Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Americans Don’t Know How Good They Have It

CAIRO—“I could be arrested when I leave here,” said a journalist who I met at the tiny Marriott near Cairo’s Tahir Square.  A student activist observed that he could be detained at any time. 

A veteran human rights activist calmly stated:  “Some of our groups will be closed.  Some of us will be imprisoned.  It is inevitable.”

Most foreigners travel to Egypt to play tourist.  I visited with a human rights delegation, reminding me yet again about how lucky Americans—and, indeed, most Westerners—are.

Most important are the basic characteristics of a free society.  The rule of law.  Civil liberties.  Criminal procedures.  Legal safeguards.  Democratic processes. 

Obviously, even nations which purport to have all of these often fall short.  However, few Americans or Europeans, or citizens of democratic Asian nations live in constant fear of arrest, imprisonment, and torture. 

In Egypt the uncertainty began when arriving.  On both of my trips the government knew our delegation was coming.  Both times I was pulled aside. 

On the first trip an entry guard took my passport and I waited for an hour before officials returned it and waved me on.  The second time after far shorter delay security officials formally welcomed me—after asking for my phone number and hotel destination. 

Of course, the U.S. occasionally stops people from entering, but not typically because they want to assess America’s human rights record.  Even after leaving the arrivals area on my first trip I had to wait again while the videographer joining us unsuccessfully attempted to persuade officials to let him bring in his camera. 

Both visits were filled with interviews—relating all sorts of harrowing stories.  Most every society has injustice and errors are sadly common in U.S. jurisprudence.  However, most Americans don’t expect a visit to a friend to turn into a stint in prison.

In Egypt for reasons of political repression and personal revenge people face arbitrary arrest, perpetual detention, fraudulent trials, and horrific imprisonment.  Some of the accounts we heard could be exaggerated or even false, but reports from people in many walks of life and across the political spectrum suggested that the slightest resistance to state authority risks freedom and even life.

Ebola Travel Restrictions – Marginal Measures

The recent story of a Liberian man in Dallas who had Ebola sparked a political conflagration around travel restrictions for countries where there are Ebola cases. The virus does not appear to have spread from him to anyone that did not come into direct contact with him in the Dallas hospital.

Many are arguing that his arrival in the United States means that all travel from the affected West African countries should be shut immediately. Others are arguing that travel should remain as open as it currently is – which is still heavily restricted. 

What happened to policy responses on the margin

Fortunately, the federal government took a marginal action yesterday. Fliers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone will have to enter through one of five ports of entry and undergo an interview as well as a temperature check once they arrive in the United States. These restrictions are far less than the total ban sought by some folks and still more restricted than the current system  These checks do not interrupt the flow of aid to these West African countries either and will affect roughly 150 travelers per day.

Immigration or movement restrictions for legitimate health concerns are proper and already written into law. Travel restrictions to contain viruses different than Ebola have not been successful in the past. Ebola is far less communicable than the flu so the comparison to previous travel bans might not be appropriate.  

Americans have a very low chance of contracting Ebola while in the United States, let alone dying from it. The only person to die from Ebola in the United States contracted it in Liberia. I took a bigger risk of dying from a traffic accident this morning commuting to the office than I will ever face from Ebola.

More Americans are killed every year from their furniture than all Americans who have died from that dreaded hemorrhagic fever.

Those Americans who worry about Ebola focus on the freakishly high death rates for those who contract the virus – 50 percent for most strains of the virus (only 20 percent of Americans who have contracted Ebola have died.) But the death rate is not the most important figure; the chance of contracting the virus in the first place is the most important factor. 

So far, two American nurses who treated the Liberian man contracted Ebola from him. Both nurses are recovering. For the rest of us, that means the chances of contracting Ebola is about zero. No matter the death rate, a zero chance of contracting the disease means we will not die from it.     

Still, a few marginal precautions, like those put in place by the federal government, will impose a very small temporary cost and likely stop any future Ebola patients from coming to the United States on a commercial flight.    

Stop Squandering “Defense” Dollars on Rich Allies and Failed States

America accounts for nearly 40 percent of globe’s military outlays, but Washington hawks believe that the federal government never spends enough on the Pentagon.  The United States should scale back its international responsibilities and cut Pentagon outlays accordingly.

Military expenditures are the price of Washington’s foreign policy.  And the cost is high—about $627 billion budgeted this year, before counting extra expenditures for the latest Mideast war. 

The war lobby minimizes the magnitude of America’s military spending through statistical legerdemain:  real outlays have been falling and account for a lower percentage of GDP.

But the United States leads the world in military spending and is allied with every major industrialized state save China and Russia.  America and its allies collectively account for two-thirds of the globe’s military expenditures.

While Washington’s inflation-adjusted outlays have recently dropped, they previously rose significantly—almost 165 percent between 1998 and 2011.  It is only natural for expenditures to fall as Washington wound down two wars. 

Moreover, the percentage of GDP is irrelevant.  America’s GDP this year is almost seven times that in 1952, at the height of the Korean War.  Today’s GDP is roughly 3.5 times that in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War and almost twice that in 1989, the peak of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War military build-up.  Washington today spends more in real resources on the military than in any of those years.

Washington Should Back out Of Iraq’s New Civil War

George W. Bush’s foolish invasion of Iraq sowed the wind.  Now Iraq, its neighbors, and America are reaping the whirlwind.  Some Iraqi officials are calling for the return of U.S. combat troops.  Washington should say no.

American conservatives traditionally rejected domestic social engineering.  But the neoconservative takeover of the Republican Party pushed the GOP into social engineering on a global scale. 

Alas, it didn’t work out that way in Iraq.  At the cost of several thousand dead the U.S. opened a geopolitical Pandora’s Box, unleashing a sectarian-guerrilla conflict which claimed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives. 

Bush’s legacy was a corrupt, authoritarian, and sectarian state, friendly with Iran and Syria.  Even worse was the emergence of the Islamic State, ripping Iraq apart, seizing large chunks of Syria, threatening Kurdistan, committing murder and mayhem, and threatening to destabilize Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.   

The Iraq disaster’s architects, however, insisted that nothing had been their fault.  Indeed, Iraq hawks claimed, the fault for Iraq’s collapse was entirely President Obama’s since he followed the Bush withdrawal schedule

In fact, even had the administration succeeded in maintaining a garrison, little likely would have changed.  Washington’s only leverage would have been to threaten to withdraw its troops, which, of course, would have frustrated its objective of staying.

Worse would have been deploying American troops against the Maliki regime’s domestic enemies.  That would have made Washington an active combatant in sectarian conflict, tied America even closer to Maliki, and turned U.S. forces into a lightning rod for discontented Iraqis. 

How should Washington respond today?  Renewed American intervention is no less likely to again stir the whirlwind.  As I note on Forbes online:  “bombing jihadist radicals, supporting authoritarian regimes, taking sides in sectarian conflict, playing multiple sides in Syria, hectoring allied states, and pursuing new but still unattainable objectives in the Middle East offer a multitude of opportunities for bloody blowback.”

In fact, the Islamic State became a significant U.S. interest only because Washington termed it one.  ISIL’s fighters are insurgents, not terrorists.  The Islamic State stands apart from al-Qaeda because the former is seeking to become an organized government rather than a terrorist group. 

Of course, the Islamic State’s objectives could change.  But butchering two Americans who fell into its hands illustrated the group’s monstrous philosophy, not its threat potential.  Ironically, Washington’s attempt to thwart the group’s regional ambitions might push ISIL toward al-Qaeda and the terrorism business. 

Moreover, the administration’s strategy is a bust.  U.S. airstrikes have not prevented the group from advancing.  Yet Washington’s tepid intervention has discouraged the countries with the greatest interest in defeating the Islamic State, most notably Turkey, from taking action.

Worse, Washington has stepped up its commitment to overthrow Syria’s Assad regime.  President Bashar al-Assad is an ugly character, but his army is the best force currently opposing ISIL.  Aiding the so-called “moderate” insurgents in Syria could tie down government forces, enabling the Islamic State’s black flag to eventually fly over Damascus.

The only serious alternative to fully reentering the war is to step back, making clear that the Islamic State’s neighbors will bear the cost of any further advances.  Iraq desperately requires a political solution separating anti-Baghdad Sunni tribes and former Baathists from their ally of convenience, ISIL. 

Jordan and the Gulf States also have much at stake and military forces available for use.  Most important is Turkey, which alone has some 400,000 men under arms.  Washington should inform Ankara that there will be no NATO involvement in a problem Turkey should confront.

The administration’s Iraq policy has failed.  The U.S. is more entangled in war; Americans have been killed in retaliation for Washington’s intervention; the Islamic State is still advancing. 

U.S. officials should back out of Iraq, not jump in.  This may be President Obama’s final opportunity to avoid a lengthy conflict which could come to define his legacy as the 2003 Iraq War came to define that of George W. Bush.

The Cost of Ebola and the Misery Index

For a clear snapshot of a country’s economic performance, a look at my misery index is particularly edifying. The misery index is simply the sum of the inflation rate, unemployment rate, and bank lending rate, minus per capita GDP growth. 

The epicenter of the Ebola crisis is Liberia. As the accompanying chart shows, the level of misery, as measured by the misery index, has decreased since Charles Taylor ruled Liberia.

That said, the index was still quite elevated, at 19.4, in 2012. Yes, 2012; that was the last year in which all the data required to calculate a misery index were available. This inability to collect and report basic economic data in a timely manner is bad news. It simply reflects the government’s lack of capacity to produce. If it can’t produce economic data, we can only imagine its capacity to produce public health services.

With Ebola wreaking havoc on Liberia (and neighboring countries), the level of misery is, unfortunately set to soar.

Letting it Go: Ukraine’s Frozen Future

Secretary of State John Kerry met late yesterday in Paris with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Though somewhat overshadowed by Kerry’s meetings with Iran, the meeting nonetheless provided some fascinating clues as to where the Ukraine crisis is headed.

First, international tensions over Ukraine seem to be slowly relaxing, although violence continues to mar the ceasefire in the Donbas itself. Russian troops are withdrawing from the border, as specified in the Minsk Protocol. The United States is making encouraging noises about the possibility of sanction removal. More importantly, Kerry made a clear point of emphasizing Russian-American cooperation and announced that the two countries would engage in intelligence sharing on ISIS.  This represents a major about-face for the Obama administration, which just six months ago said its goal was to “isolate President Vladimir Putin.” It seems that faced with the difficulty of managing simultaneous conflicts – something the White House is not good at – officials are opting for a more conciliatory approach to Russia.

Second, Crimea wasn’t mentioned. Though it calls for Ukrainian sovereignty to be respected, the protocol doesn’t explicitly discuss Crimea. In short, it looks like Crimea may be off the negotiating table, effectively ceded to Russia. Instead, the main point of contention between Kerry and Lavrov appears to have been the worry that Ukrainian separatists will hold another referendum on joining Russia, in place of Ukrainian parliamentary elections in late October.

China’s Curious Restraint

Beijing’s behavior on the international stage over the past few months has been surprisingly restrained—in marked contrast to an earlier, lengthy period of assertive, if not abrasive, conduct toward its neighbors. Not too long ago, policymakers in the United States and throughout East Asia were alarmed by China’s initiatives. Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea were breathtakingly broad, leading to nasty incidents with the Philippines, Vietnam, and other nations.  Even worse were the confrontations between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea, along with Beijing’s unilateral proclamation of an extensive Air Defense Identification Zone in that same area, which led to a surge of tensions with Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

Two developments illustrate the new, less confrontational trend in China’s policy. One is Beijing’s concerted diplomatic courtship of such countries as South Korea, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. As I discuss in a recent article in China-U.S. Focus, even such longstanding rivals as Japan and India have been recipients of this Chinese “charm offensive.” 

The other sign of uncharacteristic restraint is Beijing’s handling of the ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. True, there are indications that the Chinese government may have organized and paid for counterdemonstrators to confront and harass democracy activists.  But, at least to this point, there is no indication that Xi Jinping’s government intends to intervene directly with its security forces, much less trigger a bloodbath reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Instead, Beijing has allowed its appointed authorities in Hong Kong to manage the turbulence.  

That is a smart move because the United States and the nations of East Asia are closely watching how the Chinese government handles the democratic ferment in Hong Kong. Taiwan is an especially interested spectator, and if Beijing wants to preserve the possibility of the island’s eventual return to the Chinese fold, a brutal crackdown in Hong Kong would doom those hopes for a generation or more. Conversely, the toleration of even limited moves toward free elections for Hong Kong’s leadership would increase the chances of seducing Taiwan regarding the desirability of gradual re-unification. It appears that Xi and his associates may understand that.

Of course, further developments bear close watching, since they could move quickly in an undesirable direction. It is possible that Beijing’s more conciliatory stance toward its Asian neighbors and its restraint regarding Hong Kong is merely a temporary tactical shift, and that we will soon see a return to a bold, confrontational approach. But if the current restraint instead is the harbinger of a more cautious, cooperative policy over the long term on geopolitical issues, China would become easier to accommodate as a rising great power. That would be good for the peace and security of East Asia and for harmonious relations between Beijing and Washington.

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