Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Peruvian Elections and the Future of Latin American Populism

The upcoming Peruvian runoff elections for president may provide another sign that the wave of Hugo Chavez-style populism in Latin America has crested. The contest is between Alan Garcia–a former populist president who ruined the country during his term (1985-1990) with heterodox economic policies (Peru was set back 30 years in terms of per capita income; had 7,000 percent inflation in 1990; and much of the country was controlled by the Shining Path guerrillas)–and Ollanta Humala–an extreme nationalist and populist who, following the example of Chavez, led a brief but failed rebellion against the outgoing regime of President Alberto Fujimori in 2000. Humala´s popularity among the most disenfranchised of Peru´s poor, especially in the country´s interior, went virtually unnoticed among Peru´s elite and the press until last year. (Peruvian adjunct scholar Enrique Ghersi was alone in foreseeing this development in an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor in 2003).
Garcia promises to run a responsible government that respects the constitution and the separation of powers, including the independence of the central bank. Humala promises nationalizations, a rejection of the free trade agreement with the United States pending in the congress, a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, and the arrest of corrupt ex-presidents including Garcia himself. 

Polls give Garcia a lead in the June 4 elections, especially among voters in urban areas and along the coast. Peruvians don´t love Garcia; many who plan on voting for him even hate him but consider him a lesser of two evils who will stick to democracy and be constrained by a Peruvian economy that is much more open than it was during the 1980s. Humala´s authoritarianism promises to change the rules of the game in a way that scares most Peruvians.
I’m writing from Moyobamba, Peru.  In the rural areas surrounding this jungle town where the Andes turn into the Amazon rain forest, most villages have no sewerage or running water and electricity for some areas is recent. Rural Peruvians here will vote for Humala. But those votes are not necessarily ideological. Many will vote for Humala because they feel they have nothing to lose from rejecting the traditional political system that has served them poorly. Indeed, were the supposedly neo-liberal former president Fujimori (1990-2000) allowed to run again, the poor here would overwhelmingly give him their votes. The two most popular presidents in this part of the country are Fujimori–for pacifying the country by getting rid of leftist guerrillas who terrorized rural areas–and Fernando Belaunde, who in the 1960s built major roads connecting the region to the rest of the country. 
Garcia´s likely election will be a blow to Hugo Chavez. Chavez has explicitly endorsed Humala, leading to heated and continuing exchanges between Chavez and Garcia, who accuses the Venezuelan president of interfering in Peru´s internal affairs and of planning on using Humala as his puppet. Chavez may have an ally and a client in Bolivian President Evo Morales, but his Bolivarian dream of uniting Latin America under his leadership is being undermined by a Latin American reality: Latin America´s usually irresponsible governments more often than not, thankfully, do not get along. 
Thus Brazil and Bolivia are in a dispute over Bolivia´s nationalization of gas companies that belong to Brazil and provide that country with much energy; Mexican President Vicente Fox has clashed publicly with Chavez about Mexico´s relations with the United States; and the leftist governments of Argentina and Uruguay are in a heated dispute about a border issue. 
The election of Garcia will not be a victory for market liberals or a definitive defeat of populism. As a Peruvian economist recently described to me, Peru, with its long coast and Andean and jungle interior, is part Chile (modern and open) and part Bolivia (more backward and isolated).  A Garcia presidency will be mostly mediocre with a possibility of market reforms in some areas (agriculture and perhaps property titling, for example) and with Humala as a remaining, significant irritant. 
Such is the uneven pace of progress in Latin America these days. But it would be progress nonetheless. The next bit of major good news in the region may come from Mexico, where presidential elections in July may result in the rise to power of Felipe Calderon, a market liberal now leading in the polls, and the defeat of populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Chavez´s favored candidate.

United They Fall…

…at least in popularity, that is. The AP is reporting on the Bush-Blair summit today with the headline “Besieged Bush, Blair to talk about Iraq.” The two leaders have seen their popularity plummet as a result of the Iraq war, with the crowning acknowledgement coming from Karl Rove at AEI recently, where Rove remarked on the president’s record low poll numbers by saying, “People like this president…They’re just sour right now on the war.”

Sour indeed. And as my colleagues Chris Preble and Jonathan Clarke point out in press releases and a podcast here, unless Bush and Blair can conjure a miracle in Iraq, they’re likely going to stay in the cellar, popularity-wise.

My other colleague, electoral guru John Samples, argued here that Bush should have done much better in the ‘04 election than he did, and that the culprit was – you guessed it – Iraq.

Is Taiwan Finally Getting Serious about Defense?

The government of Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian has proposed a surprisingly large (20 percent) increase in the island’s defense budget. It is a modest, long-overdue step toward enhancing Taiwan’s ability to deter military coercion from China. Yet, it merely boosts spending from a absurdly anemic 2.5 percent of GDP to a still anemic 3 percent.

The Taiwanese need to do far more–for their best interests and ours. Beijing maintains that Taiwan is merely a renegade province, and Chinese leaders in recent years have become increasingly vocal about using military force, if necessary, to compel reunification. As I explain in my latest book, Washington’s implicit commitment to help defend the island places this country right in the middle of a looming armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait sometime in the next decade. Although Americans can and should sympathize with the plight of a plucky democracy facing possible conquest by a dictatorial neighbor, maintaining the island’s de facto independence is not a vital American interest. It certainly is not worth risking war with a nuclear-armed China.

Taiwan’s inadequate commitment to its own defense encourages China to contemplate coercion, thereby increasing America’s risk exposure. Unfortunately, even the Chen government’s tepid proposal to boost military spending may not become reality. Chen’s approval rating in his country is even lower than George Bush’s rating in the United States. Even worse, the national legislature is controlled by the opposition Kuomintang Party and its ally, the People First Party. Their obstructionism has blocked for nearly 5 years funding of an arms package offered by the United States in 2001. The KMT and PFP apparently believe that Taiwan’s defense budget should consist of money to purchase a telephone to call Washington in the event of a crisis and urge the United States to send planes, ships, and troops forthwith. They are the ultimate security free riders.

U.S. officials should stress to Taiwanese of all political persuasions the need to get serious about their own defense. The most effective way to do that is to make it clear that the American cavalry is not about to ride to the rescue if trouble breaks out between Taiwan and China.

The Other War

The media has focused great attention on the news that the Iraqi prime minister had finally managed to assemble a cabinet, albeit with the three most important posts (those of interior, defense and national security) having been filled by interim appointees. Still, Americans are anxious for good news from Iraq, and they are likely to be heartened by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s stated goal that Iraqis will have control of security in most of the country by the end of this year. In a related story, President Bush told an audience in Chicago that the United States had “reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror.”

Meanwhile, on the pessimism front, the war in Afghanistan has taken an ugly turn. The front page of today’s Washington Post features a story of heavy fighting in Kandahar province. Reuters is reporting that Taliban fighters ambushed a squadron of Afghan police in southern Afghanistan. The AP on Sunday described heavy fighting in Helmand province, the country’s main opium-producing region, and also violent clashes in Zabol, and today is reporting still more violence in and around Kandahar. 

The good news appears to be that Taliban loyalists and insurgents are bearing the brunt of these attacks. Among the estimated 305 people killed in the last week, the AP determined (somehow) that “most of the dead were militants.” Still, as the United States plans to turn over security responsibilities in southern Afghanistan to NATO by the end of July, the question must be asked: If, after nearly four and a half years of fighting resistance remains strong and the Karzai government dangerously weak, is it time to question our strategy in the country that played host to the 9/11 plotters, and where, it is believed, a number of Al Qaeda and Taliban officials continue to operate? Or, more to the point, if the goal of operations in Afghanistan is to eliminate Al Qaeda and its affiliates and allies, are we, to quote the immortal words of Secretary Rumsfeld, “capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

If the answer were yes, then the number of attacks should be declining. Alas, the answer appears to be no. Seth Jones, a security analyst at the RAND Corporation, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

We’ve seen since 2002 the level of violence has gone up each year. The number of attacks by insurgents and the number of deaths caused by them has gone up every single year.

For most of the last few years what we’ve seen is small numbers of Taliban insurgents. Now we’re seeing growing numbers.

This is actually a disturbing trend, more of a conventional rather than an unconventional war.

Those seeking a new approach might turn to two papers published by Cato on the subject: Ted Galen Carpenter’s “How the Drug War in Afghanistan Undermines America’s War on Terror” (Foreign Policy Briefing no. 84, November 10, 2004); and Subodh Atal’s “At a Crossroads in Afghanistan: Should the United States Be Involved in Nation Building?” (Foreign Policy Briefing no. 81, September 24, 2003).

The war in Afghanistan is, and always should have been, the true central front in the war on terrorism. We cannot undo the decision to divert intelligence and military assets away from the fight there, and toward the fight in Iraq. But we can refocus our attention back to Afghanistan and we must be prepared to alter our strategy if the current course is not leading in a positive direction.

Misinformation on Iran

Last week, Canada’s National Post ran a revolting and disturbing report that the Iranian majlis had passed a law instituting “separate dress codes for religious minorities, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, who will have to adopt distinct colour schemes to make them identifiable in public.”  Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story was that 

Religious minorities… will also have to wear special insignia, known as zonnar, to indicate their non-Islamic faiths. Jews would be marked out with a yellow strip of cloth sewn in front of their clothes while Christians will be assigned the colour red. Zoroastrians end up with Persian blue as the colour of their zonnar. 

Several news outlets and blogs picked up on the story, and the New York Post ran the original column under the headline “Iran OKs ‘Nazi’ Social Fabric.” 

As it turns out, however, the reporting appears to be false.

The National Post ran a story backing away from its original claims

Sam Kermanian, of the U.S.-based Iranian-American Jewish Federation, said in an interview from Los Angeles that he had contacted members of the Jewish community in Iran – including the lone Jewish member of the Iranian parliament. 

They denied any such measure was in place. 

Mr. Kermanian said the subject of “what to do with religious minorities” came up during debates leading up to the passing of the dress code law. 

“It is possible that some ideas might have been thrown around,” he said. 

“But to the best of my knowledge the final version of the law does not demand any identifying marks by the religious minority groups.” 

The New York Sun similarly admitted that “The National Post story turned out to be incorrect”: 

Over the weekend, the representative of Iran’s Jewish community in the Iranian legislature, Maurice Motamed, denied that the proposed dress code changes would require minorities to wear distinctive clothing or badges. The chairman of the parliament’s cultural committee, Emad Afroogh, also told wire services that the initial reports of such restrictions were “worthless.” 

A summary of the legislation that appeared on the Majlis Web site contained no specific language designating special dress codes or markers for minorities, either.  

Mr. Motamed’s claims were actually stronger than the Sun indicated:

“Such a plan has never been proposed or discussed in parliament,” he said. “Such news, which appeared abroad, is an insult to religious minorities here.”

CBS News outlined its own decisionmaking process, and why it decided against running with the story

CBS News Radio has also decided against running the story, according to Exective Producer Charlie Kaye. “There are too many red flags here,” he says. “The best we can determine is this has originated with Iranian dissidents in Canada. We have spoken to a CBS News correspondent just back from Iran and her producer, we’ve spoken to the Iranian mission to the UN, we’ve spoken to our State Department Reporter Charlie Wolfson, and at this point we’re not comfortable putting it on the radio.” 

Amir Taheri, the author of the original article, has now issued a classic non-denial denial through his PR firm, Benador Associates.

The Iranian government is reprehensible enough on its own.  The awful policies enacted by Tehran are too numerous to count.  (The very fact that the government is working on legislation concerning the way people dress being a good example.)  But irresponsible reporting that leads casual observers to believe that Iran is directly drawing on Nazi Germany for the crafting of its social policies is incredibly detrimental to the debate over US policy. 

Thanks to blogger Jim Henley for doing the digging on this. 

The Veterans Administration and Data Privacy

I woke up this morning to learn that I might be one of the more than 26 million veterans whose personal information - including name, social security number, and date of birth - is now in the hands of a (presumably) common thief. I won’t be certain that I am one of the individuals affected until I receive notification in the mail from the Department of Veterans Affairs. But I’m reasonably sure, given that I joined the service after 1975, that my personal information has now been compromised.

The Washington Post is certainly correct that this is a case of “incompetence” – the VA employee in question removed the data to his home, from whence it was stolen. The Post editors note:

Mr. Nicholson says that the employee was not authorized to take this information home, but his department clearly failed to do enough to enforce its own guidelines. It now promises to restrict access to sensitive data to those who need it and to conduct background checks on those who do. It’s extraordinary that this approach did not prevail already.

It is indeed. But the larger point is this: If we depend upon government to defend us from compromises of our personal information, and if we assume that such violations are most likely to be perpetrated by negligent, incompetent or mendacious individuals in private firms, then who is to protect us from negligence, incompetence or mendacity on the part of government officials?

In the case of the private firms, I retain some capacity for limiting the scope of my liability by tearing up that credit card application, or by hanging up on the telemarketer trying to sell me (another) home equity loan. Meanwhile, I subjected myself to a degree of scrutiny that most Americans avoid when I joined NROTC in 1985, and the active duty Navy in 1989. In a sense, I “opted in” and my name appears in a VA database. On the other hand, most Americans “opted out” by having never served in any branch of the military; and in this particular case, their personal data is not at risk. 

But unlike credit card solicitations and telemarketers, letters and phone calls from the federal government cannot be ignored, meaning that Americans are not always afforded the opportunity to opt in to a particular database. Nearly every American has a social security number, most have filed federal income taxes, and millions of American males are required to register with the federal government under the Selective Service Act. Each of these cases involve an obligation under the law; choosing to opt out is a criminal offense.

So I ask again: Given that we cannot limit our liability without penalty of fine or imprisonment when the government demands personal information from us, who protects us from identity theft when the government is at fault? 

A New Berlin Wall

On “The McLaughlin Group,” John McLaughlin asks if the United States should impose tariffs on Mexico equal to the cost of providing social services to Mexican immigrants if Mexico doesn’t stop illegal cross-border traffic. Pat Buchanan responded by emphasizing the need for U.S. border security, Eleanor Clift said it would be too costly for Mexico, and Tony Blankley said it would probably be a violation of WTO. Mort Zuckerman said the reaction to such a law in Mexico would move the country far to the left.

It seems to me that all of these insightful pundits missed the point: McLaughlin was proposing that Mexico build a wall to keep Mexicans inside. Immigration advocates sometimes warn that a fence along the border would be “a new Berlin Wall.” But that’s a little over the top; the Berlin Wall was designed to keep East Germans in, to declare them the property of a repressive regime that couldn’t survive if it allowed people to vote with their feet. Whatever its demerits, an American fence would be intended to protect our borders and regulate who could come in.

But McLaughlin’s proposed Mexican wall would be a new Berlin Wall. Anybody can stumble into a bad idea, but it’s disappointing that not one of McLaughlin’s four guests noticed the import of his proposal.