Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Paris Terror Attacks: An American Perspective

Large-scale terrorism in Europe is, of course, nothing new. Recall the train bombing in Spain in 2004, and the 7/7 terror bombings in London. Now, however, if Daesh (the Arabic name for Islamic State that the group does not want outsiders to use, hence why I use it) is truly to blame for the attacks, as it so claims, it represents a shift in its global strategy.

France's President François Hollande has vowed to fight the terrorists continually and "without mercy." Indeed, France has time and again shown itself to be an active partner in the global fight against terror and has upped its involvement in the Middle East and North Africa. In recent years France has been a large contributor to international security missions, such as Operation Serval (it's military mission in Mali). In terms of the international operations against Daesh, it began its airstrikes in Iraq in 2014, and recently began its airstrike campaign in Syria, while later moving an aircraft carrier off the Syrian coast.

One must not underestimate the psychological effect the attacks already have had, and will continue to have, on the French people. The country already suffered one bloody attack in January, and this time the attackers did not strike major tourist venues like the Eiffel Tower or Versailles, but rather entertainment venues, places where people come precisely to relax.

As someone who utterly lacks experience or a respectable knowledge of terrorism, I couldn't, in all good consciousness, try to offer an analysis of the attacks themselves. Nevertheless, I feel I can offer a few thoughts on the US reaction to the attacks.

One telling aspect of the reaction to this tragedy is the outpouring of support for the French people from across the US. For some strange reason, which I've never been able to figure out, I've long had a fascination with the France-US relationship and the way our two populations view each other. A certain amount of Francophobia certainly pervades in American popular thinking, although it is, for the most part, completely harmless. Yet, from what I've noticed among my own friends, there has been a more pronounced outpouring of support for France and its people than I'd expected. People who otherwise never discuss international issues have been changing Facebook profile pictures and posting statuses of support for France.

According to one expert (Jean Benoît Nadeau in Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong, if I'm not mistaken), one of the biggest misunderstandings in the France-US relationship is that Americans tend to see the French as intransigent for not always following the US in lockstep, and for being more vocal in its public criticism of the US. The French, on the other hand, see no reason why two countries can be friends and still have their public "lovers spats" every now and again.

Indeed, France's operations against Daesh, while part of the US-led coalition, have also been highly independent in nature. France is, and often has been, willing to act on its own even during the era of trans-national alliances. Recall that Charles DeGaulle was willing to pull France from NATO's operational structure when he felt the Atlantic Alliance did not serve the interests of La Republique. Some may see France's tendency to go its own way as some sort of Gallic unwillingness to be a part of a team. Yet for me, France's willingness to work with its allies while maintaining a certain degree of independence means that France is self-confident, unique, and is in fact a team player in its own special way.

Now the question remains as to how much the recent attacks will affect France's operations against Daesh. Recall that after the train bombings in Spain in 2004, the Spanish public voted the conservative government of José Maria Aznar out of office in favor of the left-wing PSOE. Aznar had been an ardent supporter of Gorge W. Bush's mission to Iraq, and the bombings, claimed by al-Qaeda, were deliberately timed ahead of the Spanish elections so as to influence public opinion and ultimately induce them to vote for a government that would pull Spanish troops from Iraq. And that's exactly what happened. 

For now, it seems that France has determined not to allow the attacks to dissuade her or let her become a prisoner of fear. Nevertheless, as with the US after 9/11, France will likely change to a degree. To say that France "will never the same again" may be an exaggeration, for it isn't as if Europe hasn't known mass terror before. Yet from all this we can glean two things: when push comes to shove, France and the US are solid allies, our disagreements and rivalries notwithstanding; and now the time has come where France must show her resolve and determination not only to Daesh but to the rest of the world, lest those who perished did so in vain.

Monday, September 28, 2015

What Does Russia's Larger Role in Syria Mean For the US?

Russian SU-25 jets on runway at al-Assad airbase in Syria last week (Telegraph)
Russian jets at a Syrian air force base in mid-September. Photo: Telegraph.

Russia has upped its military assistance to Syria, sending troops, tanks, and aircraft in recent weeks, all in an attempt to shore up the government's defense against various anti-Assad groups. The US isn't happy, at least publicly. It disagrees with the idea and practice of propping up Assad, believing that “it is the Assad regime that has been a magnet for extremists inside Syria,” according to State Department Spokesman John Kirby. In other words, Assad is the root of the problem; he must go, either today or in the near-future.

Moreover, the US wants to be kept abreast and consulted on Russian moves in and plans for in Syria, and it hasn’t. In fact, at this point, the US isn’t totally sure what Russian President Putin has up his sleeve and was caught off-guard at the rapid deployment of force in Syria.

What should America make of all this? And how does Russia's deployments impact US policy? My analysis below shows that these events are at best a mixed bag for the US.

The Good

The good part is that Russia might own the Syria problem, getting Team Obama off the hook. After all, it’s readily apparent that Barack Obama doesn’t want anything to do with the conflict, fearing that any involvement with military force is a trap that would eventually, drip by drip, suck the US further into the conflict and violence.

Also, keep in mind that air strikes have done almost nothing to slow the tide of ISIS. Plus, the arming and training of the so-called Syrian moderates has translated to less than a handful of troops ready to enter the battle against ISIS—a multi-billion dollar disaster for The White House. Why not let someone else deal with that mess? Who cares if it’s Russia, America’s current foe?

Does Russia’s assertiveness circumscribe, or even limit, Iran’s nefarious role in Syria? It’s something to think about. It’s possible that Putin is communicating to Iran and its proxies that Syria is Russia’s battleground, that it rules the roost there, not them. And at this point, it does certainly seem like any military and political solution goes first and primarily through Russia, rather than Iran.

Syria, after all, is Russia’s last foreign military outpost beyond the post-Soviet space and is very protective and territorial about what happens there—not only concerned about America’s infringement on its self-declared turf but also about regional meddlers as well. In the end, a watered-down role for Iran in Syria, if it comes to pass, is probably a good thing for regional stability.

Plus, the added benefit is that if Russia gets dragged into a prolonged war in Syria, it will become weakened and distracted over time—thereby putting a noose around Putin’s global ambitions. Syria could potentially become its Afghanistan, which bled the Soviets dry in the 1980s. And consider this: even if its adventures in Syria aren’t sky-high costly, they could still greatly impact Russia. After all, though things are quiet there now, Russia is still engaged in a low-intensity, churning struggle in Ukraine. Can Moscow really fight two protracted limited wars (Ukraine and Syria) simultaneously? Putin should ask George W. Bush how such grandiose, ambitious military escapades turn out.

And finally, maybe, just maybe, however unlikely, Putin might even help to put a dent in the ISIS/AQ networks—which would serve to benefit US interests.

The Bad

Unfortunately, Russian intervention probably only prolongs the violence in Syria, and by extension Iraq. That’s what the literature on civil wars indicates. External assistance and intervention lengthens the shelf-life of these wars—keeping them in motion when they would otherwise fizzle out or end decisively.

Russian force reinforces Assad’s grip on power—something that the US doesn’t really want to see. It’s for years called for the ouster of Assad, and failing that, a managed transition to democracy with Assad overseeing its implementation. Russian moves clearly muck up US policy on Syria, shredding years of strategizing, training and equipping, and billions of dollars.

What happens to the moderates? These are the guys and gals who the US hopes will one day replace Assad atop the throne. There’s speculation that Russian power will be used to target ISIS as well as US-trained soldiers, because anyone and everyone who opposes Assad is the enemy in the eyes of Russia. Without moderates being an active part of the plan in Syria going forward, where does that leave the country? And how will US allies look at America if it allows its friends in Syria to get annihilated?

The US shouldn't be surprised that others are stepping up to the plate at this point, given how little it's done over the years. In fact, that's a risk the US took by adopting an extreme low-cost strategy. Power abhors a vacuum, as the saying goes, and that’s what we’re seeing right now. Team Obama has acted as if all the major players would wait for it to get its act together, but that’s simply not happening. Instead, Iran, Iraq, Assad, and Russia are starting to coordinate with each other on politics and security affairs in Syria, with Russia taking the leadership mantle. And that, in turn, raises the prospect of the US getting squeezed out of any influence on what happens from here on in the war and any post-war outcomes.

Russia’s escalation also exposes a fatal failure of Obama grand strategy. I know I've previously written on the blog that Obama's grand strategy is similar to selective engagement, but I've rethought that argument. His critics are right; he really doesn’t have a grand strategy at all. His foreign policy is risk-averse and low-cost, but I'm not sure that one can build a grand strategy with those things at the heart of it. The reason is because such an approach is utterly devoid of interests and values, and without those elements US foreign policy is and will remain rudderless.

Let’s apply this logic to Syria. What kinds of outcomes does Obama most prefer? Which ones would be merely acceptable? Which tools of American power can best produce those outcomes? What interests are on the line for the US? Which values should guide US policymaking on Syria? Who (within Syria, the Middle East and beyond) should the US work with to achieve its desired outcomes? Quite frankly, Team Obama would have a hard time answering those questions—as it has in answering similar ones for the past three plus years—because it is fixated on the price of the America’s commitment to Syria, not so much on the substance of US policy on Syria.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A CWCP Conversation: The Refugee/Migrant Crisis

Syrian Refugees in Greece
Refugees crossing from Greece into Macedonia. Image: Giannis Papanikos/Associated Press

Brad Nelson: Let's start with the basic question: In your view, what's causing the waves of migrants and refugees to swarm to Europe?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Europe is relatively close and willing to put up with them? The Gulf countries simply don't care enough, though not without reason: an influx of millions of refugees would create a huge demographic nightmare. Despite the rhetoric of "religious and Arab solidarity," the demographic politics remain critical. Think about Jordan, which never grants the Palestinians citizenship, with the Palestinians severely underrepresented in the parliament (see here). The delicate tribal politics (see here and here) would be upended by millions of refugees who don't have any loyalty to any tribe.

So religious and Arab solidarity could all go to hell, because by the end of the day, it is realpolitik that counts.

BN: Yeah, that's one aspect of it--the why Europe, as opposed to other countries, regions. The other part is what they're leaving behind. And that's violence and repression in places like Eritrea and Sudan and Syria and Afghanistan and Libya. That's the obvious group of people, but not the only ones. Interestingly--and this is something that's rarely noted--some of the migrants, although probably a small slice of them, are actually from Europe. These are people from struggling European economies like Greece looking to escape poverty and find a better life in a fellow EU nation.

I'm curious to hear your take on the domestic political fallout from refugee/migrant crisis. What do you think happens politically as a result of all this?

YS: Well, the photo of the dead Kurdish boy helped to galvanize public opinion, especially in Europe, in support of the refugees. But that image could only help for so far and for a very short time period. And Merkel did realize that - the backlash of seeing thousands of refugees at the train stations going to Germany was badly damaging to Merkel.

Merkel is probably one of the most ablest chancellors in Germany, in terms of her astute ability to gauge public opinion. She had to do something about the refugee problem, or at least give an illusion of control, otherwise her party would riot -- and that actually had already happened.

BN: I'm interested to see how this plays out domestically across Europe going forward. Already, the right is rising and expanding in various European countries, and this crisis could further tip the balance in that direction. For years the European right has complained about immigrants overburdening state resources, threatening Europe's traditional way of life, and contributing to Islamic extremism and terrorism. It's no surprise, really, to see spikes in populism, given that European economies have struggled with growth and debt and unemployment problems. Well, for the right, the refugee/migrant crisis probably exacerbates those three aforementioned points. And if we see right-leaning, perhaps even far-right, governments popping up into power as a result of this fiasco, what happens then? Predictions?

YS: Worst case scenario: collapse of the EU project.

But at the same time, while the share of people voting for the right has been increasing, most of the "right-leaning" governments have not done much to rock the boat. For example, look at Hungary: even though there are a lot of complaints that the government there has been curtailing freedoms, it is still interested in staying with EU. In Norway, the Progress Party, which is in the right part of the spectrum, is actually part of the ruling coalition and as far as I know, behaves quite responsibly.

I think, while far-right parties might benefit from the anti-immigrant backlash, should they actually become part of more European governments, they would actually behave rather responsibly. However, I might be wrong, because there were two cases that would serve as counterarguments: the Fascists and the Nazis.

BN: Let's move the discussion to the elephant in the room, at least it's an elephant in American policy debates. Does the US bear any responsibility in this mess? And if so, what should Team Obama do about it?

YS: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that this entire refugee crisis could have been contained to some degree had the entire region not been engulfed in war for the past several years. The "red line," declared by Obama, was a major policy blunder. It emboldened the Syrian regime, led to the rise of ISIS, and worse, destroyed any hope for quick a resolution. After all, people don't start leaving until they think that there's no future in the land!

But to dump everything on Obama's lap is also wrong, because at the end of the day, there's really few things that he could have done, aside from putting boots on the ground, which would also be unpopular. So his options have been limited.

These two might sound contradictory, because on one hand I essentially said that the US could have done much and on the other hand, there are political constraints. The political constraints happen due to inaction: that after a while of doing nothing, the problem snowballed, and at a certain point there was nothing Obama could have done, except if he was really willing to bear significant political costs. Had Obama grown some spine and acted earlier, at least during the "red line" fiasco, that could have limited the refugee problem.

BN: Here's my take. Of course, the main blame rests with ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Assad and his henchmen. That said, for a while now, I've thought--though I don't remember if I made the case on this blog--that the US should have created and enforced safe zones in Syria.

No, they wouldn't be a panacea, because, given the number of people fleeing the area, the safe zones would eventually fill up and the refugees would have look elsewhere for sanctuary. Plus, sure, safe zones would be difficult to execute in practice, and they would've run the risk of America getting sucked into the civil war there.

Nevertheless, the risk was and probably still is worth it, as it would've helped alleviate some of the political and security and humanitarian problems we see now--in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and throughout Europe. Moreover, if the US was simply creating humanitarian corridors, not militarily intervening in the fight in Syria, I think Obama could have gotten several countries plus a number of international institutions and organizations to assist with the effort, boosting its chances of "succeeding."

YS: The question, of course, is whether there was the political will to do something if the safe zones became endangered. By definition, the safe zone is another red line, and Obama has demonstrated little appetite to act strongly. He is a very safe player, a cautious president, and he never take risks. If you look at his accomplishments, none of them entails taking any risk. Putting a safe zone means taking some risks of escalation from Assad.

I think aside from Obama administration's own reluctance to get involved, the other reason why the safe-corridor doesn't exist is Turkey. Face it, the corridor would benefit the Kurds the most, strengthening the de-facto Kurdish state in Syria and Iraq, which Turkey is loath to see.

BN: You're right. There's the chance that a safe zone plan could force the US to become ever more involved militarily. That's the risk. But by not taking that gamble, the US has been complicit in thousands of people getting hurt and killed, and in millions more fleeing their homes to nearby countries. I also think there were things the US could have done to reduce chances of escalation, had such humanitarian corridors been created. For instance, the US could have communicated to Assad that it wasn't seeking regime change, that it was only interested in the welfare of the people caught in the crossfire of violence. It also could have pledged to ensure the territorial integrity of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, that safe zones were not a prelude to the break-up of those states. Would those pledges be credible? Maybe, if the US was willing to put in the effort to create a real, viable international coalition that included neutral parties like the UN.

YS: You do realize by proclaiming that the US doesn't want a regime change in Syria, the US would have handed Assad a huge diplomatic coup, which he then would broadcast all over the region, and that, in turn, would piss off the Saudis and the Turks, and whoever else out there?

BN: If giving people an opportunity to be safe is the goal, does that matter? Probably not--at least it wouldn't to me, if I was in Obama's position. I think we're getting at problem with leadership decision-making, especially as it works nowadays in the US.

At times leaders think that by making a decision--or avoiding one--they can have their cake and it too. It would be nice, I suppose, but real world politics rarely works that way. Most decisions, or the absence of making them, will make some people/groups/states happy and anger and alienate others. The trick is to win the balance. Obama thought he could win all sides--here in the US and abroad--by staying out of it and acting as a peripheral player, by being the anti-W. Bush. My main point: no matter which way Obama moved in Syria, there would've been challenges and difficulties. He choose the simplest path, to do almost nothing. That backfired massively. Inaction allowed the rise of ISIS and other extremists, the elimination of the so-called moderates, the probable permanent fracturing of Syria, and now, the strengthened position and centrality of Russia in this bloody mess.

YS: While the goal is noble, it would have riled up the Saudis even further (well, with the Iran deal in pipeline, they'd be pissed off anyway). But now that I think about it, in a de-facto way, Obama has given the assurance that Assad's position is no longer in danger -- just look at the"train the moderates militia" fiasco, where many simply refused to join because one of the requirements is that the militia can only be used to fight ISIS, not Assad. So maybe you are right, that Obama could have told Assad that he is no longer in danger as long as he goes along with an international effort to keep the refugees safe.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

An Excerpt from Amalie Flynn's Wife and War

It is my pleasure to post an excerpt from the wonderful writer and poet Amalie Flynn's memoir, Wife and War. You might recall that we interviewed Amalie back in 2012. You can find that interview here. We at CWCP are big fans of her work. Indeed, I find her writing very accessible and moving, making the consequences of war and violence real and vivid. She takes readers to places that many scholars and analysts and pundits don't go or don't even think about. We hope you enjoy.




I am thinking about movement today.

I am thinking about movement and about its absence.

            About a bomb lodged underneath the unarmored Ford pickup truck my husband drives, every single day, up and down the road they call the Highway of Death. About how a bomb will force his pickup, up, into the air, and how it will force his body, up, into the air. About how his head may blow up or fly, fly across the road, his head, and land somewhere else.

            I am thinking about how, here, at home, time feels like it is standing still while my husband is away. And about how time marches on. About how horrible this deployment is, but, as the days turn into months, how it has gotten easier, and even more enjoyable, this time I have now, time which is only my time.

            I am thinking about America. This country I live in, about how we all seem to pretend the war is not happening. Because I am thinking about movement today, thinking about movement and about its absence.


            I watch the news, sitting, here, on my bed, which used to be our bed, except, now, my husband is gone. And I am watching the war on television again, this footage that has been edited and squeezed into something that can fit between two commercials. How this war has become a product, packaged into tearful homecomings and loyal dogs and sweet wives.

            I have seen this happen before.

            How 9/11 was turned into a tourist attractions. T-shirts and car decals and miniature Twin Tower snow globes.

            But the truth, I say, out loud, to the television.

            The truth is something different.

            The truth is that war and terror are this. An amputated leg, a dead body, a road littered with bombs, a lost country, with children, children like ours, living in war, and soldiers coming home, soldiers who have given so much, that they have nothing else to give.




            When you are a military wife, your life is full of holes.

            Your husband goes to war.

            He is gone. And there is a hole in the calendar, the hole where days fall and never come back, where time has stopped but still goes on. And while he is gone, you think about it, about what can happen. You think about him getting killed. And about how, how they will lower him into a hole, dug into the ground, a flag draped over the coffin. You think about him getting shot, a hole in his head, where the doctors will put a metal plate. You think about him getting blown up, blown up by a roadside bomb, his right leg amputated, that missing limb. And you don’t know yet. You don’t know about the other holes. More holes, the holes that will come later, if you are lucky, lucky enough, and he comes home alive.

            My husband has been gone for one year.

            And I think about it, about what can happen, all the time. As I lay, in our bed, a hole next to me, this space where his body used to be.

            On 9/11, I fell, down, in the street,

            After the Tower fell, down, behind me.

            A man I did not know lifted me up,

            His fingers in my armpits,

            Asking me, a thick German accent,

            What is your name and how, when I told him,

            He smiled, repeating it, Amalie

            Because my name is German too,

            Pointing up, to a window,

            On the side of an office building,

            And I followed him up a fire escape,

            Into an empty room, empty desks, empty chairs,

            Sitting in a chair at a desk, someone else’s.

            And using the telephone, calling my mother,

            Saying the words I am still alive.

            Now my husband is calling me, calling me from a payphone in Kabul, his voice, almost lost, in static, telling me, how, he is still alive. And I know. I know what those words mean. How they really mean, I almost died today.


            It is early morning in Afghanistan, not even five your time, I say, into the telephone, to my husband, who is breathing, back, to me, on the other end. And I am distracted, because I am busy, driving somewhere, the radio on, and our son, talking, in the backseat.

            I say, it’s your Daddy, to my son, but into the telephone, to my husband, who is standing at the front of a long line, ready, in full battle rattle, helmet, armor, fatigues, boots, and gun, but waiting, waiting for his turn to call me, and hear my voice, before he goes, just another day, driving down the Highway of Death.
            And when I hang up the telephone, things feel heavier.

            A machine gun hanging at my husband’s side, that conversation we just had, his words and mine, the ones I said, and the weight of the ones I forgot to say, and the days and nights stretching out in front of both of us, now, that it is done.

            But this is just part of being a military wife.
            How when your husband calls you from war, you are not always ready, even though, even though this could be the last time.


            You must miss him.

            Everyone says that, says you must miss him.

            And I always say I do, how I do, I miss him.
            But the truth is this. Deployment is hard. And deployment can be easy. My husband has been gone for over a year, now. And, yes, I miss him. But some days I don’t. I don’t miss him.

            This is deployment. It is the pain of missing him. And it is the pain of not missing him. Some days I forget about him. Because it has been so long, too long, this separation.


Amalie Flynn is an American writer and the author of WIFE AND WAR: THE MEMOIR and two blogs: WIFE AND WAR and SEPTEMBER ELEVENTH. Flynn’s WIFE AND WAR poetry has appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES AT WAR and in TIME’S BATTLELAND, has appeared in her blog for THE HUFFINGTON POST, and has received mention from THE NEW YORK TIMES MEDIA DECODER. Her SEPTEMBER ELEVENTH blog has received mention from CNN. In addition, her WIFE AND WAR blog has a global readership, with readers from over 90 countries. WIFE AND WAR: THE MEMOIR is her first book.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The American Right and Left on Gun Violence

From Aurora (CO) to Sandy Hook to Charleston to Chicago, violent gun tragedies in America, justifiably, have grabbed headline attention over the last few years. Activists decry the violence, the media spills much ink, and public officials engage in partisan grandstanding, but not a whole lot has been accomplished to solve the ongoing problem of homicide via guns. The violence continues, and thousands of innocent people are killed annually.

What do we make of all this? For sure, there’s a lot of blame to go around. One major failure is the inability of liberals and conservatives in Washington to bridge their differences and put forward effective policies. A major factor here is the ideological differences between both sides. This is what I’d like to focus on in this post. To explore these differences, let’s take a quick look at four salient gun debates that liberals and conservatives are currently engaged in. It’s the sharp disagreements on these debates, in part, effectively hamper much problem solving on guns from Washington.  

#Debate 1

Conservatives are right that more laws aren’t a panacea, as they don’t completely eliminate gun violence. Bureaucrats and their underlings make mistakes, there are administrative screw-ups and legal loopholes abound. For example, people who should be excluded from buying guns via background checks frequently aren’t prevented from doing so. They don’t show up as mental health risks, felons, etc.

But liberals are right, too, in that more laws can help reduce gun violence. Well-written and enforced laws can make it more difficult for miscreants and the troubled to gain access to weapons. It takes the White House, Congress, States, the FBI, police, judges, and so on, to get on the same page to craft and execute and monitor good legislation and to capture and punish those who violate the law. True, but that’s something that’s much easier said than done, however—as conservatives like to point out.

#Debate 2

Conservatives emphasize personal responsibility. Do the crime, do the time. They support strong, strict prison sentences for gun violence, illegal possession of weapons, etc. And they also exhort people who know and are in contact with gun violators and criminals to play their part by contacting police and mental health professionals. It’s their job as moral citizens.

Liberals say that harsh criminal sentences haven’t been an effective deterrent mechanism to prevent gun violence. Liberals would agree that 3rd parties could do a better job in being a part of the solution, but believe that there can be limits to their effectiveness and willingness to do so. Gun criminals often hang around with people who themselves aren’t great citizens, not particularly responsible, and aren’t inclined to act as community watchdogs. Moreover, in some cases, tattling could mean that people implicate themselves in crimes. So the incentive to participate isn’t always there.

#Debate 3

Conservatives argue that gun rights are enshrined in the second amendment. They are a necessary hedge against a future tyrannical American government. Additionally, conservatives argue that the right to self-defense is a constitutionally protected right and has been upheld repeatedly, even expanded, in legal cases. Hence, any attempt to sharply roll back the freedom of Americans to acquire guns violate the Constitution and should be prohibited. Simple as that.

Most liberals are willing to bend on the primacy of the 2nd amendment. They think the problem of gun rights is serious enough to create laws that circumscribe gun rights. Besides, the 2nd amendment was written at a time in which the American republic was nascent and fragile, and when their experience with harsh British rule was fresh on their minds. Times have significantly changed, say liberals.

Moreover, what can citizens really do by hoarding weapons individually or collectively? The asymmetry in power between the government and private citizens has only widened over time, particularly as technology has improved. After all, Washington, backed by the military, has state-of-the-art weapons and defense systems, and, of course, nuclear power. Americans can’t compete with all that.

Debate #4

And then we have the data. They mean different things to different people. Let’s look at just a small sample to illustrate my point.

As liberals point out, the US is an increasingly militarized society—its military oversees the largest defense budget in the world, US police forces are rapidly arming themselves to the teeth with military-style weaponry, and US citizens are awash in guns. American citizens are speculated to hold about 300 million firearms, or about .9 per person. That per capita rate is 50 percent higher than the next most armed country, which is Yemen, a war torn basket-case. The US is much, much more prone to gun violence compared to other modern industrialized democracies. In fact, on gun violence, the US looks more like Mexico than, say, Britain or France. And mass shootings are on the upswing—though still rare.

But conservatives, meantime, are correct in highlighting the fact that gun violence is actually down since the peak violent days of the early 1990s. And while the US has recently averaged about 33,500 gun deaths per year (from 2000-2010), a little under two-thirds of those fatalities have been suicides, not homicides. Moreover, data indicate that defensive uses of weapons occur just as often as offensive uses of weapons, and that such uses of weapons are frequently effective. According to, “studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was 'used' by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”

So as we can see, both sides do make good points. But partisan mudslinging, while appealing for political reasons, misses much of the story of gun violence, as neither side has captured the full truth of what’s going on here. Unfortunately, bridging the ideological differences has been and will continue to be tough.

Entrenched partisan politics—interest group politics, the role of money in elections, and the voice of the hardliners on both the right and left in America—make compromise extremely difficult for those officials in Washington who might be willing to bend on their ideological positions. And even in the face of especially horrific events like the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school murders, which claimed the lives of 20 children and 6 staff members (plus the gunman’s mother and the shooter himself), the right and left in America really couldn’t find much common ground—at least not enough to begin to work toward remedying the problem of gun violence.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A CWCP Conversation: The Greece Crisis

The below conversation between CWCP’s Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman took place over email between July 13 and 15. We hope you enjoy!

Brad Nelson: So now that it appears a Greece deal with the EU and creditors is done, let's take a step back and look at some of the consequences of the events over the last few weeks. Who (or what) comes out the big winner of this mess? Anyone?

Yohanes Sulaiman: There are winners for sure. But big winners? Nope. Germany wins, but got a bad hit to its reputation. Tspiras wins the deal and referendum and applauds from people like Paul Krugman (second thought, that may not be so good), but that’s only after wrecking Greece’s economy and causing regional panic. The EU? Yes it’s still united, but it looks so wobbly. Obama? He is a non-factor here.

Probably former Finance Minister Varoufakis, the game theorist economist, is the biggest winner. His name is praised to high heaven by every leftist and will probably get a plum teaching job! Putin, by doing nothing but just looming around, also managed to make the EU nervous and pulled Greece closer to it. Perhaps Hollande also could make a claim as saving EU, but he was a bit player here.

BN: For me, the winners are: Germany and Merkel, who flexed her diplomatic muscles and got the Greeks to capitulate. We can pretend that France still matters a great deal, but the truth is that Germany runs the show.

The other winners are the EU and the Euro and supporters of European integration, at least for now. The bloc suffered a major crisis, looked shaky, bent, but, in the end, didn't break. However, over the long-term, I'm not sure of the continued viability of the EU. The usual critique--at least one of them--has been that the EU contains one batch of countries that are strong economies and one that's weaker and unsteady. At this point, the EU probably has multiple tiers of countries--relatively strong economies (Germany, Britain, Poland), steady but low growth ones (France), and weak and wobbly economies (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal).

How does the EU, with its sclerotic institutions and internal divisions, deal with this issue over the coming years?

YS: Merkel and Germany sure flexed their muscles, but at what cost? As you said, the viability of the Euro is in serious question. Granted, they could argue that Greece is exception, and I tend to agree and actually sympathize a lot with Berlin. But it cannot be denied that the optics are bad, and this situation created lots of internal resentment; and with EU's dysfunctional way of doing business, Greece and supporters could cause problems, though this might be a long-shot scenario.

But if this happens, then EU either has to transform into more federalized system—doubtful that they have enough support for that--or more dysfunctions and collapse might well result.

BN: I think the EU either has to tighten (a more federalized system, as you suggested) or loosen (give individual members more freedom to cope with their own issues and problems, something that might have been helpful in the Greek case) to remain meaningful. The current status quo isn't working. I suspect bureaucratic inertia, internal divisions, etc., will prevent any kind of structural and institutional change, leaving the EU weak and crisis-prone. 

Let's turn to the other side of events, the so-called losers. Who or what are the losers of the Greek crisis?

YS: Obviously, the EU. We've discussed how this entire fiasco brings the EU to brink, and unlike other crises the EU doesn't emerge stronger here. The idea of unity is questioned.

Yes, Greece is an extreme case in which Athens is really badly governed and the leaders seem not to be willing to play by the rules. Thus, it’s not surprising the idea of a “Grexit” is discussed so openly. How about other EU members? Hungary? Romania? How many have skeletons in their closets waiting to explode? If they do, my guess is the EU won’t do anything until the shit hits the fan.

BN: The losers, to me, are the Greeks, both the Greek government and the people of Greece. The government gambled that it could get a better deal by showing that its people were against austerity and reform. It lost that bet. In fact, I wonder how long Syriza will remain in power. Rumors say that there will probably be a cabinet reshuffle, but that might not be all. One has to think there are limits to how far and long the junior members of the political coalition will go in supporting Tsipras's moves and actions.

Meantime, the Greek people were permitted to voice their political preferences on a deal via referendum, but ultimately those preferences were ignored. Reality trumped poker playing and the government, despite the outcome of the referendum, had to negotiate with the EU and concede to German demands.

How do you think all of this plays out over the long-term for Greece?

YS: Long-term, it depends on whether Greece is willing to reform. I am very pessimistic, however. Expect another encore sooner or later. I mean, reforms imposed from outside rarely work unless there is strong domestic support, which is currently nonexistent in Greece considering the no vote. A majority of Greeks hate austerity and are angry with Germany.  This showed in the referendum results, when a majority of Greeks voted no simply because they consider that a rejection of German policy proposals.  Any reforms that sound like they originated from Berlin will be difficult for Greece to swallow.

BN: I agree with your pessimism; my main concern is the complexity of the issues at stake. Greece needs domestic reform, sure, but there are others things as well. It needs better governance, as you indicated. The Greek people need to be on board with any economic and legislative changes. Greece also needs debt forgiveness, something the IMF has suggested. Are creditors and the EU willing to go along with that? How does Greece stimulate enough economic growth to begin to get out of the hole it’s in? And mind you, all of these actors and actions have work in relative sync with one another. Is that likely? And who provides the leadership on all of this? Merkel? At what point do the Germans get sick of bailing out and providing leadership to the weak and troubled of the EU? And what cues are Spain, Portugal and Italy taking from the Greek drama?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Why the European Union will not give in to Greece's demands

There has been much discussion already about the "Grexit" and its possible implications to Europe and the global economics, so I won't touch that. What I want to discuss, however, is the logic behind Greece's negotiating strategy, which is supposedly based on game theory. In fact, Yanis Varoufakis, the Greece Finance Minister, is a noted expert on game theory and even wrote a book on it. The strategy, as glimpsed by the New York Times:
Those on the other side of the negotiations are “portraying me as an irrational fool, which is doing my work for me,” Mr. Varoufakis said. “I’ve been stoic. I haven’t let myself get agitated.” Speaking like a true game theorist, he added, “I know who I am and I know they know who I am.”
Apparently, Greece is playing a game of chicken, where due to a weak hand, one of the strategies to get the best outcome is to act recklessly, irrationally, taking the path that everyone thinks and knows would give the worst reward out of all possibilities and thus forcing the other "rational" actors to give concessions. For instance, many believe that if Greece is forced to exit, then it would be disastrous to the European project.

The problem with this strategy is that the other players must have some confidence that this will be the only game of chicken that they will ever play again.

The European Union is playing on long-term game. Yes, Grexit will be very costly. Yes, it will be disastrous to the "European Project." At the same time, the leaders of European Union, especially in Berlin, must realize that if they, in the end, concede to Greece's demands, what will prevent Spain or Italy, which also had to implement painful economic reforms, to play the same game? Or worse, it's possible we could observe another stunt like this from the Greek government. Why would or should the European Union keep surrendering to the blackmails of its weakest and irresponsible members? As noted even by the Italian Prime Minister:
If there is a mass get-out clause over the rules, what will happen in Spain in October? And in France in a year and a half? It is one thing to ask for flexibility amid abidance by the rules. It is another thing to think that one is the craftiest of them all, in other words to be the one that does not abide by the rules. We want to save Greece. But the people of Greece also have to want that.
In other words, EU members don't want a rerun of these chaotic and destabilizing events and thus might have to make Greece, especially Syriza, an example of what happens if anyone dares to pull another stunt like this.

Plus, the fact is that most likely key players such as Germany believes the European Union is much more prepared for "Grexit" today than back in 2009. In other words, they believe that they will survive the game of chicken simply because they have a much stronger car.

So, rather than getting the best possible outcome, the Greek government is actually making a disastrous bet that could end up making it roadkill.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Charleston Shooting and the Deep Roots of America's Racial Violence

Authorities have announced the arrest of Dylann Roof, who is suspected of the shooting at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina. He was arrested during a traffic stop in North Carolina after law enforcement authorities received a tip from a local business. Roof was reportedly cooperative with the police during his arrest, and has been extradited to South Carolina.

US President Barack Obama addressed the tragedy, stating that he and First Lady Michelle Obama knew members of the parish personally. The president also touched upon the issue of gun ownership in the United States, saying: "At some point, we as a country have to reckon with the fact that this type of massacre does not happen in other advanced countries".

Of course, the notion that outsiders or external forces can influence American white supremacists groups and individuals is not unheard of. Many such groups in the US openly display the Nazi swastika and other symbols of white supremacist movements. It is interesting, however, that Roof's display of white supremacy symbols from outside the US did not entail Nazi paraphernalia. Rather he openly displayed on his jacket the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and the flag of Rhodesia (a British colony which broke away from the UK in 1965 under white rule until the end of a civil war in 1980, when it was renamed Zimbabwe under its current ruler, Robert Mugabe).

The shootings come at a time of high racial tensions in the United States, with several incidents of police killings of young African Americans surfacing in the media, and attacks on police in retaliation as well.

The incidence of the shooting in Charleston is based in part on reported racial tensions in the city, specifically regarding the lack of political empowerment of the large African American community (few reportedly hold positions of civic responsibility, especially in proportion to their numbers in the city). Nevertheless, there is also a deep historic symbolism with regard to the shooting transpiring in Charleston. As a port city, Charleston was a major hub of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. After the US Revolutionary War, Charleston actually had a relatively high (18%) population of so called "free people of color". Later, Charleston would become a major center of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's, although it was not in the spotlight as much as places like Birmingham, Alabama.

The symbolism we can glean from what happened in Charleston is that the issue of race relations and racial violence is not a new phenomenon and not something we can easily address. This is perhaps obvious to an American reader, but many outsiders unfamiliar with the historic intricacies of US race relations are often unaware (as I have discovered when several of my non-American friends have said "Why don't you guys just fix the problem?!). A city which has had such a central role in the issue of race in America should hopefully help remind us that this is a problem with deep rots, and it is at the roots that we can find a resolution.

Our hearts go out to the victims of the Emanuel AME Church shootings, and to their loved ones.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Shangri-La 2015

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter delivers his speech about "The United States and Challenges to Asia-Pacific Security" during the 14th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue (IISS) Asia Security Summit, Saturday, May 30, 2015, in Singapore. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
(Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter; AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Over the weekend, the annual Shangri-La defense dialogue took place, as usual, in Singapore. As you might expect, the latest events in the South China Sea (SCS) dominated the agenda and conversations there.

Keep in mind, there was concern, especially from the Chinese side, that US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter would take a hard stance against China at the summit. After all, in recent weeks, there have been rumblings that the US was prepared to more strongly counter China's moves in the SCS, as momentum has been reportedly growing in the White House and the Pentagon for new and better responses. Carter himself said that the US might send planes and ships in and around Chinese-created installations in the SCS to signal America's view that China's construction has gone way too far and too fast.

At Shangri-La, Carter put forward a firm defense of America's commitment to the rule of law internationally and freedom of navigation in the SCS. Carter declared that China's reclamation projects do not amount to state sovereignty. He called for all reclamation activities, not just those undertaken by China, to stop--which pleased the Chinese attendees, who have been calling attention to countries like the Philippines that have also been building outposts in the SCS. Carter also made sure to emphasize his desire for peaceful, non-militarized outcomes in the SCS, good military-to-military relations with China, and the continuation of cooperation between both sides. On balance, Carter put forward a good recitation of US national interests in the SCS, but in way that didn't really didn't offend China, at least according to Chinese attendees.

Meantime, Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff Sun Jianguo, who led China's delegation at the summit, defended the typical spin we hear from Beijing. In particular, he said China's reclamation projects in the SCS were legitimate and justified, argued that China's efforts are part of an effort to provide regional public goods, denied that the country is destabilizing Southeast Asia, and recognized that setting up an ADIZ over the SCS is possible. He also ignored many of the questions posed to him during a Q&A session, including a pointed question from Bloomberg's Josh Rogin, who asked "with whom China is cooperating and who other than China is winning in the South China Sea?" in her write-up of Shangri-La, Bonnie Glaser calls China's performance at the summit "a missed opportunity for China to address the concerns about Chinese intentions and behavior that were raised throughout the two-day meeting by defense representatives and scholars from around the world, but most importantly from China’s neighboring countries."

With all this in mind, here are some brief thoughts about the Shangri-La Dialogue and the US-China clash in the SCS more generally:

(1) It should be very apparent that China isn't backing down in the SCS, which should be troubling to all parties with a vested interest in what happens there. It considers the SCS its turf and, as a result, a core national interest on which compromise is unlikely.

(2) There is a growing disjuncture between words and deeds from Team Obama. Reports of occasional tough talk from Secretary of State John Kerry and defense chief Ashton Carter haven't been matched by actions on the ground from the US. And at least on the surface, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of thought within US circles given to pushing back against China, to ramping up and sharpening its deterrent strategies and mechanisms. Interestingly, as Rogin points out:
Following Carter’s remarks, Asahi Shimbun journalist Yoichi Kato pointed out that Carter’s rhetoric is not really new and has not thus far resulted in any halt in Chinese expansion of its military presence in disputed territories – in fact China has only escalated its aggression. He asked Carter what the U.S. is actually prepared to do to back up its rhetoric with concrete action.
 Carter had no real answer, pointing back to his contention that Chinese actions are not just something for Washington to deal with. He predicted that eventually China will pay a price for alienating its neighbors, but didn’t indicate that the U.S. has any real plan to ramp up the pressure. 

(3) The above point, not surprisingly, has fed the perception within China that Team Obama is not just tied down and distracted, but weak and unwilling to respond meaningfully to its moves throughout Asia. That, in turn, has led China to believe that it has a free hand in the SCS.

(4) The US urgently needs to put together a comprehensive plan for the SCS. At Shangri-La, Carter did reveal a $425 million maritime initiative to assist in building up the capabilities of Southeast Asian nations. Carter didn't reveal many specifics about this initiative, but it won't be enough to stabilize the region. More needs to be done. For starters, I recommend the suggestions I sketched out in my last blog post.

(5) If push comes to shove with China, the US will find trouble formulating an adequate response for reasons beyond simply foreign policy distraction and lack of leadership resolve. Those things matter, but arguably even more so does the policy preferences of Americans. So for instance, are American citizens willing to devote treasure, and perhaps blood, in defense of rocks and reefs in the SCS? Are they willing to defend a country, Vietnam, that their home nation fought a protracted war against not so long ago? Do they understand the importance of the SCS to international trade and shipping? Do they care if the current steps that China is taking is paving the way for Chinese hegemony in Asia?My guess is an unequivocal no on all four counts, which means it's going to be terribly difficult for Team Obama to mobilize domestic support for significantly more pressure on China. This just isn't a fight Americans want to have right now, especially with so many other threats, such as ISIS and Russia, that have been pushed forward, if not outright trumped up, by Washington and the American media.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

American Policy on the South and East China Seas

A Chinese land reclamation project in the disputed Spratly chain in an image from the Philippine foreign ministry.

Photo from Philippine Foreign Ministry of a part of China's reclamation projects in the South China Sea.

Arguably, the most ominous issue at stake right now in the Obama presidency does not involve Vladimir Putin or ISIS; instead, it's centers on China's increasingly aggressive behavior in the South and East China Seas. This knotty set of issues threatens to tarnish his legacy and harm US national interests over the long-term.

How severe is the crisis? Let's put it this way: Obama is the US president who so wanted to focus on Asia, with an eye on China, but he might be the one who effectively ceded Asian hegemony to China.

His so-called pivot initially tried to create an image of a tough, muscular US that's fully invested in Asia, one that China shouldn't even think of messing with. The problem, as we now know, is that the pivot lacked teeth. The hardline parts of the pivot weren't significant enough--neither in speed nor capability--to deter china from or punish it for unwanted behavior. The US does plan to shift more military assets to Asia, but by the year 2020. That could be too late. The US has also promised to send and rotate 2500 marines to Darwin, Australia. But those numbers are hardly enough to contribute to playing a strong role in securing the Asia-Pacific. In fact, some Australians immediately saw the perils of the Marines deployment: they're just enough to send a signal that America and Australia might be militarizing against China, thus a provocative move, but not enough to guard against an irritated, threatened China.

Even the TPP, the large free trade pact that's been negotiated for over a decade now and is a crucial part of Obama's pivot, has a strategic, tough guy element to it. The US favors the TPP because it will allow Washington, along with its friends in Asia and the Americas, to write the economic rules of the 21st century, while squeezing China out of such a chance to do so. But such logic is likely misguided. After all, China will be such a large part the world economy going forward that keeping Beijing out of the rule-writing process will only doom the effectiveness of the pact.

Despite the pivot, China decided to test America's commitment to Asia, especially to America's friends in the region. In November 2013, Beijing set up an ADIZ in the East China Sea, which was an effort to place a significant swath of the sea under its control, including islands and waterways contested by Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Team Obama criticized the ADIZ, but did little else. In short, the US was willing to abide by China changing the facts on the ground, which, as expected, alarmed countries like Japan that fear being abandoned by the US and left alone to deal with the growing Chinese behemoth.

Since 2012, China has also sought, with success, to change the facts on the ground in the South China Sea. It captured the Scarborough Shoal, though it's also claimed by the Philippines. Chinese vessels have repeatedly harassed Vietnamese and Philippine fishermen, ramming their boats and blasting them with water cannons. In 2015, China placed an oil rig in the South China Sea, despite Vietnamese protests, in an effort to search for energy deposits. Although China moved the rig after about a month, it proved its point: China can come and go in the South China Sea, doing whatever it pleases, without impunity. And the latest developments there are even more worrisome.

Earlier this year, china has ramped up its reclamation projects in the South China Sea. What this means is that China is building on reefs and rocky surfaces, many of which are either submerged in water or barely visible above water, to create man-made islands and outposts that, the Washington believes, totals more than 2000 acres. The presence of these new land features gives Beijing increasingly greater de facto sovereignty over the South China Sea. Why? China is setting up airstrips and bases on these islands, which gives Beijing the requisite muscle to enforce its claims in the area. Some China watchers believe that all the resources now pouring in the South China Sea means that Beijing will impose an ADIZ in the south.

Once we put the pieces of the East and South China Seas puzzle together, that's when we see the real consequences. If China controls both seas, it would be in a good spot to bully East and Southeast Asian nations. And from there, particularly given China's advancing military capabilities, Beijing could turn further beyond its borders by asserting itself vigorously in the Indian Ocean. Hence, this is a wake-up call to the US, of course, but also to Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, and India.

In my view, the above scenario, if it comes true, means that China will be on the road to achieving hegemony in Asia. The last straw happens when China refines and perfects its A2/AD capabilities. Such a situation would lead to a number of troubling possible outcomes: it would make navigating in the air and seas miserable for the US as well as other Asian-Pacific nations; American troops and bases in Japan and South Korea would be in a precarious position; China would be in a ripe position to intimidate if not dominate its Asian neighbors; China would also be well stationed to set the rules on security affairs in Asia.

Whether because Team Obama has been asleep at the wheel, distracted, overly optimistic about Chinese intentions, or some combination of the three, the White House's response to Chinese moves in the South and East China Seas has been purely reactive. Here's what the US has done: it's called for a moratorium on the reclamation projects by all parties in Asia, including China, of course. It's criticized China, saying that Beijing is using its military muscle to bully its neighbors. It also has been beefing up its ties to Vietnam and the Philippines. the US has upgraded its defense guidelines with Japan, and is even considering conducting joint patrols in the South China Sea with Japan. Additionally, to further send a signal to China of America's seriousness about stability in the area, Obama has said that Japanese claims in the East China Sea fall under the US-Japan security treaty.

Is all of this enough to make China think twice before continuing its expansionism? I'm pessimistic, though I'm not the only one. There are calls within Washington, and among policy analysts, to place higher costs on China, to punish China, as it expands outward and flouts international law and norms. John McCain, for instance, has called for Washington to cease inviting China to participate in RIMPAC exercises. Perhaps, but it should start thinking about harsher, more creative measures as well.

In brief, I recommend a two-pronged approach. First, the US should try to impose costs on China's actions in the South and East China Seas. It's currently doing a better job of that in East because of its strong ties to Japan. But the US should also firm up its commitments in the South China Sea. It should expand its military assistance to Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as any other claimant nation. It should publicly, vigorously support both countries diplomatically during maritime skirmishes with China. It should do much, much more to shame China for its acquisitive actions. The US might also want to prepare for the day in which it might need to extend security commitments to Vietnam and the Philippines. Among other things, a major challenge for the US would be finding a way to make this form of extended deterrence credible in the eyes of Beijing.

Second, the US ought to think about forming a maritime league of democracies that spans across Asia. Most importantly, the US should recruit Japan, Indonesia, Australia, and India. These four countries are powerful, influential, politically open and free, and geographically consequential. Indeed, they ring the South and East China Seas and the Indian Ocean. If these four countries could effectively work in concert on the high seas, along with the US, they just might be able to contain China from breaking out of its neighborhood, thereby hemming in, if not pinning down, China. Yes, it wouldn't be easy, and any signs of a proposed league could provoke China into bellicose behavior. That said, if we think tying down Gulliver is the right thing to do--whether to preserve regional stability or to guard the existing liberal order--then it's an idea to weigh heavily for the future.

***Note***An expanded version of this post has been published by E-International Relations. You can find that piece here.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Obama's Saudi Problem

In announcing the tentative account of the nuclear deal with Iran, Obama did a victory lap. He declared that the negotiations with Iran "had succeeded exactly as intended" and "it is a good deal." And for his role in brokering the tentative deal, Secretary of State John Kerry finally reached his diplomatic triumph and sealed his legacy.

At the same time, the question is how much will this deal change the political calculations in the Middle East?

The answer is, not much. In trying to get Iran on the table, Obama had to upset the regional power brokers, notably Saudi Arabia.

Granted, it is doubtful that the Saudis (and Israel) are going to be happy of any deal short of complete surrender by Iran. Yet, they might be far more willing to entertain even a bad deal with Iran if they trusted that Obama knew what he was doing or at least was more sensitive to their concerns.

Events in the past several days has shown that the Saudis do not trust Obama's moves in the Middle East. They believe the United States was far too eager for a quick nuclear deal with Iran. As Rothkopf noted:
The administration’s good first-term toughness toward Iran on nuclear sanctions was followed by a second-term hunger for a nuclear deal that was so great that everyone from Tehran to Toledo, Ohio, now believes that the United States wants the deal more than the Iranians do and has lost negotiating leverage as a result. 
It is telling when Saudi Arabia didn't bother to warn the United States of their sudden and unexpected invasion of Yemen, which caught the Obama Administration off-guard. The Saudis didn't inform the US because they didn't trust Obama, afraid that Washington would leak the news to Iran. 

More importantly, the Saudis no longer care what the United States thinks, as Mustafa Alani, director of the national security and terrorism studies department at the Gulf Research Center, argued:
We see the beginning of a new policy, where [Saudi] interest is basically more important than U.S. objections or with Security Council resolutions.... Basically, we are adopting the Iranian style and the Israeli style: When it comes to your national interest, you go ahead and do it.
Not surprisingly, Senator John McCain thundered that this development "signals a reality that the countries in the region no longer have confidence or are willing to work with the United States of America." In the meantime, David Rothkopf bluntly stated that Obama's policy in the Middle East was an egregious failure, a giant cluster-fuck

In essence, Obama's victory lap is very premature. Should Iran decide to renege even a bit on the still tentative deal before its signing later this year, it will not, for sure, boost the Saudis's confidence on this administration.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Is Indonesia's South China Sea Policy Sustainable?

Last week, while in Japan, Indonesian President Joko Widodo declared that China's nine-dash line has no basis in international law. This statement, in turn, stimulated much discussion among Indonesia watchers.

Most notably, they wondered, is this a shift in Indonesian foreign policy? Is this a part of Jokowi's seemingly hardline stance on maritime affairs? The consensus, best summed up by The Diplomat's , is that Jokowi's comment doesn't signal a policy change. Rather, it is simply a continuation of a complicated, delicate status quo that's been in place for years. Indeed, that's how Rizal Sukma, a Joko foreign policy adviser, has interpreted Jokowi's statement, saying that "In 2009, Indonesia sent its official stance on the issue to the UN commission on the delimitation of the continental shelf, stating that the nine-dotted line has no basis in international law....So, nothing changes.”

My immediate reaction to Jokowi's comment wasn't to ask whether there's a policy change afoot, important as that might be, but to question whether Indonesia's policy toward the South China Sea is sustainable over time.

At bottom, Indonesia seeks to have its cake and eat it too. Its officials at times criticize China, which plays well locally, among Indonesians, as well as regionally, especially among ASEAN countries that have their own waterway/territory disputes with China. It's Indonesia's way of showing some sympathy to its neighbors. At the same time, though, Indonesia wants to act as an honest broker in the South China Sea disputes. Such a role burnishes Indonesia's credentials as a regional leader. Yet that could be jeopardized eventually if Jokowi, or his successor, continues to play up the role of international law as a dispute resolution mechanism; after all, China sees no international body, structure or formal gathering as having any place in the muddy South China Sea imbroglio.

On top of all this, Indonesia wants to ramp up its trade and investments ties to China. On Jokowi's trip to China, which followed his jaunt to Japan, he managed to get Xi Jinping to agree to a number of deals on construction and investment opportunities. There is even talk of hooking Jokowi's Global Maritime Axis to Xi's Silk Road initiatives. The joint statement released after their meeting explicitly stated that the GMA and SR are "complementary" and that both sides are working toward a maritime partnership. It makes sense. Think about it. China is looking to build up or create from scratch all sorts of ports and embark on widespread inland construction in the region, giving it a firmer base to expand its influence, boost trade, and ensure the safe passage of its trade. Meantime, Indonesia needs help better connecting all of its islands together.

For now, China seems content with Indonesia, save for an occasional outburst from the Indonesian military, and with good reason. China and Indonesia have good military, political and economic relations. Specifically, with respect to the South China Sea issues, Indonesia hasn't created any trouble for China. Its political officials maintain that Jakarta isn't a party to any of the disputes in the sea. And by seeking to be a so-called "honest broker," Indonesia ostensibly wants to be a part of the solution rather than part of the problems in the South China Sea. Or at a minimum, Indonesia's preference to act as a regional mediators shows China that Indonesia wants to stay above the fray, maintaining some distance, from the disputes there.

Moreover, I suspect China is optimistic that the promise of steadily burgeoning economic relations with Indonesia will prevent Indonesia from ever completely turning on its benefactor. That's the part of the "win-win" relations that Beijing often talks about. China's trade and investment partners receive economic and infrastructure benefits, among other things, from China, while China gets growing political influence and clout over these nations. This is in part why China thinks that time is on its side in achieving its regional ambitions. Little by little, via piecemeal political, economic and military encroachments, China is shifting the regional balance of power to its advantage and is fostering a culture of dependence upon which other countries are going to find it hard to break.

All of this begs a few questions, however.

1. How do Indonesian officials preserve their country's independence and sovereignty in the face of increasing influence by Beijing? How can Indonesia avoid being sucked into China's orbit?

2. Indonesian political leaders have consistently downplayed any dispute with China, even though its nine-dash line cuts through the EEZ extending from the waters of the Natuna Islands. I get the sense that they believe that if they don't rock the boat, then China is mostly fine the way things are--that Beijing won't make a big deal about the waters. Perhaps, at least in the short-term. Of course, China does have lots disputes on its plate already, so it probably doesn't make much sense to add another one. Plus, Indonesia sees no need to recklessly antagonize China.

But what about the longer-term? What if a restless China turns its sights on the waters of the Natunas? It could happen due to a number of factors. Perhaps China begins to harbor doubts about Indonesia, questioning if Jakarta is really an honest broker and has sincere intentions, and as a result decides to push the envelope, so to speak. Or maybe a stronger, better armed China, one that's flush with confidence and uber-competitiveness, attempts to seize by force all of its claims in the South China Sea. Or perhaps the current ASEAN claimants eventually capitulate to China's demands in the South China Sea, which leads China to view ASEAN members as weak and vulnerable, ripe for opportunism, causing China to expand its claims in the South China Sea and beyond. What happens then? Does Indonesia have back-up plan? Is Indonesia's political and military establishment ready to shift into a different gear to protect the national interest?