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July 29, 2011

In Indonesia, Light Sentences for Religious Killings

Twelve members of a mob that set upon adherents of an Islamic sect, killing three of them, received sentences of three to six months in jail on Thursday. Rights advocates criticized the ruling as an example of growing impunity for violence against religious minorities in Indonesia.

In a heavily guarded court in Banten Province in western Java, the 12 defendants were found guilty of taking part in a clash between a crowd of more than 1,000 villagers and a handful of members of Ahmadiyya, an Islamic sect that mainstream Muslim clerics here say is heretical. The attack took place in Cikeusik, a remote village, in February.

A video of the attack that was posted online afterward provoked outrage in Indonesia and abroad. It showed police officers standing by as the villagers descended on a house where a number of Ahmadis were staying, beating several men and mutilating the bodies of the dead.

Human rights groups have been critical of the apparent reluctance of law enforcement officials to punish members of the mob. Prosecutors did not pursue murder charges, instead charging the 12 with crimes like incitement, assault and torture. They sought sentences of five to seven months, and the judges in the case chose even lighter sentences, saying that the Ahmadiyya adherents had caused the episode. - New York Times

The State Department has growth of the middle class in the nation is encouraging, incidents like this illustrate that the attitude toward religious minorities is not improving, and may in fact be worsening. While Indonesia "has a long history of religious tolerance," as the AP notes, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been under pressure from Islamists for some time to ban the Ahmadiyya sect entirely. Whether he bows to that pressure remains to be seen.

The Continuation of Politics

Joshua Foust dissects America's failures in Afghanistan:

The biggest barriers to Afghanistan developing economically are political, institutional, and regulatory—not physical or security or investment. Yet, most of the U.S. government’s efforts to improve Afghanistan’s security focus on physical solutions (like expanding the airport in Kandahar to export things like fruit and cement), security solutions (like the Village Security Operations the special operations forces are so enamored with), or foreign direct investment (as the TFBSO is so focused on). They focus on the wrong solutions to the wrong problem.

The U.S. government is not very active in resolving the political issues plaguing Afghanistan’s government, or its relationships with Iran and Pakistan, two absolutely crucial prerequisites to it ever becoming a stable country again. We should not expect a particularly successful outcome so long as the politics of the region are relegated to secondary concerns, if they are concerns at all.

I think it's not simply a lack of concern - it's an inability to solve these political problems. It's not as if the U.S. is not trying - perhaps not at the level of the Afghan potato farmers whose plight Foust relays in his post, but certainly at the level of envoys and embassies. To the extent that this hasn't worked, is it really an issue of inattention or simply reflective of the sheer difficulty (impossibility) of the task?

(AP Photo)

China, Singapore and the One Child Policy

The Economist reports on a rather surprising event in China: the public criticism of the long-running family planning policy of the state by an official in the nation's most populous province. According to their report, Zhang Feng, director of Guangdong’s Population and Family Planning Commission, has proposed a rather modest reform of the current system, which would allow families where one parent is an only child to have more than one child. He may be sensing the political benefit of speaking out against a policy which is decidedly unpopular, but the incident of such a public challenge is still notable:

Whatever lies behind it, Mr Zhang’s demand is significant both because it is an implied public criticism of the one-child policy and because Guangdong was always likely to be in the forefront of any campaign for change. The province suffers many of the worst problems attributable to China’s population control, notably a grossly skewed gender imbalance among newborns. The combination of a strong cultural preference for boys and prenatal ultrasound imaging has led to couples identifying and aborting female fetuses so that their sole permitted child is male. This is a nationwide problem, but Guangdong has consistently had some of the worst sex ratios. Normally, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. In 2010, Guangdong had 119 male babies for every 100 girls. Ten years earlier, the ratio was a shocking 130.

The province also has big worries about the balance between its working-age population and their dependants in the decades to come. Guangdong’s boom has sucked in huge numbers of young migrants from elsewhere (children and elderly migrants are deterred from moving by the household-registration system, or hukou). But as economic growth spreads to new areas, potential migrants may opt to stay at home, leaving Guangdong’s labour-intensive export industries vulnerable to labour shortages. This is a microcosm of China’s broader worries about ageing and the coming rise in the number of dependants for each working-age adult.

Zheng Zizhen, a demographer at the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences (GASS), says even a modest change would help. “Every couple, in Guangdong and all over China, should be able to have two children. But before we take a second step or a third step in that direction, we need to at least take a first step like this one.”

Jonathan Last has written extensively about this problem, and I interviewed him about the challenges facing societies at similar points a few months ago. He noted the example of Singapore as one that illustrates the difficulty of shifting from population restriction to population encouragement:

Singapore began modernizing late, in the mid '60s. And they embarked on a China style one child policy, because China had a policy to stop people from having kids because they thought fertility was what was keeping them poor and they wanted to get industrialized and rich really quickly. So, they did a really eugenic program - forced sterilizations, increased taxes on people who had more than one kid - that sort of thing. And their program was fantastically effectively.

Within seven years their fertility rate was down by 60% and they realized dear God, we’ve made a huge mistake. They saw their fertility rates collapsing so quickly that they threw all the machinery into reverse and for now coming on 20 years they have been trying desperately to get people to have more kids. They hand out a full year of paid maternity leave. They give you a $10,000 bonus just for having the baby, each time you have the baby. They have what is essentially a 401k plan for kids where you put away money for your kid’s expenses every year and the government matches it for you. So, it’s a combination of like a 401k plus flex spending. In Singapore the government controls all housing allocation. And so if you have kids you get access to better housing. And in fact if you have more than a couple kids they will make sure that your grandparents get to live near you so that you have, you know, convenience and free child care...

But the scary thing is that they’ve done all this for 20 years, and all that’s happened is that their fertility rates has continued to drop further, and further, and further, and further. And it stands right now at about 1.3 which is about as low as any country has ever recorded a fertility rate in the history of the world... in societies, once it becomes common for people to not have kids, for people to be child free and they get to see what that really means to their lifestyle, it becomes very hard to convince them to take the enormous hit and actually go around, get around to having kids.

This brief rightly notes that "China now has too few young people, not too many. It has around eight people of working age for every person over 65. By 2050 it will have only 2.2." This is a demographic nightmare, an unsustainable economic picture and one that - if Singapore's example proves accurate - is almost impossible for alter via shifts in public policy.

July 28, 2011

Who's Worse Off: America or Europe?

Simon Johnston takes the measure of Europe and America:

If Europe and the world now experience a growth miracle, these debt problems will recede in importance – because solvency is all about debt burdens relative to GDP. But if near term growth is not strong – as seems increasingly likely – market participants will soon resume their contemplation of European dominoes.

In contrast, the United States has a simple fiscal problem – as discussed in my testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee this week. Government debt surged from 2008, not due to Greek-style profligacy but rather due to Irish-style banking disaster. When credit collapses, so does revenue. As the economy recovers, revenue comes back.

The single most interesting point about today’s “debt ceiling” debate is that over the 10-year forecast horizon that frames for the entire discussion, there is simply no fiscal problem by any conventional definition. In 2021, the US will likely have a small primary surplus at the federal level – meaning that the budget, before interest payments, will no longer be in deficit.

The really bad budget numbers for the US come after 2021 – but these are not the focus of anyone’s current proposals on Capitol Hill.

Ajami and Hill on the Arab Spring

Peter Robinson's interview with Charles Hill and Fouad Ajami on the latest edition of Uncommon Knowledge is worth your viewing for a number of reasons, but particularly for a line of argument on the Arab Spring interesting, particularly around the 5 minute mark:

Robinson: But what happens next?

Hill: It's going to hell. Because primarily, frankly, the United States has stepped back from its support of freedom and democracy... The speech of the president on the Arab Spring, that climaxed with the question of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, it turned the whole narrative back to 1975 when there's a new narrative that didn't say "Death to America" or "All that matters is the Palestinians", it was an entirely new freedom agenda that we have just stepped away from.

Hill's focus leads to a comment by Robinson on a missed opportunity for a genuine reset of relations with the Arab world. This is intriguing, and it will almost certainly be included in any general election campaign from the right as a criticism of Obama's response to the Arab Spring and the campaign in Libya. Whether it has any sticking power will likely depend on the continuation of world events in Egypt and the political success of the Muslim Brotherhood there.

Rumsfeld on Bin Laden and More

My extended interview with Donald Rumsfeld in The City is now posted. Since Rumsfeld had been through much of the media circuit by this point, the questions are somewhat broader. But this portion of the interview may be of particular interest:

The City: Regarding bin Laden—you obviously ramped up capabilities in response to him. Do you feel vindicated by what happened?

Rumsfeld: I’ve been asked to write that, I haven’t written that.

The City: What are some of the things, practically, at DOD, that you put into place which helped bring this about?

Rumsfeld: I think really in terms of the special operations side of things, we did a great deal.

We expanded the special operations budget several times, and the number of people by something just under fifty percent. We took some of the tier three things they were doing and passed them off to conventional forces, so they’d have more people available to do tier one and tier two, the tough stuff. And then we gave them additional authorities—they’ve never been a supported command, they’ve been a supporting command of some other command. We really focused on them, and each step was hard—because the services don’t like anything that’s special, because they think they’re special.

There are certain things you can’t achieve without beefing up the intel—we always had the capability to capture and kill, but in the old days, we would’ve used a cruise missile and not known for sure. But this way, you could actually go in physically. We got the Marines involved for the first time and created a thing called MARSOC, the Marines Special Operations Command, and the focus was intense on getting those capabilities right, and linked tightly with the Central Intelligence Agency.

I think it was the 9-11 Commission which recommended that DOD take over all covert action. I was asked about that, and I declined, because the combination of the CIA and the DOD together is a good thing, they’ve got different authorities, free cash where DOD’s got tighter restraints. I advised against transferring all that stuff over to DOD. Instead, George Tenet and I would have lunch every week and solve all the problems personally. It’s more direct that way.

You can read the full interview here.

Revolutionary Guard Commander to Head OPEC?

The Guardian reports:

A senior commander of Iran's revolutionary guards, who is subject to comprehensive international sanctions, has been nominated as the country's oil minister, a position that currently includes the presidency of Opec.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, sent a list of four ministers, including Rostam Ghasemi, commander of the revolutionary guards' Khatam al-Anbia military and industrial base, to the parliament for approval, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

Should the parliament confirm Ghasemi's nomination next week, the commander, who is targeted by US, EU and Australian sanctions, will be automatically appointed as head of Opec, giving the revolutionary guards access to an influential international platform.

Zimbabwe After Insane Inflation


Zimbabwe has long been synonymous with economic dysfunction. The country's inflation rate hit an amazing 231 million percent in 2008 and four out of every five adults in the country were unemployed. Today, Gallup notes that Zimbabweans are reporting improvements in their economic circumstances:

Zimbabweans appear to be benefiting from two consecutive years of economic growth and efforts to bring hyperinflation under control. Eighteen percent of Zimbabweans surveyed by Gallup in 2011 report "living comfortably" on their present household incomes -- double the 9% who said so in 2009. The 16% who reported they are "finding it very difficult" to get by is down significantly from 31% in 2009.

Which European Countries Are Growing?

According to new figures from Eurostat, the European Union added 1.4 million people to its ranks in 2010. Of those, 900,000 were immigrants. So which countries registered the highest population growth rates? Dean Carroll reports:

During 2010, 5.4 million children were born with the highest birth rates recorded in Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Cyprus and Sweden. The lowest rates were in Germany, Latvia, Hungary, Italy, Austria, Portugal and Malta. In the same period, some 4.8 million deaths registered with the highest death rates observed in Bulgaria, Latvia, Hungary, Lithuania and Romania. The lowest death rates occurred in Ireland, Cyprus, Malta and Luxembourg.

Consequently, the highest population growth was registered in Ireland - well ahead of Cyprus, France, Luxembourg and the UK. And eight member states saw a population decline. They were Latvia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany and Romania.

July 27, 2011

Gaddafi's Incentives

Mr Cameron and his allies had clearly not bargained for such obstinacy when they first embarked on their Libyan adventure. With the onset of Ramadan rapidly approaching (it is due to start on Monday, depending on the visibility of the new moon), Gaddafi’s intransigence has seen the coalition resort to ever more desperate measures. This includes the French supplying arms to the rebels – a clear breach of UN resolutions – and the Americans sending a secret delegation to persuade Gaddafi to surrender. - Con Coughlin

The problem for the NATO mission is there is a huge mismatch in incentives. NATO is fighting in Libya for a mix of reasons, but none of them urgent or central to the survival of Western civilization. Gaddafi, on the other hand, is fighting for his life. There is a warrant out for his arrest from the International Criminal Court, so he can't leave the country. Yet if he remains inside Libya but out of power, he would be a risk, and at risk, as long as he survived.

This has, in short, turned into a debacle.

July 25, 2011

Terrorism in Europe: A Left-Wing Phenomena?

James Delingpole isn't happy:

There we were deluding ourselves after the USS Cole, and the Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam bombings, and the Madrid train bombings, and 7/7, and the ‘Mumbai’ Massacre and the shoebomber plot and the Heathrow plot and the LAX plot and the New York car bomb plot and the Fort Hood massacre and, oh, yeah, 9/11 that the world’s greatest terrorist threat came from Islamists who love death even more than we love Coca Cola. But this in fact was all just a red herring, brought about by the racism and Islamophobia of conservatives and libertarians and Tea Partiers to distract anti-terrorism resources from the real menace: Right-wing extremists like themselves.
When the news of the Oslo attack first broke I admit my suspicions turned toward al-Qaeda or a like-minded group, but Stephen Walt provides some actual data on European terrorist activity that helpfully clarifies the threat environment:
In 2009, there were fewer than 300 terrorist incidents in Europe, a 33 percent decline from the previous year. The vast majority of these incidents (237 out of 294) were conducted by indigenous European separatist groups, with another forty or so attributed to leftists and/or anarchists. According to the report, a grand total of one (1) attack was conducted by Islamists. Put differently, Islamist groups were responsible for a whopping 0.34 percent of all terrorist incidents in Europe in 2009. In addition, the report notes, "the number of arrests relating to Islamist terrorism (110) decreased by 41 percent compared to 2008, which continues the trend of a steady decrease since 2006."

The other thing to note about the report (pdf), which Walt eludes to, is that most of the incidents of terrorism are overwhelmingly perpetrated by self-styled separatists and left-wing groups - not right-wing extremists. The number of right-wing terrorism attacks, arrests, and foiled/failed plots is small in relation to those two groups.

Japan's Views on Nuclear Power, Prime Minister

A new poll from Kyodo News measured Japanese sentiment on nuclear power and Prime Minister Kan:

A weekend telephone poll conducted by Kyodo News found 70.3 percent of respondents support Prime Minister Naoto Kan's call for a society that does not rely on nuclear power, but public support for his Cabinet sank to 17.1 percent, the lowest level since it was inaugurated just over a year ago, from 23.2 percent in the previous poll.

In the survey, 66.9 percent said they want Kan to quit by the end of August when the Diet session ends, while the disapproval rating for the Cabinet climbed to 70.6 percent from 61.2 percent in the last poll conducted June 28 and 29.

Political Violence in Norway

Again, nobody knows who perpetrated these attacks or why (though the self-described jihadi group claiming responsibility said, as the NYT put it, that it "was a response to Norwegian forces’ presence in Afghanistan and to unspecified insults to the Prophet Muhammad"). But whether these attacks are related to those wars or not, I simply do not understand this bafflement being expressed that Norway -- of all countries -- would be targeted with violence.

Regardless of the justifications of these wars -- and Norway is in both countries as part of a U.N. action -- it is simply a fact that Norway has sent its military to two foreign countries where it is attacking people, dropping bombs, and killing civilians. Historically, one reason not to invade and attack other countries is because doing so often prompts one's own country to be attacked....

The solution is not to dismiss or justify acts such as the Oslo bombing. It's to realize that our own country and those in alliance with it -- unintentionally or otherwise -- replicate the horror that took place in Oslo in countless places around the world with great regularity, and that requires at least as much attention and discussion as the Oslo attacks are sure to receive. - Glenn Greenwald

That post was written on Friday. Now that we know that the perpetrator of the Norway attacks was a right-wing militant, what should we be discussing? The clear implication of Greenwald's post is that Islamist violence directed against Norway wouldn't be inexplicable because the country is participating in the wars in Afghanistan and Libya. In other words: if you play with fire, expect to get burned (a view, incidentally, I don't disagree with). But what of this view now, in light of the assailant's views? Are we to assume that Greenwald believes that right-wing, domestic terrorism is also to be expected (but not condoned or justified) because Norway's policies on immigration and multiculturalism are alienating portions of its own population?

July 22, 2011

The Kuala Lampur Crackdown

The response of the Malaysian government to the recent protests in Kuala Lampur raises several concerns, not the least of which is whether it will be followed by retaliatory arrests of political opponents. The announcement of a further inquiry on the part of Suhakam, a human rights commission with a semi-official imprimatur from the government, is certainly welcome at getting to the bottom of police overreaction - though it may have the effect of stoking tensions:

At a press conference on Thursday, Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission, better known by its Malay abbreviation Suhakam, announced it will hold a public inquiry into the allegations. During the rally, organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih, protester Baharuddin Ahmad collapsed and died of a heart attack, and other participants said the police were too aggressive in their use of tear gas and in detaining more than 1,600 people temporarily.

“Suhakam feels that in view of the number of complaints on excessive use of force, the incidents of tear gas, the death of Baharuddin Ahmad and the denial of access to lawyers, various violations of human rights could have happened,” said Suhakam Vice Chairman Khaw Lake Tee. The group said in a statement that further details of the inquiry would be announced in two weeks’ time.

Police Deputy Director of Management (Public Relations) and Assistant Commissioner Ramli Mohamed Yoosuf said the police cannot comment in advance of the report. Malaysian authorities have previously said they believe Baharuddin Ahmad died of natural causes unrelated to the rally, and that police used the minimum force necessary to subdue demonstrators they believed were threatening public order.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has talked a good game when it comes to the importance of elevating moderate governance within the Muslim world, and I've written in the past about the significance of building on our Southeast Asian Islamic alliances (getting beyond viewing the Muslim world as the Arab world, and only that). But this is a significant test of whether he will also govern within his own nation as a moderate, and retain the authority to speak to these matters on the international stage.

Protest in Malaysia of this nature is a very rare thing, and it's likely the rarity of it which engendered an overreactive response from the police force. Najib's political opposition has explicitly compared him to Mubarak and Qaddafi - a false comparison, by any measure, when it comes to brutality and institutional oppression - and sought to foment a similar level of outrage among their followers. But there are institutional reasons why this is unlikely to take hold, not just attitudinal: as Jason Abbott, an expert on Asia and professor at the University of Louisville, pointed out recently, unemployment levels remain low in Malaysia compared to international averages (it hovers around 4%, according to most measures). As we all know, people are less likely to take to the streets in anger when they are gainfully employed.

Najib said in an interview with The Star earlier this year when asked about Tunisia and Egypt: "Don’t think that what is happening there must also happen in Malaysia. We will not allow it to happen here." The best way for him to achieve that goal is avoiding an overreactive post-Kuala Lampur crackdown, and pursuing policies that push economic growth out to a wider populace.

Earthquakes and Megacities

You should not miss Claire Berlinski's piece in City Journal which discusses the profoundly different effect natural disasters - particularly earthquakes - have on growing megacities within the developing world and elsewhere. Her key question: is it wealth alone that determines the response of these cities to the threat of earthquakes?

So we understand enough about seismology to be sure that certain cities face a high risk of earthquakes with enormous death tolls, and we understand enough about engineering and disaster management to say exactly what should be done to protect the residents of those cities. What we don’t understand—or rather, what we’re seldom willing to say plainly—is why some governments take the risk seriously and take aggressive steps to mitigate it, while others shrug and say, Que será, será.

It’s tempting to think that people in certain countries are cavalier about the risk because they’re poor. The argument goes like this: safe houses cost more to build than cheap ones do. Cement watered down with sand stretches further. People in poor cities don’t have the money to build safe houses; or if they do, they have decided to use it to mitigate more immediate risks. Before the earthquake in Haiti, it certainly wasn’t possible to say that the odds of a catastrophic quake were 100 percent; the odds, however, that a substantial percentage of the population would die prematurely of malnutrition and preventable childhood disease were 100 percent. No one there could have been persuaded, before the earthquake, to prioritize sound building construction over food.

If wealth were all there were to it, the solution to the problem would be, if not simple, at least obvious. To prepare for an earthquake, promote economic development and cross your fingers. When your country becomes wealthy enough, the problem will solve itself. If we followed this argument to its natural end, we would conclude that the best seismic risk reduction strategy is market liberalization, the reduction of the state sector, and a growth-oriented economic policy that aims to expand the middle class as quickly as possible. In a diversified, developed economy, so this logic goes, private actors will promote earthquake safety and will do so more efficiently than the government. Insurers will not insure improperly retrofitted buildings. Businesses will safeguard their investments by demanding that they be housed in structurally sound buildings. And middle-class people will have the good sense to demand, build, and live in properly retrofitted buildings, since nobody wants to die in an earthquake. Other policy recommendations would follow: for example, don’t press for heavy-handed zoning laws or further regulation of the construction industry because regulation, as every economist knows, imposes economic costs, and any drag on growth is the last thing you need in an economic race against time.

This theory has been voiced in Istanbul, where I live. Mustafa Erdik, chairman of the Department of Earthquake Engineering at Boğazici University, has suggested that Turkey’s best hope is rapid economic growth. If it happens fast enough, he prays, property owners will be able to replace the worst housing stock before the ground starts shaking. If we look at it this way, we see seismic risk reduction as a paradox: the best way to reduce the risk is to ignore it.

The idea is tempting and elegant. But it’s wrong.

Read the whole thing.

Brazil Holding $200B in U.S. Treasuries

Brazil is the fourth largest sovereign creditor of the US, holding more than $200 billion in Treasuries, which is good news for Brazil, since its economy has been growing enough that the country can do so:

Brazil, the region's economic powerhouse, which just a decade ago had to come to Washington to ask the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, is now the United States' fourth-biggest sovereign creditor -- holding about $211 billion in U.S. Treasury securities, according to U.S. data from May.

As you may recall, a little over two years ago, Lula, then-president of Brazil, was lecturing President Obama about the dangers of protectionism and the benefits of free trade. Unfortunately Obama didn't listen:
These days, Latin America's economy as a whole is expected to expand about 4.7 percent in 2011 -- almost twice the expected rate in the United States -- thanks to strong demand for the region's commodities and a decade of mostly prudent fiscal management, itself the product of many hard-learned lessons of the past.

Hence, we have a chorus of clowns mocking the U.S. economy:
"When did the American dream become a nightmare?" gloated Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez, whose own country defaulted on about $100 billion in debt a decade ago.

In a speech at the Buenos Aires Stock Exchange on Monday, she contended that Argentina had prospered since then by focusing on exports and controlling financial speculation -- a lesson that Washington has yet to learn, she said.

Cristina forgot to mention that she raided private pensions a few years ago (2008) to avoid default.

Cristina's soul mates Evo and Hugo are using the U.S. debt for propaganda purposes:

Washington's biggest critics in the region, such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, have also portrayed the crisis as an inevitable outcome for a country that failed to follow its own financial advice and overextended itself militarily - in Latin America, and elsewhere.
However - in spite of large oil reserves - the well is running dry in Venezuela:
Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that Bolivian president Evo Morales had announced that a local program called “Bolivia changes, Evo delivers,” which “is under his control and has little legislative or administrative oversight," would no longer depend on Venezuelan largess, but would be funded by the Bolivian government.
Here in the USA, Congressman Connie Mack, Chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Connie Mack, has proposed legislation which would cease aid to those countries which harm America’s freedom and security.

Mack’s five amendments would:

  • * Eliminate foreign aid funds for Argentina, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Boliviia

  • * Cease U.S. contributions to the Organization of American States.

  • * Eliminate U.S. funding for Global Climate Change Initiative Activities.

  • * Establish a Congressional recorded vote which states “The delay in the authorization of the Presidential Permit is threatening the economic and national security benefits of the Keystone XL Pipeline.”

  • * Name Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism due to its continued material and financial support of the Revolutionary ArmedForces of Colombia (FARC), Hezbollah, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

  • Meanwhile, out-of-control government spending, onerous regulations on businesses, and uncertainty regarding the currently hostile environment on private enterprise does not bode well for the U.S. economy - and that has the Hemisphere's economies worried.

    Cross-posted at Fausta's blog

July 21, 2011

The CIA's Controversial Vaccine Program


The news last week that the CIA held a fake polio clinic in Pakistan to get bin Laden's children's DNA has sparked something of an outcry among some journalists. Matthew Steinglass is the latest to pile on, calling the program "despicable and stupid." The basic contention is that there's a lot of ignorance and paranoia in Pakistan, and in the region generally, about vaccinations, and therefore the CIA should have let this ignorance and conspiratorial paranoia guide its attempts to verify bin Laden's identity.

While I'm sympathetic to the argument that the U.S. frequently leaps before it looks when it comes to foreign policy, much of the case against this CIA program hinges on hindsight. Steinglass arguess that: "If the fake vaccination campaign was a necessary part of the operation to "take out" Osama bin Laden, it would have been better to leave Mr bin Laden in. One more ailing ex-terrorist holed up in a ratty house in remote Pakistan, watching old videos of himself; this was not worth jeopardising global vaccination campaigns."

But of course, no one knew he was holed up in a (not at all remote) house watching videos of himself before he was killed. Still, maybe the CIA did over-reach here. What do you think?

(AP Photo)

Pakistan's Nuclear Arsenal


Via the Federation of American Scientists, an analysis of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Click the image for a larger version. According to FAS, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal may approach that of Great Britain in the next decade. Good times.

July 20, 2011

The Future Libya Insurgency


Max Boot warns against the danger of "simply toppling" Gaddafi:

But - and this is a message that no one in Washington wants to hear - we must not limit our war aims to simply toppling Gadhafi. We made that mistake in Iraq and Afghanistan. By not paying attention to what comes after the deposal of a dictator, we inadvertently created conditions for a long-term insurgency. In Libya it is imperative that the U.S. and our allies make plans now to insert a stabilization force after Gadhafi's downfall to help the National Transitional Council gain control of the country.

I think Boot is absolutely right to warn about the dangers of a destabilized, post-Gaddafi Libya, but I think he gets things somewhat upside down when it comes to the precedent here. The U.S. "created the conditions for a long-term insurgency" in Iraq and Afghanistan by invading and occupying those countries. The lack of security certainly makes it easier for an insurgency to rage, but the motivations for such a fight have more to do with the presence of foreign military forces in a country, access to weapons and a desire on the part of insurgents to take power by force.

I do think Libya is (on paper, at least) a somewhat more hospitable environment for the kind of stabilization force Boot advocates than either Iraq or Afghanistan: there is some form of government-in-waiting that is drawn from inside the country (not air-dropped at the behest of Washington bureaucrats) and the country is not bordered by a government that has an interest in sustaining an anti-American insurgency.

But again, it's worth noting that Libyans were well represented among the "foreign fighters" inside Iraq. If they were willing to travel into another country to kill Americans and Western soldiers, it stands to reason they would be only too willing to battle American and Western troops in their own country, no matter how large the stabilization force. And, as Larison points out: "Even now, there are still almost 6,000 soldiers from NATO and other nations in Kosovo. Given the size of Libya and its political history, we would have to expect that a stabilization force would have to be much larger and would have to remain there much longer."

Needless to say, both Europe and the United States are currently having some financial issues at the moment and ponying up billions to police Libya just isn't going to happen.

(AP Photo)

Containing Pakistan

David Rothkopf thinks the U.S. should form an alliance with India to contain Pakistan:

Pakistan is America's ally, of course. We say it all the time. Unfortunately, Pakistan also harbors our enemies, supports our enemies, tolerates the intolerable by our enemies, and is therefore also our enemy. Not all of Pakistan, of course. Just some of the most influential of its elites and institutions as well as substantial cross-sections of its population.

Pakistan therefore has no one to blame for the steady deepening of the security ties between the United States and India than itself. As containing the problems within Pakistan through cooperation with the Pakistanis looks increasingly difficult, it is only natural that the United States should simultaneously develop a Plan B approach. That approach is containment and it necessarily must involve a partnership with India.

I think a tighter partnership with India is very much in America's interests, but not because it's going to somehow squeeze Pakistan into abandoning its support for militant groups. In fact, if the U.S. is frustrated with Pakistan's behavior now, it beggars belief that we'll somehow get more cooperation out of them by teaming up with an arch-enemy. Nor is it clear how this will "contain" Pakistan since the use of militant proxies is almost impossible to stop.

What would potentially solve, or at least mitigate, Pakistan's support for militant groups would be a change in the dynamic between itself and India, and to the extent that greater U.S. ties to India could encourage a rapprochement there it's all for the better. But that's unlikely to happen, given how India views outside interference on the Kashmir issue.

July 19, 2011

U.S. Troops in Iraq


Reuters is reporting that a potential compromise between the U.S. and Iraq will leave 2,000-3,000 U.S. trainers to remain in the country after the withdrawal deadline:

To avoid angering allies and fuelling sectarian tension, Maliki, who is also acting defense and interior minister, may opt to bypass parliament and have his ministries sign agreements with Washington for 2,000-3,000 U.S. trainers, sources said.

"If the political blocs refused to announce their final decision on the U.S. withdrawal ... Maliki would go it alone and sign memorandums of understanding with the American side," said a senior lawmaker in Maliki's State of Law party.

"In that case, he would not need to get the political blocs or the parliament to approve," the lawmaker said.

The lawmaker, who is close to Maliki, said the 3,000 U.S. trainers would need security, technical and logistic support which could raise the contractors' total to around 5,000.

The irony is that in both democracies, keeping American troops in Iraq is unpopular and yet both leaders are angling to keep troops there anyway.

Robert Baer has more:

The Obama administration fully understands that a symbolic troop presence in Iraq isn't going to turn that country into a Western democracy or measurably improve the the fighting capacity of the Iraqi army. Instead, I speculate, it looks at as troops there as a deterrent - against Iran and against the president's domestic critics. I don't find any of this comforting, but it does explain why the president would continue on with the Iraqi war blunder.

Would 5,000 U.S. trainers and contractors really deter Iran?

(AP Photo)

U.S. Views on Defense Cuts

Via Rasmussen:

Nearly one-half of Americans now think the United States can make major cuts in defense spending without putting the country in danger. They believe even more strongly that there’s no risk in cutting way back on what America spends to defend other countries.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 48% of Adults feel it is possible to significantly reduce military spending without putting the American people at risk. Thirty-seven percent (37%) disagree and do not believe major defense cuts come without risk. Fifteen percent (15%) are not sure.

Seventy-nine percent (79%) say the United States spends too much on defending other countries. Only four percent (4%) think America doesn’t spend enough protecting its friends. Thirteen percent (13%) feel these defense expenditures are about right.

Korean Unification


Asia Sentinel looks at the harsh reality of what a potential reunification between North and South Korea would entail:

It is not possible to predict how, when or if such an event could happen although the United Nations World Food Program said in May that the north’s food supply is about to run out and that perhaps a quarter of the country’s people would be at risk of starvation. But if the north does collapse, it is likely to make the reunification problems between East and Western Germany look like a picnic. “What would be likely if that time arrives, however, is a massive outflow of refugees because of the brutal living conditions in the North. South Korea’s struggle to integrate quite small numbers shows what an immense challenge this would be for the region and international actors.”

North Korean defectors, the report says, “are sicker and poorer than their Southern brethren, with significantly worse histories of nutrition and medical care. They have distinctive accents, use different words and have little experience in the daily demands of life in a developed and open society. In the North, their education, employment, marriage, diet, and leisure were determined by the government, which assigned them to a class of people based on family history and political reliability. In the South, the array of choices presents them with endless difficult decisions that can be overwhelming.”

There's often a lot of frustration in the U.S. regarding Chinese and South Korean cooperation on North Korea. But judging from the massive social and economic dislocation that would result from a collapse of the North Korean state, it's little wonder they're not enthusiastic about regime change.

(AP Photo)

July 18, 2011

Few Americans Think Afghanistan Will Improve

According to a new poll from Rasmussen:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely Voters shows that just 22% now believe the situation in Afghanistan will get better in the next six months. Thirty-five percent (35%) expect the situation to get worse, while 30% predict it will remain about the same. Thirteen percent (13%) are undecided.

The number of voters expecting the situation to improve hovered around 20% for months until May when it jumped to 27% following bin Laden’s death. Last month, 26% expected the situation to get better.

Shifting Rationales for Libya War


James Traub finds a justification for continuing the war in Libya:

The critics of humanitarian intervention who say that the outcome is likely to be messier and more protracted than its proponents imagine are right. You have to be prepared to live with the unforeseen consequences of your acts. NATO and the United States thus have to stay the course not only to deliver the Libyan people from Qaddafi but also to demonstrate that such interventions are not exercises in imperial hubris -- or "wars of whim," as my Foreign Policy colleague Stephen Walt mockingly puts it.

You can usually tell a military conflict has lost all strategic sense when its advocates can no longer offer any justification for it other than "credibility." In this case, the West is being exhorted to spend more money and put NATO lives at risk in a conflict of little impact on U.S. national security so that we can ... spend more money and put more NATO lives at risk in a similar conflict in the future. Makes sense!

And who needs convincing that the war in Libya is not a result of imperial hubris: the Middle East or Western liberals?

But aside from re-litigating the folly of this intervention, we are where we are. The question is - where should we go? Contra Traub, I don't think it's wise to press on merely to preserve the option for similar mistakes in the future. But there is now a growing threat to international security from missing pieces of Gaddafi's conventional arsenal and the very real prospect that the more time Gaddafi & co. have to stew, the greater their chances for international mischief.

(AP Photo)

Missing Missiles in Libya

Good news:

Now there is a third dimension of the bad counterterrorist news coming out of Libya, which is the dispersal of terrorist-friendly materiel. Bunkers full of man-portable air defense missiles, or MANPADS, that were lost to government control have been looted, and unknown numbers of the weapons have made it outside Libya to destinations similarly unknown. MANPADS have long been one of the most worrisome forms of conventional ordnance from a counterterrorist point of view, because of the potential to use them against civilian aircraft. It was because of this worry that the United States went to extraordinary lengths after the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan to try to retrieve or account for the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that it had provided the Afghan mujahedin. It looks like terrorists with thoughts of shooting down airliners have a new source of supply.

And so an operation ostensibly designed to protect Libyan civilians has potentially put American and European civilians in danger.

July 17, 2011

Afghan Lessons from Rambo III


The Washington Post's Pamela Constable looks back through sepia-tinted glasses on 10 years of western involvement in Afghanistan and laments at the loss of the Kabul she once knew:

I can’t find my old house, my old street or the bakery where I used to watch the early-morning ritual of men slapping dough into hot ovens beneath the floor. They’ve all vanished behind a high-security superstructure of barricades and barbed wire, a foreign architecture of war. Elsewhere in the Afghan capital, a parallel construction boom is underway. The slapdash sprawl of nouveau riche development has sprouted modern apartment buildings, glass-plated shopping centers, wedding halls with fairy lights, and gaudy mansions with gold swan faucets and Greco-Roman balustrades, commissioned by wealthy men with many bodyguards and no taxable income.

She concludes that the real tragedy of Afghanistan is how little advantage it has taken of the enormous international goodwill that followed the defeat of the Taliban in 2001:

Showered with far too much aid, clever Afghans have learned to imitate Western jargon, skim project funds and put their relatives on the payroll — while many show little interest in learning the modern skills that would propel their country forward. At its core, this remains a society of tribal values and survival instincts. Goals such as democracy and nationhood come much further down the list.

There's little to take issue with in her analysis. However, one overlooked cause of today's frustration might be the boundless optimism she describes after the fall of the Taliban:

I was privileged to witness that awakening and to experience the exhilaration of a society being given a new chance after a generation of war and ideological whiplash. In those early years, I met Afghan exiles who had given up careers in Germany or Australia to participate in their homeland’s renaissance, and American jurists and agronomists who had come to help rebuild an alien land.
Foreigners were welcome everywhere, and a new generation of Afghans was in a hurry to catch up. In the cities, I met girls who led exercise classes and boys who took computer lessons at dawn. In rural areas, women still hid behind curtains and veils, but schools reopened in tents, and mud-choked irrigation canals were cleaned. In 2004, long lines of villagers proudly flashed their ink-dipped thumbs after voting in the country’s first real democratic election.

The Taliban were a symptom, not a cause, of Afghanistan's troubles. Instead of curing the condition their excision only exposed the deeper fissures of Afghan society.Instilling the belief in Afghans and foreign donor governments that things would change for the better overnight, instead of the reality of trading in one basket of problems for another filled with longer standing issues, is part of what has added to Afghan and donor fatigue.

The war would have been a hard sell to Congress and other NATO governments if they had been told beforehand that it would last over a decade and its end would have little resemblance to a traditional victory. But at least this would have girded governments and their citizens for what was needed to do the job right or allowed them to bow out gracefully before getting stuck in the mire of nation building. But the business of coalition building requires compromise and consensus, which all too often means kicking these questions of commitment down to succeeding administrations.

This is not the first time western expectations have split from reality in Afghanistan.

In 1988, Rambo III hit theaters across the U.S. The movie, the most violent of its day, lionized the pious Mujahideen in their battle against the godless Soviets (see clip here). The film makes much of the Afghan struggle for freedom (another clip here and here), providing a glimpse into the popular opinion of the day.

However, only a year after the movie's release the U.S. disengaged with Afghanistan. Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the problem seemed solved to western eyes. The much-vaunted Mujahideen, re-labeled warlords, were left to fight among themselves and would eventually spawn the Taliban.

In the closing credits to Rambo III the film is dedicated to "the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan." After the attacks of 9/11 this was changed to "the gallant people of Afghanistan."

As the U.S. declares a marginal victory and begins extracting itself from Afghanistan once again, it is worth remembering that expectations ought to be managed and that pedestals are inherently unstable.


July 15, 2011

Isolationism and Primaries

Michael Cohen's recent contribution to the American Isolationism debate is a solid read, but I believe he makes a more inadvertent revelation toward the tail end of his piece:

In the 1990s, when I served in the Clinton Administration as a foreign policy speechwriter, my colleagues and I regularly trotted out the claim that Republicans, by questioning the President's foreign policy positions, were returning to the isolationist spirit of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. It wasn't, but the sobriquet was an effective one that brought with it connotations of appeasement and weakness in the face of foreign threats.

Its return today, as well as the ease and frequency with which it is made, are a reminder that a step away from foreign policy orthodoxy and toward a position of urging restraint -- no matter how tepid -- can make one susceptible to the isolationist charge. It's only from the perspective of that orthodoxy would the recent warnings of American overstretch could be considered a retreat from the global stage.

In other words, "Isolationism," at least in its present context, is a political word having very little to do with any real policy, and once the dust settles on the Republican primary process the Washington foreign policy consensus will reemerge - leaving little time or tolerance for debate on matters abroad.

The eventual Republican nominee won't beat this president on foreign policy matters; if Obama loses, it'll be due to the flailing domestic economy. Obvious observation, perhaps, but it seems to be forgotten every time foreign policy analysts and experts start pulling their hairs out over the supposedly puerile nature of our IR dialogue.

These debates about "Isolationism" and "retrenchment" can be a bit frustrating, but we should probably enjoy them while they last. Once "generic Republican candidate" becomes a real person the political debate will likely shift toward jobs and the economy, leaving the Washington foreign policy community quietly waiting for the dust to settle.

July 14, 2011

The Arab Spring and U.S. Interests

Aaron David Miller reflects on the impact the "Arab Spring" will have on U.S. interests in the Middle East:

Democracy, or whatever strange hybrid of popular government, weak institutions, and elite control replaces the autocrats, will be a double-edged sword. And American policies, already marked by contradiction and challenge, won’t escape its cutting edge. The gaps separating American values, interests, and policies could actually grow, and the space available to the United States to pursue its policies—from Iran to Gaza to the Arab-Israeli peace process—could contract. The growing influence of Arab public opinion on the actions of Arab governments and the absence of strong leaders will make it much tougher for the United States to pursue its traditional policies. For America, the Arab Spring may well prove to be more an Arab Winter.

I used to agree with this sentiment, but now I'm not so sure. Consider what American policies in the region currently are:

1. Supporting Israel's military superiority: This can and will continue no matter who is in charge of the various states currently in tumult. Indeed, if democratic governments do take hold in the region and shift away from a "cold peace" with Israel, U.S. commitments would only strengthen. Certain facets of U.S. policy toward sustaining Israel's preeminence - such as bribing Egypt - might be constrained, but certainly not derailed (and let's not forget that Egypt is badly in need of money).

2. Ensuring the "free flow" of oil: U.S. forces stationed in the region ostensibly for this purpose are in countries where either the "Arab Spring" has been crushed (Bahrain) or never flowered in the first place (Kuwait and Qatar). Newly empowered democracies in Egypt and Tunisia might protest this basing, but could they really end it?

3. Containing Iran: This is as much a Saudi interest as an American one, and as long as the Saudis swing their sizable checkbook behind the effort it's sure to have a few takers.

4. Striking al-Qaeda: This is perhaps the most vulnerable of America's interests, since weaker governments and reformed intelligence services might have qualms about torturing people on America's behalf or simply be overwhelmed with other responsibilities to cater to Washington's requests. Still, if the U.S. can keep tight with Jordan and Saudi intelligence the impact could be manageable.

In other words, the major American policies in the region that inflame regional public opinion are also fairly well insulated from that opinion. They may be altered at the margins, but probably won't be completely derailed.

How Debt Will Change the West


The daily drama of the European sovereign debt crisis and the U.S. debt ceiling debacle has obscured what could be a momentous and fundamental shift in the role of Western government. Hamish McRae's piece yesterday dug at the root of the issue:

That brings us to the great issue: what will government be like 20, 30 or 50 years from now? A century ago, when the foundations of the European welfare state were being laid, government was still typically 10-15 per cent of GDP. Governments did defence, a few public services and some welfare and pensions. That grew, helped (if that is the right word) by two world wars, and by the expansion of public services from the 1950s onwards, a process that is still moving forward in the US with the Obama health reforms. Now public spending varies between 35 per cent and 55 per cent in most developed countries.

The system worked well but did so under favourable circumstances: a growing workforce able to pay the taxes to support a relatively small retired population. Now, most European countries face a falling workforce and growing ranks of the elderly. In the extreme case of Italy there will in 30 years be only one worker for every pensioner. Something has to give.

Bill Jamieson also captures the issue:

More than ever in our history, government is caught between the two massive requirements: one of servicing the debt incurred by previous generations and administrations; and the other, of managing the growth of future debt: making provision for rising pension liabilities and the costs of an ageing population. The proportion of the population aged 65 and above is set to rise from around 17 per cent currently to about 26 per cent in 2061 - and with half the inward migration flows experienced in recent years.

Little wonder that it will seem to a new generation of politicians that history has left them a role no greater than old age home operators and debt commissioners. The scope for the type of government and politics enjoyed for half a century will shrink drastically relative to these two obligations.

Unfortunately, the West, and particularly the United States, appears trapped in a vicious cycle. As citizens assume more of the financial responsibilities previously assumed by the state, their economies - sustained by personal consumption - will falter still more. Money previously spent on iPads and SUVs will be directed toward retirement savings and rising healthcare costs. It's a necessary corrective, but it will be a painful and potentially explosive one.

But the debt crisis is also a vital reminder that the most potent security threats to the West don't come from overseas, but from their own dysfunctional domestic politics. More wealth has been destroyed by irresponsible banks, lax regulators and short-sighted politicians (and their constituents) than by al-Qaeda or any combination of ramshackle dictatorships that we frequently obsess about.

(AP Photo)

July 13, 2011

View of U.S., Obama Plummets in Arab World

A new poll from the Arab American Institute documents a sharp drop in President Obama's ratings in the Middle East. Among the findings:

• While many Arabs were hopeful that the election of Barack Obama would improve U.S.-Arab relations, that hope has evaporated. Today, President Obama's favorable ratings across the Arab world are 10% or less.

• Obama's performance ratings are lowest on the two issues to which he has devoted the most energy: Palestine and engagement with the Muslim world.

• The U.S. role in establishing a no-fly zone over Libya receives a positive rating only in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, but, as an issue, it is the lowest priority.

• The killing of bin Laden only worsened attitudes toward the U.S.

You can read the entire survey here. (pdf)

French Libya Policy in Disarray

Bruce Crumely reports:

There's currently a lot of activity, a good measure of confusion, but no real sign of progress in France towards an eventual resolution to the NATO-led intervention in Libya that Paris was instrumental in launching. And it's against that backdrop of somewhat chaotic operation slog that the French parliament is being asked Tuesday to approve or refuse the extension of President Nicolas Sarkozy's four-month military action in Libya. The good news for Sarkozy is there's virtually no risk of even opposition politicians objecting to a continuation of the Libyan campaign. The bad news is such bipartisan support won't do much to mask the reality that no one has any real idea of how or when the mission initially sold as a short one might actually end—which will doubtless leave the unity behind it with a rather limited shelf life.

At least it's reassuring to know that incompetence is a trans-Atlantic phenomena.

Libya's Rebels Accused of Violations


The news that Libya's rebels have been accused by Human Rights Watch of looting and abuse of civilians isn't surprising, given the nature of the conflict. It's also, as C.J. Chivers reports, not as systemic or harsh as the violence meted out by Gaddafi's forces.

Nonetheless, it's a reminder that a post-Gaddafi Libya is almost certainly going to need some form of third party stabilization force to keep the peace and prevent reprisals during the formation of a new government. Unfortunately, while the UK, France and the U.S. have been eager to demand that Gaddafi exit stage left, there's been almost no discussion about how a post-Gaddafi Libya will be consolidated and secured.

(AP Photo)

British Views on the European Union

Not surprisingly, a new poll from Angus Reid shows deep British skepticism toward the European Union:

The level of animosity towards the European Union (EU) in Britain remains high, a new Angus Reid Public Opinion poll has found.

In the online survey of a representative national sample of 2,003 British adults, a majority of respondents (57%) believe that EU membership has been negative for the United Kingdom, while only one third (32%) think it has had a positive effect.

Respondents aged 18-to-34 are more likely to express positive feelings about the EU (45%) than those aged 35-to-54 (31%) and those over the age of 55 (22%).

Half of Britons (49%) say they would vote against the United Kingdom remaining a member of the EU if a referendum took place, while only one-in-four (25%) would vote to stay. Older respondents favour the idea of abandoning the EU by a 3-to-1 margin (68% to 19%).

Finally, Britons oppose the notion of the UK adopting the euro as its national currency by a 10-to-1 margin, with 81 per cent of respondents saying they would reject this course of action in a referendum.

Read the full results here. (pdf)

July 12, 2011

Getting Tough With Syria

Reuel Marc Gerecht offers a plan for regime change in Syria:

There are many things that the Obama administration should be doing that it isn’t: using the presidential bully pulpit against the Assad regime, deploying the American ambassador in Damascus as a shield and voice for the opposition (if Ford gets expelled, he gets expelled), organizing the Western diplomatic community in Damascus to do whatever it can to aid the opposition, offering substantial technical support to the Turks to extend a Wi-Fi-ed broadband as far over the Syrian border as possible, and working with Paris to implement energy sanctions that might severely impair the Assad regime. But the most important thing it could do now is encourage Turkey to stand firm against Syria.

Ideally, we should want to see the Turks establish a buffer zone or safe haven on the Syrian side of the border (Ankara sometimes did this in Iraq to counter nefarious Kurdish activity). Such a Turkish intervention, which would likely be backed by the French, would be convulsive inside Syria and would signal to the military that Ankara had irreversibly chosen sides. It would also signal to the Sunni elite of Aleppo, just 26 miles from the Turkish border, that their essential Turkish trading partner had drawn a line in the sand.

Daniel Drezner finds it wanting:

The only policy that would matter is if the Turks actually wanted to establish a buffer zone -- except in a later paragraph even Gerecht acknowledges that, "neither Erdogan nor Davutoglu would want to do this."

So, to sum up, Gerecht is really enthusiastic about Syrian regime change, and wants the U.S. to beat its breast a little more and ask "pretty pretty please" for the Turks to do something they view as against their self-interest. This will accomplish … nothing.

Support Falls for Libya War

According to a new poll from Rasmussen:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that just 24% of Likely U.S. Voters now believe the United States should continue its military action in Libya. Forty-four percent (44%) oppose further action there, while 32% are undecided.

A month ago, 26% favored continued U.S. military operations in Libya, while 42% were opposed.

Thirty-six percent (36%) of voters rate the Obama administration’s handling of the situation in Libya as good or excellent. That’s unchanged from last month. Twenty-seven percent (27%) view the administration’s performance as poor.

China and the Law of Sea


Much of the brewing tension in the South China Sea hinges on how various claimants view existing international law. Patrick Cronin analyzes:

Similarly, China and the United States have fundamentally different interpretations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). One major difference is over whether and which type of military activities are permitted within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of a nation. China’s national interests and growing confidence lead to an expansive view of its EEZ and a narrow view of which military activities are permissible for a foreign nation to undertake within an EEZ. Such activities must be peaceful, and Chinese nationalists don’t consider intelligence gathering even by non-warships to be peaceful. The United States, on the other hand, not only contends that such information gathering is entirely within international law, but also that the United States has an obligation to periodically test the premise in order to maintain what it considers the global public good of freedom of the seas.

Lyle Goldstein doesn't seem to buy it:

Washington's focus on "freedom of navigation," which has inexplicably become the main pillar of current U.S. policy in the region, is actually rather absurd. China, the world's largest maritime trading nation by almost any measure, is very unlikely to threaten navigational freedoms -- its own economy is almost wholly reliant on those very freedoms. The claim that China's opposition to regular U.S. military surveillance activities in the South China Sea threatens "freedom of navigation" is likewise disingenuous and represents an unfortunate tendency to reach for the clever sound bite. In fact, such U.S. surveillance activities all along China's coasts are excessive to the point of seriously disrupting the bilateral relationship and should thus be decreased, especially if linked to concrete progress on Chinese military transparency.

This piece also dives into the legal issues surrounding U.S.-China tensions.

[Hat tip: Larison]

(AP Photo)

Osama bin Laden's DNA

The Guardian has an interesting piece on the hunt for Osama:

The CIA organised a fake vaccination programme in the town where it believed Osama bin Laden was hiding in an elaborate attempt to obtain DNA from the fugitive al-Qaida leader's family, a Guardian investigation has found.

As part of extensive preparations for the raid that killed Bin Laden in May, CIA agents recruited a senior Pakistani doctor to organise the vaccine drive in Abbottabad, even starting the "project" in a poorer part of town to make it look more authentic, according to Pakistani and US officials and local residents.

The doctor, Shakil Afridi, has since been arrested by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) for co-operating with American intelligence agents.

As difficult as an operation such as this undoubtedly was, it seems easier than the efforts to transform the Karzai government into a less-corrupt steward of America's interests.

A Realist Turn

Daniel Trombly thinks that realism's current vogue is a false spring:

To be blunt, anybody hoping for realism and restraint in American foreign policy is setting themselves up for failure if they put their trust in the inherent wisdom of the mass public to provide a sound guide for foreign policy. It is true that after serious disasters in American foreign policy or prolonged wars, the public does tend to tack a seemingly “realist” course in foreign policy matters. However, a “realist’ inclination that only evinces itself in a politically meaningful way after enough time has passed for thousands of lives have been lost or billions of dollars spent is not a very useful constraint on the interventionist tendencies of the US government.

I'm not sure how much of this supposed realist turn is driven by public opinion or by politicians angling to differentiate themselves.

July 11, 2011

The Taliban's Momentum


The Obama administration contends that the Afghanistan surge has blunted the Taliban's momentum. Spencer Ackerman notes that Taliban attacks have actually increased:

According to military statistics acquired by Danger Room, attacks initiated by insurgents from May 1 to June 30 rose 2 percent from that same period in 2010. That’s the dawn of the so-called “spring fighting season,” when the Taliban typically fight the hardest. And it seemingly contradicts Petraeus’ assertion to the New York Times this morning that “insurgent attack numbers are lower” for the first time since 2006....

Can the insurgency’s momentum be reversed with fewer U.S. troops? Heading to Afghanistan on Saturday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged the military to keep “maximum pressure on the Taliban” in order to convince insurgents to sue for peace. The reigning theory is that the Taliban won’t talk seriously until they take a beating. Peace talks are the only political strategy on hand to end the war, but the numbers hardly give a reason to believe the Taliban should feel cowed.

And if al-Qaida is all but iced, as Panetta argues, then it may not be so important that the Taliban’s momentum has merely stalled, since the U.S. only cares about the Taliban insofar as it aids al-Qaida. But would Obama have endorsed the surge if he knew that the most it would accomplish after 18 months is a two percent increase in insurgent attacks?

Even if the Taliban is considerably weaker now than it was 18 months ago, it doesn't bode well for the long-term security of Afghanistan that they can mount more operations despite the full court press from the U.S. and its coalition partners. The Obama administration needs something akin to the Anbar Awakening among the Pashtuns to really drive down violence - and that doesn't seem to be happening. Quite the contrary, as M K Bhadrakumar writes, the "serpent of Pashtun nationalism" has reared its head and is attacking both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Still, a regional solution might be possible. As Bhadrakumar suggests, India and Pakistan are moving slowly toward reconcilable positions on the future of Afghanistan. Faster, please.

(AP Photo)

Libya & Kosovo


Stephen Walt compares the war in Libya to the NATO effort in Kosovo:

Both wars were launched on impulse, there were no vital strategic interests involved, and both wars were fought "on the cheap" through the use of airpower. NATO leaders expected the targets to succumb quickly, and were surprised when their adversaries (Milosevic in 1999, Qaddafi today) hung on as long as they did.

But there's another parallel that deserves mention too. Serbia eventually surrendered, and I expect that Qaddafi or his sons will eventually do so too. But in the case of Kosovo, NATO and the U.N. had to send in a peacekeeping force, and they are still there ten years later. And Kosovo has only about 28 percent of Libya's population and is much smaller geographically (some 10,000 square kilometers, compared with Libya's 1,800,000 sq. km.) So anybody who thinks that NATO, the United Nations, or the vaguely defined "international community" will be done whenever Qaddafi says uncle (or succumbs to a NATO airstrike) should probably lower their expectations and prepare themselves for long-term involvement in a deeply divided country.

It should be added that were Western troops to enter Libya in any large numbers as peace-keepers, it's quite possible that whatever's left of Gaddafi's forces would stage an insurgency. After all, many Libyans traveled into Iraq to Iraq to kill U.S. soldiers during Iraq's insurgency. That's why I think it's very unlikely that NATO would play a role in the peacekeeping efforts, preferring instead to hand that particular duty off to the United Nations.

(AP Photo)

Arabic - The Language of Facebook?

A new study looks at the use of Facebook in the Middle East:

Since it was launched in 2009, use of the Arabic Facebook interface has skyrocketed to reach some 10 million users today. At the moment, they represent about a third of all Facebook users in the Arab world, but it’s expected that within a year Arabic will overtake English to become the most popular Facebook language in the region.

Spot On Public Relations, a Middle Eastern publicity agency specializing in on-line social media, found that two times as many people log on to Facebook in the Middle East and North Africa than purchase a daily newspaper.

“What’s fascinating for us is not Facebook’s overall growth in the Middle East but its growth in Arabic,” Alexander McNabb, director of Spot On PR told The Media Line.

According to their study, Arabic Facebook has grown about 175% a year, double the overall rate of the mushrooming use of Facebook worldwide. In some countries, like Algeria, it grew a whopping 423% annually.

“Until recently, many marketers pretty much took for granted that the region’s Facebook users were English-speaking Arabs or expatriates, using Facebook in English and representing a fairly elite group of on-line consumers. It has become apparent that this is now far from being true,” the study found. “We can expect Arabic to become the most popular Facebook langue in the region within a year.”

The Arabic platform’s 10 million users make up about 35% of the region’s Facebook subscribers, up from 24% in May 2010.

“The new phenomenon we are seeing is the growth in Arabic language usage, which in some parts of the region is truly phenomenal,” McNabb said.

According to their figures, 56% of Facebook users in Egypt (3.8 million) opt for the Arabic language version. In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, 41% use Arabic and in Saudi Arabia it’s 61%. By contrast, Morocco has 17% recorded Arabic users and at the bottom of the list is the United Arab Emirates, with its big expatriate population, with just 10%.

Are Iran Sanctions Working?

The Obama administration is toasting its success in putting the economic screws to Iran:

After two years of failed efforts to entice Iran with diplomatic carrots, the Obama administration is quietly toasting successes at using economic sticks. A series of U.S. and international sanctions imposed over the past year have slowly undermined Iran’s ability to conduct trade by targeting the country’s access to international banking, insurers and transportation companies. Like Maersk, some firms voluntarily cut ties with Iranian companies that U.S. officials say are front operations for the Revolutionary Guard.

At the same time, the United States has backed international efforts to lower global petroleum prices, bringing the collateral benefit of stripping Iran of revenue that it has used to offset the economic costs of sanctions.

The measures have not slowed Iran’s race to make the enriched uranium needed to produce a nuclear weapon. But current and former U.S. officials say the sanctions are having unparalleled success in creating significant hardships for key Iranian industries. [Emphasis mine]

Ultimately, if North Korea can see their ramshackle nuclear program through in the teeth of some of the world's toughest sanctions, it's hard to see how sanctions will ultimately stop Iran.

European Defense Plans In Limbo

As NATO fractures over the war in Libya, another European defense initiative is withering:

Europe's grand defence project, already wounded by divisions over Libya, is stuck in a political no-man's land as Polish ambitions to revive it face indifference among allies.

Poland had signalled for months that breathing new life into European Union defence would be a centrepiece of its six-month presidency of the 27-nation EU before it took over from Hungary on July 1.

But in the face of little enthusiasm among partners, most surprisingly France, usually the most ardent backer of EU defence, Warsaw agreed to scale down its programme for more modest goals, a European diplomat said.

Poland had hoped to seize on provisions in the nearly two-year-old Lisbon Treaty that foresee the deepening of military cooperation between EU states, with the ultimate goal of building a common security and defence policy.

The great irony of the current Eurozone fiasco is that at a moment when defense consolidation and coordination would seem to make the most sense (it could save money), it's much less viable.

[Hat tip: NATO Source]

Drones Becoming Popular Worldwide

NPR's Jackie Northam reports that drones are becoming popular globally. In her report, she cites some drone statistics:

Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula led the U.S. Air Force's drone program from 2006-2010. He says the remotely piloted aircraft have had a significant impact. They've dramatically reduced the amount of time it takes to find a target, watch it, and then if needed, take it out. Deptula says the drones are likely the most precise weapon in the U.S. military's arsenal.

"Statistically over 95 percent of all the weapons released by the predator hit exactly what they're aimed for," Deptula says. Those that fall into the other 5 percent, he says, are either caused by "some mechanical malfunction or a last-minute movement of the target location."

There are no numbers of how many people have been killed by drones; neither the CIA nor the military makes that public. An open source database by the nonpartisan New American Foundation says that somewhere between 1,400 and 2,300 people have been killed by drones in Pakistan alone over the past seven years.

July 8, 2011

U.S. Extends Footprint in Central Asia

More isolationism from the Obama administration:

U.S. and Tajik officials have marked the start of construction of a military training center near Dushanbe that is being funded by Washington, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports.

U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Ken Gross and Tajik National Guard Commander General Rajabali Rahmonali laid the cornerstone of the live-fire training building at Tajikistan's National Training Center at Qaratogh, about 50 kilometers west of the Tajik capital.

The $3.1 million project is being paid for by the U.S. Central Command (Centcom) and is scheduled to be completed later this year.

Gross said "this project demonstrates the U.S. commitment to supporting Tajikistan's efforts to stem the flow of illegal narcotics and to defend the nation against terrorists." He said the facility will support the training of Tajik counternarcotics and counterterrorism units.

Asked about reports in some Tajik newspapers that the center will become a U.S. military base, Gross said "this [facility] is strictly for the Tajik military and there is no American component to that."

No American component except for the fact that we're paying for it and providing trainers. Other than that - purely indigenous!

Rumsfeld's Fears

I'm looking forward to the rest of Ben's interview with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. One bit from the excerpt below did jump out at me - the assertion that trimming America's defense budget is going to result in some kind of calamity that the U.S. will "pay for" down the road:

The value of peace, and peace through strength, and deterrence has to be understood. Weakness is provocative. And to the extent you behave in a way that encourages people to take actions against you, you’ve made a terrible mistake as a country. We have to avoid that this time. I think people in our country generally understand that.

In the past decade, the U.S. has only been attacked directly by al-Qaeda. As we all know, al-Qaeda is not capable of being deterred. To the extent that we are crafting a military to deter potential nation state adversaries from attacking us or seriously jeopardizing vital American security interests it beggars belief that such a thing could not be accomplished despite cuts to the defense budget. That said, it would certainly be foolish to make defense cuts of any size while simultaneously insisting that the U.S. military perform all of the same global duties with which it is currently tasked. That is a recipe for disaster and one which we should rightly avoid.

I do agree that the U.S. should not behave in a way that "encourages people to take actions against you," but in that column I would probably place "invading and occupying Middle Eastern countries" ahead of making modest reductions to the largest defense budget in the world.

Social Networking in Europe


The Economist measures social networking activity in Europe.

Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

Greg outlines four points on why Libya is Obama's Iraq. I must disagree. All four points open up a raft of counter responses, some of which go to the current president's benefit. The strongest is likely the third - "preceded by over-confident predictions" - but then, this could be said about the majority of American conflicts, and there is a matter of degrees (which Greg concedes).

But the fourth claim - "surrounded by Potemkin coalitions" - seems the greatest conflation of ravens and writing desks. Colin Powell's much-maligned coalition of the willing was at least a genuine coalition: eventually numbering thirty-four nations, five of which provided troops to the tune of roughly 48,000. Of course, the Bush administration's decision to dawdle and dither in the post-war years, including a epic levels of mismanagement by the State Department and the CPA, resulted in vast increases in the cost of Iraq's prosecution which the U.S. bore almost entirely alone and which peeled off allies over several years. But this does not make the initial coalition less real.

If a major problem with the Bush coalition was that its goal was far too limited to one aspect (not speaking in any serious way to the post-Saddam reality), the Libya coalition's major problem is that it cannot even decide on what their goal is, publicly at least. Even the simple question of coalition policy toward Gaddafi is a difficult one for Obama to answer. And senior rebel military leaders do not believe his ouster is even possible. (The question remains: is the real foe here Gaddafi or Marine Le Pen - the Lunatic of Libya or La Peste Blonde?)

Seen within the context of NATO's long slouch toward irrelevance, the criticism that coalition-based activity is really the U.S., the UK and a series of press releases is increasingly valid. The point is that the Bush coalition's goal in Iraq was limited to the toppling of Saddam Hussein, a goal it realized (even more rapidly than expected, which was part of the problem) before fissures emerged. Obama's coalition, on the other hand, was cracking apart before it accomplished anything of significance in Libya, and indeed before they could even decide on the coherent purpose of the coalition other than following France's lead.

July 7, 2011

Rumsfeld: Weakness is Provocative


Donald Rumsfeld's op-ed last week, which makes reference to "More than $80 billion in unnecessary spending for pet projects has been shoved down the Pentagon's throat over the last decade," brought to mind one answer he gave in a recent interview I had with him, to be published in the next edition of The City:

Domenech: One of the challenges that, in American domestic politics, is happening right now, is this disagreement internally about defense spending, about funding. And it seems like there’s not a very good message to the more populist Tea Party folks, who are naturally inclined to make some very significant cuts. Others claim this is going to make America retreat from the world. Do you think that there’s a rationale behind what they want to do that’s good or do you think that right now we’re in a situation where people are just talking past each other, failing to discriminate between efficiency minded reductions and those that are riskier?

Rumsfeld: Oh, I don’t know. I’m not a good one to answer that. I’m not involved in politics really. I look at it, and I’m quite enthusiastic about the Tea Party movement because it gets people engaged in something that is important, in helping to direct the course of the country. And goodness knows the course of the country needs to be redirected. And thank goodness that there are more and more people who have the energy and the concern about the country that you see manifested in the Tea Party movement.

Then you go to the question you posed. People have to take time and look seriously at how our federal spending is arranged. And it’s obviously totally out of control. We can’t afford to do what we’re doing to future generations. We’re going to damage our country and future generations if we keep trying to do what we’re doing.

Now, you look at the federal budget and it’s pretty clear that as a percentage of GDP we’re spending at a relatively low level for defense. We’re down to 4% compared to 10% during the Eisenhower and Kennedy era and everything else has just exploded.

Obviously there’s no big bureaucracy that doesn’t have waste in it. There are plenty of things that can be taken out of every major government bureaucracy, including the Department of Defense. Every year as I recall the Congress shoved $10 billion down the Pentagon’s throat that we didn’t want for things that had nothing to do with our national security.

On the other hand we’ve also made a series of mistakes in this country where we’ve overreacted on defense. After the end of the Cold War it was the end of history, and we could beat our weapons into plowshares. So there was this drawdown where we didn’t fund the things we needed, they just masked it. They simply didn’t invest in infrastructure, in our military infrastructure around the world, which you cannot do year after year, five, six, seven years.

It’s like your house. You don’t have to paint it this year—let’s do it next year. If you worry about the roof, we’ll do that the following year and something else. And when you put that stuff off and it doesn’t show, it’s not like anyone is going to run a campaign against you for allowing infrastructure repairs to sit for a year.

But on the other hand you end up after 10 years of that, and following the Cold War, and when George W. Bush arrived we had damaged our military and our intelligence capabilities. The result was that we needed to do some catch-up. We’ve done that probably three times in my life, maybe four where we’ve made that decision as a society and then paid for it.

The value of peace, and peace through strength, and deterrence has to be understood. Weakness is provocative. And to the extent you behave in a way that encourages people to take actions against you, you’ve made a terrible mistake as a country. We have to avoid that this time. I think people in our country generally understand that.

The balance of the interview will be published in the next few weeks.

(AP Photo)

Miliband's Talking Points

The uncomfortable video posted last week of UK Labor Leader Ed Miliband robotically reciting his talking points has sparked a good deal of well-earned derision in the British media. None better, I think, than this piece by Mark Steel, who wonders what happened:

The most obvious answer is that he's developed an obsessive compulsive disorder and has to say everything five times or he has a panic attack, which could cause mayhem with the BBC's party conference coverage when he has to make his speech five times until three in the morning. And as it gets worse his questions in parliament will be: "Would the prime minister agree it's a matter of the gravest concern that his cabinet is not sat in alphabetical order?" Then he'll rock backwards and forwards making groaning noises until they shuffle round, and cry that Iain Duncan Smith is D and not S and needs to get next to Clegg NOW.

And the Labour Party will insist there's no vacancy for leader and he's on course for victory.

Why America Sucks at Nation Building

Why do we suck at nation-building? A lot of reasons. Here are just a few: (1) We are ignorant. We do not know enough about the cultural, political and social contexts of foreign environments to fully appreciate how our interventions will affect those environments. Thus our aid and development spending (and military operations, to be fair), meant to ameliorate drivers of conflict, often exacerbate them. (2) We do not provide enough oversight and accountability for the projects we initiate. This is boring but important. We have spent ungodly sums of money in both Iraq and Afghanistan and have not provided enough contracting officers to effectively oversee the money we have spent. How do we just give tens of millions of dollars to agencies and departments in the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan without any oversight? Lack of contracting officers. How are contracts in Afghanistan divided up between shady sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors, with tax-payer money falling into the hands of the Taliban and warlords? Lack of contracting officers. (3) We do not have any patience -- and we have limited resources. Nation-building takes time. Where we can nation-build at relatively low-cost over an extended period of time, as in Colombia, we can be successful. But asking Americans to spend massive amounts of money for an extended period of time in Iraq or Afghanistan is a recipe for ... turning your average U.S. tax-payer into an isolationist. - Andrew Exum

I think this is correct, but also incomplete. Another reason the U.S. "sucks" at nation building is the way it fights its wars. Consider the two cases that are unambiguous nation building successes - Germany and Japan. What do they have in common? The U.S. and its allies subjected both countries to an unimaginable (by today's standards) level of death and destruction. It wasn't simply that both Axis powers suffered massive battlefield losses, depriving the country of most of its fighting-aged men (though that obviously helped) - the Allies also succeeded in killing millions of civilians and related infrastructure. Japan had two atomic bombs dropped on it and suffered comparable levels of destruction through fire bombing. Germany, likewise, saw many major cities leveled.

Suffice it to say, it's a lot easier to "build" a nation that has lost most of its young male population, has almost no industrial infrastructure and has suffered significant civilian casualties. The U.S. also had the luxury of fighting and defeating coherent states - not national insurgencies. Thus, hostilities ended when the states surrendered and institution building could proceed apace. In America's contemporary circumstances, we're trying to "nation build" under fire.

Obama's Iraq?


The news that the Pentagon has had to go to Congress to request that $5 billion in its budget be "reshuffled" to compensate for the growing costs of the war in Libya isn't surprising. Indeed, it's clear now that Libya is President Obama's Iraq. Certainly not in scale, obviously, but the two conflicts share many of the same hallmarks:

1. They were not necessary: If it's difficult to claim that U.S. security would have been intolerably threatened had the U.S. not invaded and occupied Iraq, it's absurd to say that the U.S. would have been imperiled or its interests irreparably harmed had it not stepped into Libya's civil war.

2. They were sold on the basis of exaggerated claims: The Bush administration used more apocalyptic rhetoric, but the Obama administration has been quite expansive in its claims of a history-staining calamity that awaited if the U.S. did not act.

3. They were preceded by over-confident predictions: Iraq was indeed a cake-walk, before it turned into a quagmire. Libya will - one hopes - not turn into another ward of the United States, but the breezy prediction that the campaign would last "days not weeks" has been proven erroneous.

4. They were surrounded by Potemkin coalitions: President Bush's "coalition of the willing" was far more substantial than President Obama's, but nonetheless the U.S. was on the hook for the lion's share of the costs in Iraq. Despite "leading from behind" in Libya, the U.S. is still paying through the nose as NATO gripes from the sidelines.

There are obviously differences in scale and cost, but many of the policy-making patterns, and perhaps more importantly, attitudes, seem eerily familiar.

(AP Photo)

July 6, 2011

Gaddafi = Hitler?

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned on Tuesday that Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi is "serious" about attacking European cities in order to pressure European officials to cease their airstrikes against Libya.

"He actually means it," Graham said of Gadhafi. "Hitler meant it. He means it."

Graham spoke in a colloquy with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and used borderline apocalyptic tones about the need to remove Gadhafi from power.

"I know we're a war-weary nation, but there is no upside to Gadhafi staying in power," he said. "That is a national security nightmare for this country." - The Hill

Indeed - and one entirely of our own making. I think Graham is right that Gaddafi's threats should be taken very seriously. Would that Graham take seriously the possibility of such things before advocating for military interventions.

The Logic of Staying in Iraq

From the start of the campaign, there was ample reason to believe that Barack Obama's pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq was dubious at best. Now, the LA Times provides further confirmation:

The White House is prepared to keep as many as 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of the year, amid growing concern that the planned pullout of virtually all remaining American forces would lead to intensified militant attacks, according to U.S. officials.

Keeping troops in Iraq after the deadline for their departure at the end of December would require agreement of Iraq's deeply divided government, which is far from certain. The Iraqis so far have not made a formal request for U.S. troops to remain, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

If the 50,000 troops currently in Iraq are unable to stem the tide of what the Times describes as "near daily" car bomb and other attacks, what will 10,000 do? Are they to serve, as they do in South Korea, as a down payment on a future influx in the event the security situation inside Iraq really runs off the rails? I think we're long past the fantasies of using Iraq as a "springboard" for some kind of invasion of Iran, but it would be nice if the administration sketched out its thinking here.

July 5, 2011

No, We Don't Need Nation Building

It's somewhat disingenuous of Max Boot to equate a desire not to engage in nation building with "isolationism" but I'd prefer to focus on this part of his recent op-ed:

Since the U.S. left Somalia, tail between our legs, it has become a haven for terrorists and pirates. Now an Islamist movement modeled on the Taliban, known as the Shabab, threatens to take over the country. If this were to happen, it would replicate the disaster that struck Afghanistan in the 1990s — another example of what happens when the U.S. refuses to help build a viable state in a country desperately in need of one.

If you want yet another example of how costly our aversion to nation-building has been, look no further than Iraq. The Bush administration associated nation-building with the hated policies of the Clinton administration and refused to prepare for it. The result was that Iraq fell apart after U.S. troops had toppled its existing regime.

What's fascinating about Boot's argument is where it begins - after the U.S. has intervened in Somalia and Iraq. What these two interventions have in common is not simply that the U.S. failed in its efforts at nation building but that neither were necessary at all. Understanding why the U.S. fails at nation building misses the point - it's like complaining that you're not good at plumbing after you've dismantled your sprinkler system and left hoses spewing water everywhere. If you know you don't know what you're doing - and what you're trying to "fix" isn't all that vital - don't do it! Why is this so hard to understand?

UPDATE: Larison pounces as well.

Gaddafi Threatens Terrorism


The news that Gaddafi (and son) have threatened the West with terrorist attacks isn't all that surprising, given the man's loathsome history and his current predicament.

Given Gaddafi's threats, there are three possible courses of action for the NATO campaign: continue as is, hoping that air power and not-so-covert arms shipments are enough to tip the balance; ramp up efforts to unseat Gaddafi, even if that means inserting some troops; or press both parties for a cease-fire. I suspect the latter two options are off the table, given the previous statements of the Obama administration.

One of the better arguments against intervening in Libya's civil war was that it could turn the country back into a security problem for the West - as if there were not enough problems to deal with.

(AP Photo)

July 2, 2011

James Traub's Elitist Ignorance

It's so boringly predictable when elite foreign policy writers and critics of the Republicans - but I repeat myself - who generally pay exactly zero attention to the candidates on the right in between election cycles, gloss over differences in policy and experience in the interests of furthering their biases about the right. It's an inevitable experience every four years: the Republican candidate is painted as a naive, blunt rube, with none of the sophistication and insight on global engagement of the savvy, worldly Democrat.

Of course, if the right's weakness is generally blunt swagger, the left's is wavering incoherence. Democratic presidents are just as capable of making serious mistakes as Republicans in their approach to global affairs, and an attitude of denial to go with it. But no matter: forget their actual travel or policy experience - this is the way things are.

Comes now James Traub with another tiresome little "Republicans are stupid and incoherent" essay, in this case regarding Tim Pawlenty. Traub peers down his nose at the former Minnesota governor's recent appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations to share his foreign policy views. "The very fact that Pawlenty chose to deliver the speech in the sanctum sanctorum of the foreign policy establishment rather than at, say, the Heritage Foundation, constituted a rebuke to the yahoos in the party," Traub writes.

Actually, Pawlenty is continuing his "speaking truths in unfriendly venues" tour, which took him to Iowa to denounce ethanol subsidies, Florida to call for Medicare reform, Washington to blast current entitlement policy, and Wall Street to call for financial reform. His speech to CFR was not intended to cater to the elite, but to achieve note from the Republican base by disagreeing with the establishments' views in its own house. But of course, Traub cannot be expected to pay attention to this.

Traub also writes that these "candidates have calculated that Republican primary voters don't have much of an appetite for [neo-Reaganite] language," and suggests no substantive policy differences exist between Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Pawlenty, who he says "all offer some variant of conservative internationalism." This is of course absurd: Romney's position on Afghanistan is different from Huntsman's, which is quite different than Pawlenty's.

So too with Libya. Their rationales were formed in different contexts, and their advisors illustrate the different kinds of administrations they would have when it comes to foreign engagement, as I and other authors have written about extensively during the formation of this candidate field. But of course, Traub cannot be expected to pay attention to this.

And then there is this:

As I was sitting in the audience at the Council on Foreign Relations the other day, listening to Gov. Tim Pawlenty check off the boxes of right-wing internationalism, I kept waiting for the personal payoff moment, where the candidate says, "As a boy growing up in the depths of the Cold War," or even, "I saw the miracle of free markets on a trip to Singapore." But the moment never came ... I imagine that if the former Minnesota governor had a stock of foundational experiences or even intuitions about the world, he would have drawn on them. Perhaps he hadn't paid much attention to the world beyond our borders prior to deciding to run for president.

That's an interesting view. Of course, between the three candidates Traub mentions, you actually have three of the most globe-trotting Republican candidates in modern memory. Romney has worked and traveled around the world extensively, as a missionary and a businessman. Huntsman has a passport unmatched in the history of presidential primaries, and as a former trade representative and ambassador certainly has more international experience than then-Senator Obama did when he ran in 2008. And Pawlenty has in the past eight years traveled throughout Europe, met with Sarkozy and Merkel, led trade delegations to China and India, Brazil and Chile, visited Minnesota troop contingents around the world, and gone to Iraq and Afghanistan eight times, meeting with Petraeus and others on the ground.

But of course, Traub cannot be expected to pay attention to this. It took a five second Google search, and this is a bit too much to expect from him. He has a meme to repeat.

In all this, Traub does himself and his fellow elites no favors. His ignorance exposes the truth: this isn't really about foreign policy anymore - it's about ongoing self-congratulatory thumbsucking for a subset of elites increasingly isolated from the policymaking process. Serious analysts, who are actually interested in seeing their ideas put into practice, increasingly turn elsewhere.

Islam Without Extremes

Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol, author of the just-released Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, writes at The Public Discourse on his view of the Arab Spring in the context of history:

When the colonial period ended in the mid-20th century, another terrible trend began: secular dictatorships, which promised to "modernize" their countries with iron fists, often at the expense of the conservative Islamic groups that they typically suppressed. That is why the political movements that emerged from these Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, became increasingly radical, and even gave rise to radical offshoots that resorted to armed struggle (jihad) to fight the regimes that suppressed them and even their Western patrons.

The modern Middle East, in other words, has been haunted by the vicious cycle between two extremes: secular authoritarianism and Islamic authoritarianism. Islamic liberalism, which had its roots in tradition, and which looked promising in the 19th century, was obscured.

But now, with the Arab Spring of 2011, we seem to be at a critical turning point: First in Tunis and then in Egypt, the secular dictators who dominated these countries were overthrown by popular uprisings. But the Islamic groups that joined and even helped lead these revolts did not attempt to establish dictatorships of their own; they vowed to join the democratic process for which the masses have yearned. This embrace of democratic principles seems to have freed these countries from the extremes between which they were caught, and has created the right context in which Islamic liberalism, once again, might flourish.

Akyol is far more optimistic than I am about the time frame for such a flourishing liberalism: I believe there's a need for a generational shift here, for time in which those who favor a free society to grow in number and influence to form the superstructure of a new culture and government. But his book looks interesting, and I'm intrigued by his thesis.

July 1, 2011

Redeeming Russia

Ariel Cohen and Donald Jensen argue that the aim of U.S. policy toward Russia should be the latter's moral enlightenment:

When the Soviet Union fell in December 1991, Washington rushed to Boris Yeltsin’s assistance. The world expected that Russia would eventually grow to be more like the United States or Western Europe. By the late 1990s, however, Russia was rapidly regressing from Western political models. Beginning around 2000, the two sides returned to a relationship based on strategic security concerns resembling the old Cold War paradigm.

Moscow and Washington quickly exhausted this security agenda for U.S.–Russian rapprochement, however, and the pendulum swung back. During the rest of the decade, while Russia rejected American efforts to promote democracy in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Washington grew alarmed at the increasing authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin. George W. Bush’s proclamation of America’s duty to press for democratic values around the globe further alienated the Kremlin.

Then they take aim at the Obama administration's reset:

While the gains from the “reset” relationship have been exaggerated, the cost in terms of the U.S. moral authority has been high. The Obama Administration has explicitly disavowed linkages within its Russia policy components, such as punishing Russian misbehavior in one area by withholding concessions in another.

There is good reason to believe, moreover, that Russian leaders do not take White House efforts at promoting human rights seriously. They know that the U.S. Administration is chained to the “reset” and will do little more than verbally object to the Kremlin’s abuses of human rights and the rule of law.

The authors then argue that the U.S. should once again make a play for changing Russia's internal governance. Leave aside the unsupported assertion that the reset delivered "exaggerated" gains (it's hard to tell if they're exaggerated if the authors won't deign to tell us what they are) and focus on the practicalities here. The authors admit that - despite Western efforts when Russia was weaker and in need of external help in the 1990s - the U.S. was unable to make Russia "grow to be more" like us. So why now, in 2011, are the prospects so much better?

One need not think that the "reset" was a major win for the U.S. to conclude that picking fights with Russia's leaders over how they rule (or misrule) their people is actually going to be productive - either at changing the behavior we disapprove of or securing cooperation on geo-political issues.

Recognizing the Muslim Brotherhood

Jonathan Tobin argues that the United States has reversed longstanding policy in recognizing the Muslim Brotherhood, a policy that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed had existed on and off for about five or six years:

The resumption of formal contacts is a symbolic victory for the Brotherhood. It is also a signal to the Egyptian military the United States has no problem with the Brotherhood’s bid for more influence in the country, paving the way for a condominium between the army and the influential Islamist party.

While it can be argued the United States needs to be informed about the positions of all the major players in a key country such as Egypt, that could have been taken care of by private talks. Instead, the Obama administration has taken a critical step towards the acceptance of a militant anti-Western group as part of a future government of the most populous Arab nation.

This is certain to spark strong criticism from Capitol Hill, where the Muslim group CAIR is currently being targeted for investigation for possibly taking money illegally from Brotherhood groups and allies, and where such a relationship is viewed as a quick hop to legitimizing the Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas.

Given the climate, I would certainly expect this to become a prominent election issue in the months ahead. Then-candidate Obama backtracked almost entirely from his endorsement of "meeting with our enemies" during the 2008 campaign - this could be construed as reconsidering that walkback.

Vietnam Redux

Gideon Rachman sees echoes of the Vietnam end game in Afghanistan:

I don’t know whose bright idea it was to schedule peace talks with the Taliban in Munich. But somebody with a sense of history might have avoided that location. Ever since Chamberlain and Daladier signed over the Sudetenland to Hitler there in 1938, the phrase “Munich agreement” has had an unfortunate ring to it.

That said, the talks with the Taliban remind me more of Kissinger’s protracted negotiations with North Vietnam in the 1970s. In both cases, the fighting was taking place alongside the negotiating. In both cases, the Americans were trying desperately to get out of a protracted conflict that they had concluded could not be won on the battlefield. In both cases they were destabilising the region by bombing enemy safe-havens in a third country – Cambodia then, Pakistan now.

Amazing that Washington has found itself in similar (although not identical) circumstances.

Korean Teens See Japan Threat

Interesting poll via Japan Security Watch on a recent survey of youth in South Korea:

Asked about enemies, 44.5% chose Japan, 22.1% chose North Korea, 19.9% chose the United States, 12.8% chose China and 0.6% chose Russia, showing that 44.5% of teenagers believe that Japan is an enemy.

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