Month: July 2011

Slashing budgets–and our global influence

The Washington Post published my op/ed this morning (and on the web):

With debt talks at an impasse, foreign policy is the last thing on many American minds. But how Congress and the president deal with the debt will affect U.S. relations with other countries and our national security for years to come.Americans think of their country as peaceful and generous, but the reality is more nuanced. U.S. armed forces have been actively engaged abroad every year since the fall of the Berlin Wall, sometimes as peacekeepers and sometimes as war fighters. Half the country thinks that one-quarter of the federal budget goes to foreign aid and that it should be cut to 10 percent. The real figure is already just 1 percent. Private financial flows abroad have been larger than official foreign assistance since the early 1990s.

This does not stop Congress from trying to balance the budget by cutting foreign assistance. The House Republican budget proposal would cut “international affairs” 43 percent from the administration’s proposal for fiscal 2012, more than any other portion of the budget. But this would save only $27 billion, less than 15 percent of the total cut the GOP proposed.

Both the administration and House Republicans have proposed cutting a far smaller share of the defense budget, just 3.5 percent. But that would save almost as much, about $26 billion, because the defense budget is more than 10 times the size of the international affairs budget.

Does it make sense to slice the small international affairs budget to the bone, while barely denting the very large defense budget?

The answer depends on the nature of the threats to American national security. Conventional military threats are minimal. In the past 22 years, only twice has a foreign army met U.S. armed forces on a conventional battlefield. The two defeats of the Iraqi army are likely to discourage other challengers for many years to come.

The main national security threats to the United States since the fall of the Berlin Wall have come from less conventional sources: terrorists, insurgents, religious extremists, drug trafficking, nuclear proliferation, computer hackers, pandemic diseases, oil supply disruptions.

Many of these threats arise in countries that are unable or unwilling to govern themselves effectively, such as Afghanistan under the Taliban, Yemen’s largely ungoverned hinterland, Pakistan’s tribal areas, the oil-producing area of the Niger Delta and Mexico’s northern border.

There is a temptation to respond to at least some of these threats with drone strikes or naval maneuvers rather than troops on the ground. Ultimately, that will result in little satisfaction. As we have seen in Yemen and Somalia, drone strikes can kill individual terrorists, but they leave “ungoverned spaces” where replacements breed quickly. Naval maneuvers do little to solve that problem.

Soldiers in uniform are only part of the required response. The Pentagon knows this well; its officials have been outspoken in supporting the budgets of civilian agencies needed to “hold and build” once insurgents are “cleared” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Defense has also spent a good deal of its own money on civilian responsibilities such as economic development, infrastructure repair, school construction and support to religious moderates.

The U.S. military has proved itself many times over in recent decades. Whether responding to the Pacific tsunami or establishing a secure environment in Bosnia and Kosovo, its capacity to deliver relief and lethality over long distances is unmatched.

But using the military to accomplish civilian tasks is a sure-fire way of spending more money for fewer results. U.S. spending on defense amounts to close to half of the entire world’s military budget. Just because we have a really nice power hammer does not mean we should use it to put in a screw, especially if a screwdriver would be cheaper and work better.

The economical way to protect American national security today is to anticipate problems and prevent them from growing worse using all available instruments of projecting national power, civilian as well as military. Building more effective states in Iraq and Afghanistan has proven extraordinarily expensive, time-consuming and uncertain in its results.

We can do far better if we act early, before war makes the challenges too complex. This will mean enhancing our civilian capacities, not cutting them to the bone.

Despite 20 years of experience, we still have few civilians trained and ready to help weak states with defense, law enforcement, democracy, countering violent extremists and promoting religious moderation. These are the areas in which we will require more expertise and capacity for the next 20 years, to protect American national security. Let’s hope Congress and the administration recognize this and respond.

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Have we got the Arab Spring right?

The Middle East Institute, which kindly lists me among its “scholars,” asked me to address the question of whether President Obama has established the right policy in his May 19 speech in his May 19 speech for reform and democracy in the Middle East and whether implmentation is adequate.  This MEI meeting was part of a broader effort to look at the implications of the Arab Spring.  Here are the notes I used yesterday to respond, slightly embellished with hindsight (see especially note 19).

Reform and Democracy

Middle East Institute

 July 29, 2011

1. President Obama was clear enough in May:  he said, “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.”

2.  And he added:   “our support must also extend to nations where transitions have yet to take place.”

3.  Nor was there any doubt what “reform” means:   “The United States supports a set of universal rights…[including]  free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders.”

4.  This he made clear is on top of our “core” interests in the region:  “countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.”

5.  So is the Administration living up to its own rhetoric?  Is the policy framework right?  Is the bureaucratic response adequate?

6.  My view is that basically the policy framework is correct.  As someone whose foreign service career was spent mainly in Europe, I in fact am a bit surprised that this was not the policy framework all along.

7.  Values and interests have always been pursued in tandem in Europe, though not always without conflict and tradeoffs.  I served 10 years in Italy, where we often compromised our values in favor of our interest in keeping the Communist Party out of power.

8.  Of course there is more conflict between values and interests in the Middle East, especially when it comes to countries that have not yet seen much of the Arab Spring:  the GCC countries in particular.

9.  I see no sign that we’ve really adjusted our bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates to this policy framework.

10.  Nor do I see signs that Saudi Arabia has embraced reform:  this week’s Economist reports on efforts there to restrict new media by “inciting divisions between citizens”, “damaging the country’s public affairs”, or insulting senior clerics.  The Shura Council is considering a draft anti-terrorism law that would criminalize “endangering national unity” and “harming the interests of the state,” imposing harsh penalties.  Our embassy won’t be encouraged to reform by the fact that this proposal originates with Prince Nayef; repression can’t be more of a problem for us than for the Saudis.

11.  As for other countries, I would hesitate to make the judgment on my own.

12.  In Tunisia, we seem to be doing the right things.  But the Project on Middle East Democracy/Boell Foundation report suggests effectiveness is spotty in a lot of other places:

    • Aid is restricted by US policy concerns (Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,  Hizbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, fifth fleet in Bahrain)
    • Host government concerns (Yemen, Egypt)
    • US aid is a declining percentage of the whole (Egypt $17B from Gulf)
    • Indifference (Morocco)
    • Violence (Yemen and Libya)
    • Excessive focus on government bodies and not enough on real democratic development

14. I think part of the problem is the bureaucratic structure, which is not only fragmented but also too much under State Department and chief of mission control.

15.  If you are going to get serious about supporting reform, especially in coutries where interests militate in the other direction, you are going to have to break the strait jackets diplomats put on you.  I am not a fan of interagency mechanisms when it comes to democracy support.

16.  We are going to see a whole lot more support for reform the more independent the sources of funding are—ask anyone (except George, who was disappointed in the results) whether Soros was effective in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

17.  I would rate NED and its family of organizations as a preferable conduit for democracy assistance (relative to State or USAID), at least until the revolution has actually occurred.  And yes, Fulbrights should be regarded as part of our democracy and reform support efforts.

18.  In the end, though, the most important instrument for influencing the course of events in some  countries will not be our democratization support efforts, but the U.S. military, whose training and assistance were certainly influential in Egypt and could be in places like Bahrain and Iraq.

19.  It goes without saying that we can only be effective if there is an indigenous movement for democracy and reform, one that has taken on the responsibility of defining for itself what those words mean.  We should not be imposing systems that we invent, but helping others to discover what will suit their needs for accountability, transparency and inclusivity.

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Where am I?

That’s what a loyal reader asks:  she wants me to comment on recent events in Northern Kosovo, where the Pristina government seized a border post in northern Kosovo Monday evening that was then attacked and burned, allegedly by Serbs.  One Kosovo policeman was killed.  NATO forces have now taken possession of the border post, resisted by Serbs.

Read all about it at Outside the Walls, but ignore the nonsense about NATO starting a war and acting illegally.  UN Security Council resolution 1244 never gave local hooligans (or Belgrade) the right to control the Kosovo side of the boundary or border, which is properly secured by NATO if the Kosovo Police Service and Customs are unable to do it.

None of this is surprising.  It was only a matter of time before Pristina/Belgrade differences over the status of northern Kosovo led to violence, as they have in the past, and it could get worse.  I know of no two countries on earth where borders are not agreed and demarcated that don’t have big problems, often violent ones.

The odd thing in this case is that Belgrade and Kosovo agree where the line limiting Kosovo territory is, but they disagree on whether it is just an administrative boundary within Serbia or a border between two sovereign states.  Belgrade claims all of Kosovo as sovereign territory but only exercises sovereign control in the northern 11% north of the Ibar River.  Pristina claims independence, now recognized by 77 countries, but it is unable to gain entry into the United Nations or enforce its laws–including customs–in the north.

If the burning of a border post is the worst that comes out of this, we’ll be lucky.  The issue here is the fundamental one in the Balkans:  why should I live as a minority in your country when you can live as a minority in mine?  Both Serbs and Albanians are saying no, they don’t want to live as a minority in a state dominated by the others.  Albanians say no because of their actual experience living in Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Serbia.  Serbs are saying no because they fear being treated by the Albanians the way they treated the Albanians.

All of that is quite comprehensible.  What is less clear is why anyone should expect people in Washington to worry about a minor disturbance in a faraway place, when it faces a lot bigger issues. The answer to that question unfortunately is that this incident–or some sequel–could unravel 15 years of relative progress in the Balkans.  Pandora’s box can be opened in many places, but northern Kosovo is definitely one of them.  Over at the Foreign Service Institute, they have for years used a crisis management simulation for training senior officers that starts with rioting in Mitrovica and ends in partition of Bosnia.  Partition of Macedonia and Serbia (both Presevo and parts of Sandjak are majority minority) are also real possibilities.

Even a wide-open Pandora’s box might not attract much of Washington’s attention these days, obsessed as we are with our own budget problems and more or less three wars in places more important to us than the Balkans.  It’s good that NATO has now intervened, a move that will presumably stop the violence.  And it is good that the Security Council has refused to allow a public discussion that Serbia sought as a stage for its Foreign Minister to continue to provoke as much trouble as possible.  But don’t expect the American cavalry to come galloping to the rescue.

The only thing that will nail Pandora’s box closed is an agreement between Pristina and Belgrade on status:  first status of northern Kosovo, then status of Kosovo as a whole.  The EU has the lead on Belgrade/Pristina talks, which should discuss northern Kosovo as soon as possible. Even if five EU members haven’t recognized Kosovo, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t recognize that opening Pandora’s box is a really bad idea.  It is truly bizarre that Belgrade, which claims all of Kosovo as its own, is now trying to divide it.

I can’t imagine why Belgrade would put its hopes for EU candidacy at risk for 11% of Kosovo.   Nor do I see why it is supporting hoodlums in northern Kosovo, even if some of those hoodlums are more than likely on Serbia’s secret service payroll.  If Serbia were serious about its EU candidacy, it would arrest whoever killed the Kosovo policeman and turn the murderer over to the EU rule of law mission in Kosovo.

Kosovo has less to lose, hence Pristina’s ill-conceived and ill-executed seizure of the border post, but if it wants sympathy in Washington and Brussels for its efforts to establish sovereignty over all of Kosovo it will need to avoid provocations.  Neither Europeans nor Americans will be happy to see NATO troops tied down on the line between Kosovo and Serbia.

The issue that precipitated this mess, believe it or not, is whether Serbia will accept “Republic” of Kosovo on Pristina’s customs stamps and documents.  I gather Pristina intended its seizure of the border posts to allow it to block imports from Serbia into Kosovo so long as Serbia continues to refuse imports from Kosovo with the dreaded “Republic” word inscribed.  Does the EU really want to begin negotiating membership with a country that can’t settle a dispute of this import with its neighbor, and aligns itself with hooligans?  Does Kosovo really want to blot its copybook with the EU over the R-word?

So where am I?  Right here in DC, hoping that Belgrade and Pristina will come to their senses and sort out what is, after all, a relatively small problem in the current world order.

PS:  A birdie tells me I was wrong about the R-word.  It has not appeared on Kosovo customs stamps since 2008, and Pristina might have dropped it from the customs documents.  Belgrade still wasn’t prepared to agree.

PPS: For an update on the situation, see Jeff Jorve’s “Breaking with Customs” at The American Interest.  He has at least two great virtues:  he has been in Mitrovica this week and he was an excellent student in my post-war reconstruction class last semester.  First class piece that calls for Pristina to start proving to the Serbs in the north that it is willing to take their concerns into account and help them in a difficult situation.



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Bosnia kurtly

Yesterday’s Helsinki Commission hearing on Bosnia is already up in video.  I thought Kurt Bassuener’s statement so well crafted that I asked his permission to post it in writing. I recommend it highly.

Kurt will not be surprised that I have doubts on several of his points, but less on principle than on practicality.  Before we have an American Hirep I would want to see a policy worthy of one, and the commitment to back her or him at the highest levels.  The prospect of U.S. troops for Brcko is dim to zero, but that should not prevent the U.S. from urging EUFOR to do the right thing and beef up its presence there.  International judges and prosecutors back into Bosnia’s court system?  I’m all in favor, but I’m not sure how to get it done.

The main thing is to recognize that we are looking failure in the face in Bosnia.  Republika Srpska President Dodik is serious about a maximum degree of autonomy, and eventual independence if he ever gets the opportunity.  He may never get it, but in the meanwhile he has made the state dysfunctional in order to prove his point:  Serbs should not be expected to live in a state where they are not the majority.

The Hirep has responded with admirable clarity and forcefulness to Dodik’s latest efforts to diminish Bosnia’s sovereignty and to call into question its territorial integrity.  But words in a press release are not enough.

What we need is a permanent fix for Bosnia’s congenital problem, which is the advantage its constitution gives to ethnic nationalists committed exclusively to the welfare of their co-nationalists.  Kurt is good at explaining how we got into this mess.  He also has some good ideas about getting out.  Well worth a read if you are following the Balkans.



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My how large your challenges are!

I hope you’ve checked out the “constitutional charter” mentioned in yesterday’s post.  It’s worth a glance, if only to convince yourself that the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) is serious about projecting a democratic future for the country.  Whether they can achieve a democratic future is another question.  Here are a few of the things I learned listening yesterday over at the National Endowment for Democracy.

The challenge is enormous.  There are now 47 armed groups (including at least a small one with avowed Salafist leanings) in rebellion against a totalitarian system that systematically eviscerated many of the country’s institutions in favor of ensuring that Gaddafi could rule uncontested.  The court system was thoroughly corrupted.   The bureaucracy was inefficient, but there are capable technocrats who could serve in a new, democratic regime.  The country is not only wealthy but relatively well-educated (unfortunately on a steady diet of the Green Book).

Tripoli is a big pill to swallow.  It was intentionally loaded with pro-regime inhabitants even before the current fighting, which has caused more of them to take refuge in the capital.  Tripoli fears Benghazi.  Maintaining order in the capital will be a huge challenge.  No one is thinking of the kind of deep de-Ba’athification conducted in Iraq, but it is not at all clear what to do about vetting and purging the security forces and public administration.  Everyone seems to want to avoid rounds of revenge killing, but no one seems to have a real plan how to do it.  Experience elsewhere suggests justice for many of those who abused power under the Gaddafi regime will be a long time in the making.

The good news.  Libyans like to think they will not fragment along tribal, regional or ethnic lines. They think their version of the Muslim Brotherhood is relatively moderate.  Federalism is out.  New Libya will be based on national citizenship.  Civil society is thriving in the liberated areas, with 300 nongovernmental groups in the east and something like 150 media outlets of one sort or another.  There are at least four interconnected local councils associated with the revolution in Tripoli, but Benghazi–which has long been the cultural capital of the country–remains dominant in the anti-Gaddafi effort.

Gaddafi won’t survive long.  Few really think Gaddafi will survive long if there is a deal for him to step down from power but not leave Libya.  Something like 30,000 Libyan families (on both sides of the fighting) blame him for deaths in the last few months. There is a good deal of concern that his son, Saif al Islam, might try to resuscitate his fortunes if allowed to stay in the country.

Libyans can accept international assistance gracefully, even including a future peacekeeping force if necessary to establish a safe and secure environment.  But there is a absorptive capacity problem when it comes to international advice.  There are also perception differences.  While internationals are counseling that the Libyans should take more time to establish a more inclusive, transparent and accountable process, the Libyans see early elections as the key to sustaining legitimacy with a population that is thirsty for them.  The TNC is thinking about a transition period (from fall of Gaddafi through constitution-writing, constitutional referendum and elections) as short as 6 or as long as 13 months. I didn’t see any non-Libyans in the room who thought it could, or should, be accomplished even in the longer of those time frames.

Important things are still unclear.  It is not clear whether the TNC or a successor “congress” will carry Libya through the transition process; nor is it clear how the people who write the constitution will be chosen.  There appears to be consensus on a constitutional referendum, but no clear consensus yet on the electoral law.  International advisors will likely recommend a mixed system, with some representatives chosen from constituencies and some in a proportional system.

No one should look for clarity in Libya, which is fighting a civil war, forming a state and democratizing at the same time.  Gaddafi’s continued resistance and the depredations of his regime would make even one of these tasks difficult.    But Libya also has advantages:  a relatively homogeneous language and culture, easy accessibility, vast resources, a population of manageable size, and no truly hostile neighbors.  Most of all, it seems to have serious people ready to think hard about the challenges the country faces.

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The new Libya, in draft

I had the privilege of spending a good part of today with Fathi Mohammed Baja, who represents Benghazi on the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) and chairs the TNC’s Political Affairs Advisory Committee, as well as Ali Saeid Ali, who is the TNC’s Secretary General.  I’ll have more to say (without quoting individuals from the off the record conversation) about what I learned from a wide-ranging discussion tomorrow.  In the meanwhile, here is Libya’s Draft Constitutional Charter for the Transitional Stage.

For those who want the juicy bits right away, turn to Article 28, which outlines the transitional “roadmap.”  This is still very much in discussion and subject to change.  One of the striking things about the roadmap is that it leads quickly to elections.  It was clear from the discussion that this is a strongly felt need in Benghazi, not at all an imposition from outside.  The method of selection/election of the Constitutional Authority and whether the TNC will enlarge or a new body will be formed once Tripoli and other areas are liberated is still being discussed.

Article 1 contains the religion clause:  “Islam is the Religion of the State and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence.”  Rights of non-Moslems are guaranteed, including “respect for their systems of personal status.”

The charter excludes any member of the TNC, of the interim government it establishes or of the local councils from major future national office (Article 29).  Nor are members of the TNC allowed to assume other public offices (Article 20).  The nepotism rules in Article 20 are also notable, as are the extensive guarantees of human rights in Part Two.

Article 6 is almost poignant:  “Libyans are brothers and their official relationship shall be based on law…”  The new Libya is intended to be a state formed by citizens (Article 1: the people are the source of authorities).

Best that you read the whole thing.  How could anyone not wish these brave folks success in their aspirations, even as we worry about whether they can be achieved?


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