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.