Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Iraq: Prescriptions and Predictions

Great piece in Newsweek by Fareed Zakaria and well worth reading to understand not only what we should do in Iraq at this point, but also what we will do.

As I argued last week, there's a struggle right now between the architects of the war (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld) and the rest of the Republican party (anyone running for reelection; its elder statesmen, like Jim Baker). After November 7, I expect the balance of power in this struggle to tilt decisively away from the architects. The architects are frightened for their legacy; the rest of the party is frightened for its future.

"Stay the course" is dead, as even the administration admits (all the while trying to explain that by "stay" they always meant "continually adjust"). After November 7, therefore, expect to see some combination of the following options:

1) timelines, timetables, milestones -- that is, what the Iraqi government is expected to achieve, and by when;

2) engagement with Syria and Iran to find common interests in stabilizing Iraq;

3) a reduction in US troop strength, and a redeployment to garrisons, perhaps in Kurdistan.

The Bush administration has endorsed some sort of milestones already, albeit with all sorts of silly linguistic hedging (timelines are cutting and running; timetables are staying the course). A lot of smart people argue for engaging Iran and Syria, but I don't see much hope for stability in this direction. Iran and Syria know how badly hobbled we are by our misadventure in Iraq, so they have little to fear from us. As for finding common interests, a common desire to prevent chaos and refugee flows will probably be trumped by a desire to see further US humiliation.

1 and 2 give us political cover to get started on 3. Sure, maybe milestones and engaging Iran and Syria will substantively further stability, but even if they don't, we're then better positioned to say, "We've tried everything, and no longer owe the Iraqis our presence there. Their future is now up to them." Meanwhile, our shrinking military footprint offers hope of improving stability by forcing Iraqis to look more closely into the abyss they are approaching; is cheaper and therefore more sustainable; and is a step on the road to an even smaller force presence. And if or when the country really does start to violently split in three, we won't have to be right in the middle of it, with all the casualties that would entail.

One way or the other, expect our exit from Iraq to begin on November 8. Just don't expect the Bush administration to call it what it is.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Activist Courts...?

Lots of discussion about whether the recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision on gay marriage was activist or not. President Bush and the Wall Street Journal cry activism; the New York Times and Andrew Sullivan say nay. One writer at Slate says activism; another says no. Virginia senator George Allen, who seems to be against sex in novels, says activism.

Who's right? It depends on how you look at it.

When a court interprets a constitution (in the New Jersey case, its own, state constitution), it might come to a conclusion that a majority of citizens don't support. If you don't think courts should contravene public opinion (an odd view, given that the constitutions courts are bound to interpret protect minority rights), courts that do will seem activist. If you focus instead on whatever constitutional language the court is trying to interpret, and find the court's interpretation compelled by logic, you won't see activism at all.

The US Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, is instructive. In finding "separate but equal" violative of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, the court moved more quickly than public opinion (particularly in the south) might have been ready for, and certainly more quickly than Congress. By this standard, the Brown decision was activist. Was it, I ask opponents of gay marriage, therefore wrong?

If Brown was not wrongly decided -- if you support the Brown decision -- and you oppose gay marriage, you have to find a way to distinguish Brown's application of the equal protection clause with regard to blacks and education from its application to gays and marriage. I don't think such a distinction exists -- but if anyone can offer one, I'm listening.

Because I can't find that distinction, I support gay marriage. I'll go further: I disagree with those conservatives (such as the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal) who argue that gay marriage is a question best left to the states. If you believe gay marriage should be best left to the states, you must also believe that separate but equal education should have been left to the states -- that is, that Brown was wrongly decided, and that separate but equal was, and remains, right.

There are arguments for going slowly on this issue (as the New Jersey court seemed to recognize, in leaving to the legislature the question of whether gay unions ought to be called marriage): respect for anti- gay marriage sentiment, no matter how wrongheaded; fear of a legislative or other backlash. But those arguments are based on tactics, not on the requirements of constitutional law.

Strange, that when a court ignores public opinion and focuses on the constitution itself, it gets tarred as activist. If that's activism, what are we going to call courts that bow to public opinion by finding a way to deny equal protection to gays?

Ah, I know. We can call them... reactionary.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Failed States, Insurgencies, and Civil Wars

Although most people agree that there is such a thing as a failed state, it's hard to agree on exactly what the term means. There is overlap between failed states, insurgencies, and civil wars, and at the margins it's impossible to tell when one becomes another, but the concepts are distinct.

To me, a failed state is one in which the central government is unable to prevent its territory from being used as a launching pad for significant acts of violence abroad. An insurgency is an armed group powerful enough to engage a country's military, but not powerful enough to threaten the government's fundamental control. When an insurgency becomes that powerful, you're probably looking at a civil war.

Let's try some examples. Taliban-era Afghanistan was not a failed state. The Taliban permitted al-Qaeda to run Afghan training camps, and welcomed Osama bin Laden as a guest. These were not failures on the part of the Taliban, but rather policy. And the conditions that led to the Taliban were not those of a failed state, but rather civil war.

Iraq in its current form is not yet a failed state. Certainly the government's reach is limited, but for now, violence there is mostly internal. I would say that Iraq is in the midst of a civil war in which the presence of foreign troops is dampening some of the violence. If that violence begins to spill across border, Iraq will be a failed state.

Various governments in Latin America are unable to control their narcotics traffickers, who are heavily armed, control significant territory, clash with government forces, and smuggle billions of dollars of their product abroad. I wouldn't argue, though, that the states in question should yet be considered "failed." If these groups continue to grow in power, the insurgencies they represent could worsen, perhaps eventually into civil war. But as long as the violence is primarily internal, we aren't dealing with a failed state.

It's widely recognized that the United States is unable to control its borders, with regard either to people or drug smuggling (I know "control" here is a controversial term. I use it to mean "achieve a desired policy outcome"). Is the US a failed state? Again, I would argue not: illegal immigration is primarily an internal matter, and the drugs smuggled into the US are consumed within US borders.

What about Mexico, then? It can't stop its people from crossing illegally into the US, right? True, but I would argue that Mexico doesn't want to stop these crossings. Illegals in the US remit a huge amount of money to relatives back home. If it's policy, however, tacit, by definition it isn't a failure. Moreover, the movement of people itself isn't violence, although it does raise the question of whether even without violence a cross-border phenomenon can become serious enough to invoke thoughts of failed states.

Lebanon, it seems to me, is the current poster child for failed states. The elected government is unable to control militias (chiefly Hezbollah); the militias control significant territory (southern Lebanon); they use that territory as a launching pad for significant acts of violence abroad (rocket attacks and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, provoking this past summer's war with Israel).

Right up there with Lebanon is Pakistan. The Pakistani government is unable to control its tribal areas, which are used by the Taliban and al-Qaeda to attack Afghanistan. If it's true that the government was unaware of A.Q. Khan's nuclear trafficking (doubtful), it raises that interesting question about non-violent but serious effects again: is a government's inability to control something as monumental as trafficking in nuclear technology and know-how something we recognize as state failure?

France is unable to control its Muslim-dominated suburbs. Attacks in those suburbs are getting worse; police describe the situation variously as an intifada and as civil war. But the attacks are internal; the "no-go zones" are not yet being used to launch significant attacks abroad. So France, it seems to me, is facing a gathering insurgency, which, given the percentage of Muslims in France and our increasingly connected, open-sourced times, could eventually become a civil war. But France is not a failed state.

There's a lot of room for discussion about the terminology in this post, I know. I'm looking forward to comments, and then to offering some policy prescriptions.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Vietnam Roars

Last week I was in Saigon, researching the next Rain book. Here are a few photos from the trip.

I was struck by many things about this remarkable city. Three stand out.

First, Vietnam is getting rich. It has a long way to go, but when you see a cosmetic surgery clinic and electronics stores are selling $4000 massage chairs, you're talking about a post-agricultural society, and then some.

Second, the business drive in Vietnamese culture is remarkable. Things may be different in the north, and I wish I'd had more time to visit more regions in the country, but Saigon is all business. Everybody wants to give you an impromptu motorcycle taxi ride, everywhere you look someone has set up an improvised street stand to sell secondhand engine parts or watches or watermelon juice. Business and capitalism seem to be part of the culture's DNA.

Third, the people I met have a positive, enthusiastic view of America and Americans. Again, things might be different in the north, but still: we killed three million Vietnamese during the war. I'm flabbergasted that I encountered no lingering ill will. I'm not sure what accounts for the lack of animus: perhaps in the south America is remembered as an ally, not an enemy (although no ill will for eventually abandoning our allies to the communists?); perhaps the culture's Buddhist roots; perhaps the Vietnamese are too busy making money and improving their lives to indulge in bitterness about the past. Still, the contrast with Muslims who are still stewing over the crusades is stunning. Any guesses on which culture has a brighter future: the one excited about tomorrow, or the one furious about yesterday?

Here's more on the country, from today's New York Times.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Remain Calm! Don't Panic!

Now Iraq's leaders are urging the US and the UK not to panic.

Question: has there ever been a time when an official urged something like, "Remain calm! There's no cause for panic!" when panic wasn't fully warranted?

(See also: "I can explain this" and "This isn't what it looks like.")

Not to worry. Not only is the Bush administration not panicking, Bush is actually assuring Iraqi Prime Minister Malaki that there are no plans to oust him (that is, that we aren't going to support a military coup). That's another one of those phrases, BTW, that's perfect for making prime ministers feel all their fears were silly and groundless: "Don't worry, Nuri, we have no plans to depose you in a military coup."

Actually, some people think a military coup would be a good idea. Personally, I doubt the Iraqi military is cohesive enough to impose order. See the excellent, clear-eyed, depressing analysis here.

There also have been reports that the White House has issued Iraq ultimatums (should that be ultimata?): crack down on militias and show other security progress, or we're outa here. The White House says there have been no ultimatums; just a "collaborative effort."

I don't think it matters much whether it's all hugs and kumbaya, or whether Bush is making Malaki an offer he can't refuse (but anyone want to be which it really is?). What's going on is, the White House is trying to develop a set of criteria by which America can leave Iraq with as much blame as possible for the debacle that follows shifted onto the Iraqis.

About a year ago, I argued that the war's architects would never be the ones to end it, because doing so would deny them the fig leaf of later being able to claim "We had turned the corner (or some other metaphor) and the shiftless, spineless administration that came after us snatched defeat from the jaws of victory." I reiterated the argument about a month ago.

But now I don't think we're going to stay in Iraq in any meaningful way all the way until January '09, when a new team takes over the White House. What's changed, I think, is that Iraq has become such a catastrophe that all elements of the Republican party other than Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are intent on ending our involvement before the next presidential election. Their fear is that, if we're still bleeding in Iraq for no discernible reason in November '08, the fig leaf Bush and the war's other architects want to keep in front of themselves will mean armageddon for the Republicans, who will probably be turfed out not just from both houses of Congress, but also from the White House and possibly a majority of governors' houses, as well. To mix a couple metaphors: Sorry about having to strip away that fig leaf, pal, but we're not letting it sink the entire Republican ship.

In sum: denied the opportunity to blame the next administration for our failure in Iraq, the administration seems to have decided to set up Malaki, instead.

At least they're not panicking.

Monday, October 09, 2006

What Now For North Korea?

In my last post, What's Kim Up To This Time?, I suggested that Kim Jung Il would hold off until closer to the US midterm elections before carrying out his threat to test a nuclear weapon. Obviously, I was mistaken, perhaps because I overlooked the timing of another important event: Japanese Prime Minister Abe's weekend summit meetings in Beijing and Seoul. As I said at the end of that post, though, the timing of the test matters less than the question of how the US should handle Kim generally. This post will suggest the necessary general policy.

The key to regulating Kim's behavior, indeed, the key to his departure or his survival, is China. China provides North Korea with oil and food without which Kim's regime couldn't survive. It follows that, without China's cooperation, we cannot achieve our policy aims in North Korea. As I mentioned in my last post, those policy aims are chiefly: (i) prevention of war on the Korean peninsula; and (ii) preventing Kim from transferring nuclear materiel and know-how.

(The previous policy objective was to prevent North Korea from going nuclear. Obviously, that objective failed. As Gavin de Becker points out in his outstanding book The Gift of Fear, what we fear is always what might happen next. Once that thing has happened, we're by definition no longer afraid of it; our fear has moved on to the next thing. So it is with policy to North Korea. We're no longer afraid of a nuclear armed DPRK; we're afraid that Kim will use his nukes or sell them).

Kim makes a lot of trouble for China, and his most recent antics have embarrassed his chief patron, who had publicly cautioned him not to proceed. Why, then, does China support him?

Because China fears two things that would follow Kim's collapse: (i) millions of desperate, starving North Korean refuges crossing into China; and (ii) a US military presence on China's border.

These are powerful fears. Can they be reduced? And are there any enticements, or other fears, that could outweigh them?

One thing China fears at least as much as the results of Kim's collapse is nuclear proliferation in Asia. If Kim survives and continues to behave as he has, within a decade, if that, China will very likely be surrounded by nuclear neighbors. A nuclear Taiwan would substantially complicate any attempt by China to capture the island by military force. And, given the countries' fraught history, China is horrified at the prospect of a nuclear Japan. Recent events, therefore, have clarified that China has to choose. Which is worse: refugees and encroaching US military power, or a nuclear South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan?

This calculus is hardly a revelation, of course; China ought to have managed to weigh the possibilities well enough even in the absence of Kim's nuclear test. But as economists like to tell us, people tend to discount the importance of future possibilities. China has traditionally been more focused on the immediate dangers of Kim's collapse than on the distant and indirect possibility of nuclear encirclement. As the possibility of nuclear encirclement becomes less distant and indirect, it will assume greater weight in China's planning.

To put it another way, China is more afraid of nuclear encirclement today than it was yesterday. If that fear comes to outweigh its fears of Kim's collapse, China will act. The question then becomes: can we do anything to reduce China's fears of Kim's collapse so that China's fears of nuclear encirclement achieve greater weight?

I think we can. For a variety of reasons, we're already drawing down our forces in South Korea. That process could be accelerated. As for refugees, we should convene a conference, perhaps in conjunction with the UN, perhaps with only the five powers most concerned with North Korea (China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the US) to prepare money and infrastructure to deal with the coming DPRK collapse. The first will reassure China about the presence of the US military on its border; the second will demonstrate that China will not have to bear the pressure and expense of a North Korean refugee crisis alone. For more, see Robert Kaplan's excellent piece "When North Korea Falls" in the October Atlantic.

Neither of these actions will be easy (getting anyone to trust us after Iraq and Katrina on our competence at disaster relief will be... difficult. Making the effort multilateral should help), nor can they be accomplished without an overall reexamination of our view of and approach to China. We need to stop thinking that there is an unbridgeable divide between democracies (exemplified by us) and authoritarian regimes (exemplified by China). The real divide is between status quo powers -- that is, powers who accept the rules of our increasingly globalized world and expect to excel in it (by which definition China is the preeminent new example), on the one hand, and powers who recognize that in a globalizing world their ideology dooms them to irrelevance, and who therefore are compelled to try to sabotage globalization's march (North Korea, al Qaeda and other Islamic fanatics), on the other. Within such a framework, a drawdown of our forces in, and their eventual removal from, South Korea makes perfect sense. And the creation of a multilateral fund, process, and logistics for dealing with Kim's inevitable collapse can take place on a broader, sufficiently sturdy foundation. For more on the US and China, I highly recommend the always insightful and outside-the-box http://www.thomaspmbarnett.com/weblog/.

It's past time for South Korea, Japan, and the US to accept that sending food and oil aid to a despot like Kim is wrongheaded. We have to understand this dynamic: Kim has taken his population hostage and is starving and freezing much of it to death. He then says to us, "Send me food and oil or more people will starve and freeze!" And we comply.

But paying ransoms only encourages more hostage taking. Worse, when the hostage is the despot's own population, the ransom doesn't even save lives. A dictator like Kim knows he can hang onto power with x percent of his population starving or freezing. Higher than x percent and he'll face unacceptable unrest and other challenges to his rule. If we offer no aid, he must divert (or create) resources to keep the death rate at x percent. If we offer aid, he diverts resources to his military. Either way, the death rate stays at x as long as Kim is in power. We can't save Kim's hostage population while he is in power, and it is counterproductive to use aid to try.

If Kim's latest provocation prods the US to reassess its policy as suggested above, we may look back on the test as a positive development. After all, as long as the DPRK's nuclear capability was ambiguous, other governments were free to live in denial (that discounting of future possibilities dynamic again) about where all this was heading. If Kim's test has removed some of that denial, that's a good thing. As long as what replaces it is good thinking and sound execution.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

What's Kim Up To This Time?

Last week, the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (yes, that's really what they call themselves) declared that it "will in the future conduct a nuclear test under the condition where safety is firmly guaranteed." The statement claimed that "The U.S. daily increasing threat of a nuclear war and its vicious sanctions and pressure have caused a grave situation on the Korean Peninsula in which the supreme interests and security of our State are seriously infringed upon and the Korean nation stands at the crossroads of life and death."

I can't help asking... do North Korean communiques read like this in the original Korean, or is the stiltedness and bombast always inserted in the translations? You can read the full text of the Foreign Ministry's statement here.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill responded by saying, “We are not going to live with a nuclear North Korea, we are not going to accept it.” Huh? The CIA believes North Korea already has the bomb, acquired with the assistance of Pakistan's A.Q Khan (but certainly not with the complicity of Pakistan's government!) in exchange for missile know-how. So aren't we already living with, have we not in fact already accepted, a nuclear North Korea?

If the US already believes North Korea is nuclear armed, why would the North announce a test? The announcement must have perceived independent value, otherwise the North wouldn't have made it -- they would have just carried out a test (for substantive weapons development reasons, for example), or not, without an announcement. Also, an announcement must entail at least some risk: if the test doesn't occur, Kim looks like he's backing down, or that he doesn't have nukes to begin with; if the test is attempted and fails, it looks like those NK nukes aren't ready for prime time after all.

My theory is, the DPRK is trying to force the Bush administration to offer concessions by threatening, just ahead of midterm elections, to remove the fig leaf of nuclear ambiguity behind which the administration has been sheltering. It just wouldn't look good for Republicans, who bill themselves as the national security party, to have Kim detonate an atomic bomb on their watch. Presumably Kim knows this, and is now trying political pressure where more substantive pressure has previously failed him.

The "Midterm Surprise" theory gets a little backing from Li Dunqiu of China's State Council Development Research Center, a Cabinet-level think tank. "If the U.S. removes sanctions," Mr. Dunqiu says, "then tensions can be eased. Otherwise launching a nuclear test is unavoidable for North Korea.''

I think that can safely be translated as, "immediate concessions, or we'll cost you the midterm elections."

Some or the articles I've read say a test is expected as early as this weekend. I don't buy it. We're still a month away from the midterm elections. Why wouldn't Kim let the threat stand -- in fact, why not reiterate it -- to continue to pressure Bush and the Republican Congress? Once the test is carried out, Kim's leverage is gone.

Another possibility, of course, is that Kim isn't trying to exact concessions; he's actively trying to influence the outcome of the midterm US elections. If that's the case, again, I wouldn't expect a test right away. The elections are over a month away; I'd expect more threats first, then a test closer to the elections, to ensure that the inescapable fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons is front center in the minds of voters.

The strategy could backfire, of course: in response to a test, the Bush administration could announce stiff countermeasures, such as a blockade (which we wouldn't call a blockade; blockades are acts of war, which is why JFK called our blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis a "quarantine"), which could in turn lead to a "rally round the president" effect that would tilt elections to Republicans.

My guess is, Kim has decided it's time to remove any doubt that the DPRK is a nuclear power. China, Japan, and South Korea all claim such a move would be counterproductive, but would it? What leverage would any of them apply to a demonstrably nuclear-armed DPRK that they haven't applied already? Kim's negotiating stance will simply have gone from, "give me what I want or I'll build a nuke" to "give me what I want or I'll build more nukes... and possibly sell them, too." All the reasons behind the world's historically feckless approach to Kim will remain in place and continue to drive policy just as they have been driving it. By conducting a test, Kim can have his nukes and eat them, too.

All the North's nuclear saber rattling begs a larger question, of course, because whether the DPRK has nukes, or whether the country is merely determined to acquire them, the imperative of our policy there remains the prevention of war on the Korean peninsula and counterproliferation. So how do we achieve those twin objectives? I think that will be my next post, which I'll be writing from Tokyo.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

More Verbal Tics

They're back... the phrases that make me crazy!

Verbal and oral are not the same. Verbal means words; oral means the mouth. I guess oral carries certain, uh, baggage that makes people hesitate to say it in polite company. And so, striking a blow, if you will, for linguistic accuracy everywhere, I declare, "Oral! Oral! Oral!"

Disinterested and Uninterested are cousins, not identical twins. Disinterested means you don't have a stake; uninterested means you don't care.

What's a "Think Piece?" Isn't it a given that an article is predicated on thought? So we're really talking about just... an opinion piece. And what's wrong with a nice opinion? This one, BTW, reminds me of Bush's futile and misplaced attempt to bring into vogue the term "homicide bomber" instead of "suicide bomber." When someone plants a bomb, we can assume homicide was the objective. The bomber taking his own life in the process is a distinguishing characteristic (although, sadly, increasingly less so).

Can we just say orient instead of orientate?

For God's sake, don't say "monies!" The only way to sound more incompetently self-important is to talk about "persons" instead of "people."

I like that prisons are disappearing in favor of correctional facilities (domestic) and detention centers (abroad). No one is being imprisoned, thank you very much; just detained and corrected. And how bad can that be?

What's a muscular foreign policy? The phrase seems to have the wrong focus: "muscular" is about appearances, not results. What's wrong with "strong," which describes capabilities? Or "aggressive," which describes a behavior or attitude? What's next, enhancing foreign policy with steroids?

Ikea says "temporarily oversold" instead of "sold out." How can you oversell something? Is it like overbooking a plane? Next someone will be selling "pre-owned" cars... oh, wait, they already are.

And now, from the Department of Redundancy Department...

hoary old (hoary new?)

past experience (future experience? This one even finds its way into the Economist!)

targeted assassination (random assassination?)

overhype (for when hyping it just isn't enough...)

refer back/ahead (refer is sufficient)

past history (future history?)

Why do presidents feel compelled to have "doctrines?" It seems to me that "doctrine" is just a self-important way of saying "obvious policy that anyone could have figured out." Alternatively, it can mean "Divisive and bad idea for which I'm trying to develop unstoppable momentum by attaching to it the big D word. Don't argue -- if it was good enough for Monroe, it's good enough for me."

(Don't forget, Brezhnev was reputed to have a doctrine, too. It was, "What's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine.")

Why is it that newspapers call people fighting the Sudanese government "rebels," while people fighting the Iraqi government are labeled "insurgents"?

Can you flagellate someone else, or can you really only self-flagellate?

I always find it odd when someone feels compelled to declare himself not just married, but "happily married" (or worse, "very happily married"). Was there any doubt? Is he worried we might think otherwise? Could he be... protesting too much? I'd like to do a study on divorce rates of people who describe themselves this way. I'll bet it's higher than the norm.

In May, the Government Accountability Office released a report on America's public diplomacy efforts around the Islamic world. The report is titled, "State Department Efforts Lack Certain Communications Elements and Face Significant Challenges."

Now there's an example of clear communication, right there in the title. I wouldn't want the report to be called, "State Department Efforts to Woo the Muslim World Ineffective." Maybe the State Department has been taking its communications cues from the GAO?

Let's end on a happy note. Thomas Pfeffer of the American Heart Association in Los Angeles, says, "Having a smoking section in a restaurant is like having a peeing section in swimming pool."

Hard to argue with that.