My Op-Ed for the Busan Ilbo on the Paris Attacks: Korea should Not Overreact like the West did

This is a re-print, in English, of an editorial I wrote last month in the Busan Daily newspaper. Here is that Korean version.

BI contacted me, because I teach a course on terrorism at Pusan National University. As far as I can tell, it is one of the only such courses in Korea. So when the global reaction to Paris arrived in Korea, they asked me for a few thoughts. The most important point is: Don’t go bananas.

After the Paris attack, the Korean government is talking seriously about passing counter-terrorism (CT) laws and developing a domestic CT capability. This is wise, but there is a lot for Korea to learn from all the mistakes the West has made in the GWOT. By now it is pretty widely accepted that the US wildly over-reacted to the 9/11. The Iraq war especially helped create a helluva lot more terrorists than we were facing before, and ISIS would not exist without the invasion. Remember:

1. Modern democratic societies are pretty safe.

2. Some domestic crime and violence is part of the cost we pay for freedom and our open societies.

3. Flipping out about Muslims in our countries does no good; they’ll just turtle, rather than helping the security services.

So the big post-9/11 lesson from the West for Korea on jihadist terrorism: Keep it all in perspective. You are far more likely to be killed by lightning or your HDTV falling off the wall than a jihadi.

The full essay follows the jump:

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Kim Ki Jong, likely a Nutball Lone Wolf ‘Terrorist’-wannabe, will have Zero Impact on US-Korea Relations

So it’s been a week since the US ambassador to Korea got attacked, and the consensus here is pretty much that he is a lonely nutball who drank too much Nork kool-aid. The South Korean police are investigating to see if he is connected to North Korea in any meaningful way. Apparently he went there a few times, but I find it highly unlikely that actually acted on orders or training he got in Pyongyang. The NK regime is not that suicidal, as an open attack on the US ambassador might well precipitate a US counter-strike.

I think it is pretty important to note that while lots of Koreans on the left are uncomfortable with the US presence and have even protested it (such as the candlelight vigils back in 2008), the mainstream Korean left does not call for anti-American violence or physical harm of Americans. The SK left may be too pro-Pyongyang – which is a big reason it keep losing elections; it really needs a Tony Blair/Bill Clinton-style centrist reformation – but its definitely not violent or revolutionary.

So forget about Kim – he’s likely more a loon than a revolutionary. Little will change.

The piece after the jump was originally written for the Lowy Interpreter here.

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Iraq 10 Years Later (3): Why the Neocon Theory behind the War Failed

gulf_war_poster1The arguments below expand on my second recent JoongAng Daily op-ed on the Iraq war.

My first post on the Iraq War asked if academic IR had any responsibility to slow the march to war.

The second tried to formulate what the   neoconservative theory of the war was, because many of us, in retrospect of a conflict gone so badly, desperately want to un-remember that there really was a logic to the war, that it was at least somewhat intellectually defensible, and that a lot of us believed it. We may want to retroactively exculpate ourselves by suggesting it was just W the cowboy acting ridiculous, or a neocon hijacking of the policy process, or Halliburton oil imperialism, and all the other reasons so popular on the left. And some of that is true of course.

But it ducks the crucial point that the war was popular until it flew wildly off-the-rails, which in turn revealed the staggering incompetence of the Bush administration to act on the neocon logic the country had embraced by March 2003. In short, I argued that the Iraq invasion was not about WMD, preemption, or democracy, although that rationale was played up in the wake of the failure to find WMD. The real neocon goal was to scare the daylights out of the Arabs and their elites by punching one of their worst regimes in the face, thereby showing what was coming to rest of the region unless it cleaned up its act, i.e., crack down on salafism and liberalize so as to defuse the cultural extremism that lead to 9/11. (Read Ajami saying in January 2003 that the war is ‘to modernize the Arabs;’ that’s about as a good a pre-war summary of this logic as you’ll get.)

So what went wrong?

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Iraq 10 Years Later (1): How Culpable is Academic International Relations?


I’ve been thinking a lot about the war this month. I’ll be teaching it in the next few weeks at school because of the decade anniversary (March 20). To my mind, it is the most important geopolitical event, for the US, possibly the planet, since the USSR’s collapse. It also pre-occupies me to this day, because I initially supported it, and didn’t really turn against it until 2008/09. I had students who told me, late in the war, that I was the only instructor they knew who still supported the invasion. Finally, I gave in, and accepted the by-then conventional wisdom that the war was a ‘fiasco.’ I will argue in my next post in a few days, that there was in fact an at least minimally defensible argument for the war, but the execution of it was so awful, disorganized, mismanaged, and incompetent, that any moral justification was lost in the sea of blood and torture we unleashed.

The whole episode became just shameful, and regularly teaching and conferencing with non-Americans these last few years has made this so painfully clear. My students particularly are just bewildered to the point of incredulity. Again and again, the basic thought behind the questions is, ‘what the hell happened to you people? 9/11 made you lose your minds there?’ *sigh* (NB: when Asians ask me about guns in the US, the ‘what the hell is wrong with you people?’ bafflement is the same.)

Hence, the post title purposefully implies that the invasion was a bad idea. But to be fair, that should be the first question: what, if any, arguments at this point can be mustered to defend the war? IR should try to answer this seriously, because I’m all but positive that the journalistic debate will be not be driven by the state of Iraq or US foreign policy today, but by the high personal reputational costs faced by so many pundits supportive of the war. It would not surprise me at all if folks like the Kagans, Krauthammer, or Thomas Friedman miraculously found that the war was worth it after all. McNamara-style mea culpas only happen at the end of a career (so I give Sullivan and Fukuyama credit for theirs on Iraq). But academic international relations (IR) should be more honest than that.

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And now We Killed Awlaki’s Son, again a US Citizen, again without Due Process…


In the last two weeks, I got pulled into another round of the endless debate on the role of US forces in Korea, so I missed this yet further depressing story of the US government flirting with extra-judicial, not-really-very-oversighted killings in the field of Americans.

I worried a few weeks ago that the killing over Alwaki, a US citizen, without due process, had crossed yet another, and to my mind, major civil liberties threshold in the history of the war on terror.

And here we are again. As usual, Greenwald has all the depressing details that we would all rather not discuss. Among other things, he was an American. He was only 16. He was killed by accident. The government first tried to spin the boy as an older AQ fighter, but the most basic journalistic digging uncovered that as bogus. Wow. This is just appalling.

We really need to have the moral courage to say this to our own government. (I thought this is why we voted for Obama?) I used to really support the GWoT, and I concur that Islamism is clear challenge to Western liberalism that we must defeat, but this is just awful. If the government can just do this to multiple US citizens abroad, then doesn’t that set a terrible, terrible precedent? So who is beyond the pale, and what is the process (please tell us!) for making these sort of ‘hit-list’ determinations? The government didn’t even apologize or admit any regret as far as I know – for an accidental killing of a US, teenaged citizen. This can’t just go on and on like this. There must be some limit.

Note the problem is not the use of drones per se. Drones are simply a tool, and to the extent they limit the personal exposure of US forces, that is a good thing. However, it seem increasingly likely that, because drones limit US ‘transaction costs’ (i.e., the likelihood of US combat fatalities), drones tempt the administration to use forces in ways and places that would otherwise be politically impossible because of the possibility of US casualties. Unfortunately, this just reinforces the instincts of the imperial presidency unleashed by the war on terrorism. Certainly, the unregretted, accidental killing of a 16-year American should be proof of that.

Awlaki was an American Citizen & Entitled to Some Kind of Due Process – Updated


Everyone has an opinion on this; I thought this, this, this, and this were the best on the debate. It does appear that Awlaki was a genuinely dangerous nut-job, but Greenwald makes the obvious point that the government should demonstrate that. That is the whole point of due process, and no one really has any idea what the process was that allowed the president to unilaterally execute a citizen. As nasty as the guy may have been, he was an American (born in New Mexico in 1971). So this is a yet another civil liberties threshold crossed in the global war on terror (GWoT), and a fairly big one to my mind. (I am an American living abroad too. Have my rights just contracted? Can anyone really say?)

Like everyone, I have mixed feelings, because it does look like Awlaki was a huge threat, moving among openly-declared enemies of the US, and committed to attacking the West violently. I imagine this is why the outcry is so minimal. But he was an American citizen, and I can’t think of anything like this ever. Our government is now performing targeted killings of our own citizens? Wow. Where is the legal authority for that? Doesn’t that violate all sorts of basic protections enshrined in the Amendments to the Constitution? I am not a lawyer, but what possible ‘due process’ is there for this the pre-empts the Constitution? Obama and the National Security Council simply decreed him a threat? At the very least, please tell us how these determinations get made, and what processual checks there are so that this doesn’t devolve into a open-ended kill authority.

But even if we see the case file, I find this genuinely scary. The precedent this lays down, especially as it seems to be going uncontested in the US, is very unnerving. I was willing to swallow that the ‘targeted killing’ of OBL was within the pale, but citizenship is a crucial red-line in a world of states. At this point, who exactly can the president not order terminated? And do the Obama people really want to hand over such power to a possible tea-party president in the future?! Can one imagine Sarah Palin with clandestine, ‘targeted assassination’ authority? Isn’t that terrifying?

I find it a heartbreaking paradox of the GWoT that Awlaki’s father tried to sue the US government to stop it from killing his son. More generally, this whole mess shows how protracted warfare corrodes democracy (a lesson going all the way back to Thucydides) and why it is very important to stop the war on terror. American liberties are eroding under the strain of the 10 years of angry, frustrating conflict, and the reliance on drones, with few rules or agreed norms about their use, show the growing disregard for due process that semi-permanent conflict entrains.

This can be included with all the other GWoT misdeeds like torture, warrantless wiretaps, and indefinite detention. The domestic liberty costs of the GWoT now clearly outweigh the benefits. Killing a US citizen in what is basically an assassination is yet another red-line crossed that shows how we are forgetting ourselves and the whole liberal point of the GWoT to begin with. Why would anyone listen to the ‘freedom agenda’ or take Obama’s Nobel Prize seriously at this point? I wonder if the Nobel Committee would like to retract it now. Why even vote for Obama when he feels he has the authority to do even this? Honestly, I am not even sure McCain would have done this. Targeted  assassination, especially of the citizenry itself, is an astonishingly capacious read of executive power, and clearly not a power ever explicitly delegated by Congress. No wonder Cheney wants an apology. Obama is doing stuff not even W would have done.

The US has banned assassination since the 1970s because of misdeeds during the Vietnam war. So not only did the administration violate constitutional rights of a citizen, it also violated another statue. I saw J Toobin on CNN this week say basically that no administration has followed the assassination ban anyway, so that is not a real violation (!). Then Toobin argued that Obama’s likely defense is authority under the post-9/11 ‘Authorization for the Use of Military Force’ (AUMF), but that, with this killing now, no one really knows where that power ends. Toobin, who strikes me as a reasonably serious guy, looked genuinely troubled as he said this. What can a legal correspondent comment if the ‘law’ is this malleable? I had the sense Toobin wanted to protest, but American public opinion is so desensitized to rule-violation in the name of the GWoT, I think Toobin ducked so as not to look like he defended a terrorist. Also, read the AUMF closely; it targets the planners behind 9/11. But Awlaki wasn’t a part of the plot, even though he was sympathetic. If it was just because he was a rabble-rousing anti-American cleric, then a good chunk of clerisy of the Middle East would probably qualify…

So again my question is, what use of force does the Authorization not permit? Can the president order a hit like this on US soil? Bush already detained Jose Padilla unfairly and with no recourse for years. That the Obama administration doesn’t really know how to answer that became very clear in a CNN interview I saw with SecDef Leon Panetta. Asked if he was on firm legal ground, he only repeated, in worst manner of Bush evasiveness, that Awlaki was a threat and we had to take him out. Presumptive threat overthrows process: we’re all Cheneyites now.

Finally, I found it a particularly glaring contrast that Awlaki was assassinated in the same week that the American media got in a terrible huff about due process in Italy (Amanda Knox) and Iran (those two hikers). (Btw, America’s record of giving due process to foreigners arrested in the US is atrocious, so don’t be so indignant.) Knox and the hikers’ experiences were regularly described as brutal ‘ordeals,’ and their homecomings covered in great, chest-thumping detail. Yet here we hellfire our own citizens (another American was killed with Awlaki) without trial or public presentation of a detailed case… and no one says anything. We just believe what the government tells us about him. The government has flim-flammed so much in the GWoT though, that we really should demand more. Congress should lay down a framework as soon as possible for targeted killings in general, and for Americans especially; otherwise this could slide toward widespread, casual use, just as the torture regime spread from Guantanamo initially, into the entire US GWoT-detention system, because no one really knew what the ‘new rules’ were.


Read this on the limits of drone warfare.

Transformers 3 (1): “We will Kill them all in the name of Freedom” – Yikes!




In the name of freedom, we will kill them all!

– Optimus Prime (the protagonist in the clip above) updates the Bush Doctrine after a decade of war



Part 2 of this post is here.

I missed this over the summer, but the blu-ray just came out, and it’s a nasty, harsh, rah-rah militaristic mess. I won’t bother with the story. You already saw it and know how ridiculous it was. (Try here if you don’t.) I’ll only note that great actors like Malkovich, McDormand, Turturro, and Nemoy are complicit now in the militarization of American cinema, as is Buzz Aldrin (sooo embarrassing that was – wow). The Asian racism and gay jokes are a just as offensive (and painfully unfunny) as the black racism of the second one. And the new ‘Bay girl’ is even worse than Megan Fox, who at least had a grittiness. This one is just living plastic and skin-cream. Bay never misses a chance to promote emotionally debilitating lookism to young girls. (Even Bay’s female corpses must be hot. That must take a sexism award somewhere.)

No one captures the ups-and-downs for popular consumption of current American attitudes toward war as well as Michael Bay. Bay’s films obviously carry the moral weight and approval of the American Right. This is most clear when he guiltlessly references signature moments in US history like the collapse of the Trade Towers, the moon landing, or Challenger explosion. More leftish action directors like James Cameron or George Lucas would be relentlessly criticized were they to do that. Consider the Right’s response to Avatar and Star Wars III, compared to Transformers. But ‘America’s director,’ just like ‘America’s newsroom,’ can do this, because he is reliably nationalistic and pro-military. As Time put it, Bay has become the “CEO of Hollywood’s military-entertainment complex.”

As a result of Bay’s signature position as the filmic voice of the US populist-militarist right, no movies better capture the US emotional arc regarding the war on terror than his Transformers trilogy. As Americans have become more and more frustrated by an unwinnable war, more tolerant of brutality like torture, and less compromising, so has Bay. The films have become progressively more jingoistic, bitter, macho-sexist, and cruel. This is entertainment for the Tea-Party. In this most recent installment, there are even four battlefield-executions (!) in this Steven Spielberg (!) production based on a line of toys and aimed at young boys. But I guess that’s good stuff in the GOP primary these days.

The antagonists (the Decepticons) are nastier than usual, but the protagonists (the Autobots) are extraordinarily brutal for mainstream heroes, and Bay revels in it. The usual story about how the Decepticons are ‘evil’ is thrown in to provide a moral fig-leaf for the Autobots’ violence, but it’s a sham. Bay really wants to show us a vengeful bloodbath (the last hour), and here is where the Tea-Partier frustration and anger at the confusion over the GWoT’s course is most obvious. The film, like current the Tea Party-influenced GOP primary season, is filled with a deeply disturbing bloodlust for brutality. This is not a fun action film for the comfortable, amiable America of the 1990s (like Bay’s Armageddon). This is war carnage for a bitter America desensitized to vengeance and brutality after a decade of torture, confusion, wounded veterans, ‘ingratitude’ from Iraqis and Afghans at being ‘liberated,’ sky-rocketing costs, and global condemnation. T3 is wish-fulfillment for the people who hoo-rahed at OBL’s death: if only we could just go and kick the s— out of all them.

The Decepticons execute an Autobot made up to look like an old-man by shooting him in the back of the head. This came off so harsh, that a woman sitting next to me gasped and looked at her rather shocked boyfriend. When a Decepticon fighter crashes, the Autobots dismember the pilot alive to the jokingly-delivered line, ‘this is going to hurt.’ Holy c—! Sadism is hilarious? Kids are supposed to find that line humorous? At the end, Optimus Prime – remember, this is main good guy – kills one bad guy (Megatron), who had actually just assisted him, by hatcheting him unsuspectingly in the back of the head and them pulling out his entire brain stem, complete with arterial spray. Next the chief bad guy is dispatched after he is badly wounded and crawling on the ground begging for mercy. Nevertheless, Optimus Prime shot-guns him in the back at close range. Twice. And the camera lingers on his pained face as he’s being shot. Wow. WTH happened to Michael Bay (and Steven Spielberg)? Does Bay really expect us to endorse this kind of brutality as entertainment? Both antagonists are in morally compromised positions, yet the hero effectively executes them?! Are we supposed to cheer on the Autobots (allied with the US military in the film) when they brazenly disregard the rules of engagement (which makes liberal states’ use of force more trustworthy) and just execute people?

9/11 a Decade later (2): Flirting with Empire


Part 1 of this post is here.

Terrorism is the weapon of the weak; terrifying your enemies is a lot less satisfying than actually defeating them. If OBL had an army, no doubt he would have invaded NYC. But terrorists have limited force, so much of their impact depends on how the target responds. Hence, in my previous 9/11 post I argued that the largest change came not from 9/11’s actual material impact, but from the US over-response. The most obvious elements of that would be the freedom-eroding homeland security clampdown, the badly misguided Iraq War, and the catastrophic budgetary consequences of a ‘military,’ rather than law-enforcement response to 9/11. Why GWoT (global war on terror) defenders and Bush partisans are so proud of that last claim strikes me as bizarre given the growing consensus that the GWoT has really lost it way and became much too expensive.

1. The idea that ‘9/11 changed everything’ was a self-fulfilling prophecy made so by America’s (specifically the Bush administration’s) reaction to it. It didn’t need to be this way. Ten year’s out now from 9/11 it should be apparent to everyone how little 9/11 actually changed, except for the changes that we wrought. The mantra ‘9/11 changed everything’ morphed into a blank check. It started as a defensible justification for an assertive foreign policy – on terror, in central Asia – plus better border control (long needed anyway because of out-of-control illegal immigration). But increasingly it turned into a fig leaf for something akin to a barracks state at home and semi-imperialism abroad – the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps, rendition, torture, indefinite detention, the Iraq War, exotic and probably illegal drone warfare, spiraling national security spending, etc.

Remember too that in the wake of 9/11 we were told relentlessly how vulnerable we were and how we should expect a progression of attacks against the US. No matter what you think of Michael Moore, he captures well the paranoia and wild over-speculation of this period in Fahrenheit 9/11. My favorite in the film is the Fox News report on pen-bombs. Did we really believe that sort of stuff in 2002ff? I remember teaching international security courses in those years with students writing endless papers about terrorist attacks on dams, bridges, ports, airports, even theme parks. I was at OSU, and we actually debated in class the economic impact on Ohio of barbed wire and armed guard patrols at King’s Island and Cedar Point. One student wrote that we should use nuclear weapons in Iraq; another that we should put SAMs on top of the Sears Tower in Chicago. I remember the students and I gaming out how easy it would be for a few terrorists to attack a shopping mall, based on the Columbine school assault and Sang-Hui Cho’s Virginia Tech massacre. My syllabi from that time describe terrorism as the ‘central national security threat to the US for a generation’ and approvingly cite Rumsfeld’s moniker, ‘the long war.’

Yet none of this happened. There was no wave of attacks. Muslim-Americans did not turn out to be a fifth column as loopy righties like Frank Gaffney or Rod Parsley insisted. For all the vulnerabilities – the easy-to-penetrate border with Mexico, the obese security guards at your local stadium, the hundreds of power plants with minimal security, the terrifying scenarios of 24 or Die Hard 4 – nothing like 9/11, no mega-terror, happened again. Yes, the Bush crowd will argue that that is because of the counter-measures put in place by the Bush administration, but there is no empirical evidence to support that statement and much missing evidence that demolishes it. Specifically, as I argued in the last post, 6M Americans live overseas – soft targets in expat clubs and bars all over the world that are easy targets of opportunity. Yet nothing happened to them. Nor have we yet seen any meaningful, independent study on serious plots foiled by DHS to actually verify that we needed the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, torture, Guantanamo, etc, in order to achieve reasonable security. Perfect security is impossible, and do we really want to try to torture our way to the ‘one percent doctrine’? As early as 2006, we knew this was overblown.

But the bureaucratic incentives for threat inflation are obvious. No one wants to say we can let our guard down, and then have the next attack happen on her watch. So we get one report after another about how we need to harden this or that part of American life; in the end we look likea garrison state. Here is a nice example of how even when a report finds little to worry about, the authors can still encourage more ‘vigilance,’ more money, and more hysteria. Does it even matter anymore to remind people once again that you are more likely to get hit by lightning than die in a terrorist incident?

2. The GWoT turned out to be a spectacular error that probably didn’t do much a far narrower and less hysterical counter-terror (CT) effort could have done. Fairly quickly it turned into a global counterinsurgency that CT advocates have bemoaned ever since as far too expensive, intrusive, and corroding of the US military. As the Atlantic notes, a lot of the martial, ‘kill-em-all,’ Jack Bauer posturing of the early GWoT days not only didn’t work, but in fact backfired.  I agree with the conventional wisdom that Afghanistan was a war of necessity, and Iraq a war of choice. Early I supported both, but it is pretty obvious now that Iraq was not worth it. Far too many people died – mostly Iraqis who’d made no choice to be put in the firing line – to justify the modest improvements in Iraqi governance. On top of that, the US military got badly run-down, America’s global image cratered, and the country went bankrupt.

There is no doubt that Iraq is a better place, but the US forced this on Iraq (unlike in Libya), and we did so in such an inept way (‘fiasco’) that our staggering mis-execution of the whole operation invalidates the arguably defensible principle behind the war. That is, the basic neo-con idea that the Middle East needed a hammer strike to break up the horrible nexus of authoritarianism, religious medievalism, terrorism, oil corruption and social alienation that gave birth to 9/11 is actually a good argument. It may be true, and certainly looked that way ten years ago, long before Arab Spring. So I don’t buy any of this ‘neo-con cabal, they did it for Israel’ schtick. This was supposed to be a demonstration strike against the Arabs to warn them that their local pathologies were morphing into global problems and would no longer be tolerated by the West.

But the execution of that hammer strike in the heart of a dysfunctional ME was so awful, so catastrophically badly managed, that it invalidated the whole premise by suggesting the US is simply incapable of acting properly on that otherwise arguable neo-con logic. And the rhetoric surrounding it, particularly the wild hype of WMD ‘mushroom clouds’ and then Bush’s grandiosely frightening second inaugural, made the US look like a liar and then a revisionist imperialist. This is why I supported the Iraq war until around 2007/08, at which point it became painfully obvious that we had no idea what we were doing there – despite the good arguments for the war – and that hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis were paying their price of our incompetence. (This is yet another reason why my support of the Libya R2P operation has never endorsed ground forces; it’s just not something we can do.) On of all that, we were morphing into a semi-empire under the globalist pressure of neoconservatism, so a vote for Obama became a necessity.

3. Finally, the GWoT has become ridiculously, astonishingly expensive. This sounds callous, of course. As we remember 9/11, we feel that we should do anything we can to kick these people in the head, and I am as glad as anyone that OBL is dead. But of course there are opportunity costs; there must be. That is how scarce resources, i.e. everyday life, work. The GWoT has contributed substantially to the US budget crisis, which will, connecting the relevant dots in the GOP’s preferred language, leave us ‘less safe’ in the future because we can’t spend the money we may need on security later on. Stiglitz has famously argued that the Iraq conflict will total around $3T when it’s all over. Worse, the Bush administration borrowed to pay for it, and actually cut taxes just as the GWoT’s costs began to spiral. This is inexcusable, and has substantially accelerated the global power shift from the US to China, because it is China that funds much of the US’ debt. By 2020, I guess most Americans will regret that we ever launched the GWoT and chose a ‘military’ path, instead of learning from Britain’s CT struggle with the IRA or Israel’s (earlier) quiet ‘sub-war’ response to Arab terror. It didn’t have to be this way…

Here is part one if you missed it.

9/11 a Decade Later (1): The Apocalypse that Wasn’t…


Part two of this post is here.

The 9/11 anniversary commentary will be endless, so here are a few I thought were good.

First, a few thoughts on what to avoid:

I am increasingly suspicious of stuff from the mainstream foreign affairs crowd: Council on Foreign Relations, CSIS, Brookings, and (especially) the conservative think-tank set. They are so Washington, predictable, and establishmentarian (because the all want gigs in the next administration of their choice), that you already know what you will read: no suggestion that the 20-year US massive presence in the Gulf infuriates Muslims and Arabs and helped catalyze 9/11; laundry lists of expensive ideas for the US to ‘do more in the region’ rather than to let locals be themselves; little hint that America’s relations with Muslims would improve dramatically if we were more even-handed on the Palestinians; no suggestion that America might have been better off doing much, much less in response to 9/11; full endorsement of the liberal internationalist-neocon position that 9/11 is a once-in-a-generation justification for continuing America’s massive globocop presence after the Cold War; minimal criticism of the massive Bush national security state overkill in response; shameless exploitation of 9/11 to prevent reductions in America’s gargantuan national security budget, etc. Stick with Foreign Policy, the American Review, the Atlantic, Slate or the New Republic (sometimes) for views that at least challenge the status quo and don’t just recycle what Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and the rest of the DC pundit class will tell you.

Next, avoid the emotional manipulative 9/11 retrospectives. This may sound callous – it was an awful day for everyone, and a truly horrible day for some. But far too often since 9/11, politicians, especially W, played to our emotions from that day, and used and manipulated them to support policy we would almost certainly not have agreed to otherwise, and which we will regret with shame in the future. Here’s the Wall Street Journal telling you that ‘Old Glory’ waved on 9/11 (you’re a patriot and love America, right?), and that’s why they called it the Patriot Act. But then the ACLU and Democrats sabotaged the GWoT, cause they hated W over the Florida recount. So the American left, completely out of power from 2000 to 2006, nonetheless made us ‘less safe’ – for a personal vendetta no less. This is Rovism, wrapped in the flag, but still manipulative and hardball. Further, I have little doubt that, just as we look back today in shame at the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WWII, we will do the same in 20-30 years when look at how we tortured people in the GWoT. Don’t let torture’s defenders – Yoo, Cheney, Thiessen – emotionally roll you by telling you they stopped the next 9/11 and more grieving widows by ‘legalizing’ waterboarding, ‘walling,’ and generally beating the s— out of people in the name of ‘America.’ Keep your wits (and it ain’t true anyway).

In line with this resistance to inevitable grandstanding, posturing, and macho heroics, my own sense is that 9/11’s importance is wildly over-exaggerated – perhaps because I live in Asia, and I increasingly see the Chinese challenge looming for decades to come. But know this – as just about any American living in Asia can tell you – the Chinese sure are happy that we got lost in the Middle East for a decade.

There are a million possible ‘lessons’ from 9/11, but the big one is actually a non-lesson – 9/11 actually changed very little (beyond the changes we made for ourselves, like Iraq and torture). As early as 2006, we were starting to realize just how much we had over-hyped 9/11. The tectonic plates of international relations change slowly. Al Qaeda could not in fact dent unipolarity. (China can, but that is another story.) The stock market didn’t crash. The US military didn’t suddenly collapse. The actual material loss on 9/11 was ‘only’ about $100B out of a $12T economy, and 2700 people from a citizenry of 300M+. (I don’t intend to sound cold; every life is ontologically unique and valuable. But from a national point of view, these numbers are small. Recall that almost 38,000 Americans died in car accidents in 2001.) 9/11 did not unravel NATO or US alliances. US GDP in the proximate quarters continued to expand. China and Russia did not suddenly become nice or nasty. Bin Laden’s much hoped-for Islamic revolution did not occur (one goal of the attack was to spark a global Muslim revolution with al Qaeda in a leninist ‘vanguard party’ role). The much-predicted ‘wave’ of terrorist attacks and plots against the US did not occur, at home or abroad. (Bush defenders will say this is because Bush improved US security at home, but what about the roughly 6M Americans living outside the US? If there really was a global Islamist conspiracy to kill us, there’d be kidnappings and assassinations of US businessmen, students, and tourists all over Eurasia. It never happened.) In the end, well over 99% of the population went to work the next day; unipolarity rolled on.

In short, from a national power perspective, 9/11 is more like Hurricane Katrina – an awful yet manageable one-time disaster – than Hiroshima – a city-breaking catastrophe that promised to be the first in a pattern leading to national collapse. 9/11 was a sucker-punch – a cheap shot al Qaeda managed to slip in because the US wasn’t paying attention (even though the CIA warned Rice and Bush a month earlier). 9/11 did not galvanize the Muslim world, nor provoke a fiery revolt. And given even reasonable homeland security measures (far less draconian than what we choose), repeat attacks at that magnitude are unlikely. In the end, the real reason 9/11 is seared into everyone’s mind is not its catalyst effect toward a global war or clash of civilizations – it is because it was a surprise attack, and because it targeted civilians.

That we permitted that one-shot sucker-punch to drive into us hysterics, to capture our dark imagination, zealous vengeance, and righteous fury is where 9/11 really changed things. American psychology – perhaps insulated too long from the world by US power and distance from Eurasia’s problems – is what changed, not the world.

Continue to part two.

The US Drawdown & National Debt Debate: AfPak, Korea, etc

Afghanistan rocket

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the scale of US commitments and how to reduce them so as to not bankrupt the US in the medium-term. I have gotten a fair amount of criticism that I don’t know what I am talking about, US warfighters are superlative, US forces in various places like Korea or Afghanistan augment US national security, pull-outs jeopardize our credibility, etc. Ok. I am learning like the rest of us on this. I agree that US commitments are sticky, and I have little doubt that US servicemen are professional enough to win conflicts in places like Korea and AfPak (Afghanistan & Pakistan), so long as we have the resources to stay.

Further, I will admit that a ‘post-American’ world is a little unnerving. I say this not as an American who likes ‘empire’ (I don’t), but more generally because I still do think, even post-Iraq, that US involvement generally makes the world a better place. The dollar and US engagement help keep the world economy open, and US force can sometimes be the last line against truly awful acts that shame the conscience. This is why I supported the Libya intervention, and this is why I hope the US can keep forces in Korea. A retrenched, bankrupted, and sullen America worries more than just Americans. To clarify to my critics, my concern is whether the US can support allies around the world, not if it should. I don’t want US Forces in Korea (USFK) to leave any more than anyone else. I can think of few more valuable uses of US force than to help defend a democracy against the last worst stalinist despotism on earth. I just wonder whether we can afford it.

I think we need to be a lot more honest about the huge defense cuts that will be required to balance the US budget. The US deficit ($1.5 trillion) is a staggering 10% of GDP and 35% of the budget; publicly-debt ($9T) is at 60% of US GDP ($15T); and the integrated national security budget (DoD, Veterans, relevant parts of Homeland Security and Energy) exceeds $1T. You hardly need to be an economist to think that this is unsustainable and smacks of imperial overstretch. For an expert run-down on the US budget mess, try here.

This gap could of course be filled with tax increases, but a central GOP policy commitment since roughly the Ford administration has been ‘no new taxes.’ Unless this changes dramatically – and the recent Ryan budget proposal showed no GOP movement on tax increases – this means that most of the $1.5T hole must be filled with spending cuts. My own sense is that allowing the Bush 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to sunset, as is current statute, plus tax reform and a carbon tax, could in fact generate a lot of new revenue at tolerable and intelligent levels of pain. This would reduce some of the pressure to cut defense (and all other US government programming). But without such new taxes, the $1.5T hole calls for huge cuts, and the axe would inevitably land on defense too, including US bases and commitments overseas.

I am genuinely agnostic on whether this is a good idea. Part of me thinks that wealthy US allies, especially Japan and Germany, free-ride. They should spend more so that we can spend less. But others have retorted that encouraging wealthy Asian allies like Korea and Japan to spend more could trigger an arms race in Asia that might also go nuclear. Barnett has a nice post on how Asian elites are aware of this and worry about a weak US. (On the other hand, there is not actually a lot of empirical evidence that denuclearization brings peace.)

In response to my commenters at Busan Haps on a US withdrawal from Korea, I wrote:

“America’s economic problems will likely compel the rebalancing all of you are thinking about. Importantly, even if the US wanted to stay and provide ‘extended deterrence’ as we have for 60 years, the dollars are not there for it.

Whether or not we should go is a different question. My sense is that Korea does actually try harder than many US allies. Korea spends 2.7% of GDP on defense. Germany and Japan spend around just 1%. The US spends close to 6%. But like Germany and Japan, Korea is now wealthy enough to spend a lot more. This raises the free-riding question you all worry about.

If Korea really wants USFK to stay no matter what, then the most likely way is for Korea to pay for ALL of the expense of USFK here. Right Korea and the US split the bill roughly so far as I can tell.

But I find great resistance to this thinking. My sense is that within the Beltway, there is strong elite consensus for the US remain committed around the world. ‘Empire’ seems to be a knack or a habit Americans have grown into. We like being a globally present superpower but are increasingly unable to afford it and unwilling to pay the taxes for it.

The question then is what do we do now? Cut entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security) to make room for defense? Do we raise taxes enormously for all these things? Are do we retrench from our global posture so we spend less money?

Finally, there is a model for retrenchment. Britain slowly retreated from its empire in the 1950s and 60s. In some places it went very badly – South Asia and southern Africa especially. But this slowly brought British commitments back into line with British resources. The alternative for the US is to change nothing and risk an imperial crack-up – something like the USSR in 1989 or Austro-Hungary in 1914. That is my worry.”

Here are two good recent articles from the Wall Street Journal by Leslie Gelb and Max Boot on whether or not we can drawdown from Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak) post-bin Laden. I lean toward Gelb, but I think Boot makes some good points. Particularly, Boot notes that a US presence in Afghanistan made it possible to get OBL, because US forces were proximate. But Boot still sidesteps the debt issue. Both Beinart and the US JSC chairman call the debt the biggest threat to US national security. I am inclined to agree…

Thoughts on Bin Laden’s Death: Can/Should We Wrap the ‘GWoT’?


Amid the flood of commentary, I would recommend this and this.

It’s hard not to be thrilled at this moment. I am not especially nationalistic, but Osama bin Laden (OBL) was doubtless an enemy of liberal democracy, a homicide, and virulently anti-American. Like Obama said, the world is a better place without him, and certainly America, the West, and liberals everywhere are safer. If there is a liberal democratic ‘end of history,’ this was a step on that path. So here a few thoughts:

1. Did we assassinate him? Did we intend to kill him, or just capture him? When I  first saw the CNN story, a by-line in the scroll at the bottom of the screen quoted an unnamed spokesmen saying the goal was to kill him, not capture him. If he really was unarmed, was this then an execution, a murder (!)? What if he had put his hands up? Would the US government or Obama be liable (!)? Honestly, these are just academic question though. No one really wants to ask them, Arabs and Muslims included, and probably not even the Pakistanis. Everyone, Middle Easterners included, is just glad he’s gone. As Walt notes (last link), the rules of engagement on the raid were probably pretty loose, because no one really wanted him captured. Ideally, that would have been best and most humane, but his capture would open up so many problems, that practically, killing him was the most attractive option. If we had him, what would we do with him? Send him to Guantanamo? Torture him? (Imagine how the pro-waterboarding crowd would have responded.) Do we send him to NYC for a trial, or a military tribunal? If he did get a trial, imagine the OJ-style feeding frenzy and his use of it as a platform to capture global attention once again. Given how much trouble we have had structuring a legal architecture for the global war on terror (GWoT), even after 10 years of conflict, the legal issues would have bedeviled the country for years. In fact, if we would have tortured him the way we tortured Khalid Sheik Mohammed (waterboarded 183 times in one month), and then executed him (like Timothy McVeigh), it may in fact have been more humane to kill him during the raid.

2. If we did assassinate him, then can/should we do the same to Gadaffi? I find it ironic that at the same time we killed OBL in a targeted strike, NATO argued that it was not purposefully targeting Gaddafi. It seems very likely that Gaddaffi’s death would end the Libyan war at a stroke, saving countless lives. Assassinations however are a violation of US law.

3. Is it right/wrong to be ‘happy’ that OBL is dead? It feels terribly macabre to wish for someone else’ death, and notably, both Obama and Secretary used the oblique ‘brought him to justice’ in order to avoid saying something like ‘we are glad we shot him in the head.’ (Go here for that ‘Rot in Hell!’ headline.) But OBL is one of those figures like Hitler or Pol Pot who have such a history of unrepentant and continuing awfulness that the moral calculus likely changes. If OBL were the prodigal son and legitimately changed his ways, perhaps we should feel differently. But even after 9/11, he didn’t stop. At some point, even the most Christian/Buddhist/pacifist/Amish/liberal whatever could agree that ethics would be served by his death. Because he so obviously planned to keep on killing on a huge scale, killing him undoubtedly saves lives. This alters the moral discussion, I think. My Korean students and friends seemed a little unnerved that I was pleased. But I mentioned the obvious parallel of Kim Jong Il. He too is one of the figures with such an awful and continuing record that just about everyone believes Korea will be a better place without him. And indeed, SK has flirted in the past with trying to kill his (equally awful) father. When unification comes, if there is war or large-scale violence, it is hard to imagine the SK government wouldn’t also be thinking it would just be easier if Kim and his top cronies die in a firefight. (More likely though is a Mussolini/Ceausescu-style ending where is he is lynched by enrage locals.)

4. Was Pakistan sheltering OBL? Did we connive with western-leaning elements of Pakistan against islamist-leaning ISI elements? No one wants to say this, but it seems increasingly unlikely that OBL survived in a reasonably comfortable home (not in the cave we all thought) in the middle of the country without substantial informal tolerance. Others know far better than me on this point, but this is yet another marker that we should probably be slowly getting out of South Asia.

5. How important is this? W famously said he doesn’t worry to much about OBL anymore. That was probably the right attitude actually, although W was pilloried by the Democrats for saying so. OBL was isolated – the house in Pakistan had no phones or internet to prevent tracking, and his communication with the world went through just a few couriers. So he really was not in operational command of anything anymore. Has the jihad and GWoT moved on? Probably, as Bush said. So yes, OBL’s death was a necessary conclusion to the long post-9/11 story. But it doesn’t actually change too much in the larger GWoT; if anything, maybe we can take it as an opportunity to declare victory and get out of South Asia (see below).

6. Congrats to the US intel services for a job well-done. I haven’t always been too congratulatory of the US conduct of the GWoT, but this was clearly a big breakthrough that richly deserves praise, as does Obama. The headlines about US power are that we are in decline, and that is true, relatively. We are wildly overstretched and need to start coming home. But this is an important marker that we can still be effectively, coherent and focused, in contradistinction to our image from Iraq. This was clearly planned and efforted for many months with lots of details thought out in advance. After the mess we made in Iraq and Afghanistan, this was a good demonstration of the way we can struggle against terrorism without a GWoT. Success doesn’t require massive invasions and the inevitable blunt tactics that come with them. I hope this stands as a future model of US force, along with our moderate efforts in Libya, and not more Iraqs and Afghanistans.

7. What is the Muslim world’s view? I saw Feisal Abdul Rauf (the guy who wants to build the World Trade Center mosque) on CNN. I was disappointed that he couldn’t seem to admit on TV that OBL was bad for solely killing Americans or non-Muslims. He had to say ‘we’ (Muslims) also suffered at his hands. This is true and makes it political easier to ‘sell’ in the Middle East. But he still should have said that OBL deserved justice solely for 9/11 on its own terms. Given that he has proclaimed the WTC mosque to serve ‘inter-faith outreach’ and all that, his automatic tribal instincts at such an important moment disappoint.

8. Will this finally push apart the Taliban and al Qaeda? Can this help us get out of South Asia? Yglesias suggests we can ‘declare victory in the GWoT’ and start to wind down? I am mixed on this. We really need to, but it is not yet clear how much this will set back al Qaeda. Is Zawahiri, who is just as homicidal and fanatical, going to step in keep al Q rolling along? But it does make sense to pivot from a war-fighting to a management strategy at some point. (By management, I mean seeing terrorism like a ‘regular’ social problem akin to crime, piracy, or drugs – limiting the massive use of resources and force, because ‘victory’ is impossible without doing more harm than good.) We will never kill all terrorists globally. That would be far too difficult, would turn into US global imperialism for decades, will bankrupt the country, and destroy our liberal values. As Lithwick notes, the unending GWoT is perverting our sense of justice and liberal values (torture, warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detentions, and so so). As the Framers and republicans everywhere since Cicero have noted, unending war is terrible for democracy and liberalism. So maybe this is the long-needed juncture so that we can finally move on.

American Dual Containment in Asia


Last month I published an article in Geopolitics entitled “American Dual Containment in Asia.” In brief, I argued that a double containment of both Islamic fundamentalism and of China is the likely US strategy in Asia in the coming decades. The containment of salafism in the Middle East is bound to be hard and violent (as it already is), because Al Qaeda and associated movements are so genuinely revolutionary and dangerous. The containment of China is likely to be soft until the Chinese decide just how much they wish to challenge the reigning liberal democratic order. In the last year, many seem to fear that China is ramping up in this direction. Hence my prediction that India will be a pivot in this containment line. It is a unique ally for the US, because it is worried about both China and Islamic fundamentalism, and because it is democratic. In this way, it is unique among American alliance choices. Here is abstract:

“US grand strategy after 9/11 turned from post-containment drift to preemption. But the costs are high – suspicion of American power, hedging by traditional allies, expensive, go-it-alone ventures like Iraq. Tried-and-true containment better reflects American values. While forward in the world, containment is also defensive. It reassures skittish partners and reflects liberal, anti-imperial US preferences. In Asia, containment would deter the primary contemporary challengers of US power – radical Islam and Chinese nationalism – without encouraging a Bush-style global backlash. In a reductive analysis of US alliance choices, this article predicts a medium-term Indo-American alliance. India uniquely shares both US liberal democratic values and the same two challengers; it is the likely pivot in a US-backed neo-containment architecture in Asia.”

Here are the relevant graphs that, I hope, make the argument clearer:

Graph 1. Contemporary Revisionists to the ‘American System’













Islamist-Jihadist Networks,

Iran ?



China ?

Rogues (Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela)



The good news above is that just about everyone accepts the international status quo – roughly, the liberal international political economy led by the US (what Ikenberry calls “the American system”). While al Qaeda is clearly a scary revisionist – i.e., the they want to dramatically rewrite the international order by refounding the caliphate, e.g. – they are also pretty weak. The only powerful revisionist is China, and no one knows yet just how much she seeks to change things. This is good for the US, insofar as it backstops the international order, and it is also good for the many states in Asia and Europe that function within that order. Although the internal challenges to the liberal order are growing (i.e, the Great Recession), there is currently no powerful and revolutionary external challenger like the Nazis or USSR were.


 Graph 2. Contemporary US Alliance Picks










Great Britain/NATO








Japan/East Asia




Israel/Arab clients









This graph tries to reductively explain the appeal of India as an alliance partner. It uniquely shares the both the geopolitical interests of the US in Asia; that is, it is worried about both Islamism and China. And it shares our liberal democratic values. Russia is an obvious point on shared interests – the ultimate driver of alliances of course – but it is so erratic and semi-dictatorial, that is still distasteful despite the ‘reset.’

The most controversial part of this analysis is certainly my open claim that China will be a target of US soft containment, and maybe hard in the future. I should say here that I do not want this. I am very aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy problem; i.e., if we openly come out and say China is an enemy or threat, then by doing so, we make it into one. And certainly articles like mine are exactly what the Chinese declaim – a not-so-secret effort by US analysts to keep China down and such. And see Barnett on why I am completely wrong, if not dangerous, about China. But as an empirical prediction, I do think it holds. China’s growth and current values (populist nationalism, deep historical grievance, residual communism) are just too rapidly destabilizing, and I think Barnett doesn’t give nearly the necessary attention to the security dilemma problems China creates on its periphery. (IMO, Barnett overfocuses on China and G-2 coziness, while missing the nervousness in places like Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Indonesia.)   For my own writing on why I think the ‘China threat’ school is likely to win this debate, try here.

Finally, I should say in fairness that my own perception of China-as-threat has declined somewhat, in part because I visited the place. This strikes me as natural; closeness and exposure frequently breed understanding, and I like to think that all the nice Chinese scholars and hospitality I experience were in fact real. But the liberal values of academics exposed to new ideas and travel as a professional requirement hardly apply to populations and elites, especially those as nationalist as China and the US. The misperception likelihood is huge here; remember the Bush 2 administration came in ready to take on China until 9/11 happened. This will likely reassert itself as American dependence on Chinese financing grows and as the GWoT (hopefully) winds down. (Another problem here is the peer-review process. Articles take years to between the first inspired write-up and the end-point of publication. Reviewers send you back to the drawing board, and the pipeline effect means that even after final acceptance you may wait a year or more to see it in print.)

That South Korean Commando Raid against the Somali Pirates

I couldn’t find any actual video of the assault so here is a decent news vid about it


Here is a Korean news blurb about the anti-pirate raid, and here is some quick analysis. As you might imagine, the Korean media has trumpeted this, and the Korean President Myung-Bak Lee, who ordered the assault, took a lot of deserved credit. At the risk of sounding like a shill, I must say I continue to be very impressed by Lee’s presidency. He is a good example of the kind of conservative I want to vote for but simply cannot find in the US anymore (where its all Christianity and tea party paranoia). Lee is tough, professional, fiscally balanced, not terribly ideological, business-focused, comfortable with science, tolerant of Korea’s growing diversity, but still on the right side of most of the big foreign policy issues like China, NK, Afghanistan, etc. Yes, he is prone to autocratic outbursts, but no more so than W’s constitution-bending. In any case, he is vast improvement over the accommodationist SK left which seems to think the US is a greater threat to SK than NK or China (no, that is not a joke). So hear, hear, President Lee, for giving the pirates the shellacking they deserve.

Here are a few more thoughts on the raid.

1. In a way, the raid helps justify the on-going, much maligned, dismal, I-want-it-to-go-away-as-much-as-you-do war on terror. No, the pirates are not terrorists, nor are they islamists as far as we can tell. But they do demonstrate the fundamental international political problem behind the GWoT – state failure. To be more specific, failed/failing states create wild west zones on the planet (Somalia, central Africa, parts of central and southeast Asia and Caribbean basin) that open room for all sorts of nasties to set up shop. All sorts of asymmetric threats are enabled by the absence of law in state-less spaces, and they morph in unexpected ways that pull in players one wouldn’t expect (the US goes to Afghanistan, and SK goes to the Gulf of Aden). If the Middle East were governed better, it is unlikely 9/11 would have happened. Indeed, many of the problems we associate with the GWoT – piracy, trafficking, mass human rights violations, drug cartels, generalized social chaos (like in Children of Men) – are broadly attributable to the lack of robust, functioning, reasonably legitimate states in central Eurasia and Africa. This is really what Iraq and Afghanistan are all about – trying to fashion somewhat modern states that can locally control/contain/enervate violent, frequently atavistic, non-state actors like al Qaeda or the Lord’s Resistance Army. And state-less spaces create threats we don’t really anticipate or think about much. IR theory and security studies is mostly about states. Irregular forces like militias, terrorists, pirates don’t have the cachet that worrying about the Chinese navy does. But clearly we do need some general global strategy for cleaning up what Thomas Barnett calls the ‘Gap.’

2. I was quite impressed by the SK military’s prowess, and this may be the biggest unanticipated story. Usually the security discussion of East Asia revolves around the big guys – China, Japan, India. When Korea gets mentioned, the usual line is NK-as-psycho, with SK as a hapless victim. SK is somewhat responsible for this. The SK electorate is quite pacifist (certainly compared to the US), and SK’s extreme exposure to NK means they can’t respond the way Israel does when it is provoked. But far from peninsular restrictions, the SK military was able to show its stuff and they did a super job. I don’t think people realize just how large, professionalized, and modern the SK military actually is (600k conscripts and a $30 billion annual budget). Given the sort of budgetary pressures Europe’s decaying great powers are facing, and the likely post-Yeonpyeong defense build-up in SK, SK is now almost certainly in the top 10 of the world’s most efficacious militaries, as bizarre as that may seem, and it is giving Japan a run for its money. Japan is bigger of course and has a great deal of latent military power, but its defense budget  has been just 1% of GDP/year for decades, its debt burden is crushing, and it hasn’t fought on any combat missions at all since WWII. Yet here is tiny Korea projecting coherent, efficacious force all the way into the Gulf of Aden. Not bad…

3. The larger story must be the growing depth and reach of Asian economies. Indian Ocean sea-lines of communication (SLOC) are pretty important for Asia’s economies, and the piracy fight tells us two things.

a. Asia’s economies are now so big and prosperous that pirates can make a living off of them. Can you imagine anyone preying on Indian Ocean shipping as a profession 40 years ago? Indian Ocean SLOCs, connecting East Asia with the Middle East and Europe, now clearly rival those focused on the US in the Atlantic and Pacific – yet another mark of the gravity shift from West and East.

b. East Asia’s economies are now rich and confident enough to project power pretty far from their shores. Of course the US Navy is dominant, but East Asia has the money now to buy bigger and better ships, while US military cuts are almost a certainty, and the US navy is an obvious budget-cutting target as the costs of the GWoT have fallen mostly on the Army and Marines. So here is yet another example of that more equal world in which the US will move in the future. If East Asian economic interests and the military force to protect them now extend all the way to Africa, that pretty clearly pushes the US back in the Indian Ocean and raises the obvious question of when the US will move back in the Pacific too.

US Embassy Security – Yikes!


There has been a lot of discussion of the ramp-up of US embassy security since 9/11. Generally, the fear is that US embassies increasingly look like bunkers. They are being moved far away from downtowns. They are surrounded by loads of police, military, and barbed wire.

The Seoul one was quite an experience. I needed more passport pages, so off I went. It was frightening. There were multiple layers of security, blast doors, and US and Korean military and police with automatic weapons and body armor all over the place, including the SWAT tanks in my picture above. To boot, cell phones were confiscated, and there were the ubiquitous cameras. I imagine if I wrote more about it, they would be miffed over this post.

It was a depressing experience. I am with Thomas Friedman on this issue of US openness post-9/11. I think this stuff just sends a terrible image to the world about an open society gone loopy. 9/11 abetted the worst instincts of the national security state, and I fear we are moving down an Israeli path toward a barracks democracy with gates and locks all over the place. But this is not what open societies look like. Nor is it what we should want. Who wants barbed wire and cops with rifles at the mall? This is Bin Laden’s real victory – the installation of paranoia in the US. And I fear it will take decades to undo. The 1990s seems like such a paradise by comparison.

And I am not sure all this is necessary. The US has not in fact been targeted that much since 9/11. As John Mueller noted years ago, a lot of this has been overblown. I recall reading somewhere that you are more likely to be hit by lightning – twice – that killed in a terrorist incident. And what terrorism there has been has not been Bin Laden-style plots, but wacky rogues like the underwear bomber or the Fort Hood shooter. It is unlikely that all these walls could have stopped them.

Visiting our embassy was a genuine shock. It certainly didn’t look like America. It reminded me of those execrable gate-communities that fill California and subdivide people against themselves. This doesn’t look like homeland security. It looks like Israel, Pakistan or South Korea in the cold war – democracies under siege and paranoid. This is exactly the sort of freedom-reducing militarization the Founding Fathers warned about in instances of long wars and huge standing armies. This needs to be unwound sometime soon for the health of our democracy.

‘Responsible’ Sovereignty vs the Responsibility to Protect


The ramp up in drones and special operations in the GWoT has me thinking we are stumbling into a future of unspoken limitations on sovereignty.

Limits on sovereignty is an old story, and one of the classic points of disagreement in IR. Usually, it pits realists against liberals – the general lines being that states won’t really cede any authority to a higher institution, while liberals scramble to find examples from the UN system to suggest that sovereignty is slowing leeching away. The ‘institutional’ debate is wrapped up in globalization too. Globalization supposedly makes the world more interdependent. More interdependence means more rules are needed, so states will slowly give up some prerogatives in order to get the benefits of the global economy. Earlier generations of IR talked about ‘spillover,’ as states slowly slid into more rule-bound orders, almost unconsciously.

But now we are seeing something different. Now, we see the US (usually) telling countries that if they can’t get their act together internally, we will take action. The issue is the responsible use of your sovereignty (RS). If you turn your country over  to drug lords, proliferators, pirates, terrorists, etc, then you are gambling with your sovereign inviolability (Afghanistan, northern Pakistan). Or even if you don’t agree to turn over your state to such non-state and if it happens against your will, others will still feel it ok to intrude (Somalia, Congo).

This most definitely does not fit the traditional liberal IR image of sovereignty cession. It is a product of state-weakness (Somalia) or nastiness (Taliban Afghanistan), not democratic decision-making or spill-over (the EU).

If intruding on sovereignty used ‘irresponsibly’ sounds like another neo-con excuse for democratic imperialism (it is), one can always try the liberal internationalist version of this – ‘the responsibility to protect’ (R2P). R2P puts a lefty spin on this by saying that the government has a responsibility to protect its own people; i.e., governments can’t prey on their own people as in Sudan. Governments that continue to do so will ultimately face international sanction and an agreement by the great powers, ideally through the UN Security Council, to step into your affairs to protect your own people from you. Obviously, this only happens in extreme circumstances (Kosovo, Rwanda), and the Chinese, with their regular opposition to any ‘intervention in internal affairs,’ will oppose it. But nevertheless, R2P thinking clearly suggests that human rights sensibilities are now so advanced, that there are extreme limits to sovereignty, and that is almost certainly a good thing. Governments can do a lot, but they can’t do anything anymore.

If this sounds kind of benign, focused on human rights and the domestic population’s well-being, ‘responsible sovereignty’ is a little scarier, because it is focused on outsiders’ well-being (defined by them of course), and it explicitly embraces the use of force by outsiders to protect themselves from you and your carelessness. So if Sudan is a good example of the R2P logic – a nasty state tearing up its own people which should get whacked a bit by the international community for doing that – then Somalia is a good example of RS – failed state so out of any domestic control, and thereby becoming so dangerous to the rest of us, that it has essentially forfeited its right to manage itself and foreigners will do (some of) it for them. Is this neocolonialism?

Finally, the US has already flirted with RS before the declaration of preemption by the Bush administration. A century ago, in the Roosevelt and Wilson Corollaries to the Monroe Doctrine, the US reserved the right to intervene in Latin America should its governments become too ‘disorderly.’ The neo-con update of this idea is to expand it worldwide, which I can’t help wondering if the US can really afford now, with a $1.5 trillion deficit. Sounds like overstretch all over again…

Illiberal Zionism Update: Beinart Nails It



Peter Beinart is exactly the sort of liberal necessary to win the GWoT. He correctly realized that the American right is not credible in its claims to defend Western liberalism against salafi illiberalism, because too much of the GOP base is too illiberal now and sees the GWoT exactly as Bin Laden does – a theological clash of civilizations – only they are on the other side. The increasingly Christianized and fundamentalist (Protestant mostly) GOP wants to ‘win’ the GWoT as a triumph of Christianity and/or American power. They are, as Walter Russell Mead correctly notes, ‘Jacksonian Zionist,’ not liberal. No Muslim, correctly, will believe US power to be neutral, serving universalist liberalism, when Bush needed to be told that the GWoT had biblical justification and Sarah Palin insists that Israel be allowed to do whatever it wants in the Occupied Territories.

In the same vein, he makes a good case here for the growing illiberalism of Zionism and the increasing inability of liberal countries to support its religio-nationalist, rather than liberal, opposition to Islamism and Arab authoritarianism. I made exactly the same point a year ago. (It is always nice to be confirmed in one’s prejudices I suppose, but Beinart does a better job of it than I did.) Sullivan adds his usually biting and gloomy commentary.

All sides seem to be sliding toward a clash of civilizations paradigm. All the more reason for the US to focus on the battle of ideas against salafism and get out of the Middle East in the medium-term

Sharia Orwellianism Update, or Why the GWoT Rolls on and on…

Yet another attack on a Mohammed cartoonist in Europe, complete with violent, alienated, unintegrated Muslim youth screaming ‘Allah akhbar’ at bewildered Europeans…


The relevant context is here and here.

This sorta stuff just makes my blood boil, because it lays so bare the splits between western liberalism and Middle Eastern salafism. This pretty much tells you why the war on terrorism continues, as does the West’s concern about Islam, despite Obama’s election. And it should make pretty clear why it is important to fight the GWoT and win it.

If you haven’t seen the original Mohammed cartoons, here they are. If you are ‘offended,’ then I am elated. Liberalism is good for you. I am proud to re-post them. Go surf someplace else…


Stand with “South Park” vs Sharia Orwellianism


By now you know that not even “South Park” is immune from salafism’s insistence on terrifying and alieanting the rest of the world. You may love or hate the show, but the defense of free-speech is a central values breakpoint between liberal modernity and reaction, between the best traditions of the West and the worst of Gulf Islam. This is an important part of the battle of ideas in the GWoT, as is defending the Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the Mohammed cartoonists in Denmark. Ali, herself a terrible victim of this paranoia, has a nice summary of the explicit free-speech threat of Muslims exporting sharia onto non-Muslims.

Everyone with a blog should do as Jon Stewart did on April 22 and explicitly defend the right of free speech, especially the right to ridicule and mock religion. Religions as a body of thought deserve as much scrutiny as any another paradigm, intellectual system, or philosophy. And religion certainly needs this criticism if it is not just to be superstition and received ascientific silliness, repackaged as ‘time-honored tradition,’ and codified by some book written a long time, then repackaged as ‘divine revelation.’  Even the faithful know this in their heart of hearts. Consider this counterfactual: if your friend told you that snakes could talk, that people came back from the dead, or that bushes burned without disintegrating, wouldn’t you be pretty incredulous – unless you heard it at Sunday school? I never had a teacher in my Catholic grade school who could answer that one, which was a pretty big let down.

If you don’t know the story of Augustine’s conversion to Christianity, it is an object lesson in this healthy interchange between religion and criticism. Read the Confessions for the whole story, but the short version is that the young Augustine found Christianity ridiculously primitive, intellectually soft, and superstitious. Trained in Greek philosophy and the high Latin of the great Roman authors, he found the writing of the New Testament poor and unconvincing. The story of how Augustine still came to Christianity and helped drag Christianity into a meaningful interaction with Greek philosophy is intellectual gripping, spiritually provocative, and more likely to convince you of Christianity’s veracity than any of the Palin-esque, family values TV preachers who masquerade today as authorities on Christianity. (If you want a 20th century version of this back-and-forth, read about CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein’s lengthy discussions of Christianity.)

The point is that religions, most especially today Gulf Islam (and American evangelical Christianity), desperate need their Nietzsches, South Parks, Hirsi Alis, and Christoper Hitchens to force them to stay up to par. Defending “South Park” is not just about free speech. It’s also about the larger point made by the New Atheists in the last 10 years: that religion must find a way to live in a the modern, plural, ‘impure’ multicultural, scientific, democratic world. If it can’t, if it simply lashes out to demonize (Benedict XVI) or butcher (salafism) its opponents, then trained people will never take it seriously. And that is the greatest ‘disrespect’ the faithful should really fear – when even the mildly educated think you’re like the Raelians or something – simply ridiculous and unworthy of meaningful consideration.

Addendum: It should be noted that the Islamic prohibition against imagery of Muhammad is far less totalist than the Gulf Sunni salafists would have you think. Shi’ites don’t care a whit, and Southeast Asian Sunnism was pretty lenient on this too until Saudi oil money and clerics start bringing the ‘pure’ (i.e., ‘arid-as-the-Gulf-desert’) version of Islam in the last generation. ISLAM DOES NOT HAVE BE MONOPOLIZED BY THE JIHADIS.

Just How Hard Will Afghanistan Be?: ‘We Issue Pens to Afghan Soldiers’


Robert Kaplan has a nice new piece on Afghanistan over at the Atlantic. As usual, it is worth your time. Kaplan travels to places most of us in IR could only dream of visiting, so his work’s got a verite feel that our modeling and endless quotations of one another never do. (This is why people read him, not us.) Unfortunately Kaplan repeats the same motifs again and again, so its not clear if we are reading about Afghanistan, or just Kaplan’s expansive Americanist ideology again. In this way, he is becoming like the Kagans. You already know his answer: geography is a huge constraint on international action; America’s NCOs and infantrymen are kick-a—; we should win the GWoT at even huge expense; and US empire is probably good for the world, even if others resent it.

This time around, Kaplan lays the groundwork for Stanley McChrystal’s presidential bid. What is it with conservatives and the lionization of generals? Just read Kaplan’s purple prose. No one doubts Petraeus or McChrystal’s military talents, but I am pretty sure the US right’s cult of personality tendency for military machismo is unhealthy for the democratic process. Also, is it really admirable that McChrystal only sleeps four hours a day? How many of us could make good decisions living that way regularly? That told me less that McChrystal is super-committed, and more that he is overworked, under-resourced, and under-staffed. That sounds like the Bush-era GWoT all right…

But the money quote from Kaplan’s piece has go to be this from a NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) interviewee:

The recruits may not know how to read, but they are incredibly street-smart. They’re survivalists. Basic soldiering here does not require literacy. We give them a course in how to read and issue them pens afterwards. They take tremendous pride in that. In Afghanistan, a pen in a shirt pocket is a sign of literacy.

Note the use of the military verb ‘issue.’ Yes, the $.50 plastic pen you forgot in the coffee room yesterday is a formally issued piece of military hardware that signals prestige in the wider Afghan society. WOW.

Consider all the information that short anecdote conveys to you about education, poverty, and governance in Afghanistan:

1. Afghans are so poor, they can’t afford pens. ISAF has to issue them, and only qualified soldiers get them.

2. Afghans are so illiterate, no one really needs them.

3. Widespread illiteracy and poverty means the Afghan state, even down into the local level, cannot meaningfully connect to the citizenry.

If illiteracy is so widespread that pens are a mark of social prestige, then Afghanistan can hardly be expected to have complex institutions or national centralization. If you can’t write bills or receipts, what kind of markets will you have? If you can’t read laws from Kabul, much less correspond with state organs, how do you know what the rules are, where to pay taxes, etc? If education is that non-existent, how can you build an army, infrastructure, courts, etc?

None of this means the US and other wealthy states should not help Afghanistan. Indeed, your heart should break when you read that Afghans are issued pens. Nor is this a verdict on the utility of ISAF; maybe we should still go, despite the huge hurdles this very revealing anecdote makes clear.

But this anecdote told me more about how hard the Afghan operation really will be, than Obama’s surge speech last year, or any of the other fearless, ‘we-can-do-it’ prose of Kaplan’s piece. This is way beyond Iraq. Afghanistan doesn’t just need counter-terrorism/insurgency, it needs nation-building on an order that took the US two centuries to achieve.

Obama didn’t include anecdotes this revealing in his Afghan surge address last year. Did he white lie by not showing us just how high the slope is? It kinda seems like it…

Why Korea is going (back) to Afghanistan, or how Middle Powers get Muscled by their Patrons


So Korea will head back to Afghanistan this summer. I spoke on this today in my radio slot on Busan’s English language station. The transcript is below.

The obvious question is why. The provincial reconstruction team Korea will send is pretty small. They won’t be able to do much. They won’t be in a particularly dangerous part of the country. And the Korean public is awfully skeptical.

So why go? The short answer is because the US wants Korea to go; they are part of the ally round-up of the Obama administration to reach McChrystal’s 40,000 soldier figure for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Korea’s geopolitics are awful. It is surrounded by 3 larger powers with whom it has terrible relations, plus bizarro North Korea. So SK is terribly dependent on the US to help it maintain its autonomy in such a bad neighborhood. And the US has repeatedly (ab)used this asymmetric dependence to push Korea into things it doesn’t want to do.

It’s also a nice way for Korea to strut its stuff as an emerging global player – something Koreans desperately want to be.

But I don’t think Koreans are ready for the blowback that comes with participation in the GWoT. As Greenwald and Walt have both noted repeatedly, it is ridiculous to assume that if you kill Muslims in the ‘war,’ they won’t hit back – e.g., in the Christmas bombing attempt. Koreans have already been targeted in the GWoT. The more Korea gets sucked into this thing, the more they will be targeted.

Further, Korea is an increasingly Christian society. Islamic radicals have traditionally avoided Asian religions. They worry about ‘backward’ monotheisms (Christians and Jews haven’t ‘updated’ to Mohammed, the last and definitive prophet of the God of Abraham) and polytheistic irreligion (i.e., Hinduism). But the more metaphysical/non-theistic faiths of East Asia don’t really activate them. Look at Malaysia, whose large minority of Buddhists have never been targeted. But as Korea christianizes (due to heavy proselytization here), expect the al Qaeda types to start eyeing it, especially if its soldiers use force in Muslim countries.





January 11, 2010


So in the last few weeks, the government has agreed to redeploy Korean forces to Afghanistan, but not very many. So why is this important?


You’re right that the numbers are small – less than 500 people – in what we call a provincial reconstruction team. But it is important for Korea for at least three big reasons – beyond the obvious costs and risks to personnel.


And those reasons are what?


First, Korea has almost no record of overseas force deployments. The Republic did send a few peacekeepers to East Timor and Iraq, but these were very controversial. Under the left-leaning Kim and Roh administrations, the Korean government disagreed badly with the US over Middle East policy, and one way to show that displeasure was avoid overseas deployments


So why is Korea going to Afghanistan now then?


The conservative Lee administration wants a more mature, or ‘global,’ profile for Korea. President Lee wants Koreans to become accustomed to thinking of themselves globally, and peacekeeping is a part of that role. If Korea is to cut a larger role on the global stage – a deeply held Korean political goal – then it must also carry more of the burden. For the same reason, Korea is expanding its foreign aid programming.


Ok. So what are the other reasons Korea is going?


Sure. The second big reason is because the US is asking Korea to go. Before President Lee, the Korean government was distancing itself from the US. President Roh particularly liked to use his flirtation with China to tweak the Bush administration. President Bush was deeply unpopular in Korea, as was the Iraq war.


So President Lee is trying to mend fences with America by sending us to Afghanistan?


Basically, yes. President Lee is staunchly pro-American in a way his predecessors were not. Unlike South Korea’s drift toward China earlier in the decade, President Lee is strongly committed to returning the US alliance to centrality in Korean foreign policy…


And going to Afghanistan is way to show that.




You said there was a third big issue stemming from this deployment.


Yes, as Korea’s global profile and global intervention accelerate, it will eventually become a target of those forces that resent globalization, global governance, and the United States.


I don’t understand.


Sorry. If Korea joins world politics more explicitly, if it moves beyond simply East Asia – its regional home for decades – then eventually it will encounter the turbulence of big international relations issues, such as terrorism or piracy.


That’s right. I have heard before about Korean aid workers killed in the Middle East.


And Koreans have been increasingly pulled into the problem of Somali piracy.


So what does this mean for Korean foreign policy?


Well, on the one hand, it means that Korean is increasingly becoming a mature global player. Its foreign policy is no longer dominated solely by North Korea. This is a deep desire of the current Lee administration – to pull South Korea out of the local ‘ghetto’ of peninsular politics, where everything in Korean foreign policy is dominated by erratic Pyongyang. President Lee and most Koreans want Korea accepted globally – as a wealthy, prestigious, functional, responsible democracy.


And going to Afghanistan shows that. I get it. But you sound like you see a downside.


Yes, there is. The more Korea gets pulled into the US-led war on terror, the more likely Koreans are to become targets too.


That’s unfortunate. Why?


Well, for two reasons. One, Korea is a US ally. And al Qaeda and similar groups target not only Americans but close allies, like Great Britain, too. Second, Korea has a growing Christian population.


Why is that important?


Because for al Qaeda, the war on terror is really a clash of civilizations or a religious conflict. Islamic radicals are, in their mind, defending the faith against aggressive, imperialistic Christians, Jews, and to a lesser extent Hindus.


But Korea’s heritage is mostly Buddhist and Confucian.


That’s right. Which is why East Asia has generally been spared the effects of 9/11. Islamic radicalism is just not as worried about Asian religions. But as Korea’s Christian population expands, and as its role in the war on terror expands also, al Qaeda attacks on Koreans are more likely.


Those are the costs of global profile for Korea?




Do you think it’s worth it?


I don’t know, and I worry sometimes that Koreans don’t know either. Koreans are so concerned to achieve global status, that they haven’t really thought too much about its costs. You know, it’s not so bad to be the Austrias or the Canadas of the world.


Is that what Korea is in East Aisa?


Kind of. And it could be if you wanted it that way. I even wrote a paper once saying that Korea might consider trying to be like Finland, instead of Japan – small, rich, and neutral – with lots of good skiing.


But that’s not really what Koreans want right now, is it? So off we go to Afghanistan.


Basically, yes. You have decided to be an American ally, and so you get pulled into stuff like this.