Tag: Middle East

How stories matter: Thoughts on contextuality, temporality, reflexivity & certainty

In early September, the circulation of the now iconic picture of Alan Kurdi, the little Syrian Kurdish boy who drowned along with his mother and brother in the attempt to cross the Aegean Sea, prompted me to write a post reflecting on what ‘we’ as academics might do. I argued that we could, possibly, use “our knowledge of global affairs to connect the dots and lay bare how Alan’s story” is emblematic of so many themes we touch upon in our research – and indeed, the moment created by the (ethically difficult) circulation of the picture became an opening to provide depth and nuance for those willing to listen.

Screenshot 2015-12-29 16.25.39I suggested that, if academics wanted to do ‘something’ in response, this something might include telling “the stories of all the children who died crossing the Mediterranean – and their parents and grandparents, and aunts, and uncles.” Now, it would be presumptuous to think that Anne Barnard of the New York Times read my post (and she is not an academic either), but imagine my delight to see her piece on the Kurdi family’s journeys published yesterday.

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NSA Reform or Foreign Policy Signaling? Maritime Provisions in Title VIII of the USA Freedom Act

With much attention being given to the passage of the 2015 USA Freedom Act, there is some odd silence about what the bill actually contains. Pundits from every corner identify the demise of section 215 of the Patriot Act (the section that permits the government to acquire and obtain bulk telephony meta data). While the bill does in fact do this, now requiring a “specific selection term” to be utilized instead of bulk general trolling, and it hands over the holding of such data to the agents who hold it anyway (the private companies).   Indeed, the new Freedom Act even “permits” amicus curiae for the Foreign Surveillance and Intelligence Court, though the judges of the court are not required to have the curiae present and can block their participation if they deem it reasonable.   In any event, while some ring in the “win” for Edward Snowden and privacy rights, another interesting piece of this bill has passed virtually unnoticed: extending “maritime safety” rights and enacting specific provisions against nuclear terrorism.

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Stumbling Through Foreign Policy – Not History

Last week Joe Scarborough from Politico raised the question of why US foreign policy in the Middle East is in “disarray.” Citing all of the turmoil from the past 14 years, he posits that both Obama and Bush’s decisions for the region are driven by “blind ideology [rather] than sound reason.”   Scarborough wonders what historians will say about these policies in the future, but what he fails to realize is that observers of foreign policy and strategic studies need not wait for the future to explain the decisions of the past two sitting presidents.   The strategic considerations that shaped not merely US foreign policy, but also US grand strategy, reach back farther than Bush’s first term in office.

Understanding why George W. Bush (Bush 43) engaged US forces in Iraq is a complex history that many academics would say requires at least a foray into operational code analysis of his decision making (Renshon, 2008).   This position is certainly true, but it too would be insufficient to explain the current strategic setting faced by the US because it would ignore the Gulf War of 1991. What is more, understanding this war requires reaching back to the early 1980s and the US Cold War AirLand Battle strategy.   Thus for us to really answer Scarborough’s question about current US foreign policy, we must look back over 30 years to the beginnings of the Reagan administration.

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Cold War: Old or New?

In the aftermath of a long war, a new degree of suspicion ensues between two powerful countries that were nominally on the same side…one rattles its sabre, threatening small countries on its borders…the other shores up relations with the very same countries… a tit-for-tat arms race begins, waged with the advantages of recent technological advances…espionage takes the form of a new battleground as the stakes move progressively higher…for the most part the top leaders of each continue to say nice things about each other in public, but a new undertone of tension has become apparent…privately each frets about the other’s intentions, how far will they go?

If this frame fitted the spring of 1947, should we be getting concerned that increasingly we have a current goodness of fit? Mutual suspicions between the U.S. and China have risen to new heights based on the razor’s edge tension between Japan and China and the latter’s major espionage effort, probing among other things the American energy and infrastructure grid that is largely—and worryingly—in the hands of private companies whose defenses against Chinese hacking are too low. The newly installed President Xi has taken a mildly more strident tone compared to his predecessors, but this is less concerning compared to the rhetoric of the newly installed generals atop the Chinese armed forces. The rhetoric and world view of this younger and more bellicose cadre has the hair of analysts in the U.S. intelligence community beginning to stand up on the back of their necks. And although the U.S. has actually re-pivoted to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) due to Mali/Syria/Iran/Arab Spring, the pivot that has captivated elites around the world is the supposed U.S. pivot toward Asia (i.e. China). As such, the nascent Chinese leadership has become convinced the U.S. has an active policy of containment towards it.

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“Dangerous Neighborhood:” Operation ‘Defensive Pillar’ and its Interpreters

This is a guest post by Daniel J. Levine (University of Alabama) and Daniel Bertrand Monk (Colgate University). Daniel J. Levine is author of Recovering International Relations: The Promise of Sustainable Critique. Daniel Bertrand Monk  is the co-editor, with Jacob Mundy, of the forthcoming: The Post-Conflict Environment: Intervention and Critique (University of Michigan, 2013). The authors’ names for this essay have been listed alphabetically. 

tl;dr notice: ~2600 words.

“As Ambassador Gillerman has said many times on our show, ‘Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood.” —  Fox News, 16 November 2012

“As he was asking instructions…a man in his early 20’s came up, stuck the point of a knife against his back and ordered him into the lobby of adjacent building….The youth was…ordered to surrender his money. He explained that the only reason he was there at all was that he had no money…. The man closed his knife and said: “Look, this is a very dangerous neighborhood.  You should never come to this part of the city.”  Then he instructed him to his destination via the safest route, patted him on the back and sent him on his way.” — New York Times, Metropolitan Diary, Lawrence Van Gelder

The Arab Middle East may have undergone significant political transformations in the period between Israel’s 2008 ‘Cast Lead’ Operation against Gaza and the recent ‘Defensive Pillar’ campaign, but no one in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv appears to think that a review of Israel’s ‘grand strategy’ is warranted. If anything, seasoned observers suggest, the Arab Spring seems to have driven Israelis to assume out of resignation a position which Zionist nationalists like Vladimir Jabotinsky once held with fervor. Writing in 1923, Jabotinsky evocatively described a metaphorical “iron wall” that would protect Zion from the ire of its neighbors; for their part, contemporary Israelis (we are told) can only imagine a future in which they will be perpetually enclosed within a (quasi-literal) Iron Dome. Hence, Ethan Bronner  reports: Israelis have concluded that “their dangerous neighborhood is growing still more dangerous…”’ To them “that means not concessions, but being tougher in pursuit of deterrence, and abandoning illusions that a Jewish state will ever be broadly accepted” in the region.

Interpreters of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the ‘Anglosphere’ and seasoned Middle East watchers often resort to the same curious euphemism: seeking to make the region’s unique patterns of violence intelligible to American audiences and to themselves, they explain Israel’s impatience with diplomacy, and its reliance on disproportionate use of force, by referring to the “dangerous neighborhood” in which it finds itself. Bolstered by an “ideology of the offensive” that has been present in Israeli strategic/operational thought since the 1950s (see here, here, and here), and by the ostensible ‘lessons’ of the Shoah for Jewish self-defense, this euphemism evokes positions so pragmatically self-explanatory that no further justification is felt to be needed. The IDF Spokesman’s Unit even released a meme (see the opening image) with the intention of rendering this logic visually explicit.

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A Short (and Hasty) Note on the Current Wave of Attacks

Tunisia Protests, AP

Readers probably already know that anti-western attacks are spreading beyond Egypt and Libya, and to non-US facilities. In Sudan, the German embassy is “in flames.”And so on.

How would someone committed to relational social analysis understand what’s happening? Here’s an ‘analytical snap judgment’:

  • We have an event — the emergence of the anti-Muslim film — that fits a particular pre-existing script concerning identity relations: “Americans/Westerners hate/disrespect Islam/Muslims.”
  • We have a script about what happens next: ‘Believers protest.’
  • We have pre-existing scripts and repertoires for how to engage in protest at various levels of specificity ‘attack institutions representing and/or affiliated with Americans/westerners,’ ‘set them ablaze,’ ‘raise Islam-oriented flags,’ etc.
  • Actors attempt to mobilize/channel/co-opt/suppress responses to the event by issuing proclamations, directing core supporters to act our those scripts/repertoires, deploying the infrastructure of the state, and so forth. 
  • Demonstration effects operate at the level of regimes, entrepreneurs, and ordinary people.
  • In this case, the trigger has the potential to activate and polarize specific identity boundaries: Islam/West, Muslim/Christian, Radicals/Moderates, Religious/Secular, and so forth.” The dynamics at stake involve broader wars of position and maneuver within specific countries, in transnational religious politics, and in interstate relations.

Fragile regimes worry about becoming included in the “affiliated with American/westerners” category; moderate and establishment Islamists worry about being outbid — losing their positions of leadership and cross-boundary brokers to more radical elements — and also about irreparably harming their relations with the United States and Europe; radicals hope to make such a balancing act impossible. Transnational jihadist hope to expand their core supporters, sway the opinions of fence-sitters, and cow their opponents. Action-reaction dynamics in one country impact those in others.

That being said, I expect that the immediate effect of the protests, attacks, and riots to be relatively small. We’ve seen this story before — albeit with two major differences: after the Arab Awakening (1) the stability of many Middle Eastern regimes is much more precarious and (2) Islamist parties have a stake — sometimes a dominant one — in a number of governments. Still, my gut instinct is that these differences won’t change the underlying trajectory: one of an ephemeral trigger for mobilization in the context of movements that lack sufficiently broad networks or support to sustain mass protest and large-scale violent action. If that diagnoses is correct, then what we’re looking at is another series of episodes in a much longer-term struggle — one in which the local, regional, and international stakes are very high indeed. [ed note: I should note that these two differences are rather significant… and that they raise serious questions about my ‘snap’ prognosis. I also don’t want to sound like I am minimizing the ongoing violence, loss of life, and property damage. This is serious stuff.]

*Note that these dynamics also operate outside of the Muslim and Arab worlds: consider the partisan political dimensions of the debate in the United States over these attacks, as well as the aims of specific right-wing groups in the United States and Europe.

Foreign Policy to the Fore: Is Romney Below the Bar?

U.S. Consulate in Benghazi 9/12/2012

I heard Dan Drezner in the car on NPR yesterday talking about whether foreign policy might matter in this election. And, last night and today, with the events in Egypt and Libya, he may be more right than even he anticipated.

We may have an incident, in the wake of the 11th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, that will shape the contours of the election and have wider repercussions for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Politically, does it constitute a disqualifying moment for Mitt Romney?
Like Dan, I’ve been of the mind that foreign policy doesn’t matter for most Americans in this election, and that barring a crisis, Mitt Romney only minimally needed to be seen as above the bar to serve as commander in chief. Foreign policy might affect the election on the margins with military families in key swing states.

As Dan suggested in recent posts, Romney did himself even more damage in recent months and during the convention in which he unnecessarily antagonized our closest allies on his foreign tour and then failed to mention our troops in Afghanistan during his convention speech.

Both actions, somewhat minor at the time, may now be overshadowed by Romney’s ill-timed and intemperate rush to blame the Obama administration for apologizing for actions by private actors in the U.S. that might have outraged Muslims (namely a bizarre and crude anti-Muslim propaganda “film” by a mysterious person who claimed Jewish, American, and Israeli roots who appeared to be none of those things). Never mind that the so-called “apology” was a tweet issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo at a time before the protesters’ attacks were launched where the embassy sought to defuse a volatile situation. Never mind that the Obama administration quickly distanced itself from this tweet.

All of this would have been small beer had it not been for the tragic events that unfolded over the night that took the life of U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, who was killed by a mob apparently outraged by the same film (or, what may have been an pre-planned attack by Islamists taking advantage of the moment to exact revenge for a recent assassination in Yemen).

All of these events remain murky (here’s a timeline) so what’s the sensible thing for a presidential candidate to do in the face of incomplete information? Well, most Republicans issued outrage about the loss of life of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans. Senator John McCain, for example, along with Senators Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman issued a statement: “We are anguished and outraged by the death of four citizens of the United States.” Most politicians said something along the lines of President Obama who said that there was “no justification” for the kinds of violence that had occurred in the wake of publicity of the film.

So what did Romney do? Romney issued a statement last night blaming the Obama Administration for what he called a “disgraceful” apology, that is the tweet by the embassy in Cairo:

I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.

Then, this morning, Romney doubled down with a press conference sandwiched in between Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks and the President’s. By this time, it was clear that the events had escalated in the region and between the time Romney issued his first statement and today, the Obama administration had rejected that so-called apology and, more importantly, our Ambassador in Libya and three other Americans were now dead.

Romney’s statement to rally our country at a potentially perilous moment went like this:

“It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values.”

“America will not tolerate attacks against our citizens and against our embassies. We’ll defend, also, our constitutional rights of speech and assembly and religion.” 

“Apology for America’s values is never the right course.”

The reaction by many in the media as well as a number of establishment Republicans is that this statement was unseemly and ill-timed political opportunism, especially since the situation is dangerous and as we mourn the loss of life (look at my Twitter feed for today for a long list of detractors like Peggy Noonan, David Frum, Ed Rogers, Joe Scarborough, Nick Burns, even Romney flak John Sununu).

Ben Smith captured a number of off the record reactions by Republicans that were scathing (“Bungle… utter disaster…not ready for prime time… not presidential… Lehman moment.” It is certainly too soon to elevate this moment to be more than it is, but the swift condemnation by both the media and many Republican insiders could redound upon those handful of undecideds for whom presidential candidates must at least meet a basic threshold of competency.

Beyond the politics, with the situation in the Middle East and Afghanistan especially volatile, the next 24 to 48 hours may determine whether or not this moment is more consequential in terms of U.S. interests in the region. While the Libyan government has repudiated these attacks, Egypt’s leader Mohamed Morsi was slow to condemn them. Let’s hope the situation settles down and this doesn’t become a bigger issue.

Anti-American Violence in the Middle East: Agency, Morality, Politics, and (a) Flim

Note: this started out as “Morning Linkage” but quickly became an extended comment. I apologize for the poor proofing.

Four Americans, including US ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in the extremist Islamist attack on the American consulate in Libya, Hayes Brown has a good, quick, overview of the circumstances surrounding the attacks in Libya and Egypt. As he concludes:

Finally, the relationship between the United States and the Egyptian and Libyan governments will likely hinge on the response of their leadership. The Libyan government, including President Mohammed el-Megarif, has swiftly condemned the attack. Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Kieb has said that Libya is “determined to take action against those who murdered Amb. Stevens & other innocent people.” President Morsy of Egypt has yet to issue a statement on the assault on the U.S. Embassy.

James Joyner weighs in at The National Interest, where he criticizes the (since repudiated and, it seems, removed) statement by the US embassy in Cairo:

While the instincts to emphasize America’s tradition of religious inclusiveness and to try to head off violent reactions are laudatory, the statement is offensive on its own terms and simply outrageous in light of the assaults on American sovereign soil and the death of American diplomats that followed. 

In point of fact, making a movie commenting on the sexual proclivities of someone who died some fourteen hundred years ago in no way constitutes “incitement” under any meaningful use of the term. 

More importantly, the United States government has no business whatsoever condemning the exercise of free speech, the most fundamental of civil liberties, by a member of the citizenry that employs and finances it. While the First Amendment right to free speech is subject to certain time, place and manner restrictions, the fact that it might “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” is decidedly not among them.

James is wading into difficult terrain. I suspect the the inflection point for debate in the US commentariat will be between those who view recent events through the prism of “right-wing Christian extremists attempt to incite violence” and “right-wing Islamist extremists kill Americans over exercise of free speech.” So, after praising the Obama administration for its earlier handling of Terry Jones’ religious hatred, he puts it this way:

To be sure, Terry Jones’s bigotry is hardest type of speech to defend. It has no obvious redeeming value and is specifically intended to be offensive. But we’re a country that recognizes the right of citizens to burn our flag in protest, understanding that the very fact that doing so outrages so many Americans demonstrates how powerful a form of speech it is. 

The fact that the words of some backwoods Florida preacher with a tiny congregation can spark murder and mayhem in Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya is a powerful indictment of the immaturity of those civil societies. Islam has endured for more than a millennium, and its followers constitute more than a fifth of humanity; surely, it can withstand the insults of a half-wit.

Blake Hounshell preemptively condemns the politicization of these events:

This is, obviously, a terrible tragedy and a shocking turn of events on a day when Americans mourned those killed 11 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001. Stevens was by all accounts a popular diplomat, having established the U.S. presence in Benghazi during the war and been an avid supporter of the opposition. Here’s a video introducing him to Libyans. 

What makes the deaths all the more tragic is that they will inevitably become politicized. On Tuesday, conservative websites were highly critical of a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that came ahead of a protest where demonstrators breached the embassy’s walls in a moment reminiscent of 1979 in Iran. Liz Cheney and the Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee joined in, accusing the administration of issuing an “apology” for a bizarre and mysterious film attacking the Prophet Mohammed that served as a pretext for the protests. And the Romney campaign issued its own statement. Wednesday will likely bring more finger-pointing

 I have only a few things to add.

First, we should not efface the agency of anyone involved. For Terry Jones and his ilk, provoking violence is a feature, not a bug, of attacking Islam. They believe that Western Civilization in general, and the United States in particular, is already at war with Islam. This war takes many forms, but all involve unanswered or inadequately answered Islamic aggression: from terrorist attacks to “stealth Sharia” to the subversion of the US government by pro-Islamists and ‘useful idiots’ alike. Forcing a confrontation is the best way to advance the cause of ‘waking up’ Americans to this war and thereby bringing about more aggressive US policy.

None of this, however, makes those who storm US consulates and murder any less culpable for their actions. They are not irrational man-children. They engage in their own “forcing mechanisms” designed to further their own causes — that of anti-Americanism, opposition to their own governments, and of transnational Islamism. And yes, their “forcing mechanism” involves killing people, which is far more morally repugnant than engaging in offensive speech, drawing offensive cartoons, and making films. Indeed, the storming of the US consulates and the murder of Americans has more in common, as (im)moral actions, with those of Michael Page than with Terry Jones.

We should be sophisticated enough, I submit, to recognize that anti-Islamic extremists and militant jihadists want some of the same things: they want to polarize politics along religious lines. This is a dangerous and reprehensible goal. At the same time, the particular means at stake in this specific action-reaction chain are morally distinguishable.  In short, both frames contain truth and neither should be allowed to triumph over the other.

Second, Blake and others are right to note the ongoing dangers reflected in these events. This cannot be emphasized enough: there are individuals and movements, both in the United States and the Middle East, who aim to collapse multiple sites of difference, conflict, and cooperation into a single pivot point: the ‘American-led West’ against ‘Islam.’ What we’re seeing now in the fallout of the attacks is what has been going on for a long time: numerous officials, regimes, movements, and individuals struggling to advance or avoid this kind of polarization.

The politics of this struggle are hazardous for everyone involved. We have seen, and will continue to see, US allies and partners say and do things we find offensive or, at the least, play poorly in American domestic politics. Some of these statements and actions will involve political calculation or miscalculation. Others will reflect underlying divergence from American values and goals. But they need to be judged through the prism of the politics of political survival — as carried out by officials trying to balance competing demands and constituencies. Thus, one hopes that not only the Obama Administration, but responsible US politicians, heed Blake’s sage advice:

The Obama administration must tread delicately during this heated political season. This crude film — which “portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, pedophile and fraud,” as the Wall Street Journal put it — may have been obscure before, but it’s not anymore. Afghan President Karzai has already issued a statement condemning the movie — but not the embassy attacks. Radical Islamist groups and countries like Iran will be looking to exploit the situation, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere. I suspect this won’t be the last time somebody tries to breach the walls of a U.S. facility abroad this year. And there will inevitably be questions about the intelligence warnings and the lack of security in Benghazi and Cairo, to say nothing of the broader concerns raised about America’s relationship with these new “democracies.” But the White House needs to be smart and above all careful — it can’t let its response be dictated by the exigencies of the election back home.

Seoul 2012 Nuclear Security Summit


This week is the big nuclear security summit in Seoul, with something like 60 attending countries and over 40 heads of state or government. A friend from a Korean expat magazine here in town asked me for a brief write-up. Here are the issues as I see them from Korean IR and the local media. For full-blown think-tankery on the summit, try here.

1. Obama’s personal commitment to de-nuclearization: I can’t think of any president since Reagan who seems as personally offended by nuclear weapons as Obama. Back in the day, Reagan watched ‘The Day After,’ ‘Wargames’ and other nuclear war movies and came to dramatically oppose mutually assured destruction as it had underpinned US policy since flexible response. This helped Reagan achieve the first nuclear stockpile  reduction in history (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – a point anti-New Start neocons conveniently forget). But Obama is going beyond that, talking about ‘global zero’ – the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere. Wow. This is why there have been two of these summits in three years, but nothing like this under Bush. To be honest, I don’t think the complete elimination of the American nuclear deterrent is probably not a good idea (although we can go pretty low); nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of US sovereignty and democracy, and many US allies, like SK, rely on our extended deterrence. In any case, Obama’s personal interest in this issue is a major driver for this thing.

2. NK, always and again: It takes absolutely no imagination to realize that NK is, inevitably, the big focus on these sorts of gatherings. The placement of the summit in SK is to make that pretty clear. NK is easily the most dangerous nuclear-weapons state in the world. (Even Israel’s most dire opponents would probably accept that; well, ok, maybe they wouldn’t.)  Not only is its policy process incredibly opaque and its leadership capricious, NK has no declaratory policy on use (such as NATO’s ‘no first-strike, but reserved first-use’). So we have no idea what NK’s redlines are (which is probably one reason why no further retaliation for Yeonpyeong was approved). Beyond that, NK is a well-established proliferator with known involvement in the programs of Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. To boot, it is a delivery system (i.e., missile) proliferator too. They’re so desperate for cash, it seems like they’ll sell anything. With Kim Jong Il deceased, a new push to move NK toward denuclearization is likely, and this summit is part of the pressure to get NK back into the Six Party Talks to deal for real this time. Similarly, it is likely that the Summit will strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is also aimed primarily at NK. (On the problem of retaliation and the risk of out-of-control escalation in Korea after Yeonpyeong-style incidents, try here; on nuclear first-use in a Korean war scenario, try here.)

3. Heading off a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East: To everyone’s relief, India and (less so) Pakistan are managing their nuclear stockpiles pretty well. There will be little pressure on South Asia. The US interest in nuclear materials safety within Pakistan probably won’t be mentioned publicly, because we so desperately need Pakistani cooperation in the war on terror. Instead, the geographic focus, after NK, is almost certain to be Iran, and possible cascading Sunni nuclearization (Saudi Arabia and Egypt particularly) if Iran weaponizes. As Obama noted at AIPAC, there is a lot of ‘loose talk’ floating around about war with Iran. So this summit will probably be yet another venue for the administration to blunt the Likud-neocon demand for airstrikes. If Obama can get some global commitment, particularly from Asian states like Japan and Korea, for sanctions against Iran, that buys him time to defuse the war he’s partially backed himself into.

4. Materials Security: In the early post-9/11 years, there was a lot of talk at the conferences about the so-called ‘hand-off’ – a rogue state would hand-off a nuke to a Qaeda-style group who would then use it in a western city. This threat thankfully seems to have been overblown, but there’s a lot of nuclear material floating around. About 2,000 tons to be precise. That’s actually pretty terrifying if even just one-third of that were in corrupt, semi-dysfunctional states like Russia, NK, and Pakistan. In fact, I gotta agree with Graham Allison that it’s fairly amazing there’s no been nuclear use since the Cold War’s end, given how much processed plutonium and uranium there is in weak Eurasian states and how big the black market for it is now. Inevitably, the conference will emphasize security at the source. It’s obviously far easier to prevent proliferation than to rein it in once material is out the door. This also means more funding and inspection capabilities (also informally pointed at NK) for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

5. Fukushima and Nuclear Power: This isn’t technically a weaponization issue but a production one. And under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, states have the right to pursue nuclear power for energy (weaponization is a different story). But clearly the catastrophe of last year hangs over all this. In East Asia, it’s gotten, lots of press as you might imagine. Ironically, nuclear power is fairly safe, but the public has taken an especial fear to it. (My guess is that this fear comes from too many scary images in movies and TV and because if nuclear plants do meltdown, the potential catastrophe is enormous and unusually unpredictable because of the fallout). So there will be long-term commitments to find alternative energy sources.

Bonus Silliness: Finally, it wouldn’t be a global conference of consequence in Korea without some cringe-inducing, gratuitously inappropriate K-pop addendum to trivialize it all. Really, who vets this stuff? ‘Enjoy’ that uber-cheese vid above if you can actually make it through to the end. I sure wish the ROKG would stop looking at these sorts of conferences as a marketing gimmick for Korea (don’t miss the daily countdown marker in the top left corner of all Arirang broadcasts now and the relentless advertising blitz) and stay focused on the weighty issues at hand. Just as CNN International blew its credibility by re-cycling Demi Moore (?), complete with drug problems, as a wholly unconvincing ‘anti-slavery campaigner,’ I can think of no better way to drain the gravity of nuclear disarmament than to pointlessly shoehorn in a Korean soap opera actress and boyband with orange hair. Good grief – who thought that would raise the level of discussion? Just a few more rads of gamma rays, boyo, and that hair really will be orange. God save us from Hallyu shallowness…

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog and Busan Haps.

The US will not ‘Pivot’ much to Asia (3): We can’t afford it

Pesident-Obama-China-001
Here are parts one and two, where I argued that there is no constituency in the US for the pivot, and that Asia is so culturally distant from the US, that Americans are unlikely to care enough to sustain the pivot. But we also don’t really need to pivot, nor do we have the money for it:

3. The ME is characterized by so many nondemocracies that the US must be heavily invested (at least to meet current US goals – oil, Israel, counterterrorism). Katzenstein noted this; America has no strong subordinate anchor-state in the region (like Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia). This is why the GOP particularly emphasizes an enduring, semi-imperial presence in the Gulf. Besides tiny Israel, we don’t have the friends necessary for things like the dual containment (Iran and Iraq) of the 90s, and or the Iraq war of the 2000s. So we have to do it all ourselves.

By contrast in Asia, we have lots of allies and semi-friends who are strong and functional – Japan, Australia, Korea, and Taiwan most obviously – with improving relations with India and Vietnam too. Now, if we are smart – or maybe just because we are broke – we can push a lot of the costs of our goals onto them. Specifically, much of the pivot has been assumed to be targeted at China. But why should we encircle, contain, or otherwise provoke China, when the frontline states should be it doing it first? In other words, we don’t have to pivot toward Asia unless China threatens to invade everybody, because places like India, Korea, and Japan will work hard to build and maintain a multipolar equilibrium. They don’t want to be dominated by China, and they will suffer a lot more than we will if China becomes the regional hegemon. So we can hover in the background, offshore, over the horizon, as we always have. Given the strength of liberal democracy in Asia (unlike the ME), there is no need for us to be there in strength.

This is why I don’t think the ‘pivot’ language is helpful, because it’s not necessary. We can do what we have always done – provide an offshore balance that keeps the peace and allows trade so we can all buy cheap crap at Walmart. So we don’t need to do anything new; let’s just keep doing the same. And let’s not get ‘neo-conned’ into believing that Asia can’t manage its own affairs unless ‘bound to lead’ America is front-and-center with its hands in everything managing everyone’s choices. That’s the kind of paranoid pseudo-omipotence that got us mired in the Middle East for the last 20 years. We can pivot if we must, but let’s not do it because of our impatient, ‘we-have-to-run-all-big-issues-in-the-world’ foreign policy establishment. We don’t need a ‘pivot,’ unless that is being used as rhetorical cover to justify escaping from the ME (which is not a bad idea actually, if there’s no other way).

My concern here is the globalist ambition of the US foreign policy establishment, especially the Beltway think-tank set which is so deeply vested in American semi-empire. The pivot smacks of one of those ‘big idea’ schemes from places like CFR or CSIS to push America into the frontline of every problem and hotspot on the planet. As US over-involvement in the ME winds down, let’s not get pushed into yet another round of overbasing, overspending, and overhyped threat assessments (this time focused on China or NK) to keep the post-9/11 military boom rolling along and keep think-tank pundits employed.

4. Finally, I think the Asia pivot will be less than we think, simply because the US can’t afford it anymore. It should be pretty obvious to everyone that the US needs to spend less, and that money which could fund domestic entitlements is going to defense instead. The obvious opportunity cost of buying aircraft carriers to semi-contain China is cutting Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. (Defense, plus M/M/SS, comprise around 70% of the US budget now.) The pivot is a classic guns vs butter trade-off. In the 1990s, as we reached the zenith of US dominance over the ME after the Gulf War, we could afford it because the Cold War was over, the US economy boomed in the 90s, and the US budget gap was healing. But in the 2000s, W just borrowed to maintain and expand US dominance. And now, post-Great Recession, American debt is reaching crisis levels. So,  given the size of China, the expense of a pivot-cum-containment would be astronomical. I suppose we could try it; we’d have allied assistance that we didn’t have in the ME for dual containment. But still, China is so big, it is hard to imagine a major US build-up that wouldn’t cost huge sums that just aren’t there anymore. It will become more and more obvious to the median voter in the next 20 years that domestic entitlements are suffering to fund the continuing post-9/11 US military expansion. I don’t think Americans will choose guns over butter (aircraft carriers instead of checks for grandma) if forced, and Ron Paul’s candidacy is proving that even within the GOP, there is an growing constituency for less war, less basing, less military spending. This, plus the Democratic coalition’s general disinterest in the pivot, will handicap any effort to borrow yet further to fund an Asia shift.

Cross-post on Asian Security Blog.

Reporting in the Middle East: Are Female Journalists a Liability?

Do the responses to the plight of Dorothy Parvaz, a journalist for Al Jazeera English who was detained in Syria and Iran for nearly 3 weeks, show continued resistance to female journalists pursuing particular types of stories?

Parvaz flew to Syria to gather information that could add to what little is known about local protests and government violence. She was arrested at the airport in Damascus and taken to a detention center- Parvaz likened it to a mini version of Guantanamo Bay. Three days after her arrival in Syria she was extradited to Iran as a suspected spy before being released without charge.

In addition to providing an important and rare glimpse into Syria’s detention centers and the apparent random brutality of the regime, Parvaz’s story seems to have re-raised questions about female journalists. These questions echo those posed after Lara Logan was sexually assaulted during the revolution in Egypt (ie. Should the media pull women journalists from war zones?, should she have stayed home because she is a mommy?). Several media outlets chose to use Logan’s story as an opportunity to undermine the capabilities of female journalists and to question what types of assignments might be appropriate for them.

Similarly, in an interview by CBC Parvaz was asked whether she regretted her decision to go to Syria and was pushed on questions related to the risks involved in going. Responses to the interview online were scathing and included accusations that Parvaz was naïve (‘what was she trying to do?’), overly ambitious (‘her 15 minutes of fame are up’), took too many risks (‘she brought it on herself and can’t blame anyone’), and was abusing the fact that she has multiple citizenships where does her loyalty lie? Canada, US, Iran?’).

So why focus on the haters and not the supporters?

Hard line questions and critical comments shift the focus from the real story- torture and unjust detentions in Syria. Furthermore, Parvaz’s history as a competent and successful journalist and her brave efforts to cover important international events has been downplayed.

Finally, the caddy and critical comments raise some important questions, including: Is the underlying message in both Logan and Parvaz’s case a racist one- that the Middle East is inherently a hazardous place for non-Western women (forgetting that Parvaz holds Canadian, Iranian, and US citizenship)?; or a sexist one- that male journalists can prove their dedication and bravery through difficult or dangerous journalism while excellent female reporters continue to have to prove they are not a liability?

We Get Results! (Bahrain Edition)

Alex Cooley and I on Bahrain and US autocratic allies:

U.S. officials should make efforts to decouple the rationale of a given basing relationship from support for a particular regime. This means creating political space between Washington and the policies of authoritarian host countries whenever possible. With respect to Bahrain, U.S. officials should make clear that the U.S. military maintains its facilities for the defense of its territory and for regional stability — not for the purposes of propping up the ruling family. At the same time, Washington needs to signal that it believes that both countries’ interests are best served by greater political liberalization.

President Obama:

Bahrain is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law. Nevertheless, we have insisted publically and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.

Does the Arab Spring show how strategic narratives work?

Nobody has come close to explaining how strategic narratives work in international relations, despite the term being banded about. Monroe Price wrote a great article in the Huffington Post yesterday that moves the debate forward. As I have already writtenstrategic narratives are state-led projections of a sequence of events and identities, a tool through which political leaders try to give meaning to past, present and future in a way that justifies what they want to do. Getting others at home or abroad to accept or align with your narrative is a way to influence their behaviour. But like soft power, we have not yet demonstrated how strategic narratives work. We are documenting how great powers project narratives about the direction of the international system and their identities within that. We see the investments in public diplomacy and norm-promotion. We have not yet demonstrated that these projections have altered the behaviour of other states or publics. Does the Arab Spring show these narratives at work?

Many leaders in the West and protestors taking part in the Arab Spring promoted a narrative about the spread of freedom, often conflating this with the hope and vigour of youth and emancipatory potential of social media. Of course this narrative may be bogus, as Jean-Marie Guéhenno argues in yesterday’s New York Times. However, the key point Price makes is that narratives set expectations, regardless of their veracity. Narratives defined what NOME leaders were expected to do: step aside! We can see the power of narratives by seeing what happens to those who defy them. Mubarak and Saif Gaddafi both gave speeches where they were expected to align with the narrative. The narrative set the context and expectation for how they should behave. But they did the opposite of what was expected. Price writes:

From a perspective of “strategic narratives,” Mubarak and young Gaddafi were speaking as players in an episode, set by key actors, international and domestic, who had the expectation that their wishes as to the playing out of the drama would be fulfilled. Their speeches did not match the sufficiently accepted script, in the case of Mubarak, or the incomplete outlines of one, as in the case of young Gaddafi.
Who has successfully promoted an overarching narrative? Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy? Where did the ‘Arab Spring’ narrative come from? How does an overarching narrative play out in each country? What room does it leave for individual governments and public to create their own destinies? In the next year, building up to a debate at the International Studies Association (ISA) convention in San Diego in April, we will be exploring this. 
Cross posted from: https://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/ 

Middle Eastern Dictator Speech Bingo: Threatened by Revolution Edition

The standard foreign office response in a time of crisis…

Snow day again — I watched Al Jazeera, read up on the current US debates about whether or not (and how) to support the democratic revolution in Egypt, and then turned to watch one of my favorite episodes of Yes Minister, “A Victory for Democracy.”

Classic and informative — on so many levels. The real fun starts at the 4:00 minute mark and runs for the duration:

You can watch the whole episode — parts 1 and 3 here and here. It’s a great break.

Tunisia… Egypt… Yemen…

We haven’t had much to say about these topics at the Duck. Which is fine, as there are much better academic bloggers to go to for informed commentary (e.g. Marc Lynch, Juan Cole, etc.). But I am struck by this AP story, which suggests Egypt is taking additional efforts to shut down internet communications (more here and here [note: holy &*!!, the whole country appears to be cut off]) as it ramps up its crackdown.

On a more abstract plane, Josh Tucker wrote an interesting post on revolution and revolutionary contagion that approvingly cites Timur Kuran’s influential work on the inevitability of revolutionary surprises.

2) One of the most interesting theoretical pieces I ever read about the collapse of communism was a 1991 World Politics article by Timur Kuran (gated, ungated). In this article, Kuran posits that even people living within a regime that is perched on the edge of collapse may not realize it. The mechanism here is to assume that different people have different thresholds for when they will be willing to publicly oppose the existing regime. Imagine a country with 10 people, one person who will protest if there is at least 1 other protesting, 1 if there are 2 other protesting, 1 if there are 3, etc. It is a stable equilibrium for no one to protest. However, if something happens to put just one person out on the streets (say, a particularly difficult interaction with the authorities, or, hypothetically speaking, an emotional response to someone setting themselves on fire), then suddenly everyone ends up protesting. Person 1 comes out because now there is 1 person on the streets. Once person one comes out, then person 2 comes out because there are 2 people on the street, and onward up the chain. The lesson of the story – in my opinion – is that as long as regimes are repressive and we can assume that citizens have accumulated grievances against the regime, then there is always the possibility that the regime could tumble precipitously.

Kuran published a variation of this argument in a symposium in the American Journal of Sociology on the why-did-we-miss-the-collapse-of-the-USSR issue , which also included a piece by Charles Tilly called “To Explain Political Processes”. In it, Tilly argues that:

This seems to me a very important thing to remember when we turn our analytic vision to unfolding events. For now, however, I find the personal accounts coming over listservs and across the web moving and inspiring. I hope the people of Egypt claim their democratic rights.

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