Tag: United States

Crouching tiger, hidden dragon

Now that the UN Security Council has at least condemned the regime violence in Syria, everybody is looking for President Obama to amp up calls for Bashar al Assad to step aside.  The Administration, I am assured, knows perfectly well that an orderly transition to a less autocratic regime in Damascus would be a big improvement from the U.S. perspective.

But what if the President says Bashar has to go, and then he doesn’t?  The U.S. hasn’t got lots of leverage, as it did over an Egyptian army that was heavily dependent on U.S. money, training and equipment.  The most vulnerable sector in Syria is energy, where European rather than American companies are the critical players.  Posing the President as a crouching tiger is better than exposing him as a paper tiger, especially after the week he has just gotten himself through.

And what if the transition is not orderly, but breaks down into sectarian and ethnic violence, with the risk of overflow into Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey? That could be a big mess, one we would regret for many years into the future.

The problem with this argument is that it suggests a quicker transition would be far better for the U.S. than one that drags on .  Those who know Syria well are saying Aleppo and Damascus will turn against Bashar sooner rather than later.  Sami Moubayed says unemployment, lack of moderate community leaders willing to calm the situation, and the influx of people from all over Syria into the two largest Syrian cities will ensure that the revolution eventually spreads there.  In the meanwhile, the demonstrators are straining the security forces and beginning to bend them at the edges.

While Juan Cole is correctly disappointed in the wording and lack of teeth in the UN Security Council statement, I’m more philosophical about it.  I see it as a necessary step along the way to ratcheting up pressure on Bashar.  Its significance is that it happened at all, not the specific wording.

I wish we could wave a magic wand and make the Syrian army turn into pussycats, but we can’t.  Only the demonstrators can make that trick work, by maintaining their nonviolent discipline and convincing some of the soldiers and police that their interests will be better served if they embrace the revolution rather than fight it.

While not often mentioned, it is important to keep an eye on the Chinese, who could either save the Syrian regime with cash for oil contracts or sink it by permitting more action in the Security Council and lining up with the Americans and Europeans.  Syria doesn’t have enough oil to be of great interest to the Chinese, and a lot more of it is likely to flow once Bashar is gone.  The hidden dragon may well be the deciding factor against the regime.

Meanwhile, the Syrian army has punched into the center of Hama, killing a few dozen more of its own citizens and making an orderly transition less likely.  Bashar seems to have decided that he prefers to resist the inevitable, like Gaddafi in Libya and Saleh in Yemen, than give in like Mubarak in Egypt or Ben Ali in Tunisia.  Yesterday’s scenes of Mubarak caged in a Cairo courtroom will not have encouraged him to rethink.

PS:  AJ English continues to do a good job, with a lot of help from courageous friends at Shaam:

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Past the twelfth hour

So Iraq has finally, in the 11th hour (actually the 12th, since it happened after midnight Baghdad time) told the Americans it is willing to talk about a continuing American troop presence past the end of 2011, mainly to train the Iraqi air force and navy.  According to the LA Times, Prime Minister Maliki and his archrival (and coalition partner) Iyad Allawi used the occasion to hash out an agreement on how nominees to the still unfilled positions of Defense and Interior Minister will be handled.

The agreement to talk is important, but there are still necessarily a lot of unanswered questions.  Will the Americans have any combat or counter-terrorism role?  Will they continue to play a role in the confidence building measures (CBMs) between the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish peshmerga?  Will they be permitted to defend themselves?  Will they be held accountable if they kill or injure someone unjustifiably in an Iraqi court or in an American one?  Who will pay for this training mission, the hard-strapped United States or the Iraqis, who have been collecting close $100 per barrel for oil?

The Sadrists appear to have objected but not so strongly as to prevent the negotiations from starting.  They lack the votes in parliament to stop the move on their own, but they could certainly make life difficult for Prime Minister Maliki.  I wonder what he promised in exchange for their quiescence.  Or have the Sadrists come to realize that an American presence in Iraq as a counterweight to Iran is not such a bad thing even from their perspective?

If we can presume for the moment that these talks will in fact lead to 10,000 American troops remaining in Iraq, is that a good thing, or not?  In my book it is.  It will help to ensure a united Iraq that can defend and maintain itself in a rough neighborhood, and give the Americans an opportunity to engage constructively with its armed forces, which are bound to remain a key institution there.  A more or less democratic Iraq that aligns itself with the U.S. and Europe on issues like Iran’s nuclear program or democractic transition in Syria would not pay back all the effort we have made and the losses we have suffered there, but it would be a positive mark in a foreign policy ledger that has not accumulated many in recent years.

I know Americans are tired of Iraq, but it remains an important piece of the Middle East jigsaw.  As I’ve noted previously, a large military training program is only one dimension of American relations with the new Iraq.  Also important is the direction of its oil and gas pipelines, which could literally tie Iraq more closely to Europe by flowing north and east.  I can do no better than quote myself on this subject:

In my view, another important contribution to Iraq’s future international alignment could come from its capability to export oil other than by loading it on ships and moving it through the Gulf and the strait of Hormuz. The Gulf export facilities are already a bottleneck, not to mention the risk that conflict there could disrupt Iraq’s exports.

But Iraq is geographically advantaged. It can export oil (and gas) to the north and west, reaching European markets more directly and cheaply than through the Gulf. My understanding is that even Iraq’s southern oil fields can export more economically to the north and west, provided the “strategic pipeline” that once linked them to northern Iraq is repaired and enlarged.

If the Americans really want an Iraq that will see its interests more aligned with the West, oil and gas pipelines to the north and west are likely to be at least as important as F-16′s and American troops in the long run. There is no time like the present to get busy making the long run happen.



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When all you have is a hammer

Josh Rogin over at Foreign Policy does a nice, quick job explaining why it is unclear how much defense will be cut as a result of the debt deal the Senate is expected to pass today.  The deal lumps defense together with diplomacy, aid, intelligence, nuclear weapons and other non-Defense Department contributions to national security.

It is unclear how the $420 billion in “security” cuts will be distributed across those national security activities.  And even less clear how additional cuts will be distributed, if Congress fails to act and the trigger mechanism for automatic cuts is activated.

From an intellectual perspective, it is correct to consider national security expenditures overall, but let’s remind ourselves what our national security objectives are.  President Obama defines them this way:

  • security:  the security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners.
  • prosperity: a strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity.
  • values:  respect for universal values at home and around the world.
  • international order:  an international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.

If this is too “soft” for you, try George W. Bush’s version from 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks:

  • champion aspirations for human dignity;
  • strengthen alliances to defeat global terrorism and work to prevent attacks against us and our friends;
  • work with others to defuse regional conflicts;
  • prevent our enemies from threatening us, our allies, and our friends, with weapons of mass destruction;
  • ignite a new era of global economic growth through free markets and free trade;
  • expand the circle of development by opening societies and building the infrastructure of democracy;
  • develop agendas for cooperative action with other main centers of global power; and
  • transform America’s national security institutions to meet the challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century.

President Bush was clearly more focused on countering terrorism, but did not exclude other interests.

These are far-reaching agendas that include preventing future attacks and creating a world that is safe for democracy, in the Wilsonian tradition.   Obama skipped the sweeping statement about human dignity but included values no less explicitly.

The problem is that our Congress does not think about national security in the broad terms defined by our two most recent presidents.  It thinks much harder about how to distribute defense contracts across the nation and worries little about diplomacy and foreign aid, which don’t bring home much pork.

It is a pretty good bet that when Congress distributes funds between appropriations committees, the Defense Department will get not only the lion’s share (it always has) but a smaller cut than the “150” account that funds State, AID and other foreign affairs functions.   Those functions are already running on fumes, as Rogin noted last month.

We are headed towards further militarization of national security responsibilities.  I am an admirer of our military–it is a magnificent organization capable of truly amazing feats.  But it is not the appropriate tool for achieving all the national security goals Presidents Bush and Obama have set.  When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  We need some other tools in the tool box.

PS:  There are indications already that defense will do very well, despite the cutting.



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Change course, overhaul Dayton, fix Bosnia

Bruce Hitchner of Tufts and the Dayton Peace Accords Project writes:

If there is one lesson that ethnic nationalists on all sides in Bosnia learned from the 1992-5 conflict it is that their goals could not be achieved by war. They learned this lesson when the United States, finally accepting that one of its vital national interests—peace in Europe—was at stake, intervened to stop the war.

But the ethnic nationalists also absorbed another lesson, some to their relief, others to their dismay: that a Bosnia not at war did not have any special claim on the vital national interests of the United States. The Dayton Agreement, brokered by the United States, was first and foremost a peace treaty, and by any measure Washington has stood by its responsibility to enforce the peace.

The annexes are another story; they laid out the mechanisms and procedures for rebuilding Bosnia, but rather than root out firmly and finally the institutions and structures that had caused the war, the annexes glossed over many of them. And while there were many technical and legal solutions to political, constitutional, and economic problems articulated in the Annexes, supported by an international mission, the OHR, created to help implement them, their fulfillment ultimately depended on many of the same people and structures that had instigated the war.

All of this was not lost on the ethnic nationalists. They determined, each in their own way, that their respective goals could be achieved by exploiting the legal ambiguities and often complex institutional mechanisms embedded in the Annexes. It might take longer, but what could not be achieved by war, they determined, could be attained by peaceful political attrition.

If what I suggest here is true, the answer to the problems of Bosnia does not lie in further measures to enforce the peace treaty per se or in the re-empowerment of international authority to enforce the annexes, but in the recognition that securing the peace and creating a stable democratic society in Bosnia cannot be achieved under the existing Dayton post-war settlement. It is time, I suggest, that the United States, as well as the European Union, acknowledge that the Dayton Annexes have failed to achieve their ultimate purpose; and that the only acceptable way forward is a complete overhaul of the country’s constitutional, political, and electoral order.

This may appear a radical and not especially welcome proposal, but after 16 years of falling short of fully implementing the annexes and other necessary reforms, and no prospect of a change in this pattern driven by this generation of politicians, a fundamental policy shift of this magnitude is perhaps the only way out of an increasingly stalemated political environment in Bosnia. Otherwise, the very thing that the Dayton peace treaty clearly established–peace–will be at risk.

This does not mean calling for a Dayton II or yet another international conference. What is required instead is the will and imagination to put forward a new vision of post-Dayton Bosnia that is matched by renewed international efforts at building fundamental trust and reconciliation. While there may always be a segment of the population of Bosnia who will desire separation over national unity, there are many among even among the ethnic nationalists who know implicitly that there are solutions to protecting group rights and interests in a unified, democratic, and functional Bosnia that hold far more hope for their future than a fateful and quixotic attempt at extreme autonomy or independence.

Indeed, there are many, I suspect, who will welcome it even among those who are thought to be against such things, but only so long as it is backed by a genuine commitment to building trust, confidence and political security across ethnic lines, and thereby ending the incentives to zero-sum politics that Dayton inherently encourages and sustains.

In the end, it comes down to facing up to a failure, and changing course. I think the United States and European Union have the capacity to do that in the case of Bosnia. More importantly, I believe the majority of Bosnians across the spectrum would welcome it. The question is whether Washington and Brussels are prepared to change course before things get worse, rather than when events compel them to do so.

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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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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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