Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

A Covert Escalation of U.S. Involvement in Syria?

Officials often try to implement dubious or controversial initiatives over weekends or holidays, when journalists and the public are likely to be less vigilant than normal.  Three-day holiday weekends are especially popular candidates for such maneuvers.  It is perhaps unsurprising that there were indications of a significant change regarding U.S. policy toward Syria on the Sunday before Memorial Day.  Turkey’s foreign minister announced that his country and the United States had agreed in principle to provide air protection for some 15,000 Syrian rebels being trained by Ankara and Washington once those insurgents re-enter Syrian territory.

Granted, an agreement in principle could break down over the details of implementation, and the Obama administration has yet to confirm the Turkish account.  Nevertheless, there are hints of an impending escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria’s murky civil war.  A lobbying effort by proponents of U.S. aid to factions trying to unseat dictator Bashar al-Assad is definitely taking place.  The number two Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durban of Illinois, has openly endorsed establishing and protecting “safe zones” for insurgents, and he is hardly alone.  

In essence, the United States and its Turkish ally appear to be contemplating the imposition of a “no fly” zone over northern Syria to prevent Assad’s forces from suppressing the rebel fighters.  It is pertinent to recall that a fateful step in America’s disastrous entanglement in Iraq was the creation of such zones against Saddam Hussein to protect Kurdish and Shiite insurgents in the 1990s.  A similar measure should not be undertaken lightly in Syria.

Talk to Kim Jong-un Even as He Kills His Way to Power in North Korea

Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited Seoul and South Korean President Park Geun-hye will head to Washington later this month. The main agenda item: what to do about North Korea.

As usual, no one knows what is going on in Pyongyang. Its internal politics appears to be bloodier than usual. Ironically, this might provide an opportunity for Washington to initiate talks over a more open bilateral relationship.

The latest rumor is that young dictator Kim Jong-un had his defense minister executed with anti-aircraft fire for disrespectful conduct. Hyon Yong-chol probably has been purged, though South Korea’s intelligence agency acknowledged that it could not confirm his gruesome death. If Hyon was executed, it probably was because the military man was plotting, or at least feared to be plotting, against the North’s leadership.

There has been striking turnover among party and military officials since Kim Jong-un took over after his father’s death in December 2011. Most dramatic was the arrest and execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, seen as the regime’s number two, in December 2013. Overall some 70 top apparatchiks and more than 400 lower level officials apparently have been killed this year.

This brutality towards the power elite sets Kim apart from his father and grandfather. While Kim Jong-un’s apparent penchant for executions may reflect a peculiarly sadistic nature, it more likely grows out of insecurity. Only 28 or maybe 27 when his father died, Kim’s succession was pushed extremely quickly after his father suffered a stroke in August 2008.

Although there is no sign of organized resistance to the latest Kim, continuing turnover suggests that Kim is not, or at least does not see himself, as yet secure. Instead of cowing resistance, promiscuous executions, even for acts short of actual rebellion, might make subordinates believe it is worth going for broke.

Repression is rising in other ways. For instance, the regime apparently has been employing “Patrol Teams” as press gangs to fill out its construction work force for projects to be finished by October, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party. The regime also has strengthened border controls with China.

If Kim retains control, none of this might matter. However, everyone is wary of something other than the usual predictable unpredictability in Pyongyang. South Korean President Park Geun-hye noted “growing concern” over “an extreme reign of terror within North Korea.”

Governance matters since the North continues to expand its nuclear capabilities. While nothing suggests that Kim is suicidal—members of the dynasty appear to prefer their virgins in this world rather than the next—Pyongyang’s decision-making process could become more unilateral, unpredictable, or both.

Unfortunately, there is little that the U.S. can do to directly influence events within the DPRK. War would be foolhardy, tougher sanctions aren’t likely to work, and the Kim regime is well beyond the reach of moral suasion.

Nor is negotiation likely to have much effect. While the North recently launched an international charm offensive, it continues to highlight weapons development and spout rehashed threats against America and the South. The Kim regime is not likely trade away the one factor causing the world to follow events in the DPRK.

Nevertheless, as I point out in Forbes, “the possibility of division and dissension in Pyongyang gives Washington a new reason to suggest direct discussions without preconditions, but with the prospect of benefits for a change in direction. If the regime is unsettled, those disaffected might benefit if Washington stood ready to reward a new approach.”

A peace treaty, diplomatic relations, and end of economic sanctions all should be on the table. It’s still a long-shot, but so is almost any other proposal to address the North.

Someday Pyongyang will change. Engagement is the best way to prepare for that day.

ISIS and Saudi Sectarianism

This morning, a car bomb exploded outside a mosque in Saudi Arabia, the second such attack in a week. The attacks, which have killed at least 25 people, were aimed at the minority Saudi Shi’a community. In doing so, ISIS is expertly capitalizing on Saudi Arabia’s internal sectarian divide, which is worsened not only by domestic repression, but by the propaganda supporting Saudi Arabia’s activist foreign policy in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. Saudi rulers should remember that sectarianism, though convenient for political purposes, also carries substantial risk.

In an interview shortly before the recent Camp David summit, President Obama committed the faux-pas of pointing out the internal problems faced by many of the GCC states. He noted that these states contain “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances… The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.”

He’s not wrong. Saudi Arabia is well-known as one of the world’s most repressive states, with little political representation and no rights for women or minorities. Further, oil prices remain low, and while the Saudi state has massive cash reserves, the rise of shale oil has diminished its role as the world’s main oil producer. Saudi Arabia also has a growing youth population, with 51% of the population under the age of twenty five.

This is itself less concerning than the inability of the oil-dependent Saudi state to provide stable employment opportunities; the unemployment rate for those between fifteen and twenty-five years of age is at least 30%. It is no wonder that many of the unemployed youth of Saudi Arabia are attracted by movements like ISIS. Indeed, by some estimates, more than 2,500 of the foreign fighters in Syria come from Saudi Arabia. The newest iteration of this threat is seen in attacks like those of the last week, as young men susceptible to ISIS avoid travel to Syria, and instead carry out attacks inside Saudi borders.

Yet the ISIS attacks also highlight the pernicious influence of state-supported sectarianism. The bombers astutely aimed the bombings not at Sunnis, but at the state’s minority Shi’a population. While targeting Sunnis would likely have increased resolve among Saudi citizens, targeting Shi’a mosques instead served to cast worshippers as heretics, highlighting domestic sectarian tensions.

The attacks remind Saudi Shi’ites that their own government uses sectarian messaging on state TV, and has close ties to clerics which rail against Shi’a heretics. Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia don’t even enjoy the same minimal political rights that their Sunni compatriots do, and the state has repeatedly cracked down on calls for increased representation.

These tensions are being further inflamed by the war in Yemen, which is being presented by Saudi state TV as a crusade against Houthi Shi’ites. The same applies to the state’s newly activist foreign policy, which is portrayed broadly as a challenge to Iranian and Shi’a interests across the region. The high civilian death toll in Yemen – as many as 2,000 people – and the reticence of the Saudi government to seek a political settlement with the Houthis also contributes.

In short, the ISIS attacks targeted a potential cause of instability within the Saudi state, requiring Saudi rulers to strike a delicate balancing act. They must show support for the attacked communities, while avoiding upsetting the hardline Sunni clerics which support the royal family. Balancing these factors while continuing to use sectarian language to justify the state’s wars in Yemen and elsewhere may prove impossible.

As the Arab Spring illustrated, even states which appear relatively stable can suffer from instability and chaos. It also showed that once the Pandora’s Box of sectarianism has been opened, it is extremely difficult to shut. As ISIS attacks within Saudi Arabia seek to increase tensions between Sunni and Shi’a populations, this is a lesson Saudi Arabia’s rulers would be wise to bear in mind.  

United States Should not Confront China over Other Nations’ Territorial Disputes

The Asian order is under strain as the People’s Republic of China has become an economic colossus with growing military might and diplomatic influence. The PRC is asserting territorial claims once considered impractical or worthless. Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam all stand opposed to these claims. 

Washington is not a claimant, but has sparred with the PRC over the U.S. Navy’s legal right to engage in intelligence gathering in Chinese waters. More important, America has a formal military alliance with Japan which, the president declared, covers disputed territories. Washington’s military relationship with Manila is looser, but Philippine officials are seeking a similar territorial guarantee.

The Obama administration has escalated U.S. involvement by sending American aircraft over islands reclaimed by China and discussing joint patrols with the Japanese.

Most of the islands are intrinsically worthless and provide little security value. Maritime rights are affected but, in peacetime, the difference wouldn’t matter so much. In wartime, everything would depend on the capabilities of the contending navies.

The economic benefits from control are real but still relatively small compared to the economies of most of the claimants. For most of the countries, national ego is the primary issue.

Meditations on Memorial Day

Benjamin Franklin said, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” Given Franklin’s leadership in the struggle for American independence, we can infer that he did not think that there never was a war that was necessary, or a war that was worth its cost. But he reminds us that even necessary wars have terrible costs.

I thought about Franklin when I read an eloquent column on the meaning of Memorial Day by the novelist Mark Helprin, who is also a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. He lamented:

Though if by and large we ignore the debt we owe to those who fell at Saratoga, Antietam, the Marne, the Pointe du Hoc, and a thousand other places and more, our lives and everything we value are the ledger in which it is indelibly recorded.

It’s a worthy sentiment, one heard frequently in Memorial Day addresses, and we do indeed owe our lives and our pursuit of happiness to the freedom that America’s soldiers have sometimes had to defend.

But I can’t help wondering: Have all of America’s wars have been necessary to American freedom? Helprin mentioned the Second Battle of the Marne, the great turning point of World War I and the first battle in which Americans started experiencing the enormous casualties that Europeans had been facing for nearly four years. The problem is that World War I was a catastrophe, a foolish and unnecessary war, a war of European potentates that both England and the United States could have stayed out of but that became indeed a World War, the Great War. In our own country, the war gave us economic planning, conscription, nationalization of the railroads, a sedition act, confiscatory income tax rates, and prohibition. Internationally, World War I and its conclusion led directly to the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of National Socialism, World War II, and the Cold War. World War I was the worst mistake of the 20th century, the mistake that set in motion all the tragedies of the century. The deaths of those who fell at the Marne are all the more tragic when we reflect that they did not in fact serve to protect our lives and all that we value.

Did the wars in Vietnam and Iraq protect American lives and liberties? Two weeks ago, Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush said that discussing whether the Iraq war was a mistake “does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot.” It’s understandable that an aspiring commander-in-chief would want to spare the feelings of those who lost a loved one in Iraq. But surely it’s more important that a commander-in-chief ask tough questions about when it’s advisable to go to war.

In my book The Libertarian Mind, I wrote about the effects of war: not just death on a large scale but the destruction of families, businesses, and civil society. And thus:

War cannot be avoided at all costs, but it should be avoided wherever possible. Proposals to involve the United States—or any government—in foreign conflict should be treated with great skepticism….We should understand the consequences of war for our entire social order and thus go to war only when absolutely necessary.

On this weekend we should mourn those who went to war, such as my father, who planned and participated in the liberation of Europe, and his brother who was lost off the coast of Normandy, and we should resolve not to risk American lives in the future except when our vital national interests are at stake.

Four Lessons to Ponder Before Going to War

In about 30 seconds this morning on Fox News Sunday, George Will laid out the prudential case for proceeding very cautiously when contemplating a war:

WALLACE: So George, with that as trailer, what’s the lesson that we should take from Iraq, and particularly as it comes to future U.S. policy?

WILL: Four lessons, I think.

First, the government has to choose always on the basis of imperfect information. I agree with Bob [Woodward]. There were no lies here [in the Bush administration’s incorrect claims about WMD]. It was a colossal failure to know what we didn’t know.

Second, the failure to ask Admiral Yamamoto’s question. When he was asked by the government of Japan could he take a fleet stealthily across the Pacific and strike Pearl Harbor, he said yeah, but then what? He knew they would have on their hands an enormous problem in the United States.

Third, Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule: if you break it, you own it. Just as when the Kennedy administration in November 1963 was complicit in the coup against Diem, in South Vietnam, we owned South Vietnam ever after.

But fourth and most important, the phrase nation-building is as absurd as the phrase orchid building. Orchids are complex, organic things. So are nations. And we do not know how to build nations any more than we know how to fix English-speaking home grown Detroit. 

The Folly of Ex-Im, Export Promotion Agencies, and Export Promotion in General

On May 19, I testified at a hearing titled “Trade Promotion Agencies and U.S. Foreign Policy,” which was held by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommitee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade. The subject agencies were the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im), the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA). The focus of my remarks, which follow, was on Ex-Im and the myth that exports are the benefits of trade.

Good morning, Chairman Poe, Ranking Member Keating, and members of the subcommittee. I am Dan Ikenson, director of the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. Thank you for the invitation to share my views with you today concerning “Trade Promotion Agencies and U.S. Foreign Policy.” The views I express are my own and should not be construed as representing any official positions of the Cato Institute.

To the extent that today’s hearing will help clarify some of these issues and prompt a serious effort to reform and retire some of the redundant, distortionary, and, frankly, scandal-prone agencies among the panoply of federal offerings, I am pleased to be of assistance.

U.S. trade promotion agencies are in the business of promoting exports, not trade in the more inclusive sense. That is worth noting because despite some of the wrongheaded mercantilist assumptions undergirding U.S. trade policy—that exports are good and imports are bad—the fact is that the real benefits of trade are transmitted through imports, not through exports.

In keeping with the conventional wisdom, in January 2010 President Obama set a national goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years. Prominent in the plan was a larger role for government in promoting exports, including expanded nonmarket lending programs to finance export activity, an increase in the number of the Commerce Department’s foreign outposts to promote U.S. business, and an increase in federal agency-chaperoned marketing trips.