Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Past and Future of Iraq

After eight years of blood and sweat, and many destroyed hopes and lives, the United States has finally departed Iraq. It will take years before we can finally determine whether America's intervention in Iraq was successful. In the meantime, in this blog post, I'd like to retrace some of the important steps in the war and begin to explore some the war's short-term regional implications.

George W. Bush hoped that by destroying the Hussein regime in Iraq, he could build a more cooperative, peaceful, and democratic regime in Iraq, while also protecting U.S. civilians from the infamous "Weapons of Mass Destruction."

Ahmad Chalabi


Beyond the entire fiasco of the "Weapons of Mass Destruction," Bush had a long-term strategic goal of changing Iraq to a stable, functioning democracy. Bush and his neoconservative advisers believed that democratizing Iraq might be a way to end the tangled web of several Middle East problems once and for all.

Their belief was based on several arguments: (1) Democracy is a superior form of government. Free, fair, and open elections ensure that leaders are accountable to the masses. Democratic institutions help to ensure the protection of human rights. Democracies tend not to fight each other. So the more democracies in the Middle East, the better it is for regional and world peace and stability. (2) Because people were already tired of a very brutal dictatorship, Iraq would be the easiest state to transform to a democracy. And this experiment in regime change would probably be a relatively low-cost effort, funded mostly by Iraqi oil exports. (4) Once democracy takes hold in Iraq, demonstrating to the Muslim world the compatibility of Islam with key democratic ideas and institutions, it would spread to other Middle Eastern countries, creating an ever larger zone of democracy in a region that's been a hotbed of repressive authoritarian rule. (5) A democratic Middle East would go some way toward diffusing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After all, for decades, Arab dictators had been playing the Israel card as a way to divert people from their incompetence in running their nation, which only inflamed anti-Israeli sentiment and hostilities in the region. By opening up Middle Eastern politics, leaders would have to focus less on propaganda and more on getting things done for their constituents.

Of course, all of those rosy plans quickly blew up, thanks to several major factors, notably Iran, which didn't like the idea of an American military base next door in Iraq.

Strategically, a weak Iraq would benefit Iran: it could expand its power to the west, as it no longer faced an existential threat from a strong Iraq, which Iran believed to be backed by the monarchs in the Middle East.

Iran began to engage in Iraqi domestic politics, such as by sheltering and funding Moktada al-Sadr, the militant anti-American Shiite Cleric. 

At the same time, thanks to U.S. Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld's miscalculation of sending just enough troops to topple Hussein but not enough to police the country, Iraq then descended into chaos. It didn't help that Iraq, with American council, imposed strict de-Baathism, a policy of getting rid of many presumed supporters of Saddam Hussein from all parts of the government and state bureaucracy. This policy mostly targeted the Sunnis and created a huge backlash. In effect, this move radicalized the Sunni population and gave al-Qaeda the opportunity to enter the scene more forcefully.


Bush mistakenly believed that Saddam was sheltering al-Qaeda. The ironic part, however, is that the disorder in Iraq allowed al-Qaeda to jump into the fray, as the local Sunni militias sought to gain outside support to help the "resistance."

In the end, al-Qaeda's violence and extremism only decimated its support inside Iraq, even among the Sunnis. In fact, some Sunnis even saw the United States as the lesser of two evils, leading to the formation of Awakening Council, the Sunni militias that assisted the United States in fighting al-Qaeda.


Another major element of the war was George Bush's so-called surge, which added significant numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq. This was crucial, for two reasons: (1) it boosted the security of Iraq and (2) and put al-Qaeda on defensive. The surge debunked al-Qaeda's operating logic, that the more the organization violently struck American forces and installations, the more likely the U.S. would withdraw due to rising casualties and deaths.


Bush's military surge allowed the situation to stabilize. Still, the humpty dumpty had fallen and all the king's horses and men could not put him back again and Iraq remained a troublespot. Once Barack Obama came into office, he essentially maintained Bush's ideas about and policies toward Iraq. But when it came time to proceed with a planned drawdown of American forces, Obama had no stomach to keep any troops in Iraq to continue their training and advisory duties. With election season already here, it's possible he caved into pressure from his liberal backers and supporters. But another sticking point was Iraq's refusal to grant American forces immunity from alleged crimes, making them susceptible to arrest and prosecution from any police and justice officials harboring anti-American views.

What's the prognosis for Iraq?

First, it is still bad. The withdrawal of American troops was a political decision, while the situation on the ground, regardless of all the rosy prediction, remained unstable. This will become worse as Prime Minister al-Maliki had sidelined and discriminated the Sunnis and former Baathists. America's presence in Iraq provided a punching bag, and at the same time, a buffer to these people. Expect things to blow up should al-Maliki overreach in his political designs.

Second, Iraq will remain a proxy battleground for Iran. Even though many Shiites in Iraq have soured on Iran, many, including Moktada al-Sadr, remain dependent on Iran as the source of their power. The fluctuation within Iran's domestic politics, notably the cold war between President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could blow up and someone might use Iraq as a way to rally everyone around flag and launch an invasion. It's not improbable, especially if the Iranians believe (1) the U.S. is too weary and no longer interested in Iraq and (2) Iraq is too divided to muster an effective defense. This could be more tempting should the Assad regime in Syria, another Iran's client, collapse.

UPDATE on my first point above: Things have already started to go south, though much sooner than I anticipated. We can expect Iraq to get really hairy, should al-Maliki crack down hard on the violence and pursue widespread anti-Sunni policies (which, to a certain extent, is already happening).

North Korea: The Known and Unknown

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Kim Jong Un/Unknown photographer

Given the political and security uncertainties surrounding a post-Kim Jong Il government, there is, understandably, quite a bit of concern about North Korea. This is evident in media reporting and analysis. And it's also clear in the actions by and statements from Washington and its allies in Asia. South Korea put its military on high alert. Meantime, Team Obama has been busy communicating with key players in the region, like South Korea and Japan, to make sure everyone is on the same page--that they are all on guard and ready for any rapid changes in stability and security in Asia, yet still able to exercise much-needed restraint and caution.

At bottom, Washington is worried about the internal succession dynamics and the impact that they could have on the region. Specifically, the worry is that a paranoid North Korea will lash out militarily in an effort to showcase the country's strength and power despite the political transition. Moreover, the use of force could be a way for Kim Jong Un, the probable new leader, to demonstrate his leadership skills to North Korea's political and military elites.

Should North Korea make any provocative moves, and should other countries, such as Japan and  South Korea, in turn, respond assertively, the entire region could very quickly find itself on the brink of war. And remember, this is a region, broadly defined, with four powers (China, India, Russia, and Japan) and four nuclear powers (China, India, Russia, and North Korea). One small ill-advised move, one small miscalculation, could have disastrous consequences.

Right now, here is a reasonably good guess about what will happen in North Korea. Now that Kim Jong Il is gone, North Korea will undergo a political transition in power. Tapped by his father, the heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, known now as the "Great Successor," is expected to take the reins of power. He will try to form a coalition of support, starting with the military, which is where a considerable amount of power is vested, so as to consolidate his power. Given his age and inexperience, Kim Jong Un will likely lean on other people, probably military officials, family relatives, and his father's wise men, to guide him through the early days of his leadership.

Anything beyond the above is just wild speculation. There is so much we don't know about North Korea that it's impossible to make a good, sound estimate on the future domestic and foreign politics of the country. We know very little about Kim Jong Un, who is an unknown figure on the world stage. Even more worrisome, we don't have a good handle on what's happening inside North Korea. Indeed, the fact that we know so little about the country is one of the main stories that emerged after the death of Kim Jong Il. After all, the U.S., as well as probably every other country, didn't know about his death until North Korea's state media released the information almost a day and half after the fact.

In the end, this isn't too surprising. North Korea is an extraordinarily closed country, one that doesn't allow the outside world to get a good look at it and restrains and filters and distorts the information it releases to its public and the rest of the world. This should be a well-known observation by now. It's not as if this is the first time North Korea's opaqueness has been revealed. Just consider past information/intelligence gaps: "Pyongyang built a sprawling plant to enrich uranium that went undetected for about a year and a half until North Korean officials showed it off in late 2010 to an American nuclear scientist. The North also helped build a complete nuclear reactor in Syria without tipping off Western intelligence."

In my mind, there are lots of questions that need to be answered before we can start to think about how events will unfold going forward in North Korea. Here are some example questions.

1. Are there any existing actors or institutions that can take advantage of the power vacuum to move North Korea into a more modern and law abiding direction?

2. Is the son like dad? Is he as vengeful and vindictive? Is he as suspicious of outsiders and foreigners?Does he support bellicose policies?

3. What kind of relations does the son have with military officials? And does the military still support him now that Kim Jong Il is gone?

4. Does Kim Jong Un have any political skill or ambition? Can he build political coalitions? Can he play factions off one another? Can he maintain support from the people? Will he seek dominant power over the state, like his dad? Is willing to let other actors siphon power away from him? 

5. Specifically, who will guide Kim Jong Un during the political transition?

6. Are there any political alternatives to Kim Jong Un? And would, say, the military be willing to go against Kim Jong Il's wishes and overthrow the son and install its own preferred leader?

7. The China factor: we know China wants to preserve the status quo, which means supporting Kim Jong Un and the continuation of the Kim dynasty, if only to prevent a gathering storm on its borders. But that simple observation leaves us with a fuzzy and vague notion of how China will approach North Korea. Will China become even more active in North Korean politics? Will China urge or push North Korea to make any political or policy changes?

8. Now that Kim Jong Il is out of the picture, will South Korea's President Lee Myung Bak pull back on his so-called hardball tactics toward North Korea, perhaps offering the son an olivebrach as a way to reset North-South relations?
9. Lastly, reports surfaced Wednesday that North Korea might shift to a ruling council, or collective rule, headed by Kim Jong Un. While we know what this means in theory, it's difficult to say what it represents in practice. Is this a temporary move, a way to break the son into power gently and gradually? Or is this the first step in delimiting, if not completely undermining and eroding, the power of Kim Jong Un?

Certainly, I hope that North Korea decides to embark on a more modern and progressive and peaceful way of conducting its affairs. But in the meantime, before it's clear where North Korea is headed, I hope the U.S. and the West more generally can improve its intelligence capabilities. To be sure, a part of this requires Kim Jong Un and his military supporters to relax their grip on the state. But another part is grounded in creative and flexible thinking and strategizing--that is to say, finding novel ways to work around the impediments to information acquisition imposed by North Korea. For in the end, better intelligence would help the West glean answers to the above questions, thereby enabling it to prepare better for a variety of different political, security, and economic outcomes that may emerge over time.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Death of Kim Jong Il: Will this mark the End of the Dynasty?

According to North Korea's state media, Kim Jong Il has died of a heart attack. News sources initially stated that he died of fatigue. Although we know little about North Korea, reports have speculated for years that Kim Jong Il struggled with health problems. In fact, intelligence analysts had argued that as early as 2009, Kim Jong Il was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and a year earlier, in 2008, he reportedly suffered a stroke.

He is succeeded by Kim Jong Un, his third son, who is in his 20s and first appeared on the scene in October 2010. Having no experience at all in managing the country, Kim Jong Un will face so many challenges ahead that we could be witnessing the end of Kim Dynasty.

North Korea is living under borrowed time. Kim Jong Il had squandered so much international goodwill due to his intransigence in both the nuclear disputes and border crises, that Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo have practically given up on negotiations and instead waited for regime change. Even Beijing was reportedly losing patience with the hermit kingdom.

At the same time, however, it will be difficult to get rid of the nuclear program. Similar to Iran, the program is both the crown jewel of the hard-liner faction (the military) and tool to deter an American invasion.

It did seem that there was a growing chasm within North Korea's political elite, most evidently seen in the currency chaos back in early 2010, which cost the life of the chief of its planning and finance department. Facing impending economic collapse, the elite split between those who supported some sort of reform and those who completely opposed it . The execution of the scapegoat of the entire mess signaled Kim Jong Il's agreement for more economic openness -- at least it would stave off collapse.

Kim Jong Il could pull this off because he had the control over the North Korean political and military elites. Can the young and inexperienced Kim Jong Un, who lacks as much political capital as his father, pull off the same feat?

Moreover, unlike the succession process from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il, which culminated in 1994 and was started as early as the 1970s, the succession process this time was haphazard -- due to the supposedly reckless and odd behavior of Kim Jong Il's sons. Kim Jong Nam, the first son and originally the most likely successor, lost his father's favor after he was arrested in Japan with a fake passport, wishing to visit Tokyo Disneyland with his family.

His second son was not a good option either. Kim Jong Il thought Jong-chul was "too feminine and unfit for leadership." He also wrote a poem that would make John Lennon blush:
 "My Ideal World." It begins: "If I had my ideal world I would not allow weapons and atom bombs anymore. I would destroy all terrorists with the Hollywood star Jean-Claude Van Damme. I would make people stop taking drugs…" He wrote a somewhat chilling short story called "My Father Was a Ghost," in which his father haunts him by pretending to be a spirit.
By a process of elimination, we're left with Kim Jong Un. He is very inexperienced and will possibly be influenced by Kim Kyong Hui, his aunt, and her husband Jang Song Thaek, or General O Kuk-ryol, his father's old friend who would mostly represent the military's interests. A wild card here is General Kim Kyok-Sik, whose command of troops might be pivotal should clashes finally erupt between the political and the military sides.

His inexperience will probably hurt him when it matters most: during the power struggle that will occur soon. Whatever he decides, will be seen by one faction as detrimental, and that will not do no good in maintaining the Kim Dynasty. That said, probably few will shed any tear should the dynasty finally collapse.

Are the Palestinians an Invented People?

Newt Gingrich (Cliff Owen/AP)

Much to the dismay and consternation of the Palestinians and Palestinian sympathizers, as well as some American and Israeli political elites, Newt Gingrich recently remarked to The Jewish Channel, a U.S. cable station, that the Palestinians are an "invented people." According to Gingrich: "Remember, there was no Palestine as a state....It was part of the Ottoman Empire. We have invented the Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and are historically part of the Arab people, and they had the chance to go many places. And for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and I think it’s tragic.” His point? By arguing that the idea of "the Palestinians," particularly their identity and culture and sense of nationalism, is something created out of whole cloth, without regard to reality or evidence, he's implying that the Palestinians have no real claim to land or political legitimacy in the Middle East, especially vis-a-vis the Israelis.

It's possible Gingrich believes his comments, but it's almost certain that they are part of campaign politics, an effort to cozy up to the evangelicals and the staunch pro-Israelis in the U.S. After all, he is running for the republican nomination for president, and as such it's a good move for him to show his pro-Israeli bona fides by professing skepticism about the Palestinians' role and position in the Middle East. Indeed, much to the delight of key constituents, he is signaling to the Israelis that a potential Gingrich administration would unequivocally side with them, effectively giving them diplomatic carte blanche to handle issues and problems as they please. Furthermore, Gingrich's remarks hammer home the point to republicans that he believes Obama has unfairly treated the Israelis, America's friend and ally, to the benefit of the troublemaking Palestinians, one of the alleged bad guys in the world.

Let's turn to the substance of Gingrich's quote. Specifically, is he right? Are the Palestinians an invented people? In short, yes. Daniel Larison nicely captures point: "If an identifiable Palestinian nation did not exist, say, 150 years ago, it has existed for the better part of the last century. National identities are formed through historical experience, and the last seventy or eighty years have witnessed the emergence of a distinctive Palestinian national identity."

Okay, but does this process of self-invention apply only to the Palestinians? Not exactly. Think of it this way: Which nation or ethno-religious-political group wasn't created or invented in some way? To be blunt, no group or country. This goes for actors in the Middle East, but also for those in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. After all, it's not like when man first started roaming the earth tens of thousands of years, there was a set of countries and groups already present, as if pre-ordained into existence by some higher power. These things were created by people, often for self-preservation and self-defense purposes. In fact, all countries or ERP groups are in part self-created, and in part defined in relation to some Other or Others in the world.

The only real variation in this process is when this occurs and the level of effort involved. Some countries and groups have formed their identities centuries ago, while others, like the Palestinians, only more recently. And some groups and countries simply had to declare their presence, while others have had to fight for their existence and the right to receive recognition of it.

Take Israel as an example. At bottom, what happened there was an intentional effort at self-creating a meaningful and interconnected set of cultural, religious, and political identities, ones that its supporters can rally around and use to distinguish themselves from other regional and international entities. Of course, Israel didn't come into existence as a country until the middle of the 20th century, a process that included a bloody war for independence against its neighbors. The idea of an Israeli nation was around at least a century prior to the country's inception. It was deliberately created and then propagated by Zionists who sought a homeland to keep Israelis safe and secure from violence and discrimination. And going back even further, by most accounts, people didn't start to identify themselves as Israelites until sometime during the second millennium BCE, and they did so largely to distinguish themselves from other locals, such as the Canaanites.

In the end, Gingrich is partially correct. Yes, the Palestinians are an "invented people." But so are the Israelis, Americans, and the rest of the world, though I highly doubt he would ever concede this point, at least as long as he thinks he has a political future in the Republican Party.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Regime Survival and Syria

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A few weeks ago I wrote about some of lessons that can be distilled from the case of Libya, focusing in particular on the topic of regime survival. There, I argued that Bashar al-Assad, following in the footsteps of the hardline clerics in Iran, decided to clamp down quickly and brutally on the protesters gathering in various Syrian cities. Assad "wants to cripple the protest movement and force it to negotiate on his terms. Because al-Assad hit the opposition hard from the beginning, it hasn't had a chance to metastasize in numbers or on a large-scale. Which means that the opposition is left fighting a valiant but losing conflict against a murderous state." The idea is to extinguish any revolutionary, anti-government activities, preventing them from capturing any kind of momentum that could place the government, as well as the entire regime (or political system), in jeopardy. It's a matter of political survival.

At the time, Syria seemed to be a relatively simple case of a moderate number of poorly trained/equipped and unorganized opposition members getting routed by a more powerful and tightly-run authoritarian state. Since that blog post, several new internal and external factors have surfaced. Now, the picture is a bit messier, with factors inside and outside Syria imposing heavier constraints and pressures on the Assad government. Because of this, I'd like to take a closer look at Syria.

Let's first explore the changes in Syria's external environment, starting with the West's reactions. Of course, the U.S., Canada and the EU have called for Assad to step down and have applied sanctions on Syria, targeting its financial sector, media outlets, research centers, and various leadership figures (including the Ministers of Finance and the Economy, as well as army officers). And after the EU slapped sanctions on Syria's oil sector, including the state-owned General Petroleum Corporation (GPC) and Syria Trading Oil (Sytrol), French oil company Total and Royal Dutch Shell shut down operations.

Last Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Syrian opposition activists, including Burhan Ghalioun, the political opposition leader, in Geneva, Switzerland, to grant American support for their effort to overthrow Assad. Also on Tuesday Washington declared that Ambassador Robert Ford will return to Damascus to resume work trying to lend American support to the Syrian people, especially the protesters and activists. If you recall, amid growing security concerns, Ford was called back to the States last month.

Syria's neighbors have also responded quickly and harshly against the violence inside the country. In a surprise move, Turkey has turned on Syria, its former friend. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for Assad to stop the violence and step down from power. Moreover, Turkey, like the West, has placed an array of sanctions on Syria, such as suspending a trade pact, halting financial credit dealings with Syria, and freezing Syrian government assets.  And "Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz announced that Ankara had shelved plans for Turkey's TPAO petroleum company to explore oil with Syria's state oil company." Even more troubling to Syria, Turkey is now hosting members of the political and military wings of the Syrian opposition. And at the urging of France and Turkey, there's a push for setting up humanitarian corridors inside of Syria so people can keep safe and get access to aid. But so far both the EU and NATO haven't endorsed the idea.

The Arab League has also come down hard on Syria. It suspended Syria's membership and placed a number of sanctions on Syria. The AL froze the assets of and imposed a travel ban on 19 Syrian officials, including cabinet ministers, intelligence chiefs and security officers (though not Assad). Other sanctions include cutting off transactions with the Syrian central bank, ceasing funding for projects in Syria, and freezing Syrian government assets. Flights between Syria and its Arab neighbors will stop next Thursday. The AL also agreed to a weapons ban on Syria.

The internal dynamics have also significantly changed in the last several weeks. The Syrian opposition gradually, albeit slowly, is organizing itself politically, with dual councils based in Turkey and in Syria. Moreover, the opposition, led by army defectors, have formed the Syrian Free Army with the intent of overthrowing Assad and protecting Syrian citizens. Opposition sources say that the SFA membership numbers between 10,000 and 20,000. The SFA has begun launching attacks against military installations (intelligence base, convoys, etc.), thereby escalating the conflict further and making it even bloodier. In fact, these developments led Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to state that Syria is now engulfed in a civil war.

Just as important, at a late November meeting in Turkey, the Free Syrian Army met with the civilian opposition Syrian National Council, the main political opposition group, and both sides agreed to coordinate their efforts to overthrow Assad's government. According to a SNC spokesman, "The council recognised the Free Syrian Army as a reality, while the army recognised the council as the political representative." At the SNC's insistence, the Free Syrian Army promised to use force only to protect civilians, "but not take on offensive actions against the army." (This will be interesting to see how this plays out. Colonel Asaad, head of the SFA, has called for foreign air strikes on "strategic targets" in Syria and logistical support from the international community.)

What should we make of what's happening in Syria? First, Assad is completely discredited by his ridiculous and preposterous propaganda. Few, if any, countries believe Assad's conspiracy theories of secret foreign plots against the Syrian state. And they don't buy that the state-sponsored violence is justified or limited. Or that he's merely defending Syrian sovereignty. Equally dubious is his recent claim that "[m]ost of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa." Assad even went so far as to state that he doesn't really control Syria's security forces. And I'm sure very few believe his promises of democratic reform or that he'll sincerely negotiate in good faith with the opposition.

Second, Assad is increasingly isolated. His support for violence against anti-government protesters and activists has created a loose coalition of countries--both East and West--against Syria, creating unprecedented pressure on his administration and the entire political regime.

But despite all of this, it doesn't look like Assad is going anywhere for quite some time. He seems to think he can brutalize and outlast the opposition. Sure, ego and a lust for power, apparently almost natural traits of repressive authoritarian leaders, play a strong role in his calculations. But just as important is the fact that Assad still has some tools he can wield to sustain himself and the state longer than optimists like Fareed Zakaria think.

For instance, Syria receives diplomatic cover from China and Russia, both of which routinely block UN statements and resolutions on its behalf. It has Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas for funding and military assistance. Syria is able to take advantage of Lebanon's permeable borders and sympathetic political elites to smuggle goods and money, thereby maneuvering around the sanctions and offsetting their impact. The Shabiha, or thugs, as the loyalist forces are known--the most important linchpin in quelling the unrest--hasn't cracked is still out in force doing Assad's bidding. In addition, as revenge against Turkey breaking ranks, Assad is now using the Kurdish card. He has reformed ties with the much-despised PKK, allowing the group to set up shop in Syria, from which it can conveniently make life difficult for the Turkish leadership.

On top of all this, the U.S. and NATO really don't want to get significantly involved in a Syrian conflict. Both clearly see Syria as a much different and trickier case than Libya, one fraught with grave dangers and high costs. As a result, the West won't seek to replicate the "Responsibility to Protect" model of foreign policy in Syria, even though thousands, perhaps millions, of Syrians face threats from the state. Moreover, Turkey doesn't want to scuffle with Iran, Syria's sponsor and likely defender, and Iran's auxiliary organizations. And the Middle East has likely gone about as far as it will go in punishing Syria.

With this in mind, then, the sad truth is that as long as Assad can partially minimize the number of refugees fleeing the country and the number of casualties and deaths, Syria won't face much additional external pressure to change course. That leaves the opposition, mostly alone, to fight against a much stronger Syrian state. Hence, Assad probably will win this fight, though things could change, depending on how much and how fast the opposition can cohere and strengthen its military capabilities.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The End of Putin?

While electoral manipulation is not uncommon in Russia, such manipulation generally does not attract much attention, as it usually does little to change the overall results. Putin has long been very popular among Russians and thus never needed to rig elections, unlike other autocrats/dictators around the world. And he faced little resistance from political elites, many of whom were aligned in one way or another with Putin, as long as they were happily climbing his coattails.

Until this week.

In spite of massive electoral manipulations, Putin's party, United Russia, received its worst showing in years, winning only 53% of the electorate, down from 70% -- and analysts believe that without fraud, the number would have been much lower.

So what happened?

First, I think there's an "exhaustion factor," that Putin, having ruled since 2000, had overstayed his welcome. It was one thing to become prime minister, so Russia could have a "transition period" between his regime and the next one, but it is another thing to make a blatant power grab--that is, his plan to become once again the Russian president--that even President Medvedev was caught off guard.

The Russians have a great capacity to tolerate bad incumbents in the Kremlin. Back in the 1990s, they tolerated Yeltsin and even reelected him, for the alternative was either the return of the Communists or the uncertain rise of Fascism under Vladimir Zhirinovsky. As a result, the people reelected Yeltsin with a comfortable margin.

The logic was that even though we keep the bum, at least we got the bum that we know, not the bum who would bring great risk.

Putin rose to power with great popular support. Russians were tired of the lethargic old leaders, who seemed to be more often drunk than sober, and Putin was a very energetic, young athletic guy who brought the promise of jolting Russia out of its slumber.

The 2011 parliamentary results were less about Putin's achievements than the desire to keep moving forward, ending the endless "Groundhog Day" of corruption and fraud. Seeing that Putin's party, United Russia, was again on the ballot, people simply revolted.

Still, could Russia really kick Putin out? Could a Russian spring finally thaw Kremlin's endless winters? It's doubtful in the short-run. Even though the opposition now got its figure in Mr. Alexei Navalny, they are not organized well enough and lack a clear agenda except to throw the bums out. Putin is still quite popular and has lots of support within the armed forces, police force, the intelligence (former KGB), and state bureaucracy.

The Arab dictators fell like a bunch of dominoes because they relied on a very small segment of society for support (e.g. Gaddafi's mercenaries, Mubarak's army, Ben Ali's party.) Putin, on the other hand, is very careful about maintaining his bases of support and husbanding his resources. Unlike the Arab autocrats who concentrated the wealth on their small retinue and family, Putin made sure to spread his wealth, getting almost everyone on the payroll.

In a long run, however, this may be the beginning of Putin's downfall. Russia's over-reliance on the energy sector means that it is very vulnerable to global economic downturns. When the protests are well organized enough to be sustained and the profit from gas dries out in the next couple of years, the piper finally will have to be paid.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Why Attacking An Embassy Is a Horrible Idea

The recent attack on the British Embassy in Tehran was not solely a "spontaneous reaction" by Iranian "students." Rather, it was likely an outgrowth of domestic political disputes between President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. After Ahmadinejad put out signals that he wanted to run again for another term, in express opposition to Khamenei's wish, the relations between both men deteriorated. At this point, Ahmadinejad tried to rally his base among the poorer segments of the society, while Khamenei strengthened his grip on the Basij militia and the Revolutionary guards.

The attack on the British Embassy erupted as Ahmadinejad tried to deal with the fallout of British-sponsored sanctions, and Khamenei and his cliques saw this as an opportunity to strengthen their hold over the radical, anti-West part of Iranian society.

While it is always tempting for governments to send their miscreants to embassies to protest -- or to let their citizens vent their outrage toward another country's bad policies (to make sure that the citizens don't blame the government itself for incompetence)--they usually try to ensure that the attack never goes out of control.

Embassies enable very important diplomatic functions--to facilitate communication between host and foreign countries--and yet are frequently vulnerable to attacks. Foreign countries whose embassies are violated may decide to retaliate, for embassies are considered "sacred," an extension of state sovereignty, and their integrity should not be violated.

Not surprisingly, the recent sacking of the British embassy led to one of the very few occasions when both the Russians and the Chinese agree with the United States and the European Union on Iran: all of them gave statements supportive to the British, providing a diplomatic nightmare for Iran.

The Chinese and Russians may not agree with the crux of British policy-- they fought tooth and nail against toughening sanctions on Iran. Still, they didn't miss a moment to declare their displeasure over the sacking -- they were completely aware that what happened to the British may also be dished at them if things spiral further out of control.

Aside from an international slap-on-the-wrist, there are also strategic reasons why attacking embassies isn't a good idea.

Here's one example. In 1979, while Iran successfully managed to bring down President Carter through the prolonged hostage crisis, it also suffered a simultaneous strategic setback. Saddam Hussein took advantage of the situation by mounting a military invasion of Iran, calculating that Iran, as a pariah nation, would not receive much military or diplomatic support. After Iraq's invasion stalled and Iran in turn invaded Iraq, the Gulf states threw their support behind Iraq, and the U.S. restored its diplomatic relations with Iraq and funded the Iraqi army.

In short, the embassy attack isolated Iran and dried up much of its international goodwill. Not surprisingly, even the Iranian hardliners later came to regret the attack.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Observations from Egypt

November 28, 2011, was a momentous day in Egypt’s history, because Egyptians got to vote freely in national elections. It was also a historic day in my voting history: for the very first time in my life I got to vote in an Egyptian parliamentary election. This was the first of three planned stages of parliamentary elections; and it included 9 governorates, including the areas of Cairo, Alexandria, Assuit and Fayoum. (Officially, the parliamentary elections will be completed in January 2012.)

My voting station was the same station I got to vote back in March during the constitutional referendum. It was at El Kawmeyya School in the 6th district of Kasr El Neel, in the neighborhood of Zamalek, Cairo. This time I did not only go as a voter, but I got to participate as an observer. What is most interesting about my voting station is that it was characterized as having one of the longest lines in Cairo and having mostly women voters.

Inside the voting station, the process begins in manner pretty similar to the U.S., in that voters get their names checked off a list after showing their Egyptian national ID as a proof of identity. Voters are then given two voting cards, a pink card for the party list and a huge white voting card for the individual candidates. For the party list, voters got to select from a mixture of 10 parties or political blocks. While for the individual list, one got to pick 2 out of 67 individual candidates. Interestingly, each of the individual candidates or political parties was represented by different symbol, such as a pyramid, motorcycle, apple or soccer ball, and a number. The symbols and numbers help the illiterate as well as those who don't remember the names of their favored parties or candidates.

The voter then goes behind a curtain to select the candidates. The pink and white voting cards are then folded and placed in two separate boxes. Lastly, voters must dip one finger in purple ink (as opposed to pink ink during the referendum vote). The ink is very hard to get rid of and that is a guarantee that voters do not vote more than once. I still have the ink stuck to my pinky since Monday!

As an observer, the voting process at Al Kawmeyya School went very smoothly and peacefully. I did not notice any major violations. Violence was absent due to a plan that was set up by the Egyptian armed forces, in coordination with the Egyptian security forces, that protected my voting station and other voting stations around Cairo and other governorates. In addition, the neighborhood committee that protected Zamalek during the revolution was present outside the school to control the voter lines and assist/guide the elderly to their appropriate voting booths inside the school.

I was truly impressed to see so much enthusiasm and excitement in the voting process. One of my friends was in tears telling me it was a great feeling for her to vote and she felt that Egypt is moving in the right direction. I also believe this voting experience was a milestone and another step towards democracy in Egypt, despite fears of the Islamists winning a majority in the parliament.

First round voters, including those in my 6th district of Kasr El Neel, will get to cast their ballots again on the short list for the individual candidates during the first week in December. The repeat is most likely to happen for more than 120 candidates in each district. In my district, re-runs will be on December 5 and 6 between Mohamed Abu Hamed (From the Kotla El Masreyya Coalition, a liberal grouping) and Kheidr (Adala & Horreyya party, which is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood). Of course, I plan to cast my vote again in hopes that my choice for my district, who is also the choice of the majority of the people I know, wins during the repeat.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Reform is in the Myanmar?

Image Detail

For almost 50 years, Myanmar had been ruled with an iron fist by the military. Under the military, Myanmar was one of the poorest and most repressive countries in the world. It has been consistently classified by Freedom House as "not free." The military government harassed and arrested political opponents; rarely held elections; and exhibited a willingness to use violence against citizens. Because of the nature of its politics and governance, Myanmar has long been a pariah state in the world, earning the scorn and opprobrium of countless countries and international institutions and organizations.

The military junta weathered several attempts at reform by cracking down on its political opponents. Most notably, it made a national and international hero out of Aung San Suu Kyi (pictured above). In the 1990 national elections--the first multiparty elections since 1960--her National League for Democracy won a majority of the vote and a majority of the seats in parliament, but the results were quickly nullified by the military, which refused to relinquish power. Fearful that her mere presence would serve as a inspirational and galvanizing force, one bent on challenging and overthrowing the military government, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, where she remained for most of the next 20 years.

More recently, from August to October 2007, Myanmar raged with massive anti-government protests in more than 20 cities, a set of events known as the "Saffron Revolution." The protests were sparked by rising fuel and food prices and a general economic malaise, though the root cause was almost certainly the brutal, corrupt and ineffective governing by the ruling junta.

At first, students and political activists led the protests, but, to many people's surprise, they were joined by thousands of Buddhist monks, who eventually became the face of the attempted revolution. The military, in turn, with the aid of police and security forces and government-sponsored militias, launched a bloody and ruthless counter-attack, pulverizing the public protests and raiding monasteries and homes. In all, the military government was responsible for senselessly killing about 150 civilians (and possibly many times that estimated number) and imprisoning thousands more.

Now, fast forward to the end of 2010. From that time and continuing through today, Myanmar has embarked on a number of reforms and policy changes.

The country held parliamentary elections in November 2010. While the elections were criticized internally and externally (most monitors weren't allowed, the elections weren't considered free or fair or transparent, the main opposition party didn't participate, etc), they did transfer power to a civilian government led by the Union Solidarity and Development Party. (To be sure, though, the civilian government has strong ties to the military, as many government/party officials are former military officials.) Shortly after the elections, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest; and since then, she has had a number of friendly and constructive talks with the government. Her National League for Democracy is back in business and has recently registered to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Speculation is rampant that she will compete for office in these elections.

And that's not all. The government has passed laws allowing for workers to strike and calling for reforms of existing tax and property legislation. It has also relaxed some media restrictions. Some, though by no means all, political prisoners have been released from jail. Myanmar has even promised to halt its pursuit of nuclear power. And as my colleague Yohanes has pointed out, in response to public opposition and pressure, the government recently stood up to China, backing out of an unpopular agreement to build a hydroelectric dam on the Irrawaddy River. Although there is much work still to be done, the country has made quite a bit of progress in a short period of time.

So what do these steps toward progress and reform mean?

Ties between Myanmar and the U.S. are on the upswing. Washington is receptive to the changes and is showing its approval. Indeed, to show support for political changes already made and to encourage further reform, President Obama has dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Myanmar, where she is right now on official business. And Myanmar clearly wants the attention from the U.S. Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of Myanmar's parliament, has stated that "Myanmar want[s] a 'regular relationship' with Washington." And more than that, the Myanmar government wants America to help "facilitate Myanmar’s connection to the outside world at this critical juncture."

America's moves in Myanmar will trigger competition for influence in country. China sees the thawing U.S.-Myanmar ties as the latest piece of evidence that Washington is encroaching on its turf. And China is not going to sit back and let this happen unchallenged; it will respond to America's moves. In fact, this has already started. On Monday, just days ahead of Clinton's visit, China's vice president Xi Jinping declared China's intent to maintain strong military ties to Myanmar. He stated: "The friendship, forged by leaders of the older generations, has endured changes in the international arena. China will work with Myanmar to further bolster the comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation."

The outcome of this competition for influence in Myanmar could have an impact on the regional balance of power. Given that Myanmar has had relatively good relations with China for years, nothing will change if it stays in Beijing's camp. The status quo will be upheld. On the other hand, if the U.S. is able to pull Myanmar out of China's sphere of influence, well, that's a different story. It could be significant. Yes, Myanmar is poor and weak, and so it doesn't add many capabilities to a regional coalition. But still, Myanmar's

Lastly, as Myanmar is finding out, positive steps toward reform can burnish its image and elevate its standing in the world. Sure, the West's cheerful reaction--at least so far--is a part of this. But so is the response from the region. As one prime example, ASEAN member countries have also taken note of the steps taken by the government and have rewarded Myanmar with the prized chair of the organization, starting in 2014. It's very possible, perhaps likely, as the government must know, that further political reform will lead to additional regional and international perks. Other things being equal, this should give Myanmar a decent incentive to complete its very nascent path to democracy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On Egypt

We have a two for one special today. Here, in this blog post, both Yohanes Sulaiman and Brad Nelson, separately, offer their takes on the latest developments in Egypt. Yohanes leads off, then is followed by Brad.

Back to Tahrir Square
by Yohanes Sulaiman

Nine months after the fall of Mubarak, Egypt is again engulfed in riots and violence. This time, rather than embracing the army, protesters condemn the military and demand that Field Marshall Tantawi, the head of the military regime, step down.

Instead of learning a few "lessons" from the fall of Mubarak, which should be either to let the protesters protest in peace, thus exhausting them, or to decisively crack down on them "Tienanmen Style," the military is vacillating: it's doing too little and taking half-measures. The military brutally attacked the protesters, but was unable or unwilling to completely disperse them.

At the same time, the military also give some concessions, though not as much as the people want, therefore angering them further. Plus, the unwillingness to crack down and the concessions, along with divisions inside the ruling elite, create the impression that the regime is weakening.

The question is how could this happen? How could the most organized and revered institution in Egypt fall so far from the public's favor in a matter of months?

First, the military is no seen longer as an independent guardian of nation, but as a political player. Back in January, people did believe that the military was on their side. After all, it was the military that helped to nudge Mubarak from the scene, and it was the military that tended to shield the protesters in Tahrir Square from thugs and hooligans. Yet, months after that, with the military seemingly growing closer to the Ikhwanul Muslimin (Moslem Brotherhood), the military is now seen as more interested in protecting its perks, rather than truly committed to political and economic reform.

The Coptic protests on October was probably an inadvertent wake-up call for the rest of the Egyptian community. Then, it was evident that the military was more interested in saving its own skin than building a truly pluralistic society. The state-run Channel One TV even goaded the country to engage in religious warfare.

If an institution that everyone relies on for stability and unity engages in politicking and religion-baiting, then why should anyone trust it?

At this point, there are simply no good options for Egyptians. The liberals, secularists and the Copts will be totally crushed politically should elections be held as scheduled. The Moslem Brotherhood itself is split, between the old generation hoping to continue pursuing a profitable and politically beneficial alliance with the military and the young generation that truly desires a democratic pluralistic nation. The army is no longer seen as a benign institution that's mostly interested in what's good for Egypt. The risk that the revolution will eventually be hijacked by extremist Salafis or the army is getting higher.

Not surprisingly, people feel betrayed. Disillusioned with both the military and the politicians, they decided to return to the Tahrir Square.

You Say You Want a Revolution...
by Brad Nelson

I'm certainly not shocked that we've seen outbursts of conflict and violence under the watch of Egypt's military. Despite its current role in Egyptian politics and its longstanding role in influencing the political landscape, Egypt's military isn't filled with seasoned politicians. The Egyptian military isn't an entity trained to carry out effective, diplomatic conflict resolution between people and groups. It's trained to crush opponents via force and other coercive techniques. This is what makes sense to the military, it's what they know. And it has worked, as it propped up Hosni Mubarak for years. Besides, let's face it, the military leaders were groomed, and likely learned all their lessons, in a brutal era that prized heavy-handedness, even violence, as a means of subduing the politically unruly. Combined, these factors likely cultivated an inclination to go hard rather soft against irritants, opponents, criminals, etc.

One might argue that technically it has been Egypt's internal security forces, not the military, that has waged violence against the people. True enough, but the military has let the security forces have their way, letting them commit crimes in an unimpeded fashion. The military hasn't put a stop to the violence; it has been a complicit actor. In this way, the military has signaled that it tacitly supports brutality against Egyptian citizens. Indeed, it's likely the military has apologized for recent events only because it now faces heavy internal (the protest movement is gathering steam again) and external pressure (from the internal community, especially the U.S.), not because it believes the violence is wrong and unacceptable.

I'm still somewhat optimistic about the direction of Egyptian politics. The best sign is that the protest movement can put its followers in the streets when there's a call for action. Sure, the revolutionary fervor might have lost some steam, but it hasn't completely sputtered out. After all, there is still enough anger and disappointment to galvanize hundred thousand Egyptians into Tahrir Square. This is crucial. For the people's pro-democratic, pro-reform efforts and energies will keep Egyptian authorities in line (as they will help to reduce corruption, prioritize transparency, eliminate the stringent policing tactics, and ensure that Egypt remains on the path toward democracy). Right now, it is this revolutionary spirit that functions as the main, perhaps sole, bulwark against retrogressive elements in the government and state.

When we take a step back and look at the events in Egypt since Mubarak's fall, we see a repeated cycle of events: the military rulers make an unpopular decision or refuse to make a popular decision; the people seethe and eventually take to Tahrir

This time, after the latest round of protests and violence, more concessions were made. The cabinet has resigned. Parliamentary elections will be held next week. Presidential elections will be conducted no later than next June. And there are rumblings of the military turning over power to a "national salvation" government. Will these things completely satisfy public demands? Of course not. But they are signs, maybe if only small signs, of progress.

But beware: many dangers loom ahead. Here's a few things to consider for the future.

1. How long can the reformers sustain their revolutionary spirit?

2. Can moderate political actors, organized political groups, and political parties get their act together quickly enough to be a major player in Egyptian politics? Can they generate the kind of support that allows them to balance extremist, radical political groups and actors?

3. What kind of tricks do former NDP officials have up their sleeves?

4. Can the faction of radical Islamists be kept in check?

5. Is there sufficient, effective policing to prevent thugs and criminals from instigating trouble?

6. How far is the military willing to go to protect its interests (political power, commercial assets, access to perks, and so on)?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Is China a Status Quo or Revisionist Power?

There are lots of questions, covering many different issues, when it comes to present-day China. To be sure, most of these questions are born out of the widespread concern, both here in the States and abroad, about the impact of a rising China on world politics. In this blog post, I'd like to explore a select set of questions. Specifically, what does China want? Does it seek change, either regionally or internationally? If so, how would China go about achieving such change? Or is China a mostly satisfied, content country?

In short, is China a status quo or revisionist power? If it's a status quo power, it's mostly satisfied with the way the world looks and operates, as well as its place in it. But if China is a revisionist power, it will seek to change, if not overturn, the regional and possibly the world order, bending and shaping it in line with its interests. Toward this end, China could attempt to expand territorially, increase its influence over other countries, create new institutions, rewrite the rules of existing institutions, establish new behavioral norms, and so on.

There are two rough ways to look at this topic. On the one hand, it's very possible that current economic relations and international and regional institutions lock China into certain patterns of behavior, making it way too costly for China to push for significant change to the regional or international orders. For instance, upsetting the status quo, and as a consequence disturbing ties with the West, carries great cost for China. At a minimum, China would find itself strategically encircled by a coalition of countries seeking to contain it. We could see a broken, unstable world economy, causing economic chaos in China. Which in turn might lead to internal political and social instability and perhaps even conflict and violence.

Keep in mind that China has risen in power, worked its economic magic, by working through the international system. And China knows this. It can continue its rise, in way that's not too threatening or disruptive, if it remains committed to the world order that's currently in place. This is a rather rosy picture of China.

On the other hand, we can view China's rise through a different, more ominous prism. As China grows in power, it could very well want to alter the regional and world orders in ways that allow China to accrue power, satisfy its security needs, and promote its values. The history of the rise of great powers offers numerous examples of this. In prior centuries, this type of behavior took the form of land grabs, large empires, and overseas colonies. Not anymore. Today, China won't seek to control others (people, groups, institutions, and countries), but instead will try to exercise its influence over them. And it's going to use all means of influence--that is, the instruments of pressure and coercion and inducements at its disposal--to sustain, strengthen, and enlarge its economic ties, which is what China cares most about.

What's the evidence?

For most of the last decade, Chinese officials have stated that their country is experiencing a "peaceful rise." Clearly, this slogan was crafted and disseminated to calm any fears of a rising, potentially dominant, China. So yes, China is growing and expanding, in a host of different ways, they admit, but it poses no threat to others in the world, especially its neighbors. Beijing wants to convey that China has benign intentions, that it's not an expansionist, imperialist, acquisitive country. 

But when we move from words to actions, China's story becomes more complicated. China has made a concerted effort to strengthen its military. It has steadily increased its investment in almost all things military, with the aim of producing a better, more efficient, more sophisticated armed forces. At this point, China is unable to fight land wars in distant lands, and it might never be able to do so, but it is improving its power projection capabilities, especially its naval ones, in the region.

Sure, this could be a function of China seeking to protect its vibrant, expanding economic interests. But it could also signal something more, that Beijing is pursuing a more confrontational and truculent foreign policy. After all, much to the dismay of its neighbors, energy-hungry China has been assertive, even aggressive, in pursuing its territorial and waterway interests in the South China Sea. It has engaged in rather senseless diplomatic tussles with Japan, including several incidents involving Chinese fishing boats. Furthermore, China has beefed up its military muscle directed at Taiwan, using it as a deterrent mechanism to prevent Taiwan from straying too far from China's orbit.

All of these actions deeply worry Asian countries, especially those in Southeast Asia, who already fear being dominated by a powerful China. Chinese aggression just puts them even more on edge. Asian countries view these actions as markers foreshadowing further, perhaps even more dangerous, Chinese recklessness and belligerence.

And remember, Chinese actions aren't viewed in isolation by outsiders. Rather, they're added to the litany of nettlesome behavior that China has exhibited over the last few decades. This is particularly true for the West. Indeed, the West continually complains about China's currency, its violations of intellectual property rights, its support for dictators and human rights abusers across the world, its reluctance to deal with nuclear proliferation, its obstructionism in the United Nations, among many other things. In light of all this, former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick called for China to become an "international stakeholder," a country able and willing to provide a sense of stability and order to world politics.

On economic matters, China enjoys its position and status in the world economy. It likes its role in regional and international institutions, its place in the G-20, its leverage over the U.S., European, and Asian economies, and the general sense of respect that comes with being the second largest economy in the world. But China isn't completely satisfied on this front. Chinese officials shudder at the thought of continuing to interact in a world economy that's primarily dominated by America. Beijing wants a much larger voice in the making and meaning of the rules that govern world trade and finance and related economic issues. Indeed, I recently came across a very revealing quote that sheds light on this point:

Using some of his toughest language yet against China, Obama, a day after face-to-face talks with President Hu Jintao, demanded that China stop "gaming" the international system and create a level playing field for U.S. and other foreign businesses.

"We're going to continue to be firm that China operate by the same rules as everyone else," Obama told reporters after hosting the 21-nation APEC summit in his native Honolulu. "We don't want them taking advantage of the United States."

China shot back that it refused to abide by international economic rules that it had no part in writing.

"First we have to know whose rules we are talking about," Pang Sen, a deputy director-general at China's Foreign Ministry said.

"If the rules are made collectively through agreement and China is a part of it, then China will abide by them. If rules are decided by one or even several countries, China does not have the obligation to abide by that."

Right now, we're in the very early stages of China's rise to dominance, as a peer competitor to the U.S., so it's hard to make definitive conclusions about what Beijing wants and the direction it will ultimately go. And let's not forget that we will soon see a changing of the guard in Beijing, as the current generation steps out of power, and will probably also see some jockeying for power between military and civilian leaders as the new political elites try to consolidate their grip over the Chinese state. These events will certainly impact the choices that China makes in the future. But so far it's clear that Beijing has a preference for change to the status quo. Full-scale change or minor tinkering? It's up for debate.

Let's take the above quote as an example. It indicates a reluctance to play by the established rules--rules that were created by the West, mind you--but at the same time a willingness to work with others to achieve an economic order that's consensual, flexible, and open to greater participation from more countries. China isn't pushing unilateral change or advocating coercive measures to get what it wants economically. But what does China see as the end result from such change? Perhaps something much different that what we have today? Or maybe a world economy that looks and operates about the same as it does now, just with a greater role for China. If China only seeks minor changes, then maybe the West can make adjustments to the world order and give China a greater place at the table and more voice opportunities. Perhaps any changes to the status quo can be negotiated over time. In this way, China can fully integrate itself into the existing world order, leaving the existing rules and institutions and patterns of behavior mostly intact.

But if China envisages major economic changes, then it will place itself on a collision course with America. The U.S. will not easily forgo the rules and institutions from which it has so enormously benefited the past 60 years. Additionally, any U.S. presidential administration will have difficulty selling the idea of giving China a major say in rewriting the economic rules of the road. U.S. citizens already fear that China is gradually undermining American sovereignty, economic performance, and overall quality of life. Granting China its day in the sun, at least at the moment, would likely be seen by Americans as capitulating to an economic threat.

But even more than that, the U.S. will likely find making room for China, or any other country for that matter, at the great power table very problematic, given the centrality of "American exceptionalism" to the narrative of U.S. history. In short, America's values, politics, economics, institutions, schools of higher learning, and so on, are the best on Earth. America is a "shining city upon a hill." As such, U.S. stands as an example to other countries, pointing out to them how they should look and function. Moreover, logic dictates that the U.S. ought to take an active place in the world, serving as a steward to guide and steer the world in a proper and just direction.

Now, how can Americans reconcile these ideas, which many take as self-evident, with the prospect of permitting China to make major changes to the current economic order. Not easy, right? If one believes in American exceptionalism, then there is no other country qualified to run the show; it's America's mission, alone, ordained by a higher power, to carry out. I suspect a faction of Americans--both ordinary citizens and Congresspersons--would argue that ceding power to China is treasonous and probably push for impeachment.

In looking at military and security affairs, there are two keys, in my opinion. First, will economic troubles cause the U.S. to retrench from Asia? For now, of course, that's not going to happen. But over the long-term? Who knows? If it happens, though, it would make life easier for China. It could spread its wings in the region as it pleases without the threat of significant resistance. Second, will China aim to squeeze the U.S. out of Asia? If it does, we will see nasty consequences for the region. There will likely be an escalation of tensions and hostilities, as well as a sharp increase in the likelihood of conflict, between China and the U.S. The region will splinter, with countries taking sides and some eventually getting dragged into the mess. And the fallout likely won't be confined to security issues, as conflicts involving the first and second largest economies is sure to destabilize the entire world economy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Southeast Asia's Geopolitical Dance

In our joint article that was recently published in the Jakarta Globe, we stressed the concerns that Asian countries have about America's commitment to the region. In the face of budgetary cutbacks, will Washington remain committed to Asia. It is a fair question to ask, especially given that Asians saw how the U.S. "lead from behind" in Libya.

One concern is the underlying reason Obama announced that the U.S. would build a military base in Darwin, Australia. It will be the first new American base after years of cutbacks and base consolidations. The base in Darwin can give America the ability to control the very important Strait of Malacca and the Sunda Strait (and the planned Sumatra-Java) and to provide quickly military assistance when needed to the U.S. partners in the region. The base can also give the U.S. easy access to East Timor, which is rich in natural resources and at the same time heavily courting and also courted by China, much to ASEAN's chagrin.

But this begs a question, though: will this new military base have a large impact, considering that it will only have 2,500 marines stationed there? It won't have much use in helping Vietnam or Philippines to resist China.

The answer is that the base is a symbolic commitment to the region. As the New York Times noted:
Mr. Obama described the deployment as responding to the wishes of democratic allies in the region, from Japan to India. Some allies have expressed concerns that the United States, facing war fatigue and a slackened economy, will cede its leadership role to China.

Not surprisingly, China objected and saw America's proposed military base as another provocation, believing this to be an attempt at military encirclement.

Has the world seen this kind of phenomena before? Quite so. Let's remember the Wilhelmine Imperial Germany, whose rise to great power status contributed to the cause of the Great War (the First World War).

It is too hasty, however, to declare that the rise of China will lead to another great war. After all, the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871 did not automatically lead to the war, and even today debates are still raging about what really caused the First World War. Was it really a preventive war to preempt German (or even Russian) dominance on the continent? Was it a "war by the timetable," that the empires of Europe were being held hostage by inflexible military planning? Or maybe it was the case of "tail wagging the dog," that Germany gave a blank check to Austria-Hungary's ambition in the Balkans, which in the end was the main trigger for war. There is simply no clear answer that history can provide for us.

The point here is that the rise of a state to the status of greatness usually creates a security dilemma to the surrounding countries, as neighbors simply cannot predict what a rising power will do in a long run. Will its power be used to dominate or to assist and nurture?

That's why the Southeast Asian nations in ASEAN have tried so hard to pull Burma/Myanmar out of China's orbit. Last week they decided to endorse Burma/Myanmar to hold the ASEAN Chairmanship in 2014, regardless of its economic messes and abysmal human rights record.

Of course, Myanmar is also a willing partner in this dance. As I noted in my previous post, it seems that there's a growing tension within Myanmar's political elites, who were too afraid of growing Chinese influence in Myanmar and yet at the same time, realized that there was no alternative to China, unless they engaged in some political opening and used ASEAN as a feeler to the United States.

It seems that their gamble has paid off so far, with Hillary Clinton to be the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit the country in 50 years.Whether this will lead to further economic and political reforms in Burma/Myanmar is still up in the air, but the tally so far is likely making some people nervous in Beijing.

By now, China must realize that regardless of its economic outreach, its military posturing and aggressive diplomacy has done a lot of harm to its foreign interests. As the new 800-pound panda on the block with growing economic and military strength, in spite of its supposedly benign intentions, everything it does will have major effects, and all of its actions will be sharply scrutinized by its neighbors and others around the world, including the nervous United States.

Note: This is a companion post to an article of mine published in the Jakarta Globe.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ditching Taiwan?

The New York Times on Friday published what a Daily Kos contributor approvingly called, "something that should prompt serious discussion of our national goals in a new world reality." Written by Paul V. Kane, a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq and a former fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard, here are the take home points:
  1. The American economy is doomed thanks to its massive debt, and there is currently $1.14 trillion of U.S. debt currently held by China.
  2. The U.S. ought to broach a deal with China, in which its debt is written off in exchange for a cessation of American arms to Taiwan and an end of the U.S.-Taiwan defense agreement.
  3. Because China so highly values Taiwan, Beijing will agree to such a deal.
  4. A China-U.S deal can offer a number of ancillary benefits:
"The Chinese leadership would be startled — for a change — if the United States were to adopt such a savvy negotiating posture. Beyond reducing our debt, a Taiwan deal could pressure Beijing to end its political and economic support for pariah states like Iran, North Korea and Syria and to exert a moderating influence over an unstable Pakistan. It would be a game changer."

I won't discuss about how stupid this argument looks from an economic perspective. Joe Weisenthal has written an excellent analysis on why we really should not be worried about the US national debt. Patrick Chovanec, whose excellent blog I'll add to my follow list soon, wrote why China would be a complete idiot to accept the deal, because:

There is no way that China could “forgive” its holdings of U.S. debt in exchange for an American policy commitment on Taiwan without bankrupting its entire financial system, unless it made good the loss by heavily taxing or borrowing from its own people.  To put it mildly, such a transaction – while theoretically possible — would be in no way as “simple,” or as obviously beneficial, as its proponent implies. [bolded and underlined for emphasis]
 Not surprisingly, James Fallows of the Atlantic, openly asked whether the op-ed was a joke. The China Post called it simply 'dumb,' and a bunch of Taiwanese animators from NMA TV made fun of it, while skewering President Barack Obama in the process (talk about collateral damage!)

While these economic arguments are very convincing, let us talk about the security and geopolitical implications of this harebrained idea.

First of all, let's say, for the sake of argument, the United States "gave" Taiwan to China. Then what? Other countries around China would start asking uncomfortable questions. Notably, if the United States was willing to surrender its long-time ally for just a trillion dollars and a couple of foreign policy changes, why would they trust the explicit guarantee of the United States to defend their sovereignty?

China has many territorial disputes with its neighbors. Take the Spratly Islands as an example, where China is involved in territorial disputes with a couple of Southeast Asian nations. China has claimed complete sovereignty over the area shown in the map below:.

Why would Vietnam and Philippines, for instance, rely on the U.S. to balance China, if they saw the Obama administration throwing Taiwan under the bus? Some would see the rise of China to be inevitable, prompting them to make some concessions and agreements with China. They might find it very beneficial to bandwagon with China (throwing their lots with the biggest threat to gain more benefits). Or worse, in trying to balance China, some could bring India or even Russia deeper into regional politics, making Asian politics very messy, complicated, and arguably more dangerous. Moreover, the U.S. would be shut off from one of the most strategically important regions in the world, unable to advance its interests in Asia.

What about South Korea? Why would South Korea rely on American protection against the North Korea? South Korea (and possibly Japan) might instead aim to make their own nuclear bombs since they could no longer rely on the Americans for sufficient security aid and defense.

There is also no guarantee that China would behave benignly. The hard-liners could see this proposed deal as Washington throwing in the towel, and they would claim their tough talks works, that the U.S. is paper tiger, a declining power, that will bend in face of more strength. In short, America's credibility and its prestige in the region would be completely compromised.

Second, the essay contains the false assumption that the regimes of Iran, Pakistan, Syria, and even North Korea are completely dependent on China. While China might be a rival to the U.S. for world power and influence, and an emerging great power, there are limits to what the Chinese can control and manipulate. For one, most of China's dealings with those countries (except North Korea) are commercial in nature, trying to find the best deals in order to maintain its economic growth. In the case of Iran, Manochehr Dorraj and Carrie L. Currier even argued that:

In the unlikely case, that would Iran assume a more belligerent foreign-policy posture, substantially escalating tensions with the United States and its European allies, the Chinese government may decide to distance itself from the Islamic Republic.

To put it bluntly, the Mullahs of Iran are not China's client. China can't completely control them. Even without China, Iran can easily purchase their weapons from Russia, as the Syrians are finding out, in the face of international boycott over its harsh treatments on its domestic discontents. In essence, China cannot dictate its terms to its trade partners, including Pakistan.

It's even questionable as to how much China can control North Korea, which is very dependent on China for its survival. :
“At the moment China has limited influence,” said Cai Jian, a professor of Korean studies at Fudan University. “On one hand it’s unhappy with North Korean actions and its provocative behavior, but on the other hand it still has to support North Korea.
”The support continues because China fears that the vacuum created by a sudden collapse there would open the door to rule by South Korea, “and that will put an American military alliance on the doorstep of China.”

It is indisputable that the question of Taiwan is very important for Chinese decision-makers. They are very interested in getting Taiwan back. Yet at the same time, it is simply impossible that China and its so-called client states would follow the script as naively elaborated by Paul V. Kane. His logic is simply wishful thinking. China's global influence is not as extensive as what Mr. Kane believes. And more importantly, the United States also can't hand over Taiwan on a silver platter for one simple reason: Taiwan does not belong to the United States.