Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, December 13, 2012

North Korean Missile: A Yawn Moment?

On Wednesday, North Korea again launched a long-range rocket. Unlike the botched launch in April, however, this one was successful and managed to supposedly "put a peaceful satellite into orbit."

Round up the usual suspects' reactions! Nothing new here. The United States and Japan, as always, were furious. China, as always, tried to downplay the significance of the launch. What is interesting here, however, is that, as the Foreign Policy reported, Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and Li Baodong, the Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations, ended up in a verbal match over this issue.

There are several takes from this entire episode:

First, Li Baodong is not entirely wrong and at the same time not entirely correct. I tend to agree that North Korea launched the missile with its domestic audience as the main target. The failure of the April launch put a blot over Kim Jong Un's ascension as the new leader, and in North Korea, where reality and myth tend to be mixed together to provide legitimacy to the ruler, the April failure could be seen as inauspicious, a terrible beginning for the young "emperor." The December launch, done so close to the anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death (also conveniently, after China's leadership transition, making it less likely to offend China), could be seen as a way to break the portent.

Kim also needed to rein in the military. North Korea, in recent months, had led a bloody purge on its military officers, notably its high-ranking officials. Similar to Stalin's purge on the Red Army back in the 1930s, the regime most likely felt insecure and the missile test could be a way to calm the military down, demonstrably showing that they still have influence on the country's policy.

Internationally, this launch could be used to reassure North Korea's customers, notably Iran, that North Korea's missile program remains on track. Still, the international audience was not the priority in this case, otherwise North Korea would have waited until after South Korea's election, since North Korea's missile launch could benefit the ruling conservative party, which has taken a hard line against North Korea.

At the same time, however, Li Baodong is wrong, in that the North Korean rocket launch does constitute a threat to regional stability. Unlike past launches, this time, thanks to China's belligerence (and the weaknesses of Japan's politicians), Japan has seen a strong resurgence of arch conservative politicians who are not shy of advocating the need for Japan to have a nuclear weapon, such as Shintaro Ishihara, former Governor of Tokyo and potential kingmaker in Japan's politics.

Of course, it is far from certain that Japan will go nuclear. It cannot be denied, however, that the tensions in East Asia has been growing and North Korea's missile launch does nothing to calm down the situation.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Conversation: the Pivot, Chinese Aggression, Theory Building, and More

Below is a conversation between Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman that took place via email over the last week.

Brad Nelson: The American elections are over. Barack Obama won a second term in office. To begin this conversation, let's talk about the international political and security implications of the election results. In particular, I'm curious to get your thoughts on what you think four more years of Obama means for Asia?

Yohanes Sulaiman: The nice thing about Obama's reelection, I think, is that this means the U.S. will remain committed to focus on Asia. This is probably one of few the Obama foreign policy initiatives that I truly support. Asia is where all the action will take place in the next few decades. With the rise of China and the growing tensions accompanying it -- like it or not, regardless of its intention, China is a 800-ton panda that will leave a mark for sure -- the United States will have to spend more resources in this region, away from Europe and other regions.

There are, of course, distractions, notably all the fights against terror groups in the Middle East and North Africa, the intractable Israel-Palestinian problem, and even Iran. Still, if you look at the grand scale of things, these things are probably not as important as they used to be.

BN: I think the idea of the so-called pivot is a good one. Business, money, arms, and political influence are all heading East, toward Asia. It's a good to get on top of this reality now rather than later, when it's too late.

I am concerned, though, that the pivot relies too heavily on military and security arrangements and instruments, such as a growing number of military exercises in the region, the base in Darwin, and so on. Sure, these things reassure America's allies, like Japan and South Korea and the Philippines. But they also make Beijing feel as if Washington is seeking to contain and encircle China. This provides incentives for China to act increasingly aggressively, like pressing its claims to the South China Sea, so as to maximize its power and prevent the U.S. from hemming it in.

YS: On the base in Darwin, my sources told me that it will do nothing to help the U.S. to contain China. The base is small and there are only 3000 marines there, and apparently it is used mostly for joint U.S.-Australia disaster training. The Okinawa base is closer to China and more useful for any attempt to contain China. Singapore is actually currently a host to three American littoral ships. Still, the symbolism, I think, is very important, as even with such a token presence, it assures both Vietnam and the Philippines of America's commitment to the region. China seems to realize that, as it created the City of Sansha last June, and put a military base there -- though it's pretty useless as all Chinese ships are still based on Hainan Island.

Still, on China's aggressiveness, I think a bulk of it is caused by the Bo Xilai scandal -- he was so close to the Chinese military, and in order to safely contain the fallout of the scandal, the military had to be appeased, including taking a much harder line on Spratly. (Jack Snyder's Myths of Empire comes to mind here). It is not that easy to deescalate the situation, considering the fact that the Chinese government has been inflaming the public opinion too.

BN: I don't doubt that the military capabilities the U.S. has in the region is more symbolic than suited to fighting wars. In one sense, it doesn't matter much. Both factors can have an equally powerful impact on Asian countries. They are reassuring to America's friends and provocative to China. But in another sense, these symbolic moves by Washington, if that's what they are, could prove detrimental. The capabilities are just enough to rile up China but probably not enough to deter unwanted Chinese policies and actions.

You make good points about Chinese nationalism and civil-military relations. On the surface, it seems like we have competing hypotheses here. On the one hand, as I suggest, perhaps it's U.S. foreign policy that's motivating China's behavior. Other the hand, as you point out, maybe China's domestic politics is the driving force. But the truth is that both explanations, to varying degrees, are likely consequential. Just for a little fun, care to take a stab at putting together a theory of Chinese aggressiveness that incorporates both external (e.g., U.S. foreign policy) and internal factors or variables (e.g., nationalism, civil-military relations)?

BN: Ever since I posed the above question to you, I've been racking my brain thinking about it. And I believe I have one possible answer. It's a neoclassical realist explanation for China's behavior.
China's rapidly expanding power bases, combined with U.S. foreign policies directed at Beijing, create systemic incentives and pressures for China to vigorously assert itself in international politics, especially within its region. Typically, Chinese elite preferences would push against and often neutralize these temptations, as historically China's leaders prefer not to engage in such behavior, fearing the potential negative international, regional, and domestic repercussions. Henry Kissinger has described Chinese decision making as a game of wei ch'i, and that captures the basic point I'm making here.

However, today that's no longer that case. As you argue, Chinese nationalism and civil-military relations are pushing Beijing in a more aggressive direction. Hence, the intervening variable in this neoclassic realist formulation--the various layers and permutations of Chinese internal politics--no longer tamps down the impulses for China to expand its power and influence. Nowadays we find both systemic incentives and pressures and Chinese politics pointing the state down the path of confrontation and aggression.

YS: Wei Ch'i or Go is a passive-aggressive game. On one hand you are supposed to defend your territories, but on the other hand, the territories are so badly demarcated that you end up invading each other to defend your region. It is quite interesting. We should try playing that game someday.

I kind of disagree with the argument that China hasn't vigorously asserted itself in its history. There are several problems with that argument, but most importantly, there's nothing around it. Well, true, there's the Spice Islands to the southeast, a couple of nice rice-growing areas in Southeast Asia, etc -- but then again, the capabilities of imperial power wasn't not unlimited. Most of China's energy has been spent on trying to defend its northern borders. It is impossible to expand north due to harsh conditions, and any expansion to that region would be prohibitively expensive, causing every dynasty, except Qing, to limit its expansion to the northern limits of the Great Wall. Check Alastair Iain Johnston's book Cultural Realism. A convoluted work but I think has some nuggets to grasp.

To some degree, China's aggressiveness is a systemic cause --  the U.S. has been declining and not paying attention to Asia, and thus China has started to assert itself in the region, as far back as in 2001 (remember the Hainan Island incident). China hasn't really riled up other states until in early this year due to Bo Xilai scandal. So that's the systemic variable. But how the Chinese state ultimately acts, in specific instances, is a product of its domestic political dynamics.

BN: Well, you kind of make the point that I put forward. China could have engaged in imperial expansion, but it really didn't, preferring to secure the state and country rather than seek new spoils abroad. Historically, it has acted rationally. It's avoided the perils of imperial overexpansion that Jack Snyder talks about.

Based on your second paragraph in your last comment, I assume you agree with my quick and dirty model of Chinese aggression. In short, both systemic incentives and domestic politics both push China today in the direction of confrontation and assertiveness.

YS: My argument is that back then it is more of the problem of the lack of opportunity and resources to expand - though that also raises an interesting question: to what degree are state preferences shaped by external factors versus internal consideration (such as national identity or domestic politics)?

Often, I think we mix up the order of horse and carriage. For example, constructivist scholars argue that the concept "identity" matters a great deal and shapes policy preferences. On the other hand, it is also possible to argue that policy preferences are set already and politicians/bureaucrats ty to justify it using national identity (e.g. Confucian ideology) or other tools. Robert Wuthnow's Communities of Discourse comes to mind.

BN: It's an interesting question, but one that involves potentially a limitless number of variables. In my view, the most important of these is the issue of leadership, since it's state leaders who have their mitts on the policy process and make decisions. Of course, once we regress further down the causal chain, it's obvious that leaders are pushed and pulled in a host of directions by various international, regional, domestic, and individual-level variables.

But let's stay on the topic of leadership, since it's allows me to raise a final topic I'd like to discuss: the transition in power in China. What do you think the rise of Xi Jinping, among others, up the political ladder means for Chinese foreign policy? And in particular, what does it mean for China's relations with the U.S.?

YS: Xi Jinping, I think, rose to power at a critical juncture in Chinese history. The economy is overheating and at the same time public trust in the government is declining due to power abuses and corruption. Moreover, China has been burning its international goodwill rather quickly due to the border disputes.

The signs now seem to show that China has painted itself in a corner, though the damage is not necessarily irreversible. I think Xi will try to project an aggressive image, especially on issues concerning China's sovereignty due to the need to placate the nationalists and the militarists, but at the same time he will reach out quietly to Southeast Asian, Japan, and the the United States. For instance, see this article.

BN: I agree that Xi will take a hard line in word and speech on foreign policy. At a minimum, it's sure to bolster his standing and the legitimacy of the Chinese government. The risk, though, is nationalism run amok. It's hard to put the genie, so to speak, back into the bottle once it's unleashed. Hardline views and sentiments naturally stir up nationalist passions, which can make it difficult for Xi and his associates not to be confrontational and aggressive in defending national interests. Quite frankly, this is already happening. Consider the China-Japan spat over contested islands.

As you suggested above, the Chinese government, in league with state media, have manipulated nationalist fervor so high that there have been anti-Japanese demonstrations, protests, and even attacks. And along the way, Beijing has only continued to up the ante, with the passport brouhaha the latest obstacle in China-Japan relations.

BN: Frankly, I think you have hit on an essential point, one that touches the nexus between Chinese domestic and foreign politics. Can Xi successfully balance the foreign policy interests and grievances of moderates and hardliners in China's political and economic and military circles? While it's way, way too early in his tenure to answer this question, keep in mind the answer will have a profound impact on regional and world politics and economics and security. If Xi Jinping can keep both sides in check, then he should have the kind of policy flexibility to ensure that China's various border, territory and waterway conflicts don't spiral out of control. In fact, this might be the key in China's island dispute with Japan (and other Asian countries). But if he can't, then all bets are off.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Did Hamas win?

"Streets in Gaza city erupted after jubilation after the cease-fire." That was the caption of the photo in the New York Times. The question is, what did Hamas achieve to merit such jubilation?

Well, to be honest, not much. Hamas managed to show fellow Gazans that it still had some fire in its belly -- though the death of the head of Hamas' military wing, who was killed by Israel, meant that Hamas actually had to attack Israel full force, lest it lose credibility and show weaknesses to its rivals. In responding with violence, Hamas managed to prolong its rule over Gaza by reaffirming its commitment to anti-Israeli resistance and also attracting sympathies from fellow Palestinians in the West Bank. Beyond that, as James Traub of Foreign Policy noted, the centrality of Hamas weakened an already weak Palestinian Authority under President Abbas. 

At the same time, however, the war was a disaster for Hamas. The hope that the Arab Spring would prove beneficial for Hamas has been proven false. Hamas' political counterpart in Egypt, despite having explicit sympathy toward Hamas, refused to get involved militarily. Israel also managed to destroy a significant numbers of Hamas' missiles and wreck its smuggling tunnel -- though the extent of the damage is still unclear. Moreover, it is apparent that the terms of the ceasefire itself is still under dispute, with both sides signing the ceasefire without ironing out the terms beforehand. To put it bluntly, Hamas has duping its supporters, declaring that Israel had given up concessions while, in reality, Israel didn't.

In fact, Israel is the major beneficiary of this battle, thanks to the Iron Dome Missile Shield. Not only was IDMS fairly successful in protecting Israel from incoming attacks, but by taking live fire, the Israelis were able to monitor IDMS in action, paving the way for continued refinements. Going forward, IDMS will only become more capable and effective. And sooner or later, the regular missiles that Hamas and other militant groups used to launch toward will no longer pose the same kind of threat that Hamas used to pressure Israel. 

Moreover, the Iron Dome received such good press that it will also be commercially beneficial for Israel, with South Korea is looking forward to purchase some batteries. It can also be argued that the success of the Iron Dome itself makes it unnecessary for Israel to invade Gaza, which risks more lives, bad press, and for Benjamin Netanyahu, an unknown factor in his otherwise smooth ride toward reelection.

Whether the ceasefire holds depends on whether Egypt is an honest broker. Egypt has to simultaneously assure Israel that no rockets will enter Gaza and keep open the commercial links between Egypt and Gaza. There are concerns about whether Egypt can and will do this. After all, should Hamas really get cut off from its weapon suppliers in the region, Egyptian President Morsi would take a lot of heat domestically.

Still, the risk for Egypt is great: should the ceasefire fail, both Israel and Hamas can and might place blame on Egypt, and that would undermine Egypt's credibility and sink its goal to position itself as a diplomatic heavyweight in Middle East. And Washington, Tel Aviv, and surprisingly, Riyadh, which abhors the emergence of what it perceives as an Iranian client in its backyard, would also put heavy pressure on Egypt to make sure that none of the rocket parts can be smuggled for Hamas, despite Egypt's likely sympathy toward Hamas.

In addition, Morsi's controversial decision to grant himself more power at the expense of the Egyptian judiciary has already sparked demonstrations, protests, and legal challenges. The last thing he currently needs now is another distraction on Egypt's eastern border that would bring international pressure and might embolden his domestic opponents. Morsi likely prefers Hamas to lie down, and he might be inclined to maintain Egypt's position as honest power broker, meaning that Egypt will try to keep the commercial route open while halting the delivery of Hamas' rockets.

If that is the case, that the ceasefire holds and Egypt really does what is expected, then Hamas is the loser. It will be more difficult for Hamas to replenish its rockets. Added to these troubles, Hamas could suffer a massive loss of revenues, as it procures considerable profit (60% of its operating budget) from its ability to tax smuggling networks. Not surprisingly, this does not look good for Hamas. There is a good chance that everything will be back to the status quo, except now Israel is even more wary and skeptical of Hamas, as it discovered so many missiles managed to find their way into Gaza, and more secure, because of the IDMS.

So did Hamas win? If the definition of winning is to stay in power, then yes. Hamas has lived to see another day. Yet Hamas' "victory" came with a heavy price. Pyrrus probably summed it well: "If we are victorious in one more battle..., we shall be utterly ruined."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Behind the Rhetoric: Why Everybody Loves Israel

Walter Russell Mead, as usual, wrote an interesting analysis, in light of Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil's visit to Gaza, that is worth quoting here:

Egyptian support for Hamas has thus far remained strictly verbal. There have been no hints of military aid. The strong rhetoric and visit from the prime minister can be read as frantic efforts by Egyptian politicians to keep other Arabs from asking why Egypt’s Islamists are so passive when their neighbors are under attack. Rather than jumping into the fray, Morsi and Qandil are making lots of angry noises to retain their Islamist credentials while avoiding a confrontation with Israel that would inevitably end in a crushing defeat.
The last Egyptian who led his country into a war against Israel for the sake of looking tough was Nasser; the result was exactly the kind of horrible, stinging humiliation that the Muslim Brotherhood does not need — and would certainly get if Israel and Egypt were to clash. It’s important to remember at times like this that the ferocious rhetoric of Israel’s enemies is in part simply a reflection of their weakness and impotence before the Jewish state. They cannot actually bite, and so they bark and bark and bark.

WRM is right. Egypt is simply not ready for a war against Israel. Its economy is in shambles, and just a couple of days ago, the European Union finally agreed to send US$6.4 billion in aid. War would strain the economy at a time when Egypt doesn't need any more distractions. At the same time, even if President Morsi is willing to send troops, the Egyptian army is simply unprepared, having been purged and demoralized in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  Yes, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood does not need a beating in a war against Israel that could harm their domestic political standing.

More importantly, at a strategic level, it is not in the interest of Morsi or other Arab leaders to support Hamas and attack Israel.

First, there's the question of Hamas itself. It is true that Hamas has a common ideological background with the Egyptian Ikhwanul Muslimin. Despite this, however, they have different goals and agenda.

Consider this: Hamas has a tenuous grip on the Gaza strip. Fatah looks at every means possible to undermine Hamas' power, and at the same time, Hamas tries to make sure that they are not upstaged by a more radical Palestinian factions, notably Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade. Thus, it is in Hamas' interest to maintain radical rhetoric on Israel and turn a blind eye on more radical groups' rocket attacks to Israel to let off steam. In spite of Hamas being Sunni, it enjoys good cooperation with Iran, which is seen as the biggest threat to Israel; and in spite of the rumored split with Iran over the crisis in Syria, apparently the military linkage still holds.

Second, Hamas' close link with Iran makes Saudi Arabia, another of Iran's arch-nemesis, nervous, because Saudi Arabia is more concerned about Iran, which Saudi Arabia sees as a hostile revisionist Shiite power, than about Israel. Despite Saudi Arabia's aggressive rhetoric toward Israel, Saudi Arabia sees Israel as a necessary, valuable evil: to balance Iran, and to serve as a nice bogeyman to its restless citizens.

Besides, Saudi Arabia realizes that it has little to fear from Israel. Israel, as the dominant power in the region, is a status quo power, more interested in preserving the current power arrangement than in changing it. And should Israel cause too many problems for the region, Saudi Arabia knows that the United States can be counted on to hold Israel back.

For the Egyptian Ikhwanul Muslimin, it is in their interest to stay in power and to show their very nervous neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia, that they are responsible enough to maintain the regional status-quo, and that means not spoiling for a fight with Israel and not making too many deals with Hamas, which is seen as a proxy of Iran.

Third, it is in the interest of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to maintain the Israel-Palestinian problem, because it continues to bring to light the "right to return" question. As long as the "right to return" question remains salient in the region, all the Arab countries can place blame for the neglect of Palestinian refugees on Israel. Israel will never accept the "right to return" principle, because it will cause a demographic nightmare, straining the already scarce resources while shifting Jews to minority status in Israel.

Should both the Palestinians and Israelis make an agreement on the status of refugees, assuming that Israel's position prevails--that none of the refugees return to their old homes--the refugees in turn would move on, continue to settle where they currently reside, or disperse throughout the region, and that in turn, would cause demographic problems for Arab countries.

In Jordan, for instance, there are approximately 2.7 million Palestinians and another 2 million living in Jordan's refugees camps. Considering that the population of Jordan is only 6 million people, if these 4.7 million Palestinians were absorbed into Jordan, they will have an ethnic majority in the country. These Palestinians, in turn, will likely demand to have their voices heard, something that the current Arab regimes, including Joran, have loathed to give, and will likely want greater political power. In Jordan, for instance, these millions of Palestinians only have six representatives in the 120 seats parliament.

Fourth, actually Iran, perversely, also loves Israel. Years of economic mismanagement, except during Khatami's interlude in 1997-2005, coupled with international sanctions has badly damaged Iran's economy. The issue of Israel serves as a very nice distraction to its population, away from the theocracy's own failed economic policies. It justifies Iran's massive spending in its military and nuclear program, and more importantly, allows the Mullahs to paint any voice of dissent as the Zionists' fifth pillar.

Therefore, in a very strange but logical sense, we can say that everybody (at least those in the ME/NA) loves Israel. Far from being an unwanted presence in its neighborhood, Israel plays an invaluable role, one that's prized by both Arab and Persian countries.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Advice for the Democrats

President Barack Obama waves to supporters after his victory speech at McCormick Place on election night November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images / SF

Election night in Chicago, after Obama's victory speech. Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images / SF.

My colleagues Yohanes Sulaiman and JD Hamel have offered their thoughts on the recent U.S. elections, focusing in particular on the plight of the political right. Here, in this post, I focus on the elections and America's left, including the Democratic Party. Viewed properly, our three pieces complement each other. Regardless of your political persuasion, I hope our pieces give you a sense of what has just happened and where the future is headed in American politics.

Let's begin with the obvious: it's been more than a week since America's elections, and the Democrats and their liberal supporters are still rejoicing in the results. The democrats retained the presidency and picked up seats in the Senate. They pulled out a win despite the sluggish economy, a torrent of negative ads from the right, and a never ending slush fund, from Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers, and network of shady conservative Super PACs, that backed right-wing candidates and causes. As I see it, the odds should have been stacked against the Democrats, and Obama especially, on November 6.

Barack Obama's bid for reelection probably should have gone the way of George H. W. Bush. Both men struck major foreign policy successes--the low-cost defense of Kuwait in the first Persian Gulf War for Bush, and the death of Osama bin Laden for Obama--yet found their administrations overtaken by economic stagnation and difficulties. In fact, so successful was the first Persian Gulf War that Bush's approval rating soared over 90 percent, much higher than Obama's ever was in his first term. Yet Bush lost his reelection bid in 1992, in the "it's the economy, stupid" vote, while Obama avoided avoided Bush's fate as a one-term president. Why?

It was a combination of what the Democrats did right and what the Republicans did wrong. On the one hand, Obama supported policies more in line with American policy preferences. Americans trusted Obama to pursue and execute these policies. Further, his campaign did a good job of identifying and targeting voters--using a variety of tools--possibly inclined to vote for Democratic candidates, including Obama himself.

As for the republicans, they endured a host of self-inflicted difficulties and setbacks. Here are several to consider.

1. Mitt Romney was a mediocre at best candidate. He really didn't offer a good reason for centrist democrats and independents to vote for him. In particular, he presented few specifics on his domestic, foreign, and economic policies, and didn't set forth any new ideas. He campaigned much like John Kerry did in 2004. Both believed that the American electorate was so fed up with the incumbent president that it was sufficient to pound the message that they were against Bush and Obama rather than clearly highlight what they stood for.

2. The Romney campaign waged an ineffective ground game, investing little effort in knocking on doors and other forms of person-to-person outreach.

3. There was way too much talk about abortion and rape, not only from Todd Aiken and Richard Mourdock but also from Romney and Paul Ryan.

4. Yes, the demographics shift, which tells us that the U.S. has a slowly shrinking Caucasian population relative to Asian and Latino and African Americans, also mattered. Election results show that Obama handily won all three ethnicities, which more than offset his declining vote total among white citizens.

5. The final straw, and arguably the most humorous part of the entire campaign season, was the polling fiasco. In the run-up to the elections, the conservatives deluded themselves into thinking the polling data from a host of organizations--data which predicted an Obama victory--were biased and that Romney would win. Dick Morris, George Will, Sean Hannity, and Charles Krauthammer were among an army of conservatives who fit this description. Indeed, some conservatives took the initiative to create a web site called "unskewed polls," which, as the name suggests, aimed to unskew the so-called liberal polls. The problem is that these polls weren't skewed; they reflected the demographic and party ID realities in 2012 America.

It wasn't just conservative pundits and conservative citizens who believed in a Romney victory, Romney himself was ultra-confident that victory was his. Reports indicate that Romney was "shellshocked" at his electoral defeat. In retrospect, it's clear he really did believe that. It's why he played it very, very conservatively down the stretch. If you recall, he canceled all media appearances, did not field questions from the media while on the road, and gave an odd performance in the third presidential debate, in which he essentially rubber stamped many of Obama's policies. Romney believed the election was his to lose, and so he didn't want to risk making any gaffes in the campaign's final weeks. Of course, he was wrong; Obama held the lead in the last few weeks. What Romney did, in effect, was create an out-of-sight out-of-mind campaign at a crucial moment. Conservatives argue that it was Hurricane Sandy that contributed to this. And while I agree that Sandy did the Romney campaign no favors, Romney's play-it-safe approach was well in motion before Sandy made national headlines.

As you might expect, the left is relishing in these factors and events. They are enjoying the soul searching and teeth gnashing on the right, which is in the very nascent stages of trying to hash out where the Republican Party and the conservative movement more generally should go in the future. Certainly, it was a big win for the left, and there's some justification for a little celebration.

That said, though, the liberals and Democrats ought not rest on their laurels. Despite the big win and the right's major screw-ups, and despite the apparent demographic trends, the left is by no means guaranteed future political success at the polls. Here are a few reasons for some caution:

1. Barack Obama was a very unique candidate. His race, age, and oratory skills make him an inspiring figure unlike any other in the Democratic Party right now. I suspect many Americans primarily casted their vote for him, Barack Obama, rather than for his policies or for the Democratic Party. If that's the case, what happens when Obama leaves office? Will that negatively impact the election chances for the 2016 Democratic nominee for president? And in the absence of Obama on the ballot, will House and Senate democrats in 2016 struggle to capture and hold seats in Congress

2. Gerrymandering might nullify the putative pro-left demographic changes in some house races.

3. In 2014 (and 2018, 2022, and so on), when the youth fail to vote in the same numbers as they did in 2008 and 2012, as usually happens in so-called off-year elections, the Republicans will gain a distinct advantage.
Hence, the Democrats shouldn't get complacent. First, they need to fix the economy by working to ensure continued growth and reduced unemployment. Without progress on these fronts, the Democrats will feel the heat at the polls in 2014 and beyond. At a certain point, and that point is approaching, the Democrats will be the party that takes the brunt of the criticism--from the right, left, and centrist voters--for the state of the American economy.
Second, the Democrats ought to find issues that naturally fit with the party platform and also speak to a wide range of people. I suggest climate change. This is an issue, if articulated better, can be sold to young people for sure, but also centrists and those who lean to the right. For example, I would think a wide swath of people agree that it's a good idea for the U.S. to wean itself off of fossil fuels so as to reduce the leverage that strongmen and theocrats, in Russia and Iran and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, have over the world. Moreover, the neocons and liberal internationalists, who heartily support democracy promotion, should realize that high gas prices allow the world's bad guys to insulate themselves from internal pressure for reform.

There is also a moral dimension here, one that should be highlighted. Namely, we have a moral responsibility to protect and conserve all of the wonderful natural wonders and resources that mother nature or God has granted to America. There is no good reason to be greedy, to wastefully use up the precious raw materials and resources, and there is no reason to despoil the earth.

Plus, given the recent spate of devastating storms and disasters, like Hurricane Sandy, which respected scientists have linked in various ways to changes in the climate, it might be a good time for Democrats to push climate change toward the top of their policy agenda. In a practical sense, it is an awfully good idea to begin the process of putting in place a comprehensive climate/energy/infrastructure plan that keeps people and cities safe and secure. And in a political sense, with climate change an increasingly topical and resonant issue for Americans across the political spectrum, Democratic politicians might find that they finally have enough support to get something done.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Post-election Republicans: What now?

To be honest, I was surprised when Brad asked me to write "the conservative's take on Obama's victory." It is one thing to be the self-appointed in house-conservative, but quite another thing to be "representing" the American conservatives, especially when you are not a US citizen in the first place! Still, let me take a stab on it.

It cannot be denied that many of us were shell-shocked, seeing that the conservative projections went wrong. Most famously, of course, is Karl Rove's meltdown on Fox News:

Mitt Romney was so confident that he prepared only a victory speech.Of course, once he lost, the circular firing squad began. First, Romney's entire campaigning strategy was questioned, with many alleged improprieties exposed. The campaign was apparently "flying blind" during the election thanks to a botched vote-tracker system and an ineffective up get-out-to vote operation.

Despite those problems, however, one thing is clear: unlike Paul Krugman's boasts, the Democrats did not win an overwhelming victory (I can dissect so many problems with Krugman's arguments, but I better waste my time on something more productive and constructive, like playing Civilization IV or Ragnarok Online). Obama was elected on a very small margin of victory almost equal to Bush in 2004 (Bush won with 3,012,171 votes in 2004 while Obama won with 3,010,363 -- that number might change, though, as votes are finalized).

Moreover, while the Democrats picked up several seats in the Senate, the Republicans still control the House. The Democrats also only managed to win the Senate because some of the Republican candidates simply self-destructed, notably Akin and Mourdock. The Republicans also hold 30 gubernatorial mansions and almost wiped the Democrats out in the South.

Considering the fact that Obama is an incumbent (and by being an incumbent, he has the bully pulpit and thus starts with many advantages) and has a subservient media beholden to him, covering up all his missteps (Bush would have been tarred and feathered over the unmanned drones, the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the entire Libya and Benghazi fiasco) and ready to pounce on every Republican's missteps, it is actually a surprise that his margin of victory was not larger.

Still, a win is a win, and the Republicans and conservatives have to adjust their strategies.

So what the Republicans should do?

First, follow what Jennifer Rubin advocates: broaden the appeal to minorities, such as African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans. A point that's often ignored is that there are many minority supporters of social and fiscal conservativism. George W. Bush tried to broaden the base even further, and it is a shame that the Republican Party didn't follow through; instead, the issue of immigration reform became an albatross on the Republicans' neck. While there are concerns that embracing immigration reforms would alienate Republicans' supporters, I think these concerns are overblown, especially if the immigration issue is tackled carefully.

Second, prevent Obama from controlling the narrative, a task that is hard due to the MSM's bias for the Democrats. Boehner clearly realized that, and thus avoided the "one term president" remark. Instead, he extended an olive branch. Republicans ought to compromise when necessary, but also stick to their guns, notably on budgetary issues, unless the national Republicans wish to share the Californian Republicans' fate, or worse, contribute to something akin to California's disastrous blue model.

Third, avoid self-destructive primaries and do not back undisciplined candidates. While primaries are important, the Republicans need to remember and obey Reagan's Eleventh Amendment. After he won the Republican nomination, Romney could not easily move back to center because he was pushed too far to the extreme. This in the end simply became fodder for the Democrats' firing squad. It would also be wise for the candidates to be better prepared. Governor Perry's disastrous performance, for instance, could have been avoided.

Fourth: mobilize the base effectively. While money helps and is always nice to have, this election shows that base-mobilization remains critical. Republican must find ways to reenergize the base.

Fifth, and actually more importantly, the Republicans also have to help the Tea Party to mature as a political force in American elections and governing. The Tea Party has received a bad rap in the past few elections due to their predilection of supporting bad candidates. And, of course, it has been unfairly caricaturized and stereotyped by the media. For now, this is a flawed asset for the Republicans, but has to be cultivated and reformed nevertheless, because Tea Partiers have fire in their bellies and the enthusiasm to vote.

What should we expect?

Be ready for a really rough second term. Do not expect the Democrats to steamroll the Republicans. The Republicans lost, but only barely. They still control the House. Moreover, with all the vitriol during the election, it would be stupid to expect the Republicans to simply roll over and play dead. The base is outraged and unwilling to compromise, and the Republican leaders will listen to the base.

The market realized that, and thus the Dow plunged last Wednesday. There are expectations that it will be much harder for the two parties to compromise for the next four years.

Therefore, unless Obama wishes his second term to be even more difficult than his first, he should learn to compromise and engage the Republicans.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Perils of Leading From Behind

Critics of Barack Obama's so-called doctrine of "leading from behind" claim that such an approach to foreign policy risks making America appear weak--in terms of power, resolve, and credibility--to the rest of the world.

They might be right, they might be wrong. Clearly, most of these critics launch their verbal and written attacks through the lens of partisan politics. The right-wing of U.S. politics has a political incentive to articulate what they see as weak spots in the current president's foreign (and domestic) policies. Whether these criticisms are grounded in reality is irrelevant; the game is to degrade the president's approval. And actually, because of the combination of scant media fact checking, a large presence of low-information voters, and a polarized electorate, there are few mechanisms to deter groups/individuals from putting forward criticisms are more myth than truth.

(Of course, these political maneuvers aren't the sole domain of Republicans. They work both ways in American politics: just as the right engages in exaggeration, worst-case assessments, and tall tales when it's the opposition party, so does the left when it's the party out of power.)

To this point, there has been little evidence that "leading from behind" has fundamentally altered the perceptions of the U.S. What it has done, though, is create opportunities for other countries to advance their interests and goals. Specifically, it has effected an opening for countries like Russia and China to seize the leadership mantle in world politics.

The latest example of this occurred this week. After weeks of America's refusal to step up its involvement in the Syrian conflict, China has recently put forward its own plan to resolve the hostilities. According to Reuters:
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news briefing that under the "new proposal there are constructive new suggestions such as a ceasefire region by region and phase by phase, and establishing a transitional governing body".
He said it was "an extension of China's effort to push for a political resolution of the Syrian issue".

Sure, China's Syria proposals could be relatively innocuous, maybe even helpful. In a larger, international context, that would be a good thing. But over the long-term, if this situation continually repeats itself, the U.S. could very well suffer considerable harm to its strategic interests and position in the world.


On the one hand, U.S. might find itself squeezed out of its dominant place in the world, having to share leadership responsibilities and duties with countries like China. That, in turn, means that the U.S. will be in a far worse position to defend and advance all the things that are important to Washington and American citizens. On the other hand, as foreign countries assert themselves in international politics, they will seek ends that at times fit with America's worldview and at times run counter to it, the latter of which can jeopardize U.S. interests and values.

So as an example, when China acts as an obstructionist force at the UN or when it cobbles together a proposal that in effect advocates "peace through dialogue"--both of which shield and prop up Bashar al-Assad, the brutal Syrian government and security forces--it's less likely that freedom, democracy, and human rights win the day in Syria. And it's more likely that Syria remains a basket case, a home where conflict, repression, state-sponsored terrorism, and Iranian influence thrives.

Certainly, an economically struggling U.S. has to pick and choose carefully when and where it flexes its power. And leading from behind can carry benefits, such as burden sharing. But as noted above, there are serious downsides as well. A second term Obama administration, or a first term Romney government, needs to think very carefully about employing "leading from behind" as standard practice in American foreign policy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rapid Response to the 3rd US Presidential Debate

Sigh.... Good enough, I guess....

This article is brought to you by the letter "B" for Big Bird, Binders, and Bayonet.

Okay, first of all, this is probably the worst foreign policy debate ever. Both candidates spent a lot of time talking about domestic politics, ranging from class size, teachers, Solyndra, and the auto-bailout. Virtually everything about foreign policy is collared back to domestic policy; poor Bob Schieffer had to beg both Obama and Romney to get back to foreign policy -- though he managed to keep things under control, probably because each candidate didn't want to be seen as behaving like a bully bent on elder abuse.

The debate did not discuss much of substance. What would both Romney and Obama would do regarding the Israeli-Palestinian relationship? Or what about India? China was discussed seemingly as an afterthought, more to bash it for "silent trade war" and protectionism, for a grand total of... 5 minutes? No mention at all about the problems in South China Sea or the current Sino-Japanese spat. Obama's mention of America's pivot to Asia is also worth mentioning here, considering that U.S. embassies everywhere were strictly prohibited from mentioning the word "pivot."

[Here's what my contact at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta had to say when I ribbed him/her about this: "Ha! He's the boss, he gets to say whatever he wants!"]

Anyway, there are several reasons for this lack of foreign policy in a debate on foreign policy:

First, in an attempt to limit the chances of alienating any part of the electorate, both candidates geared their stated foreign policy positions toward the center of the political spectrum. This meant that there wasn't much daylight in the stances staked out by Romney and Obama. Everyone was back to the usual political correctness: Israel is good; Iran is bad; China is malicious; Syria is a mess, but we can't send troops there; and we won in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, there were some policy differences, such as whether to keep troops in Iraq and the final date of America's withdrawal from Afghanistan, but they were so nuanced that most voters won't care or find them too technical.

Second, with his polling numbers improving, Romney seemed to settle down to a "no drama" mode. Romney might be tempted to hit Obama again on Benghazi, but having been licked once in the last week's debate, he seemed to decide to play it safe. He did throw in some jabs, such as Obama's "apology tour," which led to sharp retort from Obama, but overall Romney seemed to happily absorb Obama's attacks.

Even though snap polls from CBS, CNN, and PPP showed that Obama won the debate because Obama was aggressive, it is doubtful if the debate will end Romney's momentum. In fact, the third debate was no longer a game changer, unlike the first one. The first debate greatly boosted Romney's chances because it showed to the Republicans that he had the fire in his belly. It also showed the independents that Romney was not as bad as Obama painted him to be.

As Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, tweeted, "Shocker: All D's think O won, all R's think R won." At this point, Romney didn't need to be aggressive, as he only needed to court women and make sure he didn't make stupid mistakes.

Surprisingly, even though Romney was not aggressive, the contrast between his and Obama's  performance was striking. Romney behaved as a sober, presidential alternative, while Obama actually looked desperate to score points, hitting Romney straight from the start, because at this point, Obama has more to lose compared to Romney, as Romney right now holds the momentum. At several points in the debate, Romney even managed to needle Obama, "Attacking me is not talking about an agenda."

Ann Althouse got it right:
Here's my bottom line: By adopting a strategy of only modestly challenging Obama and mostly seeming the same as Obama on foreign policy, Romney neutralized foreign policy as an issue and kept the election focus on the economy. He even refocused the discussion on the economy whenever he could over the course of the evening. The election is about the economy, and nothing either candidate said tonight will change that. The only way Obama really could have won is if Romney had tumbled into some kind of exploitable gaffe. That didn't happen.
Dan Drezner also weighed in in the same vein:
For the past month, Mitt Romney had been chipping away at Obama’s foreign policy record. Tonight he seemed to want to emulate it. His clear hope is that the performance was good enough for voters to be comfortable with him as a sober and prudent commander-in-chief. That way, they can ignore Obama’s critique and happily forget about international relations for another four years. We’ll find out over the next few days if he succeeded.
Finally, considering that Romney is seen as very weak on foreign policy (remember his disastrous world tour this summer), it could be chalked up as a "mission accomplished" when almost every pundit evaluating the debate for the New York Times thinks that Obama didn't blow Romney out of the water (though, no surprise that the New York Times editorial somehow decided that Romney totally lost it).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rapid Response to the 2nd U.S. Presidential Debate

While it's premature to call the first Romney-Obama debate a "game changer," it certainly has tightened the race for president. It's now Mitt Romney who is trending upward. His supporters are energized and the polls are inching in his favor. The national polls reveal a statistical tie, and Romney has either closed the gap or overtaken President Obama in key swing states.

Last week's veep debate seems to have jolted democrats out of the worry, even panic, that manifested in the aftermath of the first Romney-Obama clash. While widely panned among conservatives, Joe Biden's showing, full of feistiness and gesticulations, generally satisfied liberals. To them, it was the kind of performance they desired from the president in the first debate: Biden was assertive, lively, willing to defend the administration's record. For the liberal base, Biden set the bar for Obama to reach in subsequent debates.

Of course, Obama won't demonstrate anywhere near the combativeness that Biden showed in his debate. That said, coming into tonight, there was now a general expectation, among liberals and conservatives and those in between, that Obama would be far less passive and much more lucid than he was in the first presidential debate. Put simply, while Biden staunched the declining support and polling numbers, it was now up to Obama to re-energize the liberal base. The pressure was on Obama to do well tonight.

Fast forward to tonight. What happened?

Well, as many of you likely expect, it was a debate full of vagaries, light on specifics, full of exaggeration, and false depictions of the other side's record and policy positions. It heavily focused on domestic issues, especially the American economy. Other than short discussions on China and Libya, the debate hardly touched on foreign policy.

Mitt Romney delivered a solid performance. Understandably, he prioritized hammering Obama on unemployment, the lack of job growth, and the prolonged stagnation in the U.S. economy. Romney is a consistently good debater. It's difficult to imagine him getting whitewashed in any debate. But this time, in contrast to the last debate, on Twitter and the blogs, I've already seen many more negative reactions to Romney. Words like "arrogant," "diminished," "petty," and "not presidential" have been bandied about. I will be looking to see if these descriptions stick, if they are echoed more loudly in various media outlets in the coming days.

Clearly, unlike the last debate, tonight, Obama was forceful and aggressive and well prepared. He looked Romney in the eye, even directed barbs directly to Romney. I foresee liberals as pleased with tonight's debate, believing that Obama showed that he's willing to fight for his job, that he wants to win as much as they do. Obama was probably aided a bit by the debate format, the town hall-style debate. He's very comfortable in this setting, and usually does a good job of connecting with audiences, which is essential in these kinds of debates.

One critique of both presidential contenders, something I suspect that some readers noticed: it was more than a little irritating to see both Obama and Romney constantly butting in, begging for more time, trying to get in the last word.

Most interesting comment of the night: Obama's take on the differences between Romney and George W. Bush:
You know, there are some things where Governor Romney is different from George Bush. George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher. George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for self-deportation.
George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, so there are differences between Governor Romney and George Bush, but they’re not on economic policy. In some ways, he’s gone to a more extreme place when it comes to social policy. And I think that’s a mistake.
My scorecard: Obama on points. But because Obama performed so much better than he did in the last debate, it will interesting to see how this debate is spun. My colleague Yohanes Sulaiman speculated on Twitter that the mainstream media will call the debate "Obama's comeback." It's a very plausible, reasonable projection.

What do you think? Who won tonight? How do you think the debate will be spun?

(For the full transcript of tonight's debate, click here.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Rapid Response to the 1st U.S. Presidential Debate

Here is a very quick, very brief take on tonight's debate between former Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.

Coming into the debate, Obama had the wind at his back. The economy has been on the upswing, and the polls--both in particular "swing states" and nationwide--have been increasingly in Obama's favor.

It's clear that Obama decided to play it safe. He refused to attack Romney. I don't doubt that many liberals right now are frustrated, even angry, that he failed to mention, among other things, Bain Capital or Romney's comments about the 47%. (In fact, turn on MSNBC right now and you will get a flavor of how upset Obama's base is. Some of the anchors even look mournful.) Obama's plan, I'm sure, was to play it conservatively, to sit on his lead, so to speak. Additionally, it's likely that Obama's advisers told him that going on the attack would not look presidential to U.S. voters.

However, Obama's approach to the debate risked leaving him susceptible on several fronts. And that's what happened. He looked passive and defensive. Repeatedly, he refused to defend his record, rebut Romney's attacks, or ask for more time. In my view, that's rather astonishing.

It was Romney who set the debate's agenda. He appeared energetic and aggressive. And although Romney was vague on policy details and made several dubious claims and critiques (both about his plans and Obama's record and plans), he still passed an important eye test. He looked like a leader. Romney commanded the stage. He consistently made eye contact with Obama, while the latter often had his head down writing notes. Watch the debate with the sound off for a few minutes; it will offer an interesting and revealing view.

Line of the night: Mitt Romney: "I just don't know how the president could have come into office, facing 23 million people out of work, rising unemployment, an economic crisis at the -- at the kitchen table, and spend his energy and passion for two years fighting for Obamacare instead of fighting for jobs for the American people."

My scorecard: In boxing terms, Romney won on points. But based on optics, Romney won by KO.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Libya Example

Libyan women protest against Ansar al-Shariah Brigades and other Islamic militias in front of the Tebesty Hotel, in Benghazi, Libya, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. The attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans has sparked a backlash among frustrated Libyans against the heavily armed gunmen, including Islamic extremists, who run rampant in their cities. More than 10,000 people poured into a main boulevard of Benghazi, demanding that militias disband as the public tries to do what Libya's weak central government has been unable to.(AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

Associated Press/Mohammad Hannon -  Friday, Sept. 21, 2012

Amid the violence and protests in Muslim countries, the rage ostensibly in response to an anti-Muslim YouTube video, a silver lining has emerged. Interestingly, this silver lining has surfaced in the place where all the trouble began a few weeks ago: in Libya.

The trouble started when, on September 11, militants in Benghazi stormed the U.S. consulate and a safe house, resulting in the deaths of four Americans, including Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens and State Department official Sean Smith–an act of violence described by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a terrorist attack.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end here. What happened next was an outpouring of anger and frustration directed at the militants, not Washington, and feelings of loss for Ambassador Stevens and significant sympathy for the U.S.

Immediately after Stevens’ death, the Libyan government offered repeated apologies for the killings. Prime minister Keib said the perpetrators were "a group of outlaws (who) must be brought to justice". Additionally, the Libyan government fired the Deputy Interior Minister and the Police Chief for Benghazi.

Even more significantly, Libyan citizens took to the streets, holding signs decrying the violence and expressing condolences for slain individuals. And surprisingly, these emotions were translated into concrete actions. Last Friday, as many as 30,000 Libyans in Benghazi held a mass protest against the uncontrolled and extremist militias that are rampant in the country, demanding that they disband. Within hours, thousands stormed the headquarters of Ansar al-Shariah, the Islamic extremist group allegedly behind the 9/11/12 attacks. Reports state that

"They drove out the Ansar gunmen and set fire to cars in the compound — once a major base for Gadhafi's feared security forces — and then moved onto the base of a second Islamist militia, the Rafallah Sahati Brigade. Brigade fighters opened fire to keep the protesters at bay.
The state news agency said four protesters were killed and 70 injured in the overnight violence."

Importantly, this anti-militia fervor isn’t limited just to Benghazi. It has spread to Derna. As the AP nicely summarizes, this is a novel event:

The anti-militia fervor in Darna is notable because the city, in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast north of Benghazi, has long had a reputation as a stronghold for Islamic extremists. During the Gadhafi era, it was the hotbed of a deadly Islamist insurgency against his regime. A significant number of the Libyan jihadists who travelled to Afghanistan and Iraq during recent wars came from Darna. During the revolt against him last year, Gadhafi's regime warned that Darna would declare itself an Islamic Emirate and ally itself with al-Qaida.

Further, and this is crucial, the AP also points out why Libyans in Darna are so angry and willing to take a stand:

"The killing of the ambassador blew up the situation. It was disastrous," said Ayoub al-Shedwi, a young bearded Muslim preacher in Darna who says he has received multiple death threats because has spoken out against militias on a radio show he hosts. "We felt that the revolution is going in vain."
Activists and residents have held a sit-in for the past eight days outside Darna's Sahaba Mosque, calling on tribes to put an end to the "state of terrorism" created by the militias. At the city's main hotel, The Jewel of Darna, tribal figures, activists, local officials and lawmakers have been meeting in recent days to come up with a plan.
"Until when the tribes will remain silent," cried a bearded young man standing on a podium at one such meeting Thursday. "The militias don't recognize the state. The state is pampering them but this is not working anymore. You must act right now." Elders in traditional Libyan white robes stood up and shouted in support.

Almost immediately, rumors and conspiracy stories circulated that Gaddafi loyalists were behind the anti-militia activities in Benghazi and Darna. Maybe some did play a role. After all, spontaneous public action like mass protests, in a lawless and ungoverned country, offer ripe opportunities for all sorts of miscreants to join in and cause trouble. Even so, there’s not much doubt that many, perhaps most, of the participants in these events were sincere citizens disgusted with the ugly stranglehold that extremist militias have on their country.

In my view, the response of ordinary Libyans to the violence committed by extremist militants is a good sign. I am encouraged that Libyans are trying to take ownership of their society by confronting extremists and militants, driving them out of areas that they are located. Perhaps it’s the beginning of a greater recognition that the enemy isn’t abroad or foreign, as radical leaders and groups argue, but is within. As such, the Libyans present a good example to Muslims worldwide on how to combat extremism and militancy in their own countries.

Of course, there are success stories. For instance, Muslim countries such as Turkey and Indonesia have done an admirable job tackling terrorism, limiting the influence of extremists, keeping their societies unified, and embracing modernity while preserving their uniqueness. Both countries have also completely debunked the myth, embraced by radicals and ignoramuses in Muslim countries and in the West, that Islam and democracy cannot coexist.

But more needs to be done in countries with governments that are complicit with or support radicalism and terrorism, or are too weak to combat these issues. There a host of countries that fit this profile, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and so on. In these cases, we find extremists, including terrorist groups, operating, even thriving. Many commit violence, sure. But they also demonize the West, criticize and attempt to suppress Muslim moderates and liberals, and often dominate the national discourse, deflecting blame for their corrosive impact on society. In response, there has to be a groundswell of citizen action to overcome the problems created by radical and/or incompetent state institutions. This is the crux of the Libya example. Often, the people are on their own; it is up to them to staunch the flow of extremist words and deeds.

Let’s look at this logically.

1. In the cases I’m speaking about here, the state is useless, guilty sins of commission and/or omission. We should not expect these governments and attendant institutions to play a meaningful, productive role on issues related to extremism and terrorism.

2. Muslim countries cannot count on international institutions for much help. Nowadays, with Russia and China taking on obstructionist roles, the UN can't even agree on paper statements, let alone on taking action when it’s necessary. NATO, as another example, is also unreliable. NATO countries are typically reluctant to intervene in foreign countries. They are war weary from their Afghanistan experience. And to the extent that NATO considers any foreign interventions or military assistance, the target country usually has to be in a specific location: in Europe’s backyard.

3. Muslim countries cannot count on foreign groups and NGOs for much help either. They are important for humanitarian relief and crisis monitoring. but they are not going to thwart terrorist groups and activities. They just do not have the capabilities to do so.

4. They cannot count on foreign countries. At this point, both Russia and China are sidetracked with internal issues. Both are focused on economic development as well as political turmoil and uncertainty--protests and frustration in Russia, and leadership succession in China. Moreover, Russia and China don't have the capacity to project enough power to deal with Islamic terrorism outside of their borders. And lastly, both countries believe they have their own problems with Islamic terrorists. If either one starts to ramp up its anti-terror activities, it’s going to happen within their borders, not outside of them.

And as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq illustrate, there are limits to American power. While it can project its power worldwide and defeat armed opponents, the U.S. cannot rebuild and remake foreign countries on its own. The U.S. needs strong and effective local partners in these endeavors, something that is often hard to find in unstable and war-torn countries. Furthermore, given the state of America's economy and the continued economic problems it will likely face in the future, the U.S. will, in all likelihood, will be reducing its footprint around the world. Arguably, under President Obama, this process has already begun.

The punchline? While the U.S. will seek to maintain a leadership position on international terrorism, the tools and scope and reach of its anti-terror campaign will likely change. The result is that, over time, Washington will put a larger burden on its Muslim partners to carry out anti-terror activities.

So what does this all mean? Muslim societies have to be prepared to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to dealing with Islamic extremism and terrorism. And right now, it's not sufficient to silently protest. Nor is it enough to issue critical statements or to write critical opinion pieces. These things are a start, to be sure, but new efforts are desperately needed. In short, what is needed is for the moderates and reformers to take on a larger public role in directly confronting extremism and terrorism. This is going to require considerable time and effort and resources.

We know that Muslims in the Middle East/North are very familiar with the techniques of peaceful civil resistance. Just look at the Arab Spring, which sought to overthrow repressive governments and install in their place free and open democratic systems. Admirable and courageous, yes. But there ought to be a more overarching platform that deems anathema any source that aims to undermine if not squelch freedom, whether church or state or ideological radical or terrorist. Using this simple principle as a guide, maybe we would see more protests and rallies and Facebook and Twitter pages denouncing Islamic extremism and violence. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Obama and Libya: The Bill Comes Due for "Leading From Behind"

Mitt Romney made a lot of news and cause some controversy over his attack on Obama in light of the attacks on  the US embassies in Cairo, Egypt, Saana, Yemen, and the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that ended with the deaths of the U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, State Department official Sean Smith, and two other Americans. He might have made a much stronger point had he followed McCain's advice and attacked Obama's broad Middle Eastern policy, because this messy situation is one of the results of Obama's infamous "Leading From Behind" policy.

"Leading From Behind" policy was thought to be a brilliant policy back when it was implemented. The U.S. essentially ceded its responsibility for Libya to its allies (the British and France). This policy bypassed the Republican-dominated Congress, avoided messy debates that might have roiled the democrats' liberal-pacifist base, and drastically increased the President's power over foreign policy.

It also provided some legitimacy to the rebel government. Unlike the governments in Afghanistan or Iraq, nobody could make an argument that the new Libyan government was a US-backed puppet government. It fought on its own (well, with help from abroad) to depose Qaddafi. The rebel government emerged virtually untainted from foreign interference. Plus, with the potential windfall from oil, the Libyan government could very well have sufficient funds and resources to get the country's house in order.

More importantly, however, it seemed as if Obama avoided the pitfalls that bedeviled George W. Bush. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. had the option not to be involved in the messy aftermath, notably the rebuilding of Libya. It is the ultimate "have cake and eat it too" scenario. No messy nation-building. This allowed the U.S. to position itself as a defender of human rights, a multilateralist to boot, with seemingly few to no electoral consequences for 2012.

This works well if the Salafis and other Islamists work and play together well. Unfortunately, they don't. The Libyan government is pathetically weak, because it doesn't have strong centralized security forces since the beginning of the rebellion. Remember, the so-called rebels were a motley crew of various groups, all united in their dislike (and fear) of Qaddafi. When Qaddafi fell, each ended up ruling their turf like mini-warlords. While the government is legitimate de jure, having been elected through a fair election, these militias still hold de facto power.

The Salafis that hit the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was one of these various militant groups (this is a must-read article). Why nobody could control these Salafis? Simple: there are too many militia groups nowadays in Libya, and all of them are busy defending their own turf and ignoring what happens outside their turf. Should they decide to either disarm or to help the government chasing/hunting other militias, they would risk losing their main base to an attack from one of their rivals. It is a mini balance-of-power.

Thus, the entire facade of "Leading From Behind" falls tumbling down. Libya is a total mess, because the government, while legitimate, lacks the requisite military power to impose order on the entire country. While many Libyans still have respect and gratitude for America's help in overthrowing Qaddafi, they must also realize that they are left on their own (a reprise of Egypt). What about the British and the French? It doesn't seem like either country is interested in rebuilding Libya. As a result, nobody in the international community is taking responsibility for the current state that Libya is in.

Could Obama have done anything different? Yes. He could have marshaled some resources to help strengthen the Libyan government. The problem, however, is that it was doubtful, due to his "leading from behind" policy in the first place. He did not clear the US involvement in Libya with the Congress first, and thus the Congress has no obligation to actually fund for the reconstruction -- unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, where in both cases, the congressional authorization also implied that the Congress would also approve money for reconstruction.

With the economy already reeling under a recession, Obama could not or would not ask Congress for the money needed. And if he had, Obama would have risked opening a Pandora box of further scrutiny over the entire "Leading From Behind" concept, which would not bode well for his reelection chances. Besides, Obama has no responsibility to do so. He didn't release the bull in the Libyan store, did he?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Nationalism and Disputes in Asia

The story of present-day Asia, we are often told, is dominated by the rise of China. Some countries, like the Philippines and Vietnam, are concerned by China's expanding power and its willingness to flex its muscles in the region; some, like Cambodia, are friends with China; and still others, like Indonesia, prefer to stay neutral, opting for strategic flexibility. But what's often neglected is that this story is shaped and molded by a host of factors. And it's not simply a function of inter-state power relations or aggressive moves by China. Those things matter, sure, but there are intra-state factors that also matter.

One such intra-state factor is nationalism. In short, Asian nationalism has reared its head lately in several instances, profoundly impacting relations between countries in the region. Let's look at a few examples.

Japan and South Korea have squabbled over two islets, known as Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese, which both countries claim as their own. Making matters worse, South Korea has put on hold a proposed agreement with Japan to share military intelligence. Tensions between Japan and China are on the rise over over competing claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. And as July's deadlocked Asean Ministerial Meeting attests, Vietnam and the Philippines are clearly agitated at China's increasingly assertive claims to territory and waterways in the south china sea. In fact, Vietnam and China have been engaging in a tit-for-tat escalation of tensions. As The Guardian points out, "Beijing, which lays claim to the whole South China Sea, recently upset Hanoi after the government-backed China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) said it was seeking bids for oil exploration in what Hanoi deems Vietnamese waters, while Hanoi increased tensions last month by adopting a law claiming sovereignty over the Spratly Islands."

Of course, a part of these tensions and disputes is rooted in the dynamics of government to government ties and competitiveness, which in turn is a function of scarcity (of material resources), power relations, diplomacy, and state interactions, among many other things.

But another part has everything do with ideas of sovereignty, fierce attachment to the nation, national history, and national identity. In short, nationalism. Arguably, the recent spike in tensions over the summer months has been largely aided and abetted by nationalist fervor. I don't doubt some, perhaps many, governments in Asia, empowered by their rising economic and diplomatic standing in the world, are feeling increasingly confident, so much that they are more willing to defend and at times advance nationalist views and claims. But even more importantly, bottom-up nationalism has manifested in public protests, public criticism and anger. This has only inflamed extant tensions in Asia and added pressure on Asian governments not to look weak, back down, or compromise, making it more difficult to resolve inter-state disputes.

Such nationalist outcry has surfaced in China, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Some of this sentiment and fervor has been directed at China, just as we would expect given the country's rapid rise and concerns within the region that Beijing harbors acquisitive, power-hungry motives. But keep in mind that some nationalist protest and clamor has also targeted other countries in Asia. 

As tensions between China and Japan have ratcheted up during the last several months, nationalist emotion and zeal on both sides has been on the rise, even surfacing in public actions. Activists from Hong Kong attempted to visit a contested islet in the East China Sea, one claimed by both China and Japan, but were arrested and subsequently deported by Japan. In response, ten Japanese activists, including Japanese politicians, via a flotilla of 100 boats, arrived in the same area. Some of them left their boats and swam ashore, raising a Japanese flag. As you might expect, this defiant act had repercussions.

China's foreign ministry sharply criticized Tokyo, and protests emerged in "the southern city of Shenzhen.... Qingdao, Taiyuan and Hangzhou also saw protests, while smaller ones took place in several more cities across China, from far northern Harbin to south-western Chengdu. But it's not the extent of the protests that proved alarming, it was their destructiveness and hate-mongering. According to Scott Harold, "The kinds of ultra-nationalistic hate-fests that have taken place across the country – where protesters have carried banners proclaiming 'Even if China is covered with graves, we must kill all Japanese!', have smashed Japanese-branded automobiles and storefronts, and even attacked a car carrying Tokyo’s ambassador in Beijing – show levels of anger and lawlessness...." 

These anti-Japanese views and actions, in turn, as Harold points out, have triggered "counter-demonstrations in Japan and an effort by Tokyo to consolidate central government control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, currently owned by private Japanese citizens."

Let's turn to the spat between China and Vietnam. Per Peter Enav of the AP: "China has also been at loggerheads with Vietnam, particularly after Beijing's formal creation of a municipality headquartered on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands, long a bone of contention between the two nations." And there's more. Per The Guardian: "Beijing, which lays claim to the whole South China Sea, recently upset Hanoi after the government-backed China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) said it was seeking bids for oil exploration in what Hanoi deems Vietnamese waters, while Hanoi increased tensions last month by adopting a law claiming sovereignty over the Spratly Islands."

Yes, Hanoi was upset, but so were some of the Vietnamese people. On three different occasions, hundreds of citizens protested in the streets of Hanoi, stopping traffic as they held banners and signs and Vietnamese flags and chanted "The Spratly and Paracel Islands belong to Vietnam!" and "Down with Chinese aggression!". But much like their counterparts in China, Vietnamese activists find themselves in a precarious position. Authoritarian Vietnam is reluctantly willing to tolerate public political displays as long they coincide with the party line and are peaceful, but once they challenge state authority, all bets are off. And over the last few months, as reports indicate, a number of Vietnamese activists and bloggers, particularly those human rights activists who have been critical of state land grabs and police violence, have been harassed and detained.

China has even been the target of nationalist fervor from the Philippines. The Scarborough Shoal dispute, involving clashing maritime vassels from china and the philippines and which led to a diplomatic standoff (between the Philippines, Vietnam, and Cambodia) at July's Asean Ministerial Meeting, gave rise to a thousand-strong protest at the Chinese Embassy in Manila back in May. Al-Jazeera described the protests accordingly:   

"Our protest is directed at the overbearing actions and stance of the government in Beijing, which behaves like an arrogant overlord, even in the homes of its neighbours," said rally organiser Loida Nicholas Lewis.
The protesters carried placards that read: "China stop bullying the Philippines", "Make Peace Not War", and "China, Stop Poaching in Philippine Waters".
China...warned its citizens that they were not safe in the Philippines and urged those in the country to stay indoors and stay away from demonstrations.

Meantime, in South Korea, news of an intelligence sharing deal with Japan provoked widespread dismay and anger. Per a CNN report, here's an example of their views on the proposed deal:

"This is clearly a deception," said Kim Hwan-young, the head of Korean Veterans for Peace. "I am angry at the fact that our government pushed the deal ignoring the national sentiment. We were colonized by Japan for more than three decades and we also suffered separation and civil war because of Japan."
Another important factor here centers on the belief among many South Koreans that the negotiations with Japan were done in secret, behind their backs and without their input. In their view, this kind of a deal is antithetical to a supposedly open and free democratic country; it's a violation of existing democratic rules and norms. This is why South Koreans now want (1) a full airing and vetting of the specifics of the negotiations and of the deal itself and (2) officials to be held accountable for their actions.

On top of this issue, there is the tense dispute over the contested islets. On this front, lots of different actors have played a rather unproductive role. In a surprising move, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, viewed widely as a pragmatist (even by Japan), visited the rocky area on August 10th, then called for Japan's emperor to apologize for his country's past imperial aggression and violence on the Korean peninsula, which triggered harsh criticism from japan. In fact, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda sent a letter to South Korea to register his government's protest, but South Korea's president refused to accept it and returned the letter without comment, with the foreign ministry claiming the letter contained "inaccuracies." Japan has proposed settling the dispute at the UN, via its International Court of Justice, but South Korea has rejected this option.

Against this backdrop is a groundswell of South Korean nationalism. The rocky islets are viewed as a source of national pride, a powerful reminder of South Korea's independence from colonial rule under Japan. How important is it to South Korea? Takashi Yokota writes:

Since 2005, when Seoul began allowing tourists onto the islets, visits—pilgrimages, some say—have become hugely popular. Last year alone, some 180,000 people made the arduous trip. In 2010, civic groups, together with the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations, declared Oct. 25 to be Dokdo Day, an annual occasion for teaching the nation’s schoolchildren to love the remote island outpost. (Japan’s Shimane Prefecture celebrates a Takeshima Day). Broadcasters go so far as reporting on the weather there, and some television stations end their daily broadcasts with a video clip of Dokdo as the national anthem plays. 
Activists and political organizers have been holding “Dokdo awareness” events around South Korea. At a July gathering in Seoul promoting corporate social responsibility, small children were encouraged to write “I love Dokdo” on cookies. And after Lee’s August visit, a group of singers, actors, and college students braved the strong currents and made a 220-kilometer relay swim to the rocks.
But that's not all, as South Korean anger has bubbled to the surface. Voice of America stated that "hundreds of South Korean protesters staged a rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul...denouncing Japan's claim to the islands. Activist (sic) pumped their fists, chanted anti-Japan slogans and wore headbands emblazoned with words defending South Korea's claim over the string of islands." Added to this dangerous mix, by playing to the wave nationalist fervor, South Korean newspapers have already begun banging the drumbeats of war, going so far as to speculate on the potential for military conflict between the two disputants.

More ominously, on September 7, South Korea's military entered the fray, as its coast guard staged a drill around the contested islets. Japan had asked South Korea not to hold the drill. The silver lining here is that South Korea scaled back a bit the planned drill. According to a report from the Voice of America: "The coast guard led the exercise but South Korea's marines did not, as had been originally planned, land on any of the Liancourt Rocks."

Now, let's take a step back and digest these all of these turbulent events in Asia. Here's my quick take: we often think of nationalism as a tool used by tyrannical and despotic governments to bolster their legitimacy. There are many examples of this. Just think about contemporary China and North Korea.

But consider this: as countries in the region open themselves up, even if only in baby steps, their governments, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, naturally offer their citizens more points of access to express their interests, demands, and grievances. As this process unfolds, citizens become increasingly emboldened to wedge open that crack even further, seeking out all available means that enable them to do so. And they begin to discuss and critique publicly a growing number of issues, even those sensitive to the state. This is what we are seeing nowadays in China and Vietnam--where the state and society are in constant tension with each other--with activists taking to the streets to express their discontent on a host of domestic and foreign political issues.

But there's something else going on as well, a particular quirk of the globalization era that seemingly cuts across all countries, whether free or closed, East or West. In short, though economic and political interdependence and technological innovations, globalization allows for closer and more frequent contact among people worldwide. But empirical evidence suggests that closer contact doesn't erase political boundaries, as had been hoped by liberal scholars and politicians. It actually reinforces and hardens them. In other words, in this era of globalization, people are becoming more nationalistic, identifying more strongly with their home countries.

This logic applies to Asia, where there are lots of countries in constant contact with each other (via tourism, business linkages, trade, diplomacy, international organizations, and so on), yet solidly entrenched national political identities. Indeed, despite attempts to forge cohesion and unity across Asia (especially in southeast Asia and Asia-Pacific), nationalism runs higher than ever. As we might expect, Asians detest foreign countries, particularly those from within the region, attempting to encroach on their home country's turf, tradition, values, and history. Historical rivalries, pivotal events (regional wars, colonialism), and differences in political cultures help to ensure that this remains a fact of life.