Saturday, August 29, 2009

Friday, August 28, 2009

Wolfowitz: Obama's no realist

Noted neocon Paul Wolfowitz, who has been taking to the editorial pages lately trying to convince people to have a heart, writes an interesting Foreign Policy piece on whether Obama's a realist and whether he should be. (Wolfy's answers: maybe, and not really.)

Just wanted to make a few comments on some of Wolfowitz's claims.

1.
In the words of one leading realist, the principal purpose of U.S. foreign policy should be "to manage relations between states" rather than "alter the nature of states."

Precisely. Wolfowitz thinks this is a problem only because he overestimates the ability of the United States to force other countries to be more like we want them to be, but as we've learned in Iraq, overreach always leads to a nationalistic backlash. Realists deemphasize change within states because they know it's very, very hard to achieve. There's a lot more to democracy promotion, particularly the subtle support for institutions in, say, Georgia after the collapse of the USSR, than conquest and bellicosity.

Wolfowitz goes on to claim that the Iraq War was not about imposing democracy but that some government had to be installed afterwards and a democratic one was the best idea, which is a little tough to swallow given how prominently democracy promotion was paraded as a justification for the invasion, particularly after no WMD were found. Given Iraq's ethnosectarian divisions, it's not at all clear that a democratic government was a wise idea, or that Iraq can ever function as a country at all.

2.
Today, it's hard to understand why realists remain so confident about their doctrine, given that changes in the nature of states have benefited the U.S. national interest in so many instances -- not only the peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of apartheid in South Africa, but also with the many transitions from dictatorship to democracy that have deepened security in almost every region of the world. Moreover, there are so many other instances where a disregard for such issues has set back the national interest.

Indeed, many of the most significant foreign-policy achievements of the elder Bush's presidency -- liberating Kuwait, unifying a democratic Germany, restoring democracy in Panama, and rescuing Somalia from starvation -- were the result of bold actions with a moral dimension concerning the nature of states.

A series of terrible examples: the South Africa case is sui generis and more a case of belated decolonization than democratic reform. The USSR collapsed because of the contradictions of the state under perestroika: US policy had little to do with it, and certainly holding a hammer over the head of the Soviets had nothing to do with it at all. Moreover, subsequent Western meddling with Russia's nascent democracy quickly snuffed out any chance it may have had. Meanwhile, liberating Kuwait had nothing to do with democracy promotion, as Kuwait is not especially democratic. Unifying Germany simply made sense after the Cold War, the US invasion of Panama had very little to do with democracy promotion, and Somalia, as I've previously argued, is perhaps the worst case of humanitarian intervention on record. The realist point is not that democracies aren't better and easier to deal with, it's that it's not realistic for the US to try to project power abroad to affect such changes because it won't work very well.

The USSR example is particularly galling: there's no doubt Reagan made human rights an issue with the Soviets and appropriately softened his rhetoric as Gorbachev improved Moscow's record, but here's the point: we were talking to the Soviets the whole time, no matter how crappy they were... because it was in our interest to do so. Wolfowitz then turns around and tries to use this logic to say that we should not talk to regimes like DPRK, Iran, and Burma, when not talking to them has clearly counteracted our own interests, and our values.

3.
In fact, the perception of U.S. weakness in supporting its friends is a great disadvantage when negotiating with regimes like those in North Korea and Iran that are quick to perceive vulnerability. These states will negotiate -- if they do -- when they see it in their interest, not because the United States soft-pedals its differences.

Words fail me. Who has ever talked nicely about Iran or North Korea? They negotiate with us when it's in their interest to do so... and we should do the same with them. The North Koreans have tried to get bilaterals with the US for three decades. It's not as if they've done this because we've shown weakness towards our allies... we've put Japan and South Korea under a nuclear umbrella and kept thousands of troops in the region.

Wolfowitz is right that support for reformers shouldn't be abandoned, even with countries like Egypt and China... but actively encouraging the reformers makes it easy for the government to pick them off in a nationalist backlash. As with the USSR, change within is what undoes totalitarian regimes. The US capacity to influence that is limited and subtle.

4.
"America Can't Impose Its Values on Others." That sounds familiar.

Here Wolfowitz trots out, and knocks down, the straw man of "Arabs can't handle democracy." Of course they can. However, bitterly ethnically divided countries really can't... no matter where they are. Bolivia is in crisis. Sudan is in crisis. Congo. Sri Lanka. That was why attempting to impose democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq was a dumb idea. The former is feudal and the latter has arbitrary post-colonial borders, and neither has the institutions or sense of national identity necessary for democratic elections. It's not that Muslims don't want US support for democracy, it's that they don't trust us to or any other foreigners to run their countries. And let's be honest, after the last seven years or so, they shouldn't, any more than we'd want them running ours.

5.
In promoting reform, it's important to keep in mind the admonition to "do no harm." The collapse of the shah's regime in Iran led to something worse for Iranians and for U.S. interests.

Um, "do no harm" from the architect of the Iraq war? Really? The problem here is that Wolfowitz thinks we must either support democratic reform or oppression. It's a false distinction. If we didn't want the Iranian revolution, we shouldn't have supported the shah in the first place. And that means, we shouldn't have overthrown Mossadeqh, no matter what we thought of him. Again, a smart realist worldview must include the primacy of ethnonationalism: installing oppressive puppets will lead to a nationalistic backlash, and thus, a belligerent and possibly nuclear-arming enemy in Iran. By contrast, we definitely did not install the regime in North Korea... but we can still negotiate with them without being seen as supporters of oppression, just as we did with China and the Soviet Union. We can prod our autocratic allies like Egypt to be more liberal about human rights, but we must recognize that some measure of prosperity must accrue to the population, and some form of middle class should be achieved, a la South Korea, before a true democratic movement takes place.

Change comes largely from within. The United States does not have the power to wave its flag or its missiles and make bad leaders go away. Ultimately, we have to work with them towards some kind of stability, because an unstable world does not favor democratic transformation. In an unstable world with the threat of foreign occupation, nationalist demagogues like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have a much easier time holding onto power. No coincidence, then, that President Obama dialed back American bellicosity towards Iran and almost immediately, the Iranian people voted Ahmadinejad out, forcing him to transparently steal the election and, in the process, deal a deep, self-inflicted blow to the Iranian government's legitimacy. If the White House had been blasting away at Iran's human rights record and threatening war over the nuclear programme, as Wolfowitz prefers, this would definitely not have happened.

Thus, a realist's view of foreign policy -- focusing on managing affairs between states -- actually promotes human rights more than Wolfowitz's neoconservatism does. It's also a lot cheaper. Cost of invading Iraq, which is now hopelessly mired in violence and sectarianism, probably for a generation or more: $3 trillion and thousand of American casualties. Cost of not invading Iran: $0, and no American casualties. Which country is more likely to have a stable democratic reform in the next few decades? After the most recent election, I'm going with Iran, myself... as long as Wolfowitz and his ilk never return to power at least.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

what went wrong in Afghanistan?

Conor Foley has a good piece up on Crookedtimber. The short version is, skimping on reconstruction and -- most critically -- excluding the Pashtuns (apart from Hamid Karzai) from the government. Pretty much a textbook case of how to start an insurgency against yourself.

maturity in politics is key

On an internet chat page on health care, I couldn't help but notice that the conservatives were continuously referring to their Democratic foes as "the Dums." Not to be outdone, the liberals kept labeling the GOP "the Repubes."

Now, I know internet chat forums tend to attract the shallow end of the human gene pool, but nonetheless, this strikes me as a serious 2x4 to the head of an open and reasonable political discourse. Dums and Repubes? Really?

drug trafficking is okay if our allies do it

Problem: Afghanistan's defense minister, a critical figure in the government, is apparently involved in drug trafficking.

Solution: Well, he's on our side, so let's not do anything about it.

This little bit of cynical realpolitik actually makes more sense than being righteous about it. After all, every dollar in the drug trade that goes through the government is one dollar that is not going through the Taliban. So it's really just solidifying market share of the only export Afghanistan seems capable of producing... right?

Yemen, the next basket case

About two years ago I read a piece saying that Yemen was only a few years away from running out of water. Separately I read that the country had the world's second largest concentration of firearms per capita.

This is a very, very bad combination. So yes, we all should have seen this coming. With the country now beset by southern secessionists, northern rebels in the mountains, and possible al Qaida infiltration, Yemen is the next Middle Eastern basket case.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Webb: Burma sanctions do more harm than good

Jim Webb, fresh off his trip to Burma, has some intelligent commentary to dispense on the NYT Op-Ed page: our sanctions on Burma have only entrenched the regime, impoverished the people, and driven the country into the arms of China, where it will stay indefinitely.

For more than 10 years, the United States and the European Union have employed a policy of ever-tightening economic sanctions against Myanmar, in part fueled by the military government’s failure to recognize the results of a 1990 election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. While the political motivations behind this approach are laudable, the result has been overwhelmingly counterproductive. The ruling regime has become more entrenched and at the same time more isolated. The Burmese people have lost access to the outside world.

Sanctions by Western governments have not been matched by other countries, particularly Russia and China. Indeed, they have allowed China to dramatically increase its economic and political influence in Myanmar, furthering a dangerous strategic imbalance in the region.


Once again, what sounds good and feels good proves to be, well, not so good. The West now has effectively no leverage over the Burmese junta whatsoever, as Ban Ki-moon learned when his latest trip there went nowhere. The junta clearly will not release Aung Sun Suu Kyi, and even open trade with the West doesn't seem like enough of a carrot to persuade them to do so. They make boatloads of money letting China plunder their natural resources and by smuggling rubies and drugs out of the country. Burma's army is about the only functioning institution the country has, and the military regime isn't going anywhere anytime soon. It might feel good to huff and puff at the perfidy of the Burmese regime and sanction them, but closing their economy doesn't unduly punish the regime, and it does more to keep them in power than to remove them.

Webb makes one other good point:

[T]he United States needs to develop clearly articulated standards for its relations with the nondemocratic world. Our distinct policies toward different countries amount to a form of situational ethics that does not translate well into clear-headed diplomacy. We must talk to Myanmar’s leaders. This does not mean that we should abandon our aspirations for a free and open Burmese society, but that our goal will be achieved only through a different course of action.


If we could talk to Maoist China during the height of the Cultural Revolution, we can hold our noses and talk to this Burmese regime. It may not be pleasant, but that's foreign policy.

Why have elections in Afghanistan?

How not impressive were the most recent elections in Afghanistan? Logistical difficulties and Taliban threats kept turnout probably well below 50%. Whole sections of the country, particularly the Pashtun south, barely got to vote at all. Women's participation plunged in an atmosphere of intimidation. Both candidates claimed they won in the aftermath. The main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, claimed fraud. Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, had to stomp on women's rights to pull in Uzbek votes from the North, and get a human-rights-abusing Uzbek warlord to campaign for him.

And on top of this, since the latest reports have Karzai ahead with 42%, a runoff is in the offing, so we get to do the whole thing again in a few weeks!

Maria Kuusisto in Foreign Policy magazine argues that the fact that elections were held at all was "a positive development," but admits:

Karzai's reelection as president is unlikely to improve the Afghan government's effectiveness. Since 2004, Karzai has appointed a set of controversial politicians and warlords to influential federal and provincial positions, and given them a free hand to run their respective ministries and areas. This situation has prevented the implementation of urgently needed reforms and development programs, while fuelling mismanagement and corruption. Karzai is unlikely to be able to break free of this cycle -- of bad appointments and bad governance -- because he owes his reelection to the support of another set of political thugs.


As Nancy Soderbergh argued persuasively in her book The Prosperity Agenda, democracy promotion is nice but first it's critical to get a basic measure of prosperity on the ground. Holding an election for who shall run a government that can't control most of its territory, is ridden with warlords, and has few functioning institutions is a fairly futile exercise, doubly so if the population has no security and can barely even feed itself. Far better to pump those resources into strengthening Afghan institutions and prosperity, with the hope of more effective elections down the line.


UPDATE: Jean McKenzie on the NYTimes Op-Ed page argues the entire vote was a sham:

[I]t was intended to convince voters in New York, London, Paris and Rome that their soldiers and their governments have not been wasting blood and treasure in their unfocused and ill-designed attempts to bring stability to a small, war-torn country in South Asia.

is Ban really doing that bad a job?

I'm a little late blogging on last week's scathing report by Norweigan Deputy Ambassador Mona Juul to her Ministry on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's performance (translation of the letter included), but for those who didn't read it, it accuses Ban of being passive abroad, incompetent at home and prone to "temper tantrums."

Well, from what Ambassador At Large has heard, the temper tantrums part is accurate, and his management style has been somewhat insular and disappointing. It's also true that he doesn't have Kofi's charisma and probably never will. Buuut...

Amb. Juul's report doesn't give the SG enough credit on two points:

1. It accuses him of failing to solve things that nobody can solve, like Burma's refusal to release Aung Sun Suu Kyi. Kofi couldn't make them do it. The US and EU can't. ASEAN can't. The UN is not a country and the SG commands no army. It's no surprise he can't do this sort of thing.

2. It fails to credit Ban for the persistent diplomacy that he's displayed. Ban travels constantly to all corners of the world and is always willing to fly and meet somebody. Sometimes he gets stood up, like on his recent ill-advised trip to Burma. But he'd also moved Sudan to be more pliant on the deployment of the UNAMID peacekeeping force in Darfur, and gotten more out of Khartoum than even Kofi ever could. (That all changed, of course, after the ICC indictment, over which Ban had no control.) Also, Ban and his humanitarian chief John Holmes almost single-handedly convinced the paranoid Burmese junta to allow in food aid after Cyclone Nargis and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

This is not to say that Ban has been an exemplary SG in his first half-term and it's not to say he'll get a second term. But the Secretary-General has limited power and some of the expectations of the position are just unrealistic.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Save Darfur heckles vacationing president

... with ads telling him to do more on Darfur.

Newsflash, activists. The Darfur genocide is OVER. It ended in 2004. The UN and other interested parties, including the US through its special envoy, are working as hard as they can to get a political settlement that can finally put an end to what the UN itself now describes as a "low-intensity" conflict. If the Enough Campaign had switched over to Sri Lanka 6 months ago, it might have made a difference. There's 20,000 troops on the ground in Darfur, with full deployment likely by the end of the year, and the UN's managed to fill most of the humanitarian gap from President Bashir's decision to evict the NGOs. And now the President is taking a few days off in Martha's Vineyard. What's the problem?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Webb throws China under the bus on Burma

US Senator Jim Webb, after meeting with the Burmese junta this week and securing the release of American John Yettaw, blamed China for not stepping up to solve Burma's problems. Quoth Webb:

When I returned to Bangkok from Myanmar I raised my view at that time, with respect to the issues in Myanmar, that the Chinese government should step forward and show leadership in assisting in solving that situation, and they have not done that yet.


Webb is one of the smarter voices on Myanmar, pointing out that strong sanctions on the regime have driven it into China's camp, where it will now likely stay indefinitely. Since the Chinese don't give a crap about human rights, democracy, or anything apart from access to natural resources, this seriously undermines the possibility of political reform in Burma. As it stands, China today (along with, to a lesser extent ASEAN and India) is the only country to have serious influence over the country. I'm not holding my breath for them to pressure to regime to be less evil.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mike Huckabee: ethnic cleansing is OK if the Israelis do it

Today in Israel Mike Huckabee (aka Huckabee The Mackabee for his steadfast support for the Jewish State) said that a Palestinian state is "unrealistic" in the West Bank and the Palestinians should find a state of their own someplace else.

In short, assuming Israel is to stay a "Jewish State," most of the Palestinians in the West Bank should pack up and leave.

And, um, Mike, where will the Palestinians go?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Rwanda and the death of Responsibility To Protect

Rwanda is always the rallying cry for the pro-R2P crowd, so it's nice to see Daniel Davies over at Crooked Timber take down their argument.

The thing is, there WAS a military intervention in Rwanda.

It was called “Operation Turquoise“, carried out by the French government acting under a UN mandate, aimed at stabilising the recognised government of Rwanda and establishing a “safe zone”. It’s described in Conor’s book, and in most histories of the Rwandan genocide. It’s not at all an obscure fact about Rwanda that Operation Turquoise happened there.

The reason why humanitarian interventionists don’t typically mention Turquoise, however, is that it was an unmitigated disaster. It drew resources away from the existing UN peacekeeping force, it had confused rules of engagement which left it all too often acting as a bodyguard for genocidaires and it withdrew halfway through the genocide, leaving a massive refugee problem.


In other words, foreign intervention came with political goals that had very little to do with humanitarianism... as it usually does. Rwanda is an excellent example of why we should be wary of foreign intervention, and not one for interventionists to champion.