Sunday, December 30, 2007

Kristol at the Times

By the way, is anyone else as baffled as I am that the New York Times has named Bill Kristol as a regular columnist?

Friday, December 28, 2007

Krugman on Pakistan

My my, it's been a while hasn't it? First off I'd like to apologize to any of my readers who were wondering if I'd started a new life as a hermit in the mountains of central Asia. I can offer no good explanation for my long absence, save a hectic holiday season and the fact that the Muses, fickle creatures that they are, have paid me few visits of late. I make it my New Year's resolution to resume something resembling a regular blogging schedule from here on out.

I am moved to comment on this blurb written a few days ago by the Times's Paul Krugman. Dr. Krugman is a man whose views I greatly respect. I think he is one of the most clear-headed and relevant voices of liberal thought in America today, and he is a better economist than I could ever hope to be. All that said, his comments on the recent Bhutto assassination in Afghanistan reflect a unidimensionally ideological approach to foreign policy that I find quite troubling. For those of you who couldn't be bothered to follow the link, here's the key quote:

This isn’t about you; in fact, as far as I can tell, it isn’t about America. It’s about the fact that Pakistan is a very messed-up place. This has very bad consequences for us, but it’s hard to see what, if anything, it says about US policy.

If you’re a tough guy (or gal) who believes in exerting US power — never mind, there are just too many heavily armed people in Pakistan for anyone but Norman Podhoretz to believe that we could throw our weight around. If you believe you can bring new understanding to the world through your enlightened outlook — sorry, there are too many people in Pakistan who don’t want to be enlightened. If you believe that we’d have more influence in the world if we hadn’t squandered our resources and good will in Iraq (which I do) — well, sorry, that influence wouldn’t extend to being able to bring peace and light to Pakistan.

This isn’t about us, and it’s out of our control.

Pardon my French Dr. Krugman, but [DELETED: Expletive referring to the excrement of a large farm animal]. Okay, maybe that's a bit harsh, but only a bit. For the sake of fairness, I will acknowledge that Krugman's analysis - to the extent that it merits the term - of the Pakistani political crisis hits on some important realities. For example, it is true that we cannot use the first infantry division to make Pakistani politics less volatile. I know of nobody, Podhoretz included, who advocates such a policy. We live in a definitively post-Imperial age in which global populations are too politicized to use as pawns in Georgetown living room chess games. The political direction of Pakistan will ultimately be set by the Pakistanis, and it is delusional to think that U.S. policy can "fix" the myriad political problems there.

Krugman, though, takes this advisable humility to its illogical extreme, arguing that events in Pakistan "[aren't] about us, and [are] out of our control." Pakistan is officially designated a Major Non-NATO Ally by the U.S. government. We have sold them over $10 billion in military equipment since 2001. Pakistan borders Afghanistan, Iran, and India, is currently serving as al-Qaeda's principal base of operations, and is a nuclear-armed state. Again, out of fairness, Krugman implicitly acknowledges Pakistan's strategic importance, but I am puzzled as to why he thinks American policy is irrelevant to events there. American negotiators were important to the (flawed) agreement that brought Bhutto back to Pakistan in the first place. American aid to the Pakistani military - particularly aid that allows it to maintain strategic parity with India - helps maintain Musharraf's support within his own army. To argue that the U.S. has no leverage in Pakistani politics strikes me as a bit small minded.

Part of the problem is that Krugman sets up straw men by grossly oversimplifying American policy options. He seems to think that we can either bomb Pakistan, or we can try to use moral suasion to direct political outcomes there. He's right that neither strategy would be particularly effective, but we have more nuanced options. Were the United States to start engaging Pakistan as a country, rather than just as a political regime, we could very likely have a positive effect both with regard to Pakistan's stability and our own security. The strategy outlined by Senator Biden in recent months, for example, would begin to repair America's image in Pakistan, help state-building there, and provide political actors with incentives to both strengthen democracy and go after violent extremists in a committed manner. Despite Krugman's infantalizing dismissal of Pakistani political culture ("there are too many people... who don't want to be enlightened"), my reading has indicated that the majority of the Pakistani population is either secular or moderately islamist. They don't need to be "enlightened," they need a political system that responds to their desires. The United States can help by investing in Pakistan, rather than whichever strongmen/women happen to be sitting in Islamabad at any given moment.

After fifty years of (largely frustrating) experience managing global politics, it is understandable why Dr. Krugman and many of his generation have given up on the notion that American power can be used effectively half a world away. While such humility is a welcome contrast to the overreaching doctrines of recent years, it is overly pessimistic of the leadership that America is yet able to provide.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Pakistan: What Now? (Part Two)

The big news out of Pakistan today, apart from the Musharraf government's continued beatings of street protesters, is Benazir Bhutto's call for large-scale anti-government demonstrations this coming Friday. The article touches on two important points. First, Ms. Bhutto is key to any acceptable solution to the current crisis, as she is the only one capable of mounting a large-scale political assault on Musharraf's government. My guess (and it is only a guess) is that her popularity, combined with U.S. pressure, will keep her from being detained by Musharraf any time soon, so she now stands as the primary locus of viable opposition. Second, the article mentions that her planned march "runs more than 160 miles from the eastern city of Lahore to Islamabad, the heart of Punjab, the country’s largest and most powerful province... The vast majority of the country’s army hails from Punjab, and the military has hesitated in the past to fire on civilians in the province. Widespread popular unrest there could cause senior Pakistani army commanders to turn on General Musharraf and ask him to resign..."

In other words, Ms. Bhutto has (it would seem) concluded that the best way to strike at Musharraf is to undermine his legitimacy within the ranks of his own military. This echoes comments made by Senator Biden on Sunday's Face The Nation, where he suggested withdrawing the high tech military aid (F-16 fighters and such) that allows the Pakistani military to keep pace with that of India in order to convince others within the army that Musharraf has become a liability.

My suggestion, then, is this: come Friday, at the height of Bhutto-led protests through Punjab, the Administration ought to announce the indefinite suspension of all military aid to Pakistan, offering to resume it only once Pakistan is put under functional civilian leadership legitimized through free parlimentary elections. The simultaneous internal and external pressure, if timed correctly, might just create the tipping point necessary to break the deadlock.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

What was the Court Thinking?

Continuing to peruse coverage of the crisis in Pakistan, I stumbled upon an interesting tidbit in a Times article from a couple of days ago: "A close aide to General Musharraf said the Pakistani leader had decided to declare an emergency when he was told last week by a Supreme Court justice that the court would rule within days that he was ineligible to continue serving as president. The ruling would have been unanimous, according to the aide."


If this is true, of course, it only further confirms that Musharraf's "state of emergency" is nothing more than a naked power grab, but we knew that already. What surprises me, to be frank, is that the Court was actually going to annul the General's election. I had, of course, heard the talk about the Court's deliberations hanging like a "sword of Damocles" over Musharraf's head and such, but from the coverage I was reading it seemed fairly obvious that he was never going to let himself be removed from power by judicial fiat. To rule against the General struck me as the Court's "Samson option," allowing them to deal a body blow to Musharraf if he did not play ball, remove his uniform and allow free parlimentary elections, but at the cost of forcing the General to reinstitute military rule, albiet with much-weakened credibility.

Why, then, did members of the Court not try to use their upcoming ruling as a backroom bargaining chip to wrest political concessions from Musharraf without backing him into a corner? If they in fact tried to do that and failed, why did they not issue their ruling immediately before Musharraf could take extraconstitutional steps? I don't live in Pakistan, and I know little about the people and personalities that make up the Pakistani Supreme Court, but as a casual observer it strikes me that the Judges massively overplayed their collective hands.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Pakistan: What now?

I hosted a poker game at my house last Friday. It was nothing too intense, just a low-stakes game between friends, but I managed to lose - very quickly. I am not much of a poker player, you see, and tend to play out fast because I have a hard time leaving chips in the pot. Right in front of me, I can see all that I have invested in a particular hand, and I just can't help chasing it with more, until the final card turns and my losses, now greatly amplified, are laid bare.

I bring up my deficiencies at cards because they strike me as a perfect metaphor (which I promise I won't torture for very long) for the current U.S. conundrum in Pakistan. Over the weekend, General Musharraf abandoned all pretense of constitutional restraint and declared a state of emergency - his detractors are calling it martial law - supposedly in response to a "visible ascendancy in the activities of extremists and incidents of terrorist attacks" and the fact that "some members of the judiciary are working at cross purposes with the executive and
legislature in the fight against terrorism and extremism." The full text of the proclamation contains a long justificatory preamble, but its crux is expressed in a beautifully terse final sentence: "I hereby order and proclaim that the constitution of the Islamic republic of Pakistan shall remain in abeyance."

As the editorial board of the Washington Post has pointed out, the bet that Washington has placed on Musharraf - that he could prove both a reliable ally in the battle against the Taliban and an agent of democratic reform - a bet that Washington has continued to chase with each dissappointing turn of the cards, has finally turned sour, and America has left a lot of cash, credibility and political capital on the table.

Much of the intial comment on the state of emercency and the U.S. reaction has focused on tut-tutting the fact that, once again, support of a third-world strongman has blown up in America's face. That's all fine, I suppose, though the foreign policy community and commentariat (myself included) was far too late in calling attention to the problems with U.S. policy toward Pakistan, and even now I haven't seen very much suggested by way of a credible alternative path, so all the righteousness rings a tad hollow. That is to say, much as I enjoy bashing Administration foreign policy, the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is too complex, and our problems therein too intractable, to waste time pointing fingers. We've lost the bet. The question is, what now?

The U.S. response (echoing much of the Western world, or is it the other way around?) has been fairly tepid thus far. The Administration made a point of letting the U.S. press know in the days before the crisis erupted that it had specifically warned Musharraf against instituting emergency rule, so one would imagine that such direct flouting of Washington's will would have serious consequences. And yet, knowledgable sources seem to feel that the U.S. will not significantly interrupt aid to Pakistan (at least not military aid, which is the only kind that might matter to a military government), and aside from international hand-wringing, Musharraf seems unlikely to face much in the way of serious external pressure to reverse course. He seems to be making the most of the situation, arresting political opponents, sending troops to crush dissent in the streets, and taking whatever steps he deems necessary to eliminate immediate threats to his rule.

The problem for the United States, of course (apart from the ethical dilemma of supporting an un-democratic leader which, if you'll pardon my cynicism, I think we've gotten over by now) is that this can't last. Musharraf, by most counts, has lost most of his support outside of the military, and as the Shah demonstrated long ago in Iran, that is not a viable way to rule a state. Even if America's only concern in Pakistan were stability (and, much as it pains me to say it, it is our principal concern at the moment) we would be well-advised to attempt to engineer a course correction and force Musharraf to relent.

We must, first off, be honest about what we can achieve.

The power of the Pakistani military is such that Musharraf, or whoever heads the army in the future, must have some place in civilian politics, else it will simply take control. First off, the United States ought to make it clear that we are not going to engineer the general's ouster, but neither will we tolerate a lenghthy continuation of the current state of affairs. We should encourage Musharraf to doff his uniform, allow non-rigged elections to proceed as currently scheduled, and re-instate the Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The quid pro quo ought to be that a re-constituted Supreme Court ratify Musharraf's election (of course, at this point such a step might be a bit too obvious to everyone involved to be taken seriously, but it's a way forward). Musharraf has made his point - he can crush his opponents if he so chooses - so perhaps he can be persuaded to back off.

I cannot help but think, though, that all this is a pipe dream. Arif Rafiq has a somewhat more sobering and, I am sorry to say, realistic assessment of what will likely happen: America will wring its hands and hope against hope that the General changes his mind, and Musharraf, realizing that he has passed the point of no return, won't. Rafiq mentions the option of allowing Musharraf a safe exit from Pakistani politics (a nice farm house on a vinyard in the Willamette Valley perhaps?); but, to be frank, my read is that if Musharraf wanted that he would have arranged for it now, rather than sending soldiers into the streets. If the General will not budge from his current stance, the question of withdrawing aid and dealing with a hostile, autocratic, nuclear Pakistan that plays tacit host to al Qaeda must be considered. I am not yet ready to actively counsel such steps, but the United States is fast running out of options.

Friday, November 2, 2007

On the Lighter Side

A joke only a political scientist could love.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Inflection Points and Strategic Solvency

I was preparing to summarize and comment on an excellently-argued piece by Richard Betts in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, but it would seem that Ilian Goldberg at Democracy Arsenal beat me to the punch with a great summary, so I'll try not to be overly redundant. The article argues that U.S. defense expenditures need to be "strategically solvent" and appropriately matched to reasonable and achievable international goals. He argues that the half-trillion plus dollars that we currently spend on defense is both much more than is necessary to provide basic security, and much less than is necessary to achieve global imperial dominance. Particularly in an environment of economically-burdensome public debt that grows by the minute, our current defense posture, Betts argues, makes little sense. Without going into too much detail (again, just read the article, or at least the excerpts, which I promise are worth your time), he advocates a reorientation of U.S. security policy towards increased special forces and intelligence to combat trans-national threats, coupled with the ability to mobilize superior conventional forces should we enter into the sort of environment that requires them. Thus, spending on military research and development is important, and should perhaps be increased, but the maintenance of a large army and navy in peacetime makes no sense in a post-Cold War world. The United States should maintain a technological edge over, for example, China, such that we could mobilize to defeat it if and when the threat it poses becomes real as opposed to theoretical, but we need not be perpetually and fully mobilized to fight at the drop of a hat.

The article brings to mind two related points that are worth considering. The first is related to an essay by Robert Kelly posted by Seth Weinberger at Security Dilemmas; namely, the conceptual tendency of U.S. leaders to 'state-ize' threats, and then deal with them as such. In other words, because the U.S. military has enjoyed considerable success defeating other states, we have a tendency to want to view new threats as state-like organizations that can be defeated with a vigorous application of military power (I would argue that Israeli leadership has suffered from the same conceptual problem since the end of the 1973 war). For a more light-hearted, but still intelligent treatment of the issue, take a look here. Instead of adapting our capabilities to relevant threats, we try to adapt relevant threats to our capabilities, with problematic results.

For example, recent proposals to add additional divisions to the army are being treated as practical, hard-headed responses to the array of security threats the United States now faces. I have yet to hear a convincing explanation, though, as to how another armored division will help combat shadowy, trans-national terrorist groups. These additions are likely to come too late to make a difference in Iraq or Afghanistan, so I fail to see what they will accomplish, unless (perish the thought) we intend on repeating the Iraq experience any time soon. Increasing the size of our military, though, is the historically standard hedge against emerging security threats, so it is the knee-jerk response of American leaders, whatever its objective merits. National security would be improved if decision makers could lift such cognitive blinders, and commit scarce resources in a more holistic and appropriate way.

Taking a wider view, Betts's article also raises the issue of America's geopolitical standing in the 21st Century. I have argued elsewhere that the United States is likely to see it's relative power decline precipitously over the next hundred years. Though America will almost certainly remain a major player in the global system, its position will likely be akin to that of 19th Century Great Britain - the most powerful state in a group of powerful states - and unlike the hegemony that it now enjoys. The transition to an international system of "asymmetric multi-polarity," though, will not go smoothly if the United States bucks against a sensible reorientation of its global posture to reflect the increasing political and economic power of nations like China, India and Japan.

Particularly in Asia, America will almost certainly have to accept a reduction in influence and military dominance, as the aforementioned states increasingly take control of their own back yards. The sensible way to do this would be for the United States to use its remaining influence to head off serious disputes and build up regional, multilateral institutions to manage economic development, trade and (increasingly) environmental policy. The foolish way would be to continue to claim regional military hegemony and to enforce American will through domineering bilateral relationships until the strategic, political and economic solvency of such an approach collapses, leaving a divided, tension-ridden region behind as we slink back across the Pacific.

Drawing on the work of political scientists such as A.F.K. Organski, who proposed what is known as Power Transition Theory, and Charles Doran, who introduced the notion of "inflection points" in nations' relative power, I would argue that there is at least some relationship between the relative trajectory of nations' power and the likelihood that they will come into conflict. As the events of recent years have demonstrated with painful clarity, there is a temptation for U.S. leaders to confuse U.S. predominance with omnipotence, and overreach the bounds of its long-term capabilities. Meanwhile, leaders of a state like China, the economic and political power of which is growing with astonishing speed, could overestimate their own power (particularly if some part of the U.S.-maintained political regime in Asia is dissatisfying to them) and spark conflict. As the dominant power in Asia, it is incumbent upon the United States to give China sufficient room to flex its muscles, while drawing boundaries around core interests (such as the security of South Korea and Japan) and creating an environment that gives China no incentive to foment international discord. Turning back to the question of defense spending, then, engaging in a de facto arms race with the Chinese in Asia is both economically unsustainable and strategically unwise.

Viewed in such a way, Betts' call for a bit of sanity in American military outlays is a breath of fresh air. He even has the political acumen to propose a slogan that U.S. politicians can use to launch the debate: "Half a trillion dollars is more than enough."


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Collective Punishment in Gaza

This fascinating little item in the BBC allows me to add Israel to the list of countries whose legislatures seem hell-bent on working against their own national interest. Evidently, the Knesset has approved a measure authorizing Israel to cut power to Gaza in response to rocket attacks coming out of the small strip. Though the government has not specified exactly if or when it will act on this authorization, the plan's architect, Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai has spoken of cutting power "gradually, without causing anything that could create a humanitarian problem, like hospitals." Evidently the plan is to begin by cutting power for fifteen minutes following specific rocket attacks, then gradually increasing the length of time if/as the attacks continue.

Leaving aside for a moment Minister Vilnai's forgivable lapses in English grammar, this latest development touches on several important issues. First, however the Israeli government tries to spin it, this policy is a blatant form of collective punishment. I can see no tangible tactical military advantage to cutting power to Gaza, certainly not for incremental periods of time. Forgive me for stating the obvious fact that the rockets being fired at Israel don't plug into anything. Clearly, the objective is to impose pain on the people of Gaza in order to undercut whatever tacit support they give to groups that fire the rockets. That intelligent military and civilian leaders would employ such reasoning in this day and age simply baffles me. Ever since World War II, when the strategy of collective punishment was employed on an industrial scale, it has been obvious that it almost universally backfires. Rather than weakening and dividing an enemy's populace, it unites it through shared hardship and a common enemy. This is why drill sergants and team coaches often collectively punish those in their charge; to increase their effectiveness and cohesion. Israel, fresh from it's debacle in Lebanon in 2006, which greatly increased the prestige and popularity of Hezbollah in large part because Israel collectively punished the Lebanese populace as a whole for the group's actions, should have learned this lesson better than anyone. The notion that somehow Gazans will curtail their support for Hamas and other violent groups in response to Israel adding yet another hardship to their already difficult lives flies in the face of every conceivable historical precedent. Israel's leaders ought to know better.

There is also the question of legal and ethical justification for such tactics - which is weak at best, whatever semantic gymnastics Israeli lawyers have managed to perform (see "hostile entity") - but the question shouldn't even come up; on purely strategic grounds, this is an asinine policy.

I of course understand why the government feels it must do something - one cannont tolerate such violence indefinitely - but I would have thought it obvious to rational Israelis at this point that the realities of asymmetric conflict mean that a truly secure border with Palestine will come only in the context of a comprehensive and fair peace settlement. Absent that, groups in Palestine will always find some way to remind Israel of their discontent. The announcement that Israel will now hold Gazan's basic welfare hostage to the whims of the Knesset - justified or not - is simply one more counter-productive indignity that weakens Fatah and makes negotiating more difficult. It will also further reduce international sympathy for Israel's position at a time when it can ill-afford to lose the political capital.

Israeli leaders should resist the urge to engage in knee-jerk, ineffective responses to Gazan attacks and look at the situation with a more dispassionately strategic eye. Such a view, in my opinion, illuminates only one reasonable path: that of aggressive diplomacy.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Turkey, Congress and the Armenian Genocide

I have been watching the ongoing nervous dance between Ankara, the White House and Capitol Hill over the question of the Armenian Genocide with some interest. On many levels, the whole thing smacks of political theater; however, especially on the international stage, political theater can have serious consequences for both the actors and audience. To bring readers up to speed, the House of Representatives, lobbied enthusiastically by the Armenian-American community, has been toying with the notion of passing a resolution recognizing the massacres and ethnic cleansing that took place against Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. The Turkish government, understandably sensitive about the issue, and viewing the resolution as an official slap in the face from a close ally, has voiced considerable protest, warning that the bill's passage could jeopardize the logistical support that Turkey gives U.S. forces in Iraq. Faced with such an environment, the bill's once overwhelming support has waned (though not vanished) and it remains unknown whether the measure will ultimately pass.

This is one debate in which I am genuinely sympathetic to both sides, and have a difficult time forming a concrete opinion. On the one hand, the Armenians were unquestionably victims of a genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks. No remotely serious person who is acquainted with history, and whose view is not filtered through particularly strident Turkish nationalism, can or should deny that for so much as half a second. The Turkish government maintains that the killings that took place were simply the inevitable byproduct of quelling "civil unrest" in a time of war. That a modern democratic government would make such claims is disgusting. As many as 1.5 million Armenians were systematically driven from their homes, gathered into camps and massacred. If the term "genocide" does not apply to such events, then the word has no meaning. The Turkish people owe it to themselves to examine their past with a less skewed lens, and in so doing scrub some soot from their national consciousness. Furthermore, for the United States Congress to bow to the pressure of those who would paper over the crimes of history for the sake of political convenience imparts upon it a moral stain.

Still, principle's sweet nectar must at times be drunk diluted by reality's brine. Whatever the sins of Turkey's past, the fact is that Turkey, though too often overlooked, is strategically indispensable to U.S. and Western interests. It is one of our oldest Muslim allies, the only Muslim country in the Middle East that could presently be called a democracy, a member of NATO, a friend to Israel, and a critical supply route for U.S. forces in Iraq. It is also going through a political realignment that makes its future international posture somewhat plastic. The is precisely the last time that Turkey needs a rhetorical slap in the face by the U.S. Congress.

Events in recent days only leave more cause for worry. The Turkish Parliament has, with much fanfare, authorized Turkey's army to strike at Kurdish militant bases across the Iraqi border. Clashes with militants on Turkey's side have led to a mounting death toll, and there is real reason to believe that Turkey may become more than a side player in Iraq quite soon. The possibility that such incursions could escalate - quickly - into the broader regional war that has been the nightmare of U.S. planners for some time is not remote. At the very least, Turkey's intervention would create serious problems in the one area of Iraq that the United States counts on to remain relatively calm. Were such actions to be coupled with a reduction of logistical support for the U.S. military, it would be a strategic disaster for the United States, end what remaining chance Turkey has to enter the E.U., and lead to a decisive rupture with the West that would seriously harm everyone involved.

In this climate, then, I take pause at the notion that Congress would proactively decide, with no strategic purpose and for no more than rhetorical gain, to remind Turkey of a part of its history that it would just as soon forget. Thus, reluctantly, with lowered eyes and a soft voice, I would counsel against this resolution.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Can Democracy Solve Climate Change?

I've very much enjoyed the interesting and sometimes quirky blogs that the New York Times has brought together over the past year or two (check out Freakonomics if you haven't yet done so), and I've found the varying and sometimes contrarian opinions expressed by Stanley Fish to be particularly engaging. He has the kind of plodding, old-time academic style that I've actually grown to enjoy in recent years, and he puts it to work in a masterful way. Still, I have to strenuously disagree with a point he made in a recent post answering questions on the merits of democracy:

One question I was asked seemed to me to involve a category mistake: “Can democracy solve climate change?” Solving the problems of climate change, if it can be done, will be a matter of advances in technology and alterations in personal and corporate behavior in response to state directives and regulations. No political system is either naturally suited to the task or barred by definition from performing it. Politics and technology are independent variables.

Dr. Fish makes several serious mistakes in his flippant dismissal of so important a question. First, he treats "advances in technology" as a variable that is not only independent of politics (which I'll get back to in a moment), but of resources. In other words, in this day and age, the speed with which particular technologies advance is largely (though obviously not totally) a function of the amounts of a society's material resources and human capital that are applied to advancing them. The United States may well possess the necessary brain power and material resources to develop the kinds of energy technologies that will be needed to arrest the worst aspects of climate change, but that will mean very little if we fail to apply those resources vigorously and efficiently. Whether or not we do that, in turn, is a function of decisions made by those members of our society - mostly government leaders and captains of industry - that dictate the ends to which scarce resources are dedicated. To argue that somehow the structural environment in which such people operate does not affect the ultimate speed and direction of technological advances seems a bit small-minded.

Indeed, the anthropologist-biologist-geographer-sociologist-historian - I suppose I'll just call him a polymath - Jared Diamond has written two incredible volumes, Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, that detail the interaction of environment, culture, technology and politics in the development and decline of human societies (criticisms of Diamond's work as "environmental determinism" which are mentioned in the above links strike me as simplistic, and mis-represent his arguments as a whole, which are more nuanced). Consider also the work of a man like Joseph Needham, the orientalist (before Edward Said made the word pejorative) who opened the history of Chinese science to the West, which highlights the very different technological trajectories that societies can take based, at least in part, on their political structure. The level and nature of feedback between different elite classes of society, as well as between elites and non-elites, can have a profound effect not only on the development of particular technologies, but on the fate of societies as a whole. To make myself a bit more clear, I'll point out a few examples:


The printing press (combined with movable type) that most see as a key springboard of western modernity was not, as popular lore would have it, developed from thin air by Gutenberg and his predecessors, but rather was an import from the Chinese, who had developed the technique centuries earlier. Needless to say, this technology had a very different impact in Europe than it did in China.

In the context of the politically-unified Middle Kingdom, ruled as it was by a centralized authority that derived legitimacy from a combination of force and a nebulous Confucian philosophical milieu that emphasized the importance of hierarchy to social harmony and correct behavior, the development of print did not have particularly tumultuous social effects. To be sure, the technology streamlined government administration, fostered intellectual exchange, and was doubtless beneficial to the overall economy, but it did not threaten the prevailing social order, because that order was not predicated on an elite monopoly of particular information (it is worth noting as an aside that, except in certain administrative areas, movable type never caught on in China, partly because it is a far more cumbersome technology when applied to a language with thousands of written characters, and partly because of the aesthetic importance the Chinese placed on a writer's calligraphic talents; however, block printing was ubiquitous).

In Europe, of course, print fundamentally undermined the feudal hierarchy atop which stood the Vatican, because that hierarchy was not based on any unified political and administrative structure, but rather on a set of ideas that depended upon a small cadre of elites holding an interpretive monopoly. As long as the organs of the Catholic Church remained the principal repositories and transmitters of knowledge, especially theological knowledge, the authority of the Church was basically secure (Marxists might call this 'engineered false consciousness'). Once printing allowed for the wide, multi-linguistic dissemination of the purported textual basis of Church power (the Bible), as well as criticisms of that power, the entire system broke down. Furthermore, while printing in China remained primarily an administrative tool and/or an intellectual cottage industry, in the West it mixed with capitalism to remake Europe's ethno-linguistic map. In their desire to increase the size of their market, European printers unwittingly codified localized dialects into unified regional languages, creating "print communities" that were the embryos of modern European national groups (see Benedict Anderson's seminal work Imagined Communities for a better treatment of the argument that I just tried to summarize in a sentence).

Chinese Shipping

The case of the printing press may do a fine job demonstrating how technology can affect the development of politics, but can politics truly affect the development of technology? Absolutely. Recall the voyages of Zheng He, the Chinese admiral who led a massive treasure fleet around the Indian Ocean in the decades before Columbus. His travels are indicative of a level of ship-building technology and navigational knowledge that far surpassed that of other contemporary civilizations, yet much of it was lost in the centuries that followed his last voyages because of a political decision by the Ming court to stop such ventures and restrict Chinese contact with the outside world. Had China not been so bureaucratically unified, such decisions may well have carried less weight, and history may have witnessed Spanish Conquistadores vying with Chinese soldiers for control of the New World.

Guns in Japan

Recall also the deliberate halt called to the development of firearms in Japan following the ascent of the Tokugowa Shogunate. Guns, at first purchased from European traders, then indigenously produced, had played a central role in the many decades of fratricidal conflict that preceded Tokugowa ascension. Because Ieasu Tokugowa (correctly, perhaps) saw such devices as a greater threat to his rule than their utility merited, he arranged for their almost complete elimination in Japan, and Japanese firearm technology began to fall behind. This would have fateful consequences when Commodore Perry's gunships sailed into Tokyo Harbor in 1852.

Stem Cells in the United States

Finally, those who require a demonstration of the effect that politics can have on technological development need look no further than the contemporary United States which, despite impressive wealth and some of the most advanced biotechnology facilities and researchers on Earth, devotes almost no resources to one of the great biomedical frontiers of our time: embryonic stem cells. This is entirely because structural peculiarities in the American political system make it advantageous for the President to defy the will of the majority and put a de facto moratorium on such research. It is also worth noting that this moratorium is enforced not through prohibiting the research outright, but by holding back the resources necessary for it to bear fruit.

Regime Stability and Economics
All this history to emphasize just how important the political structure and climate of a society can be to the development and trajectory of important technology. Had Ming China been more decentralized, the rise of a new Emperor may not have brought Chinese naval development to such a grinding halt. Had the Tokugowa shoguns not halted firearms production, Japanese batteries may have been able to repulse Commodore Perry's ships. Were America's current leaders not so politically beholden to a minority of social conservatives, U.S. biotechnology might develop more freely.

Dr. Fish, though, understands that solving the question of climate change is not just a technological challenge, but an economic and behavioral one as well. Though many scientists predict that the sacrifice in current production and growth necessary to bring global warming to heel pale in comparison to the future production and growth sacrificed by letting it continue unchecked, it still bears mentioning that adjusting modern societies to sustainable energy usage will involve some material sacrifice, as well as changes in economic behavior. The problem, which Fish evidently fails to recognize, is that some political systems are better structured than others to respond flexibly to changing economic circumstances rather than sprinting at full speed towards their own collapse.

A prime example noted by Diamond and others is that of Easter Island. As best we can tell, that society evolved a fragmented political structure that incentivized elites to one-up each other in religious monument-building in order to maintain political legitimacy. These public works programs eventually overtaxed the society's (very) scarce resources, leading to a catastrophic economic meltdown accompanied by revolution, war and famine, reducing the remaining population to half-starved subsistence. Had the Easter Islanders' political order been better suited to managing resources, perhaps with more constructive feedback mechanisms between elites and the general population, more would remain of their civilization than haunting, eyeless statues.

In sum, a society's political structure is intimately related to the pace and direction of its technological development as well as the efficiency and flexibility with which it manages available resources. I return to the question, then, of whether or not democracy is a superior means of political organization when it comes to the question of climate change. Some might reasonably argue that it isn't. Authoritarian regimes, which have a certain capacity to insulate themselves from public discontent, might in theory be better suited to make the kinds of gargantuan economic adjustments necessary to move their societies away from a carbon economy (Orwell was famously impressed - and terrified - by the ability of Nazi authoritarian industrialism to organize Germany's mighty war machine). If those hurt by the adjustments have no voice in government, then the political road might be more easily cleared.

This logic, though, suffers from some empirical difficulties. First, there is little evidence that most autocrats take the problem of climate change particularly seriously. The Russian government seems to actually count on some benefits from the World heating up, and Chinese leaders seem inclined to pursue growth at all costs, climate be damned. Pettier dictatorships and juntas from the Middle East to Myanmar seem all too willing to follow this logic as well. While the World's democracies have few bragging rights in this area, their are fewer inherent contradictions between their political structures and the steps that will need to be taken to address global warming. I would direct readers to a recent article in Foreign Affairs by Elizabeth Economy which highlights the quandry currently faced by China's rulers: take concrete steps to address climate change, and one harms growth. Breakneck growth, in turn, is the only legitimating factor the CCP has left. China's authoritarian government cannot impose economic pain without undermining its own power. It is not alone in this regard.

Democratic states, by contrast, are more flexible. Yes, individual governments can be frustratingly slow to recognize and confront serious problems, and election year pandering can make democratic leaders reluctant to demand sacrifice, but well consolidated democratic systems have proven capable of withstanding stresses that would topple the most iron-fisted dictator. A president may risk his job by telling harsh truths, but he seldom risks democracy itself. Thus, democratic development and climate solutions should be looked at neither as unrelated issues nor as competing imperatives, but rather as complementary goals.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Barack Obama, Nuclear Weapons, and the Wrong Kind of Experience

As I've said previously, this isn't a blog about the the U.S. Presidential Campaign. I don't want to step too far into the whole morass that is campaign blogging, and I don't intend on spilling ink analyzing contenders' laughs, comparing fund-raising numbers, or, for that matter, making specific endorsements. That said, every once in a while something resembling intelligent discourse on global affairs manages to filter its way through the campaign noise, and in such cases I'll briefly comment.

In this case, I'd like to call attention to a speech made Tuesday by Barack Obama, the inexperience of whom is frequently derided in the campaign's prevailing press narrative. Obama called for the United States to work earnestly toward the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world. Some might brush this off as overly-idealistic fluff, unworthy of a serious presidential contender, but I think it is time to put nuclear non-proliferation, coupled with nuclear disarmament, back on the agenda for serious political thinkers.

I'd like to call readers' attention to a recent article in Foreign Affairs by Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky. This man knows something about nuclear weapons; he is a particle physicist who worked on the original Manhattan project, was an adviser to Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter, and had a front-row seat to the evolution of nuclear technology over the last century. Panofsky, echoing such left-wing peaceniks as George Shultz, William Perry and Henry Kissinger, convincingly argues that, whatever their past merits, nuclear weapons have no place as a serious component of a modern U.S. global posture, and that what limited role they have as a strategic backstop could be played with a dramatically reduced arsenal. Furthermore, he argues that the political and strategic costs of an over-inflated nuclear posture far outweigh the benefits, and that the current American nuclear arsenal actually makes us less secure.

Before I continue, I would like to emphasize that we have, in some ways, made progress in nuclear disarmament. During the mid-1980s, for example, the combined U.S.-Soviet nuclear arsenal topped 70,000 warheads. In retrospect, the insanity of such a buildup is difficult to comprehend. A recent hypothetical study on the effects of a small regional nuclear war (such as an Indo-Pakistani exchange) predicts tens of millions of immediate casualties, and catastrophic damage to the global climate that would shake the foundations of modern civilization.

That's with the detonation of approximately 100 small weapons.

The notion that some of the most intelligent people in both the United States and the USSR found it necessary to build nuclear arsenals that could independently render the Earth uninhabitable several times over simply defies my understanding (before people chime in with explanations, I understand the internally consistent logic of attempting to mitigate the possibility of a nuclear first-strike, but the logic of psychosis is often internally consistent). Since the Cold War, both superpowers have considerably cut back their arsenals, but the United States remains in possession of over 10,000 warheads including reserve stocks (they are scheduled to be reduced by 2012, but still remain in the thousands). This is well above the level necessary to deter a foreign nuclear attack, and the maintenance of so many weapons does nothing to enhance American security.

Even more counterproductive, though, has been the Administration's pursuit of a new generation of nuclear warheads, in the form of the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program. If the purpose of nuclear weapons is to provide a strategic backstop - a red line drawn around vital security interests that hostile powers may not cross - marginal improvements in quality and reliability will have negligible effect (the notion that, were the United States to launch 400 warheads, two or three might conceivably fail is not likely to significantly alter a potential adversary's cost-benefit calculus). Still more dangerous are plans advanced by some in the government to design a new generation of miniature "bunker buster" nuclear weapons with the intention of using them in situations other than all-out nuclear war.

Whatever tactical advantage might be gained from such developments would be more than outweighed by the damage done to American credibility as a champion of non-proliferation, as well as by the unnecessary re-escalation of an increasingly crowded nuclear arms race. By continuing to give robust nuclear forces a central role in U.S. global policy, we not only expose our non-proliferation efforts to well-grounded charges of hypocrisy (there is that little clause in the NPT that requires nuclear states to work towards eliminating their arsenals), hindering our ability to rally global opinion against potential proliferators like Iran, we also reinforce the norm that only states with nuclear weapons are worthy of international standing. The Iranian nuclear program, for example, certainly has some basis in defensive realism; but, harping on about Iranian nuclear "rights" plays well with the population and shores up the regime in Tehran precisely because the Iranian people view nuclear capabilities as markers of international prestige. Efforts to convince them otherwise ring somewhat hollow when lead by states with thousands of warheads on hair-trigger alert.

When we consider the current U.S. nuclear posture, then, we ought to remember that maintaining a large nuclear arsenal comes with serious political and strategic costs, while delivering limited benefits. Coming back to the campaign, Obama recently stated at a debate that he would not use nuclear weapons in the fight against terrorism. His rivals (Sen. Clinton in particular) chided him for his supposed naivete and inexperience, but upon reflection, many commentators wondered what possible use nuclear weapons would be against groups of guerillas holed up in the mountains of Pakistan. The exchanges reminded me of a quote by a certain Lord Salisbury while stationed in British India:

If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require to have their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.

Whatever happens with the campaign, Senator Obama may be commended for injecting a drop of that.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Memo to Prime Minister Olmert Re: Get Serious or Get Out of the Way

To: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
From: A concerned global citizen
Israel must begin negotiating on final status issues
cc: Pres. George W. Bush; Sec. State Condoleeza Rice; Chairman Mahamoud Abbas; Mid-East Envoy Tony Blair

Prime Minister Olmert, I will be blunt; if you want to salvage your legacy as a leader of your people, you must end your government's intransigence and foot-dragging in preparation for this Fall's peace conference with the Palestinian leadership. You must take bold steps - now - to signal to the Israeli and Palestinian populace that you possess both the will and capability to make the sacrifices that will be necessary to forge a lasting peace. If you do not possess the will, or are in fact too politically neutered to make the aforementioned hard choices, then please resign and allow Ms. Livni, your Foreign Minister, to make them for you.

I hardly need to recite the problems that you and your people currently face. Gaza, the withdrawal from which was meant to make Israel more secure, has become a bed of extremism, a security headache, and a serious obstacle to any final negotiated settlement with your neighbors. It has also given lie to the notion that Israel can unilaterally withdraw from the Palestinian territories, entirely on its own terms, and expect the conflict to end. Palestinians will need a viable state that is both legally and functionally independent from Israeli control, with the capacity to deliver dignity and prosperity to its citizens, before Israel can expect to reap any peace dividend. Furthermore, as you well know, the legitimacy of your negotiating partner - Abbas's Fatah - is fast waning. The only way it can be bolstered is through a demonstration that negotiating with Israel has the capacity to accomplish something real. Wait too long to give that demonstration, Mr. Prime Minister, and you will have nobody left with whom to speak.

Your government, in recent days, has been reluctant to speak of a peace deal in anything other than vague and general terms, calling discussion on the most difficult issues "premature." Nonsense. The basic outline of what a mutually acceptable peace deal would look like - a dismantling of all but the largest West Bank settlements, land swaps to make up for those that remain, a division of sovereignty in East Jerusalem, and material compensation to the Palestinians in exchange for annulling their "right of return" - was decided on years ago. The Devil, as always, remains in the details, but such details will not work themselves out on their own, and the more time is wasted, the more toxic and un-resolvable the situation is likely to become.

I understand the appeal of trying to focus on small, achievable interim measures. It requires less political sacrifice, and has - in theory - the potential to rebuild trust between your people and theirs. The time for such measures, though, is past. They have too often provided both sides with an excuse to obfuscate and delay discussing final status issues, the resolution of which won't magically become less difficult with time. If you desire peace, and are willing to push your people to sacrifice, now may be your last best chance to demonstrate it. If, however, your (lack of) domestic political standing prevents you from leading an effort to resolve fundamental questions of peace, if you lack the credibility to stand up to Likud and the Mafdal and Gush Emunim and everyone else at home who is an obstacle to peace because the rest of your population is too disgusted with you to lend its support, then Mr. Prime Minister you should step aside in favor of someone less tainted by past failure. That you had the courage to do so might at least add some gloss and polish to an otherwise corroded legacy.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Walt, Mearsheimer and Israel

Once again I feel I have to apologize for the long hiatus since my last post. The Muses have been visiting infrequently, and life seems at times to be the enemy of decent blogging. I return to give my two cents to a sensitive but important debate now raging in the academic and popular press; namely, the controversy surrounding the recent publication of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. For those who have been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks, these two eminent political scientists have launched an academic fusillade against the U.S.-Israeli special relationship and the domestic lobby that they charge maintains it. The book is actually an extension of an article that the two authors published last year in the London Review of Books, which was equally controversial.

Part of me hesitates to dip my toe into this particular debate, because it has become so vitriolic so quickly. Charges of anti-semitism have been frequently leveled at the authors as well as at others who share their views (recall the furor that greeted Jimmy Carter last year), and even the less strident criticism has tended to be fairly passionate. This reaction to the book is not entirely surprising, as the authors' argument that a (largely Jewish) pro-Israel lobby in the United States has far-reaching power over American Mid-East policy has uncomfortable echoes of old anti-semitic notions of nefarious Jewish cabals controlling the levers of government. Furthermore, the authors' stinging analysis of Israeli history, and their charge that U.S. policy has systematically enabled the worst instincts of the Jewish State in recent decades - to the detriment of all involved - amounts to a crushing repudiation of policies that have been consistently applied by both Republican and Democratic policymakers for years. Controversy, thus, is to be expected. That these arguments are being leveled by two highly respected realists, rather than by some Chomsky-esque left wing ideologue only increases the pitch.

Before I get to my analysis I feel I should stop here and clarify my own position. I am a strong supporter of Israel. I believe Israel has a right to exist, as a Jewish state, in Palestine, in peace, prosperity and security. Furthermore, I will be the first to acknowledge that short-sighted intransigence of Arabs of many factions has shamefully and inexcusably exacerbated and extended one of the World's most intractable and bloody conflicts. I believe strongly that Israel has a right and an obligation to defend itself against all threats to its security, conventional and otherwise, and I believe that right extends to the use of military force. All that said, I believe that no remotely impartial observer can deny that Israel has sometimes engaged in policies that were tactically foolish, strategically counterproductive and, on occasion, ethically indefensible. At such times, I believe that it is the responsibility of the United States to encourage Israel to change course, and I agree with Walt and Mearsheimer that we have often failed in that obligation.

With that in mind, I'd like to state emphatically that The Israel Lobby is not an anti-semitic work. It does not argue that the lobby does anything exceptional or nefarious, merely that it is quite adept at engaging in the kind of interest group politics that are part and parcel of American policy-making. Critics that take this line, in my view, misrepresent the argument that they critique, to nobody's benefit. I certainly understand the point made by the ADL's Abe Foxman, who argues that the book must be appraised in light of the history of anti-semitic canards into which it taps - however unintentionally - but the authors take great pains to repeatedly emphasize the differences between their point of view and that of true anti-Semites.

I do not accept the authors' argument wholesale by any means. It has weak links that lead to some overly strident and misguided conclusions. Still, I have difficulty finding fault with its core message. The authors' first point - that Israel is a poor strategic asset of the United States - has some merit, at least from the perspective of a traditional realist. Israel has not appreciably helped ensure American access to Persian Gulf oil, has not provided military assistance or political cover to advance American goals, and has indeed sapped the United States of much of its political capital in the region. Their argument that the US has little moral obligation to provide Israel with support is, in my opinion, weaker. The authors are overly harsh in their criticisms of Israeli democracy, which stem largely from the notion that the Jewish ethnic preference is incompatible with American values. True, Israeli citizenship is based on a different national idea than is that of the United States, but the same can be said of Korea, Japan, Germany (until recently at least) as well as many other democracies to whom America gives its support. That Israel is a Jewish democracy does not make it less of a democracy. Also, the authors' analysis of Israeli history, which is harsh to say the least, relies almost entirely on the work of Israel's "New Historians," who have recently shined a far more critical light on their nation's past than have their more traditional colleagues. I won't deny that the work of this group is valuable, but to my knowledge it remains quite controversial, a fact that Walt and Mearsheimer fail to acknowledge.

The authors' analysis of the lobby's influence on US negotiation during the failed Oslo process is also open to dispute. While they make their case for general lobby influence quite well, they may overstate its influence in such diplomatic environments. Dennis Ross, a former diplomat under the Clinton Administration, notes that many of the seemingly pro-Israel positions taken by the United States during the negotiations were driven by a strategic assessment of what the Israeli negotiating team could get through their own Knesset, not by fear of the Israel lobby back home.

Perhaps the most controversial assertion of the book, that the Israel lobby was instrumental in pushing the United States to invade Iraq, is well argued, but suffers from a logical slip that is a function of how the authors define "the lobby." They broaden their definition from simply AIPAC and other formal pro-Israel lobbying groups to include pro-Israel reporters, pundits, and intellectuals, taking special aim at the neoconservatives. While their claim that the neoconservatives tend to be vociferous supporters of Israel is hard to dispute, the authors make too much of the extent to which a pro-Israel agenda drove the neoconservative consensus around the invasion of Iraq. To put it another way, the authors note that the Israel lobby was not the only group pushing for an invasion of Iraq, but that absent the lobby's pressure the invasion likely would not have happened. The problem with this counterfactual, though, is that it imagines the neoconservatives (a key constituency supporting the invasion) not simply as supporters of Israel, but only as supporters of Israel. I would argue that even if Israel did not exist, the broader philosophy of American power that the neocons advocate would still have led them to support a march on Baghdad. Thus, while it may be true that the Israel Lobby pushed for invasion, many of its supposed representatives did so based on a broader imperial agenda of which Israel was only a small part.

Finally, the authors in places fall prey to the assumptions of the "realist" paradigm to which they subscribe. In particular, their analysis of the dangers posed by an Iranian nuclear bomb is overly dismissive. They argue, almost in passing, that the logic of deterrence still applies, that Israel and the United States are both nuclear powers, that Iranian leadership is rational, and that at the end of the day a nuclear-armed Iran could be lived with as easily as a nuclear-armed China or USSR. I don't necessarily disagree with this arguments' premises - that nuclear-armed Ayatollahs aren't about to vaporize the Middle East on a fanatical whim - but I am less confident than they are that the logic of deterrence will always and in every situation prevail. I understand enough history to know that human civilization hung by a fraying thread during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I tend to agree with Robert McNamarra that the indefinite combination of human fallibility with the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons will eventually lead to catastrophe. Every new nuclear state - and if Iran joins the club you may rest assured that it will be followed - increases the odds that the house of cards will fall.

All that said, you need not agree with every word that Walt and Mearsheimer write to appreciate their core argument, nor do you need to be a disciple of realism to understand the strategic value of their insight. If anything, The Israel Lobby has the capacity to start an important, long-overdue conversation about America's true interests in the Middle East. I happen to think that protecting Israel remains one of those interests, but we must always be sure to do so with both eyes open.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Cozying Up to a Nuclear India

I'm a very opinionated person. Question me on just about any topic, and chances are I'll enthusiastically give you my opinion. I'm self-aware enough to acknowledge that this trait extends to subjects about which I am reasonably well informed (politics), less well informed (economics) and completely ignorant (quantum physics). For this reason, I have been surprising myself of late in my inability, despite a decent amount of reflection, to form a strong opinion regarding the U.S. Government's latest proposed treaty with India.

US relations with India have always been complex. India's steadfast refusal during the Cold War to become overtly entangled in the US-Soviet conflict (and its tendency to lean in Moscow's direction on the occaisions that it did), along with US support for Pakistan, India's refusal to join the global non-proliferation regime, American opposition to the creation of Bangladesh, and New Delhi's perceived intransigence on a myriad of less pressing concerns kept bilateral relations cool for much of the last half-century. On the other hand, India has - with a notably short hiatus during the 1970s - maintained itself as a robust and well-functioning democracy in the post-independence era. For a large, desperately poor, poly-ethnic, poly-lingual, poly-religious post-colonial state, that is no small feat, and in the post-Cold War era it has borne fruit.

With the imperatives of Cold War alliances no longer driving American foreign policy, and ossified socialist ideology no longer guiding Indian economic policy, the stage was set during the 1990s for dramatically improved political and economic ties between the two countries. For a demonstration of how far reconciliation had come, one need look no further than America's slap-on-the-wrist response to Indian nuclear tests in 1998. Given America's erstwhile commitment to strict enforcement (with one notable exception in the Levant) of the non-proliferation regime, the fact that such tests did not evoke a stronger response from Washington indicated that the United States was willing to accept, and even welcome, India's ascent to great power status.

The controversy now surrounding the implementation (or not) of the United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act encompasses many of the basic strategic questions that the United States and India face as they seek to more clearly define their relationship in the 21st Century. The deal presents the United States tempting benefits coupled with some vexing strategic drawbacks.

For those arguing against the treaty, the most significant problem lies not at the deal's periphery, but at its very heart: to bring India into the official nuclear club without insisting that it halt the expansion of its weapons program undermines what little credibility remains in the global non-proliferation regime. The US has already allowed an Israel-sized hole to be carved out of the regime's fabric; to cut a similar space for India would send a message to the (unfortunately growing) number of countries which now covet nuclear weapons that "when it comes to nuclear proliferation, Washington's only real policy is to reward its friends and punish its enemies." I would actually take it further than the Times. The message it sends is that nuclear weapons are fine, as long as your country isn't Muslim. At a time when the US is desperately trying to put international pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear program, trying to head off weapons development in other areas around the Middle East, and trying to implement a tenuous rollback of North Korean nuclear stockpiles, such a message would be dangerous indeed.

Furthermore, a policy that legitimizes Indian nuclear arms would only make the United States more toxic to the public in Pakistan, a country that remains of high strategic importance. Given the critical nature of the Pakistani government support (whoever may be leading that government on a given day), a policy that elevates Pakistan's chief rival into the nuclear club uncontested, while treating Pakistani nuclear stocks with considerably more apprehension seems tailored to anger precisely the wrong people. In some ways, the instability of Musharaff gives the United States some wiggle room in this regard (to whom else can he turn?); but, it also raises the risk that if his government falls - an eventuality that looks more likely with each passing day - the one that replaces it will try to shore up legitimacy by adopting an anti-American posture.

Thus, it is clear that the proposed agreement carries with it considerable risk. In many other ways, though, the treaty makes sense. Even the skeptical Times editorial board acknowledges that "bringing India... in from the cold is not a bad idea." A populous democracy and budding economic powerhouse, India is precisely the kind of ally that the United States needs in the coming decades, particularly in Asia. India's non-Aligned legacy has left it in a diplomatically flexible position that the United States can leverage to constructively manage relationships with authoritarian capitalist powers like Russia and China, and even erstwhile adversaries like Iran. Xenia Dromandy, writing in the Washington Quarterly, notes that India has made it clear that it will not be a US pawn, and that there are some areas in which Indian and American interests will diverge, but that the two countries have broadly similar, and complementary international goals. Neither government is anxious to see Iran go nuclear. Both countries are threatened by global Islamic extremism. Both governments want to manage China's rise as a responsible international stakeholder and limit its disruptive influence. Both countries have considerable economic and political capital invested in globalization (and both must manage domestic backlashes against it). More than anything, both are democracies, and as such are capable of trusting each others' governments given half a reason to do so.

Despite all this, however, a positive Indo-American relationship is not assured. There are many in India who regard the United States as a bullying, imperialist power intent on reducing India to a suboordinate status. India must, of course, deal with its own considerable Muslim population, which by all accounts shares the loathing of Washington that now prevails in the rest of the Islamic world. Even the relatively light restrictions placed on India's nuclear program by this latest deal have generated a storm of protest from BJP nationalists who are incensed by what they view as an affront to Indian soveriegnty. Failing to shepherd this deal to final approval would be an unabashed insult to the vital center in India that seems eager to play a more engaged and constructive role in world affairs. Given the importance of strengthening the US-Indian alliance in the coming years, such an insult would carry grave strategic costs.

In the end, I give cautious support to this agreement's final approval. While I recognize the damage that the deal will do to what remains of the international non-proliferation regime, I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that those who seek to break out of its strictures will not be persuaded one way or another by a US-Indian nuclear agreement (though they may use it as ex-post-facto justification for their own ambitions). Americans should remember that they, along with the other four nuclear signatories to the NPT, have an obligation to continue reducing their own arsenals concurrent with the obligation of the rest of the global community to forgo their own weapons development. If the United States wants to make a gesture to hold up the NPT, it should start by reducing its own stocks. Overall, given the vital role that India must play in any successful 21st Century American strategy, and given the fact that India has proven to be a relatively responsible nuclear player over the past quarter-century, I believe that this deal's benefits outweigh its costs.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Withdrawal from Iraq

Matt over at Foreign Policy Watch has put up an interesting post on the ever-present question of how the United States ought to play out the endgame in Iraq. He points to a recent op-ed by Henry Kissinger on the subject. Herr doktor outlines (in terms that are a bit vague for my taste) the necessity of aggressive regional diplomacy to stem a violent breakup of Iraq and invest all relevant regional players in some type of engineered solution that avoids the total implosion of the Middle East. At the end of his post, Matt asks "What is your favorite exit strategy from Iraq (fantasy or not)? And which celebrity foreign policy hand would endorse it?"

The comment boxes over at FP Watch are small, so I thought I would take up the question here. As I may have previously intimated, some variant of the increasingly popular Biden-Gelb plan for U.S. disengagement makes the most sense from my perspective. Briefly, the plan draws on the experience in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Dayton accords, arguing that Iraq, along the lines of its own Constitution, should be transformed into a very loose federal confederation, in which the day-to-day business of governing (including the provision of security for the Iraqi populace) is devolved to regional power centers, and the central government exists primarily to distribute oil revenues. The argument is premised on the notion that once security and a stable political environment have been established, much of the impetus for ethnic violence, which thrives in chaos, will be diminished. The plan's architects are careful to point out that they are not proposing an outright partition of Iraq along the lines of Palestine or India. Tom Ashbrook, speaking to Senator Biden recently on NPR, rightly pointed out that such stark arrangements have historically not worked out very well. The hope is that the presence of a weak central government to adjudicate disputes will help avoid inter-ethnic warfare and undercut whatever interests regional powers such as Turkey and Iran have in stoking such conflict (or participating in it outright).

This plan has been around in some form for the better part of two years, and has garnered no shortage of legitimate criticism. The first point is that de jure legitimization of ethnic politics will encourage ethnic cleansing in Iraq. While the plan's champions have tried to deemphasize this fear, in my opinion it is well-placed. Senator Biden has been quick to point out that significant ethnic cleansing is already taking place in Iraq, that it is in effect a fait accompli; however, I think he is being overly simplistic. There are still many parts of Iraq, particularly urban Iraq, with mixed ethnic populations (they may have retreated into enclave neighborhoods; however, that will be of little consequence in a city such as Baghdad, which is an island of ethnic diversity surrounded by a Sunni sea). Those populations would likely be encouraged to move (and I use the word "encouraged" in its most euphemistic sense). We should come out and admit, right now, that this strategy will almost certainly lead to significant ethnic cleansing. Frankly, at this point I see no way to avoid this eventuality irrespective of American action. The challenge will be to keep a lid on the worst of the violence, and keep such population movements from metastasizing into a larger war.

A second problem with the plan is the role it calls the central government to play. If the government's primary responsibility is to be oil distribution, mechanisms will have to exist to make sure that it is capable of doing so in an equitable way. As many people have pointed out, most known Iraqi oil exists in the Shia and Kurd-dominated areas of the country. The government will need a base level of functionality and legitimacy to be able to carry out effective and transparent transfers of this wealth around the country. If it is unable to do so, for example if a largely Shia-dominated government denies Iraq's Sunni population its fair share, it could end up accelerating a civil war rather than preventing one. The optimist would hope that the aforementioned separation of the parties would cool ethnic tensions enough to make the government function more smoothly, but this outcome is far from assured.

A final problem with this solution is that a devolution of security responsibilities to what are now ethnic militias could lead to internacine conflict within ethnic groups to see which organization would predominate. An aggressive diplomatic effort to unite these disparate groups behind a single mission and purpose would have to accompany the overarching strategy in order to avert the total collapse of Iraqi society. In this vein, real regional diplomacy to limit the extent to which Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran intervene in Iraqi ethnic politics - diplomacy that would assure all states of their vital interests, guaranteed by a continued robust (albiet somewhat withdrawn) US presence in the region - could presumably pull this off.

As I've made quite clear, this plan is no silver bullet. Its successful implementation will require incredible skill, quite a bit of luck, and may all end in tears regardless. The situation in Iraq is such that the United States is left choosing between abysmal options. Middle East diplomacy, in the short term, has been reduced to the level of damage control. Despite all its difficulties, Biden-Gelb strikes me as the best strategy in this regard.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

American Policy Towards Islamism

...the thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin's challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.

-George Kennan, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct"

I take momentary pause from my larger foray into grand strategy in response to several interesting pieces I have read in recent weeks, all of which speak, however indirectly, to a reevaluation of American policy towards Islamist movements around the World. An op-ed by Nicholas Thompson advocates a revival in Kennan-esque strategic thinking as it relates to America's conflict with radical Islam. He argues that Kennan's thinking was often misinterpreted as advocating the kind of bellicose, military containment that subsequently prevailed during the Cold War era; in reality Kennan was supposedly advocating a purely political strategy in which the United States used persuasion and superior example to counter Soviet perfidity. I just re-read Kennan's original article, and I am not entirely convinced that his interpretation is correct (I fail to see how Kennan's advice that "Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points" does not imply at least some level of military action); but I see what he is driving at. American resources and political capital would be much better applied building schools in Muslim countries than providing high tech weapons to ostensibly friendly Muslim governments.

The second piece I found interesting was posted by Jeb at Foreign Policy Watch, detailing the emergence of a womens' rights movement within political Islam (Jeb struggles, as do the movement's advocates, with the term "feminism," as many of the movements' precepts clash with those of western feminist thought). This is significant because a key concern of many in the West, particularly western liberals, is that Islamist movements are inherently hostile to many of the basic human rights for which liberals have spent centuries fighting and for which they hope one day to gain universal recognition. To be sure, such movements are in their infancy, and I have little confidence that the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood would immediately adopt a progressive Islamic position on such issues the moment they took power; but the fact that such principles of human dignity are gaining political space within the broader Islamist movement demonstrates that Islamist thinking need not be inherently hostile to core progressive human values.

Finally, Shadi Hamid of the Project on Middle East Democracy has argued in several forums (here and here) that the United States needs to recognize that Islamism is the only viable reformist ideology in the Muslim world, and that vainly pushing for liberal reforms that lack popular constituencies while continuing to support corrupt but secular autocrats is a recipie for disaster. He suggests that the United States open dialogue with any Islamist movement that renounces violence and commits itself to political participation through the democratic process (this would include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the AKP in Turkey, as well as non-violent movements in Morocco and Jordan, but exclude Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which have armed wings). He argues that democratic participation is likely to moderate some of their policy prescriptions that Americans find distasteful, such as curtailment of women's rights and opposition to Israel, while giving the population of the Middle East a constructive outlet for their political frustrations that will undercut support for truly radical and violent groups such as al-Qaeda and Hamas.

Tying this all together, I would argue that American Cold War Policy went most dangerously astray when U.S. leaders failed to look at local Communist and Socialist movements in a nuanced way, seeing agents of Moscow in what were actually nationalist movements that expressed their desire for self-determination and justice in the language of Marx. This logic led America to abandon all of her "moral and political leadership" in places like Vietnam and Iran, with devastating consequences. If the United States is serious about building a democratic Middle East, one with the institutions capable of undercutting the threat to global peace that Radical Islam represents, it will have to realize that not everyone invoking the name of Allah need be counted among its enemies. It will require the courage to abandon the false stability of corrupt autocrats and embrace the uncertainty of moderate Islamism. If that does not prove possible, I fear we shall continue to stumble about in moral, political and strategic darkness.

Friday, July 27, 2007


Plato would have been a terrible blogger. True, contemporary weblogs in many ways epitomize his style. They are dialogues with pulses, providing both contentions and space to refute them; yet, they are not conducive to the kind of reasoned, plodding, stuffy, rich, erudite, archaic and considered manner in which he and his classical contemporaries set out their arguments. This is not meant as a criticism of blogs (I am writing one, after all), but rather as a simple observation. Blogs are excellent places to hint at ideas, gain insight into others' thinking, test hypotheses and stab with but one eye open into the intellectual darkness. In that spirit, I initiate the first (somewhat shorter) follow up to my last post on grand strategy.

In that post, I identified three key questions that needed to be answered in developing a grand strategy for 21st century foreign policy. The first concerned goals. Somewhat shy of two years ago, I attended a foreign policy conference at West Point. The agenda for the various working groups was expansive, encompassing every inhabited inch of the Earth and every major international issue currently affecting its inhabitants. What I found most interesting about the gathering, though, was that the discussions all functioned under the premise that that United States constituted the indisputable epicenter of global politics and economics, and would continue to do so for the foreseeable future. American hegemony was not debated, it was assumed.

I recall finding this consensus both intriguing and somewhat troubling, as I do not imagine my nation's position of prominence to be so pervasive or secure. For one thing, though other factors certainly matter, for most of modern history a nation's power has been roughly commensurate with it's relative GDP, and the American share of global wealth has been declining steadily since the end of the Second World War. For another, the United States is doing a woefully pitiful job making the necessary investments in technology and intellectual capital that will be necessary to arrest that decline in the next century. More significantly, though, I am not particularly bothered by the notion that my country's moment as global hegemon may be peaking. The temptations of empire, from Cuba to the Philippines to Vietnam to Iraq, have frequently demanded economic, political and moral costs far beyond their worth. What does concern me, though, is the type of international order that will predominate in what Tom Friedman has called the post-post-Cold War World.

Various theories about the vicissitudes of inter-state relations posit that the most dangerous periods in an international system are those in which great powers' positions are changing. Status quo states used to playing a central role tend to jealously guard their position and overestimate their own capabilities, while revisionist ones charge ahead, drunk on the possibilities of the future. Absent careful management, these frictions have in the past exploded into conflict. In the macro-historical sense, one can interpret the two great wars of the 20th Century as the earthquakes that accompanied the tectonic shift of global influence away from Western Europe and into Asia and the New World. All this to say that it is imperative for U.S. leadership not to overestimate American capabilities, wasting economic resources, political capital and human lives in a futile quest to retain global hegemony. A unified Europe, a resurgent Russia, a more independent Japan, a newly-empowered India and, of course, a rising Chinese juggernaut will all be jockeying for influence in the coming decades.

Rather than try to keep a lid on such developments, American leaders should prepare to settle into a global regime of "asymmetric multipolarity," in which the United States occupies a place similar to 19th Century Great Britain: as the most powerful state in a group of powerful states. America can expect to remain quite influential, but the era in which the U.S. can simply impose its will on the World is fast coming to a close (the era was, mercifully for all involved, short). The principal goals of American foreign policy ought to center around making this asymetrically multipolar world a decent place to live and conduct statecraft. To my mind, this means; a) maintaining and extending the regime of international commerce that serves as the principal hedge against major military conflict, especially in the presence of durable authoritarian capitalist powers like Russia and China, while beginning to construct institutions of global economic justice that will make such linkages politically solvent; b) engaging in an aggressive (but non-military) campaign of democracy promotion to ensure constructive outlets for political greivances and undercut the appeal of radically disruptive ideologies (such as salafist Islam); c) taking a position of serious global leadership on the issue of global warming and sustainable energy production in order to head off the one global issue with the potential to bring the whole system crashing down.

My next question had to do with obstacles to those goals' achievement. That is for another post. So much for limiting my verbosity and length. I would be interested in any comments.