The Challenges of Being a Superpower

The foreign policy meme is fixed that President Barack Obama is weak and therefore responsible for virtually every global ill.  It’s hard for the denizens of Washington to accept that not everything in the world is about them. 

As I point out in National Interest online:  “People elsewhere have interests and ambitions.  Like the obstreperous British colonists in North America more than two centuries ago, foreigners are willing to defy major powers in order to achieve their ends.”

Government and guerrilla leaders still may worry about what Washington thinks. But they judge American threats based on a perception of U.S. interests more than abstract “credibility.” 

Little would have changed had President Obama launched military strikes in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. No other country would have feared military attack for different reasons.

For instance, what happens in Ukraine matters to Washington, but not enough to confront Russia, which considers the issue an essential matter of security. The United States might be willing to attack another largely helpless Middle Eastern state for peripheral stakes, but it won’t do the same against a nuclear-armed great power.

Unfortunately, top officials routinely put U.S. credibility at stake by issuing proclamations better left to second tier State Department desk officers. In the midst of the African summit, for example, the Obama administration complained that the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, might run for a third term. 

Bigger Bounties for Tax Tipsters

I’ve got a guest post up at Reason on how bounty-seeking informants are bypassing the Internal Revenue Service tipster-reward program in favor of selected state False Claims Acts, such as New York’s, which enable richer recoveries for disloyal employees and others who charge defendants with underpaying taxes. Excerpt:

Will the spread of a culture of informants sow distrust and disloyalty in the workplace, while encouraging dissident executives and their lawyers to shake settlements out of risk- and publicity-averse targets by seizing on doubtful, gray-area legal theories? That’s part of the game too. Lately hedge funds and litigation finance firms have moved in to bankroll the filing of likely “whistleblower” cases. …

…by getting pro-plaintiff laws through the legislature in just a few states — New York liberalized its law four years ago — advocates can set the stage for a nationwide informant push.

In Illinois, a single Chicago lawyer was reported in 2012 to have used that state’s whistleblower law to file at least 238 lawsuits against retailers, pocketing millions in settlements, over alleged failure to charge sales tax on shipping-and-handling.

Whole thing here.

 

 

Foreign Policy Solyndra

Washington’s track record over the decades of selecting honest, effective, and democratic political leaders to support in developing countries is as dismal as the government’s attempts to pick economic winners in this country.  We have endured a lengthy series of foreign policy equivalents of the notorious Solyndra scandal.  I discuss that depressing record in a new article over at the American Conservative.  

U.S. officials habitually make one of two blunders.  On some occasions, they back a foreign client who is willing to do Washington’s bidding, even if that person lacks meaningful internal political support from the very beginning.  On other occasions, the chosen client may initially have respectable domestic backing, but soon dissipates that support through pervasive corruption and brutality, often funded by U.S. tax dollars. 

Washington’s diplomatic love affair with Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, was a prime example of the first type of fiasco. U.S. policymakers during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush wildly overestimated Chalabi’s popularity inside Iraq.  When the U.S-led military intervention ousted Saddam Hussein, American officials acted as though the Iraqi people would choose Chalabi as their new leader virtually by acclamation.  The actual extent of his domestic support became apparent in Iraq’s first free parliamentary elections in 2005. Chalabi’s party received a paltry 0.5 percent of the vote and failed to win a single seat.

The enthusiasm for Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines was a typical example of the second type of embarrassment.  Marcos won his first election as president in 1966 in legitimate fashion, but he soon displayed all the usual characteristics of a tinpot dictator. Yet Washington continued to back him diplomatically and financially until his imminent overthrow in a popular revolution could no longer be ignored. More recently, Washington’s enthusiasm for Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai and Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki proved equally misplaced over the long term.

Those experiences (and many others) should teach U.S. officials not to fall in love with superficially attractive foreign political clients.  Instead of reflexively backing glib figures who are adept at telling American policymakers what they know those policymakers want to hear, we should approach all foreign players with caution, coldly evaluating how much popularity and staying power they are likely to command. The United States also needs to be far more skeptical about whether backing any particular client serves the best interests of the American republic.   

Japan Moves Closer to Defending Itself like a Normal Country

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun to transform Japan into a normal country. Tokyo plans to take a more active role internationally. Eventually it should take over responsibility for defending itself.

As military occupier after World War II, the United States imposed Article Nine of the Japanese constitution, disarming Tokyo.  But in recent years, Washington has pushed Japan to do more militarily. 

So far, Tokyo simply has revised its interpretation of Article Nine. Japan’s “Self Defense Force” will be allowed to cooperate with other countries in combat. 

Overseas the response was mixed.  Naturally, the United States was pleased. China was unhappy. Other nations, such as Australia, were supportive.

Some critics still worry about Tokyo’s ultimate intentions, as if the Japanese had a double dose of original sin.  But Japan, with a stagnant economy, middling (and declining) population, and pacifist ethos, doesn’t look much like the next global dominatrix.

Instead, Japan’s well-established desire to do nothing has run aground because the world looks ever more dangerous. Moreover, basic economics suggests that Washington will have to reduce its role. As Prime Minister Abe recognized in 2012: “With the U.S. defense budget facing big cuts, a collapse of the military balance of power in Asia could create instability.” 

More Questions than Answers on Iraq

The U.S. bombing campaign being waged against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) raises more questions than it answers. Ben Friedman noted the muddle of U.S. policy here. Among the most vexing questions for me:

- What is the actual end game? Can it be achieved by the means being employed?

The narrow, short-term mission that President Obama laid before the American people on Thursday evening is almost entirely humanitarian: this is about saving the lives of desperate people, including women and children stranded without food and water. But unlike relief operations after hurricanes or earthquakes, where the U.S. military’s efforts face little resistance, the suffering in Iraq today is man-made. ISIS has targeted particular groups for persecution, or worse. The first order of business, therefore, after delivering essential food and water, is to allow these stranded people to escape.

But this will not be an easy task. As Richard Betts explained nearly two decades ago, there is no such thing as an impartial humanitarian intervention. What Obama has actually committed to, then, involves, at a minimum, sufficiently degrading ISIS’s military capabilities, prying open the vice being tightened around these people, and establishing a corridor through which they can flee to an as-yet undetermined safe haven. A long-term solution involves creating an Iraqi state (or more than one?) that can produce and maintain sufficient fighting power of its own.

That final point isn’t new. It has been the object since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, or, arguably, since Hussein’s ouster from Kuwait in 1991, when George H.W. Bush hoped for a new political order in Iraq, but refused to risk large numbers of American lives to achieve it. The end game hasn’t really changed, yet the president failed to explain why our efforts this time will be more successful than at any time in the last quarter century.

- Can the U.S. role remain limited? How?

This is presumably a major concern among the American people, who are staunchly opposed to restarting a war that most think was a mistake. But public opposition to military intervention isn’t limited to Iraq. Recall the outcry when Secretary of State John Kerry proposed an “unbelievably small” military operation in Syria. The public feared then that small wars can easily become big ones. That attitude hasn’t changed in the past year. If anything, the public is even more opposed to missions involving the U.S. military.

Murky Goals in Iraq

The goals that animate the renewed U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq are a muddle. Any rationale for bombing Sunni militants there today suggests a prolonged campaign against them. Any effort we make against Sunni insurgents in Iraq contradicts our pro-insurgency policy in Syria. And while President Obama claims fidelity to the hope of making Iraq a stable multi-ethnic state, by defending Iraq’s Shi’ite regime and Kurdish North against Sunnis, the bombing may hasten Iraq’s dissolution.

The president’s stated goals are clear enough. Last night, he said that the airstrikes have two aims. First, they will protect Americans—several dozen diplomats and military personnel are apparently in Erbil, which is threatened by the recent advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Second, the president said that the strikes will defend civilians from the Yazidi minority. Tens of thousands of them are said to be encircled by ISIS militants. According to the president, U.S. aircraft will both drop supplies to the Yazidi and attack ISIS positions to break the siege.  

The first goal doesn’t require bombing. If we are simply concerned about the well-being of U.S. personnel in Erbil, we would evacuate them. But they are there largely to help Iraqis fight ISIS in the first place. Seemingly, we are after some broader objective. Protecting the Yazidi from starvation and slaughter makes sense. But that objective can easily slide into broader ones.

Jury Rejects Self-Defense Claim in Murder Case

Yesterday a Detroit jury convicted a homeowner of second degree murder and manslaughter. Theodore Wafer shot Renisha McBride through a screen door in the middle of the night. McBride had crashed her car nearby and found her way to Wafer’s front porch, where she made some loud noises. Wafter says he awoke to the noise, feared for his life, and shot the unarmed McBride.

Remember all the talk in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin killing and, then, the acquital of George Zimmerman, about how defective our laws were? People kept making the claim that the United States has crazy gun laws, that all one had to do was utter “I shot him because I was afraid!!” and then the shooter could escape murder charges.

Except it doesn’t work that way. Wafer claimed self-defense, but the jury found otherwise. Note that Michigan has a castle doctrine law on its books, but that law does not confer blanket immunity for anyone claiming to have fired a weapon in fear.

For additional background, go here.