My October Diplomat Essay: Was Syria a Bridge-Too-Far for Untrammeled Executive War-Powers? (yes)


Jump to 1:13: That’s best question asked during the GOP debates last year

This is my monthly essay for the Diplomat web-magazine. The original can be found here. I will say upfront that I am not a lawyer, but a political scientist, so I am aware that the legal argument about presidential war powers independent of Congress is fierce. But that interests me less than the absolute (or moral or philosophical) argument for unconstrained presidentialism on the use of force. That is, whether or not presidential unilateralism in the use of force is ‘constitutional,’ as the lawyers would say, is something a dodge. That does not mean it’s right. The Constitution is not perfect and has been amended for things like slavery, women’s enfranchisement, and Prohibition. So ultimately the president should justify ignoring Congress in war-time by some argument consonant with liberal democratic values, rather than an ex cathedra appeal to authority. And I don’t really think it is possible to coherently argue that presidential free-lancing with minimal Congressional oversight and consent is good for democracy. In fact, that strikes me as self-evident, which is why I love that Ron Paul quote in the video (1:13 mark) above. The essay follows the jump and is written in an op-ed style.

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The International Relations Discipline and the Rise of Asia


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A few months ago, I was commissioned by the International Relations and Security Network of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to provide a brief write-up on how Asia’s rise will impact the formal discipline of international relations (IR) within political science. I didn’t get a chance to put it up earlier, and inevitably, the brief means sweeping judgments in just a few pages, but I think it’s a reasonable effort. Here is the version on their website; below it is reprinted:

“It is widely understood that international relations (IR) relies on modern (post-Columbus) and North Atlantic cases as the research base for its general theory. Our graduate students are well-versed in a heavily researched set of cases such as the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, or the Cuban Missile Crisis. While this is arguably ‘eurocentric’ training – white, western practitioners feigning to build ‘universal’ theory from just the cases and languages they know best from their own civilizational background – it might be also reasonably explained by Western dominance of world politics for so many centuries. So long as the West (including the USSR as a basically Western leftist project) so overawed the planet’s politics, then a modern and Atlantic prejudice was perhaps less narrow than it seems. Whatever the cause, this will likely change in the coming decades.

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What Exactly is the Social Science Citation Index Anyway? or, which Korean IR Journals should You Read?


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Yeah, I don’t really know either. I always hear the expression ‘SSCI’ thrown around as the gold standard for social science work. Administrators seem to love it, but where it comes from and how it gets compiled I don’t really understand. Given that we all seem to use this language and worry about impact factor all the time, I thought I would simply post the list of journals for IR ranked by impact factor (after the break).

I don’t think I ever actually saw this list before all laid out completely. In grad school, I just had a vague idea that I was supposed to send my stuff to the same journals whose articles I was reading in class. But given that I haven’t found this list posted on the internet anywhere, here it is. I don’t know if that means it is gated or something, or if my school has a subscription, or whatever. Anyway, I thought posting the whole IR list would be helpful for this site’s readership.

Note that a bunch of them are published in Asia, and 3 alone are about Korea (Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Korean Observer, and NK Review) – so get to work!

But I have a few questions. First, why does Thomson-Reuters create this? Why don’t we do it? Does anyone actually know what they do that qualifies them for this ? And don’t say ‘consulting’ or ‘knowledge services’ or that sort of MBA-speak. The picture above includes some modernist, high-tech skyscraper, presumably to suggest that lots of brilliant, hi-tech theorists are in there crunching away big numbers (but the flower tells you they have a soft side too – ahh), but I don’t buy it. Are these guys former academics who know what we read? Who are they? Does anyone know? The T-R website tells you nothing beyond buzzwords like ‘the knowledge effect’ and ‘synergy.’ I am genuinely curious how T-R got this gig and why we listen to them. Why don’t we make our own list?

Next, I am not sure if the SSCI and the Journal Citation Reports from T-R are different or not or what. Click here to see the SSCI list; and here is the JCR link, which is probably gated, but ask your administration; they probably have access. There are 3038 journals in the whole SSCI list (!), 107 listed under political science, and 82 under IR. There is some overlap between the last two, but the PS list does not completely subsume the IR list, as I think most of us would think it should. For example, IS is listed only under IR, not political science, but ISQ is listed under both, even though I think most people would say IS is a better journal than ISQ. Also, there is no identifiable list for the other 3 subfields of political science. I find that very unhelpful. More generally, I would like to know how T-R chooses which journals are on the SSCI and which not. It doesn’t take much effort to see that they’re almost all published in English…

Next, I thought the SSCI was only peer-reviewed, but Foreign Affairs and the Washington Quarterly (which I understand to be solicited, not actually peer-reviewed – correct me if I am wrong) are listed on the IR list, and even Commentary and the Nation magazine are on the PS list. Wow – your neocon ideological ravings can actually count as scholarship. Obviously FA should be ranked for impact factor; it’s hugely influential. But does it belong on the SSCI? Note also that ISR is listed on the IR roster, as is its old incarnation, the Mershon ISR. Hasn’t that been gone now for more than a decade? Also when you access the impact factors (after the jump),T-R provides an IR list with its ‘Journal Citation Reports’ that has only 78 journals listed for IR, not 82. So the SSCI for IR (82) does not quite equal the JCR for IR (78). Is that just a clerical error? If so, does that mean the super-geniuses in the futuristic skyscraper are spending too much time looking out the windows at the flowers? I guess if you double-count M/ISR, you get 79, which is pretty close to 82, but given how definitive this list is supposed to be, it seems like there are problems and confusions.

Anyway, I don’t really know, so I just thought I’d throw it out there. Check the IR rankings on the next page.

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Syria Sanctions failed b/c of R2P Overreach in Libya – get out Nato


In the last 6 weeks, I warned that if NATO kept the operation in Libya rolling, it would tarnish the responsibility to protect doctrine (R2P). R2P says external military force can be used to prevent massive human rights abuses, like Srebrenica or Rwanda. In Libya, an R2P intervention was justified, because Gaddafi and his sons talked about ‘rivers of blood in the streets’ and hunting the rebels ‘like rats, allay by alley.’

But after the fall of Tripoli, it was clear that Gaddafi was not longer a massive human rights threat in Libya. The National Transition Council clearly no longer needed NATO assistance. The NATO mission was no longer necessary in what is now a fairly traditional civil war. A focused, limited, and coherent R2P doctrine is the best antidote to the ‘its an internal affair’ siren song used by oppressive states like China or Sudan to prevent outside scrutiny of their illiberalism. Here was an intellectually defensible wedge against using ‘sovereignty’ as all-purpose excuse to brutalize your own people.

Hence, keeping the NATO mission going past necessity was a sure way to tell everyone that R2P is just another name for “regime change,” Bushism, neoconservatism, etc. R2P would lose its focus and look yet again like western imperialism to non-western states.

And that is what we got this week when the UN Security Council voted against sanctions on Syria. The BRICS explicitly noted that Libya’s R2P vote turned into regime change, and that they didn’t vote for that or want that. The more we stay in Libya, the less it looks like R2P and the more it looks like Iraq-light.

No wonder no one trusts us. Despite all of our angst and hand-wringing about Iraq, as soon as we won another war, our neocon, ‘inside every g—, there is an American struggling to get out (video above)’ instinct came roaring back. But all the western victory laps do is undercut R2P as real human rights-protecting mechanism because no one will vote for it in the future, now that they’ve seen Libya. Another opportunity for better global governance squandered by neocon arrogance…

Some Media on the 9/11 Anniversary and Libya


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1. This week I wrote on an op-ed for the local Korean affiliate of the International Herald Tribune. It is based on my two 9/11 posts from last week.

Re-reading it today makes me wonder if I was too tough in calling Afghanistan a ‘quagmire.’ But honestly I don’t think that is an exaggeration anymore. Does anyone really believe we are winning there anymore? I find this as frustrating as anyone else; is there no way to ‘win’ (no, I don’t know what that means either) that wouldn’t keep us there for decades and cost more trillions we don’t have? I just don’t see it anymore, even though I supported the original invasion. Similarly this the most high-profile platform in which I state that I think Iraq 2 was an error. I supported that too until recently, but we killed so many people and disrupted so many lives, for such modest improvement in Iraqi governance, that I just can’t find a way to defend it anymore.

2. I also spoke about Libya on Pusan’s English language radio station, 90.5 FM. (Go here and click on no. 117, for September 5, 2011 show.) Those comments are based on these blog posts. In the last two weeks, I still don’t understand why NATO is staying in Libya anymore. I argued both in print and on the radio that the only way to keep R2P as a legitimate humanitarian intervention doctrine is for the interveners to get out of the way as soon as they are no longer needed to prevent the massacres that brought about the intervention calls to begin with. If the interveners (in this case, NATO) stay in beyond necessity (as is clearly so in Libya now), then R2P increasingly becomes a gimmick for externally-imposed regime change. That casts the R2P debate back into the terms broached by the Iraq invasion – R2P will be read as human right imperialism, American empire, neocolonialism, etc. Please don’t do this!

Libya is an important opportunity to demonstrate the R2P is a limited, non-western intervention doctrine that can hold non-western support, because its based in human rights lessons learned in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Darfur. NATO needs to get out immediately to keep it that way. If we stay in there taking victory laps, Russia, China, and India will never go along with this again. GET OUT NOW.

Libya Lessons (2): NATO is No Longer Necessary – Get Out Now


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Part one of this post is here. Here are a few more lessons to draw:

6. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is, unfortunately, encouraging dictators to dig in instead of scram. The ICC is classic liberal internationalism -a multilateral forum crafted mainly by the liberal democracies for the purpose of spreading international law and taming the ‘anarchy’ of international relations. It looks like a great idea, and indeed the US reticence to it is based on rather specious claims that US soldiers might somehow get hauled before it despite the myriad protections to prevent that from happening. (The real US concern is any constraint on war-making by the Pentagon, and the US obsession with its ‘exceptionalism.’) I support the ICC and wish the US would join.

That said, it is pretty clear that ICC indictments against Gaddafi and sons encouraged them to stay and fight, because flight was impossible. If they can’t flee to a safe haven – because the ICC makes it a sanctionable offense for any state to harbor them – then they have no choice but to stay and slug it out to the bitter end. And indeed, there is a nice rest home for Afro-Middle Eastern despots – autocratic Saudi Arabia. The Saudi took in Idi Amin in 1980 and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Gaddafi would make a nice addition; perhaps he and Ali could reminisce about the good old days, like in some John Hughes movie for dictators. But once the indictments came down, the Gaddafis had nowhere to go, even though they were sending pretty clear signals for awhile that they would exchange an exit for abdication and an end to the conflict.

It seems to met that getting these guys out of power is the most important priority. The ICC, paradoxically, gets in the way. Remember that for awhile there it looked like Gaddafi might win or split the country. No one expected Tripoli to fall so easily. I think it would be a much better outcome to offer these guys just about anything they want to scram. Usually all they want is their family out with them, some cash to keep on with the good life, and immunity from prosecution. That strikes me as a pretty good bargain, even if if thwarts justice. And it is a good precedent for trying to get other autocratic nasties, like the Mugabe and Kim cliques in Zimbabwe and NK, out the way as well without a huge bloodbath.

7. The American president needs to start declaring war again. Libya has all but set in stone the awful, dictatorship-looking, and very unconstitutional practice that the US president can war with minimal Congressional intervention or even approval. The president’s shenanigans around the War Powers Act were disgraceful. Obama made a good case for the war in March and April, and it would have been a good exercise in national deliberation on US warmaking after Iraq to have had a big national and Congressional debate. Instead, Obama – a constitutional lawyer no less! – took the low road; isn’t this one of the reasons we voted for him, and against the Bushist, I-can-do-whatever-I-want GOP?

8. Get NATO out as soon as possible, i.e., right now. The NATO mission, against high odds and great (and deserved) skepticism, helped. Don’t push your luck, and keep the mission as absolutely minimal as necessary. Once Tripoli fell last week, NATO should have withdrawn immediately. The NTC clearly no longer needs NATO assistance. Gaddafi is finished, not matter what his nut-ball sons say on TV. To keep NATO on-mission when it isn’t necessary anymore, only stokes the anger of countries, especially China and Russia, that dislike R2P already. If NATO keeps staying involved, it will indeed look like R2P means ‘regime change’ and not the protection of human rights. NATO’s desire to stay in the game is understandable: this is a nice win for NATO after a decade of GWoT confusion and transatlantic tension, and Libya’s course clearly impacts the southern tier of the NATO states. But those benefits are more than outweighed by the need for limits: the West is broke now, so it should set a precedent of restrained intervention, even when things are going well. Nor do we want anything like Iraq – where the US/West gets pulled deeply into domestic reconstruction by hanging around. The best way to prevent the mission creep everyone worried about in this operation is to end as soon as possible (i.e. in this case, when the NTC would no longer be wiped out in a bloodbath without NATO) and we have clearly reached that point now.

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NB: On an unrelated note, you should probably read this, from the foremost proponent of the ‘China threat’ school.

NB2: Last week I argued that the US needs another stimuls. US conservatives and the whole GOP field oppose this. But on Monday the yield on US Treasuries dropped below 2%! That hasn’t happened since the 40s. If that doesn’t tell you the USG should spend, because no else will – i.e., people are so desperate to save, they will even take just 1.98% interest on their savings - then nothing will. But I have no doubt the GOP will trash Obama’s jobs initiative today with no hesitantation. It’s going from bad to worse.

Libya Lessons (1): Don’t Gloat, but Liberal Interventionism did Work


Part 2 of this post will come on Thursday.

There is a lot of commentary, of course, on the war. I think, this, this, and this are a good start. Here are my own thoughts:

1. Can Libya be rolled in with Kosovo 1999, Afghanistan 2001, and France’ recent intervention in Ivory Coast into a winning model for future western interventions in the severe conflict zones? Somalia 1993 is not necessarily a counter-case, because the US went there to distribute aid (ie, nation-build), not to actually intervene militarily with a defined outcome for ‘victory.’

2. NATO pulled itself back from the post-GWoT brink, especially concerning Europe. Libya helps counter-act the growing belief that the Europeans don’t want to fight anymore. But it’s very obvious that Libya – minor country of just 7 million people – pushed NATO coordination to the brink. I remain a supporter of NATO, because it pools liberal democratic force, but Libya was a bullet dodged as much as a success. NATO should not be gloating or cheering, but rather thanking the gods that it all didn’t go horribly wrong.

3. The emergence of NATO a la carte is now entrenched. Some allies simply decided they didn’t want to be involved in Libya – Turkey and Germany specifically. But to avoid an alliance-wide crisis, they didn’t stand in the way either. So NATO countries, including the US (‘leading from behind’, the early shift in command to NATO), dipped in and out, more or less as dictated by their domestic politics. This was presaged by the many conditions placed on the operation of national forces in NATO’s Afghanistan operation in the last decade. Together, this could portend a major, new, de facto (although never admitted) modality in NATO’s use of force. On the one hand, it opens the possibility that other non-NATO members could cooperate more easily (if Germany can drop out, why not invite Mexico or SK in for a mission or two?). But most importantly, a la carte modalities effectively erode the collective security guarantee of Article 5 (that all the NATO members will fight as a unit if any is attacked). So the Eastern Europeans should be pretty terrified right now – maybe Germany or Spain will slack if Russia starts bulllying the Baltics.

4. This should not be a cause for neo-con gloating, or otherwise lead to a renewal of Bush, democratic imperialism, American empire talk, and the rest. The arguments against the campaign were very strong and the reason why most proponents argued for a limited intervention – a thumb on the scale to help the rebels, not an invasion cloaked in overwrought ‘freedom agenda’ rhetoric. My support for the intervention was narrow. NATO was to prevent a bloodbath, but otherwise let the rebels do it themselves. That would encourage local ownership of the results, prevent another Mideast quagmire for western forces, and limit the West’s moral culpability if it all went horribly wrong (as it may still). The obvious comparison is of course Iraq, where we are far more responsible for all the death and chaos of the 2000s. Intellectual defenders of the intervention should realize that we got fairly lucky in Libya, even as we did help shape the course. So hubris is foolish. On the other hand, opponents who discounted the closeness of Libya to NATO (making intervention easier), the close attention to limits (so keeping the intervention cheaper and less bloody for the West), and moral value of Gaddafi’s ouster (the rationale to begin with), really should recognize this. Walt ducks this by saying he never doubted the outcome once the US got involved, even though he argued earlier that we shouldn’t get involved, and the National Interest really should apologize to Samatha Power for its mean-spirited May/June 2011 cover.

5. Keep refining R2P. If Libya had gone wrong, it would have killed liberal interventionism. The West is running out of money for this sort of things, and its publics don’t like it either. The ‘rest’ worry that it is imperialism, and even non-western democracies like India, Japan, and S Korea, quietly reject or won’t sacrifice seriously for R2P. R2P Critics insists on taking an all-or-nothing attitude toward these sorts of operations – that any intervention will become a quagmire like Iraq, so we shouldn’t do it. But to be fair, Libya actually worked out pretty well. The limits on western intervention were maintained; ‘mission creep’ did not happen. The right guys won the war with minimal western assistance. The whole world didn’t have an Iraq-style freak-out over US imperialism. That’s not bad at all for R2P to my mind. But we should be open to the possibility that most R2P operations won’t go as well, but that isn’t a reason for not trying. R2P is so messy and hard, that we should be prepared to accept some level of failure.

Does it Make Humanitarian Sense to Let Libyans Fight it Out Alone?


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Regular readers know that I supported the Libyan intervention primarily on humanitarian grounds. For my writing on Libya, please try here and here. My big concern was that the fall of Benghazi might initiate a massacre like Srebrenica. If a limited intervention could forestall that, I think it was justifiable. To critics who said this was duplicitous, because we did not intervene in Ivory Coast or Syria, my response was that Libya moved first (its problems were presented earlier), which matters in a world of scarce resources with limited knowledge of the future. Also, Libya was proximate to NATO making it that much easier and so more morally compelling. This is hardly an air-tight case; Libyan lives are no more ontologically valuable than Syrian or Ivorian. But there are limits to what outsiders can do; and I thought Libya pretty well met the nexus of limited western capabilities – badly restricted by American military overstretch and degraded European militaries – and the clear humanitarian imperative raised when Gaddafi and sons started ranting about ‘rivers of blood’ and ‘hunting the rebels like rats, alley by alley.’ Non-interventionists retort that a massacre was not actually likely, but I disagree with that assessment.

A much stronger argument raised by non-interventionists directly challenges the humanitarian rationale. This argues that civil wars that stalemate, as Libya’s has now, actually produce more death and destruction over time than quick, definitive endings. I don’t have any particularly good cite on this, but generally I find that Max Hastings at the Financial Times, Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy, and various authors at the National Interest have leaned in this direction on Libya. In passing, I should say that I find all these authors to raise excellent points. Their analysis is worth your time and vastly more professional and serious than the partisan and uniformed commentary coming from Congress and the GOP presidential field. If you want to know why Libya is a mistake, read Walt or Hastings; don’t waste your time with FoxNews or Newt Gingrich.

So if the Libyan civil war drags on for years, with hundreds of thousands killed, does that mean it would have been better for Gaddafi to win early, and ‘only’ kill ten thousand? This strikes me as quite strong (and humane, albeit macabre) logic. Here are three possible responses:

1. Any comparative body counts (yes, it is that ghoulish to say so, but this is what murderous thugs force on us) must account for all the violence Gaddafi would also inflict on Libyans in the wake of his victory and restoration of the old order. In other words, it is not enough to say that Gaddafi would kill fewer than the civil war would, therefore his victory is better, because Gaddafi would end up killing many more in the future, presumably, in order to re-bolster his police state. These future murders and persecutions must be included with the casualties of a Benghazi massacre on the interventionist side of the ledger.

2. At the time of intervention (mid-March), it was not possible to seriously predict that the civil war would drag on. Indeed, even now, no one really knows how long this will go. Gaddafi could fold at any time; defections keep happening; the rebels do seem to be, slowly, clawing back. Even Walt agrees that Gaddafi is probably on his way out. This lowers the probability of a much higher body count from a civil war, because we don’t really know how long it will, in fact, last. On the hand, the probability was pretty high that a Gaddafi victory in Benghazi would lead to a massacre.

In the end, the only way to definitively know is post-hoc, which means we must estimate at the pre-hoc time of decision. We can only say if the intervention was humanitarianly beneficial after the war ends. If it does take 5 years and 250,000 dead, we will then look back in 5 years and concur that it was an error. If it ends next week, we won’t. By way of example, look at our thinking on Iraq 2. In 2003, the Bush people promised a blitzkreig like Desert Storm. We were to be liberators with a quick ‘mission accomplished’ and home by Christmas. Like many, I (foolishly) believed this narrative also and supported the Iraq War. In retrospect, this was a terrible error for which I feel ashamed and for which students regularly criticize me, but I (and many others) only knew that clearly by, say, 2005/06. (How Bush can still say he would do it all over again is just beyond me.)

Like so many, I thought the Bush people had actually planned something for Iraq after the victory, especially given that it was a war of choice with lots of time to plan and think. And indeed, if Iraq 2 had gone as Iraq 1, Bush 2 would be hailed as one of America’s great presidents. Unfortunately, decisions can’t be made with full information at the time, and looming massacre in Benghazi forced a rapid decision on Obama. This is the real distinction between Obama’s Libya forced intervention decision and Bush’s Iraq war of choice. Obama had little time to prepare, and so inevitably the operation is clunky and rushed; Bush, by contrast, had months of time to plan Iraq and its aftermath (plus the years spent on the Future of Iraq Project) and clearly didn’t do it. This is why I reject Walt’s comparisons of the Libyan war to Iraq 2.

So Obama had to make the best choice at the time and with time pressing dramatically. And while it is true that Iraq should have served as a cautionary against charging in, it is also true that Bosnia and Rwanda should have served as a cautionary against doing nothing and that Kosovo presented a possible model for how NATO airpower could help tip the local balance. The analysis, because it must be predictive, is messy and imprecise, and if Libya becomes Iraq 2, we will all be chastened as we were after Iraq 2 turned into a bloodbath. But remember that we were also all chastened after Rwanda also turned into a bloodbath. We felt ashamed we did nothing and promised to try harder the next time. This is that next time.

3. Finally, I am not sure how much I buy it that quickly resolved civil wars are in fact for the best. This post was motivated by this story at the Economist on the end of the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a good parallel with Libya, because it was a civil war that dragged on endlessly, killing thousands over decades and regularly debilitating Sri Lanka’s ability to develop and normalize. I think this is why everyone looked away as the Singhalese army basically wiped out the Tamils with inevitable end-massacre. Everyone just wanted it to end, and this seemed like the final closure the world wanted on an awful, endless problem that know one really knew how to resolve. One victor, completely triumphant and imposing a peace that might eventually mature, seemed better than years and years further of more of the awful same. James Fearon’s work on civil wars suggests this too: the best way to end them is a definitive victory by one side or the other. The American civil war would be a case in point, and definitive end of secession was clearly behind Lincoln’s tacit endorsement of Sherman’s scorched earth policy in the South. The Singhalese provided such an end in Sri Lanka, and NATO intervention probably stopped this outcome in Libya.

But note also the extraordinary cost the Economist notes of the Singhalese victory. Does anyone really feel comfortable advocating that? If tens of thousands of guaranteed Libyan deaths prevent possible hundreds of thousands of future Libyan deaths, how does one possibly morally choose among those alternatives? Who wants to say to the residents of Benghazi (or the Tamils), you must die for the ‘greater good’ of society? There are examples of fragile peace between the sides of a civil conflict (Bosnia today, or Cyprus) that manage to avoid the ‘eliminationist’ logic that one side needs to win in order to finally stop the killing. And who wants to make such an awful, unbelievably cold-blooded decision? Who could sleep at night endorsing this? Bill Clinton cannot.

R2P’s ‘Time Problem’: Helping Libya, not Syria, b/c Libya Revolted First


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I am participating in a scenario on what the West’s response to the Syria revolt should be. A growing number of contributors are arguing for western intervention. Proponents explicitly cite the Western intervention in Libya. I have argued against this. Another such intervention would likely split NATO, bring howls of protest from the BRICS, and the likely western interveners (US, France, Britain) are already overstretched in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These are good practical reasons (one can only do so much). But they do not alter the obvious moral question – why help Libyans, not Syrians, or by extension, Yemenis who are also dying in increasing numbers for an admirable effort for more democracy? It is ontologically horrific to say that Libyan lives are more valuable than those of other Arab (or Africans, East Timorese, etc). So why help Libya, but not others?

The most obvious answers are, unfortunately pretty coarse and strategic: Libya is close (Rwanda was far from NATO); Gaddafi is a western enemy already (so getting rid of him is a ‘twofer’ – saving lives and eliminating an nuisance); Libya has oil. But these aren’t normative answers which fit the R2P framework. They are more traditional national interest answers. Within a traditional national interest frame of security (realism) these are good answers. But the whole point of R2P is to get beyond that sort of crass maneuvering and suggest there is minimum moral benchmark of global treatment of civilians.  If we accept the R2P logic, then some kind of moral distinctions should be made beyond the ‘extras’ that we don’t like Gaddafi already or that his oil supplies the huge EU market.

I do realize that this holds constant the notion that the West should go in. R2P might easily be construed as a recipe for neo-imperialism under the guise of human rights, as clearly many think the Libyan intervention really is. To which I would say two things. First, hold this thought for the sake of the argument. Assume that multiple interventions are justified, but scarce resources limit how much outsiders could intervene. Second, I don’t actually think R2P has to become a neo-conservative gimmick to go back to US empire. It could, I suppose, but that need not happen. Remember that the UN Security Council, including Russia and China, voted unanimously for the R2P resolution (1674), as did the General Assembly. (Go here for all the details.)

So if we assume that an R2P moral framework fits the Libyan intervention, then the question of the benchmarks for intervention come up. I argued before that Libya was a unique moment because a potential massacre was brewing in Benghazi. But it is also increasingly clear that the Libyan rebels got help because they moved first. That is, they revolted earlier and more seriously than did other places in Arab Spring. This has generated a lot of hypocrisy criticism about why then we did not go into Ivory Coast, and won’t into Syria or Yemen. This suggest it is just western imperialism after all in Libya.

I don’t think so, so this why I suggest that the timing of such crises might be a justification for deciding in which to intervene and which not. Ideally, of course, under an R2P frame, all brutal repressions would be subject to the same level of moral opposition, because any human life anywhere has the same ontological value (ie, Libyans are not ‘more’ human the Yemenis or Ivorians). This is so, but the reality of scarce resources in possible interveners means that discrimination will be made, and here is where I think timing can help to reduce the ontological awfulness of not helping Ivorians or Syrians while doing so in Libya.

I bring this up, because the debate over when to apply the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine has no good answer beyond the likelihood of mass slaughter. Nexon has done a good job of laying out all the tangled issues that justified the Libyan intervention (here and here), but he still can’t really place his finger well on anything that might be coherently called an ‘Obama Doctrine.’ The problem with the ‘mass slaughter’ benchmark is that it too places an uncomfortable value on life – ‘more’ is more important than ‘less.’ That is probably right, but leaves several obvious problems: how many is ‘more’ (1,000, 10,000, 100,000)?; there are lots of slaughters globally (Darfur, Rwanda), so how do we choose (if they have oil or not?!); any high benchmark of deaths is cold comfort to the ‘few’ people who are nonetheless being machine-gunned in Syria.

So it occurs to me that one benchmark that might help is the ‘first mover one. Libya gets help, because at the time of the revolt, other repressions (Yemen, Syria) weren’t so bad at the time. This has three advantages. First, it lessens the awful moral choice of saying the Syrian lives are less valuable than Libyan lives. Second, is responsive to the context of these sorts of repressions. Instead of placing all possible repressions against one another and saying which one, why not look at them sequentially in a time series. The West cannot do everything. Even if the West wasn’t in Iraq or Afghanistan, it would still be impossible to go everywhere there are truly awful repressions. Three, it helps lessen future repressions by drawing lines that other potential repressors will have to think about crossing, even if we couldn’t intervene anyway because we are overstretched from the first one.Ie, there is a potential signaling benefit for others from helping from the first mover.

So if we accept that R2P really is a global public good, and not just a western interventionist plot, then the issue of when to deploy it comes up. Using the time sequence logic sketched above seems like a good first cut, and a far better than saying R2P kicks in only when other more important, but unstated, interests, like oil or alliances, coincide. And Libya seems to meet that. There isn’t that much oil or other western interest there; Robert Gates admitted that much.

There’s No NATO ‘Crisis’: Muddling Through Libya is Good Enough


NATO Flag

 

Besides the much-needed debate on the limits of the responsibility to protect (R2P), the Libyan mess has also provoked some good discussion of what NATO is supposed to do now, 20 years after the Cold War. It is a good question actually. Western publics are so accustomed to it, we just don’t even consider it much (such public opinion inertia is one reason it is still around). Conversely, the Chinese, and Russians especially, continue to suspect it as a ‘bloc’ that might somehow be used for future containment of them. Here and here are good articles Libya as a NATO-breaking event – a distinct possibility, especially if there is a push to extend NATO intervention into other Arab Spring revolts. Here and here are two defenses, that still struggle to define NATO’s military role.

My own sense is that NATO would be better off just openly admitting that it is now western military club for the general promotion of democracy and liberalism when its members feel so compelled. It is basically that ‘league of democracies’ idea, the formal proposal of which failed a few years ago. I understand that this is terribly messy, and it sounds pretty open-ended. But like the evolution of the R2P concept, just because it is open-ended, doesn’t mean the alliance needs to act on every possible scenario. We are learning how this works; there is no rush. Like the evolution of R2P, a more general mission for NATO would allow the members to pick-and-choose where interest, values, capabilities. Such ‘selective action’ is well-shown in the current Libya operation.

Yes, the Cold War brought a level of clarity to world politics that we all, disturbingly, seem to miss. But trying to force NATO into old boxes – ie, looking for a Soviet-style threat that brings ‘mission clarity’ or ‘threat definition’ is a fool’s errand by now. We really ought to know that 20 years after the Wall fell, and god help us if we place China into the Soviet ‘enemy box.’ As I argued earlier, the mess of crises of the future will be mostly ‘third world brushfires’ that like Somalia, Kosovo, or Rwanda. This should hardly be news to anyone who has followed the emergence of COIN in US military thinking in the last decade.

Such third world crises  require different force postures among NATO allies, yes, but they are hardly a reason to dissolve or disdain NATO. The most obvious evidence for this is George W Bush’s dismissal of NATO assistance in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush thought NATO too encumbering, sluggish, and political for the rapid action he sought. But then both operations went south, and the US has tried repeatedly to pull NATO in.

Anyone who follows NATO knows the endless ‘out-of-area’ discussion discussion: should NATO go out of its European area into places like Afghanistan? I have no definitive answer – probably, but selectively. But far more important is that NATO is working this out, albeit slowly. This is why I don’t understand the pundit contempt for NATO ‘dithering.’ What is the alternative? Do neo-cons, eg., really want the US do all this stuff alone, again? Didn’t we learn that hard lesson in the last decade? And to those who think NATO is just irrelevant, should we simply close it? NATO is the closest thing we have to a club of democracies. As such, it carries enormous moral weight in world politics, beyond the simple aggregate of its military capabilities (which are, to be sure, atrophying). Yes, NATO bickers incessantly, but any show of unanimity from organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or ASEAN is almost certainly farcical and repressed – a representation of solely elite, frequently dictatorial, views. By contrast, NATO, because it is democratic, signals far more credibly. So while it takes awhile for NATO to get its act together (dithering), it is vastly more meaningful when it does – even if partially, as in Libya. And NATO ‘interoperability’ reduces the coordination costs among the democracies. Finally, its existence is minimally costly. Members can still free-lance as the US did in Iraq and France just did in Ivory Coast. NATO does provide room for ‘coalitions of the willing.’

In sum, the costs of NATO are low – some meetings and a lot of hassle. But the benefits are high – a credible, somewhat united democratic voice in global affairs with enormous moral prestige, a functionally meaningful and capable alliance (unlike the ‘alliances’ between China and NK, or Russia and Belarus that look more like gangs than real alliances), and retained national room to maneuver.

So why complain about NATO so much? It is muddling through pretty well it seems to me. It is stumbling toward a new role to project democratic force on a selective basis. A more R2P focused NATO will re-assure China and Russia that they are not the alliance’ targets (even if they will call R2P ‘human rights imperialism’). What great benefit does anyone in the West (not just the US, but anyone) get if we close NATO?

The real problem with NATO is not the endlessly harped-on issue of its mission: I really can’t read anymore of these sorts of articles with variants of the title ‘the future of NATO.’ It should be blindingly obvious that in a messy post-Cold War, post-colonial world, NATO’s mission focus will correspondingly be unclear (beyond basic member security). But so is the mission of the UN, ASEAN, and maybe even the EU (!), so this is not uncommon in generalist, big-theme international organizations. The real issue is member capabilities – specifically the precipitous decline of the European democracies to project power independently of huge US intervention. The well-known ‘free-rider problem’ debilitates the alliance no matter what its mission. This is a problem in Asia too (although the SKs try harder than Japan, to be fair.) The real issue for NATO is not its irrelevance – in world of ‘brushfires,’ it will still have relevance as Libya just showed – it is the willingness of members to provide resources.

More on the Benghazi Massacre Counterfactual; Syria; plus some Media


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So this is a bits and pieces post.

1. Benghazi:

In the last few weeks, the issue of whether a massacre would have happened in Benghazi has a emerged as a major empirical divide between those who counseled intervention in Libya and those who did not. My own sense is that a massacre was a likely possibility, so I reluctantly supported intervention. My earlier thoughts on this are here, here, and here. Here is a very good review of the reasons, and here are Walt’s thoughts that the purported massacre was a bogus rationale.

The last link is Walt’s latest rejoinder. I still am not convinced. As I argued on Sunday, it is a mistake to suggest that Gaddafi’s behavior in the other towns is an indicator – the bloodbath will come after he wins, not while the war is raging (it is a diversion of critical resources). Also, I think Walt’s figure on Benghazi’s population (650k) is low. That city is now swollen with battlefield refugees, and by voting with their feet to go to Benghazi, not Tripoli, they have signaled their sympathy for the rebels. It is hardly a stretch to suggest that many of these people would be targeted for revenge killings. Finally, 650k is still quite a sizeable number. Most of Libya’s cities and towns are a lot smaller.

Walt does make the important point that we must think about just how many people must die or be threatened to meet an R2P threshold (dicsussed below for the Syrian case too). I admit I don’t really know the right answer to that one; that is an awfully uncomfortable moral proposition – albeit one that R2P advocates must answer somehow. My own sense is that Benghazi would not have been Rwanda, but Srebrenica. So Walt is probably right that there would not have been 100k dead and that such numbers were scare tactics. Maybe figures like that were used by human rights groups to morally bully western decision-makers into intervention. But still, Srebrenica was pretty god-awful. It’s very hard to figure this one out…

2. Syria:

Besides this blog, I write for another service now running a scenario on Arab Spring in Syria. As with my commenters on my Libya posts here, I have been pressed about applying the Libyan logic to the brewing Syrian mess. Here are my thoughts:

Without a UN mandate and local Arab endorsement (ideally from the Arab League) – as was the case in Libya – a Libyan-style western intervention option would be widely viewed as re-run of the Iraq War. The Libyan intervention decision was already fraught enough – both Germany and Turkey in NATO opposed it. Only the growing evidence of a looming bloodbath in Benghazi forced the West’s hand in Libya. To run that scenario again, and so soon, would likely split NATO yet again (as it was over Iraq 2 and Libya), and the Chinese and Russians, and the other BRICS too, would howl in protest.The only possible way an unsought NATO intervention might occur is if Israel were seriously considering intervening, which might spark a local war with Iran involved as well. NATO would then preempt that. Beyond that, an unrequested NATO intervention would alienate the planet, split NATO , and dump yet another Arab/Mulsim nation-building problem on the hands of the West, complete with Iranian meddling and all the disastrous, thoroughly foreseeable consequences that would flow from all that.

Abstaining from taking action, and waiting for an international call for action is almost certainly the right way to proceed, at this point. Everyone knows the US/West is dramatically overextended now, with huge budget deficits and debt, with a ‘neo-imperial’ reputation (rightly or wrongly) tarnished by the Iraq War. This means intervention can only be a last ditch measure, as it was in Benghazi to stop what look liked an impending massacre akin to Srebrenica. If the current Assad crackdown devolves into a major civil conflict in which thousands face annihilation, as they did in the 1982 Hama massacre, non-intervention will have to be re-evaluated. But the ‘responsbility to protect’ (R2P) threshold must stay somewhat high (Walt’s point above), otherwise the West could get chain-ganged into multiple human rights intervnetions that will increasingly look to Arab audiences like neo-imperialism. Libya was different because the Arab League, and UN, provided local moral cover, as did the clear warning alarms from human rights NGOs about a possible slaughter. I doubt that will happen again, and the Libyan intervention also is not going too well. So unless genuinely brutal suppression is verifiably imminent, intervention carries huge risk to be avoided. As I have argued before, the West can’t do everything, which leaves one in the uncomfortable position of helping the Libyans more than the Syrians, because the Libyans moved first. That feels terribly inadequate, I agree. Nothing about this Arab Spring is getting any easier…

3. Some Media:

A shortened, more professionalized version of my essay on the comparison of German and Korean unifcation was posted by the East Asia Forum here. The East Asia Forum is a good site on Asia-Pacific politics and economics; like Foreign Policy, it mixes scholarship and policy thinking into short, digestible presentations. I wholeheartedly recommend the site to readers of this blog.

Also, I spoke on a local radio station on Korea-Japan relations – what a tangle. Please go here if you are interested. Scroll down the page and click on the big green button with Korean lettering. My comments begin around 16:15.

Can We Please Stop Denying that We Prevented a Massacre in Benghazi?


 

The backlash to the Libyan intervention has begun, and to be sure, it is a controversial mess. My own support was lukewarm; like the president, I felt my hand was forced by the likelihood that Qaddafi would butcher thousands of people had he taken Benghazi two weeks ago. I feel like the president gave a good-enough rationale for the intervention, and western governments are trying hard to avoid getting pulled into an Iraq-style nation-building mess. I realize that ‘good-enough’ feels like an awful cop-out when it comes to war, but the world is pretty d— messy, and the acrimony of the debate tells me that no one really knows what we should do (let’s all at least admit that). Applying Clausewitzian-Powell Doctrine benchmarks – overwhelming force for a quick victory and a quick, clear exit – fits poorly on the emerging tangle of developing world crises where the issue is not a huge, militarized threat to western security (the Nazis or USSR), but a mix of mass humanitarian slaughter (Rwanda), terrorism (Afghanistan), piracy (Somalia), ethnic cleansing (Balkans), criminal takeovers (parts of Mexico and Columbia), etc. The problem, as Kaplan notes, is the semi-anarchic level of governance in much of the developing world, a problem Barnett tagged years ago as the ‘integrating the gap.’ As I argued last week, imposing Clausewitzian standards on intervention in such conflicts means that we will, then, almost never intervene – as we did not in Rwanda or Darfur.

This strikes me as an analytically clear benchmark for US intervention or not; often tagged as ‘realism,’ it is best associated in international relations theory with Walt and Layne. The problem is that, as critics of realism have argued since Mencian criticisms of Sun Tzu more than two millennia ago, it feels so very cold and heartless. Realists have fought this charge for years. In the end, not intervening in Kosovo, Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, Libya, etc. means that many people may die (or , in fact, have died), and this pulls on the heartstrings of anyone who thinks that the world should be a less brutal place and that if help is possible, there is a moral case to, if not always intervene, at least debate it and possibly do something. All this is captured in the debate over the responsibility to protect (R2P) that has exploded over the Libyan war.

It seems to me therefore that non-interventionists must defend a position that includes mass butchery as a likely outcome, yet still argue that we should not go in. For obvious reasons, no one really wants to say that in print. In fact the only serious figure I know of to unequivocally state, after the fact, that we still should not have gone into Rwanda, despite all the carnage, is John Bolton. So it strikes me that the current effort to downplay the likelihood of a massacre in Benghazi is driven more by the desire of non-interventionists to avoid the moral posture of having to admit that thousands of bodies, rapes, dead children, torture would nonetheless be ‘ok;’ as Stewart says in the clip on above Bolton, “When someone says would you have stopped the genocide, just say yes, just say yes!” I would still like to hear that case made more vigorously from the non-interventionists; it is analytically required to support the non-interventionist position, and to duck it by disputing the possibility is an analytical and moral dodge.

So consider the following on Benghazi, which I believe forces this issue:

 1. Qaddafi is a known brutal tyrant, with similarly brutal ‘buddies’ like Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), (now deceased) Hafez al Assad (Syria), and Omar el Bashir (Sudan) – all guilty of their own mass slaughters. It seems likely that moving in such circles, which comes at a high price of international respectability, means you don’t care too much about how many of your people will hang. It’s par for the course for these guys. I don’t think anyone disputes the reasonable possibility that Qaddafi would do what his buddy tyrants have also done in similar situations.

2. He and his family went on TV and said they intended a slaughter. His son Saif said there would be ‘rivers of blood in the streets.’ Qaddafi spoke of hunting the rebels ‘like rats, alley by alley.’ The Qaddafis’ various media spokesmen talked in similarly harsh, if less openly explosive ways too. To be sure, they may have been lying. Leaders lie all the time. Non-interventionists argue that this sort of talk was meant to deter other Libyans from joining the rebellion. Perhaps, but the rebellion had already started when Qaddafi started these terrifying ravings. As Pape notes, something like 75% of the country had already risen up against him, so there really wasn’t anyone left to deter. The whole country had already lined up on one side or the other.

Mead calls Qaddafi the ‘Great Loon,’ so maybe he is just too bonkers to know what he is saying. But Post says Qaddafi is more rational than we think. If so, then Gaddafi surely knew that talking like that would attract global attention immediately, and certainly Saif, who lived and was educated extensively in the West (complete with a PhD from the London School of Economics), knew that ‘rivers of blood’ would dramatically raise the likelihood of a western intervention. Despite these obvious ‘audience costs’ in the West (the ‘CNN effect’), they said this stuff anyway. That tells me they meant it.

3. I don’t buy the idea that because Qaddafi forces didn’t engage in mass slaughters in other re-captured cities, that suggests they would not have done so in Benghazi. First, the cities between Tripoli and Beghazi aren’t really ‘cities’ at all. There are only about 6 million people in Libya total, with half of them in just Benghazi and Tripoli. The rest of Libya’s ‘cities’ are more like towns, with Misrata, e.g., having only around 300 k. Further, the civil war has emptied much of the middle coastal strip between Tripoli and Benghazi. Those with rebel sympathies have been moving east for weeks. That means Benghazi is swollen with regime opponents, while the coastal middle towns are emptying. In short, the regime’s greatest opponents are concentrated in Libya’s second city, so the Qaddafi forces’ behavior in small, almost empty places like Brega (15.k) or Ras Lanuf (12.5 k) don’t indicate well what Gaddafi’s behavior in a large, rebel-swollen metropolis like Benghazi would have been.

Second, the towns aren’t really ‘captured.’ The civil war has see-sawed back and forth regularly for weeks now. I recall hearing one CCN reporter saying Ajdabiya has exchanged hand 6 times in as many weeks. The point being, that even as Qaddafi retakes places, his people don’t really have time to ‘hunt them like rats.’ Even mass slaughters take some planning, and his fighters are better needed to keep pushing east. Again, the critical difference would have been the fall of Benghazi. Because that is the ‘capital’ of the resistance, its fall would have likely ended the revolt. Qaddafi would then have the time and political order necessary to begin the re-consolidation of his position. That would be the time to launch his own version of the Hama massacre – after he has won and taken the rebel base.

For another view on why massacre was likley and how that forced action, read this excellent piece.

I may be wrong, and I open to counter-arguments. And of course, we will never know. This is counterfactual reasoning at its most controversial. But the likelihood of a massacre seemed pretty high, at least reasonably high enough to cross the R2P threshold. We stood aside during some truly horrifying atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur, and our sense of shame plays a major role in this intervention. Non-interventionists need to address that straight-on, and not duck it by disputing the counterfactual itself. It would take extraordinary (and, honestly, rather disturbing) sang-froid to argue that doing nothing in the midst of butchery is the right thing to do.

Turkey’s ‘neo-Ottoman’ Rise (3): Why I am Wrong…


turkish flag

This is the continuation of a Wikistrat (where I consult a bit) game scenario on Turkey’s economic and possibly military rise. Readers are counseled to start with parts one and two.

The following are responses to criticism, mostly that I didn’t flesh out the reasons why Turkey is likely to hold broadly western course:

1. Turkey’s rise unbalances the region more than I admit, and I don’t muster enough evidence.

My sense is that Turkey’s growth is pretty good, but I don’t see any particular reason that it should be labeled stratospheric or ‘neo-Ottoman’ or something like that. By the standards of a dysfunctional region – Greece, Iran, Syria, Egypt – it is great. But compared to the old and new cores, or even other middle powers, it is a middle power. Even compared to tiny Israel, Turkey is probably a generation behind in state-development, the translation of economic power into military capability, functional political parties, trustworthy courts, and the many other attributes of thick, cohesive, functional state-ness. The CIA lists Turkey’s growth in 2008 at 0.7%; 2009 at (negative) -4.7%; and 2010 at 7.3%. The IMF’s numbers are 2010: 7.8%; 2011: 3.6%. I don’t see that as revolutionary, nor justifying big rhetoric. However, if the argument is more limited, that Turkey will play a greater role in the Middle East and central Asia, I agree. The big losers will be Greece (further unbalanced competition), Israel (yet another headache) and Egypt and Iran (lost prestige as potential regional leaders).

Turkey faces tough structural constraints that do not really mark it out from other second-world risers. No talks about major Brazilian or South African shockwaves, so why is Turkey’s fairly standard modernization-developmentalist growth arc that much different? I am open-minded about this. My thinking is hardly set. I guess I am just not convinced yet.

Finally, my sense is that the tectonic plates of international politics move terribly slowly. Hence I note the stability of Turkey’s foreign policy. Really deep shifts take a long time, like East Asia’s rise, so I am not convinced that a decade or so of choppy albeit healthy growth, coupled pushy, semi-Islamist rhetoric is enough.

2. “The demographic growth in Turkey is all in populations less likely to be EU/West friendly, i.e, the eastern, more rural hinterlands. What’s Turkey’s motivation?”

I think the motivation is primarily economic. A significant turn from the West would reduce critical inward foreign direct investment flows and tourism dollars, and damage links that military and business cherish (easier visa rules; access to Wall Street, western universities, and the international financial institutions; etc.). Turkish elites are aware of this. Like most late, second world developers, Turkey needs continued access to old (West) & new (East Asia) Core dollars, markets, and technologies. This is why I originally said ‘neo-Ottoman’ rhetoric might be more justified in 20 years. For a comparison, look at Indonesia or Malaysia. They too have populations that rankle at Western dominance, want more international stature and maneuvering room, and have populist, entrepreneurial, Islamist politicians. But these tendencies have been held in check by the huge economic incentive of continuing, decent relations with OECD states. I see this in Turkey too – hence my list of institutions and relationships Turkey has retained.

Populism may work for electoral reasons, but does Turkey want to become Venezuela? Perhaps the the AKP (Justice and Welfare Party) really wants to push in this direction, but resistance from the revenue-generating (western and westernized) parts of the country would be strong. This is the counter to the eastern demographic growth you mention. Perhaps this is why Huntington referred to Turkey years ago as a ‘torn’ country. I did not think so much about the demographic evolution though. Point taken.

A second motive is national security. If Turkey drifts from the West, to whom will it go – Iran and Syria? If so, it faces balancing and isolation by some combination of Israel, the US and the EU, and possible exclusion from NATO and the WTO. I suppose Russia is a possible patron/ally/friend, but what does Russia gain? The reset is important for Russia, as well as WTO entry, and, most importantly, being perceived as a great power by the West. Siding with a semi-islamized, somewhat unpredictable ‘new Turkey’ might be useful to poke the West in the eye – certainly a Putin proclivity – but how much does it advance Russia’s great power pretension? Not much I think, but I admit this question requires more research. Next, Turkey might reach to Central Asia – hence the neo-Ottoman moniker I think. But again, how much is there to gain? Those regimes are terribly poor, with weak state apparatuses, and repressions that have alienated investors. The cost-benefit analysis of the ‘stans vs the core is quite one-sided IMO.

The best chances for a real turn would be some kind of alignment with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) against the West. This would effectively split the new core, between China and the Asian democratic periphery. In so far as China has propped up some nasty regimes for the last decade or so, a genuinely independent Turkish line that alienated the old core could still find some succor with Sino-Russian assistance. This SCO strategy strikes me as far more viable than reaching out to local ME nasties like Iran or Syria. I will admit that I haven’t thought through this likelihood, but the SCO doesn’t seem so much like a club or alliance, but just a gang united by ‘anti-hegmonism.’ I am not sure if it represents a coherent enough alternative. But this too requires more scenario thinking.

Finally, I would say that my argument flows directly from Barnett’s general core-gap analysis. I believe it fits rather well actually. Late developers’ future is with the core. The gap represents what they are leaving behind, and what they so very often, so desperately don’t want to be perceived as in the eyes of global public opinion – backward, third-world, irrelevant. Maintaining those newly emergent links to the core – its money, trade, professionalism, geopolitical clout, and general seriousness – weighs heavily in the cost-benefit analysis and motivates important domestic actors – youth, business, military – who will resist populism.

BONUS: Here is the Wall Street Journal on ‘neo-Ottomanism,’ including Erdogan’s appalling refusal to support a no fly-zone over Libya.

Turkey’s ‘neo-Ottoman’ Rise (2): Late Developers Need Inward FDI


hagia_sophia_1

This is the continuation of a game scenario on Turkey’s economic and possibly military rise. Readers are counseled to start with part one. Part three will be in three days. In part one, I argued that Turkey will not pursue a populist-neo-Ottoman course in the Middle East, despite the recent trouble from its islamic leaning leadership:

Global Implications of a Turkish Climb-down from neo-Ottomanism

 

The EU and NATO will breathe a sigh of relief they don’t have to countenance yet another Muslim-ME headache. Most importantly Turkey’s return to the fold will reduce the explosion of criticism it had recently faced from American supporters of Israel. China will ignore the whole thing and move on; no one else in the new core (East Asia’s wealthy states) either will pay much attention, except for a few business groups. Triumphalist western analysts and neo-cons will over-read this, albeit with some justification, as a part of the general democratization trend in the post-Arab Spring ME.


Opportunities

 

The biggest opportunity will be the restoration of market confidence in Turkey by foreign investors. Risk analyses of Turkey will reduce the downside political risks. Indeed, this the single biggest reason – the likely reason IMO – for a Turkish return to the fold. A populist-islamist turn will incentive a flight to quality out of Turkey, reducing the inward foreign direct investment (IFDI) flows and tourism dollars it so desperately needs to continue its rise. In this way, Turkey is caught. Its population may wish to pursue a more independent, perhaps even Islamist course, but the costs of access to (especially old, western) Core money is large. As Iran and Venezuela are showing – and conversely Indonesia and Malaysia – one can’t be too populist and anti-western, while keeping FDI. You can’t have both (especially without oil to sell). These are pretty incompatible, would push Turkey back toward the IMF and World Bank for financing, and generally slow its rise.

Probability Turkey will not Become an Ottoman/Islamic version of Venezuela

High. 

Turkey is a middle power. For all the ‘second world rising’ hype, Turkey has the same problems and needs of other similar states – South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, etc. It faces major corruption and infrastructure problems at home. It has few if any globally recognizable brands. It has a military whose relationship to power is cryptic. It has only a mildly competitive workforce. It won’t continue to grow without continuing inward FDI flows. It must trade, and this requires stability and professionalism. It is surrounded by other middle powers whose red flags will go up immediately at expressions like ‘neo-Ottoman’ or ‘Islamic Republic.’ It has a history of imperialism (the old Empire) and atrocity-denial (the Armenians) that will make others wary and push them to balance should recklessness prevail. Arabs won’t bandwagon to aggressive Turkish power, and its geographic encirclement makes counter-balancing by the neighborhood easy. It has no serious allies outside the West. Its burgeoning middle class is nervous about Islamic politics. Iran and Syria are hardly geopolitical winners representing the future in a world of globalization, iPads, dollars, and East Asia. Ottoman-Islamic bluster can’t overcome these serious structural constraints on its rise.

Given all this, it is fairly unlikely to go its own way. It simply doesn’t have the strength to genuinely break with the old (West) or new (East Asia) cores by openly tilting towards Islamism, Iran, or some other other Middle Eastern ‘special path.’ It may sympathize with the Palestinians and be miffed at US and EU behavior, but those are fairly common traits in the Muslim world. In order to keep the critical IFDI and tourism flowing, to keep the relationships alive that allow its students, military, and businesses to interact with the rest of the world, and to prevent open balancing by Israel, the EU, or the US against it, Turkey won’t wander far. If China, vastly more powerful and influential, won’t balance the wealth and military capability of the democracies, then an independent Turkish line would face yet greater hurdles.

Talk is cheap, and mild hedging is easy. Praising Islam and damning Israel are easy rhetorical strategies for elites seeking reelection, especially since Turkey can’t do much. Talking to Iran raises its local prestige a bit, sure. But so far Turkey had done nothing meaningful to chart an independent course: it’s still in the WTO, hasn’t left NATO, cooperated somewhat on Iraq, hasn’t instituted capital controls or other big mercantilist policy, hasn’t withdrawn its application for EU membership, hasn’t built a formal alliance with Iran or Syria, etc.

Its rise complicates life for the US and the EU a little in the Middle East, but not much. Turkish unhappiness is not sui generis; it is more an outcome of typical regional resentment over the Iraq War and US support for Israel. This simulation‘s worst fears (another scenario pathway is entitled “Shift Eastward”)will be serious in 20 years should Turkey continue to grow and the West continue to slip. But for now, ‘neo-Ottoman’ is pretention and hubris, not reality.

Turkey’s ‘Neo-Ottoman’ Rise? (1): Turkey’s Drift from the West


Wikistrat

Part 2 is here, and Part 3 will come shortly.

 

 

Regular readers will know that I participate as a partner-analyst with the geopolitical consulting firm Wikistrat. This month they rolled out a pretty cool scenario on Turkey’s rise, and what it means for the region. The particular focus is whether or not Turkey is pursuing an independent line from the West in the Middle East especially. It has, partially, bandwagoned with Iran and Syria in the last few years. It broke publicly and sharply with Israel after the flotilla debacle. The current ruling party (Justice and Development Party; AKP) is formally islamist (although not too much in practice). There is concern in the scenario that Turkey might pursue an populist, semi-islamist course, possibly even a neo-Ottoman posture toward the Middle East. Obviously this would create huge headaches for the West, especially Greece and Israel. In the last few weeks, Turkey has fought the NATO-imposition of the no fly zone over Libya.

The scenario set-up is worth a look; Wikistrat’s idea is to build a sort of Wikipedia of analysts all contributing to pages of game scenarios and editing each other. (If you think you can hack it, and you have some decent credentials, contact them. Good analysts are always in demand.) I didn’t quite get it at first, but now I like it more and more. It is a nifty collaborative idea but with way better quality than Wikipedia or wiki-Avatar. (Hah! yes, wiki-Avatar really exists; if you don’t know why Avatar is awful, read this.) Wikistrat follows the ‘Web 2.0’ idea, pioneered by Wikipedia, that more eyes looking at the same ideas/writing will find problems and new approaches. I find this clever and rich. But it runs totally counter to the closed scholarship/peer review model of a sole author, perhaps emailing colleagues before submitting a paper to a journal, where three more reviewers at most look at it. Wikistrat goes the opposite way and throws open your input to all and sundry. In passing, I think this will be a big challenge to traditional closed peer review in the future. And yes, I do get a small stipend if you sign up for the service through my website, but no I haven’t made a cent yet, so I am not trying to be a shill here. I genuinely think the analysis keeps getting better and better, despite my initial skepticism about the ‘wiki’ model – it’s so different than what I do normally in my writing. Anyway, judge for yourself, and note also their awesome list of topics to come: global air power projection, global sea power projection, water conflict, US missile defense – nice, especially for all you defense wonks out there.

Anyway, I just don’t buy it that Turkey is really going to wander far into some kind of islamist-populist mode a la Chavez or Ahmadinejad. I argued that eventually Turkey would return to the NATO-EU-US fold because the cost-benefit analysis is stacked toward it. But I took some serious criticism for arguing for continuity, so, following the wiki-bleg model, commenters here should give me some good ideas to help me save my reputation. Here is the first part of my write-up, starting from the scenario baseline of a ‘neo-Ottomanization’ of the Turkish government. The titles follow the Wikistrat layout.

 

Scenario Title: Continued Rise and “Shift back Westward”

 

Summary: Turkey’s rise continues as it shifts away from Iran, strengthening relations with US, Europe and Israel.

 

 

Scenario Outline: From Neo-Ottoman Back to Normality

 

The AKP overreaches by openly provoking the West or EU, perhaps on the Armenian massacre debate, or Israel’s behavior in the occupied territories. Vocal domestic opposition emerges – particularly from entrenched elite interests in business and the military, coupled with the educated, westernized Facebook generation watching Arab Spring on their laptops. Facing rising domestic anxiety over an increasingly overt break with the West, Prime Minister Erdogan goes for broke, publicly arguing that Turkey is a ME power whose ‘destiny’ lies with fellow Muslims and others pursuing ‘social justice’ in the region. Trips to Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Central Asia, Russia, and China follow in the next years. Western leaders and westernized Turkish elements push back in the media; Western fora like the Community of Democracies and the European Parliament wonder out loud about Turkey’s commitment to democracy and human rights. US congressmen start complaining on Fox News. Turkey’s EU membership application is discreetly frozen. NATO becomes stand-offish. The IMF and World Bank start hedging Turkish loan proposals. Turkish stocks start sliding, as does the lira. Polarization akin to the red state-blue state in Turkey emerges, and the AKP loses the following election (possibly with hints of military blackmail). The succeeding government – corrupt, unpopular, unstable – mouths a mixture moderation and populist/semi-islamist rhetoric publicly for continuity’s sake, but bureaucratically tracks back toward western institutions.

 

 

Regional Implications

 

My scenario returns the region to the status quo ante (before the open flap with Israel particularly). The Turko-Israel relationship though will never be as close again. Iran and Syria will push back, deploying standard tropes of anti-Americanism and Muslim toadying to the West, but no listens much to that sort of boilerplate anymore. The real regional costs to Turkey will come from Al Jazeera, which will opine mercilessly on this for months, probably saying Turkey caved to Israel. Greece will be unhappy that its implicit competition has gotten worse again. The Cyprus stalemate will become a little easier. Arabs states, absorbed by Arab Spring and traditionally hesitant toward Turkish power, will say nothing much.

A Defense of Obama’s Limited Commitment to the Libyan Campaign


libyawar6

The debate over the extent of US involvement in Libya is heating up, and a predictable cluster of analysts are claiming that we a backing into serious endeavor with no clear strategy, with confused ethics, raising process above substance, etc. I say predictable, because it looks increasingly like the ‘usual suspects‘ of liberal internationalist hawks and neo-cons who helped gin up the war on terror (GWoT) that by almost any benchmark has gone pretty badly astray. The gist of seems to be that Obama is a ditherer so we are drifting through this. Republicans of course will hammer Obama for this.

This strikes me as somewhat unfair (even though all the links above are worth your time and most of the points are fair). So here is a case for the limited, we’re-not-quite-sure-what-we-are-doing, we-hope-the-allies-and-Arabs-will-do-more intervention we just started. (For an R2P defense, try this.)

 

1. The narrowing time window in Libya forced the West’s hand before a serious strategic discussion could be fleshed out. Ideally, we would have had something like Obama’s serious, months-long deliberation on Afghanistan in 2009. All the big voices could be heard – western militaries and parliaments especially. A public opinion debate in western media could have generated at least some basic consensus among elites and publics both within and across the coalition’s member states. But war of course does not wait for strategists and planners to hammer out all the details, or for long public debates. Just about any basic strategy course will tell you how much unpredictability conflict generates and how actors frequently have to ad-lib and flim-flam their way through these sorts of engagements. New events pop up out of nowhere (Arab Spring); wholly unforeseen consequences suddenly loom (like a Libyan bloodbath); previous ‘certainties’ evaporate as new actors, atrocities, resources, etc. enter the picture (who are the Libyan rebels anyway?). Sometimes, the pressure of time simply cannot be avoided. I argued last week that if Libya were to evolve into a Bosnian-style bloodbath, the West would have to intervene, and fairly quickly. Inevitably that means that the operation will be organized on the fly and be fairly sloppy. Yet the alternative was so much worse. So yes, this thing is a mess, but it’s not too bad so far – let’s be fair – and the alternative of Gadhafi’s Gestapo tactics in eastern Libya is downright chilling. To my mind, western leaders deserve genuine congratulations at this point for pulling together some kind of reasonably coordinated campaign that no one really wanted very fast that has achieved the stated goals of the UN Security Council resolution. That’s not bad at all actually…

 

2. The US use of force is increasingly de-coupled from anything but presidential decision, but constitutionally, democracies really needed to wait and ‘dither’ a little bit. Andrew Sullivan has made this point very well. The case for ‘dithering’ is actually a good one, because the democracies really should not change into war without some public debate and consultation. Anyone whose studied the evolution of US foreign policy since WWII knows the (and should worry about) the increasing presidentialization of US war-making authority. The US has not declared war since WWII. The US has fought Korea, Vietnam, Iraq 1 and 2, and Afghanistan without formal constitutional authority from Congress (Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution). No, this does not mean the US president is becoming a military dictator (read Chalmers Johnson if you think so), but it is unnerving and increasingly undemocratic. So I think Obama did the right thing, by American law, in waiting for a least little while so that their could be some debate in the Congress and US public on this. This would apply to France and Britain as well.

 

3. The US is overstretched. This should be so strikingly obvious to everyoneexcept neo-cons I suppose – that is a very good reason to dither and otherwise look for a light, low impact intervention before lots of grandiose rhetoric about Clausewitz and such. This is premature it seems to me. This is not yet a major national mobilization in the West for a huge war. Maybe we can move through this with minimal intervention. We don’t know, but why isn’t it worth a try? If have to really ramp up to pursue a Clausewitzian victory (win big through a massive military strike at the heart of the enemy and get the awful, unpredictable business of war over as fast as possible), we can. But remember that Clausewitz was writing for interstate war traditionally defined. He didn’t think too much about insurgencies or foreign interventions for limited political gains in a revolutionary situation. Clearly invading Libya (‘boots on the ground’) would be a major new commitment when we really can’t afford that, and the likelihood it would backfire is huge. In that sort of environment, bombing to stop atrocities is not such a bad compromise.

 

4. Kosovo is not such a bad model after all. In 1999, NATO bombed the Serbs into (something like) submission in Kosovo. We helped the Kosovo Liberation Army even the odds, and today Kosovo is not that bad. It’s not great, but at least there is no ethnic cleansing. The conflict had (some) multilateral legitimacy, and while it angered Russia, it did not provoke a new Cold War which a heavier footprint might have. This was organized by most under-appreciated general in recent US history – Wesley Clark (probably because he is a Democrat whom the GOP cannot lionize). If you haven’t read his book on his work in the Balkans, you should. It is the likely model for Libya, even if the GOP thinks it is wimpy, violates Clausewitzian rules, and cedes the initiative to the French and Arabs.

 

5. Iraq really should give everyone pause and does, very obviously, argue for caution and last-resort thinking, at least for now. Anyone even passably familiar with the US budget should know that US unipolarity is on the ropes. No, the US should not suffer from an Iraq or Vietnam syndrome. But the GWoT has become such a mess, that does anyone really think that US public opinion (not interventionist elites, mind you) want some huge commitment? Yes, Americans and the West want to stop horrific atrocities; the ‘CNN effect’ is real, and we should try where we can (Rwanda should have taught us that). But I can’t imagine that the US voter, who really wants to leave Afghanistan and Iraq, wants to hear about Clausewitz in Libya. We have to balance our desire to help with American exhaustion and reticence after a decade of war. Hence, Obama’s middling approach is actually a fair response to contradictory pressures, it seems to me.

 

If you consider all these factors – to go in early and hard against Gadhafi (when it would have helped the rebels most, and because America ‘leads’ not ‘dithers’) vs. to stay out altogether (because we have no idea what we are doing and have just thrown this together at the last minute) – I think Obama, Clinton, Sarkozy, and Cameron actually found a pretty good middle course that can basically be summarized as ‘bombing for human rights.’ Yes, that is confused, messy, hardly a rousing call to arms and patriotism, dithering, possibly oxymoronic, and so on. But it balances well all the contradictory pressures listed above, which must be awfully hard this late in the history of the GWoT and Arab Spring. So before we tear them apart on the op-ed pages, let’s at least give them a chance. We will continue to debate this as war goes on; we can change course if we really need to because of new circumstances; and the West (and even the Arab League!) should be proud of itself for having prevented an almost certain bloodbath. That seems like a pretty good record so far.

Nobel: Occasionally Reminding China about Human Rights is still Good


Nobel

By now everyone one knows that Liu Xaibao won the Nobel Peace Prize. He is a human rights and democracy activist rotting in a Chinese prison, along with so many others, for laughable, ‘only-in-a-dictatorship’ crimes like ‘insulting the state and national dignity.’ He is most famous in the West for starting the ‘Charter 08,’ probably the most important liberal outburst from Chinese civil society in this decade (and a nice counterpoint to the ‘national humiliation’ nationalism otherwise showcased by the Chinese Internet). Predictably China was acerbic; it threatened Norway (!), because, of course, we all fear Norway rising and its rogue unilateralism. It is worth noting that the Norwegian government does not assign the prize; the independent Nobel Foundation does.

The flap tells us a few things:

1. I am not sure if we should laugh about the Norwegian threat (threatening the Green Nordics who give lots of development aid, have a globally envied living standard, and no military – lol) or lament (Chinese bullying now extends to NATO – yikes). But the Chinese overresponse fits its recent behavior in the South China Sea and toward Japan (as well as NK, I bet; it’s just behind the scenes, so we don’t see it), as well as its now system-threatening monetary interventions and downright bizarre head-in-the-sand denials about the Cheonan sinking. Now it is ok for rising powers to be tvetchy. We expect that. But if the Chinese keep up the bullying, then lots of westerners (think the Kagans) who can’t wait to label China a threat (in part because so many have predicted it) will claim that Chinese foreign policy has taken a major, and nasty, turn. For a long time, China’s claim to a ‘peaceful rise’ rested on its ‘Good Neighbors Policy.’ As Dave Kang has pointed out for years to the ‘China threat’ school, China has generally sought good relations with its neighbors. It has (previously at least) tried to settle border disputes peacefully (most importantly with Vietnam) and has generally sought to be a good institutional player in all those various East Asian semi-organizations like the EAS, ARF or the Six-Party Talks. US business lobby has generally used this to defend engagement with China, in an important pushback against the US military, especially the navy, which is both nervous (a possible peer competitor to break the Pacific-as-American-lake) and secretly hopeful (at last a symmetrical contestant we can understand! unlike all these noxious terrorists against whom our super-cool aircraft carriers are useless). In short, if the Chinese aren’t careful and step back here a bit in the next few months, they could find themselves seriously ringed in. Quick Prediction: the Chinese aren’t stupid. Unlike OBL, they don’t want to take on the whole world. They will pull back, and in six months we will be talking once again about the ‘unpredictable swings in Chinese foreign policy.’

2. I am pleased to see this issue back in discussion, after a decade of quiet. Everyone recalls what a big issue this was in the 1990s. I remember Jay Leno even once had a Chinese-American who had been arrested there on his show. And human rights (and labor) was the big stumbling block behind permanent most favored nation status for China under Clinton. Of course no one wants a war or another cold war, but it is also clear that western engagement can’t just be all flattering and desperate (please keep buying US bonds). Sometimes we need to push them hard on political change too. This is an obvious danger of mixed or contradictory signals – we want to work with you, but we will antagonize you too. But in fact, we do want both. When western governments push for change, it sends the Chinese off the deep end; hence neither Hillary nor Timothy Geithner challenge China on liberalization much anymore. In the end, Google too gave-in (rather disappointing that actually). But western NGOs like Nobel or Amnesty International can also send the other message – that our values are important, that we are genuinely uncomfortable dealing with dictatorships even if we don’t want a cold war, etc. So I think flaps like this, of the earlier Google one, are useful. They tell China that they are limits and expectations – mild, to be sure – that it will lighten up a little on the nationalism and repression. In short, after one experience with a superpower that stepped all over its people and bullied the neighborhood, no one wants to go through that all over again. And the Nobel reminds the CCP leadership of this.

3. Finally, after last year’s ridiculous Nobel choice, this year’s was smart and helps restore the Peace Prize’ good name. In fact, I bet the Foundation figured that after such a light, gauzy choice for Obama, credibility demanded a really tough choice this year. And few human rights cases are harder than China. Like most observers, I applaud the choice, but I am also glad, because I think the prize is a useful weapon in the struggle for human rights and liberalism. It shows up the glaring failures of places like Burma, apartheid South Africa, and China, and tells their elites that the West isn’t always looking the other way for business contracts. So here, here to the Foundation for such a strong choice. My quick choice for next year: Morgan Tsvangirai.

Islamic Homophobia Watch: Will Muslim Leaders Shake the New German Foreign Minister’s Hand?


 

One of the most disturbing aspects of modern Islam for post-feminist Westerners and liberals generally (I would include Koreans and Japanese, e.g.) is its continuing insistence on harsh sexual mores and discrimination. Islamic divorce law, the covering of women, polygamy, and the persecution, even execution, of homosexuals are deep cultural divides between the West and the contemporary Middle East. (Go watch Osama to catch Islamic patriarchy at its misogynistic, chauvinistic worst.) (In fact, with a little less stricture, one might say these are value break-points between post-Christian Europeans and evangelical Americans too.) In any case, the expansion of freedom in the 60s and 70s to include sexual choice and empowerment for women and homosexuals is a major achievement in the West. Countless people are happier, because they can find sexual fulfillment in ways they truly enjoy and love-relationships they actually want to have. (Just read this.) This is why gays like Andrew Sullivan turned into hawkish neoconservative supporters of the GWoT. If the Islamists win, homosexuals will be swinging from the lampposts.

And now we have the prospect of a homosexual foreign minister of a great power confronting the steady homophobia of the Middle East (as well as much of the former third world). I find this absolutely fantastic. This is a moment rich in clear lessons about just how different liberal societies are from traditional ones, why progress from the narrow, bitter conservatism of tradition is so important, and why the West is fighting the GWoT. The Taliban would have buried Guido Westerwelle alive for inter-male sexual contact. And Ahmadinejad made a fool out of himself before Westerners when he told a Columbia University audience that Iran had no homosexuals.

In the 1980s, the Regan administration pointedly sent a black to be the US ambassador to South Africa. We had the guts then to stand up for an important principle. But in the GWoT we have been giving way far too much. Too frequently the West has looked the other way as the most harsh,  anti-modern versions of Islam demand respect in the West. (How come no one looks to the rather tolerant Islam of SE Asia, btw? Why do ME extremists always dominate these conversations?) So all sorts of demands Western liberals would never tolerate from, say, conservative evangelicals or the Amish are indulged – halal food in public institutions (Holland), gender-segregated washing facilities and beaches (France), equivocation on press freedoms (Muhammad cartoons), the endless pieties about ‘peaceful’ Islam in the place of real discourse on Islam’s dalliance with extremism since 1967, informal censorship of books and films through religious intimidation like the Theo van Gogh murder.

So here’s hoping Westerwelle sticks it to Islamic bigotry the same way the US did to South African bigotry. I hope he wears a pink tie or a rainbow lapel pin the next time the Iranians or Saudis ask the Germans for aid or to counterbalance US pressure. I hope the Saudi foreign minister worries whether his fingers will fall off if he shakes a gay’s hand. I hope the mullahs at Qom go through theological spasms and sleepless nights about issuing a fatwa so their officials can talk the gay guy without getting polluted or contaminated. I hope Middle Eastern leaders everywhere worry that they will contract AIDS/SARS/syphilis/bird flu/Ebola/Judaism just by talking to him. And good for Merkel for having the guts to appoint him. Westerwelle is qualified; he’s been around for awhile. Germany has looked the other way on Islamic sexism and homophobia for too long because of its Turkish population and commercial ties with Iran. Welcome back to the fight for tolerance and modernity.

Obama’s Grand Slam in Cairo also Illustrates the Lack of Secular Politics in the Middle East


He certainly is talented! I have been in Korea since August 2008, so I have not seen many Obama speeches. I am just floored by the difference with W. No wonder the press is swooning. Unlike the faux-authority projected by Cheney’s crossed hands and low voice (he was just too wrong too many times), Obama has the magic in that imperious, super well-educated look when he lifts his chin, creases his brow, and narrows his eyes. He must have been a great lawyer to see in court; he reminds me of my best grad school teachers.

1. I am intellectually pleased at how well my predictions of the speech fared. I got most everything right, both in the topics he selected and how he treated them. He did engage in lots of praise of Islam that will make Bushies, neo-cons, and evangelicals squirm. As I suspected he threw in the PBUH and references to Islamic scientific achievements. This laid the groundwork for the criticisms, so it was necessary, and thankfully there were no real eye-rolling sycophancies. But I do think calling the Koran ‘holy’ all the time did not project the political secularism needed to encourage religious pluralism in the ME, and the line about ‘battling negative stereotypes of Islam’ was a lame multicultural sop to the Muslim identity politics that lead to Durban II and the bogus, free speech-squelching notion of ‘islamophobia.’ I expect the Fox News-set will harp on that one. On the up side, Obama added a few extra themes: women’s rights, democracy, and development.

2. Just about all his comments were right.

As I argued, but hardly expected in the speech, Obama referenced Japan and Korea as examples of modernization without cultural loss.

He identified the war of necessity in South Asia and admitted that Iraq was a war of choice, while also noting that Iraqis are better of without Saddam. He didn’t apologize for Iraq, which would have set off a national-conservative backlash at home, but he seemed to imply it was an error. Very smooth.

He noted the concerns over women’s rights and modernization, but rightfully blew threw that reactionary posture pretty fast to say what needed to be said: that the ME is falling behind the rest of the world and that this feeds both poverty and radicalism.

He basically dumped ME peace back in their hands by saying we can’t do it for them. He said lots of right things about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. He attacked Muslim anti-semitism and Holocaust denial and openly declared the illegitimacy of the Israeli West Bank settlement to an Arab audience. Nice! And he backed that with a subtle and correct shot that too many Arab regimes don’t really care to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Also correct.

He even had the courage to touch on religious tolerance in the Muslim ME, which I think is a critical breakpoint with the West. The defense of the Copts was an important gesture, particularly to western Christians who think the Islam demands wide latitude for its practitioners in the West while denying it in the ME (basically accurate).

He also went to bat for the freedom agenda – important because it signals a continuity of US commitment to democracy across quite different administrations. Unfortunately he passed on singling out his host Mubarak, exactly the sort of US-supported ME despot that fires al Qaeda.

Finally, did you catch the subtle end of Bush-era grand strategy: “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other”? That is pretty much the end of regime change and preemption.

3. I can’t say he really missed much. But for the PC bit about stereotypes and the missed swipe at Mubarak, this was pretty much a grand slam.

4. I was pleased with the audience reaction. At no point did it get nationalist, islamist or otherwise jingoistic. They applauded not only at the complements, but also the criticisms. Very good.

5. But there is an important and deep political theory insight to be gleaned from the language of the talk. It was not intentional but should be revelatory to secular westerners unaccustomed to ME political discourse. Obama’s constant reference to Islam and his use of religious quotations and invocation of Islamic and religious values was a deep indication of the cultural cleft between the West and Islam, albeit more between secular Europe and the religious ME. And I suspect that an upper class secular Democrat like O found it somewhat uncomfortable to be constantly referring to ‘faith.’ To this day, I admire Howard Dean’s response to G Stephanopoulos’ mandatory and obnoxious question about the role of religion in his politics. Dean simply said there was no role.

Yet Obama can’t talk that way in the ME for two reasons. First, Islamism as a social movement has exploded in the ME since 1967. The ME is alive with religion in the way of Massachusetts Bay Colony or the Amish. Islam is in the middle of a ‘great awakening’ period, and the language of religion is spilling into all areas. Hence the upsurge of Muslim identity politics and discovery of something called ‘islamophobia,’ which here is defined so broadly as to include just about any criticism. So Islam must be genuflected to and wrapped into any serious socio-political discussion in the ME. For contrast, look at Southeast Asia where is Islam is more secular.

Second, Islam has become the shield for opposition in the ME, just like Orthodoxy was in the USSR. Islam has become the channel for political resistance to atrocious government of the ME, and so it has become increasingly politicized. Politicized religion is almost always apocalyptic and absolutist, and the contemporary ME is no different. New ideas, policy proposals, criticism must invariably cite koranic verse and treat it as font of authority – as O did last yesterday. (For parallels, think about how the US right uses the writings of the Founders and Framers as touchstones for just about everything, or the way the Soviets and Chinese used to comb through Marx for quotations to support whatever new policy they wanted to pursue.)

This more than anything else betrays the bankruptcy of politics in the ME. It badly lacks a public-spirited, nondenominational language of citizenship. It is trapped in the religious and chronological parochialism of a 1400 year old revelation. This both cripples and exacerbates politics. Cripples, because the Koran (and the hadith) hardly fit the needs of social phenomena like the discovery of the New World, industrialization, space travel, or globalization. (Think of the ridiculous anti-modern intransigence of the Haredim.) And it exacerbates politics by injecting religion at every turn and so constantly raises political difference to the level of religious confrontation. Part of this is inevitably parochialism. If the Koran is the basis of wisdom and the good life, then how to deal with non-Muslims? As an example of all these problems cumulated, look at Saudi Arabia. It has no constitution, because it claims the Koran is that, and hence has all sorts of ‘religious’ problems over what should be simple technical issues questions like women drivers or proper license plates. By contrast political theory in the West has long strived to build a public-spirited universalist language (Habermas and Rawls spring to mind). This helps western democracies build citizenship across religious cleavages and also ties them internationally to each other better than any other ‘family of nations.’

Careful with that ‘Decline of the West’ Riff – We’ve Heard It Before


The conventional wisdom on the financial crisis is that it symbolizes or accelerates a transfer of power from West to East, from the US and EU to China and India. I think this is wildly overrated.

1. We have heard this before – and not just in the 20th century, but the West has proven extremely (frustratingly, if you’re from somewhere else) tenacious in leading the world pack since its breakout in the 16th century. Here are a just a few examples. Long before bin Laden, Islam was supposed to replace errant western Christianity, but failed at Vienna in 1683. Politically, Islam has never properly recovered. In the 19th C, the Chinese thought the western marauders a troublesome nuisance who would eventually recognize the superiority of the Middle Kingdom. It took 50 years of humiliation for that fantasy to finally fade. At the same time, pan-Orthodox/pan-Slavic Russians like Dostoyevsky and Alexander II thought the West would sink under its own corruption and decadence; instead that happened to the Romanovs. 1917 ignited the communist revolutionary wave (‘we will bury you’) that was supposed end capitalism and imperialism. After 75 years of unparalleled effort and bloodletting, it failed practically and morally. 1929 too supposedly revealed the inanity and shallowness of gilded age capitalism which macho fascist vitalism would sweep away. Despite exhaustion and disillusionment from WWI, western democratic capitalism hung on again, emerging stronger than ever, arguably, in 1945. By the 1960s, the new non-western future was supposedly in decolonization. The huge populations of the third world would modernize and turn the global system upside down. Instead they fell into Huntington’s decay and begged for debt relief. In the 1970s, the US failure in Vietnam and stagflation supposedly made the world multipolar, helped the Soviets to parity, and sparked a New International Economic Order. Reagan ended that sham. In the 1980s, came the declinism of Paul Kennedy and Walter LaFeber, this time based on massive US trade and budget deficits. The wholly unanticipated Clinton-dotcom boom put that fiction to rest too. And 9/11 of course was to spark an umma-wide uprising to humiliate the US as jihad had humbled the USSR in Afghanistan. Inside it pulled the US even more deeply into the Middle East.

2. China and India have huge hurdles before they even approach US/western power. They have massive internal structural problems – corruption, stifling bureaucracy, poor courts, bad information (propaganda and lack of disclosure), mediocre education systems for generating human capital, irregular treatment of foreigners and FDI. Development-at-all-costs too has resulted in enormous environmental liabilities that are now affecting lifespans. Do superpowers really have to spray-paint their grass green before an Olympics? They also lack the cultural software of entrepeneurialism and individualism that encourage the ‘animal spirits’ to take chances (worse in Confucian China than more liberal India). And finally, China is not democratic yet, which means a wrenching and usually expensive transition still has to come (think SK in the 80s, plus Indonesia in the late 90s, plus the end of the USSR all rolled into one). This will include restive provinces that will inevitably try to take advantage of the transition to push for autonomy. India of course is already, thankfully, liberal democratic, but it has found embracing wealth-generating capitalism extraordinarily difficult. There is no national consensus for it; all those tech companies that fixed Y2K have to keep redundant energy generators on-site in case there is a power failure. Finally both are still extraordinarily poor by OECD standards (to which neither belong). Between them both they account for half the world’s poorest people (most of the rest are in Africa). Don’t let Thomas Friedman’s stories about a zillion IT engineers in Bangalore or individual Chinese cities just focused on the production of cardigans or baseballs mask the reality that India and China together have something like 800 million people living in subsistence agriculture. Both economies are wildly unbalanced with relatively weak currencies, semi-dysfunctional politics, terrible corruption, and huge unresolved social resentment and poverty. That is not the future, at least not yet.

3. I think the best analysis of the geopolitical fallout of the crisis is here. Walter Russell Mead argues that actually the crisis will encourage states only tepidly committed to capitalism to once again turn toward statist, populist alternatives (think Chavez). Predatory elites will use the crisis as cover to resist liberalization. This will only continue the economic stagnation and political confusion of the Middle East, Russia/central Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The question is whether the Asian rimland states will go this way too. (I don’t think they will.)

So geopolitically, it is better to think of the crisis as a deck-clearing exercise, a shake-out of weak players and also-rans that will reinforce the leaders rather than damage them relatively. The leaders will slide, but the weakest will slide even more. As an analogy, think of how the dotcom bust killed off lots of wannabes on the internet. Only the strong survived that bloodbath. And my guess is that will be the real effect here. The crisis will reinforce the value of those very qualities that have catapulted the West to the top – market pricing, clean courts and banks, transparency, a free press (to spotlight failure), democracy (to insure the peaceful aggregation of conflicting interests and citizen grievance), etc, etc.