Tag: war

Trump’s Tough Talk at the United Nations

Trump’s threat to “totally destroy North Korea” at the United Nations this week generated concern in many corners but a round of applause from many hawks here in the United States. Former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, for example, called it “the best speech of the Trump Presidency,” praising Trump for his tougher approach to North Korea’s nuclear program. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also voiced strong support for Trump’s approach. In a New York Times oped, Abe wrote that, “I firmly support the United States position that all options are on the table.”

Abe’s choice of the phrase “all options are on the table” was not accidental. As Figure one indicates, the phrase has steadily gained in popularity since the September 11 attacks, with its use spiking in the first year of the Trump administration, as tensions with North Korea have risen. 

Figure One: The Rise of “All Options on the Table” 

Figure 1 All Options on the Table

Data source: Factiva Top U.S. newspapers database.

The meaning of the phrase, at least on paper, is clear: the United States is willing to use military force should diplomacy fail. And as tensions rise, as they have over the past months with North Korea, one would expect to hear the phrase more often.

The problem, however, is that despite occasional protests to the contrary, it is increasingly obvious that the Trump administration is ready to take the most important option off the table: diplomacy. By repeatedly arguing that, “talking is not the answer,” and that “we’re out of time” to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program, the administration is raising the stakes of the crisis and the chances that it ends in a military conflict.

No matter how happy that makes the hawks, conflict with a nuclear and well-armed North Korea would be both a military disaster and out of touch with the desires of the American public. In survey after survey over the years, Americans have voiced greater confidence in diplomacy than military strength as the best path to peace.

For those with concerns about Trump’s language, it is important to note that although Trump’s bellicose style is very different from that of his predecessors, he is not much more hawkish than either George Bush or Barack Obama. As Figure Two shows, the three post-9/11 presidents all have had “hawk indexes” higher than the three previous presidents. 

The hawk index is the ratio of how often a president appears in news stories that mention the words “war” or “military” compared to how often he appears in stories that mention the words “peace” or “diplomacy.” The score reflects not only the state of the international arena the president is coping with, but also the relative frequency that he discusses military options compared to diplomatic ones. As Figure Two reveals, American discourse and news coverage has always focused far more heavily on war than peace. 

Figure Two: The Hawk Index from Reagan to Trump

Figure Two: The Hawk Index 

Data source: Factiva Top U.S. newspapers database.

Given this data, Trump’s tough talk at the United Nations should come as little surprise. Nor, given the American track record of almost non-stop military intervention since the end of the Cold War, should we be surprised if “all options on the table” actually turns out to mean: “we are about to fight another war.”

Foxconn’s Savvy Investment: Hedging against an Emerging Trade War

“Designed by Apple in California; Assembled in China” are the words engraved on the back of Apple’s ubiquitous iPods, iPads, and iPhones.  Might that soon change? 

Foxconn, the Taiwan-headquartered company that does Apple’s assembling in China, announced last week that it will invest up to $10 billion in production facilities in Wisconsin. That sounds like something to cheer. After all, investment is essential to economic growth and foreign direct investment tends to nourish the domestic commercial eco-system by bringing in companies with new ideas and better ways of doing things.

But Foxconn is in the business of contract manufacturing—producing, but mostly assembling, electronics products branded and owned by other companies. It’s not a high value-added operation requiring high-skilled workers. It’s the kind of supply chain operation better suited to economies with an abundance of low-skilled workers willing to work for much lower wages than Wisconsin’s work force expects to earn. Then again, economic considerations aren’t the only determinants of investment decisions.

Back in 2011 at a dinner in Silicon Valley, President Barack Obama asked Apple’s founder and CEO Steve Jobs why all of the production and assembly of the company’s products couldn’t be done in the United States. Jobs was a bit dismissive, responding that those kinds of jobs weren’t coming back. 

But the message wasn’t lost on other business executives, including GE’s Jeff Immelt, who was quick to announce repatriation of some operations that had recently been outsourced to China. The president was in a political jam and his reelection efforts might benefit if he were to show that U.S. companies were reshoring and bringing those manufacturing jobs back stateside.

Foreign Wars and Domestic Politics

When things aren’t going so well for a president, it can be useful to find a scapegoat. Foreign threats are also useful distractions. The movie “Wag the Dog” told us that, as if we hadn’t seen the pattern repeated many times in our political history.

We can see the same phenomenon in a recent Washington Post dispatch from Moscow about the Russian parliamentary elections, which resulted in a big win for political parties aligned with President Vladimir Putin. Andrew Roth interviewed a Moscow pensioner:

“The president’s party, who else would I vote for?” said Nadezhda Osetinskaya, a 67-year-old pensioner and former nurse who lined up before polls opened at 8 a.m. at a school in northwest Moscow.

Osetinskaya had her share of complaints. Prices for food and medicine are increasing, she said, and she required support from her children to live on her $250 monthly pension. She was unhappy with the quality of care at a hospital where she receives treatment for a kidney ailment. The city had carried out years of road work, she said, but the potholes on her neighborhood streets are legion, probably the result of corruption. 

But on broader questions, she enthusiastically supported Putin, lauding the recent annexation of Crimea and blaming Russia’s economic difficulties on a Western conspiracy. Voting for United Russia was a way to support Putin, she reiterated.

So this voter is unhappy with rising prices, poor health care, and government corruption. But she supports the longtime incumbent because he’s fighting a war and blaming Russia’s problems on someone else. (Maybe Snowball!) Blaming America has worked for the dictators of Cuba and Venezuela, not that they’ve ever allowed a real election.

Writers have often seen the true nature of rulers and politics. Henry Adams wrote a century ago, “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.”

And Shakespeare understood the value of foreign military adventures to rulers long before that, when he wrote in Henry IV, Part 2,

I cut them off and had a purpose now
To lead out many to the Holy Land,
Lest rest and lying still might make them look
Too near unto my state. Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels…
It still works. 

Syria Is Not Obama’s Worst Mistake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today in the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argues that the failure to intervene in the Syrian civil war represents President Obama’s worst mistake, “casting a shadow over his legacy.” The war has certainly been a monumental tragedy. Almost 500,000 have died and millions now struggle as refugees. The truth, however, is that Obama’s refusal to bow to political pressure stands as a significant accomplishment of his tenure, not a mistake.

Kristof joins a bipartisan choir in accusing Obama of wrongly believing there is nothing the United States can do to make things better in Syria. Among his suggestions: implementing a no-fly zone, creating safe zones for civilians, and grounding the Syrian government’s air force. The immediate goal of such efforts would be to prevent harm to civilians. The longer-term goal is to put pressure on the Assad government to come to the negotiating table and put an end the civil war.

Though Kristof’s heart is in the right place, all of these suggestions – as well as the other, more interventionist recommendations made by many over the past several years – gloss over the obstacles to successful intervention. Obama’s more cautious approach implicitly acknowledges the reality of the situation in Syria as it stands today.

Most fundamentally, the political interests of those engaged in the civil war far outweigh America’s humanitarian interests in Syria. Calling Syria ‘Obama’s mistake’ both misdirects moral responsibility for the conflict and obscures the fact that the combatants are far more motivated than the United States. Both the Assad regime and the rebels have suffered incredible losses; all sides are clearly in it for the long haul.

Against such motivation the United States can certainly bring overwhelming military force. But as we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq, military superiority does not always translate to peace and stability. More American intervention in Syria is thus unlikely to change the calculus of those fighting for the future of their country. In the end, Syrians’ stomachs for taking casualties to control their own future will prove stronger than America’s stomach for taking casualties to prevent Syrians from dying.

Kristof also imagines that military humanitarian intervention on such a scale can be precise and limited. It cannot. The effort to exert control over events in Syria would lead inexorably to ownership of the broader conflict. This would lead to a massive and open-ended American commitment to Syria. It would also lead those currently fighting each other in Syria to find it increasingly necessary and useful to fight the United States – witness the attacks already conducted by the Islamic State and its supporters in Europe and the United States in response to Western engagement in Syria and Iraq.

America’s Contradictory Yemen Policies

Reuters has an investigation today of the ways in which the Saudi-led War in Yemen has empowered Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group’s local affiliate. While it’s been relatively obvious to observers for some time that AQAP had benefitted from the conflict, the extent of their newfound control and wealth as detailed in the article is fascinating.

Thanks to the seizure of the city of Mukalla, AQAP now controls Yemen’s third largest port, a position that Reuters estimates has allowed them to earn up to $2 million per day in fees and taxes. Extortion of businesses, including around $1.4 million from the state oil company, has also provided an easy revenue source, as has the far less subtle method of simply robbing the city’s banks.

Perhaps of more interest is AQAP’s approach to providing civic services and stability. While it’s untrue that Al Qaeda has never experimented with state-building before, such a strategy has more typically been associated with ISIS. As the Reuters investigation notes,  in Mukalla, Al Qaeda is trying to present themselves as a less cruel and brutal ruler than ISIS, an approach which seems to be working with some Yemeni citizens who fear a return to instability.

So entrenched is the group that it attempted to set up a formal profit-sharing deal with the national government to split oil revenues. It is even managing taxes for the citizens of Mukalla, cancelling payroll taxes and promoting various populist policies. All of this is a remarkable feat for a group which has been the focus of concerted US drone strikes and counterterrorism activities for more than a decade.

What the President Should Do: End U.S. Support for the War in Yemen

Possibly the strangest foreign policy decision the Obama administration has made was their decision to support the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The White House has made quiet counterterrorism operations a key plank of its foreign policy agenda, and the administration includes a number of officials best known for their work on human rights issues, most notably Samantha Power. As such, the President’s decision to supply logistical, intelligence and targeting support for the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign – a campaign which has been horrifically damaging to human rights inside Yemen, as well as detrimental to U.S. counterterrorism goals – was deeply surprising.

Less surprising was the fact that the conflict has turned into a disastrous quagmire. Yemen was already arguably a failed state when the intervention began in April 2015. The power transition negotiated in the aftermath of the Arab Spring was weak and failing, with Yemen’s perpetual insurgencies worsening the situation. Since the intervention began, the United Nations estimates that over 21 million Yemenis have been deprived of life’s basic necessities. Thousands have been killed. Even more concerning, United Nations monitors reported to the Security Council that they believed the Saudi-led coalition may be guilty of crimes against humanity for its indiscriminate air strikes on civilians.

Strategically, the coalition has made few gains. Despite the terrible loss of life, the coalition has stalled south of the capital, Sanaa. Further advances will be exceedingly difficult. At the same time, Al Qaeda inside Yemen has grown in strength and size, benefitting from the conflict, and even presenting itself as a viable partner for the Saudi coalition. It is hard to see how U.S. strategic interests - counterterrorism, human rights, or even regional stability – are being served by this conflict.

America’s Invisible Wars: Event January 25th

On January 14th, the White House announced that Gen. Joseph Votel - the current head of U.S. Special Operations Command – will take over as the head of U.S. Central Command, a position which will place him in charge of America’s wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The symbolism of the appointment could not be clearer. As Foreign Policy noted,

“With 3,000 special operations troops currently hunting down Taliban militants in Afghanistan, and another 200 having just arrived on the ground in Iraq to take part in kill or capture missions against Islamic State leadership, Votel’s nomination underscores the central role that the elite troops play in the wars that President Barack Obama is preparing to hand off to the next administration.”

The growing use of special operations forces has been a hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, an attempt to thread the needle between growing public opposition to large-scale troop deployments and public demands for the United States to ‘do more’ against terrorist threats, all while dancing around the definition of the phrase ‘boots on the ground.’ But the increasing use of such non-traditional forces – particularly since the start of the Global War on Terror – is also reshaping how we think about U.S. military intervention overseas.