Karzai is right, but O’Hanlon is wrong

Michael O’Hanlon in The National Interest suggests that the Parliamentary election results from September need to be corrected because security conditions prevented Pashtuns from voting. Citing President Karzai’s concerns, which have caused him to postpone convening parliament, Michael proposes two possible fixes:

One would be to seat all 249 of the members who just won seats according to official tallies (including about 100 Pashtuns, less than their share of the population and less than their 115 seats previously held), but add in some seats on an ad hoc basis for those Pashtun parts of the country like Ghazni that lost representation in the recent voting. A respected group would need to be charged with this task, and no more than ten to fifteen additonal seats should be created as a result, but the fix might otherwise work. A second approach would be to convene a shura in Ghazni to create a balanced provincial delegation—effectively discarding the results of the election for that province only (and, again, perhaps one or two others if truly needed).

Now I can agree with President Karzai and Michael that the lack of representation from Pashtun areas is a problem, but I don’t really think either of his suggested fixes is going to work: either they will alter the political balance in Parliament, in which case the non-Pashtuns will object, or they will not, in which case Karzai will not be satisfied.

In addition to the power balance, there is an issue of democratic legitimacy.  Something similar to what Michael proposes was tried in Iraq in 2005, in order to compensate for the lack of Sunni votes (due both to boycott and security conditions) and resulting representation.  Sunni members were added to the committee preparing the new constitution, which quickly decided to ignore their input, meet without them present, and proceed with a constitution inimical to Sunni interests.  I imagine the U.S. Congress would also react badly if someone proposed adding members to represent the 50 per cent or so of Americans who don’t vote.

The time for Pashtuns to fix this problem was election day, by making the efforts required to ensure security and to go to the polls.  The fact that they failed to do so is certainly a problem for Karzai, who already tried to fix it by stuffing the ballot boxes.  The kind of post-facto fixes that Michael is proposing will only undermine the integrity of the electoral process and encourage many others to ask for corrections–surely there were security problems in non-Pashtun majority areas as well.  It will also validate the already strong Afghan tendency to believe that your own ethnic group cannot be represented by someone of another ethnic group.

Why wouldn’t it be better to ask Karzai to govern with a parliament not altogether to his liking?  That is what you get in a lot of democratic systems (especially presidential ones), including our own.  And Ghazni’s largely Hazara parliament members won’t have much of a chance of getting reelected unless they begin to take the concerns of their Pashtun constituents seriously, because next time they’ll make the effort to vote.

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Hu is the better alternative

Michael J. Green in the National Interest has an excellent piece on communique diplomacy with China, but it leaves open the difficult question of the longer-term relationship between Washington and Beijing. While this question is being asked at Brookings and elsewhere, answers seem to be lacking. Clean energy technologies are far too weak a reed to support a long-term U.S./China relationship.  While some argue that what is needed is to implement what has already been agreed, that too seems a formula less robust than what is needed.

The basic problem lies in diverging values.  This is not just a matter of human rights, but it is also a matter of human rights. First ducking the question and then sounding forthcoming yesterday, President Hu Jintao said China “recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights” and acknowledged that “a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.”  This answer that will cause Hu more trouble in Beijing than in Washington.  But expert analysts are having a hard time interpreting what it means, and even whether it is boiler plate or something new.  And for the Chinese, human rights include economic and social rights, not just political ones.  Where we hear “freedom of expression” they may mean “right to health.”

My own inclination, but I admit it is not a particularly well-informed one, is to think that yesterday’s visit did open some possibilities for improved longer-term relations with China, if only because the two leaders seemed on the same wavelength and free to express their agreements and disagreements clearly and comfortably. Above all, they seemed to agree that the kinds of misunderstandings that plagued the bilateral relationship in 2010 should not be repeated in 2011 and beyond.  Tone matters in diplomacy, especially with the Chinese, and yesterday’s tones were harmonious (an important value in Beijing).

The tone of mutual respect hides however a fundamental asymetry.  Hu Jintao is the leader of a one-party system.  President Obama is not everyone’s favorite in the U.S.–I am getting a lot of Tea Party tweets these days about defeating him at the next elections–but precisely because he won office in a tough political competition he has a kind of democratic legitimacy that Hu Jintao lacks.  In fact, democracy of the sort we would recognize as such is still a great threat in China, because it calls into question the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power.

What difference does this make?  A great deal, it seems to me.  The Chinese are feeling their cheerios:  the past decade of rapid economic growth, financial success and infrastructure modernization has given even the man in the Shanghai street the sense that nothing can stop an inevitable rise, one in which competition and potentially conflict with the U.S. is regarded as likely. Chinese nationalism is a serious and rising threat to good relations with the U.S., since it sees the U.S. as hegemonic, or at least as trying to hem in China’s growing power.

There is the irony:  Hu Jintao, weak though he is in the panoply of Chinese leaders and lacking though he may be in real democratic legitimacy, is a bulwark (or at least a facade) of sorts against vigorous expressions of Chinese nationalism, which seem to be all the rage these days, especially in the military.  So the Americans are once again caught in a situation where the democratic alternative, more nationalistic than the Hu Jintao we witnessed yesterday, would be a lot more difficult to deal with than the less democratic reality.

But China’s one-party system will not persist forever.  There will be enormous risk to U.S. interests once that system starts to transition to something more obliged to reflect Chinese nationalism.  The kind of cautious, low-key  and mutually sensitive approach on display between the two presidents yesterday will not satisfy human rights hawks in the U.S. or Chinese nationalists, but it certainly sets a reasonable tone for the difficult challenges ahead.

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Let’s be clear

“Europe may have reacted hastily” by recognizing Kosovo, a Member of the European Parliament is quoted as saying on Serbia’s B92 website.  This sentiment has appeared regularly in recent weeks, based on unsubstantiated allegations by a Council of Europe rapporteur who opposed Kosovo’s February 2008 declaration of independence.

While the allegations require serious investigation, the efforts to call into question Kosovo’s independence are unjustified.  Kosovo became independent because Serbia stopped treating its majority population as citizens.  This was clearest in Milosevic’s attempt to remove Albanians from Kosovo in 1999, but it was no less damaging to Serbia’s claims of sovereignty when the post-Milosevic Serbian state did not count the Kosovo Albanians on the voter rolls for the 2006 referendum on its new constitution, thus denying them their right under the then existing constitution to block the adoption of a new one by not voting (the then existing constitution required that 50 per cent of registered voters participate in the referendum, a percentage that would not have been reached had the Albanians been counted).

Members of the Kosovo Liberation Army that fought for independence in the late 1990s now stand accused at the Council of Europe of heinous crimes.  These allegations have been circulated for a long time:  they are stock in trade in Belgrade, where officials have investigated them and spread rumors about them for 10 years.  This does not mean they aren’t true–they clearly need to be investigated more objectively and professionally. It does mean we should suspend judgment and treat those individuals allegedly involved, including Prime Minister Thaci, as innocent until proven guilty in a properly constituted court with jurisdiction over the case.  If the allegations are eventually found to be true, a possibility that cannot be excluded, that would still not bear on Kosovo’s independence any more than accusations of corruption against Croatia’s former prime minister bear on Zagreb’s bid for EU membership.

Much more immediately damaging to Kosovo than the unsubstantiated allegations are the claims, reported not only by B92 from EU sources but also by Albanian sources, that threats and fraud plagued not only the December elections in Kosovo but also the January 9 rerun in several municipalities.  These elections were an ideal opportunity for Kosovo to demonstrate unequivocally its democratic credentials.  Whoever has tampered with the voters and the votes has done his country serious harm.

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Dominoes anyone?

The metaphorical game in international relations is often chess, or escalation, or maybe just the adjectival “great” game.  But these days we seem to be playing that old standby, dominoes, more than anything else:  will Iran getting nuclear weapons lead to others getting them?  will Tunisia’s revolt spread? will North Korea’s erratic behavior precipitate in one way or another refugee flows into China that Beijing will want to prevent?

As Stephen Walt points out, revolutions don’t usually spread like wildfire.  The demonstration effect of what happens in Tunisia may be strong, but it is uncertain what the outcome is and therefore what events there will “demonstrate.”  I still wouldn’t call it a revolution, since the prior regime is very much in place, not only in the salubrious sense that the constitution is being implemented but in the less salubrious sense that the old guard remains in key offices.  Only the President and his coterie are gone.  Tunisia is looking for the moment more like a palace or military coup in response to popular uprising than like a real revolution. I can imagine that being imitated in more than one Arab country.

With respect to Iran and nuclear weapons, Johan Bergenas argues his case against the dominoes falling well, but unfortunately the argument against a nuclear Iran remains strong even without the worst case scenario, as he acknowledges.  While diplomats, spooks and geeks (or maybe I should say spoogeeks?) in the U.S. and Israel are chuckling over Stuxnet’s damage to Iranian centrifuges, the problem remains as great as always.  We just have more time to find, or not to find, a solution.  I’m no fan of Hillary Mann and Flynt Leverett’s triumphalist version of today’s Iran, but I also don’t buy Tehran Bureau’s defeatist version. President Ahmedinejad still looks pretty strong, having managed his personnel challenges to the Supreme Leader as well as his economic reforms and their political impact better than many expected.

China’s willingness to save our bacon with North Korea is but one of the Washington myths that Mort Abramowitz pooh-poohs, suggesting that if we had a clearer and more consistent policy of our own we might be better off than relying on Beijing to do the right thing.  In any event, the Chinese seem to be finding the discomfort that North Korea causes “not unwelcome,” as the diplomats say, and they fear more refugee flows arising from the regime change Washington might like than anything else.

So dominoes don’t look like such a good game, and in my experience they are not, being a Vietnam generation fogy.  That said, I feel reasonably certain that our weak response to North Korea’s nuclear testing has in fact encouraged the Iranians to move ahead to acquiring whatever technology they think they need to become at least a virtual nuclear power.  Did we ever deprive Brazil of its technology after it forswore nuclear weapons and signed the Treaty of Tlatelolco?  Or South Africa?

That is the thing about dominoes.  When they fall, the consequences are often irreversible, and the directions they fall in unpredictable.  I hope that the outcome of last week’s events in Tunisia is not only democratic but relatively liberal and Western-oriented.  Many of us–I include myself–will regret the cheering we did from the sidelines if Al Qaeda in the Maghreb finds haven in North Africa, where its recruiting efforts are already strong.

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What would MLK say?

The rash of suicides and attempted suicides associated with popular rebellions in Tunisia, Algeria and now Egypt naturally raises the question, on Martin Luther King Day:  is suicide a useful, effective or legitimate tactic against autocratic regimes?

Let’s admit right off that in one sense it is useful:  self immolation attracts a lot of attention today, as it did decades ago during the Vietnam war.  The press seems barely able to get its fill of such stories, and if there are photographs in addition you can be sure they will run on the front page in the West.  Self immolation is treated as the ultimate testimonial to how desperate people are.  I suppose that makes it effective as well.  These protests are largely indigenous, but you can be sure that Western attention to them will still be an important factor in how the Arab regimes react.  And what are you going to do to someone who has already doused himself in gasoline and tried to light it afire?

I am not a King scholar, and the day is not long enough yet for me to have checked out his writings carefully on this subject.  But I grew up with MLK’s words ringing in my ears from well before attending the March on Washington in 1963.  This was a man whose opposition to violence and respect for human life would not permit him to support suicide of any type to prove a point.  Yes, he expected himself and his supporters to run gigantic risks and to suffer brutality at the hands of police and thugs.  But this was to bear witness, to confront oppression with human dignity, not to get killed.

This is an important message just now, as the demonstrations in several countries seem to be deteriorating into street brawls and looting.  If something good is to come of the sacrifices people are making, nonviolence and dignity–including respect for property–are vital.  If the regimes can credibly call the demonstrators criminals, decent people will hesitate to join them and the security forces will feel free to crack down.

Nonviolence for Martin Luther King was a moral as well as a practical imperative.  It was a high calling, one that really did appear to give his movement divine blessings, as it did Gandhi’s.  But not everyone can adhere to that calling.  I admit to having seen things in this world that merit a violent response.  The trouble is that violence, even violence against oneself, begets more violence.  What the demonstrations need now is MLK’s recipe of nonviolence and respect for human dignity.  The demonstrators should not be attacking the security forces but inviting the security forces to their side, as they did in the days leading up to President Ben Ali’s flight.  Self immolation will not be effective in that sense.

I have just returned this morning from Baghdad.  I can only wonder what might have happened there had demonstrations of the sort now seen in North Africa broken out against Saddam Hussein.  It would have been bloody and nasty, but could it have been as bloody and nasty as these last eight years?  I played a role in advocating the support for the Serbian opposition that brought down Slobodan Milosevic just a few years before the American invasion of Iraq.  There is no question but that Serbia is better off for having dealt with its own autocracy by largely nonviolent means.

That is what I might wish for our North African friends on Martin Luther King day:  disciplined nonviolence and respect for human dignity have the best chance of winning the day and bringing about regimes that in turn will respect human dignity and not use violence against their own people.

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Double double toil and trouble

With Tunisia in a kind of constitutionally correct and militarily enforced limbo between dictatorship and the possibility of real democracy, demonstrations and rioting are popping up elsewhere in the Arab World.  Qadhafi has been reduced to stuttering regret for the impatience of the Tunisians while two unemployed men reportedly tried to immolate themselves in Algeria.

. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is testing the waters while in Jordan people take to the streets.  So what might all this amount to, and what determines the course it takes?

With the obvious exception of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, none of the current protests seems to have a clear political matrix.  Some people will tell you that is important–without a clearly defined political leadership and goals, nothing much can come of spontaneous protest over food prices and corruption.  I don’t believe that.  Political leadership often emerges during the events, not in advance of them, and the lack of clearly defined leadership makes it difficult for repressive regimes to decapitate popular movements.

My own view is that the vital thing to watch is the relationship between protesters and security forces.  If the protesters attack the security forces, they will respond with violence and more often than not sufficient force to win the day, even if doing so generates another day of protests.  The objective of the protesters needs to be the strategic one of depriving the dictatorship of the security force protection that enables it to stay in place.

The way to achieve this is not to attack the security forces but to try to win them over.  Often this will be difficult in the capital, where the best and most loyal of the uniformed and non-uniformed security forces are usually deployed.  But somewhere on the periphery, likely in the provinces, there will be security forces with little brief for the regime they ostensibly defend. Non-violent protest is what can win them over:  sticking flowers in their gun barrels is the international photojournalists’ image of choice.  Ben Ali did not flee because there were so many people in the streets.  He fled because someone told him the army would no longer protect him.

That of course leaves Tunisia in the limbo I mentioned at first.  Now the effort has to become more politically astute, using the demonstrators to guarantee free and fair elections open to serious competition.  This will not be easy, in part because the crowds in the street may not see the relevance of elections to what they went there for in the first place:  jobs and food above all. That is where political leadership is needed: to show the connection. Otherwise, demonstrations may lead to a non-democratic political takeover that promises more immediate results.

This is all discussed amply on the website of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, or if you prefer your protests with an accent of Serbian experience at Canvasopedia.

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