President Trump, my regular readers will be surprised to hear me say, has been asking the right questions about Afghanistan: why have we been there so long? Why aren’t we winning? These are perfectly reasonable questions. We’ve been at war there for almost 17 years. More than 2400 US service people have been killed and more than 20,000 wounded. When does it end? How?
Unfortunately, Trump seems to be asking these reasonable questions for the wrong reasons: he wants to win and he wants to deliver on a campaign promise to bring American troops home. What matters to Trump is always Trump. But his predecessor wasn’t any better when it came to Afghanistan: he tried to minimize the American commitment but also avoid losing and wanted to bring the boys and girls home as soon as possible, in order to fulfill a campaign promise.
The problem is that those goals are incompatible. There is no reason to believe that the Taliban won’t win–taking over large parts of the country if not all of it–if the US and its coalition allies depart. If the Taliban wins, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State will return.
In order to avoid this outcome, we and some of the coalition will need to stay, perhaps indefinitely. Promising anything else is delusional. The Taliban already control large parts of Afghanistan, according to the New York Times (the darker ochre areas are Taliban control and the lighter areas Taliban support; the red are Islamic State support and control):
It would be silly to think they won’t be able to take more, possibly even Kabul, if the US departs.
Trump is nevertheless likely to land where Obama did: a commitment for several years, followed by promised withdrawal. This kind of compromise outcome does nothing but waste American lives and resources. It is frequently the product of a stalemated White House process: the President is offered Option A to stay indefinitely and Option C to withdraw quickly. He chooses Option B of course: stay for now but draw down later.
There is little justification for Option B. It is better because it is not A or C. But A and C are the real choices. It should be all in or all out, with clarity about the consequences. If we stay, we stay indefinitely, with adequate resources to provide serious support to the Afghan Security Forces, until such time as they don’t need them. If we go, we go completely, recognizing that the extremists will be back and we will likely have to hit them repeatedly, with or without Afghan approval.
This is not a pretty picture. It echoes Vietnam, where President Nixon chose Option B and hung on in support of the South only to have Congress eventually get weary and pull the plug. The short-term results were disastrous: the North took over, killed and “re-educated” a lot of people, invaded Cambodia, and went to war with China. About 2 million people fled, hundreds of thousands are believed to have died. But the long-term results were less catastrophic, from an American geopolitical perspective: a reunified Vietnam remains a Communist autocracy but has become friendly with the US and no longer a threat to its neighbors.
There is an Option D: privatize the war and let mercenaries run it. I give that one a gold star for originality, but all you need to know is that Steve Bannon is pushing it. It’s a bad idea whose time has come only in the minds of those with no memory of, or concern about, what some of those mercenaries did in Iraq, when they were only doing guard duty.
So which option would I choose? I might stay indefinitely (Option A), even putting in some more forces right now to prevent further Taliban inroads, but I would understand those who want to leave completely. My own preference is affected, I admit, by knowing worthy Afghans, who will be either dead or refugees if the US decides to leave. Trump doesn’t likely know so many, or care much about the impact on non-Americans. American First means Afghans last, but I am still betting he chooses Option B: a temporary increase in US forces with a promise to draw down soon. Someone should outlaw Option B.
I was in a chili joint on the south side of Chicago that night in the winter of 1967/8 when he walked in, bigger than I could ever have imagined: Muhammad Ali. He by then had won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics as well as the heavyweight championship, refused to be drafted, and was soon to be arrested and deprived of his title. No one should forget: America scorned him as draft dodger and a black Muslim with a loud mouth. Even today, his sharp tongue and mind will cause some to cringe.
But Ali has nevertheless become an icon, venerated far more than scorned. No doubt death will make that even more the case. There is no longer a risk he might say something that will offend.
Many have forgotten how they felt 50 years ago. It is now difficult to find the remnants of the “silent majority” that supported the Vietnam war, opposed integration and regarded the Nation of Islam as a serious threat to white people. Some of course have passed on. Some have simply gone to ground and will emerge to vote for Trump.
Others have changed their minds. America is not what it was when Muhammad Ali emerged on the scene. It is far less white, far more Hispanic and far more used to loud-mouth athletes, and politicians, of all races. Few Americans think Vietnam was worth fighting for and losing upwards of 58,000 of our citizens, more than eight times the number killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since the turn of the century. Most Americans today understand that Vietnam and the second Iraq war were mistakes that cost the country far more than any conceivable benefits.
Most Americans have also come around to the view that discrimination, segregation and racism are bad. That was not at all the prevailing view when Cassius Clay changed his slave name to Muhammad Ali. The white supremacist George Wallace was then governor of Alabama spouting, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” In fact, racial segregation has persisted in schools and housing, but few would now defend it. Muhammad Ali’s extraordinary boxing career was compelling evidence of racial equality, though why more proof was necessary more than a generation after Jesse Owens’ performance at the 1936 Olympics is a mystery to me.
So some combination of forgetfulness and changing attitudes has made the scorned character who walked into a south side chili joint 50 years ago a great American hero. I give credit for that, but we shouldn’t forget that it wasn’t always thus. Muhammad Ali is the greatest today because America has forgotten more than it remembers and because so many of us have dropped beliefs that were once dominant. Fifty years from now, which of our now scorned citizens will emerge as great Americans?
PS: THIS VIDEO OF MUHAMMAD ALI SURPRISING KIDS AT SCHOOL WILL MAKE YOUR DAY! https://t.co/JAJSKEfRrs
— Mike Sanz (@mikesanz19) June 5, 2016
For Americans of my generation, it is hard not to note the end of the Vietnam war 40 years ago. But the most notable thing is how little difference that war makes in today’s world. A war that killed millions over two decades, including upwards of 58,000 Americans, left a big mark on the American psyche, but did little to change the course of world history. It didn’t even do permanent harm to the relationship between Vietnam and the US, which is today a friendly one only inches short of an alliance.
On a trip to Vietnam a few years ago, I discovered that the “American” war is remembered in the North for the bombing and in the South for the abandonment of our allies. One Northerner asked me why the United States opposed the independence and unity of Vietnam. When I responded that the Americans thought they were fighting against Communism, not the independence and unity of Vietnam, he looked puzzled. If that was the case, he admitted, maybe it was not such a bad idea. After all, antiquated Communist ideas and cadres are now regarded with disdain by many Vietnamese, even this Northerner whose parents were party members.
The Vietnam war may be but a blip in world history, but it changed (as well as ended) a lot of lives. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled. Over a million went through horrendous re-education camps, where torture and abuse were common. A generation of Americans found it difficult to find their footing, including many of those who served in the armed forces and many of those who didn’t. The American military professionalized, so it no longer relies on the draft. Many young Americans can’t remember that it ever did.
Once the Americans were gone, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to depose the Chinese-allied Khmer Rouge. China invaded Vietnam in response. The dominoes weren’t so much falling as scattering.
Even that proved ephemeral. Since the 1970s, Asia has seen a dramatic and sustained decline in both intra- and inter-state conflict. The reasons for this are much debated. Is it a successful process of state consolidation and even modest democratization? Is it Asia’s focus on economic development or its peculiar cultural characteristics? What role has the American security umbrella played? Will peace continue? Or does China’s rise inevitably mean maritime and other frictions with its neighbors (including the US) that will end the long Asian peace?
I don’t know the answers, but a great deal depends on them. While I have focused on the Balkans and the Middle East for many years now, I have to wonder whether war and peace issues won’t be shifting eastward along with world population, economic growth, international trade, military power and energy dependency. For the moment, state competition in the Asia Pacific is mainly non-military, with the important exception of Beijing’s claims in the East and South China Seas. But the Chinese seem no less anxious to avoid war than most of the rest of Asia, even if they don’t shy from occasional provocations.
Forty years is a long time. Vietnam looks very different at this generational distance. We should try to maintain that perspective when evaluating today’s events. They are likely to look very different 40 years from now.
Mark Leon Goldberg wrote just before Christmas that 2015 might be one of those rare years that shakes up the international system, he thought for the better. His hopes are based on
- adoption next September of the Sustainable Development Goals and
- conclusion of a treaty on climate change before the end of the year.
I’m not optimistic, even if both these hopes are realized.
Mark is correct that the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015, have been a significant success. But unfortunately that is unlikely to be repeated with the follow-on Sustainable Development Goals. Success has encouraged overreach. The MDGs were restrained and reachable. There were only eight of them:
The current draft of the SDGs is ridiculously over-ambitious and unrealistic. They start with “end poverty in all its forms everywhere.” They repeat that sweeping over-ambition for hunger, health, education, gender equality, water, energy, economic growth, employment, infrastructure, inequality (within and between countries), cities, oceans, terrestrial ecosystems, justice and sustainable development. Seventeen goals in all. This is a catalog of the developed world’s current concerns, not a set of achievable goals for countries and organizations with limited capacity and even more limited resources.
Unless a real effort is made to prune and prioritize, the SDGs risk irrelevance or worse. There is certainly no risk they will be achieved if they remain in their current formulation. A real effort should be made in the next few months to pare them back, both in number and ambition. A tighter and shorter set of goals would bode much better for implementation.
I too am optimistic about a climate change treaty concluded in 2015. But unfortunately there is no hope it will be strong enough to avoid truly serious impacts of global warming. We are well on our way to breaching the 2 degrees centigrade rise over pre-industrial levels that is generally regarded as a benchmark, albeit an arbitrary one, signalling serious problems due to irreversible melting of major ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. The way I read this World Bank report, we are likely to double that figure before the end of the century. You have to believe that countries will all meet their current pledges and tight new ones will be made in order to avoid it.
I’m not a climate disaster monger. But I do have a long memory. What I remember is that the “greenhouse effect” (which is what causes the fossil fuel contribution to global warming) was already an issue at the 1972 (first) UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. I was a young staffer on the secretariat and amazed that human activity could affect the entire planet. Our collective failure to do anything serious about it in the more than forty years since suggests that we will need some real disasters before acting. New York City is building up its coastal defenses, in response to the massive flooding that occurred due to Hurricane Sandy, and other big cities have invested heavily (London has floodgates, Venice is getting them). The Netherlands has its dikes. But much of Asia is at serious risk, as are lots of islands. Bangladesh, Mauritius and Vietnam can’t afford the defenses that New York and the Dutch build.
We’ve likely already seen some of the disasters and their consequences. Climate variation caused heightened conflict between pastoralists and agriculturalists in Darfur and drought in Syria, where an influx of farmers into urban areas was contributed to the rebellion against Bashar al Assad. We are going to see a lot more such climate-induced violent conflicts as competition for resources–especially water–grows and productive land area shrinks. The United Arab Emirates can afford to desalinate sea water. Egypt much less so, but its needs will soon exceed what the Nile will provide.
So no, I am not sanguine. Even good things won’t make 2015 a good year.
1. The Elusive Final Deal with Iran: Developments and Options Going Forward Monday, July 28 | 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm JINSA; 1307 New York Ave NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND In the wake of the recent four-month extension of negotiations for a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program, JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy will hold a lunch panel event to assess this outcome and discuss steps going forward for U.S. policy to prevent a nuclear Iran. SPEAKERS: Ambassador Dennis Ross, Ambassador Eric Edelman, Stephen Rademaker, and Ray Takeyh.
2. Nuclear Politics on the Korean Peninsula Monday, July 28 | 3:00 pm – 5:15 pm Korea Economic Institute; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1779 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND The evolving security environment around the Korean Peninsula presents new challenges and opportunities for addressing the North Korean nuclear threat. What do South Koreans expect from Beijing after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Seoul? What do South Korean aspirations for full nuclear fuel cycle capabilities mean for dealing with North Korea and for the balance of power in the region? And what do these trends mean for the US-ROK alliance? SPEAKERS: Douglas H. Paal: VP for Studies, CEIP, Donald A. Manzullo, President & CEO, KEI, Park Jin, Executive President of the Asia Future Institute, Kang Choi, Vice President, Asan Institute for Policy Studies, and others.
3. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova: How Corruption Threatens the Eastern Partnership Monday, July 28 | 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm National Endowment for Democracy; 1025 F Street NW, Suite 800, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND Last month, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova signed EU association agreements, putting to paper a clear desire to turn westwards and break from an unhappy post-Soviet legacy. Yet difficult issues remain, principally that of corruption. Entrenched corruption in these three countries persists as a result of the networks of criminality that thrived in the lawlessness of the 1990s. As these countries look to strengthen the rule of law and democratic accountability within their borders, the panel will discuss current corruption challenges and how outside actors – from Russia to the US – are influencing the reform process in each country. SPEAKERS: Oliver Bullough, Peter Pomerantsev, Vladimir Soloviev, Olga Khvostunova, Anne Applebaum, and Christopher Walker.
4. Contemporary Media Use in Turkey Tuesday, July 29 | 9:00 am – 10:00 am Gallup Organization; 901 F St NW # 400, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and Gallup invite you to attend a research briefing on news consumption habits and attitudes in Turkey, along with, for the first time, an in-depth look at the distinctive media consumption habits among Turkey’s Kurdish population. This briefing will share data on media usage, a methodological overview and a review of attitudinal data on government and foreign policy. SPEAKERS: Chris Stewart, Bruce Sherman, William Bell, and Rajesh Srinivasan.
5. Doing Colombia Peace Forum: Peace Proposals from Victims of Colombia’s Armed Conflict Tuesday, July 29 | 10:00 am – 12:00 pm US Institute of Peace; 2301 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND In June, the government of Colombia and the FARC parties issued a ground-breaking declaration of principles on victims. They announced that they were inviting a delegation of victims to participate in the talks, and that other opportunities will be created for victims to be heard within the peace process. They requested that the United Nations and the National University convene a series of three regional and one national forum for victims to present their proposals. Two forums have already taken place and the others are scheduled for late July and early August. This event will discuss victims’ rights and proposals from four victims of different groups, including guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the State. A half a century of internal armed conflict has resulted in more than 6.5 million victims officially registered with the Colombian government’s Victims’ Unit. This is an opportunity to hear diverse perspectives of leaders who are survivors of violence to discuss their proposals for a just and lasting peace. SPEAKERS: Clara Rojas González, Colombian National Congress Representative, Aida Quilcué, Director of Human Rights, Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, Deyis Margarita Carmona Tejada, Spokeswoman, Peasants’ Assembly of Cesar for Land Restitution, José Antequera Guzmán Co-Founder, Sons and Daughters of Memory and Against Impunity, and Gimena Sánchez, Senior Associate for the Andes, WOLA.
6. Book Launch—Made in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka: The Labor Behind the Global Garments and Textiles Industries Tuesday, July 29 | 10:00 am – 12:45 pm Woodrow Wilson Center; 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND The garments and textiles sector is one of the world’s oldest export industries. It has often served as the “starter” industry for many countries, especially in Asia. Dr. Saxena’s book, based on original, in-depth research in three different Asian countries, casts light on some of the significant policy and attitudinal shifts that have occurred in this industry. The book also puts the entire garments and textiles sector into the larger context of international trade policy. SPEAKER: Sanchita Saxena, Executive Director, Institute for South Asia Studies and Director, Chowdhury Center for Bangladesh Studies, UC-Berkeley.
7. Great Expectations? Assessing US-India Strategic Relations Tuesday, July 29 | 12:30 pm – 2:00 pm East-West Center; 1819 L St NW, Suite 600, Washington, D.C REGISTER TO ATTEND American enthusiasm for a strategic partnership with India has risen and fallen over the years. Optimism about US-India relations in the 2000s has been tempered by pessimism about these ties in the 2010s. Was the initial enthusiasm about US-India relations inflated? How valid are more recent skeptical perspectives? In his presentation, Dr. Dinshaw Mistry will discuss these questions, drawing upon ten contemporary cases where New Delhi’s policies converged with or diverged from Washington’s expectations. The answers offer important lessons for future US strategic engagement with India. Also with Dr. Stephen P. Cohen, Associate Professor, University of Cincinnati.
8. The Protection Project Review of the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report 2014 Wednesday, July 30 | 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm Johns Hopkins SAIS – Nitze Building; 1740 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND Luis CdeBaca, ambassador at large in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. Department of State, and Mohamed Mattar, senior research professor of international law and executive director of The Protection Project, will discuss this topic.
9. The Iraq Meltdown: What Next? Wednesday, July 30 | 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm Heritage Foundation; 214 Massachusetts Ave NE, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND The swift collapse of Iraqi security forces in northern Iraq in the face of an al-Qaeda-spearheaded Sunni insurgency is a disastrous setback for U.S. counterterrorism and Middle East policies that will have dangerous regional spillover effects. The Islamic State, formerly known the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and before that as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, now poses a rising threat to the United States and U.S. allies. Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) will discuss Iraq and the broader implications for the American foreign policy. Following his remarks, a panel of experts will discuss the current trends in Iraq. SPEAKERS: Jessica Lewis, Research Director, Institute for the Study of War, Steven P. Bucci, Ph.D., Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, The Heritage Foundation, and James Phillips, Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs, The Heritage Foundation.
10. Africa Development Forum Event: What should African Leaders know to accelerate the achievement and sustainability of health goals in the post 2015 agenda? Thursday, July 31 | 9:00 am – 12:00 pm Chemonics International; 1717 H St. NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND Panelists will discuss the lessons they have learned from their experiences and efforts working towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Setting policy, developing plans, and coordinating and managing programs that deliver services across hundreds of hospitals and health centers requires resources and technical skills. This capacity needs to be quickly and effectively developed in most health systems where governance structures are vaguely defined. The panelists will draw from the lessons learned from the MDGs to propose ways African leaders can meet and even go beyond the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 4-Ensuring Healthy Lives targets in an efficient way that makes the best of all resources available and protects the poor. SPEAKERS: Darius Mans, Africare, Elvira Beracochea, Founder and CEO, MIDEGO, and Akudo Ikemba, CEO, Friends Africa.
11. The North Korean Economy: Challenges and Opportunities for Reform Thursday, July 31 | 9:00 am – 10:00 am Korea Economic Institute; 1800 K Street NW Suite 1010 Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTENDIn an era of globalization, North Korea remains one of the most isolated economies in the world. While normally still functioning as a planned economy, Pyongyang has pledged in recent years that no North Korean will ‘have to tighten their belts again.’ However, to truly fulfill that pledge, North Korea will need to engage in the types of reform that China, South Korea, and others have been advocating. What steps has North Korea taken under Kim Jong-un to reform the economy and how successful have they been? What obstacles does North Korea face in developing a normal functioning economy? Please join the Korea Economic Institute of America and the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy for a discussion on these and other issues that face the North Korea economy today. SPEAKERS: Lee Il Houng, Bradley Babson, and William Newcomb.
12. NPC Luncheon with Denis Sassou-Nguesso, President of the Republic of the Congo Friday, August 1 | 12:30 pm – 2:00 pm National Press Club; 529 14th St. NW, 13th Floor, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND President of the Republic of Congo Denis Sassou-Nguesso will discuss peace, security and stability of the central Africa region and oil investments in his country at a National Press Club luncheon on Friday, August 1. Sassou-Nguesso, who met President Vladimir Putin in 2012, recently was quoted in a Nigerian newspaper as saying that Congo plans to attract Russian investment in oil industry, agriculture and education services.
13. Cultures of the Mekong Saturday, August 2 | 10:00 am – 3:15 pm S. Dillon Ripley Center; 1100 Jefferson Drive, SW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND Civilizations have risen and fallen for centuries on the banks of the Mekong River. Long before there was Phnom Penh or Hanoi, there were the settlements at Ban Chiang, Angkor, and Champa in the areas now known as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Robert DeCaroli, associate professor in the department of history and art history at George Mason University, explores these cultures that grew up along this massive 2700-mile river. Other speakers include Michael H. McLendon, Joseph Antos, Richard V. Burkhauser, Peter Schuck, and Sally Satel,