Archive for category Afghanistan

A New Generation

On Wednesday evening President Obama addressed the country to inform us that the war in Afghanistan was winding down and would be ended ‘responsibly.’   10,000 troops will return this year, and another 23,000 by the middle of 2012.  He neglected to say that over 65,000 would still be there, promising only to continue the draw down as security responsibility is handed over to the Afghans, with a goal of completing the process by 2014.   A NATO/Afghan conference next May will work through the details.

Thursday morning in Summer Experience the class watched a shaky Youtube video of Obama’s speech, and critiqued it having read a number of pieces about war, and an article by Howard Zinn about our double standard when it comes to violence.  Students were uniformly critical of the wars, though some said they understood why we went into Afghanistan in 2001 before Iraq pushed us off course.    It’s interesting how in 2001-04 students showed a strong burst of patriotism and support for even the Iraq war, which by 2006 had shifted to anger about the on going wars, and since 2009 or so has become a kind of an apathetic cynicism.   One fascinating aspect of teaching is seeing how attitudes can quickly change with new groups of college students.

Another piece we read was about Kent State.   Most students don’t know what happened in May 4, 1970 when the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded others when confronting an angry student protest.   To give background I played some of President Nixon’s speech announcing the invasion of Cambodia, which he gave on April 30, 1970.   That speech sparked the protests that led to the shootings.   What students noticed (and I hadn’t really expected) was the similarity between some of what each President said.   Nixon was also announcing a draw down of forces from Vietnam, over 100,000.   His explanation (have the Vietnamese take over responsibility for their own security – Vietnamization) and rhetoric about the US role was often similar to what Obama said.   To be sure, Obama didn’t announce the invasion of another country, though one student noticed the parallel between the importance of Cambodia in that war, and Pakistan in the current one.

They were shocked about the protests and especially the fact live ammo would be used on students.   One student compared that to China at Tienanmen Square, though clearly the scope was far less.   They were surprised that many people even supported the shootings at the time, and said that this is another example of groups of people not understanding each other and thus rationalizing conflict and violence.

We ended up discussing the conditions my generation is handing off to them:   a number of on going wars that need to be ended (they’ve cost over $1 trillion so far), government debt that started growing dramatically in the early eighties,  private debt and credit card debt that has grown even faster (the public has mirrored the government in that regard),  the current account deficit that has made the dollar and the US very vulnerable to outside shocks, and the growing gap between the rich and poor.   I showed the charts that showed that the wealthy have done very well during the last thirty years, while the middle class and poor have actually lost ground.   Finally, we talked about energy and touched yesterday on the environment.

Most of the problems, especially the economic ones, are rooted in choices made in the early 80s after the last recession when tax rates were cut and spending/debt increased.   Thirty years of imbalances, and these 18 year olds now have to face the fact that unless this gets fixed, their future will not be as comfortable as the lifestyles enjoyed by the previous generation.  They expressed disdain for the ideological bickering between the political parties and said that if people listened to each other (the point of a Walter Lippmann piece they read for today), we’d realize that the problems were real and we have to solve them.

It also seems that in a world of constant communication and technical sophistication, the allure of ideological thinking is fading.   The reality of the problems we face and the messes such thinking has caused in the past presents them with a challenge: their future depends on shifting our political and economic thinking in a profound manner.    We discussed the naive thinking of economic ideologues — those on the left who think government can plan and run an economy without markets, and those libertarians who think markets are magic and can operate without regulation and the state.   A little common sense can cure such ideological blindness, and for all the faults people find with the ‘facebook generation,’ they seem to have little patience for putting theory ahead of reality.

I’ve taught summer experience for 12 years now, starting in 2000 in the midst of the crash.   In the late 90s many students had bragged about making money through day trading and some thought they might never have to work since their investments could just keep proliferating.   In the years since as technology progressed and the country has gone through extended wars and now a deep recession, I find myself more impressed than ever by the young people heading into college.   There seems to be more pragmatism behind youthful idealism (I can’t imagine them burning down ROTC buildings and the like, regardless of how opposed they might be to a war), a willingness to consider and try to understand a variety of perspectives (I credit both the internet and globalization with this) and even improved knowledge about world events.

I hope my faith in the new generation is well placed, since I am losing faith in mine to actually start listening to each other and working for compromise and a pragmatic solution of the serious problems we face.   If ideological screaming by the left and right continues, with elections zig zagging between parties as the public becomes frustrated by the inability to collaborate on creative solutions, we’ll need young people to come forth with new solutions.   And, given their command of technology and the information revolution, they just might be able to do it — it’s not just Egypt that needs the youth to rise up and demand change!


Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya: Near the End?

I’ll go back to posting about the geothermal project later today, but I’ll take a quick foray into politics again.

In the last two days President Obama has hinted that the US pull out of Afghanistan would be faster than anticipated, suggesting it was time for the Afghans to take control.   Secretary of Defense Gates claimed that NATO was close to a decisive blow in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile in Libya NATO forces have pounded Gaddafi targets as the rebels, for awhile in a stalemate with Gaddafi loyalists, now appear to be taking more towns and heading towards Tripoli.   This, along with a flurry of diplomatic activity by China, may hint at a Libya end game.

If by the end of the year the US can point to success in Libya and Afghanistan, the electoral picture for President Obama gets brighter in 2012.   The economy is still the main issue, but successful ends to those conflicts could help bring down oil prices (which as of today are down below $100 again).   Oil price increases helped drag down job creation last month, and maybe one of the most important variables for job growth in the short term.

Iraq saw the deaths of seven American servicemen yesterday, but as bad as that news is, it accentuates the fact that such news has been extremely rare — Iraq is not a vibrant stable democracy, but it’s also not a hot bed of violence and unrest.   In the decade since 9-11-01 we’ve seen wars spread, conflicts go in unexpected directions, and unrest emerge in the Mideast.   Only a fool would suggest that is all about to pass.

But if the US can manage to end the decade by putting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya into the past, allowing the President to campaign on a new foreign policy vision, it may be enough to help him overcome a slow paced recovery.   More importantly, if the US can finally put these conflicts behind us, it will allow a thorough re-thinking of US foreign policy rather than having to react to circumstances which leave us limited options.

Today the President is meeting with German Chancellor Merkel.   They have a lot to talk about.   Merkel’s approach to the recession appears to be working better than Obama’s, and perhaps the two of them can coordinate plans to improve the global economy.   They will also be talking about NATO, Afghanistan and Libya — Germany was one NATO country very skeptical of military action in Libya.   I may be overly optimistic,  but I get the sense that we’re nearing the end of a very difficult decade in US foreign policy.

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Getting Real about Ronald Reagan

Former President Ronald Reagan’s name gets bandied about as either a mythic hero for the GOP or a dottering old bogeyman for many Democrats.   The reality, of course, is that he was neither, and the fallacies of both the left and right can be shown by looking at two especially misguided myths about Reagan.   The first is that Reagan’s economic policies brought the US a period of economic growth and prosperity, proving that smaller government works best, and the second is that Reagan shifted US foreign policy to be tougher on the Soviets, thereby hastening the end of the Cold War.   Both myths are dead wrong.

The truth about Reaganomics:   Ronald Reagan and the Democrats in Congress had an implicit deal:  taxes would be cut and spending would increase.   This meant that the economic boom in the 80s was built on debt.    The debt to GDP ratio went from 30% when Reagan took office to just under 60% when he left.   Given that the GDP grew during that time, this is a doubling of debt.    That is a stimulus package that puts Obama’s 2009 effort to shame.  If you double your debt it’s not hard to have an economic boom — but it was built on a house of cards.   Moreover, oil prices decreased dramatically during this time frame, meaning that the government stimulus of the economy was augmented by declining oil prices.

Simply: the supposed prosperity of the 80s was an illusion.   It was the functional equivalent of any one of us taking out credit and living very well for awhile.   It feels good while it lasts, but when it ends you’re left with debt.   It was unnecessary too — falling oil prices would have stimulated the economy naturally.   Moreover, this is the time frame when the US went from having a current account surplus (being a net investor in the world, with trade in balance) to a current account deficit (mostly a trade deficit).   We shifted from producing as much as we consumed to consuming more than we produce — with credit coming mostly from overseas.  This was the start of the great crisis we’re now enduring.

Yet Reagan doesn’t deserve all the blame.  The Congressional Democrats and Republicans found this path easy in the short term.  Just as Reagan didn’t veto spending (indeed, his administration famously said budget deficits don’t matter — something Dick Cheney would repeat in 2005), both parties of Congress found the ‘cut taxes, increase spending’ formula politically convenient.   This was a bi-partisan effort.

Still, the fact is that Reaganomics was a myth.   Government grew massively, debt grew, and so did spending.   All the 80s proved was that if you increase debt you can stimulate the economy.   We knew that already.

The truth about the end of the Cold War.   When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 President Carter announced a massive shift in US policy.    This included an increase in defense spending which he projected to be at higher levels than actually occurred under Reagan.   Moreover the Carter doctrine, announced on January 23, 1980, made it clear that the US would, for lack of a better term, fight a war for oil.   Keeping the flow of Persian Gulf oil going was made a primary national interest.

The shift of policy towards the Soviets was bi-partisan, with Reagan continuing the policies Carter put in place.   He did increase the amount of aid to the Afghan “freedom fighters,” something Carter didn’t want to do because he wasn’t sure it made sense to get in bed with Islamic extremists.  Reagan also shifted US policy in Nicaragua, supporting the Contras trying to overthrow the Sandinista government (Carter hoped to win the Sandinistas over).   Still, those changes did not lead to the collapse of the USSR.

The Soviet Union, stymied by a lack of leadership from 1981 to 1985, as Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko were both ill and ineffective in each of their brief tenures, imploded from within.   In Eastern Europe the crisis was worse, and by 1989 Hungarian and Polish Communists started a path to undo communism out of economic necessity.   Regardless of what US foreign policy would have been in the 80s, communism was collapsing and could not be saved.   Communism was an utter and completely failure on its own terms.

However, if Reagan didn’t cause the end of Communism, he also doesn’t get enough credit for helping assure Gorbachev could succeed.   As I noted in an earlier post about the two of them, Reagan should get credit for recognizing that Gorbachev was the real thing and acting in ways that helped him stay in power.   In 1986 the US military build up halted, as US defense spending stopped rising (in real terms).   In 1987 Reagan and Gorbachev signed the treaty eliminating intermediate nuclear missiles from Europe after the Soviet military concluded that SDI (the Strategic Defense Initiative designed to try to protect US strategic missiles from Soviet attack) was not a threat.

At that time, Reagan’s most vocal credits were from the right wing of his party.   Few remember how Reagan was attacked for ‘going soft,’ with some on the right claiming that Weinberger and Shultz weren’t letting “Reagan be Reagan.” Others thought Reagan was being fooled by Gorbachev who was just a slicker and more effective Communist.   True to his principles, Reagan shifted from a hard line to a helpful line when he saw that Soviet reform was real and a chance existed for Communism to either reform and die from within — a war wasn’t necessary.

This wisdom and insight of Reagan gets lost if one focuses on the myth of Reagan’s toughness somehow bringing down the USSR.   Many on the left attack Reagan as a hard core war monger whose approach was disproven by Gorbachev’s ability to push change.   In reality, Reagan and Gorbachev were a team, each needing the other.

In the fog of historical amnesia, Reagan’s rhetoric has become reality for most, both right and left.   Few realize that the 80s saw a doubling of US debt, with massive deficits during a boom — something that makes no economic sense.   Few realize that Reagan’s wisdom was not in standing tough against the Soviets (Carter started that policy) but shifting course after correctly understanding that Gorbachev was the real thing.   The ideological rhetoric used by Reagan covers up the fact that at base he was a pragmatist and a deal maker, someone who had the notion that he could reach an agreement with just about anyone.   He’d start with a tough sounding stance, but then negotiate.   People remember the former and forget the latter.

Historical reality shows that almost all Presidents and leaders are far more complex than the myths that survive.   Nuance, complexity and paradoxical information gets swept away in favor of a packaged simple narrative.   But it can be dangerous; those who say they want to be like Reagan on the economy don’t realize that means embracing more debt and economic stimulus.   Those who focus on Reagan’s alleged toughness don’t see his ability to shift when an opponent appears willing to embrace change.   Those who focus on Reagan as principled miss that he was also extremely pragmatic.    And as far as  I’m concerned the real Reagan was a far better President than the mythic Reagan ever could have been.

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The End of the Osama Bin Laden Era?

In my Comparative Politics class Tuesday we had assigned readings covering terrorism and Islamic extremism as a revolutionary force.  I joked to the class that when I made the syllabus last December I purposefully put these readings for our first class meeting after Bin Laden’s killing.   The chapter about Islam as a revolutionary force (Sheri Berman, Islamism, Revolution and Civil Society) focuses on countries like Egypt, still stable when the article was written.  The chapter on terrorism (Martha Crenshaw, The Causes of Terrorism) nicely set up a discussion of Bin Laden’s death and what it means.   That made for a lively class discussion!

I think that Osama Bin Laden’s death symbolizes an end of an era.   For a decade Bin Laden has been the public face of Islam for many Americans, arousing fear, anger and antipathy.   Visions of Islam defeating the West or sharia law spreading to places like Oklahoma created almost surreal bouts of fear and distrust.   That is starting to fade away.

Since 9-11 al qaeda has had a meager record.  Unable to score any spectacular attacks in recent years, their message no longer resonates in the Arab world.   The youth today are less prone to be swayed by the rhetoric Bin Laden used in the 90s.   They are more in tune with the rest of the world as the information revolution and globalization make it harder to maintain isolation.

In the 90s this was part of the problem.  The encroachment of Western ideas into traditional Muslim communities was a threat, raising fears about losing identity and traditions to a godless, souless West, addicted to oil and willing to arm corrupt tyrannies.    It was this first phase of globalization that both Benjamin Barber (Jihad vs. McWorld) and Samuel Huntington (Clash of Civilizations) sounded alarms about.   This phase emboldened Bin Laden as it was easy to stir up fear of the West and especially the US.

But now in 2011 we’re seeing generational change, as the youth are more immersed in modern culture and thus less enamored with the puritanical teachings of al qaeda or the Taliban.   Few want to go back to 622 AD.   Even those who dislike western foreign policy don’t believe it’s feasible or desirable to fight a war with the West.  The focus now is overturning tyrannies and taking care of their own political destinies.

It’s true that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who have a history of extremist rhetoric and a diverse membership, could be in a position to dominate new governments once the dictators leave.    But there is little reason to expect them to fundamentally threaten the West.    If they are too reactionary, they’ll likely face a backlash from their own people — a people who now understand that they can pressure governments and force change.    Most of them also reject al qaeda’s agenda or an all out war with the West.   To be sure, this will pressure Israel, but Wikileaks documents have revealed that even Hamas is more willing to work with the Jewish state than their public bravado indicates.

With Bin Laden’s death he no longer symbolizes the Arab or Muslim worlds.  In the US the perception of Muslims has already improved thanks to the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.    In the Arab world the so-called “Arab Spring” has displaced anger at America as the most visible political force.   NATO is bombing Libya, another Muslim country, though this time it is in support of a home grown revolution.

Given all of this, I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the death of Osama Bin Laden is also the symbolic death of the danger and threat of Islamic extremism.   Not that there is no more terror threat — terrorism is possible any time a hand full of angry people can pull off some kind of deadly violent act.    Extremist elements in the Muslim world will remain active for some time.   But unless we over-react, the threat is dwindling.  Islam will still be a force in politics, but not a violent force bent on confronting the West.

Now the Taliban will be under more pressure to moderate their positions, break with al qaeda completely, and be part of a solution in Afghanistan.   Bin Laden’s death helps those elements in the Taliban willing to compromise and share power.  In other countries political Islam will look inward and focus on reforming their societies, perhaps more fully exploring the meaning of Islam in a modern world.   We may not like the path it takes sometimes, and progress may be excruciatingly slow, but it need not be something to fear.

It is the end of the Bin Laden era.   Fear of Islam will diminish in the West, and we will avert the clash of civilization that Bin Laden so hoped to spark.   This isn’t because the US killed Bin Laden — al qaeda’s been losing the war for the hearts and minds of the Arab world for years, and fear of Islam has been on the wane in the US — but his death is symbolically important.   It’s been a rough ten years; time to move on to something better!


The Obama Doctrine

President Obama’s speech on March 28, 2011 may go down as one of the historic Presidential speeches as he not only explained and defended a controversial foreign policy decision, but clearly enunciated a foreign policy doctrine.   It also was a forceful, unambiguous speech, resisting efforts to use vague slogans and unclear rhetoric to cover up tough issues.  For the first time in his Presidency Obama has had to show true foreign policy leadership and he has come through.

Rather than look again at Libya, I’m intrigued more by what the Obama doctrine indicates.  He rejects the notion of “Captain America” as world cop, intervening to stop all repression and violence.   Realistically, that’s not possible.  There will be cases where repressive dictators will act against their people, and despite our outrage, it would be contrary to our core interests to act.   In that, he certainly is correct.  US power and wealth are limited and recently under strain.  Interventions that would be costly and without a likelihood of success would do us clear harm.

However, that doesn’t mean we should never act.   The weakest argument against action is to point to other repressive regimes and say “why not intervene there?”   To be sure, that argument was often made against President Bush’s choice to go to war with Iraq.  But while President Bush did not fully answer that, President Obama gave guidelines on when US military power is to be used.

First, the US must have a coalition that supports military action.   The coalition must be broad based and willing to share the burden.  Interestingly he did not say UN Security Council approval was absolutely necessary, leaving open the possibility that at some point the US might act even if China or Russia threatens a veto.   Second, US action should be focused on a clear global interest – shared by us and others – ranging from protecting commerce (presumably including oil flows) to stopping genocide.   Finally, the US will have a limited role, using the unique power and capacity of the American military to support interventions aimed at specific goals (e.g., stopping Gaddafi’s assault on civilians) not for broader goals like regime change.

This backs down considerably from the kind of idealist (or ‘neo-conservative’) approach of spreading democracy that President Bush embraced, but borrows the core elements of Bush’s ideology.  Interestingly, Bush’s thoughts about the need to spread democracy and aid the rising youth in the Mideast are embraced by Obama.   Obama differs on the means to use.   We must not do anything that undercuts our own interests, or lead us down a path of ever growing costs and national trauma.

He also was clear to point out the effort to strictly limit military action, noting that regime change even by air power alone would require bombing that would lead to unacceptable civilian casualties.   At the same time Obama distanced himself form the pacifist wing of his party.   He rejected the idea that US military power was useless, immoral or only to be used in national defense.   Instead he argued that in an interdependent and linked world it would be against our interest not to use our power to try to maintain international stability and human rights.

Obama’s core principles differ little from those of Republicans like Reagan or Bush, or Democrats like Carter or Clinton.  In that sense he is clearly an establishment President, not breaking with long held values on how to use American military power.  Yet unlike other Presidents, he refines the conditions in which it will be used, rejecting the kind of unilateralism that has so often defined US foreign policy in the past.

In part this is a pragmatic reaction to historical circumstance.  Just as President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger had to adopt detente in response to the cost of the Vietnam war and the rise of the USSR to nuclear parity (not to mention Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik), President Obama is dealing with a US rocked by the great recession, divided by partisan bickering, and still wounded from long and not yet complete wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   Simply, the bipolar world of the Cold War and the unipolar world of the early post-Cold periods are gone.   The President has to adjust US policy to reflect US capacity.

In doing so he stresses the need for American leadership (weakened though the US may be, no other country has the same military capacity), but leadership of the sort that doesn’t say “do it our way or no way” but builds coalitions and requires international legitimacy.   In that he reflects the ideals of President Bush the Elder, who undertook a similar strategy in Iraq in 1991.  Yet unlike the elder Bush, President Obama situates US policy within a global framework in which the US voice is a leading, but not dominate one.

To some, that may seem weak.   To me it seems prudent.  The US cannot dominate, the Iraq experience shows us what the cost can be if we try.  But leadership can be exercised within the framework of international cooperation and burden sharing within the larger global community.

Time will tell what historical reputation the Obama Doctrine will earn (I’ve not read other reactions to the speech, so I’ll be interested if others will see this as proclaiming a doctrine), nor does this quell the arguments of the hawks and doves, between which Obama has crafted a well defined middle ground.   It has a typically American mix of idealism and realism, with a pragmatic recognition of our limits.  I have to say I’m impressed with both the speech and the policy.   A United States working in concert with allies to promote our interests and principles in a pragmatic and realistic manner may be the best way to navigate these uncertain times.


Hypocrisy no Longer Feasible?

I’ve been watching events unfold in Libya with a mix of fascination and horror at the violence and the complexities of the situation.   It also makes clear a fundamental hypocrisy of the foreign policy of western states: We claim to promote freedom and democracy, when we really support and encourage dictatorship and repression.   If that hypocrisy is no longer feasible thanks to new media and globalization, foreign policy may become much more difficult — but perhaps also more principled.

In Libya it appeared clear the rebels had the upper hand early on — Generals were defecting to the other side, the international community was almost unanimous in condemning the Libyan leader, and Gaddafi’s rambling speeches seemed out of touch with reality.    His efforts to stoke western fears by blaming al qaeda or threatening Europe with a massive influx of African immigrants appeared pathetic and desperate.

However, whenever a state decides to fight back against a rebellion (rather than give in as Mubarak did), the state has considerable power and resources at its disposal.   Sovereignty grants the state a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, meaning that it can amass a large array of weapons and information to combat a rebellion.   It isn’t easy to overthrow an entrenched dictator, and enough people are implicated in Gaddafi’s regime and its crimes that he has many allies willing to risk it all to try to save the government.   They know that even if Gaddafi ends up in control of a “rump” Libya, they are protected from prosecution and retribution.   And if Gaddafi can create the impression he’s going to win, fence sitters will refuse to join the revolt, fearing a brutal retribution Gaddafi has proven he has no qualms about delivering.

For all the condemnations from the West, the fact is that a choice to engage in a “no fly zone,” targeted air strikes, or some kind of military assistance to the rebels could lead to an increasingly complex and difficult military operation.   At a time when Afghanistan seems to be as far as ever from stability, NATO and the US do not want to find themselves fighting a war in Libya, potentially supporting rebel groups that could ultimately have an anti-western agenda.   Libyan oil and investments are also considerable in the EU, especially for its former colonial ruler, Italy.   Even if the Saudis can keep oil flows stable (thereby demonstrating to the West the importance of Saudi Arabia avoiding strife — something most people prefer not to think about, despite the fact the Saudi regime is more oppressive than any other in the world save North Korea), short term ramifications could be painful, especially if the fighting goes on.

Yet it will be impossible to backdown from the condemnations of Gaddafi, the call for democratic change in Libya and a desire to make sure that war crimes do not go unpunished.

The essential dilemma is that during much of the 20th Century western calls for democracy and markets to spread have been rhetorical ploys, not truly embraced by its leaders.    The West has had no problem being cozy with dictators, as long as the dictators didn’t create international instability or engage in embarrassing human rights failures.   France even stuck with the Rwandan government well into a genocide witnessed by UN peace keepers on the ground!   The US overthrew democratic governments in Guatamala and Iran early in the Cold War, replacing them with brutal dictatorships.   We used repression and lack of freedom as a rationale to overthrow Saddam, even while maintaining our embrace of the Saudi royal family, whose rule was no less repressive.

For a long time we could maintain this bit of hypocrisy.   Most people in the US don’t really know much about the rest of the world, and the media has shown little interest in reporting about despotism and abuse elsewhere.    Every once in awhile a case will become a cause celebre, such as the Darfur region of Sudan, but most of the time third world wars and abuses get ignored.   The longest and most brutal war since World War II has taken place in the Congo, but how much coverage has that generated (and how many people even know about it)?    When we need an excuse to try to get rid of someone a problem for the national interest, such as Saddam Hussein or Manuel Noriega, then our leaders trot out the rhetoric for freedom, democracy and human rights.   The American people, appalled at the abuses of power by those dictators tend to support action to “help the people over there,” believing that we’re engaged in a virtuous and even selfless act of trying to promote our values.

The hypocrisy in that policy is glaringly obvious (and noticed outside the US), but tends not to make it into the consciousness of most Americans.    The fact is most leaders don’t believe third world countries are ready for democracy, and secretly accept and even support repression by leaders if it prevents instability.   Instability may lead to a growth for extremist groups rather than promoters of democracy after all.

But with al jazeera live streaming video and keeping blogs and constant reports from hot spots in the Arab world, and NGOs increasingly able to penetrate where once only governmental agencies could tread, western leaders may have to make an overt choice:  do we simply accept repression elsewhere and say it’s none of our business as long as our interests aren’t harmed, or do we put principle first?

And if we put principle first, what does that mean?   Does that require military action, or perhaps simply refusing to do things that help dictators?   And what about a case like Saudi Arabia, where we need their oil?   This is the dilemma President Bush was trying to solve when he went to war with Iraq, hoping US power could push the region to democratize, thereby serving both the national interest and principle.    The lesson from that war is humbling.   Even when we spend half the world’s military budget and are the dominant superpower, the ability to use that to shape politics on the ground is severely limited.   That lesson has to be considered when we think about Libya.  It sounds easy to say “impose a no fly zone, strike Gaddafi’s strong points” but defeating Saddam’s military was easy too.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to achieve the desired ends.

If hypocrisy is no longer feasible, that’s bad news for leaders and diplomats who embrace a realist approach that emphasizes stability over all else.    It may, however, force us to confront the actual dilemmas of engaging a world where democracy is a process difficult to achieve and maintain, even as it seems the best way to try to hold power accountable and protect human rights.    Ultimately if dictatorship is to give way to democracy, then at some point the West has to stop enabling the dictators.    It may not work to use military power to force change, but perhaps acting a bit more on principle by refusing to deal with or help those who abuse power and repress/abuse their citizens a step can be made towards positive change.   That will bring its own dilemmas and difficulties, but I’d rather approach those openly than fear standing up for what we believe in.

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Wikileaks and Fear of the Truth

To hear everyone from President Obama to GOP Senators talk, the leaking of documents about US activity (as well as Pakistani and Afghan) during the on going Afghan war is horrible.   But while they complain that individuals or operations may be put in jeopardy, that’s not really the cause of their ire.   The real reason the US military is “disgusted” with the leaks is that it shows the truth of US operations in Afghanistan, and the truth is not pretty.

For my part, I applaud the leaks and the leakers, and believe that secrecy about what is done in our name is the most dangerous thing for a democracy.   Short term secrecy is necessary at times, but clearly the documents detail aspects of the war that have been on going, and which we should know about.   When a government fears the truth, then it’s more important than ever to get the truth out.    Video of slaughters of civilians by US soldiers, documents about civilian deaths and cover ups will no doubt be a source of information and discussion in coming months, both here and abroad.   Arguably this hurts the US military and embarrasses policy makers (even if most leaks involve information from the last Administration).    Nonetheless, what’s good for the government isn’t necessarily what’s good for the country.

Americans often believe that what our military is doing overseas is always good and noble.   That’s because most military personnel are good and noble.   Yet war changes people, as recent statistics about high rates of mental illness in war vets, broken families, and economic distress indicate.    Civilians in both countries have suffered the most deaths, and their whole infrastructure and way of life has been altered.   In Afghanistan this started with the Soviet invasion of 1979 and hasn’t really ever let up.

While it is easy to condemn individual soldiers for civilian murders, slaughters, and other incidents, that is misplaced blame.  You put a young man or woman in that kind of stress, often with multiple deployments,  having buddies killed, surrounded by death constantly, and afraid what could come next,  the ability of any human to stay sane is threatened.  Most manage to handle it, but everyone has a limit.  Some due to the intensity of their experiences or their own personality hit that limit earlier than others.   Some process the experience effectively.    But you can’t have a war like this without war crimes.

In our society we like to think in terms of individual responsibility.   That comes in handy for the government or military leaders who can prosecute soldiers for violating the stated orders — orders clearly prohibit the kinds of acts that are getting reported.   A young eager 19 year old ready to sacrifice for his country ends up perhaps court-martialed for some act against civilians.   Focusing on what was done to him by placing him in such circumstances and stressing his young mind is not seen as a legitimate defense.  We like to think of our soldiers as heroic by nature, those who violate the rules are ‘bad apples,’ a disgrace to our otherwise gallant fighters.

Yet that is a very convenient excuse for Presidents and Generals.  They don’t have to endure the trauma, and Presidents like Obama and Bush don’t really know what life in war is like.    Indeed, it’s a known fact that civilian politicians are more likely to choose military action than former military personnel — to civilians like me, war is an abstraction.   Yet by reading people like Chris Hedges or other accounts of what war is like, it is possible to get a sense of what this does to people.   To look at statistics about broken families and mental illness tells a story as well.   Moreover, we know from past experience that despite all the hero’s welcomes and flowery rhetoric, it’s very likely that today’s war vets will be forgotten, experiencing higher unemployment, homelessness and poverty than others.

The damage done by our government to those sworn to protect our way of life is tremendous.   As well intentioned as overthrowing the Taliban may have been, how understandable the rage at Bin Laden and desire to strike back certainly was, we’ve now been through nearly nine years of war that has veered so far from that initial anti-terrorist strike that it’s hard to even explain what we’re fighting for.  It’s not to get Bin Laden.  It’s not even to stop terrorism.  It’s to have a way to leave while saving face, something Nixon called ‘peace with honor.’   Yet that honor is abstract, it’s simply a desire to avoid too much embarrassment.   Is that really worth destroying lives?

I’m not trying to downplay the civilian suffering over there by focusing on what’s done to our soldiers; rather, I’m arguing that the only way to really think clearly about what we should do in Afghanistan and Iraq is to have the public know the reality of what the war is like, the actions being done in our name, and the impact this is having on those we send over there to fight.   Only by having the “secrets” of the war revealed can we truly understand the nature of the acts being undertaken in our name.   Only by deflating the myth of the ‘heroic American’ honorably defending democracy’ can we see how politicians use that myth to hide their true motives.

President Obama, pragmatist that he is, won’t do what I think he should do.  He won’t welcome the release and call for a national conversation on the reality of the war.  He won’t talk to the country about the details of the material, openly discussing issues that embarrass him or the country.    That’s OK — his pragmatism probably has allowed him to accomplish more than people thought possible.   But the wiki-leaks may put enough pressure on the White House and government to shift the terrain a little, and make it a pragmatic necessity to fundamentally rethink US policy.    And perhaps Obama will find the courage to point the blame not at the soldiers who crack, but at the policy makers who put young people in such horrific situations.   Perhaps we might even rethink the militarism of our policies; do our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq really reflect who we are as a nation?


Afghanistan: Mission Impossible II

Back in October 2009 I put up  a post “Afghanistan: Mission Impossible.”  In it, I noted that President Obama, in trying to figure out the best strategy in Afghanistan, may be undertaking an impossible task.   Afghanistan may not be winnable — at least not at anywhere near a cost we’re willing to pay.

Today as General Stanley McChrystal is called to the White House to answer for remarks he made in an interview to Rolling Stone magazine (I expect him to quit), the drama appears to be a General vs. the White House.   The General thinks the White House is not doing enough to win; the White House has long had doubts about McChrystal’s ability to do the job and follow orders.   Who is right?   Well…neither…or both…

The thing about undertaking impossible tasks is that there will always be someone who thinks that it is someone else’s fault.  Thus when things are getting tough, fingers get pointed.   It takes awhile for people to have the perspective to say that perhaps the task undertaken was simply not feasible given the conditions and costs — that now is the consensus on the war in Vietnam, or the idea that Iraq would be a model state to transform  the Mideast.

The problem is that planners, both civilian and military, can always dream up a plan that on paper looks like it might work.   It’s akin to a football coach putting together a plan for a play that should be able to score a winning touch down.   If executed right, if the defense plays as we expect, and if there are no other difficulties encountered, then we should score.

But while football is a game with strict rules and constrained inputs and variables, reality in a place like Afghanistan is full of different players, possibilities, conditions and interests.   Plans dreamed up that work “on paper” are necessarily vast simplifications of what needs to be done, and built on assumptions that don’t take into account the complexity of the situation and are usually optimistic.   That’s why plans put forth by the White House or the Generals usually are vague — details and implementation is where the complexity comes in, and each step of that path is steeped with uncertainty.

Planners understand this, and thus often say the right words when putting forth their ideas:  “Things have to go right…corruption and local politics might get in the way…there is a strong chance this could fail…”  Deep down, however, there is a sense that all problems can be solved, and the right strategy can work if the best people are on it, and can react to events in a rational manner.

But the complexity of Afghan local politics, the embedded culture of corruption (made worse by the fact now people expect the resources of the state to be worth trillions), external interference, and difficulties in implementation of any strategy make it unlikely that the US will succeed in Afghanistan.   At this point, it’s best to say “we gave them a chance, but now they have to make their future.”

That doesn’t mean get out as quickly as possible, nor does it mean to stop humanitarian assistance and some level of military aid.  Instead it means to negotiate with all parties, including the Taliban, with some kind of exit so that Afghan politics reflects Afghan interests.   We can draw a set of clear boundaries — no support for al qaeda and terrorism in exchange for a hands off Afghanistan policy.   We can remind them that if there is another 9-11 the American public, now in an isolationist mood, might suddenly want even more severe action.   We can also make arrangements for some level of covert involvement.

Simply, this is not a war the US can “win” if victory is defined in terms of creating the kind of political and social outcome that suits American sensibilities.  It would be nice if we could, but reality doesn’t work that way.  Cultures and countries develop on their own timetables and in their own manner; trying to force the issue or push them often makes things worse rather than better.   The outcome we desire becomes associated not with freedom and prosperity but the whims of an outside power willing to slaughter innocents and bribe elites in pursuit of its interests.

So from a wider perspective the fight between McChrystal and the White House is symbolic of the US trying to win a war it can’t win (again, not at the cost the public would be willing to pay) and solve a problem that defies solution.   The only thing to do is redefine the goals downward and find a way to exit sooner rather than later.   We face massive long term economic problems and a need for complete reform at home.   Right now, we can’t reshape a country which has defied outside interference for millennia.    So call McChrystal back, radically change the strategy, put someone new in charge to oversee the change, and have 98% of US troops out by 2012.

UPDATE: As predicted, McChrystal resigned, and now has been replaced by his boss, Gen. David Petraeus.  Although I doubt they’ll follow my “get out quickly” advice, I do think the move is smart.  Petraeus is a politically adept, PR savvy General who understands the region and the nature of counter-insurgent operations.   He is also a pragmatist who hopefully will recognize if the situation is so bleak that it’s more rational to leave than stay.   Even then, of course, how we leave is key.   It’s probably good that McChrystal was let go and Petraeus put in charge, though I’m sure all sides would have preferred it to be less messy.

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New World Order: Under Construction

We’ve become accustomed to the view that globalization is a friend of American ideals, economic liberalism, and westernization.   The cheery “world is flat” line from Thomas Friedman paints a picture of connections growing between countries and cultures, with self-interest and the material prosperity promised by markets trumping extremism and radicalism.  Even those with a more negative view of globalization tend to see the US and “world capitalism” winning — they argued that the price would be exploitation of the poor third world states, with perhaps some uprising against the West “down the line.”  Aside from the environmental concerns of global warming, globalization has generally been viewed  as a positive development for American ideals, even if the transition to a better world might be difficult.

Increasingly globalization looks connected to the dissolution of the Cold War and its bipolar system into a multi-polar anarchy, with both Communism and Capitalism succumbing to major crises.   The idea that economic liberalism “won” could in hindsight look like a fool’s fantasy, as if sailors ignorant that their own ship was slowly sinking cheered as their opponent’s ship sinks faster.

This does not mean that the US is not going to remain a power.   Former superpowers such as Russia, Britain, France and Germany still play major roles on the world stage.   The US has 300 million people, a high tech economy, a powerful military, and despite economic crisis, the capacity to grow and prosper.   This does mean that the rules are changing, and that the emerging world order is going to be far different than the one people are accustomed to, and certainly much different than the “unipolar” world neo-conservatives like Charles Krauthammer envisioned.

The evidence is all around.  It’s evident in the argument put forth by Walter Russel Mead about Brazil and Turkey. During the Cold War the range of actions of these states were limited by their need to maintain support from the US.   In a more unorganized world, the United States is not as important to these states, and they have responded with assertive policies often directly countering US interests (Brazil with Iran, Turkey opposing Israel).   The US can get mad, but there is little concretely that can be done to punish them.   In the past American unilateralism had sting; now there are other places to turn, and many other middle and even slightly larger powers that want to assert that they no longer fear America.

China has already made that clear with even whiffs of refusal to finance on going American debt.   Sure, China still needs our markets — but not as much as they used to.  Alternates are growing, and a weakening US economy means it’s easier to get oil for the Chinese economy.

The US miltary increasingly looks anachronistic, even as it is as powerful and technologically advanced as ever.  The reason is that warfare has changed.   Much of US power is based on the ability to use nuclear weapons — yet that weapon is one of deterrence, perfect for countering Soviet power, but not useful on the messy chess board of post-Cold War world affairs.     In all but the most fanciful and unlikely scenarios these weapons are simply unusable.

With terrorism and asymmetrical warfare becoming the dominant military strategies, more emphasis is based on economic policies and small regional conflicts.  The US can get involved in these, but Iraq and Afghanistan show that the cost is high, the ability to project power limited, the public’s tolerance of such actions low, and locals can undercut US objectives.   Currently that’s the problem in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Most think it’s highly unlikely the US will get involved in more such wars — we can’t afford it, and the public would oppose it — so fear of US military power has declined dramatically.    The US can use air strikes, but few believe that can achieve anything but the most limited objectives.

So, despite the disdain of diplomacy and internationalism by many on the right, the reality is that the rules of the new international order demand multi-lateralism.   There is very little the US can do on its own effectively.  The US has to compromise more and can lead less, something different than the past view as the United States as the “leader of the free world.”

This change has been rapid and dramatic, and has not been digested by many who are used to and comfortable with the old order and a dominant United States.   They blame Obama or Bush, think the US needs a more assertive foreign policy, but to support this they rely more on tough rhetoric than a reasoned argument about American capacities.    The result of trying to maintain the old policy patterns would be a United States trying to act beyond its capacity to succeed, thereby looking even weaker and more isolated.   By trying to push, demand, and force others to do things our way, we’ll be less effective and garner more ill will.

Yet, again, the US is still the dominant military power and has the largest economy.   The problems within the EU recently, China’s emerging domestic dilemmas, and other tensions show that while the US may not be the undisputed “leader of the West,” it’s also not a has-been.   The key to an effective foreign policy is to adjust to the need to “compromise more and lead less,” in order to still exercise some leadership, and still get others to compromise as well.   If a salesman goes to his boss and demand she give him a huge raise because of all the sales he’s made, she might decide it isn’t worth it and fire the guy.   If the salesman negotiates reasonably, he may get a satisfactory raise and stay with the firm.   We can’t be the bombastic power making demands, we have to be the confident power building alliances and coalitions.

That still doesn’t solve the problem of figuring out just how the new order is going to look when the dust settles.   A lot depends on oil supplies, how bad global warming really is, Mideast crises, and what happens over the next decade or so to the global economy.   But we are in systemic transition, always an unstable and often violent time.   It’s important to recognize that we have to let go of the assumptions and expectations of the past, and recognize that this is a new era.   The US can still be a major player, but not as a “dominant leader” or “unipolar power,” but through cooperation, alliance building, and multilateralism.

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Koehler’s Resignation

German President Horst Koehler visited Afghanistan recently, and defended Germany’s increasingly unpopular decision to be there.   On Monday, he resigned.   To be sure, the office of the President in Germany is symbolic; he has no real power, power belongs to the Chancellor (currently Angela Merkel).   Koehler’s sin was to argue that Germany is a major trading country, and therefore needs to participate in military actions that promote global stability.    The uproar over the statement led to his resignation Monday (ironically on the day we were leaving Germany — I only followed a bit of the controversy in the papers there).

The reason he got in trouble was how he talked about interests.   He said that Germans “must also understand that in certain cases, in an emergency, military operations are necessary to protect our interests.”  He listed jobs, income and trade among those interests.

Most Americans must be shaking their head at this point, perhaps muttering, “well, duh — he stated the obvious, what was controversial?”  But both when I did my dissertation and when I wrote my book on German foreign policy I noted that one thing was absent from German discussions of military policy — national interest.    Support for the US in the 1991 Iraq war (which was very controversial) focused on moral principles and the evil of Saddam.  Support for involvement in Kosovo was based on humanitarian arguments, while the initial involvement in Afghanistan — extremely controversial at the time — was justified by the need to stop al qaeda and terrorism.   The idea of going to war for national interest counters everything the Germans learned in the bloody first half of the 20th century.

To be sure, national interest isn’t completely taboo.  Within EU political discussions German interests are openly debated and defended.   In fact, starting back in the seventies with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and increasing in the years after unification, German economic interests became a legitimate concept.   It makes sense for Germans to wonder about German interests in joining the Euro, bailing out Greece, or promoting a treaty to try to prevent climate change.  The line in the sand is military action.   To connect that with national interest is to open up a moral hornets nest.

Simply put: killing others to protect economic interests, oil supplies or material wealth is seen as akin to killing someone for their billfold.   You’re murdering strangers in order to improve or protect your standard of living.   Since the victims are likely innocents themselves, perhaps conscripted into a foreign army, or defending their homeland, it’s a fundamentally immoral and indefensible act.  Wars of this sort are simply legal mass murder; soldiers are paid killers for the state.   No matter how you defend it with fancy rhetoric and symbolic honor, it’s not that much different than a mafia hit man, except on a massive scale.

But, of course, that’s not what Koehler meant.  Read sympathetically (as I do), he was saying that Germany must participate in helping assure that rogue states and terror organizations do not disrupt the world economy.   Germany’s interest in doing that is akin to your and my interest in having our tax dollars to go to police force.   Moreover, Germany’s strong support for international law and the UN show a belief that such uses of force should be legal and based in international law.  There is no reason to think Koehler was advocating wars of aggression to support the national interest.

Moreover, Germans knew that.   Those attacking him knew that he was not advocating a return to the mentality of the pre-1945 era.   They instead jumped on his word choice to promote their issue of the day — a desire to leave Afghanistan.   Most Germans both left and right think Afghanistan is a lost cause and a waste of life.   They also take seriously the growing reports of civilian dead — reports that get much less play in the US.   Since Koehler had just been to Afghanistan and was defending the policy, they used the words he used as a way to get at that policy.   The means was an ad hominem against Koehler based on a twisting of his words.

Of course, people do this all the time in politics.   That’s increasingly the norm, “gotcha games” and short quotes out of context rather than detailed conversation and discussion.   Those attacking Koehler were just playing that game to get political advantage and pressure the government to leave Afghanistan.  They were themselves surprised and puzzled by the President’s resignation.    The thing about a “gotcha game” is that it’s political — it only works if you have political ambitions put in jeopardy by the embarrassment of saying something wrong.   Koehler didn’t, and ultimately his response was to say, in essence, “this is stupid, I’m not going to play this game.”   So he exited.

I respect that.   I’m a bit torn — if you take the responsibility of being President, even if the role is only symbolic, there is an obligation to recognize the political aspect of that role and accept it.  Koehler, an economist and former Director General of the IMF, is not a politician.    On the other hand, the only power the President has is symbolic, and his resignation over this sends a message about the way political rhetoric is twisted about, perhaps causing Germans to think through the nature of this debate.   Also, Koehler was already frustrated with the job — perhaps he realized he wasn’t the right person for this role, and continuing wasn’t good for him or Germany.

In Washington diplomats are shocked — and perhaps this helps them understand why Germany opposed the 2003 Iraq war, and why their continued support in Afghanistan can’t be assumed.   And, to be sure, I wish our political culture were similarly distrustful of military force to achieve political ends.   However, the substory is how a German President decided that the twisting of words and gotcha games wasn’t worth the effort, causing him to use his power in the one way he could — resign, and send a strong symbolic message.

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