Archive for the ‘International Relations’ Category

“Coalition” is a Euphemism
March 21, 2011

One of the points that I keep hearing over and over again from liberal defenders of intervention in Libya is that this is a multilateral effort conceived through official UN channels. The US, they say, will play only a minor role in a broad coalition of states, meaning there will be no undue strain on our already depleted resources.

Yesterday I said I was skeptical of that claim, because I expected this to be a prolonged struggle during which the United States would be required to accept a gradually increasing portion of the burden. But it turns out that even there I was being optimistic: I expected it to happen in a matter of weeks, not immediately. Via Justin Elliot, NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reports:

Despite the White House attempts to make this look like it’s a huge coalition effort — obviously it required coalition political support — but for now the U.S. military is not only in the lead but conducting almost all military operations, with only minor participation from the French, as you mentioned, even British fighters over night. There’s a U.S. commander. And even this morning I talked to senior military officials, when I asked them how soon will the U.S. turn over the command to the coalition — and the indication is the U.S. military is in no hurry to do that.

If this continues for much longer, then the only conclusion we can draw is that the “coalition” is little more than a PR gimmick designed to provide an aura of legitimacy to America’s latest military misadventure — while also making the coalition’s more apathetic members seem tough on war criminals. I can’t decide which part is more amazing: that such a ploy seems to be working, or that “internationalism” has come to mean the same old senseless brutality, this time blessed with the gauzy halo of UN sanction.

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Mission Creep
March 20, 2011

The leader de facto of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi.

Image via Wikipedia

Friday’s presidential address has done absolutely nothing to quell my profound misgivings regarding military action in Libya. In fact, it confirmed my suspicion that no one — including the White House — can say with any confidence what it is we’re getting ourselves into. Consider this statement:

I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing. The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya. And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal — specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya. In the coming weeks, we will continue to help the Libyan people with humanitarian and economic assistance so that they can fulfill their aspirations peacefully.

Protecting civilians is certainly a noble cause. But is it a well-defined goal? Not really. It’s just an admirable sentiment dressed up as a strategic objective. What I want to hear is where the White House thinks this should end: with Gaddafi chastened but still in power? With a democratic Libyan regime? Two states, one controlled by Gaddafi and the other by the rebels? The phrase “fulfill their aspirations” seems to indicate options B or C. But given the current state of affairs, I don’t know how either of those options could be realized “peacefully.”

It gets worse. Though I’m sure the “no ground troops” pledge was made in order to assuage intervention’s critics, it just makes me even more convinced that there’s no coherent strategy at work here. After all, there’s no such thing as a peacekeeping party composed entirely of cruise missiles; protecting civilians requires more than just exploding projectiles. Sure, the obvious response is that America’s pledge not to deploy ground troops only means that the rest of the coalition will cover the gap. But how plausible is it that, really? Britain and France are going to happily dispatch their own infantry while the United States — which, even in its weakened state, has the mightiest armed forces on earth — takes a knee? Beginning with a pledge not to use ground troops is almost worse than the alternative, because it means any eventual deployment will be an escalation of a preexisting conflict. Gradual escalations, remember, are often how quagmires begin.

Even if this conflict never becomes a full-on quagmire, you had better believe that Gaddafi will drag it out for as long as possible. The atrocities he has already committed have likely ruled out any sort of peaceful, Mubarak-style abdication. His only remaining options are prosecution for crimes against humanity (charges the International Criminal Court is already investigating), death, or somehow keeping this going for long enough to break the political will behind the coalition so that he may retain control over some or all of Libya. The lattermost of those possibilities is the by far the most distant, but I suspect he would rather die trying to achieve it than give up and submit to judgment at The Hague.

In other words, this is not a man susceptible to threats or negotiation. That leads me to believe that this can only end either with full-on regime change or a divided Libya. The latter would probably be another regional conflict waiting to happen; I have no idea what the former would be. We know too little about the composition of the resistance movement too make any firm predictions, much less the nuances of Libyan tribal politics. But I do know this: the United States and our coalition allies are making a huge gamble. Nothing about this indicates to me that it is an acceptable one.

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The Backwards Logic of Intervention
March 18, 2011

UN Security Council Chamber in New York.

Image via Wikipedia

I was just 11 years old when the United States declared war on Afghanistan and thirteen when we invaded Iraq. Those two wars played an instrumental role and shaping my political sensibility. Needless to say, I can’t separate my experience growing up with those two wars from my intuitions regarding the UN Security Council’s vote to intervene in Libya. Maybe coming of age in a nation at war left me with anxieties and prejudices that are now hopelessly muddling those intuitions. I hope that’s the case, and I hope I’m dead wrong on Libya. Because right now, I don’t see a good outcome to military intervention.

I’d probably feel differently if the vote had come a couple weeks earlier, when the rebels still had the upper hand. Not that I supported active military intervention even then, but I definitely thought the United States and the international community should have been playing a more active role in shaping events on the ground. Checking off a few items on this list would have been nice. Anything to keep the momentum on the side of the anti-Gaddafi forces while keeping the odds of yet another American military entanglement to an absolute minimum.

But we missed our window. By all accounts, the winds have shifted back in Gaddafi’s favor, and I suspect that means tilting things back in the opposition’s favor will require a significantly larger commitment than I originally envisioned. A no-fly zone — that is, a “humanitarian half measure” — won’t cut it. That’s why the resolution includes some ominously open-ended language, allowing for a much deeper level of engagement.

The one option the resolution does preclude, fortunately, is that of a “foreign occupation force.” That term might mean something more specific in international law than is commonly understood — I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that we have little idea what shape a post-Gaddafi Libyan government would take, and a whole lot of disparate parties that would like to mold such a government to their benefit. Even if we don’t end up as occupiers (which I still don’t think is a sure thing), this sounds like a recipe for long-term military entanglement of some kind or another.

In other words, I don’t think we know what we’re getting ourselves into. And for that reason, we can’t possibly have a sound strategy for eventually getting out. Which is a tremendous bummer for a lot of reasons, the least of which is this: I honestly didn’t expect this sort of stuff to happen under the leadership President Obama. I thought our days of military adventurism were, well, not over exactly, but dwindling. Sure, I didn’t have any illusions about withdrawing from Afghanistan during the Obama presidency, but it never occurred to me that we might risk yet another unforced quagmire. I figured that, at the very least, Iraq and Afghanistan had left Democratic policy makers with a hefty dose of martial humility.

Turns out no such luck. I failed to take into account a few big factors. Such as the fact that institutional memory is short and bureaucratic inertia is huge. Such as the network of incentives that allow policy makers, pundits, corporate leaders and military brass to net significant short-term benefit from a push for war. I don’t mean to be cynical: I do think the most strident advocates of this military intervention firmly believe that it is just and good. And hell, I can’t say with 100% certainty that they’re wrong. But I think they probably are, and I’m dismayed to watch this play out anyway.

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Why The US Should Prefer China’s Ruling Party Over The Alternative
February 1, 2011

People's Republic of China President, Hu Jinta...
Image via Wikipedia

An article in yesterday’s Washington Post leads with: “Could the popular revolt against authoritarian regimes of the Middle East ever spread to China, the world’s most populous nation?”

Well, no. Or at least, it’s highly doubtful. China is certainly a repressive an authoritarian nation by liberal democratic standards, but Hu Jintao (pictured) is no Hosni Mubarak. More importantly, the Chinese Communist Party is flexible in a way that most North African/Middle Eastern despots aren’t, and it’s certainly more committed to economic growth. Widespread poverty was one of the major catalysts for the riots in both Egypt and Tunisia, but poverty in China has been dropping at a remarkable rate.

That isn’t to say that Jintao and the Politburo have absolutely nothing to worry about. But if anything threatens internal stability, it’s not a popular democratic uprising; China’s expanding middle class is largely satisfied with the status quo. The greater threat to the Party comes from within its own security apparatus.

There’s a solid article in this month’s The New Republic (behind a paywall, sadly) that drives this point home. As author Joshua Kurlantzick points out, officers in the People’s Liberation Army tend to be far away more hawkish than their civilian overlords. They’ve also become increasingly willing to make their own policy preferences known, even when those preferences clash with the commands coming down from on high. If a direct challenge to the Chinese government lies in the future, it will come from powerful military tired of being held on a short leash by men who never served within its ranks.

This puts both the United States and human rights groups in a somewhat awkward position: both will find that an authoritarian Communist government run by career bureaucrats does more for their interests than a nationalistic military state. Which is why, contra Kulantzick, I don’t think the Obama administration is doing China’s hawks any favors by showing greater deference to Beijing. Instead, by getting cozy with China’s more moderate civilian leadership, the US is trying to consolidate that leadership’s legitimacy. And that’s smart! Even if it means turning down the heat on issues like Tibet, it’s better for human rights and regional stability in the long run. We certainly wouldn’t be doing the Tibetans any favors if we facilitated the rise of a more belligerent, hawkish Chinese government.

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Understanding China
January 25, 2011

We in the West so often fail to understand China because in our arrogance we assume it fits into Western conceptions of the nation-state, ethnicity, and how state interacts with the individual. That’s the thesis of this excellent TED talk by Mark Jacques, author of When China Rules the World. Here’s the embed:

At the very end of the talk, Jacques rightly points out that the rise of China, India, Brazil and other developing nations herald a democratization of the world order. But anyone who watched the twenty minutes preceding that remark knows that he’s talking about a very specific kind of democratization which has little to do with Western-style liberal democracies and is wholly compatible with the sort of authoritarian paternalism central to Beijing’s governing philosophy. The world order may be democratizing, but that does not mean it is becoming more hospitable for democracy.

Last week I expressed my deep skepticism towards the notion that history will inevitably culminate in a state of enlightened democracy. I presented the philosophical case, but China’s ascension towards world power status strikes me as the empirical one. If, as Jacques predicts, China’s economy dwarfs all others in the year 2050, there won’t be many Western pundits left opining about the end of history. Indeed, the existence of a sinocentric world would leave open the possibility that in four or five centuries liberal democracy will be regarded as a historical fluke.

I pray that won’t be the case. Political legitimacy derived from the consent of the governed remains the most morally defensible justification for political authority we as a species have yet developed. But we need to appreciate that this thing we’ve built is as fragile as it is precious. More to the point, it’s not as quickly and easily exportable as we’ve assumed in the past.

At the same time, we need to understand that the death of liberal democracy likely wouldn’t be some apocalyptic, world-destroying event. It’s possible that when the end comes, most people won’t even notice, let alone mourn. Maybe that sounds a little bit fatalistic, but I’m not talking about inevitabilities. I only want to underscore that democracy’s death is no less preordained than its triumph, and that sheltering what gains we’ve made means humble, clear-eyed engagement with a world that thinks in very different terms.

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Tunisia and the Frozen Sunset of History
January 20, 2011

110118 Tunisia unity government unravels 07 | ...
Image by magharebia via Flickr

I welcome the overthrow of an authoritarian thug as much as the next guy, but I would caution Peter Beinart to take a deep breath and count to ten before declaring Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution a victory for the end-of-history crowd. For one thing, the dust hasn’t quite settled yet. Messrs. Henry and Springborg write:

When Chief of Staff General Rachid Ammar refused to order his troops to fire on demonstrators, President Ben Ali had no choice but to flee. Thus the military has emerged from the wreckage of the post-colonial state with its good reputation further enhanced. It provides, therefore, a potential political base for a new regime. Given the paucity of viable political organizations after a generation of repression under Ben Ali, the scenario of a military caretaker government is not out of the question. One but need recall that Nasser’s Revolutionary Command Council was initially presented as such to know how such caretaker status can become permanent.

The further temptation to open the state’s coffers may be difficult to resist. Indeed, then Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, two days before the regime fell, sought to quell discontent by announcing a dramatic increase in governmental jobs for young graduates. Since it is they who sparked the Jasmine Revolution, they can now reasonably expect rewards yet more generous than Ghannouchi promised.

So the political ingredients for a new authoritarian populist regime are present. It would be history as farce, however, were Tunisia, and possibly others in the Arab world, to squander its revolutionary opportunity by going back to the future in this fashion. But the task of building a new political order that can provide democracy and development is, if anything, even more challenging than it was for the immediate post-colonial political elites.

If there’s any lesson to be drawn from Tunisia, then we’ll probably have to wait a few months or even years before we can even properly disagree over its content. But in the meantime, here’s a lesson we’ve already learned many times over: infant democracies are exceedingly fragile things. Especially when there aren’t many stable institutions left over from the old regime that can be used as building blocks. And especially if the populace doesn’t have much in the way of bread or security. Extraordinary counterexamples aside, I think this works as a general maxim about human nature: the will to freedom is strong, but not as strong as the will to live.

Will that be a deciding factor in Tunisia? I have no clue. Color me cautiously optimistic, but cautiously.

But let’s say now that things go well. Does that lend greater credibility to the claim that democracy is an inexorable force that will eventually consume the globe and usher us into a glittering age of peace and prosperity? Nah. Don’t think so. My deep suspicion remains that the arc of history isn’t actually an arc but a semi-intelligible series of events. As much as we may try to divine an overarching theme from this series of events, none exists but blind causality. And history will only end when there’s no one left to take notes.

If I get frozen in carbonite, am thawed out several millennia from now, and I’m subsequently forced to admit I was wrong and apologize to the citizens of an Earth governed entirely by glittering liberal democracies, I will be overjoyed to do so. But in the meantime, I think the prudent thing to do is plan for a world in which I’m right, meaning a world in which the forces of history are not aligned in favor of human freedom and dignity. The smart optimist still wears a seatbelt, no?

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Natural Rights versus Humanitarian Concerns
January 7, 2011

Via Naheed Mustafa’s Twitter feed, Stephen Kinzer has a really thought provoking column in the Guardian regarding what he calls “human rights imperialism.” He writes:

For many years as a foreign correspondent, I not only worked alongside human rights advocates, but considered myself one of them. To defend the rights of those who have none was the reason I became a journalist in the first place. Now, I see the human rights movement as opposing human rights.

The problem is its narrow, egocentric definition of what human rights are.

Those who have traditionally run Human Rights Watch and other western-based groups that pursue comparable goals come from societies where crucial group rights – the right not to be murdered on the street, the right not to be raped by soldiers, the right to go to school, the right to clean water, the right not to starve – have long since been guaranteed. In their societies, it makes sense to defend secondary rights, like the right to form a radical newspaper or an extremist political party. But in many countries, there is a stark choice between one set of rights and the other. Human rights groups, bathed in the light of self-admiration and cultural superiority, too often make the wrong choice.

This is a symptom, I think, of the static and inflexible notion of “natural rights” bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment. The descendants of Locke and Jefferson too often reduce the whole idea of liberty — a thorny concept if there ever was one — to a checklist that has remained basically unchanged for the past few centuries. And as if that weren’t strange enough, we pretend that these rights are self-evidently natural, as if freedom of the press somehow predates the written word.

To make this point is not to reject the importance of the Bill of Rights. I’m as big a fan of the ACLU as you’ll find, and I think my past blogging about civil liberties has pretty firmly established my pro-civil liberties cred. But while Enlightenment-era natural rights were a policy success to the extent that their wide acceptance demonstrably increased the basic freedoms available to the whole Western world, they’re still a mess as a philosophy of freedom. And our blind acceptance of their supposed naturalness has led us into embracing the sort of misguided and potentially catastrophic policies Kinzer describes above.

A truly humane philosophy of freedom must be more organic and receptive to humanitarian concerns. When our preconceived notions of “human rights” sharply diverge with humanitarian interests — or worse, precipitate humanitarian crises — there’s clearly something wrong with this picture.

(By the way: If you want to take this out of the realm of the abstract, I recommend reading Samantha Power’s excellent Sergio (originally published as Chasing the Flame). Its subject is the life of Sergio Vieira de Mello, perhaps one of the greatest humanitarians in the history of the United Nations. Although de Mello saved countless lives, the tactics he often employed to do so — including choosing the forceful repatriation of Rwandan refugees in Tanzania as “the least bad option” available, and negotiating with the Khmer Rouge — often earned him the ire of international human rights groups. Even more interesting, he was both an academic philosopher by training and, eventually, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.)

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