Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

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.

Promoting Democracy in Hong Kong: Combining Prudence with Idealism

Hong Kong is part of China.  But administered separately from the rest of the People’s Republic of China, the territory respects civil liberties while hosting the world’s freest economy. 

Demonstrators are pressing Beijing to make good on its promise of  democratic rule and free elections.  But the PRC will not, indeed, cannot, give residents of Hong Kong what it refuses to give the rest of its citizens.  The city’s future depends on finding a compromise that preserves Hong Kong’s freedom and peace.

The British colony grew out of imperial China’s weakness.  London seized Hong Kong Island, then the Kowloon Peninsula, and later “leased” the New Territories.  In 1997 the latter’s 99-year term ran out.  At which point Beijing was legally entitled to take back the New Territories.

Dividing Hong Kong would have been a practical nightmare.  And Beijing might not have continued to honor territorial cessions forced more than a century before.  So in 1984 London agreed to the full territory’s return.

One wonders:  What if Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had scheduled a referendum in which the territory’s residents could freely express their decision?

At the time a still weak and isolated Beijing probably would have felt little choice but to accept an adverse vote.  However, the PRC might have chosen to bide its time, as it has done with Taiwan, and now would be demanding the territory’s return.

Returning Hong Kong meant transferring millions of people to communist China.  The PRC committed to respect Hong Kong’s uniqueness for a half century. 

However, Beijing never promised to hold fully free elections.  Rather, it stated:  “The chief executive will be appointed by the Central People’s Government on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally.” 

The Basic Law (essentially the territory’s constitution), approved six years later by Beijing, provided for “nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”   The PRC claims that is what it is implementing. 

As of 2017 residents will be able to elect their ruler, but only from candidates vetted by Beijing.  It won’t be real democracy, but then, there never was much chance that the Chinese Communist Party would institute real democracy in any area under its control.

That’s not fair to Hong Kong’s residents.  So it’s impossible not to admire the protestors.  However, their very passion threatens their objective.  They have divided over tactics and sparked criticism from some other residents. 

The greatest risk is that the Chinese leadership might believe it must choose between repression and either chaos or democracy.  In 1989 the CCP sent in tanks to clear democracy-minded demonstrators out of Tiananmen Square.

Beijing would pay an even higher price for cracking down in Hong Kong.  Still, the Chinese regime places self-preservation above everything else.

Moreover, if China violently dispersed the protestors, it would not likely stop there.  Media freedom and judicial independence also would be at risk. 

This week tensions eased as demonstrators and government officials agreed to talks.  Democracy advocates should temper their idealism with an acute sense of pragmatism. 

Beijing might sacrifice the territory’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, and make other concessions, such as broadening the nomination process.  But the PRC will insist that Chinese officials, not Hong Kong residents, be in charge. 

Unfortunately, as I write in Forbes online, “Nothing the U.S. does can bring democracy to the territory.  To the contrary, the more Washington attempts to intervene, the more likely China is to perceive the demonstrators to be threats.” 

Democracy advocates have moral right on their side.  Still, raw power is likely to prevail in any showdown.  The protestors must temper idealism with prudence.  They must not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good for their own sake—and ultimately that of Hong Kong and China as well.

E.U. Austerity, You Must Be Kidding

The leading political lights in Europe – Messrs. Hollande, Valls and Macron in France and Mr. Renzi in Italy – are raising a big stink about fiscal austerity. They don’t like it. And now Greece has jumped on the anti-austerity bandwagon. The pols have plenty of company, too. Yes, they can trot out a host of economists – from Nobelist Krugman on down – to carry their water.

But, with Greece’s public expenditures at 58.5% of GDP, and Italy’s and France’s at 50.6% and 57.1% of GDP, respectively – one can only wonder where all the austerity is (see the accompanying table). Government expenditures cut to the bone? You must be kidding. Even in the Unites States, where most agree that there is plenty of government largess, the government (federal, plus state and local) only accounts for a whopping 38.1% of GDP.

As Europe sinks under the weight of the State, it’s austerity, not anti-austerity, that should be on the menu.

Biden Should Not Have Apologized

Vice President Joe Biden has reportedly apologized to the leaders of Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and other Middle East countries for his previous comments that they had, perhaps inadvertently, supported Sunni extremists in the Syrian civil war.  The uproar occurred because Biden had stated that Turkey, Qatar, and the UAE had given “billions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons” to Syrian Sunni fighters seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  Those governments, he charged, had been willing to give aid to “anyone who would fight Assad.  Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”  

It is unfortunate that Biden felt the need to retract those comments, because his criticism was quite accurate.  As I point out in a recent article on Aspenia Online,  the rise of ISIS is the latest phase of a regional struggle for power between Sunnis and Shiites.  The primary arena is Syria, where a fight rages between largely Sunni insurgents and Assad’s governing coalition of Alawites (a Shiite offshoot), Christians, and other religious minorities who are petrified about possible Sunni domination.  Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE enthusiastically backed the insurgents, and although the Obama administration might prefer to forget its role in the rise of ISIS, the United States provided aid to them as well.

The other, closely related, arena is Iraq with its continuing sectarian animosity.  Eliminating Saddam Hussein’s rule ended decades of Sunni domination of that country’s politics and economy.  The new Shiite-led government was in no mood for conciliating the displaced elite that had stifled their faction for so long.  Instead, the regime seemed to go out of its way to marginalize and humiliate the Sunni minority.  Iraq has seethed for years because of sectarian hatred, drifting to the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007, and finally exploding into a full-blown internecine conflict this year.  Some Iraqi Sunnis may harbor worries about the extremist nature of ISIS, but they also see the group as the one entity capable of mounting a serious armed challenge to the Baghdad government.      

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