Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Nationalism, Trans-National Threats, and the Political Zeitgeist of the Twenty-First Century

I'm never quite sure how to view David Brooks. On the one hand, I don't share his overarching political philosophy, at least not when it comes to most U.S. domestic issues (not the subject of this blog I know), and I have found that during the Bush years, he has wasted far too much ink in half-hearted defense of Administration policy with which I don't think he really agrees. On the other hand, more than any other columnist at his institution, he has the capability to insightfully compare and analyze not merely different points of view, but different philosophies and world-views in a way that gives each one due intellectual respect. It is in this spirit that I draw attention to this recent piece.

In it, he describes two visions of twenty-first century global politics recently elucidated by two eminent political scientists, John Ikenberry of Princeton and Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Ikenberry, who has been sharply critical of Bush foreign policy, outlines his vision for an American grand strategy for the coming century in terms that dimly resonate with the international orders of centuries past. Whereas the greatest and most dangerous internal contradictions in the various global orders of the past two centuries, be they based on a multipolar or bipolar balance of power or on a unipolar hegemonic dominance, were state-based (the greatest security threats were large-scale inter-state warfare), today such contradictions are more diffuse. Whereas the appropriate grand strategy in times past was "positional," meaning that great powers' primary goals were to position themselves advantageously vis a vis one another, today's grand strategy should be "milieu-based," focusing on building up the norms and institutions that prevent diffuse, shifting threats such as terrorism, environmental degradation and state collapse from threatening the foundations of international order. To quote Ikenberry:

If the world of the 21st century were a town, the security threats faced by its leading citizens would not be organized crime or a violent assault by a radical mob on city hall. It would be the breakdown of law enforcement and social services in the face of constantly changing and ultimately uncertain vagaries of criminality, nature, and circumstance.

I lack space and time to go into all of his prescriptions in detail, but Ikenberry implores American leadership to re-focus on enmeshing U.S. power in international institutions and "grand bargains" with other democracies and emerging powers that will legitimize U.S. leadership and enable the global order to flexibly respond to the threats of the coming years.

According to Brooks, Robert Kagan sees things quite differently. I don't doubt that he does. Kagan's most popularly-known work of recent years is his pre-Iraq War treatise Of Paradise and Power, in which he argues that Europe's passage into a post-national paradise has led it to self-imposed weakness, and thus it seeks to "balance" against the United States by deligitimating it's efforts to enforce international security and promote its interests. A cursory look through this work is enough to see that Kagan sees the world in terms (more or less) of a traditional realist. In Kagan's view, primary international actors are nation states, and ones that, for all their post Cold War niceties, still fundamentally lack the shared values that would make Ikenberry's vision of a liberal global order feasible. Nationalism, for Kagan, is not going away any time soon (perhaps not even in Europe), and traditional inter-state jockeying will remain the principal task of world leaders in the coming years.

As I fear my treatment of these authors' work betrays, I tend to agree with Ikenberry more so than with Kagan. While I share Brooks' sentiment that Ikenberry is overly dismissive of the remaining political power of nationalism, particularly in states like China and India that have no recent historical experience as great powers, but look to such status in the near future, state-based nationalism will soon cease to be the driving force behind the foundations and threats to global order. I say this not because I believe nationalism will disappear, but because the glue of the modern international system - complex economic interdependence, rapid movement of technology and intellectual capital around the globe, high-speed communication etc. - mitigates the practical power of nationalist feeling. On the other hand, non-national threats - terrorism, global warming, environmental degradation, state collapse - are actually amplified by the interconnected nature of that system. A refugee crisis half a world away can disrupt the global economy such that people in the United States are affected by it. That was far less true fifty years ago.

My point, put simply, is that Ikenberry's threat analysis is prescient. While I am less optimistic than either he or Kagan are that the U.S. can remain the center of this century's global order, I think that this will be far less significant if America can create a robust, stable liberal order that will allow for the disbursement of power to other global centers without the kind of disruptions that have accompanied such shifts in the past. I can think of no better legacy for America to leave behind after its moment in the imperial sun.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


I was happy to see this recent op-ed by Martin Indyk about the recent fall of Gaza to Hamas militants, because it showed me that I am not the only person to see some potential long-term benefits to Hamas's new position. It's nice not to feel crazy, after all.

Let me be clear that I do not view the Hamas coup as positive in the expansive sense of the word. Certainly for the people of Gaza, who will now be subject to even further economic and political isolation, not to mention government by a group of fanatics, the recent fighting has not yielded very encouraging results. In the larger scheme of things, however, the fact that Hamas now controls Gaza while being - for now anyway - pushed out of power in the West Bank solves one of the principal dilemmas created by last year's elections, in that there now exists a Palestinian entity with whom Israel and the quartet can negotiate. Hamas's victory at the polls made it impossible for outside forces to have any substantive discussions with Palestinian representatives without including a group that manifestly could not be dealt with. Any hope of a settlement was frozen by the balance of power within Palestine. Now, with Hamas in control of Gaza, but also largely confined to Gaza, the Palestinian government in the West Bank should be able to negotiate Israel without having to perform diplomatic gymnastics simply to sit down at the table.

The recent declaration by the United States that sanctions would be immediately dropped on any Palestinian government that does not include Hamas, combined with the Israeli pledge to begin releasing customs revenues that it has been holding for more than a year, should provide a boost to the Abbas government, and could set the stage for new rounds of negotiations. The entry of Barak into the Israeli government as the head of Labor in the governing coalition could also inject legitimacy that Olmert's government has lacked since last summer's disaster in Lebanon.

Extracting positive results from this foundation, though, will take courage and delicacy on everyone's part, especially that of Israel. Regardless of who is in charge in the Gaza strip, Palestinians rightly view it as their territory, and those living there as their countrymen. Israel would be naive to think it can productively negotiate with Fatah in the West Bank while inflicting misery on the Hamas-controlled citizens of Gaza. That said, Hamas has the power to derail a re-started peace process if given too free a hand to launch attacks against Fatah or Israel or both. Israeli policy, and the policy of those nations and institutions that try to play mediating roles, will have to be tailored not only to inflict harm on Hamas, but to show the Palestinian populace that this time, finally, really, after all these years, they have something to gain by supporting a government that is willing to negotiate.

First steps have been encouraging, but more need to be taken. One of the main lessons of the failed Oslo negotiations during the 1990s was that interim 'confidence building measures' are of supreme importance. Successive Israeli governments tried to press the Palestinians to work out one, large-scale, grand bargain type deal all at once, because then they would have something to show the Israeli people to counter the images of settlers being dragged from their homes. The problem was that, absent many of those steps being taken in the interim, before final issues were settled, few in Palestine had any confidence that the Israelis were truly prepared to give them a viable state. Therefore, I propose that the Israeli government begin aggressively dismantling all West Bank settlements that it has not itself authorized. There are many such illegal (under Israeli law) outposts, and they infuriate the Palestinian rank and file. Such action would show the people of the West Bank that Israel is serious about talking again, now that it has a real partner, and it would show the people of Gaza that their current rulers will get them nowhere.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Wagging Our Own Tail: Changing U.S. Policy toward Pakistan

There is an interesting piece out of the Center for Strategic and International Studies on America's relationship with Pakistan and the administration of President Pervez Musharaff. It gets to the heart of a fundamental tension that has bedeviled American foreign policy since the United States first took the stage as a great power in the late nineteenth century; namely, the extent to which America supports foreign governments that are ideologically and ethically problematic but that serve (by whatever estimation) American interests abroad.
This tension is largely inevitable. On the one hand, the United States has always conceived of itself as a champion of liberty whose foreign dealings should transcend crass Machiavellian politics in favor of promoting a liberal economic and political world order. On the other hand, to be a great power (and thus have the ability to influence world events) is to roll in the muck of international relations. In order to preserve its place, promote its interests, and indeed advance the moral and ideological causes that befit its lofty ideals, America cannot always keep her hands clean. She must, at times, prioritize threats, make compromises with unsavory actors, and engage in, for lack of a better phrase, imperial undertakings. In practice, this can mean allying with (or, if we are to abandon euphemism, buying) regimes with less-than-exemplary human rights records, loose relationships with the rule of law and limited democratic or popular legitimacy. F.D.R. best summed up the strategy when referring to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza GarcĂ­a: "He's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

So ends theory.

In practice, some imperfect synthesis of idealism and practicality must govern American policy. The long-term interests of the United States would not be served by comprehensive disengagement from world affairs, or even from the internal affairs of other nations. On the other hand, it has been all too easy for successive U.S. governments to exaggerate the importance of client state networks. America won the Cold War because people across the Soviet Empire became fed up with a decrepit, broken system and abandoned it in favor of what they saw as a better model. America's selling weapons to the Shah, supporting the Contras in Central America, propping up corrupt dictators in Vietnam and funneling cash and arms to the Afghani Mujihadeen put some pressure on the USSR, and in the early days of the conflict may have checked the Soviets’ more expansionist impulses, but I have a difficult time believing that such activities played a decisive role in the contest's outcome.

On the other hand, many of America’s more ill-considered client relationships have come back to haunt her both during the Cold War and especially during its highly fluid aftermath. An exhaustive list would be impractical here, but consider the anti-American vitriol that gripped the Iranian populace after years under the Shah’s repressive rule; anger that enabled Khomenei and his followers to grab the levers of the Iranian state. Consider too the virus of Islamic terror that was allowed to take root in the desolation of post-war Afghanistan once America lost interest in her erstwhile clients there. The U.S.’s pseudo-colonial legacy in its own hemisphere must bear much of the blame for the popularity of anti-American grandstanding in Latin America, from the aging example of Fidel Castro to its newer, somewhat more clownish incarnation in Hugo Chavez. I bring up these points to illustrate the care, vision and foresight that must, but too often does not, inform America’s decisions regarding which governments to support and how. Patron-client relationships may be useful; however, particularly in the modern context, they are fraught with dangers.

I therefore tentatively propose some general questions which American policy-makers ought to ask themselves before commencing or renewing support for regimes worldwide.

· To what extent does this regime govern according to liberal ideals? I am not a neo-conservative. I do not believe that each and every government around the world can or should instantaneously transform into a democracy along Western lines. That said, I am conscious of the fact that the people around the world who most loudly denounce liberal ideas as ‘incompatible’ with their own people’s cultural and historical experience tend to be those with some stake in theocratic or authoritarian rule. If a regime manifestly and clearly ignores the most basic tenets of human freedom and dignity, U.S. planners ought to be wary of committing American resources and political capital to propping it up.

· To what extent does the regime have the will or institutional capacity to reform? U.S. support for less-than-savory governments is often justified in terms of “constructive engagement” (a phrase used during the Reagan era to explain American dealings with apartheid South Africa). The notion is that American support buys leverage over the regime’s behavior, leverage which over time can pressure the regime into evolving more robust liberal institutions without all the violence, chaos and uncertainty that would accompany a more rapid shift. Though this is often dismissed as a cynical justification for political expedience, history has at times vindicated the strategy. The end of the Second World War saw Taiwan and South Korea ruled by repressive, authoritarian dictatorships that received unflagging military and economic aid from the United States. Over the years, however, the regimes in both those countries have transformed into reasonably well-consolidated democracies. The question for American planners, though, is in what direction the tide is moving. Is there evidence of a growing middle class that is frustrated by authoritarian political strictures, or is the populace made up of a tiny kleptocracy ruling over a sea of impoverished, embittered farmers and laborers? The former situation may have the potential to evolve into something more in line with American principles, the latter is a time-bomb waiting to explode. Little good has come from supporting governments that consistently repress and infuriate their own people, and the long-term result is likely to cause the U.S. far more headaches than the short-term strategic gains are worth.

· Is the tail wagging the dog? The whole point of a client state network, especially when one considers the compromises with one’s own values that must be made in order to build it, is to create a network of allies that will, when pressed, serve one’s strategic interests. Often, though, great powers have unwittingly gotten themselves into situations where their clients actually exercise the most leverage. Nasser’s Egypt during the 1950s is a classic example. The Egyptian dictator skillfully played the Soviet Union and the United States off one another, engaging in a bidding war for loyalty through which he extracted economic aid and high-tech weapons from both countries without having to significantly compromise the sovereignty of his own. In a more modern context, ‘moderate’ regimes across the Muslim world frequently present themselves as the only bulwark against the amorphous specter of radical Islam, extracting aid and political support by making themselves seem to be the only viable option, while making no substantive moves towards political reform. The veracity of their dire claims is, in my view, disputable at best, and American statesmen should consider reevaluating the extent of U.S. support for such governments.

This brings us, then, back to Pakistan. The news out of Islamabad in recent months raises some troubling questions about the effectiveness of American policy there. Since the September 11 attacks, the United States has significantly stepped up aid to the Musharaff regime, reasoning that Pakistan must play a vital role in any American attempt to stabilize Afghanistan and combat radical Islam more generally. Our grants of weapons and economic assistance have indeed contributed to a more robust Pakistani army that could in theory be of great help to the United States, but the evidence indicates that America is not getting a favorable strategic return on its investment. The authors at CSIS note that the rank and file of the Pakistani army, the organ of state that has received the most significant American support, has significant sympathies for many radical Islamic groups. Indeed, since the early days of the American invasion, reports have surfaced of the Pakistani military undermining U.S. intelligence gathering and anti-terrorist operations, while doing a woefully pitiful job fighting the tribal militias that give quarter and support to al Quaeda and Taliban forces. We should not forget that Osama bin Laden is generally believed to be hiding somewhere in the Pakistani hinterlands.

Meanwhile, on the political front, Gen. Musharaff is clearly wearing out his welcome in the eyes of the Pakistani populace. The army that American has helped build up is being used as an instrument of repression by an increasingly authoritarian military regime. The system of checks and balances that had heretofore given the government some measure of accountability, in particular the Judiciary, are being blatantly assaulted by Musharaff, arousing the ire of a population fed up with the General’s brand of politics. CSIS also notes that American aid for Pakistani education – one of the ways American can help the people of Pakistan rather than just the army – has been barely worth mentioning. This is significant because radical Islamic institutions often provide an alternative for Pakistanis seeking an education. It should be remembered that one of the major reasons that the Iranian Revolution took on an Islamic character was that Muslim institutions provided the only open political space under the rule of the Shah. We must work to make sure that the same situation does not evolve in Pakistan.

I am heartened to see that, unlike so many times in the past, events are causing many American elites to question the nature of U.S. support to Musharaff before things reach critical mass. It is my hope that a reorientation of American policy can convince Musharaff to negotiate a political settlement that will put his nation back on the road to democracy. Though her government was widely derided as corrupt, a return of Benazir Bhutto to some type of power-sharing arrangement could mollify the populace temporarily while a constitutional transfer of power is arranged. None of this will happen; however, if Musharaff believes he has unconditional American support (if his tail can wag our dog, so to speak). The U.S. must be willing to risk some instability for the sake of encouraging change in Pakistan. By all reports, the percentage of the population that subscribes to the tenets of radical Islam there remains miniscule, but such ideologies are fed and grow in an environment of stagnation and repression, and have particular potency in the context of revolutionary chaos. The Pakistani people deserve to be trusted enough to determine the political future of their country before things get to that point, and the United States ought to recognize that standing in the way of positive change is likely as not to come back to haunt it in years to come.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Setting Israel's Oil Wells Alight

I was only six during the first Gulf War, so my memories of the event are spotty; however, I do remember the iconic images of Kuwait's oil fields burning, spewing acrid black smoke into the air and blotting out the Middle Eastern sun. Those images have since been burned into the public consciousness, symbols of wealth and opportunity evaporating in the face of ugly and senseless conflict.

I bring them up because of a recent Tom Friedman op-ed about "Israel's oil wells." No, the Jewish state hasn't all of a sudden discovered black gold under the sands of the Negev. Rather, Friedman refers to the astonishing, admirable amount of intellectual capital that Israel has managed to build among its populace. The engineers, software designers and other thinkers that Israel has nurtured with its first-class education system have poised the nation to be a leader in the 21st century global economy. This is all the more reason that Israel must, for the love of all that is sacred, find a way to solve the festering conflict with its Palestinian neighbors.

Israel's economic, intellectual and cultural accomplishments have indeed been staggering (Friedman notes that Israel is second only to the United States in companies listed on the NASDAQ), and Israelis deserve all the credit in the world for building a society so uniquely poised to make positive contributions to human progress. Endemic conflict, though, has the potential to render such achievements moot.

Israelis have, over the last twenty years, managed to free themselves from the kinds of conventional existential threats that they faced in the early decades of the state's existence. They no longer stare down the barrels of Syrian and Egyptian tanks (at least not those that could attack with any credibility). As many have pointed out, Israel's current security threats (with the notable exception of Iran) are more amorphous, coming in the form of glorified gangs long on hatred but short on resources. It is tempting to think that, with the right mix of security measures, Israel can simply put these threats out of mind. Such thinking is flawed.

Time and odds will, eventually, catch up with Israel absent a real peace settlement. Hard as the West might try to stop them, weapons of mass destruction continue to proliferate, and it will only be so long before some of them fall into the hands of Hamas or Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad or any of the myriad bands of thugs that harass Israel's borders and plague her cities. As long as such organizations can draw legitimacy from Israeli occupation, they will be conduits through which an existential threat can manifest itself. There is also some truth to the notion that the democratic legitimacy of the Israeli state is undermined by its creeping colonization of the West Bank. There is a fundamental tension between working to guarantee the human rights of one group while suppressing those of another. This tension has been experienced by Britain in Ireland (and India, and Burma and...), France in Algeria, the United States in its own south, Japan in Korea and in countless other countries that have tried to walk the tightrope between democracy and empire (ancient Rome and Athens provide the archetypal examples). For the sake of every Israeli citizen, not to mention every Palestinian, I hope that the Israeli government can summon the courage to confront its own citizens, dismantle its settlements, and make the hard choices necessary to forge a lasting peace. If it cannot, Israel's oil wells may well go the same way as Kuwait's: up in smoke.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Defeat in Iraq

A recent op-ed in the New York Times by William Shawcross and Peter Rodman entitled “Defeat’s Killing Fields” examines the prospect of defeat in Iraq in light of America’s historical experience in Vietnam. The fact that these two authors evidently sparred over the conflict in Indochina back when it was raging gives the piece some weight, and I commend the two writers for attempting to inject some historical perspective into the Iraq debate – a place where it is urgently needed yet often sorely lacking – but I take issue with some of their conclusions.

They are right to point out that the rosy view taken by some of the US defeat in Southeast Asia – the notion that in retrospect the loss of the war really wasn’t all that consequential – ignores important bits of history. The American pullback certainly did clear the way for some of the horrific abuses of the Cambodian and Vietnamese Communist regimes, from Pol Pot’s killing fields to Vietnam’s reeducation camps. It is also true that the discrediting of America’s interventionist resolve provided some encouragement for renewed expansionist tendencies on the part of the Soviets.

That said, the authors also make some dubious arguments, particularly when they advance the notion that, had the U.S. not intervened in Vietnam and exhausted the will and resources of Communist expansionism in Asia, the worst predictions of the domino theory would have come to pass. With all respect to those with more experience and education than I, this notion simply flies in the face of history. The most critical strategic error made by the planners of the Vietnam War was to view the Communist world as a monolithic block that would continue rolling forward absent decisive intervention. Communism, which often as not served as an ideological vehicle through which anti-colonial sentiments found their fullest expression, wasn’t what needed to be contained. Rather, it was Soviet expansion that posed a serious threat to U.S. interests, and that could have been managed with a much lighter hand, as America was able to do successfully in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

This history – both what Shawcross and Rodman get right and what they get wrong – does have some bearing on the situation in Iraq. First, the authors are exactly right when they say that defeat in Iraq will have serious negative consequences for U.S. foreign policy in the coming years:

…anyone who thinks an American defeat in Iraq will bring a merciful end to this conflict is deluded. Defeat would produce an explosion of euphoria among all the forces of Islamist extremism, throwing the entire Middle East into even greater upheaval. The likely human and strategic costs are appalling to contemplate.

They cite a full-fledged and grizzly civil war, a massive refugee crisis, an increase in attacks by emboldened champions of radical Islam, and an empowered Iran as the principal and virtually certain consequences of an American withdrawal from Iraq. They note antecedents for all of these problems in the American endgame in Southeast Asia, and I can’t say that the evidence, historical or modern, leads me to serious disagreement. Indeed, I am trying to steel my psyche for the horrific news I fully intend to hear out of Mesopotamia in the coming years.

I have some major qualms with the authors’ argument, however. First, and most relevant, they don’t propose what an American alternative ought to be. Looking at the current situation in Iraq, where even America’s “surged” forces cannot control more than one third of the Iraqi capital, the notion that America is capable of bringing the conflict to a successful military conclusion seems absurd. Indeed, absent drastic measures like the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Americans through conscription, I don’t see how the U.S. military can effectively continue to fight this war for much longer, never mind win it. The same was true in Vietnam. The American defeat was serious and carried negative consequences, but was a full-fledged victory ever really feasible there? Few now think so.

America’s task as it currently stands is not to choose between victory and defeat, but rather between setback and catastrophe. Simply picking up and leaving with no thought to the probable aftermath will almost certainly lead to all the negative consequences that the authors mention, and likely quite a few that they don’t. Managing the U.S. withdrawal in such a way that leaves the framework for an eventual Iraqi peace (something along the lines of the Dayton accords), while at the same time engaging in a serious “carrot and stick” policy with regard to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and putting real pressure on Israel to allow for the reopening of a genuine peace process in the Levant has the potential to stabilize the region and allow the United States to regroup and reassess its strategic priorities. This scenario would still be risky, messy and bloody, but it might avert the kind of regional implosion that could occur were the American army to simply retreat.

The real question, to my mind, is whether or not that course of action will still be possible in January of 2009 when there is leadership change in Washington, because until that time comes, this is all just talk.