« December 2010 | Blog Home Page | February 2011 »

January 31, 2011

Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood


Earlier this month I wrote about the Muslim Brotherhood and the challenges they present within Egypt. I asked a few questions of Shadi Hamid, director of research at The Brookings Institution's Doha Center, and he had this to say at the time:

"In recent years, the Egyptian regime has adopted a new, troubling character, moving from autocracy with a liberal veneer to full-blown autocracy. The most recent elections suggest the regime no longer has much interest in pretending," Hamid told me. "In the 2005 elections, the Brotherhood won 20 percent of the seats in what seemed a victory for Egyptian Islamism. Since then, the Brotherhood has experienced the worst period of anti-Islamist repression since the 1960s. This coincides with the rise of a new faction of neo-liberal, Western-educated technocrats in the ruling party, who, somewhat ironically, seem to have less tolerance for opposition than the regime's 'old guard.'"

Hamid maintains that the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups are in a state of increasing crisis in response to this repression.

"The Brotherhood has struggled to respond to the regime repression and failed to articulate a clear vision for change," Hamid told me. "The 2010 elections - quite possibly the most rigged in Egyptian history -- further showed a movement hedging its bets, unsure of where to go and how to get there. Their half-hearted participation -- they only ran about 130 candidates out of a possible 518 -- came after difficult internal debates over whether and how to participate in elections that they knew would be worse than anything in recent memory."

My own opinion after speaking to many experts is that the Brotherhood is an area of some concern, yes, but it's difficult to judge their real power or impact - and even with that being the case, the concerns are not so great as to be worth shoring up corrupt autocracies on their last legs.

A few weeks later, the answers to these questions of course carry far more weigh. Even as some now claim that the Brotherhood is nothing to worry about, there remains significant concerns about how much of a role they would play in any new Egyptian government. Hamid has now called the Obama administration's initial response to the Egyptian revolt "disappointing, but not surprising." That's certainly my reaction to today's uncomfortable Q&A at the White House, courtesy of ABC News' Jake Tapper, in the wake of Mohammed ElBaradei's defense of the Brotherhood:

TAPPER: ElBaradei told ABC News this weekend that the Muslim Brotherhood is no more extremist -- is not an extremist organization and is no different from Orthodox Jews in Israel or evangelical Christians in the United States. Does the Obama administration agree with that?

GIBBS: Well, let me -- without getting into a discussion about them, I think there are certain standards that we believe everybody should adhere to as being part of this process; one that is, to participate in this ongoing democratic process, one has to take part in it but not use it as a way of simply becoming -- simply becoming or taking over that process simply to put themselves in power. We believe that any group should strongly weigh in on the side of nonviolence and adherence to the law.

Meanwhile, a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood has apparently called for a war on Israel. I would expect a followup or two, Mr. Gibbs.

(AP Photo)

Austerity and the Malaysian Model

Lost in the mix of attention this month to Tunisia and Egypt, another part of the Muslim world which has a slightly more peaceful way of doing things was focusing on the proper method of achieving economic growth. The Malaysian opposition released a 100-day reform plan which is meant to push back against the ruling party's New Economic Model and Prime Minister Najib Razak's Economic Transformation Plan. It's little surprise that Najib has dismissed the plan along with other political analysts as an unrealistic aim, but I found one branch of criticism from the prime minister to be particularly interesting:

"If we want to buy a new car or a new house, we must first ask ourselves whether we are capable. Where would we get the money from? But what I find surprising and strange is, when they tabled all those measures which are populist in nature, not a single word was mentioned about the financial sources. So, how could they deliver all those they promised to the people?” Najib said addressing his staff during the Prime Minister’s Department’s monthly assembly here this morning...

Describing the opposition’s plan as being "too good to be true", he said it was dangerous to be too populist to the extent of putting the country’s future at stake.

"We cannot so irresponsible until our children and grandchildren suffer. In fact, we do not have to wait that long. According to our calculations, in two years time the country will become like Greece if the promises (in the 100-day programme) were implemented without considering the country’s actual capacity," he said.

The explicit comparison of the reform's plan to a dangerous upsurge of the kind of populism which led to Greece's economic disaster are certainly fighting words, and Najib foe Anwar Ibrahim responded by demanding a debate on the proposal. That smacks of more posturing - but of course, all politicians posture.

What's more interesting here is the contrasting approach, where over-promising is now viewed as more politically dangerous across much of the globe than hewing to austerity and sounding the alarm for tough choices and belt tightening.

I've written previously about the dangers of the middle-income trap in regards to Malaysia's economic policy, and you'll recall that one of the challenges facing emerging economies is that the elements that have to be present to move from a middle-income to a high-income economy are far more challenging than those of moving from a low to a middle-income economy. It's oftentimes more appealing for nations to stay where they are - to avoid the necessary costs of innovation and economic growth and, like the lazy undergrad who prefers the couch to the commute, stagnate in the mother's basement of the global economy.

It now seems that the lesson of Greece politically is that encouraging this kind of laziness and promising the policy equivalent of free candy could be a political mistake elsewhere than just the United States. As a colleague on Capitol Hill is fond of saying, in America, you used to promise earmarks to get elected - now you block them to get re-elected.

China's State Broadcasters Use Top Gun Footage

We pause from Egypt-blogging to bring you this important news:

China's state broadcaster used footage that appears to have been taken from a Hollywood film in one of its news reports - but not for the first time.

A China Central Television story about the country's air force showed an explosion that was identical to a scene from the 1986 film Top Gun.

The broadcaster often uses film clips in its news reports.

A person familiar with the company said it was currently trying to set up a system to contain this situation.

Look for the explosion at 1:11.

[Hat tip: The Gulf Blog]

Will Egypt Split the U.S. & Israel?


Walter Russell Mead argues that the current tumult in Egypt may bring the U.S. and Israel closer together:

If a radical regime emerges in Egypt that repudiates the peace treaty, supports violence by Hamas or in other ways threatens Israel’s security, the United States is unlikely to leave Israel twisting in the wind.

At the same time, a vocal American minority — ranging from the “truther” far left through parts of the respectable foreign policy establishment and extending out into the Buchananite far right — asserts that strong U.S. support for Israel endangers our vital interests throughout the Middle East....

The Egyptian upheaval could be an important turning point in world history. The consolidation of a reasonably moderate and democratic government in the cultural capital of the Arab world could put the region, and the world, on the road to a more durable peace. A radical victory could drive a wedge not only between Israel and the Arab world, but deepen the divide between the West and the whole Islamic world.

The problem with this analysis is that something other than a "radical" regime could nonetheless embrace policies that Israel would characterize as harming its security. Egypt plays a critical role in enforcing the blockade in Gaza. It's not unreasonable to think that a new, 'moderate' government would want to loosen that cordon or take a more vocal stance against some Israeli policies on the international stage (much like Turkey). That's a long way away from waging open war on Israel, but moves to strengthen Hamas in Gaza would rightfully be viewed fearfully by Israel.

That would complicate things for the United States, as it would put its interests in Israeli security in direct conflict with its desire for Egyptian (and Middle East) democracy. Mead seems to argue that if these two interests were to collide, America's support for Israel would trump democratic reforms in the Middle East - and he's right. But the problem is that the U.S. may not be able to stop those reforms, or revolutions, even if it wanted to. Then what?

(AP Photo)

Democracy in the Mideast: Iraq Edition

Some recent polling (pdf) from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research took the pulse of Iraqi attitudes regarding their government. The survey found that a majority of Iraqis (61 percent) believe that making Iraq more democratic will improve their quality of life but many Iraqis continue to view politics through a "sectarian lens."

The political picture appears most grim in Western Iraq and among the country's Sunnis - 70 percent of whom said job opportunities are getting worse. Few Sunnis think Iraq is a true democracy and a majority (52 percent) said they wouldn't vote in a future election. Kurds, not surprisingly, are more optimistic both about Iraq as a whole and Kurdistan in particular. You can view the full results here. (pdf)

Defining American Interests

John Quiggan hits on an important point:

More generally, the whole approach of US foreign policy towards the “Middle East” rests on assumptions that will be hard to sustain when the existing dictatorships are gone. Most fundamentally, how can the idea that the US has “strategic interests” in the region be justified? In some sense, this idea rests on the assumption that the existing governments are less than legitimate, and can be dealt with in terms of traditional Great Power politics, with spheres of influence, secret deals and so on. Even weak democratic states display much more effective resistance to external interference in their domestic affairs than do typical autocratic regimes.

I think the U.S. can justify the fact that it has "interests" in the region without simultaneously justifying everything it does to defend those interests. It's the latter, not the former, that is being thrown into sharp relief with the protests across the region.

Consider that no matter who rules the various states of the Middle East, Americans will still drive cars (as will the Chinese and Europeans, etc.). American - and global - industry will still require oil to function. Also, crucially, Middle Eastern governments will still need to sell oil to earn income. There's a convergence of interests there that we should be able to leverage to everyone's mutual benefit no matter who's running the show in the Middle East.

January 30, 2011

Elliott Abrams on Egypt and Class Revolution

I had the opportunity to interview Elliott Abrams this morning on the situation in Egypt. His take on this subject is fascinating to me for a number of reasons, particularly because of his outspoken defense of George W. Bush's approach to Middle East policy. On Egypt, he raised several points of note in the interview, including this one about the nature of class and revolution:

If you look at Egypt over the past ten years, there's been a tremendous amount of foreign investment, and the Egyptian stock market has been fabulous -- you would've been a lot better investing in it than in the New York Stock Exchange or the London Stock Exchange. But there's no trickle down -- the rich get richer. If you look at the Forbes list of billionaires, you'll see a number of Egyptians on it now. The rich in Egypt are very rich indeed -- their own planes, their own yachts, so there's a lot of money floating around -- but it's floating around at the top levels. The Egyptian office worker, the Egyptian farmer is still exceptionally poor. And what this has done is create a sense, in Tunisia and in much of Egypt, a sense that everything is being stolen, that there's nothing here for the common man, it's just all for the rich.

And that is exacerbated by a second thing: there's a ruling system here, there's a ruling party -- the National Democratic Party and the security forces -- and if you're plugged into those, you have ways of beating the system. If you're not plugged in -- if you don't have people who can look out for you inside the system, officials of the party -- then you're not going to see any money, you just work and work and work and get nothing for it.

You were born in a social and economic class. You die there. Your children will die there, too. There's no social mobility.

The podcast is here. I hope you'll listen to the whole thing.

Egypt and the Clash of Time Horizons


Watching events unfold in Egypt, it seems the Obama administration is in much the same pickle that has bedeviled America's Middle East and counterterrorism policy since 9/11 - moves to improve American security in the short-run can potentially harm the U.S. position over the longer run.

In the long run, almost everyone agrees that America would be better served dealing with a government in Egypt with real democratic legitimacy. But to get there, the U.S. may well have to deal with an Egypt that turns against U.S. priorities and interests (and that's assuming the country can more or less peacefully transition to another government and not collapse into chaos). See Leslie Gelb's warning on the issue:

The other "devil," now being proclaimed as misunderstood Islamic democrats, is the Muslim Brotherhood, and they should give us great pause. Baloney and wishful thinking aside, the MB would be calamitous for U.S. security. What's more, their current defenders don't really argue that point, as much as they seem to dismiss it as not important or something we can live with. The MB supports Hamas and other terrorist groups, makes friendly noises to Iranian dictators and torturers, would be uncertain landlords of the critical Suez Canal, and opposes the Egyptian-Israeli agreement of 1979, widely regarded as the foundation of peace in the Mideast. Above all, the MB would endanger counterterrorism efforts in the region and worldwide. That is a very big deal.

The counter-argument is that standing behind Mubarak if he uses violence to crush the protesters isn't going to help America either, because it will create even more disaffection with the U.S. in the Mideast and ensure that when Mubarak does fall (or die), the leaders that take over will have even greater animosity toward the U.S. than they do now.

(AP Photo)

January 28, 2011

All Neo-Cons Now?

The American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka tweets:

Fascinated by sudden interest in democracy from certain quarters that believed US role in democracy promotion stupid.

It gets more fascinating still, when you consider that the U.S. didn't play any role at all in the protests now roiling the region. Perhaps that's why they have succeeded (provisionally) in Tunisia and may (I stress may) change things in Egypt?

The second point of interest is who's not all that interested in the protests in Egypt: neoconservatives. Clicking over to the Weekly Standard and Commentary - not much going on there about the protests (as of this writing). What gives?

Scenes from Suez

Al Jazeera, which the Times reported today is helping to fan the protest flames, is live-blogging the the protest.

Egypt Minus the Internet

This is what it looks like when a country leaves the Internet:

Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet's global routing table. Approximately 3,500 individual BGP routes were withdrawn, leaving no valid paths by which the rest of the world could continue to exchange Internet traffic with Egypt's service providers. Virtually all of Egypt's Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide.

[Hat tip: MSNBC]

Biden Makes Up America's Mind?

Regarding my post from yesterday, based upon Joe Biden's conversation with Jim Lehrer, I would guess the administration has decided that it is better to support Mubarak than hope for a positive change in Egypt:

My takeaway: The U.S. is going to at least pretend that Mubarak is a democratically elected leader; that it would oppose his violent overthrow; and while it does think people have a right to protest, they should just hope the protests induce the government to change. Given Biden's history of speaking out of turn, or misspeaking, this may not be the actual position of the U.S. government. If it is, however, this would be a good example of the common accusation that the U.S. (as well as other Western governments) talks the liberal talk, but won't walk the liberal walk when it conflicts with its power-based interests.

January 27, 2011

Is It All About U.S.?


Blake Hounshell believes that American vanity leads Americans to believe that U.S. policies regarding the Middle East have a great deal to do with the current movements in Egypt:

It's not about us. Indeed, what's been refreshing about the events in Tunisia and Egypt has been that very little of it has anything to do with the United States. For the most part, the demonstrators aren't chanting anti-American slogans; they're calling on their own corrupt, sclerotic rulers to stand aside. And that's a very healthy phenomenon.

This seems to be quite true of the populace at large, but I doubt it will be true of the success or failure of the overall movement. The key to success of the uprising in Tunisia was the defection of the police and army from Ben Ali. Whether or not the Army supports Mubarak or not could definitely hinge on what signals the United States sends. It is for this reason that the U.S. is playing it particularly cagey when in the Middle East.

In a very uncomfortable interview on Al Jazeera English, P.J. Crowley tried very hard to show tepid support for Mubarak, while at the same time looking supportive of democracy. I for one never thought I would see the day when Al Jazeera seemed like more of a champion of democracy than the U.S. State Department. Perhaps more telling is the report from STRATFOR that the Egyptian Chief of Staff is currently in Washington D.C. discussing the Army's position vis-a-vis Mubarak.

(AP Photo)

Aid to Egypt


When the Obama administration was dealing with Iran, there were accusations the administration was "supporting the Mullahs" against their own people. That was nonsense. But in the case of Egypt it's a material fact that the U.S. is supporting the regime. It's also the case that American support for autocratic regimes in the Middle East is a motivator of Islamic radicalism (it's no coincidence that many of the early al-Qaeda leadership were members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad). In light of the beatings and killings presently occurring in Egypt, it's worth asking whether it might be time (or past time) to revisit whether this aid is actually necessary.

Every year, American taxpayers pony up $1.3 billion for Egypt, on top of nearly $30 billion in other assistance offered since the 1970s. The ostensible rationale for this aid is to keep Egypt at peace with Israel and to keep them on good terms with the U.S. so maritime traffic can transit the Suez without hassle.

The first of these rationales has long stopped making sense. Egypt has kept peace with Israel not out of an abundance of good will but because they understand the folly of trying to defeat them. American aid or no, it's quite difficult to imagine the Egyptian military getting it into their heads that a war with Israel would be a good thing to start in the 21st century. The second rationale is somewhat more persuasive - although Egypt is treaty-bound to keep the Suez Canal open to any ship in both peace time and war, there's no guarantee that a different regime might not seek to change the ground rules.

So the basic question confronting the U.S. is as straightforward as it is vexing: should the U.S. continue to transfer its wealth to the Mubarak regime in light of its treatment of Egyptian protesters?

I don't believe the U.S. should be in the business of micro-managing other country's politics, but it should certainly be in the business of deciding who gets its money. In this case, giving any more of it to Mubarak & Sons seems like a pretty lousy investment.

(AP Photo)

Linkage in the Mideast


Elliott Abrams offers some thoughts on what we can learn from recent events in the Middle East:

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not central: Arab affairs reflect the internal crises of Arab countries and regimes and are not built around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What has been happening in Tunisia and Egypt is about Tunisia and Egypt. Same for the crisis in Lebanon, recent rioting in Jordan, and other key issues throughout the Arab world (stasis in Algeria, succession in Saudi Arabia, and so on). What unites these events is their relationship to the democracy deficit and to internal social and economic problems, not to Israel.

I'd second that. What's brought people out into the streets are local grievances. Abrams' conclusion also undermines the assertion that the Iraq war is somehow responsible for these protests.

(AP Photo)

January 26, 2011

Social Media in the Egypt Protests

Luke Allnut examines its impact.

Egypt's Denialism


CFR's Steven Cook is in Egypt and offers his thoughts:

It’s not clear at all whether they believe them or not, but the Egyptian elite have been telling themselves lies and half truths for years. Today may have been the day when those lies and half truths caught up with them. Clearly, the many thousands of people in Tahrir Square today/tonight don’t take the regime’s claims about reform seriously. The press has focused on economic grievances—perhaps taking their cues from government spokesmen—but the only demands I heard tonight were political. The young men and (some) women in Tahrir want freedom and liberation from Hosni Mubarak, his family, and the National Democratic Party. As an aside, no matter how this thing turns out, it seems far less likely that Gamal Mubarak will succeed his father.

So far, this is an event of mostly 30 and under with the exception of a number of notables including Dr. Alaa al Aswany, the author of The Yacoubian Building. The police cracked down heavily tonight, but there is a sense this is not over. Cairo was not the only place that experienced big demonstrations. Something is deeply wrong in Egypt. If the protests continue and ordinary Egyptians decide to join the students and other young people in the streets today, something very big is going to happen—perhaps even the end of the Free Officers regime.

The Great Game - Arctic Edition


What's Canada's top foreign policy priority? The Globe and Mail reports on a new poll:

A majority of Canadians see Arctic sovereignty as the country’s top foreign-policy priority and believe military resources should be shifted to the North from global conflicts, according to a new opinion poll.

The survey also found that Canadians are generally far less receptive to negotiation and compromises on Arctic disputes than Americans.

What's somewhat amusing is how the poll results have been interpreted:

“That traditional notion of what is a Canadian is kind of challenged by this. We sound more like what people would say Americans would sound like dealing with international issues. That’s quite an eye-opener,” said Neil Desai, director of programs and communications at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Oh the existential angst of sounding American! The survey (available here, pdf) also polled residents of other Arctic nations on their views. Among Arctic nations, almost everyone indicated that the country they felt most comfortable dealing with on Arctic issues was Scandanavia. The one exception: U.S. residents said they felt most comfortable dealing with Canada. The U.S. was also the only Arctic country surveyed where a majority of respondents thought that the Arctic should not be a nuclear weapons-free zone.

(AP Photo)

Who Will Leave the Eurozone?

Bloomberg took the pulse of global investors about the future of the Eurozone:

Most global investors predict at least one nation will leave the euro-area within five years and that Greece and Ireland will default, sentiment that is intensifying pressure on policy makers to strengthen their response to the debt crisis.

As the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting gets underway, 59 percent of respondents in a Bloomberg Global Poll said one or more of the 17 euro nations will quit by 2016, including 11 percent who see an exit within 12 months. Respondents were divided over whether Portugal would default, while a majority expressed confidence in Spain.

Standing By Egypt?

This raises a thorny question for the U.S.: If tens of thousands take to the streets - and stay on the streets - what will it do? The U.S. is the primary benefactor of the Egyptian regime, which, in turn, has reliably supported American regional priorities. After Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S. assistance, including $1.3 billion in annual military aid. In other words, if the army ever decides to shoot into a crowd of unarmed protestors, it will be shooting with hardware provided by the United States. As Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the Egyptian military is "not there to project power, but to protect the regime."

The U.S. can opt for relative silence, as it did in Tunisia. In Egypt, however, deep support of the Mubarak regime means that silence will be interpreted as complicity. On the other hand, if the U.S. offers moral support to embattled protestors, it will be actively undermining a government it considers critical to its security interests....

But the problem the U.S. faces currently is the same it faced during the short-lived "Arab spring" of 2005: For now, it is difficult, if not impossible to have both a democratic Middle East and a pro-American one. Because anti-Americanism is so widespread (in part because the U.S. supports reviled autocrats), and because Islamist groups represent the largest oppositions, any freely elected government will want to distance itself from U.S policies. - Shadi Hamid

President Obama is very much in a "damned if you, damned if you don't" position with respect to Egypt. If he follows the advice of the Washington Post and begins publicly calling for "change" in Egypt, and the country falls into the hands of Islamists with less-than-pro-American leanings, he's going to be accused of "losing Egypt." If he stands aside and lets Mubarak bring the hammer down, he'll be charged with standing on the side of tyrants.

World Economic Forum Live Stream

If you, like me, were not invited to this year's World Economic Forum, take heart: it's being live streamed below.

January 25, 2011

Inside China's Student Spy Network

According to a report from the C.I.A., college students in China frequently spy on peers and professors:

Established in 1989 after the Tienanmen Square protests, “the principal objective of the Student Informant System [SIS] is to ensure campus stability and to control the debate and discussion of politically sensitive issues,” the CIA report said. “Students have had their scholarships revoked and their academic records penalized because of information provided by student informants that is sometimes highly subjective, such as facial expressions.”

This is not without controversy, as the report notes that some Chinese students are posting the names of student informants online.

The True Declinists

Despite episodic outbreaks of anti-Americanism, the U.S. continues to be seen by most countries as relatively benign in its interactions with other powers. And despite the current economic downturn, the consensus view that free markets, open societies, and democratic institutions provide the surest path to peace and prosperity has remained extremely durable. This “transnational liberalism” inclines national elites to see a broad confluence of interests with the United States and reduces their tendency to try and counterbalance American power. As the guarantor of the international world economy and a provider of security and stability through its alliance system, the United States provides global public goods that others cannot. (This explains why Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that in his travels he has not found many anti-American governments.) Accepting the new conventional wisdom of the end of U.S. primacy could make this order dysfunctional. [emphasis mine]

But assertions of American decline can cut two ways. If seen as a fait accompli, they can predispose decisionmakers to pursue policies that actually accelerate decline; if seen as a challenge, they can spark leaders to pursue courses of action that renew American economic vitality. Declinism is what historian Marvin Meyers described years ago as a “persuasion”—a “matched set of attitudes, beliefs, projected actions: a half-formulated moral perspective involving emotional commitment.”....

If declinism has grown more aggressive, it has also touched off an equal and opposite reaction. Anti-declinism, too, can be broken down into different tendencies. Economic revivalists, for instance, believe that the U.S. economic travail is overstated and that declinists undervalue the historically demonstrated resilience of America’s economy. Soft power advocates see the attractiveness of the American political and economic model and its cultural influence as mitigating decline. Structural positionists tend to stress the advantages of America’s geopolitical location, its alliance relationships, and the resulting demands by others that the United States provide leadership in solving international problems. Benign hegemonists combine several of these elements by stressing the attractiveness of American ideology, the willingness of others to follow its lead, and the global leadership role of the United States as a moral imperative. - Eric Edelman

I think this is a somewhat odd way to look at the question. You can't discount psychological or ideological elements to this discussion of course, but it's fundamentally about policy outcomes. We had, for instance, in the previous administration what you would certainly call an "anti-declinist" world view - people who would vigorously dispute the idea that America was declining, or that it shouldn't be the preeminent power. And it was under their watch that the fundamentals of American power declined rather sharply. So, yes, we can identify and bemoan "psychological" declinism among various pundits or academics, but it's more important to identify politicians and policy-makers whose ideas, when put into practice, led to a material decline in America's power.

It's also not the case that non-interventionists uniformly want to see America "decline" in any meaningful sense of the word (do they want America's economy to implode or the country to be invaded or dominated by another power?). I suspect that non-interventionists (maybe a better term is "less-interventionists") believe the way the U.S. can sustain economic and military primacy is to exercise U.S. power more prudently and to be careful about writing checks the body politic can't cash.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is Edelmen's contention that changes in U.S. foreign policy would actually put the structure of the international order at risk. Obviously, that's a significant charge since that world order, for all its flaws, is still one that basically serves America's interests very well. But would this actually happen? It is, again, worth asking what would destroy that order if, say, the United States had decided not to invade and occupy Iraq or had continued consolidating and paring back forces from Western Europe. Is this the stuff of upending the international system?

Housing Optimism


Ipsos MORI has released findings on the global housing market, asking residents of 24 countries whether they think it would be a good time to buy real estate in the next thirty days:

More than two thirds (68 per cent) of people in the UK think that this is a bad time to buy real estate according to the latest findings by Ipsos MORI. Conversely, Indians are the most positive about their property market, with 64 per cent saying that this is a good time to purchase property.

Interestingly, as you can see from the chart above, the Chinese were even more bearish on real estate than the Brits.

U.S. Media Coverage of China


Pew Research analyzes U.S. media coverage of China:

In general, larger economic issues involving trade and economic policy with China tend to be overshadowed by different issues -- including tainted imports and disasters. And in any given week, ongoing economic issues are even less visible in the news.

January 24, 2011

China & Sovereignty


Nina Hachigian says that American neoconservatives are undermining U.S. policy toward China by viewing international institutions skeptically:

So while China invokes a 19th-century ideal of sovereignty to justify decisions that harm U.S. interests, some neoconservatives are championing the same antiquated notions — legitimizing China’s rejection of international standards and rules.

Yet the United States has benefited enormously from adopting a more modern view of sovereignty. Agreeing to a common set of trade rules means, for example, that Americans profit from exporting farm machinery and eat bananas year round.

The likelihood of a nuclear accident or terrorist incident has gone down — thanks to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires the United States and the other 190-odd signatories to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency at their nuclear facilities. Funding the International Monetary Fund pays dividends in a more stable financial system; and complying with World Health Organization requests has meant less vulnerability to deadly viruses.

It is unclear whether conservatives think these are not important benefits or that the U.S. can somehow enjoy them without, in turn, meeting its international obligations. Either way, it is a dangerous message for a rising China.

I don't agree with everything in the piece (specifically I don't think the view Hachigian decries is really 'neoconservative'), but it is worth noting that seeing as the U.S. had a major, if not decisive, role to play in shaping and creating the norms and institutions of the post World War II international order, it's definitively more favorable to the United States to have China move in that direction than to have the U.S. embrace China's view of how the world should work.

That said, China's "19th century worldview" hasn't lead the country to embark in multiple, costly military interventions around the globe, or burn its finite resources trying to "police" the globe - so maybe there's more to recommend it than Hachigian lets on.

China, America & the Middle East

Yiyi Chen, a professor at the Shanghai Jiaotong University and an adviser on Middle East affairs to the Beijing government, told The Media Line that Beijing in no hurry to significantly increase its role in the region. Right now, its focus is on studying the region and its problems carefully before deepening its involvement.

“The Western way isn’t the only way. The U.S. way has its value, but apparently it hasn’t solved the crises and conflicts of the region,” Chen said. “China has experienced the problem of foreign cultures and foreign value systems trying to impose their views on others ...We don’t have a view that we want to impose on the countries of the region.”

China’s growing economic and political clout hasn’t yet made itself felt in the Middle East, even as it has become the largest importer of the region’s oil, buying just over a tenth of the Gulf’s output and a quarter of Iran’s. But Beijing is starting to exercise unprecedented influence on critical issues, most notably by objecting efforts by the West to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. - David Rosenberg

From an American perspective, there's two ways to look at this. First, one can be enraged (or bemused) at how China is free-riding on America's provision of Persian Gulf security. While the American taxpayer and U.S. military bear the costs of keeping the region (relatively) stable, China bears none of those costs but enjoys all the benefits. The second way to view this is that the U.S. has China by the proverbial short hairs should relations deteriorate between the two great powers. With so much U.S. military power in the Gulf, it would be easy to disrupt energy shipments to China, but hard for China to inflict such a blow on the U.S.

What's interesting is Chinese thinking on the matter - insofar as Chen is a representative example. For the moment at least it looks like China is happy playing an "off-shore" role, which means the first interpretation mentioned above (free-rider) is perhaps a more accurate description of what's going on. Of course, China could very well want to play a more overt role in the region and simply lack the capacity or opportunity.

The Palestinian Papers & Mideast Democracy

Perhaps more damning, in Arab eyes, is the language used by some Palestinian leaders. Longtime peace negotiator Saeb Erekat is quoted in one document, a writeup of a Jan. 15, 2010, meeting with U.S. envoy David Hale, saying he had offered Israel "the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarized state... what more can I give?"

Erekat and other Palestinian leaders have made no effort to prepare their public for these kinds of concessions. In 2009, for instance, Erekat appeared on Al Jazeera and said, "There will be no peace whatsoever unless East Jerusalem -- with every single stone in it -- becomes the capital of Palestine."

No wonder Palestinian leaders are scrambling to contain the damage, ripping Al Jazeera and even the emir of Qatar, which sponsors the satellite channel. Erekat told reporters that the documents have been "taken out of context and contain lies ... Al-Jazeera's information is full of distortions and fraud." For its part, the network says it has "taken great care over an extended period of time to assure ourselves of their authenticity," as has the Guardian. The State Department says it's looking into them. - Blake Hounshell

I'm not sure this revelation is going to be all that damaging - politicians say different things to please different constituencies! I'm shocked, shocked.

Beyond that, this does raise the question - made urgent by the Tunisian revolution - about the role of democracy in the Middle East. A more democratically accountable West Bank leadership might find itself with less wiggle room between what they tell their publics and what they're prepared to concede at the negotiating table.

January 22, 2011

Global Posture for Global Threats

I hope to have a bit more to say on Robert Kagan's long piece in the Weekly Standard where he makes the case (again) for American global hegemony, but I wanted to highlight this short bit where he sketches out the historical grounds for America's expansive global posture:

Under Franklin Roosevelt, and then under the leadership of Harry Truman and Dean Acheson, American leaders determined that the safest course was to build “situations of strength” (Acheson’s phrase) in strategic locations around the world, to build a “preponderance of power,” and to create an international system with American power at its center. They left substantial numbers of troops in East Asia and in Europe and built a globe-girdling system of naval and air bases to enable the rapid projection of force to strategically important parts of the world. They did not do this on a lark or out of a yearning for global dominion. They simply rejected the offshore balancing strategy, and they did so because they believed it had led to great, destructive wars in the past and would likely do so again.

That's true, but this leaves out a fairly glaring fact: the Soviet Union. America's post World War II global strategy developed not simply with the war's lessons in mind, but with the specter of a globally powerful strategic competitor threatening the post-war balance. That's a fairly significant factor to simply skirt around in the retelling of American strategy following the second World War.

The U.S. faces new threats today and is justified in maintaining some military forces abroad as a forward line of defense and to protect some vital interests, but clearly the situation is a lot different, and a lot more favorable to American security, than it was in the 1950s.

January 21, 2011

U.S. Views on Obama & Allies

Rasmussen has a new survey out gaging people's perception of the Obama administration's approach to alliance management:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that a plurality of Likely Voters (41%) says Obama believes America’s allies should do what the United States wants most often. But 23% think Obama believes America should do what its allies want more often, while 27% think neither scenario applies.

By contrast, 55% of all U.S. voters say our allies should do what the United States wants more often, and just nine percent (9%) think America should do want its allies want instead. Thirty-one percent (31%) agree with neither course....

Republicans are more likely than Democrats and voters not affiliated with either major political party to believe Obama thinks the United States should do what its allies want most often. While most Republicans hold the opposite belief themselves, roughly half of Democrats agree. Unaffiliated voters are more prone to choose neither option.

One of the things that's somewhat interesting about this finding is how it relates to the just concluded summit with China's President Hu Jintao. Before and during the summit, there was a lot of talk about how important it was for President Obama to publicly excoriate and shame China about its poor human rights record. The basic idea, I guess, is that this scolding would produce better behavior from China.

But consider the Rasmussen finding above - many Americans aren't particularly interested in doing what their allies want them to do, much less a country that's a quasi-adversary. Now, put yourself in the place of the Chinese - not exactly fast-friends with the U.S. - and ask whether they're going to be moved to make reforms at the behest of hectoring from American politicians.

The Gulf War, Part One

Thomas Mahnken reflects on the lessons of the first Gulf War:

Carl von Clausewitz famously defined war as "an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will." Saddam's subsequent behavior- - his defiance of the United Nations, 1993 attempt to assassinate former President Bush, and his 1994 plan to re-invade Kuwait -- makes it clear that the Bush administration failed in this most basic of strategic tasks. In ending the war unilaterally before Saddam had been chastened, the Bush administration condemned the United States to a long-term presence in the Gulf in an effort to contain Iraq. This presence, and the sanctions imposed on Iraq due to Saddam's recalcitrance, in the end served as a rallying cry for jihadists such as Osama Bin Laden against the United States and its friends in the region.

There's a lot to this conclusion, in the sense that the first Gulf War, like the second Iraq war and the current war in Afghanistan, was a conflict where a "political" victory proved stubbornly elusive, despite a dominating military performance.

But the question we need to ask is what it is we are expecting from these military operations. Mahnken suggests we should have continued bombing Iraq until Saddam was "chastened," but what does that actually mean in practice? Saddam wasn't chastened when the second President Bush put troops on his borders and threatened in no uncertain terms to invade and depose him.

January 20, 2011

China's Sputnik Moment?


Arthur Herman sees China's test of the J-20 stealth fighter as a "Sputnik" moment:

Compare this to the moment the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in 1949. The face of modern warfare has changed--and America's military superiority hangs in the balance.

Air Power Australia, a highly respected defense-analysis outfit, has pronounced the J-20 "a techno-strategic coup." The US Navy's F/A 18, the mainstay of our naval-air fleet, is "outclassed in every respect." So is the plane the Pentagon is counting on to form the next generation of supersonic fighter, the F-35, and so are our integrated air-defense systems. Right now, only our Stealth B-2 bombers and F-22 Raptors stand between us and aviation obsolescence, but President Obama has axed the Raptor program.

There is a long and well-document tendency in U.S. foreign policy circles to vastly over-state the capabilities of American adversaries. From the non-existent "missile gap" decried by President Kennedy to Saddam Hussein's supposed nuclear weapons and WMD. China's military modernization might produce a force capable of imposing greater harm on the United States should the two countries come to blows in the Pacific, but that's a far cry from the force the Soviet Union fielded. (And the J-20, like much of China's military, is completely unproven and untested in combat.)

The analogy to Sputnik is overwrought for more than just technological reasons. Does Herman really believe that China aims to ignite global revolutions to impose Beijing-lead communist governments around the world?

(AP Photo)

Norwegian Boy "Saved By Creed"


Not in the metaphysical sense:

While walking home from the busstop this week, a 13-year-old Norwegian school boy stubled upon four wolves. In the end, it may have been his love of heavy-metal music by the band Creed that saved his life.

Read the whole thing.

(Photo via kindofadraag)

Arabs & Democracy

The left blogosphere seems to have wigged out over the suggestion that George W. Bush and the successful emergence of a secular, democratic Iraq has anything to do with all this [Tunisia]. For starters, it is amusing to see that those voices, fresh from the smear on conservatives regarding the Arizona shooting, are now all about "causation." But more seriously, had democracy failed in Iraq, had the country descended into chaos, and had Iraqis laboring for a secular, democratic Muslim country been killed and exiled, do we imagine this would have been good for the prospects of democracy elsewhere? Recall that it was the left that said that democracy was alien to the Middle East. Bush was right; they were wrong. - Jennifer Rubin

As Larison observed, Iraq did descend into chaos and many secular and middle class Iraqis were driven out of the country, in droves. But the other point here is that the argument, as I understand it, was never about some innate Arab capacity for self-rule but about the institutional structures that would enable it to grow successfully, and whether it was possible to justify the U.S. invasion and occupation of the country on the grounds that doing so would help implant those institutions - and to America's lasting benefit.

Stating the obvious - that the Arab world didn't have a lot of the institutions necessary to make democracy work - isn't the same thing as saying that Arab states are incapable of creating them over time, that they are "undeserving" of them or that they are somehow incapable of functioning in a democratic society.

Irish Exodus

According to Inside Ireland, 50,000 people will emigrate from Ireland this year. That's about 1,000 people a week. Where are the Irish going? Canada:

Irish emigrants just can't get enough of Canada. And it seems the feeling is mutual.

Under new rules, Canada has increased its working holiday visa allocation to Ireland by 1,000 and will now also allow Irish people to apply for a second visa.

The unexpected changes will benefit those applying for the one-year visa programme for 18-35 year olds.

Last year, when the Irish quota of 4,000 was filled, Ireland was allocated extra visas that were not taken up by other countries.

World Energy Use


BP has released their annual Review of World Energy. The above chart highlights oil trade movements around the world. You can read the whole report here. Also check out a very cool interactive tool to find various statistics about world energy use.

January 19, 2011

Joint Press Conference Double Speak


Because of the disjointed setup with respective language translators, President Obama's joint press conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao was often interrupted for translations of remarks and questions into both English and Chinese. But it also allowed an opportunity for bilingual speakers to pick up nuances from the original remarks.

Hu, true to form, came well prepared, particularly with numbers and statistics, as befitting a former engineer. He handled all queries comfortably, even though as the head of a one-party dictatorship, he's never obliged to face a blistering free press at home.

On one occasion, Hu did flash noticeable annoyance, even a slight temper, when asked why congressional leaders are snubbing him at the state dinner tonight. He tersely concluded his remarks with "that's a question for him," and pointed to President Obama. It was a moment reminiscent of John McCain's contempt during a debate in the 2008 presidential election when he pointed to Obama and barked "that one."

Hu did not say "President Obama" as the English translator did, and he was not at all amused, even offended by such a snub. And at least partially he blamed Obama because he must have believed that Obama should have held sway to prevent an incident that would be viewed as a colossal "loss of face" for him at home.

Obama, on the other hand, kept his composure and handled the questions deftly, with skillful dancing on the inevitable and contentious issue of China's human rights record. His one light-hearted moment, though, was also lost in translation.

When asked of a potential challenge from Amb. Jon Huntsman for the presidency in 2012, Obama quipped that the fact that he and Huntsman (a former Republican governor of Utah) work so well together has to help Huntsman in the GOP primary. But the Chinese translator did not get the joke and spoke as if Obama meant it sincerely.

The technological problems have to be seen as somewhat of an embarrassment for the White House. With the leaders of the two most powerful countries meeting in a summit, the U.S. appeared ill-prepared for something as simple as a press conference. The quality of the translators (both for English and Mandarin) is also questionable, as both spoke with a slight accent.

Maybe it's time to boost the ranks of fluent Chinese speakers in the U.S. diplomatic corps. These summits with China's leaders will only increase in frequency for the foreseeable future.

(AP Photo)

Haiti: More Troubles Ahead for 'Baby Doc'

Following his return to Haiti over the weekend, former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier has been charged by the courts:

"His fate is now in the hands of the investigating judge. We have brought charges against him," said Port-au-Prince's chief prosecutor, Aristidas Auguste.

He said his office had filed charges against Duvalier, 59, of corruption, theft, misappropriation of funds and other alleged crimes committed during his period in power.

The charges must now be investigated by the judge who will decide whether a criminal case should go ahead.

If the judge dismisses the charges, things are going to get really interesting.

The Wall Street Journal points out that, additionally:

Mr. Duvalier is also battling a Swiss effort to confiscate about $5 million that he holds in Swiss bank accounts, and return the funds to Haiti, according to Haitian and Swiss lawyers involved in the case.

A law allowing Swiss authorities to seize funds deemed of illicit origin and return them to foreign nations is set to come into force on Feb. 1. From that date, Swiss authorities will have the power to initiate a case against Mr. Duvalier, a spokesman for Swiss Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

Pending possible legal actions against Mr. Duvalier, Swiss authorities have frozen the funds. Mr. Duvalier has challenged that decision through Switzerland's Federal Administrative Court.

He entered Haiti with an expired Haitian passport - but why did he return in the first place?

The Balance of U.S.-China Power


The BBC has a series of slides detailing the balance of economic and military power between the U.S. and China. Check it out.

EU Residents Upbeat About the Future

Some findings from a recent Gallup poll point to a generally optimistic outlook in the EU:

Residents in most EU countries surveyed in 2010 expect their lives will be closer to ideal five years from now. On a 0-to-10 scale, with 10 being the best possible life, people in nearly all EU countries -- except Greece, Romania, Luxembourg, and Slovenia -- give their future lives higher average ratings than their present ones. Greeks and Romanians alone predict their lives will be worse in five years; Luxembourgers and Slovenians don't expect their lives to be any different.

As Gallup observes, optimism increases the younger you get:

Young people across most of Europe are more likely than older people to rate their future better than their present. Fifteen- to 29-year-olds are the most likely to expect to be better off in the future while those aged 65 and older are the least likely to predict improvement. In every country, the percentage of respondents who rate their own future better than their present decreases gradually with age.

Euro End Game

Mark Blyth details the end game for the Euro:

The end game for the Germans, and the rest of Europe, in terms of resolving the current Eurozone crisis is pretty straightforward. There are four ways to deal with a financial crisis: devalue, default, inflate, or deflate. For any country in the Eurozone who transferred private debt from the banking sector to their public balance sheets, and thus blew a hole in their debts and deficits, neither inflation nor devaluation were options. That leaves default, which pushes the costs onto bondholders, or deflation, through domestic wages and prices via the public balance sheet, which places the costs onto taxpayers. For a host of reasons, as guardians of the Eurozone, as an inflation-averse savings-culture, we would expect the Germans to prefer austerity to expediency, and force deflation, but there are real and obvious limits to any such strategy, which is what I have found puzzling since the crisis began just over a year ago.

Read the whole thing.

Controlling Events

In Lebanon’s worst crisis in years, whose resolution may determine whether Hezbollah controls a government allied with the United States, American diplomacy has become the butt of jokes here. Once a decisive player here, Saudi Arabia has all but given up. In their stead is Turkey, which has sought to mediate a crisis that, given events on Tuesday in Beirut’s streets, threatens to turn violent before it is resolved.

The confrontation here is the latest sign of a shifting map of the Middle East, where longtime stalwarts like Saudi Arabia and Egypt have further receded in influence, and emerging powers like Turkey, Iran and even the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar have decisively emerged in just a matter of a few years. It is yet another episode in which the United States has watched — seemingly helplessly — as events in places like Tunisia, Lebanon and even Iraq unfold unexpectedly and beyond its ability to control.

The jockeying might be a glimpse of a post-American Middle East, where the United States’ allies and foes, brought together in the interests of stability, plot foreign policies that intersect in initiatives the United States must grudgingly accept. - Anthony Shadid, New York Times

I think the framing of this is problematic - when could America ever "control events" in the Middle East, or elsewhere?

Shadid goes onto to chronicle how Turkey and other regional players are taking a more active role in trying to mediate the Lebanon crisis, but that's not a bad thing. Turkey and Lebanon's neighbors have a much larger stake in the outcome of the crisis than the United States, so it's natural that they should be out in front trying to resolve it.

January 18, 2011

Seymour Hersh Fail

Apparently the New Yorker's investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has gone a bit 'round the bend:

He then alleged that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC before briefly becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, "are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta."

Hersh may have been referring to the Sovereign Order of Malta, a Roman Catholic organization commited to "defence of the Faith and assistance to the poor and the suffering," according to its website.

"Many of them are members of Opus Dei," Hersh continued. "They do see what they're doing -- and this is not an atypical attitude among some military -- it's a crusade, literally. They seem themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They're protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function."

"They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins," he continued. "They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war. … Right now, there’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of anti-Muslim feeling in the military community.”"

While I think some of the "clash of civilizations" sentiment clearly exists, the Malta stuff just sounds loopy.

Hearts and Minds

Max Boot lauds America's counter-insurgency effort:

That is the way good counterinsurgency works. It is a slow, agonizing, costly process, but if skillful soldiers or Marines stick to their mission, they will gradually drive the insurgents away, as the Marines are doing in Sangin.

Boot is right to praise the bravery and skill of U.S. and coalition forces operating in Afghanistan, but the counter-insurgency effort there is not always about winning 'hearts and minds' and we shouldn't lose sight of the strategic goals we're trying to accomplish here.

To that end it's worth examining a pair of photos, courtesy of Paula Broadwell, writing on Thomas Ricks' blog, about a recent mission in Afghanistan:



According to Broadwell's account, the town was riven with Taliban booby traps and a danger to U.S. troops, so it was more or less leveled. The commander of U.S. forces responsible for the attack goes on to lament that the "reconstruction would consume the remainder of my deployed life."

It's worth reflecting on this dynamic as it relates to the broader question of American strategy in Afghanistan and how best to spend American resources to protect the country from international terrorists. Take the costs of blowing up this Afghan village, add to that the cost of rebuilding this Afghan village, throw in the intangible but no less significant damage to Afghans who used to live there and the risks to coalition forces, then ask whether this and other operations like it are the most important thing we can do to prevent a terrorist attack against U.S. soil or U.S. interests globally. Broadwell's piece did not suggest al-Qaeda members were hiding in the village - indeed the word "al-Qaeda" never appears in her post.

Berlusconi - It Gets Worse


We take a break from security-related issues to focus on the downfall of Italy's raunchiest Prime Minister:

A "significant" number of young women prostituted themselves with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, prosecutors investigating him said in a document made public on Monday.

The prosecutors also believe that Berlusconi gave some women free use of a string of apartments in a residential complex near Milan in exchange for sex, according to the document posted on the website of the lower house of parliament.

It details accusations leveled by magistrates, who are probing whether Berlusconi paid to have sex with 17-year old Karima El Mahroug, a nightclub dancer better known under the stage name "Ruby."

We have Berlusconi to thank for the term "bunga bunga" - which apparently refers to the type of parties he throws.

(AP Photo)

Containing China


The Foreign Policy Initiative calls for a rethink of U.S. policy toward China. Among their recommendations is to ramp up arms sales to China's neighbors and harangue China "in every available forum at every available opportunity" about its human rights record. Then they suggest:

Seek solutions to major international issues without China. Though the P5+1 and Six Party Talks were, conceptually, an innovative method to deal with Iran and North Korea; in practice, they have served as another mechanism by which Russia and China continue to resist efforts to compel their client states. Instead, the United States, in concert with its democratic allies, should seek other avenues to impair these regimes’ capabilities.

This is something I'd love to see fleshed out more. How, exactly, does the U.S. find a "solution" to North Korea that does not involve China? According to my map, the two countries share a border and China is North Korea's major trading partner.

(AP Photo)

January 17, 2011

Tunisia, Iraq & U.S. Democracy Promotion

Via Larison, Jennifer Rubin asks:

One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?

I think the provisional answer is nothing:

Ben Wedeman, probably the best TV reporter employed by an American channel (he works for CNN) when it comes to the Arab world, is in Tunis and had this to say about Ben Ali's stunning fall yesterday, the WikiLeaks theory, and the public fury that amounted to the first succesful Arab revolt in a long time: "No one I spoke to in Tunis today mentioned twitter, facebook or wikileaks. It's all about unemployment, corruption, oppression."

Of course, it's quite possible that individuals were inspired by Iraq, but from all the reporting I've read thus far the major catalysts for the "Jasmine Revolution" had little to do with Iraq and its example. Rubin, parodoxically, helps explains why Iraq and the Bush administration's freedom agenda had little impact:

What should the U.S. do? Schanzer said he is concerned that "this administration will let an opportunity slip through its fingers." We should, he said, be setting out our clear expectations that Tunisia should not "lapse back into authoritarianism" and must not embrace an government run by, or sympathetic to, Islamists. He said that during the Bush administration, officials on the ground and in Washington would be saying "we expect this" -- meaning democratization, free elections. Schanzer noted that we have quite a lot of leverage in Tunisia: "It is pro-West and a small country." And we don't put at risk any major asset in Tunisia by being firm in our expectations (e.g. Tunisia doesn't control the Suez Canal, as does Hosni Mubarak).

In other words, when the region heard "freedom agenda" what it meant was that the U.S. dictated terms.

Rubin does raise a significant question, however, regarding U.S. policy towards Tunisia. It could be, as her source suggests, that there exists a wellspring of knowledgeable people in the U.S. federal government who understand Tunisian society and have a keen grasp of how to ensure that the country's revolutionary tumult is channeled toward a stable, sustainable representative democracy (provided it's not too Islamist, of course). If that is the case, telling whatever government does emerge "what we expect" makes some sense, as it presumes we know what we're talking about.

If, however, we don't actually know what's best for Tunisian society going forward, outside of a general desire for it to have a representative and relatively liberal government, should we really be butting in?

Dan Murphy at CS Monitor weighs in:

One question in Ms. Rubin's column does have a clear answer however. "How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?" she asks.

Having covered Iraq and Egypt full time between 2003-2008, and having explored the question of whether the US invasion of Iraq would spur regional political change at length with academics, politicians, and average folks in and out of the region over a period of years (and talked to people in touch with current events in Tunisia the past few days) the answer to her question is clear: "Little to nothing."

The sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, the insurgency, and the US role in combating it claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, and Iraq remains unstable today. The regional view of the Iraq war was and is overwhelmingly negative, the model of Iraq something to be avoided at all costs. Before I read Rubin's piece earlier today, Simon Hawkins, an anthropology professor at Franklin and Marshall, was kind enough to chat with me about Tunisian politics and history.

Hawkins, whose dissertation was about Tunisia, has been coming and going from the country since the late 1980s. He recounted (unprompted) how the word "democracy" had been given a bad name among many of the Tunisian youth (the same sorts who led the uprising against Ben Ali) because of the Iraq experience, "That's democracy," a group of Tunisian youths said to him in 2006 of Iraq. "No thanks."

U.S. Focused on Domestic Issues

According to a new Gallup poll, Americans rank terrorism as the 7th most important priority for the federal government, behind a host of domestic issues. The war in Afghanistan comes in at number 10. Iraq, a distant 14th.


Has Tunisia Sparked a Wave?


Events are moving fast, with a sudden rash of self-immolations in Algeria, Egypt and Mauritania, plus protests in Jordan. But Stephen Walt argues that Tunisia's revolution probably won't be contagious:

There are three other reasons why the Tunisian example is unlikely to lead to similar upheavals elsewhere. First, as Timur Kuran and others have shown, the actual revolutionary potential of any society is very difficult to read in advance, and a rising revolutionary wave often depends on very particular preferences and information effects within society. Put differently, whether a genuine upheavel breaks out and gathers steam is a highly contingent process. Second, Tunisia is an obvious warning sign to other Arab dictatorships, and they are bound to be especially vigilant in the months ahead, lest some sort of similar revolutionary wave begin to emerge. Third, Tunisia's experience may not look very attractive over the next few weeks or months, especially if the collapse of the government leads to widespread anarchy, violence and economic hardship. If that is the case, then restive populations elsewhere may be less inclined to challenge unpopular leaders, reasoning that "hey, our government sucks, but it's better than no government at all."

Walt adds that he's not saying some kind of revolutionary cascade is impossible, just unlikely.

The direction other authoritarian governments take toward any incipient protest movements will be instructive. Ben Ali began to toss out concession after rapid concession before he ended up on the tarmac. Do the region's other autocrats think it was a case of too little too late and move to accommodation, or do they opt for more brutal suppression?

(AP Photo)

The World of Peacekeepers


The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute recently published a map showing the global deployment of multilateral peace-keeping operations. You can download a larger image here.

Chinese Views of the U.S.

Last week, Pew Research published findings from a survey of U.S. attitudes on China. Now a poll conducted by Horizon Research and published in China Daily reports on Chinese attitudes about the United States:

The number of Chinese people who view Beijing's ties with Washington as "very important" has doubled in the past year, while most people believe relations will remain stable or improve despite recent turbulence, a survey reveals ahead of President Hu Jintao's upcoming visit to the United State...

Nearly seven in 10 (69.9%) believe that in commercial affairs the world's two largest economies are both competitors and partners.

Most people consider that China made a greater contribution than the US in handling the financial crisis and trying to combat climate change, the survey showed.

Asked to value Beijing's ties with Washington, more than half (54.3%) of respondents said they regard Sino-US ties as "very important", more than double the 26 percent in 2009.

An overwhelming nine in 10 (90.9%) viewed the relationship as "important".

However, more than half of the respondents believed that ties had deteriorated in 2010, and nearly four in 10 (the report did not give the specific number) said current relations are "in a bad situation".

Eighty percent said the US was to blame.

As to future ties, six in 10 (no specific figure available) said the relationship will generally remain stable, while about one quarter were more positive, saying it will get better.

People under 30 are more optimistic than those in other age groups.

[Hat tip: China Real Time]

Stuxnet & Cyber War


It will be years before the full implications of the Stuxnet cyber attack on Iran's nuclear facilities are known and appreciated, but the LA Times reports that cyber security experts are already worried that others will be able to duplicate the worm's code:

Now that Stuxnet is in the public domain, experts are deeply concerned that hackers, criminals or terrorist groups could use some of the vulnerabilities it reveals to attack systems that control power grids, chemical plants and air traffic control.

"The attackers created a weapon that they used in a very specific way, but you can copy the attack technology and use it in a very generic way," said Sebastian Linko, spokesman for Finland's Vacon, whose power control units, which are used in Iran's nuclear program, are sought out by the worm. "This is the most scary part about Stuxnet."

From the long New York Times piece on Stuxnet, it seems very, very unlikely that a terrorist organization the likes of al-Qaeda could deploy Stuxnet. The reason the virus was apparently so effective was because its authors had detailed knowledge of the specifics of Iran's facilities and centrifuge technology - even creating a mock cascade to test the virus on. If al-Qaeda could build a uranium enrichment facility, they wouldn't be testing computer viruses on it.

(AP Photo)

January 16, 2011

Obama's Israel Hatred

The New York Times reports on another egregious example of the Obama administration coddling America's enemies while throwing a close ally under the bus:

By the accounts of a number of computer scientists, nuclear enrichment experts and former officials, the covert race to create Stuxnet was a joint project between the Americans and the Israelis, with some help, knowing or unknowing, from the Germans and the British.

The project’s political origins can be found in the last months of the Bush administration. In January 2009, The New York Times reported that Mr. Bush authorized a covert program to undermine the electrical and computer systems around Natanz, Iran’s major enrichment center. President Obama, first briefed on the program even before taking office, sped it up, according to officials familiar with the administration’s Iran strategy. So did the Israelis, other officials said.

January 15, 2011

Good Use of Photography

This Sydney Morning Herald article shows you how it's done.

January 14, 2011

Coverage of Tunisia


George Brock explains why the coverage of the protests in Tunisia haven't garnered as much Western press as Iran's 2009 Green Movement:

* The difference in excitement levels is largely confined to America. There is a huge Iranian diaspora in the US and that helped to spread new of what was happening in Tehran (also less than a revolution) very fast.

* Tunisia has always belonged to the French-speaking world and not the Anglo-Saxon. The French media established media have covered the story.

* It’s a big story in the Middle East. I’m writing from Dubai, where the story is on the front pages and satellite channels day after day. Even in the more circumspect newspapers of Saudi Arabia (where I’ve just been), it’s still a big item.

* Working as a foreign correspondent in Tunisia is more difficult and dangerous than often supposed. As Bassam Bounenni recalls, “in 2005, on the eve of the World Summit on Information Society in Tunis, Christophe Boltanski, a reporter with the French daily Libération, was beaten and stabbed. His colleague, Florence Beaugé, from Le Monde, was luckier because she was only stopped at the Tunis airport and expelled from the country hours before the 2009 presidential election.”

* Tunisia is smaller and geopolitically less significant than Iran.

Read the whole thing. Meanwhile, Shadi Hamid argued yesterday that the U.S. should get off the sidelines:

Morally speaking, there is a right side and a wrong side. Practically speaking, Ben Ali, however brutal, has been an "ally" for a considerable amount of time. This is why US policy in the Arab world has always struck me as fundamentally untenable in the long-run. Autocracies, to my knowledge, do not last forever. But we never took even preliminary steps of distancing ourselves from them, to prepare ourselves for the eventuality that they might fall. So now when tens of thousands of Arabs all across the region are stating, with unmistakable clarity, that they will no longer accept the authoritarian status quo, they are forcing us to take sides, testing our so-called "moral clarity." What they are really doing, I suspect, is forcing us to fall on the wrong side of history. This is not a good place to be.

As much as I agree that the U.S. should not be on the side of Middle Eastern/North African autocrats, the idea that we can simply throw those same autocrats under the bus while simultaneously holding onto the notion that America is the provider of stability and security in the Middle East is untenable. The U.S. pact with the devil in the region is born directly from a set of U.S. interests in the region - the defense of Israel and the stability and security of oil exporters. If you want to junk the autocrats, as I think would be wise over the medium term, then you have to redefine America's role with respect to those interests.

For what will happen in a more democratic Middle East is likely what we see happening in Turkey - countries that were "allied" to us when there was no democratic accountability will start to distance themselves from the United States when there is. I think in the longer term, if the U.S. gets on the "right side" of the democracy question, liberalizing states in the region would eventually lesson their hostility toward the U.S. and (possibly) Israel and appreciate the fact that we stepped back from our Faustian bargain with their autocratic rulers. But there doesn't seem to be any indication that the U.S. is willing to rethink its current set of regional interests in light of longer-term considerations.

(AP Photo)

The U.S. as the World

Here's a fun interactive map from the Economist that recasts U.S. states as other countries by dint of their GDP or population size.

January 13, 2011

The "Lessons" of Lebanon

Daniel Larison thinks Grover Norquist's efforts to convince conservatives to give up the war on Afghanistan won't succeed, and isn't impressed with Norquist's analogy to President Reagan's pullout from Lebanon:

If we are having an honest conversation, the first observation I would make is that very few people are going to see the relevance of what the Reagan administration did after blundering into the middle of an Israeli invasion of its neighbor when it comes to thinking about Afghanistan one way or the other. U.S. involvement in Lebanon should never have happened in the first place, as the U.S. had no security interests at stake. Reagan’s recognition and correction of his earlier error were good, but the lesson to learn from Lebanon was that we should never have been involved. Very few people on the right agree that the U.S. should never have become involved in Afghanistan, and it seems to me that almost everyone on the right, including almost all opponents of the war in Iraq, believed that the war in Afghanistan was at least initially justified and appropriate, and almost all of them continued to believe this up until very recently. The Lebanon example doesn’t help get the conversation going, because it isn’t a particularly relevant example for the subject we’re discussing.

I would disagree here and say that it's quite relevant (politically) and quite unhelpful to Norquist's cause. In my understanding of mainstream conservative sentiment on the issue, Reagan made a huge mistake in pulling out of Lebanon in response to Iranian attacks on U.S. marines. In the conventional wisdom that has taken hold among many conservative analysts, the Beirut bombings marked the beginning of the Islamist "war against the West" and Reagan's act of loss-cutting served only to embolden our enemies.

Here's Max Boot:

Norquist seems quite enamored of Ronald Reagan’s pullout from Lebanon after the suicide car-bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. Perhaps he is not aware that this incident was routinely cited — along with the U.S. pullout from Somalia in 1993 — by Osama bin Laden in the 1990s to justify his belief that the U.S. was a “weak horse” that could be attacked with impunity.

In this telling, the Reagan and Clinton administrations should have never left Lebanon and Somalia but instead.... well, it's not quite clear what they should have done, is it? Stay? Until?

Either way, by dragging out the Lebanon example, Norquist is probably undermining his cause among most conservatives, not helping it.

Elliott Abrams on Lebanon


If you haven't bookmarked it yet, Elliott Abrams' excellent new blog, Pressure Points, is already a must-read. His take on Lebanon and Hezbollah:

The United States has been firm, verbally, in backing Hariri and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is perhaps all we can do for now; in the long run, the greatest contribution we can make would be to reassert American influence in the region and diminish the sense that Iran and its ally Hizballah are the rising powers. We should also make it very clear that sending an ambassador to Damascus—and I, like Young, believe that was an error—was not meant to symbolize a reduction in support for Lebanon or an agreement that Syria may increase its influence there.

But at bottom this is far less a test of the United States than of the Lebanese. No one will resist Hizballah unless they do. The majority of Lebanese who oppose Hizballah, and who are mostly Maronite Catholics, Druze, and Sunni, must demonstrate that they have the will to keep their country from complete domination by the Shia terrorist group. This is asking quite a bit, to be sure, but Lebanese should have learned from the impact of their March 14, 2005 demonstrations that world support can be rallied and their opponents can pushed back. But they must take the lead.

Read the whole thing.

(AP Photo)

The Meaning of China's Stealth Jet Test


Galrahn at Information Dissemination is worried about the implications of China's test of its J-20 stealth jet:

It isn't China's military technology I am concerned about, at least not today or anytime in the near future. It is how difficult it is to build a relationship on trust with China when you are given every impression that the President of China is probably being dishonest, or disingenuous at best, to your face in a discussion where you sit across from one another. Know your history - this is what the Japanese were like in the 1930s.

Meanwhile, Bill Bishop runs down various interpretations of the test flight and of reports that Chinese President Hu Jianto did not know the test was about to go down:

1. Hu did not know. This is the terrifying scenario, as it means that in spite of his role as head of the CMC and his promotion of many top generals, the PLA is at risk of major rupture with the Party and civilian leadership. In this scenario we can expect the jockeying for 2012 succession to be especially brutal and potentially spill outside China’s borders;

2. The senior defense official simply misunderstood the Chinese reaction and/or was misunderstood by the reporters. While it is probable that many of the Chinese government officials (aka civilians) did not know, Hu as head of CMC did know (UPDATE: Victor Shih suggested that Hu likely approved the flight but left the timing up to the PLA). Perhaps there is some ambiguity around the quote “it was clear the civilian leadership was uninformed” that led to the conclusion that Hu was unaware of the flight, as people assume he is a “civilian” and not also military given his role as Chairman of the CMC;

3. The senior defense official has a bias towards believing in a civilian-military split, and/or has an agenda to push said “split”. “Evidence” that the PLA has “gone rogue” would be a boon to the Pentagon and defense contractors;

4. The Chinese put on an elaborate charade designed to lead US officials to believe in a military-civilian split. Why would they do this? Perhaps they think that if the US believes that Hu is weakened and in a power struggle with the “hardliners” then the US will go easy on him to avoid “undermining” him and upsetting a “delicate balance”. If you think this suggestion is crazy you are behind in your reading of Chinese military classics like “Art of War”, “Three Kingdoms” and others.

I lean toward #2, but am not really sure at this point.

(AP Photo)

Tea Party Views on Afghanistan

The Afghanistan Study Group has released a new survey of conservative and Tea Party sentiments of the war in Afghansitan.

When given a choice between three options, 66% believe we can either reduce the troop levels in Afghanistan, but continue to fight the war effectively (39%) or think we should leave Afghanistan all together, as soon as possible (27%). Just 24% of conservatives believe we should continue to provide the current level of troops to properly execute the war. 64% of Tea Party supporters think we should either reduce troop levels (37%) or leave Afghanistan (27%) while 28% support maintaining current troop levels. Among conservatives who don’t identify with the Tea Party movement, 70% want a reduction (43%) or elimination (27%) of troops while only 18% favoring continuation of the current level.

A majority of conservatives agree that the United States can dramatically lower the number of troops and money spent in Afghanistan without putting America at risk. 57% say they agree with that statement after hearing about the current number of troops in country and the funding needed to support them. Only a third (34%) do not agree with this statement. Among Tea Party supports 55% agree that we can reduce the number of troops without compromising security while 38% disagree. Among non Tea Party conservatives, 60% agree with this statement while 27% disagree.

Full results here. (pdf)

Haiti One Year Later

Foreign Policy collects a series of photos from Haiti under the headline: "Why Does Now Look So Much Like Then?" The images are the thing - the text is brief stuff, but here's a sample:

Twelve months ago, with most Haitians nearly paralyzed by shock and the scale of devastation, attempts to clear the rubble -- a necessary first step toward rebuilding -- stalled. Lately, attempts to clear are finally picking up steam. But Jacques Gabriel, Haiti's minister for public works, recently estimated that it would be five years until the government would have sufficient infrastructure to function properly.

This should not be particularly surprising. Part of the failure here is due to the way we've learned donations flow - and, as Fox's Kathleen Foster notes, a lack of transparency for the entire process:

A year later, Americans are still seeing images of Haitians living in tents and wondering why. Their $10 dollar text donation may have helped pay for those gray tents with the black stripes. But Ben Smilowitz from The Disaster Accountability Project (www.disasteraccountability.org) says if donors want to know, they should ask.

His watchdog group did just that, asking 200 aid organizations operating in Haiti to detail how much money they raised and how they are spending it. Only 38 of them responded to the survey. Those 38 collectively raised 1.4 billion dollars and say they’ve so far spent about 700 million of it. However, Smilowitz says many refused to state clear goals and provide a breakdown of how they are spending donor money. He says transparency among aid groups is key to evaluating success in Haiti, but realizes it could also point out some flaws.

Of course, there are also barriers fundamental to the Haitian experience, which can certainly be read as being at odds with any sort of ordered liberty. One of the best essays on this topic is by former Latin America USAID guru Paul Bonicelli published last year in The City, which you can find here.

U.S. Views on China


Pew Research has released a new survey on U.S. views of China that contains many interesting findings:

Nearly half (47%) say Asia is most important, compared with just 37% who say Europe, home to many of America's closest traditional allies....

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted January 5-9 among 1,503 adults finds that by two-to-one (60% to 27%) Americans see China's economic strength as a greater threat than its military strength. And as Obama goes into talks with the Chinese president, a 53% majority say it is very important for the U.S. to get tougher with China on trade and economic issues.

Yet while Americans may see China as a problem, relatively few describe it as an adversary, and a 58% majority say it is very important to build a stronger relationship between the U.S. and China. By comparison, promoting human rights and better environmental policies and practices are important, but lower priorities.

It's interesting to note the divergence between where the U.S. public expresses concern with China - along the economic dimension - and where most of the "strategic class" of analysts find alarm - China's military build-up.

Drug Trade in Mexico

Via the Economist, an interactive map tracing the Mexican drug trade:

January 12, 2011

Q&A With Julian Assange


Remember him? The New Statesman conducted an interview with the Wikileaks founder and has posted some excerpts:

The "technological enemy" of WikiLeaks is not the US - but China, according to Assange.

"China is the worst offender," when it comes to censorship, says the controversial whistleblower. "China has aggressive and sophisticated interception technology that places itself between every reader inside China and every information source outside China. We've been fighting a running battle to make sure we can get information through, and there are now all sorts of ways Chinese readers can get on to our site."

(AP Photo)

Playing the Middle East


Stephen Kinzer imagines U.S. foreign policy doing a 180:

One could be a "power triangle" linking the US with Turkey and Iran. These two countries make intriguing partners for two reasons. First, their societies have long experience with democracy – although for reasons having to do in part with foreign intervention, Iran has not managed to produce a government worthy of its vibrant society. Second, these two countries share many security interests with the west. Projecting Turkey's example as a counter-balance to Islamic radicalism should be a vital priority. As for Iran, it has unique ability to stabilise Iraq, can also do much to help calm Afghanistan, and is a bitter enemy of radical Sunni movements like al-Qaida and the Taliban. Contrast this alignment of interests to the dubious logic of western partnerships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, so-called allies who also support some of the west's most violent enemies.

I think the point about close ties with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is well taken. When you look at the trajectory of America's post 9-11 foreign policy, the regimes most directly implicated in that slaughter were (with the exception of the Taliban) embraced by Washington, while those with very little to do with international terrorism of the al-Qaeda variety (Iran and Iraq) were made the object of our ire.

That said, and leaving aside the rather dubious assertion that Iran could stabilize Iraq (aren't they just as likely to destabilize Iraq's Sunni minority?) I think Kinzer is making much the same mistake he's decrying. Trying to play one set of Middle Eastern regimes of another set is a mug's game.

(AP Photo)

A Growing Indian Waistline


Amidst renewed concerns about a global food crisis, a new report in the UK medical journal Lancet indicates that the higher you go up the Indian socio-economic scale, the wider the waistline:

The study, released Tuesday, cited obesity and physical inactivity as being most common in individuals further up the income ladder and in urban residents, with 7.3% of India’s population overweight and 1.2% obese. That bucks what usually happens when people move up economically: It often encourages healthier living.

One in every five people across the country has at least one chronic disease like cardiovascular, respiratory and metabolic disorders, the study notes. Many of these killers result from leading increasingly unhealthy lifestyles.

The onslaught of new and cheaper motor vehicles, easier access to processed foods, and the influx of multinational food and tobacco companies all contributed to people taking up behavior harmful to their health, the study says.

(AP Photo)

Are China's Neocons Harming China's Interests?

Jacob Heilbrunn thinks they might be:

But the temptation to use North Korea as a weapon to torment Washington may be too much for Beijing's hawkish types to resist. If they cooperated, America would have less incentive to bulk up, or maintain, its forces in the region. Instead, China is, from its own standpoint, perversely encouraging America to remain. But that's what happens when the civilian diplomats get shunted aside by the hawkish military neocons. And for now, it looks as though China's neocons have the upper hand. Like the neocons who wrecked American foreign policy, they may be poised to follow policies that are actually inimical to China's true interests, while arguing that they are pursuing its true ones.

Businesses Approve of UK Coalition


According to a new Ipsos MORI poll, business leaders in the UK overwhelming approve of the coalition government's economic plans:

A massive 89 per cent of UK business leaders agree that the Government’s policies will improve the state of the British economy according to the 2010 Captains of Industry survey from Ipsos MORI. There is also strong support for the Coalition’s cuts programme, with 75 per cent saying that the deficit needs to be cut quickly, which increases to 85 per cent of FTSE 350 respondents.

This year the captains of British industry are the most positive since 2006 about their organisation. 60 per cent think business for their own company will improve in the next year, while only seven per cent believe it will get worse.

Full report here. (pdf)

January 11, 2011

China's Stealth Jet

The Wall Street Journal assess the implications of the testing of a stealth jet during Defense Secretary Gates' visit to China:

China's first test flight of its stealth fighter Tuesday overshadowed a mission to China by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to repair frayed military relations, and prompted concern about whether President Hu Jintao and the civilian leadership are fully in control of the increasingly powerful armed forces.

U.S. officials said that President Hu appeared to be taken by surprise when Mr. Gates asked him about the test flight during a meeting, hours after pictures and accounts of it began appearing online.

David Axe says not to worry:

First, for all its apparent design strengths as a bomber or a fighter, the J-20 seems to rely on imported Russian engines — just as many other Chinese jets do. That gives Russia effective veto power over the J-20’s use in combat. All Moscow has to do is shut down the supply and support of engines to ground the J-20 and indeed most of the PLAAF.

Secondly, there are lots of ways to shoot down or otherwise disable Chinese fighters. Counting just American forces, there are: Air Force F-15s, F-16s, F-22s and (soon) F-35s; Navy and Marine F/A-18s and F-35s; Navy Aegis destroyers and cruisers; and Army surface-to-air missiles. But in a major shooting war, the Navy and Air Force wouldn’t wait for J-20s or other Chinese fighters to even take off. Cruise-missile-armed submarines and bombers would pound Chinese airfields; the Air Forces would take down Chinese satellites and thus blind PLAAF planners; American cyberattackers could disable Beijing’s command networks.

Clooney and Sudan


It's always a bit of a question whether celebrity attention to a foreign policy issue is an asset or just a self-aggrandizing distraction. In the case of George Clooney's activities in Africa in support of a celebrity-funded satellite project, which have come under some criticism this week from Foreign Policy's Joshua Keating and other cynics:

George Clooney's "anti-genocide paparazzi" seems to be dominating nearly every transmission coming out of south Sudan this week. Clooney, along with the Enough Project, Harvard researchers, and some of his wealthier Hollywood friends, have hired satellites to monitor troop movements along the north-south border, particularly the oil-rich region of Abyei. Clooney, active for years in the Save Darfur movement, has also become something of a celebrity spokesperson for the independence referendum. Naturally, the international humanitarian blogosphere's snark brigade is out in force.

Laurenist: "If you're anything like George Clooney, you lounge around on your yacht off the coast of Italy thinking up ways to save Africa."

Texas in Africa: "While John Prendergast, George Clooney, and other advocates who don't speak a word of Arabic have been raising fears about violence for months … the likelihood that a genocide or war will break out immediately seems to me to be slim to none."

Wronging Rights: "Clooney has described it as 'the best use of his celebrity.' Kinda just seems like he's trying to recruit a mercenary for Ocean's Fourteen."

I'm not one to overemphasize the impact of a celebrity or his wealthy friends, but in this case, I have a hard time seeing what Clooney's doing that's so wrong. The western-focused communications reality of today is that your cause needs an American face, a recognizable and likable one. As Mark Leon Goldberg of UN Dispatch points out, "does anyone really think that Sudan’s upcoming referendum would be covered on a National Sunday morning broadcast without George Clooney’s handsome face to greet viewers?"

For the opposing view, Elizabeth Blackney writes in Clooney's defense:

The anti-genocide paparazzi following Clooney are being subjected to nasty critiques. Some note he doesn’t speak Arabic–but neither do some of the Black Africans who are animists or Christians that are victims of their Islamic president who has demonstrated that their deaths please him... To those attacking Clooney’s policy credentials, gravitas defines John Prendergast and the Enough Project. When it comes to Africa, few have been as rational and inclusive as Prendergast. Prendergast served as Director for African Affairs on the National Security Council during the Clinton era, has been in-country more times than anyone could count, with his personal story beginning in 1984. Clooney is wise to befriend a man with that portfolio of experience.

Perhaps what concerns some is the Satellite Sentinel project itself. If the project brings in high resolution images, infrared, or multi-spectre images, this is very different than other attempts in the past. If we have near-real time images, from Satellites and with corroborating evidence on the ground of human rights violations, governments will not be able to pretend the mass slaughter of Africans at the hand of an indicted genocidaire is not a possibility, or in process. They have combined innovation, passion and justice into a whole new animal. This isn’t your regular technology writ large. This isn’t just geeks and hippies from Silicon Valley. This is the privatization of Statecraft.

There's something interesting about this idea, and I'm curious about its potential lessons for others in the future who take these matters more seriously than just putting on dull-as-dishwater benefit concerts. The proper combination of public relations savvy and technology leveraging programs isn't an established recipe yet, and many groups - not just those with celebrity benefactors - are testing ways to respond to global situations which result in real political action.

Let's leave it at this: even if Clooney's satellite project efforts ultimately fall flat, his effort will still have been more relevant and more serious than nearly every other celebrity activity I've seen in recent years. It's a lot better than, say, getting people to turn their Twitter avatars a certain color in expressions of solidarity - and certainly a step further than the nadir of all celebrity efforts, Sean Penn's efforts in New Orleans. He's getting an award for that, by the way.

(AP Photo)

Remembering Cairo

Over at the Washington Examiner, I have a piece on Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, which raises several questions about the ramifications of President Obama's Cairo speech in 2009:

As wise observers know, oftentimes the choices made within the context of America’s engagement in the Middle East are limited to a decision between supporting clearly repressive regimes and allowing the vilest enemies of democracy and freedom to triumph — a choice in which the good is absent, and you are left with the bad and the ugly. Such is the situation in Egypt today. The recent election doesn’t pass the smell test — as Stephen McInerney, director of advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy, told the Weekly Standard, the Mubarak regime wasn’t “even making an effort to look good.”

Yet this repressive situation is not without justification — namely, the likelihood that a truly free election would elevate the power base of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were effectively pushed from parliament, left with just a single elected candidate.

[. . .]

This is exactly the kind of thorny foreign policy situation that demands a president with a coherent vision, one that amounts to more than just blandishments about respect and tolerance. If only America had one.

Pejman Yousefzadeh makes an apt point in response:

Of course, no one blames the President for an inability to change the Middle East with one speech. But what continually disappoints is the propensity of the Obama Administration to promise more than they can deliver, simply because both the President and the rest of his Administration appear to be so dazzled by the President’s star power and charisma, that they fail to consider cold hard facts that are impervious to Barack Obama’s personal charm and eloquence. This is an Administration that continues to believe press clippings from 2008, even though it’s 2011, and the press clippings themselves have changed.

This is, of course, not the first administration to fall prey to the trap of thinking that "a speech will solve a problem" with any permanence. But that doesn't make the fact any prettier.

OxFam Web Cast: Examining Aid to Haiti

OxFam America is hosting a conference today at 3pm EST called Haiti, One Year On: Realizing Country Ownership in a Fragile State. A distinguished panel will examine aid effectiveness in Haiti. The event will be streamed live, here. Viewers will be able to submit questions to the panel's participants via the chat function below.

Learning From Bad Mistakes

Part of what's disheartening about the current debate over the defense budget is the idea that future American policy makers will make the same poor decisions as those in the past. Here's Max Boot:

Indeed, even as we were winning in Iraq, we were losing in Afghanistan, because we didn’t have enough troops to adequately garrison both countries. In the 1990s, it never occurred to force planners from the Bush and Clinton administrations that we would be making such large ground-force commitments, so they did not create an army big enough to handle such commitments. Today we are hearing the same refrain we heard back then: that there is scant chance we will fight a major ground war in the future, so why bother preparing for one? Unfortunately, history has a tendency to make a mockery of such certainties, in part because our very unreadiness to fight increases the odds that we will have to do so by encouraging potential enemies to test our will. [Emphasis mine]

If the Bush administration did not decide to invade and occupy Iraq, there would be no strain on America's armed forces - even accounting for a larger troop commitment to nation build in Afghanistan. It is worth restating this because it's a point that seems somewhat lost (or deliberately obscured) in the debate over the size of American ground forces: the U.S. decided to attack Iraq, it was not compelled to, as it was in Afghanistan.

So what you have here is not a deficit of military strength but a civilian leadership that made a very bad strategic decision and, because it made a bad decision, put huge strains on the American military (and American economy). The way to reverse this problem is not to put more money into building bigger ground forces to occupy future Middle Eastern or North African countries, but to put in place decision makers who will be more responsible stewards of American power.

The Great Green Race: China vs. India


Alex Frangos reports that in a contest between Chinese and Indian consumers and businesses over who cares more about the environment, China wins:

Among consumers, 94% of Chinese say they will pay more for products that are certified as green, meaning they have some sort of energy or health and safety benefit. In India, it’s 72%, as it is in Singapore as well.

Businesses in China seem more attuned to marketing green products. Three out of five Chinese businesses think their customers will pay more for green products, while in India and Singapore, that percentage is 35%. Among Chinese food and beverage companies, 67% claim they trade or produce green products, compared to 16% in India. Clothing and footwear makers and sellers, it’s 41% versus 30% in India.

(AP Photo)

Words to Live By

I think Walter Russell Mead has this right:

The Nobel prize winning economists, the multimillion dollar CEOs, the chattering sages of the Davoisie, the soothing and slick politicians and the red-faced and ranting ones: none of them really understands the world we are living in. The smug pundits on the talk shows, the columnists in what’s left of the print media, even the know-it-all bloggers snarkily fisking their ideological rivals: none of them really knows what is going on, much less what the world needs to do.

That is the new normal. Life comes at us faster than we are ready; change happens at the world in ways we can’t anticipate and at a pace that we can’t always comprehend. The stakes are high, the risks are unquantifiable and the answers are unknown.

It sounds like a pessimistic sentiment, but I don't think it is. There's never been a time that's been fully comprehensible to anyone living in it. At least today, we're able to access a very wide range of viewpoints and information. I have to think that can only aid comprehension, even if it also creates some added confusion.

Treating China Like Russia


Richard Weitz argues in the Diplomat that the Obama administration's approach to China is much like the Clinton administration's approach to Russia:

Yet these policies should be seen less as an effort to contain China and more as a return to the kind of shaping and hedging policies that the Bill Clinton administration pursued on many security issues, especially relations with Russia. The principle behind this approach is that it will help shape the targeted actor’s choices so that it will pursue policies helpful to the United States and its allies. In the case of China, these policies would include not threatening to use force against other countries, moderating its trade and climate polices and generally embracing and supporting the existing international institutions and the global status quo. On the flip side, if these shaping policies fail, then the United States aims to be in a good position, thanks to its strategic hedging, to resist disruptive Chinese policies until China abandons them.

I don't think the two circumstances are really analogous. Clinton was able to "shape" Russia's choices regarding its immediate security environment because Russia was very weak and consumed with internal problems and the U.S. was not. And the end result of American policy toward Russia through the Clinton administration and into the Bush era was a sharp deterioration in relations between the two countries (a deterioration for which both nations share blame) and a war between Russia and her neighbor - not exactly an ideal we should be shooting for with China.

Furthermore, Weitz argues that the U.S. should try to shape China's choices to avoid a "destabilizing" arms race in Asia. But it's too late - arms purchases in Asia are on the rise and probably won't decline for some time. So has it destabilized Asia? Not yet and when you consider the environment, would Weitz prefer that all of China's neighbors were poorly armed and unable to defend themselves? It seems to me that that's an environment ripe for destabilization and Chinese adventurism. An Asia that's armed to the teeth is one in which China is not invading anyone.

(AP Photo)

January 10, 2011

Defining Success Against Iran


Now that the Israelis are (again) pushing back their estimates for when Iran will be capable of producing a nuclear weapon, the Obama administration is starting to take some credit:

Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon has been delayed by sanctions, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said here on Monday, the strongest and most public claim by the Obama administration that its pressure campaign is hampering Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“Iran has had technological problems that have made it slow down its timetable,” Mrs. Clinton said a televised town-hall meeting at a university in this Persian Gulf emirate. “The sanctions are working,” she added. “Their program, from our best estimate, has been slowed down."

To be sure, this isn't chest-thumping bravado, but outside of the administration supporters are also noting Iran's setbacks with approval.

It will be tempting, particularly toward the end of this year, for the administration to increasingly pat itself on the back regarding Iran, but that seems short-sighted. While the sanctions may well be hitting Iran where it hurts, Stuxnet appears to have done most of the heavy lifting - and the smart money is on Israeli paternity for that cyber worm. In a world without Stuxnet, would sanctions really have bumped Iran's program back three or four years? Not likely.

(AP Photo)

Defining Success in Afghanistan


Frederick and Kimberly Kagan state their view on what victory looks like:

Success in Afghanistan is the establishment of a political order, security situation, and indigenous security force that is stable, viable, enduring, and able--with greatly reduced international support--to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for international terrorists.

This kind of thing sounds clear enough, but it really falls apart upon closer inspection. What does it mean to not be a "safe haven" for international terrorists? It can't mean that a country can't contain any terrorists - that's an absurd standard. It can't mean that the country can't have any terrorists capable of launching attacks beyond its borders, since that would mean there are literally dozens of terrorist safe havens around the world, including in Norway and the United States, which have produced individuals who traveled abroad to commit acts of terrorism or targeted their home countries for slaughter. Perhaps the authors mean that Afghanistan can't have any terrorist training camps - but given the low-tech approach shown by al-Qaeda of late, it's not clear that they need jungle gym training anymore. But if al-Qaeda is training for larger-scale operations, isn't it more likely that they'd do so in Pakistan or Yemen, where they are safer from large-scale reprisals from American air power?

In other words, this definition of success is not just vague and amorphous but untenable in an age when terrorists are a global menace lured into jihad via the Internet. You can make the case that U.S. policy in Afghanistan should be to train Afghan forces to fight the Taliban so we don't have to (a not unreasonable position), but if we're framing Afghanistan as part of a larger effort against jihadism then the investment in Afghanistan and its governing institutions is disproportionate.

(AP Photo)

Global Responsibilities vs. Bond Vigilantes


James Joyner examines Secretary Gates' defense budget:

Again, this is hardly "austerity" in the sense the rest of the NATO Allies are experiencing. But that's a reflection of not only greater financial resources here but of the responsibilities that come with being a global superpower.

Further, let me again re-emphasize that Gates is not pretending that these are deep cuts. Or "cuts" at all. Rather, he's recognizing that the era of unlimited growth in the American defense budget are over, at least for a while, and acting accordingly.

I think this reality - taken together with an obvious unwillingness on the part of the political establishment to tackle entitlement spending - means that some form of bond market-provoked crash austerity program of the likes that is currently roiling Greece and Ireland has now become more likely for the U.S. over the medium term. But at least we'll have met our "global responsibilities."

(AP Photo)

China Wants to Kill Americans?


Gordon Chang thinks the Chinese military is suicidal:

Why be concerned with WikiLeaks when the secretary of defense is rushing to give sensitive information to the only great power preparing to kill Americans? The justification for doing so is that the Chinese will reciprocate. Yet they have in fact not responded in kind after years of essentially one-way transfers of information and know-how from the United States to China, and Gates on this trip will not see any military facility not previously opened to U.S. officials....

The Chinese interpret Gates’s offers of cooperation as signs of weakness. He is, in their view, the representative of a power in terminal decline, a country that will soon be so weak it will not be able to resist Chinese advances in the region. Comments early last year to the effect that Beijing can use its holding of American debt to punish the United States reveal the mentality of senior PLA officers.

China’s generals and admirals are wrong in every respect, but the important point is that we are oblivious to what they are thinking. Gates needs to recognize that Beijing is configuring its military to fight the United States, that its senior officers do not fear war, and that they think they can win one. To not recognize facts is reckless—and something that has led to every great tragedy involving Americans.

You have to assume that China's generals also think about the enormous stockpile of American nuclear weapons, long range bombers, submarines and inter-continental ballistic missiles - weapons that, collectively, could obliterate large swathes of their country.

No one should ever discount the possibility that nations can embrace a suicidal irrationality from time to time, but nothing in China's recent behavior suggests that the country wants to fight a war with the United States.

(AP Photo)

January 6, 2011

U.S. Views on Afghan War

Americans have a pessimistic view of the course of the war in Afghanistan, according to a new poll:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that just 19% of Likely U.S. Voters think the situation in Afghanistan will get better in the next six months. Forty-one percent (41%) now expect the war in Afghanistan to get worse over the next six months while 28% predict it will stay about the same.
Rasmussen also noted that the war ranked ninth in voter importance, out of a list of ten issues.

January 5, 2011

Why the Status Quo Endures

Benjamin Friedman has a good take U.S. foreign policy analysis and the factors that shape it:

Analysts tend to reflect the views of one party because they hope to serve it or because their employer does. Those pining for jobs in the Obama or Thune administration are not going to tell you exactly what they think about Afghanistan without considering how their would-be bosses would react.

A fourth bias in defense analysis is what academics call a selection bias. Just as people that go into the international development business are likely to support increased foreign aid, defense analysts are more likely than most to be hawkish people.

Fifth is social convention. When these pressures point in a particular direction, it seems impolite and for many people uncomfortable to swim against the tide. And we unconsciously adjust our political views to fit in with those around us.

As Friedman writes, you really can't change this incentive structure but it would benefit everyone to be more open and honest about it.

January 4, 2011

Will Washington Embrace European Austerity?

The Washington Post writes that incoming Majority Leader John Boehner will preach the gospel of austerity, but his philosophy seems to leave out defense spending, a large chunk of the federal government's discretionary spending:

"The American people want a smaller, more accountable government. And starting Wednesday, the House of Representatives will be the American people's outpost in Washington, D.C.," Boehner said. "We are going to fight for their priorities: cutting spending, repealing the job-killing health care law and helping get our economy moving again."
Over in Europe - where real austerity programs are underway - defense budgets are squarely on the table, and the chopping block. Ironically, both liberals and conservatives are likely to look nervously at European austerity - liberals, for its negative impact on economic recovery and conservatives for its impact on transatlantic security.

Transatlantic Malaise

Gallup measures it:

Europeans' evaluations of their local job markets were universally grim last year and even more dismal than Americans' assessments; neither are positive signs heading into 2011. A median of 13% across the 25 EU countries Gallup surveyed in 2010 said it was a good time to find a job in their communities, compared with 24% of Americans.

January 3, 2011

What's Driving Pakistan's Instability?

With U.S. drone strikes cascading down on Pakistani soil at record levels in 2010 and open talk of American ground incursions into the country, many analysts are sounding the alarm that Pakistan's weak civilian government is being pushed too far. And now, said government has been roiled by the defection of two coalition partners. So has America pushed Pakistan's government to the breaking point? It appears the answer is no:

The ruling coalition headed by the Pakistan Peoples Party has struggled in recent weeks to keep its allies together amid rising criticism the government has failed to improve economic conditions, check corruption and halt growing inflation.

That doesn't mean the U.S. shouldn't be mindful of the pressure it's putting on Pakistan, but for now it seems that political discontent is boiling up around other issues.

China's Views About Power

According to a recent poll, only 12 percent of respondents in China said their country was a world superpower:

Looking at relations with Japan, over half of the participants said the ties were unlikely to deteriorate in 2011.

Over 80 % of the participants also expressed concerns about Western intentions to contain China's development, with about 40 % calling for countermeasures to be taken against threats to China.

Among the issues of greatest concern, US intentions to strategically contain China placed ahead of trade disputes as the most important bilateral issue in 2010.

Ties with Washington were deemed as the most significant bilateral relationship for China for the fifth consecutive year.

January 2, 2011

Permanent Bases in Afghanistan


Senator Lindsey Graham thinks they're a good idea:

"I think it would be enormously beneficial to the region as well as Afghanistan. We have had air bases all over the world. A couple of air bases in Afghanistan would allow the Afghan security forces an edge against the Taliban in perpetuity. It would be a signal to Pakistan, the Taliban are never going to come back in Afghanistan that it could change their behavior," Graham said.

There is obviously going to be a U.S. security presence in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of most U.S. combat forces. But the issue of trying to use Afghanistan as a kind of strategic anchor in Central Asia is different - and from Sen. Graham's suggestion that such a presence would be "good for the region" we can infer that that's what he's thinking.

To have bases in Afghanistan, you need supply lines into Afghanistan - lines that run through Afghanistan's autocratic, unstable neighbors. The U.S. has established these lines by bribing states like Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. Obviously, since we've been at this for a decade we could presumably continue to funnel taxpayer money in and around Central Asia to sustain longer-term military facilities in Afghanistan, but providing weapons to the Afghan government seems like a less expensive means to ensure they have a qualitative edge over the Taliban.

(AP Photo)

« December 2010 | Blog Home Page | February 2011 »