the most impressive of all five leaders expectations-wise. Of course, as is the case for Mr. Duceppe, the fact that the debate took place in French gave him an edge on Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton. He put Mr. Harper on the defensive on gun control, the environment and the economy. He probably did not convince Bloc or Tory voters in Quebec, but he made sure that core Liberal constituencies in Quebec would go out to vote on October 14. 8/10

- Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative party and incumbent Prime Minister : Mr. Harper clearly was the man to beat yesterday (and most likely will be tonight in the English debate) as the four other leaders pounded him relentlessly on cultural funding, the environment and the economy. He managed to remain calm and fended off most of these attacks with some success. He was at his best when defending himself from Mr. Duceppe's attack on youth judiciary reform, but he clearly was off track when responding to the Bloc leader's attack on the dirty politics played by the Tories in Quebec. The fire-breathing reformist that he was in the '90s clearly stayed home yesterday, as Mr. Harper projected the image of a moderate, center-right leader, although his adversaries did not hesitate to remind voters that Mr. Harper would have gone to Iraq with the Americans had he been PM in 2003. 7/10

- Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party: Mr. Layton continued playing the Mr. Nice Guy card yesterday evening. A recent poll showed that he is considered to be the most "sexy" of all leaders, and yesterday's debate confirmed it. He wanted to present himself as the alternative to Mr. Harper, a point he did make in the first half of the debate. On the second half though, he was directly attacked by Mr. Dion many times over, who portrayed him as an irresponsible socialist. I don't believe Mr. Layton fended off these attacks well. Verdict: by going it all-out against Mr. Harper, he opened himself to attacks from Mr. Dion and it hurt him. 5/10

- Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party: Hats off for just succeeding in showing up. But her performance was bad - she did not show any clear understanding of issues other than the environment, especially regarding health care and Quebec-Canada relations. Most of her attacks fell flat as nobody wanted to debate with her. Also, she loses most of her points because French-speaking voters, the ones who were listening yesterday, did not understand most of what she was saying. Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton are not completely fluent in French, but at least they are understandable. Ms. May was not. 2/10

Tune in for tonight's English debate at 9 p.m., if the Palin-Biden faceoff happens to be boring.

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