May 28, 2005
The Problem with Being a "Liberal Hawk"
Yglesias, Praktike, Patrick Nielsen Hayden and others are ruminating on "liberal hawks" and the Iraq War. But there are really only three basic American stances on the Iraq War, and they go something like this:
1. Invading Iraq was a good idea, the casualties and setbacks have mostly been either inevitable or unforseeable, and Bush deserves credit for a good decision well executed.
2. Invading Iraq was a good idea, but poor choices by Bush Administration officials have led to a whole lot of casualties and setbacks that needn't have happened. Bush deserves credit for a good decision, but also blame for terrible execution.
3. Invading Iraq was a bad idea, and Bush deserves blame for a bad decision as well as terrible execution.
Most Republicans believe #1 (good decision, good execution); most Democrats believe #3 (bad decision, bad execution). Most of the "liberal hawks" are just Democrats who believe #2 (good decision, bad execution). And they're screwed, because neither side trusts them.
"Liberal hawks" are doomed to seem disloyal and untrustworthy to other Democrats, because saying invading Iraq "was the right decision, just with the wrong execution" sounds much too close to most Democrats to saying "Bush was right, and the problems aren't his fault". Now, it's not true that liberal hawks don't think the problems are Bush's fault; they just think that what he's to blame for is how he handled war with Iraq, not that he went to war in the first place. But that's just too close to an excuse for most Democrats to accept.
And that's a pity, because the Bush Administration's most damaging foreign policy errors have indeed tended to be failures of execution, not failures of concept. Bush has coopted traditional Democratic idealism in his speeches. Democrats are going to have a hard time fighting Republicans on foreign policy on principle alone; they really need to learn to fight as well on the practice. "They're messing up and not delivering" is a simple enough sentence. You'd think a Democrat could campaign on it.
I'd really, really like to have two parties in the ring on foreign policy. But as long as the Democrats are fissured this way, the Republicans will be the only game in town -- and it's hard for either party to do a good job without the pressure of competition.
May 27, 2005
The Latest Scorecard in Our Twelve-Front War
Usually "grand strategy" is something that happens over decades, but America's new grand strategy of spreading democracy seems to be going at tenfold time for both good and bad news. In just the last few weeks we've seen major good and bad news for democracy in a double handful of significant countries. Which should please you whether you're a Bush booster or a Bush critic, since in a twelve-front war, you're bound to always be winning somewhere and losing somewhere else. Here's just some of the biggest events of just this last month:
- Uzbekistan had soldiers and police kill several hundred unarmed protesters along with a few armed rebels;
- Egypt had pro-government thugs beat up protesters of the planned rigging of the upcoming presidential election;
- Kuwait gave women the vote;
- Lebanon is holding its first elections in decades without Syrian occupation;
- Iran's Guardian Council, out of over 1,000 candidates who wanted to run for Iranian President, disqualified all but six, of whom the least hardline is two-term former "let's nuke Israel!" President Rafsanjani;
- The terrorist-fundamentalist-reformist Palestinian organization of Hamas is turning ever so slightly away from terrorism, as its representatives, having been elected in Gaza to municipal office, are experimenting with currying favor with Palestinians by cleaning up sewage instead of blowing up Israelis.
And I'm leaving out the parliamentary crisis in Jordan, the besieged government of Bolivia, and more.
I think at this point it's hard to argue against the reality of the "domino effect" of the Bush Administration's aggressiveness in Iraq and Afghanistan and its loudly pro-democracy stance. On the other hand, I think it's also clear that the dominoes were ready to fall as soon as a hard push came, whether that push involved Iraq or not. And it's clear that while the "soft autocracies" like Kuwait are democratizing, the "hard autocracies", the secret-police bastions like Egypt and Uzbekistan, are fighting hard to stay dictatorial. Serious tyrants tend to succeed in crushing change.
But as John Lewis Gaddis observes in this brilliant (if possibly overoptimistic) speech on the Bush Administration's grand strategy, the overall odds are pretty heavily stacked in favor of more democracies in the world ten years from now.
Or, at this pace, ten months from now.
May 26, 2005
What's Wrong with Democracy and Capitalism?
Simon asks: is there any hope for the transnational progressivists and the world's remaining communists, the folk who hope that Fukuyama is wrong when he says there will never be a system better than the combination of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism? Well, there is a little hope for the revolutionaries. We know a few well-established weak points for standard capitalism and standard democracy. Identifying those weak points isn't the same as coming up with a superior system, but if you want to make an effective complaint about capitalism or democracy, here's some things you can talk about -- the hidden problems with our system that are too deep for a simple change in business regulations or ruling political party to fix.
Improving on capitalism: standard free-market capitalism, as any economist will tell you, is reliably effective only when certain conditions are met. Mostly those conditions are things like "no stealing allowed", conditions that we can mostly rely on. But a couple of the key conditions break down fairly often in the modern world -- increasingly often, as technology accelerates.
Perhaps the most important capitalism condition under siege is "diminishing returns to increasing investments." "Diminishing returns" means that companies operate near equilibrium, in an environment of what engineers would call "negative feedback," an environment where step-by-step changes are more efficient than grand leaps. Increasing returns, where they occur, represent positive feedback, change that feeds on itself, instability -- and classical capitalism breaks down in that environment.
The case of "increasing returns" we're all familiar with is monopoly. Monopolies enjoy increasing returns to market share: the closer to 100% of the market a monopooly pushes, the more profitable its entire business becomes. Unsurprisingly, monopolies are inefficient and are hard for capitalism to handle. Fortunately, antitrust regulation exists. Unfortunately, the more important source of increasing returns in the economy is harder to solve: technological change.
Any change in technology produces a temporary period of increasing returns as companies and users climb the "learning curve" of the new equipment. As technology change happens faster, more and more of our economy is operating under increasing-returns rather than diminishing-returns rules, and standard capitalism is further and further from ideal. Of course, it still works pretty well. But we know it to be far from perfect. Brad Delong had a good essay touching some of these issues recently.
The other major endangered condition of capitalism is that goods are "rivalrous and excludable," that is, that if I buy something from a merchant, like a pair of shoes or a haircut, then it takes extra effort for the merchant to give you another pair of shoes or another haircut -- and equally the merchant can prevent you from using his shoes or his haircut without paying for it. Unfortunately, while shoes and haircuts are rivalrous and excludable, information goods are nonrivalrous and often nonexcludable -- and an increasing portion of the economy is information goods. I'm not just talking about MP3's or computer software: if you look at developments in, say, computer chip manufacturing or the emerging business options in nanotechnology, it's clear that information in the form of design patterns forms one of the key production goods of the present and future economy. Standard capitalism generally underproduces goods that are nonrivalrous or nonexcludable -- so the more our economy is dominated by information goods, the more we can expect there's room for improvement under some hypothetical superior system.
So those are some places where there's a large amount of room to improve on standard capitalism.
Improving on democracy: As for standard democracy, it too requires certain assumptions to work well. (This gets treatment in a couple of chapters of Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom, a book you might find interesting anyway since it also has a level-headed discussion of the odds of democracy (or not) in places like the Middle East and China.) Despite its being the best system we have, there are two basic problems with democracy.
First, the goal of a politician is not to enact the best policy, just the policy that most reliably keeps him in office. Second, the goal of a politician is not to enact policies that are good for everyone, just policies that are satisfactory to a majority. In other words, democracy produces inferior policies either (A) when politicians can get away with presenting a mediocre plan as if it were really the best plan, or (B) when politicians can do well for the majority by totally screwing over a minority.
We see examples of "You're not in my majority, so I'll just ruin your life" in every democracy from time to time. It shows up in the less-developed countries as tolerance of anti-minority violence or expropriating legislation, as with anti-Chinese governance in some periods in Indonesia or anti-Muslim governance under the BJP in India. In a country like the United States it shows up in the way liberals and conservatives each make a show of oppressing the poster children of the other side whenever they get into power (conservatives versus gays, liberals versus big business), as well as in the way that billions of dollars are redirected to Republican/Democratic states whenever the Republicans/Democrats take power.
And we can all think of policy areas where the politicians engage in "mediocrity passed off as excellence" -- consider the tax code, or the not-so-impressive reforms of the CIA and the intelligence community, or any recent Congressional bill on health care. Most businesses face lots of competition and have to strive to continually improve their product. But most politicians have the luxury of setting their own agenda, and so don't have to endanger themselves by suggesting new policies until voters are absolutely disgusted with the old ones.
Now, just because democracies do a bad job at this doesn't mean anybody else does a good job. But let's be honest: we accept from politicians a degree of mediocrity we'd never accept from any business we dealt with. Maybe there's no superior way to do things; certainly nobody's demonstrated a superior way to do things. But we should be honest enough to admit that democracy does do a bad job at passing laws that are "the best reasonably possible" as opposed to "not quite a complete failure".
Democracy plus capitalism equals the best system we know. But in some ways that's only because, to borrow from Winston Churchill, democracy plus capitalism represents the worst possible system -- except for all the alternatives.
May 24, 2005
Sustaining Democracy: It's the Institutions, Stupid!
The problem with Islamic politicians isn't that they're positioned to take power in elections in the Middle East, it's that they could take power in elections and never allow elections again. Wherever Islamic legislators have had to work in a government of laws and get themselves reelected like anyone else, they've either tamed themselves or been thrown out by disgusted voters. Belgravia Dispatch and Praktike have both flagged this NYT oped making the key point: when Islamic legislators took office in Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey, those countries didn't fall into chaos or tyranny.
Islamist tyranny and terrorism happen only when Islamist leaders take political power and then end all politics: that's what happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban and in Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini. We've also learned that supporting "friendly moderate Muslim autocrats" doesn't work too well -- either the autocrat collapses when you're not looking (Iran 1979) or sends money to your worst enemies behind your back (Saudi Arabia until September 11). So we need to get democracy in the Islamic countries, even if Islamist politicians sometimes win. Our real dilemma is how to make sure the elections the Islamists win aren't the last elections those countries ever have.
We should know by now that one election doesn't lock in democracy. Palestinian dictator Yasser Arafat won a basically honest (if not snow-pure) majority in the Palestinian communities' one election under his rule, and his government wasn't "democratic" in any positive sense of that word. Venezuela's charismatic country-wrecking leader Hugo Chavez won his first election honestly too. Genocide poster-boy Milosevic was popular for a long time among the Serbs. Heck, even Adolf Hitler first came to power as part of a legitimate parliamentary coalition. So "took power after a fair election" is a test that lets through some of the world's worst thugs, up to and including Hitler. When we say "America wants democracy," we have to be pushing the world's dictatorships for more than just an occasional honest election.
The secret of working democracies is that politicians' power is limited not just by elections, but by institutions. I'm talking about the rule of law, the separation of branches of government, the limitation of powers to provide checks and balances. We take all this for granted in America. In the United States, the legislators have their own power base and the ability to frustrate the President if he loses their confidence -- as we're now seeing in the fracas over federal judges. Likewise, American judges, American soldiers, and American state and local governments all have strong identities of their own, with both laws and traditions to put sand in the gears of any attempt to turn them against the people or the Constitution. Even President Bush, a wartime President with a majority in Congress and a stated desire to rewrite a long list of American governmental policies, hasn't been able to shrink domestic spending, alter Social Security, deter California from spending money on the stem-cell research he disapproves of, or make a feeding tube be kept in the stomach of one woman in Florida. So much for the power of the Presidency!
What limits Bush on a day-to-day basis is what has made America strong for two hundred years -- we keep a government of laws and institutions. No one person, not even the President, can bribe or order or replace all the critical officers of the government. The most politically tempting government functions -- the Supreme Court, the central bank -- have extra layers of protection to make them hard to tamper with. And no one party, even in an across-the-board majority, can overturn all the government at once by command. The American government at any given moment is not a pure reflection of the current President; it's the sum of hundreds or thousands of elected officials today, plus the laws and appointments of thousands more who preceded them. In America, controversial big changes take time -- time enough for voters to change their mind. American governments add to or shift the work of their predecessors; they don't get to replace the laws of the country by snapping their fingers; the President is strong, but each major government institution, especially the Constitution, is stronger.
But out in the developing world, they have a government of men, not laws: every legislator and judge is a puppet for the leader. In Egypt, judges are paid out of "bonuses" from the central government according to whether President Mubarak's staff approves of the judges' rulings or not. In the Palestinian Authority under Arafat, all the money and real decisionmaking passed through Arafat's cronies, and the legislature could be ignored if it disagreed. In Venezuela, the Constitution gets rewritten to say whatever Chavez wants it to say. In Pakistan, the army is a world of its own, with its own schools and businesses and no need for the generals to obey or even acknowledge the existence of the voters' officials. Is it any wonder that elections in countries like these don't prevent tyranny?
So when we're pressing Egypt for elections, let's also press for more independent salaries for the judges. When we try to encourage good policies in Latin America, let's include more barriers to constitution-tampering as one of those good policies. When we go out and call for democracy, let's make it clear that to Americans, democracy means not just respect for elections, but respect for the election laws, and the government institutions, and the existing constitution of the country.
We can't give countries the kind of internal respect for democratic practices that we've got from two centuries of democracy. But we can push for laws and policies that promote government officers with limited powers, separated powers, and an obligation to follow strict procedures if politicians want to throw out long-standing rules of the country. We can't look into foreign Presidents' hearts. But we surely can track whether they're honoring their own laws.
When Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992, he had signs in his campaign offices saying, "It's the economy, stupid!" The economy was Clinton's one serious winning issue, and he kept his staff focused on it and they rode that issue all the way until they had trampled past President Bush Senior's uncertain campaign and gotten Clinton into the White House, in a demonstration of (among other things) the value of focus in a complex and confusing task. Today, it seems America is on a campaign to push for lasting progress in countries like Syria and Egypt and China. In that case, there's an obvious candidate for the campaign slogan:
It's the institutions, stupid!
[E1] Mudville OPL.
May 23, 2005
Outsourcing War: the United Nations Troops Get Some Muscle
Today, United Nations "peacekeepers" in the Congo are rolling through the bush in armored vehicles, hunting down renegade militias who want to carry on that country's murderous civil war. And when the new breed of peacekeepers finds those renegades, they shoot them. If you think of United Nations peacekeepers as useless twerps who meekly stand aside to let genocidal thugs kill civilians, you're out of date. A recent RAND study calls UN peacekeepers more successful than American troops at nationbuilding. Sooner or later, the Pentagon may try to call UN troops a good alternative to Americans for occupation duty somewhere. In the Congo today, UN peacekeepers are simply called heroes.
Today's United Nations troops look a lot less like ceremonial Boy Scouts with guns, and a lot more like the developed world's new Foreign Legion. UN troops are being sent against bad guys in the low-intensity wars that are too dull, too dangerous or just too prolonged for America and Europe to commit their own troops. They're not up to American or German standards, but the UN contingents are skilled and equipped enough to overwhelm thugs with guns, and "thugs with guns" is exactly who fights a lot of these nasty drawn-out wars. UN troops are shaping up to be a useful part of the "arsenal of peace" we'd like to have to keep another terrorist-haven Afghanistan from taking shape. They're getting better. And yes, we may even see UN troops in certain roles in Iraq.
Two big changes have transformed the United Nations "blue helmets" from wimps into fighters. First and foremost, the peacekeepers know they'll be shot at, and are ready to shoot back. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies always tried to at least pretend to respect the United Nations forces -- after all, the USA and the USSR each wanted to protect their reputation. But the Serbian thugs in Yugoslavia's civil war had no reputation to protect when they pushed past United Nations troops to kill Bosnian Muslim men and rape Bosnian Muslim women. Ten years' experience of thugs' wars has retrained the peacekeepers. Today the UN commanders and their sponsors know better: they know the thugs will sometmes shoot, and they have their troops ready to show the thugs the difference between a gang that kills the unarmed and an army that trains to kill gunmen.
But there's also been an important shift in which countries lend their soldiers for the more dangerous "robust peacekeeping" missions. The key contingents no longer come from the developed countries, who aren't comfortable sending their soldiers to actually shoot and possibly die under UN command in some country most of their citizens couldn't find on a map. The troops also don't come as much from nearby ultra-poor countries, who always loved the pay their soldiers got on UN missions, but didn't always have the training to fight. These days, the heart of UN peacekeeping in Congo and elsewhere comes from semi-developed countries like Pakistan and India, where the armies are solidly trained and the governments figure the prestige of helping save the world outweighs the public distaste for sending soldiers into distant lands of dirt and danger. So the UN peacekeepers of today, unlike those of the 90s, have the training and the will to fight and win against the the thugs and near-thugs of the world's "brushfire wars."
The United Nations peacekeeping contingents are still hobbled by one key limit: they're only as committed as the consensus in the United Nations Security Council. That rules them out for anything as big and controversial as Iraq is today. And the UN troops can't do much against a serious national military without backing from American or other high-end forces, which rules out sending a UN force to stop the slaughter of non-Arabs in western Sudan -- the killers there are getting occasional help from government helicopters. Even in the Congo, the UN force has stood aside from stopping Rwandan government interventions -- and let's not even talk about the sex abuse cases. So the United Nations peacekeepers are not an instant answer for all our low-level wars today.
But if what limits United Nations troops today is the absence of consensus among the leading nations, it's equally true that UN troops may become very useful to the United States in future years. It's not impossible to rebuild the sense of common mission among the world leaders. Even Iraq is not as controversial as it looks: no major government wants Iraq to remain an unlimited powder keg. So we may well see more cooperation again between America and Europe and Russia and China. If we do, that will also mean more ability to send UN troops to do the dull and dirty work that so often comes after America's wars. (Or the dull and dirty work of peacekeeping to prevent wars from becoming a problem for us in the first place.) We'll always have to remember that multinational missions mean more room for problems (as in Somalia). But if we do a good job at diplomacy and coordination, America's future tasks of repairing liberated countries could be done by someone else's soldiers, wearing blue United Nations helmets.
May 18, 2005
America, Where Financial Class is Real But Social Class Isn't
Today, rags-to-riches stories are actually more comon in Germany, and far more common in Norway, than in America. Financial social mobility -- the odds that kids born to poor parents will wind up rich themselves -- is higher today in Europe than in America. Of all the leading democracies, America is not only the country where the rich are farthest removed from ordinary citizens in income, but also the country where inherited wealth matters most in determining whether you will become rich.
Yet for all that, America is still far less class-conscious than, say, Britain. In America, a millionaire from a family of millionaires, like our current President, can sincerely think of himself as an ordinary guy, and millions of American voters can accept him as ordinary too. In America, there are rich people who drive beat-up pickup trucks and wear blue jeans, and middle-class people with a sports car or a custom-tailored outfit. I've had British people explain to me how they can tell someone's family status background by the way they speak; here in America, I couldn't even tell my neighbors' current income by the clothes they wear. I suspect Britain and the rest of Europe are becoming a lot less class-conscious (and those Scandanavians, again, seem really egalitarian), but even if American money is increasingly inherited money, we all seem to do an awfully good job of ignoring money when it comes to how we treat each other.
Or do we? That's the trick about social class: how the heck do you measure it? The psychologist Cialdini once did a study where college students were observed in traffic as the car in front of them failed to move when the light changed. Students took much longer to honk at an expensive Cadillac than at a cheap Ford -- despite the fact that these same students, when polled, had declared that, if anything, it would be the cheap car's driver that they'd be more patient with. Consciously, we all hate the idea of treating people better because of their money -- especially because of their inherited money. But unconsciously, are we programmed to respect wealth? If America is becoming a society of more inherited wealth, is that going to make us a society of class-bound idiocies of the kind we've always mocked Old Europe for?
We cherish the image of America as the rags-to-riches country, where a man's father makes no difference to where he himself ends up. Up till about 1900 that was almost the literal truth: America spent its first century as the most opportunity-rich country that history had ever seen. Before industrialization, wealth meant land, and in America land was cheap. Anyone willing to move to the frontier and work themselves ragged could build up enough assets to make their family solidly middle-class by the time they died. While Europe was a land where a poor parent was cursed to pass on his poverty to his kids, America was a country where the poor were always moving up to become the average or the rich.
After 1900, industrialization made America less socially mobile than it had been, and Europe more so. But it's only in the last generation that Europeans have become impressively class-mobile, while America has started to get a little class-stratified.
A big part of the answer seems to be education. No matter how hard you work today, if you're a high school dropout you have to be awfully smart or lucky to make a good living. All the European countries seem to have much more commitment to their public school systems than we do. And those nearly class-free Scandanavian countries have made huge investments in guaranteed childcare and preschool for all their children. I don't necessarily buy Thomas Friedman's ranting of "The Chinese are coming! Quick, teach our kids math!" But it's probably not coincidence that our two most recent big ethnic success stories, Jewish Americans and Asian Americans, both come from cultures that put a fanatical emphasis on the value of education. If Americans today aren't moving up from poverty as much as Europeans are, maybe it reflects that today's wealth is not land, but education -- and while quality farmland in America is easily affordable, good education often isn't.
Of course, you could argue that it doesn't matter, because today being rich or poor means less than it ever has before. Poverty isn't what it used to be, in a world of cheap food, free emergency rooms, synthetic clothing and color television. For that matter, wealth isn't what it used to be. The very rich still have live-in cooks, but lots of people eat at restaurants; the very rich still have live-in maids, but most families have washing machines and dishwashers, not to mention microwave ovens. The number of hours of the day that a middle-class family has to spend on tasks that a rich family gets done for them is smaller than it's ever been in history. Your day-to-day life is just not as affected by your relative income as it was a hundred or even fifty years ago.
In fact, almost the only part of life where relative income is still hugely important is in government. For almost all the big domestic policy debates we have in this country right now -- education reform, tax cuts, Medicare, Social Security -- it makes a huge difference whether you're poor or rich. While the rest of our economy makes us all seem close to equal, our government still runs on the principle that the rich pay more and the middle class gets more.
So perhaps the class effect we should most worry about isn't a breakdown of our society, but a breakdown of our government. If no one from the middle class is going to get rich, sooner or later the middle class will vote for huge taxes. Or perhaps we should worry about the rich grabbing all the government offices, and working to sabotage all the expensive government programs that they and their friends pay for without getting any benefit from them.
Every society runs on a "social contract" of some kind; America's has been that it's okay to be rich because it's not too hard to become rich. If that stops being true, things are going to get very uncomfortable over the next few decades. Maybe Tom Friedman is right, and we need to throw massive amounts of money into public education after all -- not just for protection from the Chinese, but for protection from ourselves.
May 17, 2005
China is Not a Generic Great Power
"Rising powers always make trouble, so war with China is unavoidable" -- that's the atmosphere of half of all op-eds on China these days, as in this Washington Post column by Robert Kagan and this essay from the American naval hub at Honolulu by Robert Kaplan. The other half of the time you're told, "War among successful nations is stupid and archaic, so war with China is inconceivable," as in this scathing reply by Barnett skewering Kaplan and Kagan. What gets left out of both of these arguments is any discussion of China itself. Different countries behave differently, even when handed the same menu of opportunities to use their power. Some great powers show a taste for confrontation, while others are always the last to pick a fight. China as a leading power won't be a generic cookie-cutter replica of some kind of "average historical great power" or "average 21st-century great power"; it'll have its own distinctive pattern.
Nine nations acted as "Great Powers" for a substantial amount of time in Western history from 1500 to 2000: the Ottoman Empire, Hapsburg Spain, Hapsburg Austria, France, Great Britain, Russia, Prussia/Germany, and (in the later global years) America and Japan.1 Germany and Hapsburg Spain were far more eager than the other seven to get into great-power wars. Each spent nearly all of its history as a leading power as the most belligerent country in Europe; both sought war with great powers even sometimes when there were weaker countries to fight; both ruined themselves more than once with foolishly chosen wars. Less consistently violent were the Ottoman Empire, Japan and Russia: those three were quick to swallow weaker countries as protectorates or conquests, but were much slower than Germany or Spain to wage total war with other great powers. Then come France and Imperial Austria, which went through both aggressive and conservative phases. And the most retiring of the nine were Britain and twentieth-century America, who both tended to "underuse" their potential military power and shy off even moderately challenging fights; they both threw out too-aggressive governments, and were usually among the last powers to get involved in a great-power war.
Now, you can come up with lots of reasons for why each of these countries was comparatively aggressive or peaceful as a great power, but it's impossible to argue they were all somehow the same. Some of them overused their military potential, even by the standards of their time; some of them underused it, even by the standards of our time. Some of them had a habit of making war even when it was obviously stupid, and some of them had a habit of declining war even when it would have been obviously profitable. Their internal histories, their geography, and their forms of government all made a difference. No iron law exists for "what great powers do". Each of modern history's great powers has had its own fairly consistent pattern of behavior. We should think twice before making predictions about China as a great power that ignore all details about China as a nation.
What do we know about China's "national preferences" in foreign policy? We've touched on the influence of China's domestic political factors in this earlier article. I'll talk about China's past and present tendencies in foreign policy later on. But if you want to know what to think about the odds of war with China, study war -- but also study China.
[E1] Yes, I'm leaving out the Italians, the Dutch, and the Swedes.
May 13, 2005
Just for those who missed it the first time...
Because the only thing better than foreign culture is American culture out of foreign culture out of American culture... or something like that, right?
May 12, 2005
Our Last Months In Iraq Begin Now
Three important shifts are taking place in Iraq, only one of which is getting much newspaper attention. That's too bad, since it's the other two changes that will soon fix the shape of future Iraq. The news articles to watch for in Iraq are those tracking the big shifts in (1) Iraqi security forces' progress and (2) Sunni-Shiite ethnic tensions.
The other and much better reported shift (because it involves large explosions) is the increasing role of foreign fighters in insurgent attacks. That's both good and bad news, since the foreigners are more determined and skilled (often from Syrian or Al-Qaeda training), but in the long term can't be as good at recruiting ordinary Iraqis. Grisly proof of the new lack of trust within the insurgency is the number of recent "unintended-suicide" car bombings. That is, the new style of Iraqi car bomb is triggered not by the driver but by remote control, suggesting the ringleaders don't trust the drivers they recruit -- and probably don't tell them what they're really carrying.
But the other two shifts, less reported but more important, are the increasing reliability of Iraqi security forces and the increasing ethnic polarization between Iraq's Sunni Arabs and Shiites. And it's these two phenomena that are probably going to seal the outcome of our efforts in Iraq by the end of the year.
Simply put, if the Iraqi security forces can extend themselves successfully over a critical mass of Iraq's insurgent zones, and if they don't trigger or allow a spiral of ethnic violence, then Iraq will turn decisively better. Americans will stop needing to risk their lives to hold Iraq together once Iraqis can do it themselves. There's at least an even-money chance that by the end of this year American monthly combat casualties in Iraq will be down to a fifth or less of what they are today. Since Iraqi police and paramilitaries can be deployed in much larger numbers than either American occupation troops or Iraqi insurgents, successful Iraqi constabulary forces should spell an end to daily violence in most cities by the end of 2006, and the discrediting of the insurgency long before that. Police success and no ethnic feuding would allow Iraq to become like Afghanistan -- ugly to us, but tolerable and on a path of progress as far as the citizens are concerned.
But if instead ordinary Sunni and Shiite Arabs start getting killed by thugs from the other side, and it happens often enough to start a self-sustaining vicious cycle of ethnic retaliation, then Iraq will quickly turn into a modern version of the 1970s' Northern Ireland or Lebanon -- with the United States cast in the role of Britain or Syria. Iraq's big cities would spend the next ten years in a siege mentality. The actual death toll might not be very high, but half of Iraq's population would be afraid to go out at night, and no other country would look on Iraq as a positive example. And the worst thing about this scenario is that if a spiral of ethnic violence takes hold, the Iraqi security forces that are now suppressing the insurgency would likely become part of the new violence. The forces we're relying on to keep the peace are already provoking ethnic tension. If that gets out of hand, Americans in Iraq, like the British in Northern Ireland, could be faced with occupation duty to sit on would-be killers for years to come.
So if you're watching Iraq these days, take your eyes off the body count. Watch for two things. Number one, are Iraqi forces continuing to take over more of the urban patrol work from Americans? Number two, are tensions between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs (or possibly Kurds) holding at the same uneasy but safe level, or are they getting worse?
Then you'll know whether Americans will be done risking death in Iraq next year, or ten years from now.
[E1] Mudville OPL.
May 11, 2005
The Policeman and the Flood Dike: the Conservative-Liberal Difference
Sometimes I think that eighty percent of the difference between conservatism and liberalism comes down to what you want government to worry about.
Should your government worry about the villains who'd deliberately trample on your family and community? Or should it worry about the risks that come without villains, but that would ruin your life all the same?
Conservatism is often about the government as policeman: there are bad people out there who want to interfere with your family, your business and your community. The government should stop those bad actors from trampling on you. Maybe the bad guys are terrorists who want to kill your loved ones. Maybe they're just activists who want to control what you teach your kids. Obviously terrorists are much scarier than activists, but the basic conservative approach is the same. Sometimes there are wrongdoers, interlopers, and if you can't stop them personally the government ought to stop them for you.
When there are no specific villains to stop, then conservatives feel a little uneasy trusting the task to the government. Government is untrustworthy, and should ideally only be trusted as a means to stop those who are even more untrustworthy. In conservatism, government's first job is to stand with your family, business and community against intruders.
Liberalism is about the government building flood dikes. When the river's going to flood, no one's to blame, and there are no bad guys to stop, but all the same someone's got to take responsibility for seeing that the dikes are built up and the towns along the river won't be flooded. Liberals think the role of government is to make sure those dikes get built.
Liberals look at the world and see lots of risks that are too big for one person to protect their family against. Some risks can be too big even for a whole city to protect itself against. And plenty of those risks don't come with villains. Mass layoffs, earthquakes, bank defaults, new diseases -- a liberal doesn't see why people should live in fear of those things just because they can't go to the store and buy layoff repellent or disease immunity the way they can buy a new car. Liberals see government's first job as protecting people from the injuries of unearned or excessive risk.
Republicans get the most liberal support when they're relieving people from their immediate fears. Democrats get the most conservative support when they're supporting citizens or communities against obvious villains. Issues that provoke outrage but not fear tend to be supported more on the right. Issues that provoke fear but not outrage tend to be supported more on the left. If a villain has appeared but isn't immediately doing visible harm, the Republicans will move first; if bad things are happening but it's not clear whose fault it is, the Democrats will move first. Conservatives see equality of opportunity as something that will continue naturally if government just defends it from deliberate attack. Liberals see equality of opportunity as something that will break down unless government invests to secure people from outside risks that undermine their fair chance.
Of course these are oversimplifications. Lots of conservatives want government to support various traditions that have nothing to do with stopping bad guys. Sometimes liberals want government to act generously even to people whose problems don't come from outside risks. And lots of politicians do things just to look good or protect themselves. But a lot of the how-can-they-think-that-way comes down to those two images, the policeman and the flood dike.
May 08, 2005
North Korea Disarmament In Four Cold-Blooded Steps
There are things we can do about North Korea. And if North Korea is on the verge of testing a nuclear weapon, we'd better start doing them. When the history books talk about Afghanistan, they'll make Clinton sound like a total failure and Bush like a successful leader. But when the subject is North Korea it looks like it'll be the other way around, unless Bush changes his policy fast.
Under Clinton, North Korea had its reactors frozen, its missile tests on hold, and its plutonium locked up under the eyes of inspectors. Under Bush, North Korea is firing off missiles again, it's harvested six warheads' worth of plutonium now, and it's set to grab another five warheads' worth out of their reactors soon. It's true that Clinton's policy was powered by annual bribes to North Korea, and it's true that North Korea was still trying to secretly enrich uranium. (See this Naval War College Review piece and this Foreign Affairs piece for a fair look at the successes and failures of the Clinton-era deal.) But the fact remains that our current "yell loudly, but do nothing" policy toward North Korea is a miserable failure.
So how do we tame North Korea?
1. Focus at first on Iran.
2. Make America's demands firm but limited.
3. Put a long series of small carrots on the table.
4. When it's time for force, boil the frog slowly.
1. Focus at first on Iran.
North Korea already has nuclear weapons capability. Iran doesn't. Getting a country to freeze a weapons research program is easier than getting it to give up actual weapons. And Iranian leaders are much more likely than the North Koreans to be tempted into using nuclear weapons, if they do get them, to shield war or terrorism. We shouldn't trust Kim Jong-Il with nukes, but we can deal with North Korea more slowly than Iran.
Just as importantly, once we've succeeded with Iran we'll have more leverage for North Korea. If we pull off a peaceful deal with Iran, that gives us credibility and experience for making a deal with North Korea. If we use some level of force on Iran, that gives us credibility and experience for using force on North Korea. We've never had problems quite like Iran and North Korea before, and it'd be nice to learn from the easy case before we go into the home stretch on the hard one. And while our ordinary diplomats can work both countries at once, realistically the President is only going to focus serious American power on one at a time. If we get Iran right, North Korea will become much easier.
2. Make America's demands firm but limited.
Bush's biggest mistake was not that he scrapped the Clinton deal, but that he made it look like he wasn't going to accept any deal at all that left North Korea's dictator in power. That's fine if you want to keep America's hands pure, but not so fine if you want to tame North Korea without open war. If we can make deals with Egypt and Uzbekistan, and justify them on the grounds that eventually our influence in those countries is going to improve their behavior, we can do the same in North Korea.
We weren't responsible for Kim Jong-Il's mass-murdering mass-enslaving regime. Making a deal that leaves him in power doesn't suddenly make us responsible, unless we had a cheap way to remove him, which we don't. Our responsibility is just to make sure that making a deal with him leads to better things than standing back and yelling at him. And standing back and yelling at him hasn't worked at all.
If leaving Kim in power can be consistent with improving human rights there and ending the nuclear weapons program, then that's just fine. America's goal is not to feel good about having scolded a dictator; it's to feel good about how we've changed North Korea. If we can work with Musharraf in Pakistan and Hu Jintao in China -- if we can improve human rights over time even in countries that do have nuclear weapons, using the leverage of economic ties -- why can't we do that in North Korea?
So while we shouldn't settle for a fake agreement, we need to make North Korea believe that we're serious about letting Kim stay in power -- as long as he's willing to trade nukes and prison camps for other means of having money and safety.
3. Put a long series of small carrots on the table.
America and North Korea don't trust each other, and peoples that don't trust each other don't voluntarily keep the terms of "grand bargains." (Just ask the Israelis and Palestinians how well their 1993 and 1995 Oslo agreements were carried out.) But even during the height of the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union built up successful informal and formal agreements that made both countries breathe easier. America and North Korea can build up bargains the same stepwise way. If America keeps its eyes on its ultimate goals, those agreements can step up all the way to the disarmament, and maybe even the human rights reform, that we want to see.
North Korea's government wants two things: money and safety. The United States has the power to provide or destroy both. From North Korea the United States wants two things: nuclear disarmament, and the right of emigration for the masses of pseudo-political prisoners. Both of those are in North Korea's power, and even in its interest -- if only it really believes it can give those up yet keep or improve its money and safety.
In other words, there's room for a deal. North Korea does the things we hate for the pragmatic reasons of money and safety; we can give it better ways to get the money and safety the government wants. The reason there is no overall agreement is because neither side trusts each other. The reason there is no progress toward an overall agreement because neither side is offering a sweetener or a punishment to motivate the other side to test whether it can be trusted.
Right now, the United States' policy toward North Korea isn't "Big Carrot" like the Europeans' policy has been toward Serbia or Turkey; it isn't "Big Stick" like the United States' current policy toward Syria. Our current North Korea policy is "No Carrot, No Stick, Lots of Whining." North Korea's never responded to whining. But it's listened just fine to carrots. We may need the stick, too -- we'll talk about that in a moment. But let's begin with a small carrot.
The United States can ask for something small, verifiable, and symbolic, like the return of inspectors to Yongbyon or another previously inspected nuclear site. We can offer a bribe that's meaningful but reversible, like a three-month resumption of the fuel oil shipments made under the Clinton deal. And we can quietly let North Korea know that if it doesn't comply, we'll do something limited but nasty, like mining one North Korean harbor.
Then one of two things will happen: North Korea takes the small deal, or it doesn't. Suppose they do take the small deal. Then we ask for the next step, and offer to continue or mildly increase the bribe. And we keep adding on little sweeteners in trade for little requests, step by step, until we've bought what we want.
Take a moment and look towards our ultimate goal: how much would it cost to buy North Korean nuclear disarmament? A lot less than we've spent on the war in Iraq, or even on the war in Afghanistan. The ultimate outcome is if the United States makes North Korea another Egypt, a dictatorship we permanently subsidize in return for them being a good neighbor and slowly improving their human rights records. If we remember to be serious this time about insisting on the steady human rights improvement, I think spending $2 billion a year to bribe North Korea is at least as worthwhile as spending $2 billion a year to bribe Egypt. In fact, it doesn't even have to cost that much, since we can probably hold up South Korea and Japan for most of the bribes.
Now suppose North Korea doesn't take the deal -- the first deal, or the tenth, or the twentieth. Then what? We don't panic. We don't go to all-out war either. We just do one definite, reversible, escalatable thing to them.
Maybe we mine one harbor for a month.
And if that doesn't work? Then we escalate -- slowly.
4. When it's time for force, boil the frog slowly.
Saying "there are no good military options for North Korea" is as misleading as saying "there were no good military options in the Cuban missile crisis." In 1962, there was indeed no good outcome to opening the gates to war in Cuba or elsewhere. But there were ways, like the blockade that Kennedy ordered, to use military power effectively to force Russia to change its ways without making a war look like Russia's best option. There was a good way to use force against Cuba. And there are good ways to use force against North Korea.
Just as any serious war with the Soviet Union would have meant the destruction of Europe, any serious war against North Korea would mean the deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans. North Korea has an ungodly number of rockets and artillery pieces aimed to fire at the South Korean capital of Seoul, just across the North-South border. In other words, North Korea holds Seoul hostage, just as Russia during the Cold War held Europe (and later America) hostage.
But that Russia held Europe hostage didn't mean America had to let Russia do whatever it wanted on Cuba. It just meant that America had to handle Cuba in a way that was limited, that left both sides with a chance to stop, so that Russia had a better choice than executing its hostage. The same is true for North Korea. In some ways America can do whatever it wants to North Korea, as long as it doesn't look like America is about to remove Kim Jong-Il himself from power.
American force against North Korea has to be ostentatiously limited, but slowly escalating, and always accompanied by a credible offer of a deal. That is, a deal that will leave Kim's government in power. As long as American force happens one step at a time, and leaves North Korea with plenty of time to decide their response; and as long as continuing failure to make a deal brings continuing steps of escalation, North Korea has both the reason and the history to lead it to take a bargain short of all-out war.
So what kind of limited force is available? As with Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 90s, there are a lot of things that would make North Korea's government miserable without immediately endangering it. America could do any of these, one at a time, in order of increasing danger to Americans:
1. Blockade North Korean waters;
2. Mine one North Korean harbor;
3. Drop one bomb on North Korea's oil pipeline;
4. Drop one bomb on a North Korean railway junction;
4. Enforce a no-fly zone over a small rural sector of North Korea;
5. Fly in an "inspection team" to examine or destroy a single site somewhere in North Korea.
All of these would be dangerous. (North Korea has air defenses, though not very good ones. And it has lots of soldiers.) All of them assume what amounts to a state of war between America and North Korea. None of them are the sort of thing Kim Jong-Il would want to last. But no one of these, happening by itself, would put Kim Jong-Il's control of North Korea in danger of falling apart in the next 72 hours.
If America drops one bomb on the oil pipeline, Kim still has his country. So what are his choices? He could agree to take the next step toward nuclear disarmament. He could wait for America to drop two bombs the week after, and three bombs the week after that. Or he could throw up his hands, declare himself doomed anyway, and bomb Seoul. Is he going to bomb Seoul? What does that get him?
Bombarding Seoul costs Kim his hostage, and means America has no reason not to nuke him any more. Of course, if Kim believes that America really will accept nothing less than his destruction, he might try killing his Southern hostages just to see if it helps save him. But if we've kept our demands "firm but limited", Kim isn't going to choose suicide. He's going to choose what every dictator has always chosen: staying in power.
People like to claim North Korea's dictator is, despite his ability in surviving and even manipulating America thus far, actually some kind of loon, a suicidal maniac, crazy. But that's an all-purpose excuse. You can use it just as well to argue that we need to nuke Pyongyang now, to prevent Kim from crazily selling weapons to American enemies. If he's crazy he may as well be too crazy to leave free as too crazy to try to tame. In fact the evidence is that North Korea's ruler is not suicidal, just in love with bluster; and not insane, just evil.
To be precise, Kim Jong-Il has never shown any signs of being any more crazy than Saddam Hussein. In fact, less crazy -- Kim actually managed a deal with Clinton, which Saddam Hussein never did. Yet even Saddam Hussein, faced with American sanctions, bombs and no-fly zones, didn't try to use his firepower. Saddam Hussein hunkered down and waited, and let America erode his military power, because his power over his own people was more important to him.
Likewise, Kim is not going to do anything to provoke America to overthrow him as long as he believes he can wait it out or make a deal. So as long as America takes only one nibble at a time, we can, if we have to, "boil the frog slowly."
We're used to instant war, but pressuring North Korea will take the opposite: protracted war, drawn-out war, war so slow that to Kim it doesn't feel like war -- just negotiations. Let's shut down North Korea's outlets for weapons export, one at a time, over a period of months. Let's shut down the fuel supplies, just as gradually. Take over the airspace -- even more gradually. (Some pilots will be shot down and captured. Is it worth it? Depends on how many civilian dead we risk if we don't take that chance.) Land checkpoint teams at odd places in the mountains, slowly. Declare no-drive zones in the northern mountains, one at a time...
...if we really wanted to, we could annex North Korea by agonizingly slow steps over a three-year period, and give Kim Jong-Il the option of cutting a deal with us from the beginning right on through to the end.
The key idea is to be slow yet avoid the mistakes of the Clinton bombing of Iraq, or the Lyndon Johnson bombing of North Vietnam, where America did token damage and then stopped and waited and then did token damage again. We want our escalation to be slow but strategic. The right escalation series is one that ultimately, slowly, leads to Kim not really controlling key portions of his country.
If we take over one grain of sand of North Korea, Kim has too much left to lose to go to war. But if he really does put off making a deal indefinitely, eventually we can add up so many grains of sand that we could actually defend ourselves and Seoul against any threat Kim could make. If that happens we won't need a deal with the dictator any more.
There's your cold-blooded take on dealing with North Korea. It's true we should have kept the Clinton deal going until we had something better ready to put in place. But just as in Cuba in 1962, we do have options for force in North Korea today. And if we put those options for force alongside Clinton-style dealmaking, we can probably get North Korea disarmed.
There's no way to just overthrow Kim Jong-Il without a lot of people getting killed. But with a big-stick, big-carrot, limited demands, slow-escalation policy, we can get everything else we need. It won't be free in money or lives; just the best of the available alternatives. Given that millions are already dead or enslaved in North Korea, and the price of a nuke sold by NK to someone else could be 300,000 Americans dead, I think the case is strong for "big stick, big carrot, limited demands, slow strategic escalation."
[E1] See also posts at Daniel Drezner (by guestblogger Suzanne Nossel), Coming Anarchy, Washington Monthly, Matthew Yglesias, The Moderate Voice, Belgravia Dispatch, and Pejmanesque, among many others.
[E2] Mudville OPL.
May 06, 2005
Ford and GM: Proof American Managers Don't Know Their Jobs?
There is no polite way to put it: if Ford and GM can get rated as junk-grade investments, American corporate management is a disaster. America has the best entrepreneurs and the best technology innovators in the world. But if you're in an American company's upper management and you're good at your job, then I salute you: you're obviously an endangered species.
Getting your debt rated as junk grade makes sense if you're in a dying industry, like railroads. It makes sense if you're a heavily regulated or formerly regulated company, like the older airline companies. It makes sense if you face overseas competition based on unskilled workers, as American textile makers do. It occasionally makes sense if you're in an industry that runs on taking huge technology risks, like biotech firms.
But Ford and GM are in the automotive business. They were never subject to airline or utility-style regulation. Their big competitors are in Japan, which has expensive labor just like they do (and a lot of "Japanese" cars these days are mostly built in America!). And neither Japanese nor American car companies have been blowing their budgets on big research risks.
So there's no easy outside excuse for Ford and GM's failure. For any problem you name that Ford and GM face, there's an equal problem for some other American industry. Rising gas prices are a challenge, but somehow the Japanese and German auto companies have managed to be prepared for that possibility. Heck, any auto company should have had a plan ready for having to shift to more fuel-efficient cars: that consumer shift already happened once before, after the 1970's oil shocks, and everyone knew gas prices would rise again if China and India kept booming. And the Japanese workforce is aging and running up health care costs faster than America's. Every established company faces challenges: that's what a competitive free market is about. Competently managed companies don't let long-anticipated challenges sink them all the way to junk.
We've known for a while that the "corporate governance" in the United States, the system where the stockholders elect a board of directors who in turn supervise the company CEO, was broken. CEO's pay has risen relative to workers' by a factor of twelve in just the last thirty years, and pay plus stock rewards by a factor of thirty, without any visible evidence of improved management. Now I begin to wonder if it's actually a sign of failing management -- or, rather, of corporate boards losing their ability or interest for spotting good people. A corporate board that doesn't mind compensating people thirty times as much for the same job is a corporate board that isn't paying attention to how well the job is being done.
It looks as though America's real economic weak point isn't that our education system doesn't know how to turn out great math students; it's that our corporate governance system doesn't know how to find good managers. Anyway, thank goodness for America's technologists and entrepreneurs -- because I'm not sure anymore that I believe America's CEOs know what they're doing.
May 04, 2005
The Iraq War is an Arab Opportunity, but Lasting Democracy Needs a Lasting US Commitment
The Iraq War has given Arab democrats an opportunity, but it'll be up to them to seize it. And if America really wants Arab democracy, it'll take a sustained commitment, not just a one-year binge. But the short answer to Kevin Drum's question is yes, the "domino effect" is real. Crises create democrats' opportunity, and the Iraq War is a legitimacy crisis for most of the Arab leaders. Moreover, democracy breaks out when democrats realize the secret police can't just kill them all. American pro-democracy pushiness is seen by a lot of Arabs as limiting what governments like Egypt and Syria can do to shut activists down. Bush's aggressiveness against one Arab dictator has created an opportunity for other Arab democracies. But the hard part isn't getting Arab elections for this one year; the hard part is making democracy last.
We think of democracy as a purely natural development, but usually democracy breaks through when the autocrats have mishandled a crisis and lost the confidence of their backers and subordinates. That's how democracy came to Argentina, after the junta bungled the 1983 Falklands War; how it came to the Soviet Union, after the 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev left both him and his rivals impotent; that's how it happened in the Philippines, after Marcos assassinated Benigno Aquino in 1983 (though it took three years for the movements to crest and overthrow Marcos). Economic crises played a similar role in ending dictatorships in Taiwan and South Korea. And the Iraq War is certainly a crisis for the Arab autocrats, which makes it an opportunity for the Arab democrats.
The irony is that the Iraq War is a crisis for the Arab autocrats precisely because it shows them up as both vulnerable to removal and as not standing up to America. The democratic movements in Egypt and Lebanon are not pro-American movements. But ironic or not, the Iraq War makes the Arab leaders look impotent, and leaders who look impotent attract attempts to overthrow them.
But the more important contribution of the Iraq War to Arab democracy is the message it sends that Bush, unlike other Presidents, is willing to use force to make his foreign policy happen. And that means that Egypt's secret police and Syria's army are less free than they might have been to shut down protest movements. Nobody, not even the American government, knows how far America would let Egypt or Syria go to stop the democrats. But for the first time in a long time, the Arab democrats suspect that the despots' force is limited -- and that gives the Arab democrats courage.
We've seen the same "your leverage is gone" string of revolutions before, in 1989, when all the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe flipped to democracy one after another. What changed in 1989 was not that the activists were suddenly smarter, or the dictators more hated. All that had changed was the realization that the Soviet Union was no longer going to bail the dictators out. Suddenly, there was no room for the dictators to appeal to the kind of force they were used to relying on -- and suddenly, one autocracy after another gave way to elections. When autocracies lose their flexibility to use force on their citizens, democracy breaks out. The Iraq War, combined with Bush's pro-democracy rhetoric, makes many suspect that Egypt and Syria (among others) have lost the flexibility to use force against protesters -- and that gives the democrats a chance to seize power.
But the real test is not whether we get one honest election in more Arab countries, but whether we get lasting democracy. That's much harder. Historically democracies rely for stability on a strong middle class, but the middle class of many Arab countries is atrophied. Historically democracies do better when there's a tradition of honest judges and the rule of law, and that too is not a regional strong point. The Arab countries have weak legal systems and weak economies outside oil, and that tends to be a recipe for military coups or Venezuela-style charismatic dictatorships. Arab democracy won't last unless the United States makes a continuing commitment to uphold it against the return of dictatorship.
America has a sad record of spending a few months or a year pushing for democracy in a place, then letting its attention go elsewhere just in time for the country to fall back into chaos or despotism. That's what happened in Haiti, and in many other American pro-democracy interventions in Central America in the 1900s. That's also what happened with the Palestinian Authority in the Oslo years, where the Clinton Administration accepted Arafat's one election as good enough and never pressed him for better government after. There's reason to think that if the Palestinians had had an honest democracy instead of Arafat's corrupt charismatic dictatorship, they would have been able to settle their issues peacefully with Israel, and the entire bloodshed of the last few years could have been avoided. And we see some of the same neglect today in Mexico, where the United States was largely silent as the Mexican government attempted to trump up an excuse to force out of politics the leading opposition politician. American political leaders tend to push for democracy only every now and then. That won't be enough to sustain democracy in the Arab world.
Any Arab democracy is almost certain to fall into the hands of leaders who will be tempted to recreate dictatorship. Arab democracy may start now, but it won't last -- unless the United States shows year by year that it's on the side of those who want Arab democracy to last.
So as for war as a tool for democracy: it works when and only when you can convince people you're there for the duration. Lasting American presence in Germany and Japan = lasting democracy in those countries and, over time, in other regional countries with strong ties to them. Brief involvement in Haiti = nothing achieved in Haiti or its neighbors. (And local factors still matter -- such as German wealth versus Haitian poverty. There are poor democracies, like Mali. But it's harder.)
[E1] Mudville OPL.
May 03, 2005
The Paramilitary Dilemma: Should We Recruit Iraqi Thugs to Beat Iraqi Thugs?
Praktike spots a trend in Iraq: whether it's paramilitary commandos employed by the government, or paramilitary militias that "pop up" on their own, the war against the Iraqi insurgents is increasingly being fought by Iraqi paramilitaries. This is good news and bad news. Paramilitaries are Iraq's best hope for quick peace -- and also a force that could spark mass killings or civil war.
Most counterinsurgency successes since World War Two, especially the few quick counterinsurgency successes, have relied on paramilitaries. Paramilitaries have unique advantages against insurgents that regular police and soldiers don't -- they combine the strengths police and soldiers each have against insurgents, and leave behind the weaknesses that insurgents try to exploit. These militias and commandos may be Iraqis' only hope to get peace on the streets in months instead of years.
But paramilitaries in Iraq are also bad news: unless the government handles them very carefully, anti-insurgent militias and commandos tend to become as brutal as the insurgents. And because the paramilitaries have the backing of the government, they have the potential to take over the country and kill their personal and political enemies in numbers the insurgents can only dream of. It's happened before.
The paramilitary solution to insurgency
Successful counterinsurgencies usually involve a network of paramilitary "local self-defense" militias, or else an entire national paramilitary professional organization. Historical examples include the Italian carabinieri, which led the effort against the Communist Red Brigades; Peru's endorsement of local militias called rondas campesinas, which turned around the fighting against the Shining Path guerrillas; or the village commando units set up to fight the Hukbalahap insurrection in the Philippines. Probably the best-documented example of paramilitaries' edge against insurgents is, ironically, the Vietnam War.
During the Vietnam War, there were only three programs that actually succeeded in shutting down communist guerrilla activity in their areas. Those were the CIA-administered (using Special Forces personnel) Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG), the Marines' Combined Action Platoons (CAP), and late in the war the joint Army-civilian Civil Operations and Revolutionary (later Rural) Development and Support (CORDS) program. All three programs ignored the hundreds of thousands of regular American and Vietnamese troops on battalion-sized maneuvers. CIDG, CAP and CORDS all focused on building up and supporting tiny local village militias. And CIDG, CAP and CORDS all succeeded in shutting down guerrilla activities in their areas of operation.
Insurgents defeat police by being more focused and more violent. Insurgents beat soldiers by building ties with the civilians. They lose those advantages against paramilitaries. Whether we're talking about informal militias or formal commando units, paramilitaries, like police detectives, make their habit to operate among local civilians and persuade them to become helpers and informants. But like soldiers, paramilitaries don't spend their days walking a beat to prevent public disorder; they use their informants to point out the government's enemies so they can capture or kill them.
Insurgents intimidate or persuade people to help them kill government supporters. Paramilitaries intimidate or persuade people to help them kill insurgents. Since the paramilitaries are on the same side as the government, they can talk to more people safely, offer bigger bribes, and move around faster and in larger groups than the insurgents. Insurgents rely on staying "asymmetric" to make up for lack of resources. Paramilitaries are a "symmetric" counter to insurgents, using their own tactics against them with the advantages of government support.
The most recent example of paramilitary success against insurgents is Afghanistan today. While it's easy to find things to complain about in Afghanistan, the Taliban there haven't been able to muster anything like the kind of continual attacks that the Iraqi insurgents have. In Afghanistan, we endorsed the local gunmen instead of bringing in our own. The result was that whenever the Taliban tried to reinfiltrate a village or city, there were plenty of local fighters in a position to find out about them and run them back out of town. The warlords' militias kept Afghanistan secure from the Taliban. Of course, now the warlords' militias are a problem of their own -- and that's part of the dark side of paramilitaries.
When paramilitaries go bad
Because paramilitaries have a license to find and kill the enemies of the government, they have almost absolute power in their local community -- and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It's only too easy for paramilitaries to create excuses to kill off anyone in town who crosses them. From Peru to Vietnam, militias have tended to conveniently discover that their personal enemies were enemies of the state. Worse, paramilitaries can use an insurgency to seize power for themselves and set up their own psuedo-governmental empire. That's what's happened in much of Columbia, where the right-wing paramilitaries long ago became more involved in being the government and in running drugs than in helping the government against rebels. But even replacing the government isn't the worst thing that unbound paramilitaries will do.
Paramilitaries only tend to be needed in weakly governed countries, and weakly governed countries tend to have nasty ethnic or class feuds just below the surface -- especially once an insurgency breaks out. If the government lets the paramilitaries take too much authority, the result tends to be ethnic cleansing -- or genocide. In El Salvador, despite American advisors' complaints the counter-guerrilla forces killed 70,000 supposedly left-wing people out of the country's six million. In Guatemala, where America withdrew in disgust, the paramilitary army slaughtered 200,000, mostly ethnic Maya and almost all civilians, out of a population of only 10 million. In Rwanda, in Bosnia, and in Sudan today, the key step for ethnic slaughter was government endorsement of an ethnically based militia.
In Afghanistan, there have been no mass killings by the militias, because the new central government has been using its own (American-trained) army to pressure the local warlords into good behavior. Governors who had been running their provinces too independently have been replaced. While the militias in Afghanistan are still present in the background, the problems Afghanistan has these days are mostly civilian problems -- poverty, poppy farming, bad roads. In Afghanistan, the government let local militias defang the insurgency, and then the national army defanged the militias.
In Iraq, the new government has not had the deft political touch that Hamid Karzai's government has had in Afghanistan, and the insurgency is far stronger. The odds of militias going out of control are worse. But none of the Iraqi ethnic groups want civil war -- the Shiites would lose the fruits of peace, and the Sunnis would lose, period. So perhaps America can keep the central government honest, and perhaps the central government will be able to push the militias into standing down after the insurgents are gone.
It's too late for Iraq to be as good a success as Afghanistan. But the paramilitary commandos and militias should get the insurgency defeated faster. It probably won't lead to another Bosnia. I do wish I didn't have to put "probably" in that last sentence. It all depends on whether Iraq's government will have the nerve and skill to take power from the paramilitaries -- while the paramilitaries take power from the insurgents.
How successful were our Vietnam militia efforts? During its CIA period (through 1962), the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) featured 24 12-man Special Forces teams coordinating an astonishing 38,000 irregulars against the guerrillas. By 1962 America's fewer than 300 leader-advisors of CIDG were holding secure an entire province of 300,000 civilians against the Communist guerrillas. Then the Army leadership at MACV took over from the CIA. The Army in 1962 didn't yet believe guerrilla wars should be fought differently from conventional wars. The generals at MACV transferred CIDG to offensive operations, ending the support for local militias. Darlac Province was then reinfiltrated by the Communists.
The Marines' Combined Action Platoons were a more improvised program than CIDG, relying on ordinary Marines rather than the unconventionally trained Special Forces of CIDG. CAP was a mix of modest improvements and decisive successes; results varied from village to village. See Bing West's The Village for a wonderful account of one CAP effort.
Civil Operations and Revolutionary (or Rural) Development, CORDS, the last and largest militia-supporting pacification program, didn't begin serious work until late 1968. In 1968 the Communist guerrillas were estimated to be in charge of 45 percent of South Vietnam, about the same as when regular American infantry battalions had first been sent into action against the Communist guerrillas in 1965. CORDS threw its weight behind the till-then neglected Vietnamese village and province militias, the RFs and PFs or "ruff-puffs" -- and using those militias, CORDS reduced the Communists' guerrilla presence from half of South Vietnam to a toehold of about 5 percent by late 1970.
CORDS' success in shutting down the guerrillas forced North Vietnam to finally dare two straightforward conventional invasions of the south, openly driving southward with tanks and artillery. The conventional invasions succeeded, thanks to the South Vietnamese soldiers being commanded by lousy officers. In 1972 North Vietnam took a quarter of South Vietnam, despite American airpower support for the South Vietnamese troops. In the North's 1975 invasion, when the Americans no longer provided the South with airpower support, the Communists did even better, seizing the remaining three-quarters of the country.
Ironically, although we think of Vietnam as a guerrilla war and an American defeat, in fact by the end of 1970 America and South Vietnam had won the guerrilla war. We lost Vietnam just the same. The North Vietnamese were capable of conventional as well as guerrilla war. And America and South Vietnam had failed in their mission of bringing skill and professionalism to South Vietnamese army officers. But in the bitter last years, the American military had finally rediscovered how to succeed against guerrillas.