Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, September 30, 2011

Anwar al-Awlaki Is Dead: So What?

Earlier today, the Government of Yemen announced that the radical, American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki was dead. Here's the question that we really need to ask: so what? What is the impact of the death of Anwar al-Awlaki to al-Qaeda and the global terrorism movement as a whole.

Frankly, I think that the importance of this guy is way overrated. True, many people listen to him and he inspired suicide-bomber wannabes, such as Faisal Shahzad, Nidal Malik Hasan, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Yet, at the same time, al-Qaeda's power has been declining drastically because of various U.S. actions in the post-9/11 period. In particular, of course, as today illustrates, the drone program has taken out a number of al-Qaeda and al Qaeda-aligned terrorists. Its assets have been tracked and frozen. American intelligence gathering and coordination has markedly improved, as it has done a good job monitoring the whereabouts of al-Qaeda figures. And let's not forget about the much-criticized quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, which eliminated many of al-Qaeda's key people. The more key people of the movement that have gotten killed, the weaker the link between al-Qaeda and its branches, and ultimately its sympathizers and financiers in the Middle East

And remember, foot soldiers are very easy to replace, but commanders not so much, as these as people are time and battle-tested. The more old-timers who are lost, the weaker the movement will inevitably be. These people possess the hard-earned currency of trust because they have been through fire and hell. Frankly, terrorism is a very lonely way of living: terrorists can't really trust others easily because there's always the possibility of entrapment by foreign agents. Thus, the trust-based social network are very important.

Anwar al-Awlaki's rise to prominence was thanks to the dire straits of al-Qaeda. A quick look at the biography of this guy shows that he is essentially an opportunist. He was someone who loved the spotlight. Back in the U.S., he presented himself as a moderate voice of Islam, though, obviously, he changed his tune once abroad. I am wiling to bet that al-Awlaki got spooked after being interrogated after 9/11 due to his familiarity with some of the 9/11 hijackers, and in order to avoid imprisonment, he then moved to the Middle East, where he became a radical.

He didn't get into prominence until 2009, when the suicidal trio of Faisal Shahzad, Nidal Malik Hasan, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab jumped onto the scene and claimed themselves to be influenced by al-Awlaki. At that point, al-Qaeda had been beaten badly in Iraq and even in Afghanistan. It finances were in trouble, its core leadership decimated, and was no longer able to organize and coordinate effectively, significantly reducing the likelihood of any repeat spectacular 9/11-style attacks. Even its branches, such as the Jamaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, were dismantled and supplanted by true indigenous Islamic movements. 

Al-Awlaki was the last hope for al-Qaeda to remain relevant. He, however, did not have the link, the network, nor the financial capacity of the "old" members of al-Qaeda. I suspect even the al-Qaeda higher ups didn't really trust this guy, likely branding him an opportunist, considering his track record. The problem was that they didn't have any other option. They couldn't launch any spectacular attack, they couldn't show results to their financiers back in the Gulf. Thus al-Awlaki's role, to fill the missing gap, as the media propaganda machine to show that al-Qaeda was still relevant.

Well, he is dead now. There of course will be people trying to nominate him as a martyr, and I don't doubt that he'd get the dubious distinction, because at this point, al-Qaeda needs as many heroes as possible to sustain its weakened and frayed organization. Still, he is just a symptom of the growing decentralization of al-Qaeda, thanks to the collapse of its core. No doubt, there will be another Anwar al-Awlaki later, perhaps soon, because al-Qaeda desperately wants to stay relevant and united as a global movement. Otherwise, its branches would keep splintering, reducing their reliance to the central movement.

Finally, for anyone questioning whether the U.S. has the right to kill its "citizen:" heck, for me, the moment he joined al-Qaeda, he had already forfeited his citizenship. The first, the fourth, and the fifth amendments didn't apply here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Putin-kin Village

On September 24, 2011, Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev announced that he would support Prime Minister Putin's bid to become the next president of Russia.

Many Russian watchers were taken by surprise, even though there has been many signs that regardless of Mr. Medvedev's position as the president, Mr. Putin still holds the power. As noted in the New York Times' discussion on the recent airplane crash that decimated the entire Yaroslavl Lokomotiv hockey team:

Mr. Medvedev — whose extraordinary powers are enshrined in the Constitution — is forced to wait many months for Mr. Putin’s permission to declare his candidacy. In May, the president gathered 800 journalists for a news conference that had all the trappings of a major political announcement. Then he said he could not make one.
The reason is that even though as president Mr. Medvedev has all the trappings of power, in reality his power is heavily constricted by the Russian bureaucracy, which is completely controlled by Mr. Putin. Putin has controlled the Russian media and bureaucracy, making it very difficult for Medvedev to push any policies that Putin does not approve.

The incidents surrounding Mr. Medvedev’s event in Yaroslavl, where virtually nobody among of the Russian leadership was in attendance, was to some degree evidence of Mr. Putin's power. It was inconceivable that anyone would snub the most powerful person in Russia, unless there's someone else who is more powerful. In this case, that person is Mr. Putin.

A few weeks ago I had some revealing chats with several Russian analysts, including someone privy to the ins and outs of Russian politics. What I gathered was that Mr. Medvedev is actually popular, and many like him because he is seen as the "good cop," someone more liberal than Putin, respectful to the rule of law, and truly committed to reforming the rotten Russian system. He is also less tolerant to the abuses by uncontrolled law enforcements and government officials.

Yet, all off them agree that there's no way Mr. Medvedev could win the election without Mr. Putin's blessing. Mr. Putin's power is heavily entrenched, supported by many bureaucrats, while Mr. Medvedev's supporters are not particularly organized, and those supporters who are in the government generally prefer to lay low, lest they would be involved in the struggle of power that would be detrimental to their careers.

While Mr. Medvedev's firing of Mr. Alexei L. Kudrin, his finance minister, for insubordination, was seen as his attempt to shore up his power base, the fact that a minister could openly challenge a president demonstrates how wobbly Mr. Medvedev's position has been.

It is true that Mr. Medvedev had years to consolidate his power and build up his own support system, but it appears that Mr. Medvedev's background outside the Russian system proved to be his problem. Russian bureaucrats and political elites would rather throw their support to someone they know (Putin) instead of the outsider (Mr. Medvedev).

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Obama's U.N. Speech

As some of you know, it's a busy week at the U.N. The headliner event, of course, is the speech Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will give on Friday, when he'll presumably make the case for Palestinian membership in the U.N. Yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama made his annual speech at the U.N. He touched on several important issues in the world, including the Arab Spring, violence in Yemen and Syria, terrorism, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, South Sudan's independence, the protracted election struggle in the Ivory Coast, WMD, poverty, and so on.

But it's his words on Israel and Palestine that have generated the most attention, especially here in the States. Obama reiterated America's position on resolving the longstanding tensions and conflicts. According to the President: "Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN - if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians who must live side by side. Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians - not us - who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem."

Given America's historical relations with Israel, and with the U.S. presidential election season already in motion, it should be no surprise that Obama devoted more time to talking about the Israeli rather than the Palestinian perspective on the conflict. And relatedly, it should hardly be a surprise that Obama gave an impassioned defense of of Israel as well as Israel's place in U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, Obama proclaimed:

"America's commitment to Israel's security is unshakable, and our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day. Let's be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel's citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel's children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile, persecution, and the fresh memory of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they were."

His words are spot on, as he succinctly captured the precarious situation that Israel finds itself in nowadays. The dangers and concerns are real, not imagined or manufactured by hawkish Israelis, the West, the Israel Lobby, or any other conspiratorial actor. Unfortunately, Obama's words will do little to ameliorate relations between the Israelis and Palestinians. If anything, they could aggravate existing tensions in the region. Moreover, once again, Obama is at a point in which he delivered a speech that won't satisfy any of its target audiences. If you recall, this was a point Yohanes made after Obama gave his speech on the Arab Spring back in May.

Let's quickly look at the three main target audiences. One, the speech likely doesn't move Israel or Israel's supporters (including those here in the U.S.) much, if at all. They still question the strength of Obama's commitment to Israel, and many would prefer someone else in the Oval Office who, in their view, has stronger pro-Israel credentials.

Two, the Palestinians are still upset and frustrated, as Obama's speech did little to alter the status quo. He failed to offer anything that could change the incentives for either the Israelis or Palestinians as a means to break the political deadlock.

And three, Obama's speech couldn't have gone over well in the rest of the Middle East. A peek at the Twitter pages of several leading Middle East social/political activists in countries like Egypt and Yemen highlights my doubts. Many wonder how Obama can say that he backs the Arab Spring, as well as democratic movements and aspirations more generally--which is something he stated in his speech--yet he is unwilling to support a place for the Palestinians at the U.N. To them, it's just another example of American hypocrisy on issues related to democracy and reform in foreign countries. The U.S. supports buzzwords like freedom and liberty when it's convenient, so goes the argument, not universally across the world.

As I see it, the problem is that Obama was content to say that he outlined the basis for negotiations in May, never attempting to build off those efforts. This omission is strange, and it's bad foreign policy. He could have tried to find ways to get both sides talking again. In his speech, he said, "peace is tough," but that's not a reason to sidestep the difficult obstacles that stand in the way of obtaining a just and proper conflict resolution. He needed to explore the idea of getting both sides back to the negotiating table. After all, that's the problem right now. Almost everyone on both sides know where the endpoint is but no one is willing to take the first steps to begin to get there. Oh, sure, there's an enormous level of behind the scenes diplomacy at the moment. But had Obama broadcast that America's redoubling its efforts on the peace talks, he might have been able to bring some new energy to the moribund talks. Even if that seems highly unlikely, it's a chance worth taking, right?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Palestinians and The U.N.

On Friday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas confirmed what political watchers have long speculated: the Palestinians will press the issue of state membership in the U.N., and as a result international recognition of statehood, this coming week. Right now, in response, the West is engaging in a diplomatic flurry, trying to head off Abbas' move at the U.N. On Wednesday, U.S. diplomats Dennis Ross and David Hale left for the region for separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas. The Europeans have been busy as well. E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and former British Prime Minister and current Middle East envoy Tony Blair have met this week with Israeli and Palestinian officials. And today, diplomats from the Middle East Quartet (which includes the U.S., E.U., Russia, and the U.N.) met in New York to find ways to avoid a showdown at the U.N.

What's driving the actions of the Palestinians? They believe Israel won't make the desired concessions on settlement freezes (in West Bank) and the division of Jerusalem, among other things, which are preconditions for the Palestinians to start negotiating in earnest again, at least not unless pressure is significantly upped. They hope their push at the U.N. will do precisely that--perhaps to the extent that Israel comes back to the negotiating table and negotiates on better terms for them.

In Palestinians' view, they can't wait for the U.S. and its allies to pressure its client. They must take the initiative and seek to change the political status quo. And it's not just bilateral relations that are at stake. To the Palestinians, if Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank, gobbling up more and more land, then it's highly unlikely that they'll ever have a homeland. There just won't be enough land for a functioning state.

While I don't endorse what the Palestinians plan to do at the U.N., their actions understandable. And they're certainly a step up from employing violence as a means to change Israel's behavior. But the U.N. route, so to speak, is fraught with all kinds of problems. At a minimum, their actions likely won't succeed, and at a maximum, they could worsen Israeli-Palestinian relations and cause the entire region to explode in violence and conflict.

Here are some of the problems:

1. The Palestinians won't get state membership from U.N. If it comes down to it, the U.S. will block any motion in the U.N. Security Council by wielding its veto power. America's position is that Palestinian statehood (along with a host of other bilateral issues) can only be solved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that produce a comprehensive peace agreement. The most the Palestinians will get is an upgrade in their status via the U.N. General Assembly, from "entity" to a "non-member state," a designation also currently held by the Vatican.

2. Because of its history and geography, Israel is particularly sensitive about its national security. Current events in the region have only heightened these concerns. Clearly, the Arab Spring has played a big role here, as it has opened up greater space for populations to vent their grievances with Israel, as well as given local governments an opportunity to stir up trouble. Just look at the circumstances surrounding Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iran. At the same time, Turkey, an aspiring regional power, has begun flexing its muscles with Israel, creating a big rift in its bilateral relations. All of these things are added to a batch of outstanding problems that Israel faces, such as the omnipresent anti-Israel propaganda and politics in the Middle East, the fear that Iran seeks nuclear capabilities, and the existence of anti-Israel terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

In this political, security, and strategic environment, the Palestinians' attempt to ratchet up the pressure on Israel runs the grave risk of making Israel feel like its under siege from all sides, like its being unjustifiably backed into a corner. This, in turn, could lead Israel to take very stringent counter-measures in retaliation.

According to Reuters: "Some officials suggest the government should withhold tax transfers to the Palestinians as a punishment -- levies Israel collects which make up 70 percent of PA revenues -- or withdraw travel privileges for PA leaders looking to leave the West Bank. Others propose even more dramatic measures, with Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau of the nationalist Yisrael Betenu Party demanding that Israel annex its major West Bank settlement blocs in response to any U.N. resolution." Further, on Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned of "harsh and grave consequences" if the Palestinians go ahead with their drive for U.N. membership. And keep in mind that should violence break out in the so-called occupied Palestinian territories, on Israel's borders, or inside Israel, the hawkish Netanyahu government won't back down. Military force will be an option on the table. If this happens, how will the Palestinians react? How will other countries in the region respond? Could we see a return to the levels of violence in 2006? Or might we see something even more ominous, with the Middle East turning into a tinderbox, just waiting for the right match to ignite a dangerous conflagration of extremism, conflict, warfare, and terrorism?

All of this is not to absolve Israel from blame, should it implement antagonistic measures in response to the Palestinians. Nor am I suggesting that violence and conflict will necessarily occur in the near future. Rather, I am simply sketching out some of the scenarios that the Palestinians could unintentionally set into motion this week. Unfortunately, an outbreak of violence is one possible outcome.

One, they underestimate the extent to which they've raised expectations for some sort of political change on the ground. Once the people see that not much has changed in reality, they're likely to experience deep disappointment. The question, then, is: how will this disappointment be channeled? Will they target Israel? Or if the U.S. uses its veto power in the U.N., might they and their sympathizers take out their frustrations on American interests in the Middle East and around the world? And two, the Palestinians overestimate the effectiveness of their policing and security forces in the West Bank. I doubt these institutions will be able to adequately thwart or contain a massive response from the Palestinian people. Additionally, for the sake of argument, even if Abbas and his crew can cope with whatever happens on the ground in the West Bank, this says nothing about events in Gaza, the place Hamas politically controls. Most assuredly, there are a radicals within the ranks of Hamas who would use the pretext of a failed bid for U.N. membership to create trouble. And this possibility is bolstered by the recent upheaval in Egypt, where the new military junta has loosened a bit the country's oversight over Gaza.

While the U.N. has praised the Palestinians, and Prime Minister Fayyad Salam in particular, for building and strengthening its economic and political institutions, let's not get carried away here. Much work still needs to be done. Indeed, it's questionable at best whether the Palestinian Authority (PA) is really a state and can function as such.

The PA still doesn't have control over Gaza, and certainly doesn't have control over the guns and rockets and missiles there. There are deep and destabilizing internal political divisions between Fatah and Hamas. The PA lacks unified security forces that integrate Hamas and Fatah personnel. The Palestinians are almost completely dependent on outside assistance to prop up their economy. The rule of law is more fantasy than reality. And lastly, let's set the record straight on the Abbas government. Remember that Hamas won the last "national" legislative elections in 2006, capturing the government. But since the Hamas-Fatah split in 2007, Abbas and his Fatah cronies in the West Bank have presented themselves to the rest of world as holding the seat of power. No matter what the West says or thinks, the Abbas government is an illegitimate entity, as it doesn't legally speak for all Palestinians. (Please see Aaron David Miller's outstanding piece in Foreign Policy, for more on the Palestinian state.)

Rather than spending time on this U.N. gambit, the Palestinians would be better off continuing to concentrate its resources and attention to its institutional building processes. This would help the Palestinians in a number of ways. It would be very good for the the Palestinian people, help to overcome internal political divisions, likely galvanize more international support, and put pressure on Israel in a non-confrontational way. But most importantly, it might reassure Israel that they can fix their own problems, including various security issues that worry Israel, and act as a competent neighbor. In this way, state building can serve as a confidence enhancing mechanism between the Palestinians and Israelis, which is essential, given the state of mutual distrust between both sides.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Indonesia and 9/11

This week, Slate published a series of great articles debunking the 9/11 conspiratorial theories. The links can be found here:  
9/11 conspiracy theories: Where were you when you heard your first one?  
"9/11 Truth" movement: How Alex Jones and Michael Ruppert founded it.  
9/11 conspiracism: How the Iraq war contributed to its rise.  
9/11 "Truth": How believers in the 9/11 conspiracy theory respond to refutations.  
9/11 Truth: How conspiracy theorists react to apostates like Charlie Veitch.  
9/11 Truth: Why Osama Bin Laden's death won't kill the conspiracy theories.
All right, now that I am done with my public service announcement, let me move on to the discussion of what people here in Indonesia think about the 9/11, 10 years after the events.

A quick glance to today's newspaper shows that aside from the English-speaking newspapers such as the Jakarta Post or the Jakarta Globe, none of them, including the highly influential Kompas, devoted anything related to 9/11 - except the news about the U.S. looking for two al-Qaeda bombers. Maybe there will be some discussions about it after the 9/11 ceremonies in the U.S., but it is safe to say that at this point, the idea of remembrances to 9/11 is basically nonexistent in Indonesia .

Instead, I think there will be a remembrance on October 12, in the memory of the notorious 2002 Bali Bombings that killed 202 people and injured 240 more.

I'd hazard to guess, that there are many reasons for that. First, 9/11 did not affect Indonesia. It happened in the U.S.

Second, 9/11 turned into a major policy blunder for Indonesia. While President Megawati signaled her sympathy to the US, politicians hoping to court the fabled Moslem votes later declared their opposition to the U.S. invasion on Afghanistan. Vice President Hamzah Haz was especially adamant, declaring that "there is no terrorist in Indonesia."

Of course, the swirling conspiratorial theories, ranging from the "missing 4,000 Jews" to the "internal demolition," fueled by the 9/11 truthers that were discussed in the Slate articles mentioned above, helped to undermine any trust in the United States. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars were just the icing on the top of the cake. Many newspapers did print outright the idiocy spewed by the 9/11 truther sites, and both Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky really helped in undermining U.S. policies in Indonesia thanks to their short-sighted bash Bush agenda.

It was only the Bali Bombing that jolted Indonesians, confirming the idea that there were terrorists in their midst. In a kind of poetic justice, both Megawati and Hamzah Haz were decisively defeated by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who showed his bold leadership in dealing with the aftermath of the bombing.

In short, for Indonesians, they have their own "9/11" moment, and the fact that it happened at all shows the failure of Indonesia's leadership, and it's probably not something that people would like to remember at all.

UPDATE (9/12): there is one article in the bottom-right part of Kompas front page on America's commemoration of the 9/11 attacks. At the same time, Kompas also published an opinion piece written by Ivan A. Haidar, with the title of "the Mystery of September 11, 2001." Don't bother reading it, as it is full of conspiratorial rubbish that was dealt with properly in those Slate articles that I quoted above. I am actually surprised that Kompas, which is supposed to be the newspaper of the intellectuals in Indonesia, would publish it.

On another note, Dr. Salim Said, a colleague of mine who also graduated from The Ohio State University, gave a good explanation of 9/11 conspiracy theories on Indonesian TVOne. I think he read the Slate links that I forwarded to him yesterday.

9/11: When Everything Changed

The attacks on 9/11 triggered a meme that the "world had changed," permanently and dramatically. In short, the argument was 9/11 ushered in an entirely new era in world politics, a period in which threats and dangers from non-state terrorist actors supplanted the old system of state-based aggression and militancy. This was first voiced by the media and then reverberated throughout various quarters of American society, from elites and elected officials to ordinary citizens. It seems this reaction was derived from a simple observation: the sense of invulnerability that many Americans had felt--especially in terms of national security--was now shattered, never to reclaimed. Because of 9/11, international terrorism proved that it could hit home and cause enormous death and destruction on American soil.

Admittedly, I was initially very skeptical of the idea that the "world had changed" on 9/11. I wasn't sure if people were overstating the impact of 9/11. Were these claims the product of an Amero-centric country? That is to say, was 9/11 important because it happened in the States? Or was it important because it truly altered something significant about the way the world worked? Plus, although the U.S. was abuzz about Islamic terrorism, this was hardly a new phenomenon. And keep in mind, it's not like al-Qaeda ever posed an existential threat to the U.S. Furthermore, it's not inconceivable that 9/11 and the responses to it could have been relatively contained by the U.S. and its allies, thereby limiting the depth and reach of 9/11's impact on the America and the world.

I was reminded of this 9/11 meme, as well as my early reaction to it, when I read a short article by Richard Haass, a former State Department official and current President of the Council on Foreign Relations. Here is the money quote from Haass:

"September 11, 2001, was a terrible tragedy by any measure, but it was not a historical turning point. It did not herald a new era of international relations in which terrorists with a global agenda prevailed, or in which such spectacular terrorist attacks became commonplace. On the contrary, 9/11 has not been replicated. Despite the attention devoted to the “Global War on Terrorism,” the most important developments of the last ten years have been the introduction and spread of innovative information technologies, globalization, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the political upheavals in the Middle East."
Now, ten years later, with the benefit of more data points, my views about 9/11 have shifted. I believe that those, like Haass, who still doubt the extraordinary importance of 9/11 are way off the mark. It's very evident to me that 9/11 has left a far-reaching and profound imprint on the U.S. and the world. It has penetrated American politics and society, and it has ushered in an inflexion point in world politics. Honestly, short of a great power, it's awfully hard to see what could have produced as much sweeping change and tumult here in the States and abroad.

Let's look at some concrete ways that 9/11 shaped and impacted the U.S. as well as the world. Below I've compiled a list of some repercussions of 9/11. It's not meant to be an exhaustive list, as I'm sure readers could include many more things that have manifested as an indirect or direct result of 9/11. Instead, the list is designed to focus only on the most important and lasting outcomes.

1. As a direct result of 9/11, the U.S. completely reoriented its foreign policy. By the fall of 2001, the Bush administration shifted from a great power-based, geographically circumscribed and focused, and primarily diplomatic approach to foreign policy to a much more ambitious set of ideas and plans. These ideas and plans included a willingness to use military force to spread American ideals, a commitment to unilateralism, a deep suspicion of international institutions and organizations. At bottom, this shift was the birth of neoconservative American foreign policymaking. To be clear, neoconservativism has a long and rich intellectual history long before 9/11, but it had never really served as a potent political force in Washington. 9/11 changed that. It made the notion of social and political engineering--which is exactly what remaking societies like Iraq and Afghanistan is all about--appealing and brought to greater prominence neoconservative officials like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith.

2. The U.S. launched two expensive and bloody wars, one in Afghanistan (2001) and another Iraq (2003), and its forces have remained in both countries for most of the last decade.

3. Without a doubt, the leading indicators predicting the rise of China, as well as a diminished America, pre-date 9/11. After all, China's economy has been expanding at a rapid, almost double-digit clip for about 30 years now, far and away outpacing all all countries during that time period. But the choices that the U.S. made in the aftermath of 9/11 has further narrowed the material power gap between the U.S. and China. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars placed a great strain on America's economy, sapping its strength and vibrancy and adding over 2 trillion ($1.6 trillion from the wars, $800 billion from additions to the Defense Dept. budget) to the U.S. debt. While the wars didn't directly cause the debt and financial crises of the last few years, they arguably paved the way for both to emerge and made it more difficult for the Bush and Obama to navigate both successfully. And as this happened, a crisis of confidence in the American economy emerged, shifting the heart of the world economy toward Asia (China, in particular) and away from the U.S. and EU member countries.
blog post on Power and Policy, a JFK school blog).

And at the same time, China has steadily increased its influence over foreign countries, both far from and near to Beijing. This was partially helped by the disgust that some countries had for the U.S. in the wake of its unpopular foreign wars, as well as by the perception that Washington spent to much time trying to proselytize them in the ways of economic liberalism, democracy, and human rights. Some countries in Africa, for instance, have decided it's better to cultivate and strengthen ties with the foreign policy amoral Chinese, who aren't interested in their internal affairs, than with the Americans, who are widely viewed as obsessed with concepts like values and rights and freedom.

4. In response to the 9/11 attacks, as a way of enhancing national security, the U.S. ramped up the size and presence of various policing and governing institutions, bodies, and legislation. Big government has ruled the day. The U.S. created the Department of Homeland Security, enacted the Patriot Act, executed major changes to the TSA, and made significant increases to the defense budget. Additionally, the U.S. has pursued a wave of surveillance of its citizens (via wiretapping, monitoring of Muslim communities, and so on). And finally, starting during the Bush administration and continuing to today, the U.S. has restored the imperial presidency, creating imbalanced power among the branches of government.

5. 9/11 extended and deepened the American culture wars between the conservative right and progressive left. Of particular relevance is the heated debates about topics such as how tolerant the U.S. should be about Muslim culture and religion; the assimilation of Muslims into the fabric of America; Islamic legal institutions; the merits/pitfalls of racial profiling; as well as the presence of Mosques around the U.S.

6. Terrorism has dominated foreign and domestic policymaking in capitals around the world, not just in Washington. In my view, for the past 10 years, it has become the organizing principle around which many countries orient their policies and their behavior with and toward others in the world. In part this has resulted from strong efforts of the U.S., which has pushed countries to take terrorism as seriously as it does. In this way, terrorism has been akin to the old cold war politics, functioning as the lens through which many countries have viewed the world and conducted their daily affairs.

7. Scholars have long talked about the concept of public goods in international relations. It's typically defined as the self-interested efforts of one or several leading powers that result in "goods" which can be consumed by all other countries. A seminal theory in international relations called Hegemonic Stability Theory is all about this very concept. It's the idea that the top liberal democracy (like Britain in the 19th C. and the U.S. in the 20th C.) often provide public goods like a free and open market economy for the rest of the world's benefit. The scholar Michael Mandelbaum has gone so far as to suggest that, for the past 60 plus years, the the U.S. has acted as a world governing entity, administering a sense of order and structure in the world. Among other things, it currently polices the seas to ensure trade goes uninterrupted; works to guard as protectionist measures, keeping markets open and free; aims to resolve conflicts, acting as a mediator in world disputes; and has set up a host of economic and security international institutions. The last 10 years tell us that we can add counter-terrorism to the list of public goods in world politics. While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are deeply unpopular in parts of the world, as are things like drone attacks, Guantanamo Bay, rendition, and so on, they have helped to shrink the menacing threat of Islamic terrorism--something that's good for the U.S., to be sure, but also something that other countries certainly benefit from as well.

I haven't weighed and scored the above list to determine how the U.S. has fared over the last 10 years. For one, as I said, the list isn't complete. And two, that's not the point of this blog post. I'll leave it to our readers to judge America's post-9/11 progress.

So what do you think? Have I missed anything? Would you take anything off my list? Let me know.

A new model for intervention? A response to Fareed Zakaria

Well, I think Brad is going to be upset with me for this! I am supposed to finish our long journal manuscript and do a post on 9/11, but instead I got distracted by this graph when I was browsing for materials.

A quick glance at this map shows why Fareed Zakaria was wrong in declaring that the Libyan intervention offers a new model for the west. As you can observe, almost every country bordering Libya immediately declared its support for the NTC - actually all of them, even Algeria. Despite the fact that Algeria sheltered Qaddafi's family, it did not interfere in the civil war and it actually seemed to be more disposed to the NTC, which would be more predictable than the erratic Qaddafi, should the Council really get the country in order. This is rather unique.

Indeed, it contrasts sharply with how other countries have behaved in conflicts and disputes near their territory. For instance, elements within Pakistan have sheltered, funded, and abetted the Taliban's fight in Afghanistan. (Heck, even Osama bin Laden was living peacefully close to Islamabad!) Iran has been funding and arming the Shiites in Iraq. Similarly, Syria essentially let its border open to Iraq, allowing al-Qaeda to send in reinforcements from all over the world through Syria. 

In addition, intervening in Libya is relatively "cheap" because it is CLOSE to the NATO states, thus reducing the transit costs and risks that the organization faced.

I agree with Zakaria that the U.S. should let the locals own their revolution. Yet, it was what actually happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. The locals, however, messed up badly, they splintered due to their focus on their own short-term interests.

It's hogwash to absolve the U.S. from the messes in Afghanistan and Iraq, because, among other things, the U.S. allowed the messes to happen due to its short-sightedness in focusing only on unpopular, terrible leaders that supported the U.S. Still, the ultimate blame should be rested on the local politicians who have not stopped squabbling and enriching themselves at the expense of the rest of the population.

Thus, to claim Libya as a new model for American foreign military intervention? Not so fast.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Bringing the State's Political Elites Back In

I probably need to unfollow Daniel Drezner on Twitter, because he keeps posting or retweeting many interesting essays that cut into my schedule. In his last twitter post, he mentioned Thanassis Cambanis' essay in the Boston Globe, which argues that the traditional state-based analysis is no longer working and:
"A strategy for this new world would have to incorporate large measures of uncertainty. In the old system, an understanding between superpowers carried the force of law almost worldwide; proxy conflicts that simmered for decades in Latin America or Asia could be shut off with the flourish of a pen in Moscow or Washington. In today’s world, by contrast, a sudden eruption between competing corporations, militias, activists, or individuals can derail the course of nations, indifferent to the agreements of larger powers and often blindsiding experts. A contemporary strategy would be one that gives us a way to make smarter choices in such nebulous situations, setting priorities about what really matters to the United States - a strong currency? Commercial competition with China and Europe? Military dominance? American-style democracy and human rights?"
This essay reminds me of "the Coming Anarchy," an old Robert Kaplan essay, which argues that we will soon see global chaos, thanks to the breakdown of the state's authority due to economic hardship. Many scholars nowadays think Robert Kaplan's argument is overly simplistic as it put too much emphasis on tribal/ethnic loyalties.

Unlike Kaplan, Cambanis argues that the biggest problem facing a state is that there are simply too much "competition," too many "free agents" running around: the corporations, militias, activists, terrorists, and whoever else comes out of the woodwork to hamper the conducts of statecraft:
"A world ... of manifold stakeholders, unexpected power centers, and messy inflection points - a fitting, if somewhat unsatisfying, close to the age of great nation states."
Yet, the question is whether this argument truly holds water. Since its inception in 1648, the international system has always been dominated by a few great powers. Even though many called the 1990s and 2000s the age of "unipolarity," a time when the United States alone dominated the globe, the United States was never a hegemon that held a hegemonic power over the entire world. Rather, what the United States did was to organize the world with the agreement of many other states, from Europe in the west to Japan in the east. Included here are the consent from both Russia and China.

This American-led system has been in place as far back as in 1945, when the United States implicitly gave a guarantee through the United Nations that states' existences were sacred, that no state would ever be destroyed. That was actually the driving force for the "Global Peace" since 1945, the fact that each state's survival was essentially guaranteed by the might of the United States. Without such a guarantee, debates in the United Nations sooner or later would be ended by war.

This kind of arrangement, however, creates different problems, notably the idea of "quasi-states." Explored and developed by Robert H. Jackson, "quasi-states" are states that are recognized by other states, especially its neighbors, and yet have such weak governments that the state is unable to control its own territory.

Such quasi-states allow criminal groups, terrorist groups, and various other riffraff to emerge and grow. We usually tend to associate states like Somalia as an example of quasi-state, but I will go further by arguing that even Pakistan is a quasi-state, particularly because its intelligence service and armed forces in reality dominate and bully its legitimate civilian government.

In essence, my definition of "quasi state" is state that allows armed, violent competition to exist within its own borders. It is all part of an internal process that determines political power between various groups, elites and so on protecting the status quo and others in society who seek to change it.

It is the reason why Taliban, al-Qaeda, and various other criminal/terrorist groups are able to exist and flourish. There are competitions within the political elites of the state to dominate such quasi-states, and each of them has vested interests in building and maintaining such violent extremist groups as means to terrorize the population to vote for them and to extort money, critical funds for politicking.

Therefore, many non-state actors can only exist and survive with the "permission" of the state, that the political elites within the state actually want them to exist. Even Pakistan, had it had the will to do so, could uproot the Taliban and al-Qaeda rather quickly. Yet both the Taliban and al-Qaeda are useful for Pakistan to wage proxy war against their main target, India.

Other non-state actors, notably the non-violent ones, similarly live and die by the will of the state. The United States can force companies such as Microsoft and Google to change their business practices through laws and taxes. China simply bullies them to submission. Corporations and NGOs are important for democratic countries to help the political elites to contest and win elections. And at the same time, their ability to exist is also determined by the state. The United States could theoretically disband the pesky NGOs, but the existence of the first amendment make such action very expensive and the United States has decided not to do that.

Therefore, the "new" world is not really that different to the "old" one. While individuals and NGOs are important, their ability to make changes are still heavily influenced by the state, especially the strong, powerful states and their political elites.

Addendum: You may also want to check our previous posts at: here and here.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Wikileaks: Is it overhyped?

This post is a follow up to my article in the Jakarta Globe on what Indonesia should learn from Wikileaks.

There are many discussions on the impact of Wikileaks on world politics, especially on U.S. diplomacy. Amnesty International, for instance, proclaimed that Wikileaks and the Guardian Newspaper were catalysts for the Arab Spring, writing that:
"Not since the end of the Cold War have so many repressive governments faced such a challenge to their stranglehold on power. The demand for political and economic rights spreading across the Middle East and North Africa is dramatic proof that all rights are equally important and a universal demand."
 The question that we should ask is how big is the impact of Wikileaks.

Take the example of Arab Spring. It seems to me that the documents have the biggest impact when there is a fed-up population in a state with divided elites. The governments had been discredited long ago- I really doubt that Ben Ali was popular before the leaks came out. Wikileaks' main impact, however, is in providing momentum to the uprisings.

The dominoes started falling after the collapse of Ben Ali's rule in Tunisia. Even though there had already been documents floating around that described the corruption within Mubarak's regime, yet it was only after the fall of Ben Ali that the revolutionary snowball began, that people suddenly realized that they could overthrow the regime on their own.

Still, as I noted in my previous post, it was only when the political elite splintered that the revolution was able to get the traction it needed. Otherwise, in places like Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, seems that life is going back to normal.

In Indonesia itself, while the Wikileaks' documents were used to bash President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and proved to be very embarrassing to the government due to the airing of the dirty laundry, yet as I wrote back in February, there was no way the Tunisian revolution would spread to Indonesia. The political class is pretty much in accord that free competition for political office will endure, even though elites still make lots of back-room dealings between themselves that give them lots of economic benefits. The people themselves, while grumbling due to the political atrophy and economic troubles, are not interested in starting a revolution because they are apathetic and consider any replacement for SBY to be inferior (yay for skepticism!)

What I find interesting is the extent of suspicion that people have toward Wikileaks. It is not uncommon to hear people declaring that the leaks are staged, that the Americans actually want to undermine governments all over the world by leaking them, because there is no way a disgruntled low-level officer of a country as strong and advanced as the U.S. can leak that much important information!

The fact that there is nothing really sensational in the documents, such as a secret Zionist plot or a secret U.S. plan to destroy the twin towers as a pretext to invade Iraq, further undermined the trust of many. More surprisingly, there are accusations that Assange had made a covert pact with Israel to undermine these Arab states while withholding all embarrassing documents about Israel and its secret plots for global domination. What's the proof of such accusation? The fact that there's no CIA or Mossad hitmen currently after Assange life. It's simply impossible!

In any case, when people started to read the mundane and ordinary State Department cables, they quickly lost interest since they learned that the life of a State Department officer is very unlike the "cloak and dagger" life that John Perkins illustrated in his book Confessions of an Economic Hitman.

Thus, maybe it is an ironic consolation to the United States that many people in third world countries are so paranoid toward the United States, that the damage from the Wikileaks itself is very limited. Well, of course, not to the informants, who, I think, would curse Assange and Wikileaks.