Category: Global Issues

Global Issues, US Politics

I agree with Ted Turner

hmm, that felt odd. But seriously, Ted Turner on the UN:

The fact is that the UN works – for the world’s poor, for peace, for progress and for human rights and justice.

And we need it to go on working if we’re going to deal with the serious and sometimes frightening challenges facing us in the 21st Century.

I’ll admit that cooperating through the UN can be difficult at times; and I’ll admit that the UN can be improved. But anything worthwhile is hard – and frankly I can’t think of a more worthwhile endeavor than what the UN does to foster peace and prosperity on a global scale.

Let’s look at the reality.

The reality is that the UN has succeeded in its essential mission of preventing World War III.

The reality is that UN peacekeeping is an incredible value for the United States and the rest of the world.

In fact, UN peacekeeping is one of the great bargains of all time, ensuring that no one country has to pay all the bills or take all the risks for peace and security around the world. The RAND Corporation has estimated that UN peacekeepers can do the job at a fraction of the cost of U.S. troops. The U.S. does not contribute any of the almost 100,000 UN peacekeepers deployed around the world. Financially, the U.S. share of the UN’s 17 peacekeeping operations is about $1 billion this year — equivalent to about 5 days of the U.S. deployment in Iraq. In the world of business, we call that a bargain.

The reality is that the UN handles humanitarian emergencies skillfully. When the Asian tsunami struck, the UN was there immediately, they got the job done – food, water, health shelter – and they are still on the scene helping those communities rebuild. The people of New Orleans would have been lucky to have had such an efficient and effective response after Katrina.

The reality is that there are dozens of unrecognized ways that the UN helps make our complicated world work. The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization makes possible the system of international air traffic. The Universal Postal Union makes it possible to put an American stamp on an envelope and send a letter that will arrive in an Australian mailbox. The World Meteorological Organization monitors global weather patterns. The Food and Agriculture Organization helps keep the world fed. And the World Health Organization and other health agencies help research, monitor and contain diseases that transcend borders.

Cdn Politics, Global Issues

Forest for the trees

Canada currently has a lot of problems in Afghanistan – shifting support to the Taliban, rising casualties in Kandahar, ineffective counterinsurgency strategies, bad poppy crop irradiation polices, the list goes on. But 10 ft high heat absorbing, Taliban hiding, impenetrable marijuana plants? mon dieu…things are worse, well maybe better , ok worse , no definitely better than I thought…this one’s just too close to call…

Global Issues, US Politics

Hitch on Kissinger

Takes a swing, not surprising. Also not surprising is that I am sympathetic to the past paragraph:

Of course, Woodward’s book has handed a free gift to those who cannot engage their minds on any foreign-policy question without using the word “Vietnam.” I have written all that I can on the ahistorical falsity of this analogy, but if Kissinger really does have anything to do with the conduct of Iraq policy, then what we should fear is not just another attempt at moral blackmail of those who call for withdrawal. For the analogy to hold, we should have to find that while this militant rhetoric was being deployed in public a sellout, and a scuttle was being prepared behind the scenes. We are not fighting the Viet Cong in Iraq but the Khmer Rouge. A bungled withdrawal would lead to another Cambodia, not another Vietnam. It would be too horrible for Kissinger to live to see two such triumphs. (emph. mine)

Global Issues

What a terrorist wants

What if these two things highlighted by Kevin Drum this morning are true? Does it mean anything? Should we care?

1. That Al Queda wants to prolong the American campaign in Iraq for as long as possible. As revealed in a letter captured in the Abu Musab Zarqawi raid, and translated by the Counterterrorism Centre at Westpoint (where I was visiting a couple of weeks ago incidentally). The letter states:

The most important thing is that you continue in your jihad in Iraq, and that you be patient and forbearing, even in weakness, and even with fewer operations… Do not be hasty. The most important thing is that the jihad continues with steadfastness and firm rooting, and that it grows in terms of supporters, strength, clarity of justification, and visible proof each day. Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest, with God’s permission.

2. That according to CIA assessments, Bin Laden believes that his movement benefits from the polarization of him versus Bush, and that he therefore times statements to help Bush politically. From Suskind’z The One Percent Doctrine:

At the five o’clock meeting, once various reports on latest threats were delivered, John McLaughlin opened the issue with the consensus view: “Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President.”

Around the table, there were nods….Jami Miscik talked about how bin Laden — being challenged by Zarqawi’s rise — clearly understood how his primacy as al Qaeda’s leader was supported by the continuation of his eye-to-eye struggle with Bush. “Certainly,” she offered, “he would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years.”

But an ocean of hard truths before them — such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected — remained untouched….On that score, any number of NSC principals could tell you something so dizzying that not even they will touch it: that Bush’s ratings [in the U.S.] track with bin Laden’s rating in the Arab world.

Of course, prolonging the war might just mean not losing, and propping up Bush might just be the type of politically useful characterization that we do in reverse with our enemies, but surely this should at the least make us reflect on the potential strategic downsides of belligerent posturing?

Global Issues, US Politics

WMD (shrug), we didn’t mean nukes?

Via Ackerman at the Plank, this gem from Woodward’s book:

Rumsfeld: “We never–none of us ever believed that [Iraq] had nuclear weapons. The only real worry that we had was chemical.”

Biting my tongue for a moment, and putting aside the rhetorical use of the nuclear threat, I have always thought that the conflation of the three pillars of WMD was a bit ridiculous. If an opponent’s military capabilities is a justification for going to war, shouldn’t we be a bit more specific?
UPDATE: Despite the tongue biting and suggestive last sentence, I truly do mean ridiculous in a generic, completely non-partisan/political way. The term WMD simply seems too broad to mean anything constructive. Particularly if we are looking at starting wars over “them”.

Global Issues, US Politics

Bombs Over Cambodia

I have an article out in this month’s Walrus Magazine on the US bombing of Cambodia, written with Ben Kiernan. We use a yet unpublished database of all US sorties over the country to challenge some of the historical record and consequences of the strikes. The lead is below, I will post the whole thing when allowed in a few weeks. Will also pass on the other more academic articles as they are published:

In the fall of 2000, twenty-five years after the end of the war in Indochina, Bill Clinton became the first US president since Richard Nixon to visit Vietnam. While media coverage of the trip was dominated by talk of some two thousand US soldiers still classified as missing in action, a small act of great historical importance went almost unnoticed. As a humanitarian gesture, Clinton released extensive Air Force data on all American bombings of Indochina between 1964 and 1975. Recorded using a groundbreaking ibm-designed system, the database provided extensive information on sorties conducted over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Clinton’s gift was intended to assist in the search for unexploded ordnance left behind during the carpet bombing of the region. Littering the countryside, often submerged under farmland, this ordnance remains a significant humanitarian concern. It has maimed and killed farmers, and rendered valuable land all but unusable. Development and demining organizations have put the Air Force data to good use over the past six years, but have done so without noting its full implications, which turn out to be staggering.

The still-incomplete database (it has several “dark” periods) reveals that from October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941 tons’ worth, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites. Just over 10 percent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having “unknown” targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all. The database also shows that the bombing began four years earlier than is widely believed — not under Nixon, but under Lyndon Johnson.

The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide.

The data demonstrates that the way a country chooses to exit a conflict can have disastrous consequences. It therefore speaks to contemporary warfare as well, including US operations in Iraq. Despite many differences, a critical similarity links the war in Iraq with the Cambodian conflict: an increasing reliance on air power to battle a heterogeneous, volatile insurgency.

To put 2,756,941 tons into perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs during all of World War II. Cambodia may be the most heavily bombed country in history.

UPDATE: The article is available here, if you give an email address. I’ll link a pdf in a couple of weeks.

Global Issues, US Politics

Score one for incomptence

Dresner has a good overview up of the ongoing incompetence dodge debate. While the two arguments, incompetence and doomed to failure, are of course not mutually exclusive, Dresner rightly points out that the former is greatly substantiated by the new book by Chandrasekaran on the failures of the CPA, excerpted in this, much discussed (for example, here, here, here, and here), WaPo piece this weekend.

Global Issues, US Politics

When simplicity blurs reality

An article today by Fareed Zakaria is worth quoting at length as I think it goes beyond it’s stated purpose, to expose the dangerous historical parallels in oversimplifying an enemy for domestic political purposes, and speaks to wider liberal unease with Bush administration foreign policy. In fact, if democrats are looking for a simplistic overarching foreign policy narrative that can compete with the Republican uni-dimensional islamo-fascist argument, then Fareed’s piece undoubtedly urges caution.

But in the past week the president, seeking to shore up domestic support for his policies, has been redefining the nature of the enemy. In doing so he is making a huge conceptual mistake, one that could haunt American foreign policy for decades.

Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have compared the current conflict to the cold war, a decades-long struggle that was ideological and political in nature, though always with a military aspect. But if we’re going to use history and learn from it, it is worrying that America is beginning to repeat one of the central strategic errors of the cold war: treating a fractious group of adversaries as a unified monolith.

He points to a similarly overly simplistic categorization of communism in the early stages of the cold war and, interestingly, highlights a state department warning regarding the costs of such a monolithic label:

At the outset of the cold war in 1949, a senior State Department official, Ware Adams, prepared a critique of America’s evolving policy of containment. While accepting that international communism was a monolith and that diverse communist parties around the world shared aims and goals, Adams argued that Washington was playing into the Kremlin’s hands by speaking of communism as a unified entity: “[Our policy] has endorsed Stalin’s own thesis that all communists everywhere should be part of his monolith. By placing the United States against all communists everywhere it has tended to force them to become or remain part of the monolith.” For example, the memo explained, “in China, the communists are somewhat pressed toward being friends of the Kremlin by the fact that they can never be friends of ours.”

While this indeed sounds prescient, the real parallel with contemporary policies emerges with the reasons behind such categorization, politics:

In a careful recent essay, former U.S. intelligence official Harold P. Ford documents that by the mid- to late 1950s the CIA was arguing that such splits were developing and should be exploited. Nevertheless, Ford writes, the agency’s arguments met stiff “external resistance” from politicians and bureaucrats who were wedded to the idea—no doubt once true—of a unified communist monolith. Even sophisticated policymakers who saw the fracture lines couldn’t see how to sell the new approach to Americans who had been brought up to view all communists as evil. Words matter.

Fast forward to the past two week, where “President Bush has, for the first time, started describing America’s adversaries as part of “a single movement,” “a worldwide network,” with a common ideology.” This, of course, is not quite true. But what are the strategic implications of such labelling?

To speak, for example, of Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists as part of the same movement is simply absurd. They have hated each other for almost 14 centuries. Right now in Iraq, most of the violence is the work of Shiite militias, which are murdering people they claim are Sunni extremists. How can these two adversaries be part of a unified network?

A look at Bush’s remarks on Iran will show how such a monochromatic view distorts America’s strategic thinking. Last week he spoke of Iran in the context of a worldwide movement of Shiite extremists. This movement, Bush argued, has managed to take control of a major power, Iran, and use it as a launching pad to spread its terrorist agenda.

I’m not sure the president actually believes in the transnational threat of a “Shiite crescent.” If he does, why would he have invaded Iraq and handed it over to another group of Shiite extremists? (The parties that rule Iraq—and whose militias are killing people—are conservative, religious Shiites, often with ties to Iran.) In fact, Iraqi Shiites are different from Iranian Shiites. They have separate national agendas and interests. To conflate them into one group, and then to toss in Sunni Arab extremists as comrades in arms, is bad policy. The world of Islam is extremely diverse. We should recognize and act on this diversity—between Shiites and Sunnis, Persians and Arabs, Asians and Middle Easterners—and most especially between moderates and radicals. But instead the White House is lumping Chechen separatists in Russia, Pakistani-backed militants in India, Shiite politicians in Iraq and Sunni jihadists in Egypt all together as one worldwide movement. This is, of course, exactly what Osama bin Laden has argued all along. But why is Bush making bin Laden’s case?

In looking for a simplistic narrative, Democrats are right to avoid the dangerously monolithic framework of this administration. Perhaps though, instead of critiquing Bush’s worldview on the grounds of being oversimplified, they should take Fareed’s lead and target the strategic recklessness of such a strategy. Why are we playing into bin Laden’s hand? Why are we deliberately mischaracterising the enemy? Shouldn’t policy be above politics? The rebuttal to simplicity is not undecipherable complexity, but rather an accurate, level headed accounting of the threat. It seems to me that the political utility of this realism will follow.

Global Issues

Chathan House rules…Iran

report on Iran published last week by the respected think tank discussed the regional consequences of the unstable post invasion governance regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. The result is not surprising but deserves reflection – Iran has superseded the US as the most influential power in the Middle East.

The report argues:

The United States, with coalition support, has eliminated two of Iran’s regional rival governments – the Taliban in Afghanistan in November 2001 and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in April 2003 – but has failed to replace either with coherent and stable political structures.

The consequences of which are that:

Iran’s influence in Iraq has superseded that of the US, and it is increasingly rivalling the US as the main actor at the crossroads between the Middle East and Asia. Its role within other war- torn areas such as Afghanistan and southern Lebanon has now increased hugely. This is compounded by the failure of the US and its allies to appreciate the extent of Iran’s regional relationships and standing – a dynamic which is the key to understanding Iran’s newly found confidence and belligerence towards the West. As a result, the US-driven agenda for confronting Iran is severely compromised by the confident ease with which Iran sits in its region. …

On hostility with the US, the report argues that while the US may have the upper hand in ‘hard’ power projection, Iran has proved far more effective through its use of ‘soft’ power. According to the report, the Bush administration has shown little ability to use politics and culture to pursue its strategic interests while Iran’s knowledge of the region, its fluency in the languages and culture, strong historical ties and administrative skills have given it a strong advantage over the West.

One of the authors of the report, Ali Ansari, whom I saw debate very elegantly last year at St Anthony’s, argues that:

We’ve seen really since 9/11 that the chief beneficiary of America’s global war on terror in the Middle East has been the very country that it considers to be a major part or a founding member of the axis of evil.

It seems to me that regardless of one’s past positions on the use of US force in the Middle East, that everyone has to come to grips with the instability currently playing out in the region. Over the past several years we have heard the more audacious commentators imply that sub and inter national instability is a messy but necessary consequence of shaking up a region who’s status quo was getting increasingly problematic. Maybe so. However, instability is just that. And the more powerful regional actors, who also happen to be the most threatened, will of course not fade quietly into our desired restructured governance systems, nationally or internationally.

Sub national groups will either participate democratically if they see this in their interest, and possibly fight back if not. Internationally, nations such as Iran and Syria will use their positions of influence to stave off foreign pressure, mainly from the US. Perhaps fool heartedly, given domestic pressures against both regimes, I would expect them to push the limits of this external show of power.

Those far more knowledgeable on the region will correct and/or add to this. Regardless though, I find it very hard to reason that the current course can have a positive outcome.

As George Will argued two weeks ago:

Foreign policy “realists” considered Middle East stability the goal. The realists’ critics, who regard realism as reprehensibly unambitious, considered stability the problem. That problem has been solved.

Ok, but now what?

At the debate where I saw Ansari speak, both him and TGA were asked whether a nuclear Iran was preferable to the consequences of militarily trying to stop it from occurring – both strongly implied the former. Perhaps, though, it doesn’t matter. As the Chatham House report concludes, Iran, due to current regional restructuring, is in a pretty influential position without one. They are filling the vacuum caused by the instability with a use of soft power not countered by the west. Again, whether one was for or against the invasions, this is a reality that needs to be addressed. While I think a pretty whole sale rethinking of the US and European Middle Eastern strategy is needed, the options likely range from bad to worse.