Archive for October, 2011

October 31, 2011

U.S. pulls UNESCO funding, but soft power is for chumps anyway, right?

Immediately following this morning’s announcement that Palestine is now the newest official member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the U.S. State Department came out with an announcement of their own: United States funding would be cut to the organization. The $60M check that the U.S. had written up for the Paris-based organization is going right back into Hillary Clinton’s pockets.

The move isn’t much of a surprise for anyone who’s been watching the deliberations in the various organizations that fall under the United Nations’ umbrella. Aside from the General Assembly and Security Council, UNESCO has been the body on the receiving end of the strongest diplomatic push by Palestine for recognition. Lawmakers on the right in the U.S. have been calling for defunding of any U.N. body that allowed Palestine as a full member since early September, and they unfortunately have the right of it. Under a U.S. law passed in 1994, funding is to be withheld from any part of the U.N. system that allows Palestine as a full member, written in such clear language that it would be difficult for the Obama organization to circumvent it. The part of the law that concerns us has been helpfully posted by the NY Times here:

“(a) Prohibition.--No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or
any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized
agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the
same standing as member states.
“(b) Transfer or reprogramming.--Funds subject to the prohibition
contained in subsection (a) which would be available for the United
Nations or any specialized agency thereof (but for that prohibition) are
authorized to remain available until expended and may be reprogrammed
or transferred to any other account of the Department of State or the
Agency for International Development to carry out the general purposes
for which such funds were authorized.”

While the President’s hands were tied on this one, that doesn’t mean the international community has to like it. Even Israel didn’t really want Washington to cut off funding to Turtle Bay, as was pointed out by Zvika Kreiger in the Atlantic earlier this month.  The United States has been helping Israel gain membership and influence on several U.N. bodies, including the UN Development Programme, and has been pushing for an initiative through UNESCO launch education efforts on the effects of Holocaust in various member states. With U.S. funding cut off, that goal may be a little bit further out of reach.

The less awful news is that the funding that the $60M won’t be stricken from the State Department’s budget, and can be used at the Secretary’s discretion to fulfill the job of UNESCO. And the United States’ membership in UNESCO remains intact, unlike under President Reagan back in the 1980s. But the job of UNESCO isn’t easily done by one state, nor should it be. The $60M could be used for any number of cultural agenda pieces, meant to bridge the divides between perception of America and reality in states that are hostile towards our policies, but coming directly from the US, rather than through an international organization, propaganda is a word that you’re going to hear thrown around a lot. Furthermore, it’s harder to push what many states sees as an unpopular pro-American agenda without the finances to back up your goals. The cultural dialogue promoted by UNESCO forms a key part to the smart power equation championed by the Obama Administration and HRC in particular.

Nobody is saying that participation in UNESCO is vital to the United States’ strategic national security needs. What I am saying quite strongly though is that taking part in UNESCO to the full extent certainly makes things easier for the United States. For example, as UN Dispatch just posted, one of the programs indirectly stripped of funding is designed to raise literacy in Afghanistan, especially among police officers. No worries though, I’m sure that having illiterate Afghan military and civilians serves our overall strategic goals there, so long as Palestine isn’t recognized as a state by anyone.

Further, as several commentators, including Senator Timothy Wirth of the United Nations Foundation, pointed out, there’s a slippery slope involved. Should the law stand on the books in its present form, there is the real chance that Palestine continues its push, resulting in more U.S. withdrawal of funding from bodies in which membership more directly serves our interest. The World Intellectual Property Organization is next in the Palestinian’s sights, and as boring as I personally find IP issues, American companies love having an arena for redress with internet piracy on the rise. I guess Congress is pro-piracy now?

There’s a larger picture here than just UNESCO and what U.S. pulling funding means, and it concerns the overall standing of soft power in the Washington policy planning context. What it boils down to is that soft power is a stronger currency than many in Congress are willing to admit. Soft power doesn’t win wars, but it does prevent them, but it would seem that doesn’t make for as good a campaign slogan as “friend of Israel”, even when we’re really doing Israel no favors. In the complex world we reside in, withdrawing a tool from our diplomatic arsenal is handicapping United States success in nipping issues in the bud before kinetic action is even necessary. Recognition of this fact is crucial for America to prosper in this century, that our defense industry can and should remain strong while giving diplomacy its full range of options. One less microphone for the U.S. to share its vision of the world is one more potential flare-up that we’ll have to address with force in the future. Our annual $80M, 22% of UNESCO’s budget, could have bought us a lot of influence in the world. Instead, we have traded it away for a symbol that means less than nothing. That $60M saved can be re-appropriated in the next budget to buy a couple of missiles, though. I’m sure that will benefit us more in the long run.

October 28, 2011

The Problem with Peacekeeping: Training vs. Timing

The Refugees International Twitter stream today was livetweeting the United Nations Security Council debate on women, peace and security, a follow-up on resolution SC/1325, passed in 2000. The resolution itself was landmark, in it was the first to place a strong emphasis on the role of women in international peace and security, and both the challenges faced by women in conflict and the areas where women can better contribute to keeping the peace. There were no major points of contention in the debate itself, which isn’t surprising at all, considering the pension for these “debates” to be more like pre-packaged speeches, but that’s a rant for another time. One tweet in particular caught my eye, a statement by the United States:

refugees international us un tweet

Via @RefugeesIntl

There is absolutely nothing objectionable with this statement when taken at face-value. Nobody who watches the United Nations can deny the fact that one of the biggest black-eyes against the organization has been the often violent sexual assault that has been carried out by peacekeepers on various missions, including in the states like the DR Congo and Haiti. The latter case, along with reports of peacekeepers spreading the cholera that swept throughout Port Au Prince, actually led to the Security Council reducing the maximum authorized troops committed to MINUSTAH.

Better training can and must be utilized by the various troop-contributing countries. As it stands, the United Nations provides no real training to military and police forces deployed to peacekeeping missions. There are several high-level documents issued by the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, including this snippet from United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Principles and Guidelines (“Capstone doctrine”) PDF Document, published back in 2008.

The perceived legitimacy of a United Nations peacekeeping operation is
directly related to the quality and conduct of its military, police and civilian
personnel. The bearing and behavior of all personnel must be of the highest
order, commensurate with the important responsibilities entrusted to a
United Nations peacekeeping operation, and should meet the highest standards
of efficiency, competence and integrity. The mission’s senior leadership
must ensure that all personnel are fully aware of the standards of
conduct that are expected of them and that effective measures are in place to
prevent misconduct. Civilian, police and military personnel should receive
mandatory training on sexual exploitation and abuse; and this training
should be ongoing, as troops rotate in and out of peace operations. There
must be zero tolerance for any kind of sexual exploitation and abuse, and
other forms of serious misconduct. Cases of misconduct must be dealt with
firmly and fairly, to avoid undermining the legitimacy and moral authority
of the mission.

Paragraphs like that sound great but the fact remains that the training provided to many UN peacekeepers is shoddy at best. As a semi-detour, for those who wonder why it’s often countries that aren’t known for military might that donate forces to UN missions, the answer is two-fold. First, wariness over the Great Powers donating troops during the Cold War affected the make-up of the first real peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Emergency Force deployed to the Sinai Peninsula following the Suez Canal crisis. More important to us,  there’s the fact that countries that contribute troops and police officers are reimbursed by the United Nations, as of 2009 at the rate of $1100 base pay per contingent, a price that is in many cases above that of the pay they would receive in their home military. No raises to the reimbursement have taken place since 2002, worrying contributing countries as the Ban Ki-Moon seeks to reduce spending by the UN. I support this reimbursement, but it is easy to see how it can be spun into an argument where states send troops just for the additional income rather than their preparedness to face the challenges of the mission. As it stands, training standards for peacekeepers can and must be improved moving forward in the future.

So it’s clear that training remains vitally important to ensuring that the communities where UN  missions are dispatched recognize the authority and legitimacy of the soldiers among its people. Where do I disagree with the original Refugees International tweet, you ask? Answer: my issue comes from the current length of time it takes to get a UN-authorized mission fully staffed and operational. To wit: forever. Literally, forever, as at the moment, there are currently no peacekeeping operations that are operating at the maximum force level proscribed by the Council. Some, like the United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI), come close, but even that is mission is short about 500 peacekeepers from its maximum.

The turnaround time to get peacekeepers in the field is deplorable at best, the difference between life and death at worst. As an example, in June 2011, in the lead-up to the independence of South Sudan, tensions flared in the shared Abyei region, prompting the UN Security Council to authorize a mission of 4,200 military personnel to ensure that the peace terms between Sudan and South Sudan were upheld. As of September 30, 2011, there were just over 1,800 forces deployed into the region, which is still occupied by the armies of both Sudan and South Sudan. That so many peacekeepers have managed to be deployed already is only due to the fact that they come from neighboring Ethiopia, a luxury many states with peacekeepers promised don’t have.

I can only think of one solution to break us out of this current dichotomy between speed and training, broken into two stages, with neither of them particularly politically palatable. The first stage would be to have the United Nations assume the duties of training and drilling UN peacekeepers donated to missions in a sort of international stability boot-camp. Thirty to sixty days of lessons in the situation on the ground as well as the structure and standards of the mission and appropriate behavior on deployment would make a world of difference in enhancing unity of the forces and providing a clear message that the United Nations will brook no break from discipline. The problem with this would improve the training situation by an order of magnitude, but the odds of troop-contributing countries allowing this sort of ‘indoctrination’ by the UN is slim to none. Also, this training would be a rather large added cost to the United Nations’ peacekeeping budget.

I’m going to be skewered on the interwebs for this next opinion, so I’m bracing myself. The next stage of this solution would be to finally enact the provisions of the UN Charter under Chapter VII, Articles 43 and 45:

Article 43

  1. All Members of the United Nations, in order to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security, undertake to make available to the Security Council, on its call and in accordance with a special agreement or agreements, armed forces, assistance, and facilities, including rights of passage, necessary for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security.
  2. Such agreement or agreements shall govern the numbers and types of forces, their degree of readiness and general location, and the nature of the facilities and assistance to be provided.
  3. The agreement or agreements shall be negotiated as soon as possible on the initiative of the Security Council. They shall be concluded between the Security Council and Members or between the Security Council and groups of Members and shall be subject to ratification by the signatory states in accordance with their respective constitutional processes.

Article 45 In order to enable the United Nations to take urgent military measures, Members shall hold immediately available national air-force contingents for combined international enforcement action. The strength and degree of readiness of these contingents and plans for their combined action shall be determined within the limits laid down in the special agreement or agreements referred to in Article 43, by the Security Council with the assistance of the Military Staff Committee. 

Logically, we can assume that having forces at the disposal of the United Nations for rapid-deployment would be a huge boon to the peacekeeping effort, as it would take the uncertainty out of the process of gather commitments and awaiting deployment. Wildfire conflicts can be focused on with laser intensity and hosed out quickly. Turnaround would shrink from months to weeks in the most dire of situations, with the longer build-up towards deployment most likely remaining intact for nation-building exercises like we see with MONUSCO, where tens of thousands of military personnel are on the ground.

Now if you thought the training portion of this plan was politically impossible, there’s no word in the English language for how tough a struggle it would be to breathe new life into these provisions. Legally speaking, these forces would be more than fine, as they’d be acting under the Chapter VII authority of the Security Council, the section that grants intervention powers to the UN. That in turn, though, would bring to the front-burner again the legal status of peacekeeping missions of the more traditional variety, where blue helmets stand in between those parties who have a negotiated peace and invite the UN to manage any flare-ups of violence. Commonly referred to as “Chapter VI and a half” missions, there is no real place for them in the UN structure, and finally granting the UN the forces promised in the Charter would make for an uncomfortable renewed conversation about a slew of other missions the UN takes on.

Further, the thought of actually turning over combat forces for the United Nations to utilize is pretty much DOA. With all the fear-mongering that goes on just on the right in the United States about the supranational authority of the UN, I doubt that there will be much in the way of P-5 support for this effort. Without that backing, there is little chance of these measures finally being brought to bear, and without the flexibility the combination of these two initiatives would grant the DPKO, we will continue to face the choice between deployment speed and suitable training for UN peacekeeping forces, a choice that leads to more suffering either through deaths caused by the parties in conflict or through lack of discipline in the ranks of the United Nations’ finest.

October 18, 2011

Bazooka v. Fly: Why I’m glad the US didn’t launch a cyberattack on Libya

In a story that came out yesterday that made my inner nerd very gleeful, but my outer IR type extremely wary, the New York Times broke that the US was considering using cyberwarfare against Libya during the outset of NATO’s intervention campaign. To get a sense for just what that would entail:

Just before the American-led strikes against Libya in March, the Obama administration intensely debated whether to open the mission with a new kind of warfare: a cyberoffensive to disrupt and even disable the Qaddafi government’s air-defense system, which threatened allied warplanes.

While the exact techniques under consideration remain classified, the goal would have been to break through the firewalls of the Libyan government’s computer networks to sever military communications links and prevent the early-warning radars from gathering information and relaying it to missile batteries aiming at NATO warplanes.

I dare you to try to reread that and not have your mind go to a dark room filled with faces inaccurately-lit in green and blue, pounding away at their keyboards, attempting to exploit the weaknesses of the Qadaffi regime’s command and control systems. I’ll wait. I can already see the Hollywood pitch for the revised version of history where our brave cyberwarriors actually were the ones to take down the dreaded dictator. Daft Punk would provide the soundtrack. While the thought of using this advanced technological capability in an actual military operation is intriguing and would make for a wicked movie, there are a number of reasons why going through with such an action would have been a Very Bad Idea.

First and foremost, giving the United States’ cyber-capabilities a test spin against the Libyan Armed Forces would have been a breathtaking waste of a U.S. trump card for future conflicts. While the Libyan air defenses had the potential to be a thorn in the side of the NATO warplanes, there was precisely zero need to use capabilities that are officially still under-wraps against the Jamahiriya. Our bombers easily sought out and destroyed ground-to-air missile sites within the first few weeks of NATO sorties, rendering the overkill that a cyberattack would have been in bright flashing explosions. If and when digital attacks become fully necessary for the achievement of a critical mission, the United States will deploy such methods, and in doing so command not only the tactical advantage that launching such an attack would bring, but would benefit from the psychological factor inherit in utilizing new technologies in unexpected ways. The raid that took out Osama bin Laden was notable not just for the actually death of the terrorist mastermind, but the unveiling of the previously secret stealth helicopter that the United States now possesses, which in turn led to a race by other capable nations to begin researching similar technology. It was a mission packed with significance, where the operational capability provided by the technology matched the goal at hand.

Which brings us to the second reason that launching such as strike as US officials also rightfully concluded, having the United States launch the first public salvo in the war for the digital domain would set an irreversible precedent. Much like the United States’ officially non-existent drones campaign against Pakistan, the fact that states are currently utilizing various hacking methods against one another is an unspoken but quietly acknowledged axiom in this day and age. So far, the use of state-to-state digital attacks have been through proxies or focused on enhancing espionage capabilities; no attack has yet to be made on the level that would allow it to be dubbed ‘warfare’, in my opinion including attacks against command controls of critical infrastructure or operating military systems. Were the US to be the first to commit such an attack, it would open a whole new can of worms in terms of conflict, with other states that have similar capacities to inflict cyberstrikes, though not of the same magnitude as the US while still possessing the potential to wreak havoc, to readily seize the opportunity to openly incorporate similar cyber-initiatives into their own tactical planning. To wit: we would see a massive surge of data skirmishes between us and China, among others, and veritable digital onslaughts by more capable states against lesser neighbors or challengers across the globe. Think the darkest days of realist theory played out over ethernet cables.

Finally, the legal implications of the US military being the wielder of cyber-force against Libya are stunning. President Obama had enough trouble making the case that the Operation: Unified Protector did not fall under the War Powers Act of 1973 and didn’t require Congressional approval, a point that even the top lawyers at Defense and Justice had a difficult time acquiescing to. On a sidebar, I think that the United Nations Participation Act gave all the coverage needed after the passage of UNSC Resolution 1973, but I digress. Back on point, the use of cyber-capabilities would have muddied the water even further; while the War Powers act doesn’t define “hostilities”, it also was drafted before it was ever assumed that cyberoffensives would ever be possible. Since an attack using computers wouldn’t be physical in nature, it’s unsure whether launching a cyberattack would start the clock on Congressional notification, or require any notification at all, and now to start that debate surrounding Libya would be inopportune at best.

In any case, the Administration made the right call on this one. There will come a day where the United States faces an enemy that requires bringing out the big (digital) guns, but taking down Libya was certainly not it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go re-watch The Matrix.

October 14, 2011

In Great Lakes deployment, US should look to support UN

The Twittersphere is all abuzz this afternoon as word broke that the Obama Administration has informed Congress that it is sending roughly 100 U.S. troops to the Great Lakes region to help end the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army. In a letter to the Speaker of the House and President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, President Obama laid out the mission of these forces:

In furtherance of the Congress’s stated policy, I have authorized a small number of combat-equipped U.S. forces to deploy to central Africa to provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield. I believe that deploying these U.S. Armed Forces furthers U.S. national security interests and foreign policy and will be a significant contribution toward counter-LRA efforts in central Africa.

On October 12, the initial team of U.S. military personnel with appropriate combat equipment deployed to Uganda. During the next month, additional forces will deploy, including a second combat-equipped team and associated headquarters, communications, and logistics personnel. The total number of U.S. military personnel deploying for this mission is approximately 100. These forces will act as advisors to partner forces that have the goal of removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA. Our forces will provide information, advice, and assistance to select partner nation forces. Subject to the approval of each respective host nation, elements of these U.S. forces will deploy into Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The support provided by U.S. forces will enhance regional efforts against the LRA. However, although the U.S. forces are combat-equipped, they will only be providing information, advice, and assistance to partner nation forces, and they will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defense. All appropriate precautions have been taken to ensure the safety of U.S. military personnel during their deployment.

The bloggers of the world quickly sprung into action, providing the curious masses, many of whom had no idea why anything with “Lord” in it could be such a bad thing, with a year’s worth of reading on the background of the LRA, and the history of calls for intervention in the region to help take it down and the opposing arguments. While the initial confusion over the move has calmed down, as sending off military advisors in this fashion is relatively common, there is still no consensus on how effective these troops will be in lessening the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA most certainly qualifies as the worst of the armed groups that plague the African continent, with their atrocities putting the Janjaweed and FDLR to shame in sheer brazenness. Their leader Joseph Kony has been indicted by the International Criminal Court over his actions in Uganda, with Kony managing to evade arrest for decades now.

What has me curious, though, is determining if and how these U.S. advisors will interact with the UN peacekeeping missions currently on the ground. Of the four states listed in the President’s letter, two of them, the DRC and South Sudan, have United Nations blue helmets deployed inside their borders. The United Nations Mission to South Sudan was approved in July of this year, to aid in supporting the development of the soon-to-be newest member of the UN help tamp down on the fighting in the border region between the newly separated states of Sudan and South Sudan. The LRA has been taken its rape and pillage tour through the area for years, leading the Security Council to include language about the force in the authorizing resolution, S/RES/1996, particularly in Operative Clause 15:

15. Calls upon UNMISS to coordinate with the Government of the Republic of South Sudan and participate in regional coordination and information mechanisms to improve protection of civilians and support disarmament, demobilization and reintegration efforts in light of the attacks by the LRA in the Republic of South Sudan and requests the Secretary General to include in his UNMISS trimesterly reports a summary of cooperation and information sharing between UNMISS, the African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), and regional and international partners in addressing the LRA threats;

The  peacekeeping mission operative in the DRC, MONUSCO, which took over for MONUC in June of this year is the largest peacekeeping force that the UN has ever put together. Helping keep the peace in the largest country in Africa has proved to be a substantial challenge in the years after the Great African War, enough so that over 20,000 blue helmets have been authorized to take part in the most recent mission. Despite the size of the mission, the size of the state, twice that of France, has proved to be much more advantageous to Joseph Kony’s crew, granting them the ability to slip in and out of the country without much to-do, allowing them to continue to spread terror through the entirety of the region.

Both missions are enacted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, and call for the use of any means necessary to enact their mandates, the phrase that authorizes the use of force. The fact that both mandates specifically call out the LRA as a threat to international peace and security gives a strong indication of just how seriously the UN and US take the LRA, despite being only approximately 250 individuals in strength.

So with the enormity of the combined missions, which are called upon to coordinate between themselves when it comes to the LRA in SC/Res/1925, the infusion of 100 US advisors could be crucial. Who these advisors will be answering to and how precisely they’ll serve the region isn’t exactly clear from this letter. It’s obvious that they won’t be serving under anyone but a U.S. military officer, but I wonder what mechanisms they’ll have in place to determine which of the several host governments they’ll be offering their expertise to will take precedence. The U.S. has, for the record sent forces to both missions: precisely one military advisor to take MONUSCO and 4 police officers to UNMISS.

The United Nations isn’t mentioned anywhere in the President’s letter, so it doesn’t seem to have been on the mind of whomever in the White House drafted it. It should be on their mind, though. The UNMISS and MONUSCO both have large amounts of forces dedicated to keeping the peace and protecting civilians, particularly against the LRA, and the addition of U.S. logistical help would be a boon to the strapped missions. Also, as Laura Seay points out, the LRA operates in some of the least-governed areas of the world’s weakest states. To have the UN’s support in such places in someways would be better than having that of the host-governments.

The Obama Administration has made working multilaterally one of the lynchpins of their foreign policy, particularly through international institutions, and now would be an ideal time to continue that trend. I’m not advocating integrating these U.S. troops into the missions, but rather sharing information and capabilities when possible. The UNSC approval granted to the missions would also provide a greater amount of legitimacy to the U.S. deployment. It’s clear that the U.S. has arranged for this beforehand with the involved local governments, but coordinating with the UN would bolster the effectiveness of the UN missions and serve as a way to share information and ability with the four states in question. Ignoring the UN’s presence in the region at best would make the overall mission more difficult, at worst add to confusion at an unfortunate time.

October 12, 2011

Iran: Rational state-actor or Bond villain?

I’m slightly hesitant to add my voice to the growing din on this case, but it’s too interesting for me to ignore. For those of you who have been under a rock, yesterday Attorney-General Eric Holder gave a press conference where it was revealed that the Justice Department had broken up a terror plot against the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States. The alleged plotters are in custody, and have been charged in a civilian court in New York; the full criminal complaint can be read here. I hope for your sake that you’re sitting as you read through it. The plotter under questioning fingers several Iranians who are known to be part of the Qods Force, a section of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, as the power behind the plot.

This whole thing takes the meme about Iran being the real-world equivalent of a Bond villain to all new heights. The type of Bond villain is under dispute. People seem to be falling into one of two camps: either Iran is crazy but nowhere near dumb enough for this to make any kind of sense, the scheming, nefarious, white Persian cat trope; or Iran is crazy and yes, just crazy enough to think that this sort of plot is a good idea, the rob Fort Knox to drive up the price of gold style of mastermind. The latter camp is extremely sparse at the moment. The more I read about this case, the more questions I have about just what on Earth is going on, and analysts are at odds with each other across the blogosphere. The theories springing up are multiple: It was a state-sponsored move, backed by the government of Iran and with their full awareness. It was a rogue group of agents, acting on their own to attempt to strike fear into the hearts of the KSA. It was a lone actor with delusions of grandeur that the FBI stoked to new heights.

Saudi Arabia and the United States, for their part, are definitely treating this plot as The Real Thing. Noteworthy is the fact that the Attorney-General himself was the one to announce the whole mess to the public, followed up with by statements from Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has issued a statement where it “strongly denounces and condemns the outrageous and heinous attempt to assassinate its Ambassador to the United States of America”.

Now, supposing Mansour Arbabsiar really was just a guy with delusions of grandeur, the question stands, why would the US bring out the big guns? I can’t think of a reason for the US to throw so much weight and support behind this story if it wasn’t totally sure of its authenticity and it being an actual foreign-based threat. As Daveed Gerstein-Ross stated on Twitter, “Holder weighing in on the plot’s connection to Iran means the administration is deadly serious about it.” Lending that level of credence would only serve to backfire if it turns out the accusations were false or played up, so why risk it? I can’t think of a reason.

What’s more, the US is taking the whole matter to the UN Security Council. Ambassador Susan Rice has been spending the morning giving one-on-one briefings of the details of the matter to the members of the Security Council. The longtime Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, was cautious this morning, but didn’t rule out the possibility that the case was true, saying “It looks rather bizarre but I am not an expert.” Both at the UNSC and unilaterally, the US is looking to ramp up sanctions on Iran as retaliation.

Spence Ackerman, writing for Danger Room, is as confused as everyone else, but notes that if it really was the Qods Force and the mission was signed off on by the government, this is great news for everyone worried about Iran’s growing power in the region. Should it actually be the QF behind it all, then the Cobra Command force of the Middle East is actually more like the Legion of Doom of the Middle East. Neither are as threatening as they think, but the latter is much more laughable in its attempts at world domination, especially when compared to who it’s up against.

Others are using this instance to talk about the Administration’s overarching policy towards Iran, going as far as calling it a failure. James Kittfield of the National Journal wrote over at The Atlantic that the assassination plot shows that the base assumption behind our Iran strategy, that Iran acting as a rational actor, can’t be supported. Robert Haddick of Small Wars Journal states that even if Iran didn’t order this mission from the top, this still says bad things about deterrence policy, since “deterrence is not useful if those to be deterred don’t have complete control over their weapons”. Even if it is the case that the strike was ordered by the QF, I don’t think that we can say that it remotely affects the US’ stance towards Iran when it comes to its nuclear weapons; the US has kept Iran on its list of State-Sponsors of Terrorism for a reason. While supporting terrorism inside the United States would be a huge departure from previous methods used by Iran, this lone incident would not be enough of a reason to shift from a strategy of international isolation, one that has been paying dividends. Further, should this story pan out, would it not show that the Iranian government is having to reach way beyond the normal range of foreign policy tools to attempt to obtain its goals, thus meaning that the strategy is working?

Not everyone is sold on the veracity of the government’s case however. I really don’t even want to bring this up, but Greg Greenwald has a piece that I’m pretty sure was constructed purely based on a template of every other article he’s written at Salon, insisting that the whole thing was made-up or exaggerated far beyond what it should be to give the US a pretext to increase its military actions around the world. As he puts it: “If the Obama administration decided tomorrow that military action against Iran were warranted in response, is there any doubt that large majorities of Americans — and large majorities of Democrats — would support that?” Well, no, I highly doubt that this will be the situation, and in any case, I’m pretty sure Greenwald has been predicting that we’re going to attack Iran for the last five years.

More serious people also have their doubts about the case, centered around several key points.  Scott Peterson at the Christian Science Monitor points out that the scheme doesn’t fit Iran’s typical M.O. when it comes to matters like this, with no apparent cost-benefit analysis that would give much in the event of a success. He also notes that previous Iranian assassinations have only targeted Iranians, never foreigners, and that the choice of Arbabsiar as an agent would be incredibly poorly thought-out.

Steve Clemens, though, lists as a potential motive the intensifying of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s proxy war for regional dominance, pointing out that the Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir “is not a member of the Saudi royal family but is widely considered to be the closest national security adviser and confidant to King Abdullah”. I disagree with his conclusion, however, that “if the US does not take action, then the Saudis will most likely retaliate in ways that will escalate the stakes and tensions with Iran throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia”. Saudi Arabia will not take military action against Iran, despite the arsenal we’ve sold them; the worst thing I can imagine the KSA doing in response would be seeking a way to force Iran out of OPEC, which is in and of itself an improbable feat. Clemens’ colleague/boss Max Fisher takes a more suspect view of the incident, taking neither side for the time being, but noting the oddness of the affair.

Iran, for its part, is denying the whole thing vehemently, as one would expect. What one wouldn’t expect though is the insistence on the part of the Iranian Government that whole thing is part of a plot to distract the worldfrom the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Pause for a second to wrap your heads around that one. The Washington Post has a piece up about the reaction from analysts in Iran, with the consensus forming that there’s no way that President Ahmadinejad or his government had anything to do with this plot, as the security structure of Iran are well out of his hands. Even they have no idea who could have done it, or why, considering even a successful lot would immediately be blamed on Iran, with just as many theories there as here:

Some analysts speculate that the bizarre alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador was engineered by the Revolutionary Guards — but was meant to be discovered by U.S. intelligence — in order to sabotage any possible back-channel talks between Ahmadinejad’s representatives and the United States.

Others dismiss that theory, saying that the Iranian hierarchy’s control of foreign policy is clear. Khamenei makes the important foreign policy decisions, and extensive surveillance by political commissars leaves little room for rogue elements.

For my part, I think this sounds like it has all the makings for an ill-conceived crisis plot by an inexperienced delegate at a Model United Nations conference. As Dan Trombly of Slouching Towards Columbia pointed out though on Twitter, just because it would be extremely stupid is no reason for us to rule out QF entirely; the Cold War was full of plots and schemes that in hindsight sound implausible at best, asinine at worst. It is completely possible to rationally come to a very idiotic decision, as both US history and human nature will tell us; need I mention the Bay of Pigs invasion?

In any case, it is far too soon to be thinking about lessons learned from this incident and changes to our strategy in response, just as it’s too soon to strike the whole thing out as totally fabricated. I’m inclined to believe that the US government wouldn’t have arrested Arbabsiar and charged him in so public a fashion if the facts were shaky. Further, the one question I’d like answered is where did the money that was transferred to an FBI bank account originate from? If this really was the work of a delusional malcontent, that’s a large sum to be able to get wired from a foreign bank. I’m sure that more will come out about this issue in the coming days, but for right now the same facts are in front of everyone right now, and have led to very divergent trains of thought, each supported by the evidence at hand. Everyone needs to just sit back for a bit and let this play out some before making grand policy recommendations.

October 11, 2011

A Smoot Point: Punishing China or Just Ourselves?

Just so you don’t think that I spend all of my time seething at the GOP, let me assure you: I take offense to any stupidity in statecraft, be it from the right or left side of the aisle in Congress. I maintain that Congress really should just stay out of foreign policy as a whole, and this particular issue cuts right to that belief, I feel. The Democrats, seemingly seeking to look tough, are in actuality looking extremely stupid. I presage the rest of this post by saying that I am in no way an international finance expert, but, to be fair, neither is Congress.

If you were to turn on CSPAN 2 later tonight, as wonks are wont to do, you’d see that the Senate has taken up a bill known as the “Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act of 2011”. In late September, Sherrod Jackson (D-OH) introduced on the Senate floor a bill to punish ‘currency manipulators’ who suppress the value of their currency in order to flood the market with cheap goods, boosting their exports to the detriment of other countries. I wonder who they could be talking about. I. Wonder.

In this attempt to take on China and the yuan, I originally opted to let it go, as a bit of political posturing. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) has been the Democrat’s message man in the Senate for the last year and has been strongly backing the bill, which doesn’t surprise me, as he’s been backing the same sort of bill for the last six years. What makes this time different is that it might actually go somewhere. There was a bit of a scene made on the Senate floor the other night surrounding the bill, as GOP Senators sought to hang more amendments on after cloture had passed, resulting in a rules change that remains fascinating for parliamentarians  and giant nerds but overall pointless in the grand scheme of things. These amendments were defeated, leaving room for the bill to move forward to a vote later tonight.

This whole thing intrigued me enough to actually read the text of the Bill, which, written in legalese, is not the most incendiary of documents right off the bat. The short of it is that following passage, the Secretary of the Treasury would be mandated to provide to Congress reports on which countries are unfairly manipulating their currency. Should a country having been found to be manipulating their currency fail to change their ways within 90 days, several actions may be taken, including:

(1) ADJUSTMENT UNDER ANTIDUMPING LAW- For purposes of an antidumping investigation under subtitle B of title VII of the Tariff Act of 1930 (19 U.S.C. 1673 et seq.), or a review under subtitle C of such Act (19 U.S.C. 1675 et seq.), the following shall apply:

(A) IN GENERAL- The administering authority shall ensure a fair comparison between the export price and the normal value by adjusting the price used to establish export price or constructed export price to reflect the fundamental misalignment of the currency of the exporting country.

(B) SALES SUBJECT TO ADJUSTMENT- The adjustment described in subparagraph (A) shall apply with respect to subject merchandise sold on or after the date that is 30 days after the date the currency of the exporting country is designated for priority action pursuant to section 4(a)(3).

My eyes originally glazed over this, before realizing that this was intended to be the bulk of the punishment; my eyes instead gravitated towards the provision that has US officials at international banks refuse loans to the country in question. Which in and of itself is pointless, as while China has received various loans for infrastructure projects from the World Bank, managed to lend more to developing countries in the 2009-2010 period than the Bretton Woods system. But I digress. In any case, I was unfamiliar with the Tariff Act of 1930, or so I thought, so I went to look it up. Turns out, most people know the Tariff Act of 1930 by a far different name: The Smoot-Hawley Act. 

So let’s take a quick second to look at the Unfortunate Implications inherent so far. In the midst of an economic downturn that has shown signs of picking up again, Congress decides to go one step further, and impose tariffs to encourage people to buy local rather than importing goods. It worked so well in the past, why not bring about protectionism round two? This bill’s provisions have several flaws, which were summed up well in a Washington Post op-ed by Robert Samuelson:

Even if this becomes law — not certain — it wouldn’t work for two reasons. In 2010, our imports from China totaled $364 billion. (American exports to China were $86 billion, leaving a deficit of $278 billion.) To be effective, countervailing duties would need to apply to most Chinese imports, but in practice, companies bring cases only for individual products, affecting millions, not billions, of dollars. The process would be cumbersome and time-consuming.

Worse, China might protest any countervailing duties to the World Trade Organization, and it might win. WTO rules permit subsidies that are broad-based rather than those benefiting specific firms or industries, say lawyers. The undervalued RMB might pass muster. If so, China could then retaliate by imposing duties on U.S. exports to China.

Those duties would act in the same function as the counter-tariffs that states imposed on the United States following the passage of Smoot-Hawley. While the giant raise in unemployment that Smoot-Hawley preceded probably would not come to pass following enactment of this bill, it’s doubtful that the thousands of jobs proponents of the bill claim it will spur will actually come to pass. Samuelson goes on to say that what is needed is instead a stronger push-back against China to help prevent further unfair trade practices by Beijing in the future, when subsidized aircraft is the focus of trade disputes rather than textiles, which is where we differ. I will readily agree that China’s practices do more to harm the free-trade system than those of any other state, but I really don’t know that protectionist measures are the way to affect the sort of change that Mr. Samuelson and Senate Democrats are clamoring for.

Another nail in the coffin of this policy’s intellectual rigor is that the yuan has actually be strengthening against the dollar, as the below chart from the Economist shows, as the trade deficit has gone up. So even as the currencies have come closer to reflecting actual disparities of value, China continues to export far more to us than vice-versa. The actual value of the currency is still definitely under-appreciated, with one Wharton School graduate estimating in his thesis that is currently hovering around 35% undervaluation. A correction to a more accurate 4 yuan to the dollar may alter China’s overall economic outlook as exports decline and cheaper alternatives fill the market. However, I don’t think that such a correction, which this bill seeks, will manage to change much in the deficit that matters, the one between the United States and China.

The Economist Graph

Via @TheEconomist

Despite my reservations, it seems that the Senate isn’t listening to me. Given the ease with which the bill passed cloture, which requires sixty votes, the bill is certain to pass through the upper chamber of Congress. Even the normally uber-conservative Senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions, has come out in favor of this bill.  The future of this bill is in no way certain though, and there are doubts as to whether it will become law at all. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is on the record saying that the House won’t take up the bill until the White House makes its position on it more clear, something that the Obama Administration has been loathe to do.  While President Obama has said that he supports the goals of the legislation if not the method, there’s been no release of an official Statement of Administration Policy on the matter.

I’m not saying that China’s trade practices aren’t a concern and don’t merit a healthy amount of condemnation. That’s not even mentioning the abysmal state of human rights in Chinese factories and the fair-trade standards that are routinely ignored for the sake of profits and feeding the Chinese economic engine. But the place for such determinations of fair-play are at the bilateral discussion table and at the World Trade Organization, not in the halls of Congress. I’m a solid Democrat, but when reactionary bills come forward and the lines are divided more clearly by “which party introduced it” rather than “is it a good idea?” something is horribly wrong with the way policy is created.

October 5, 2011

The GOP’s Mister Magoo Moment

First of all, I’d like to thank my friend Millie over at Fittingly for linking this blog in a post the other day. Also apropos are thanks to Capitol Hill Gang for linking as well, as it’s the first blog run by a complete stranger to actually read my work. Progress? I can guarantee that neither of you will see a spike in readership from your generosity but linked you are nonetheless.

In any case, after that last lengthy post, we now return to what is rapidly becoming our basic format on At Water’s Edge: an extended pop-culture metaphor serving as the framing mechanism for the IR-ish current events topic of choice. I may one day grow tired of writing these kinds of posts. But today is not that day. The comparison subject du jour is none other than The Nearsighted Mister Magoo. Why that man never invested in a solid pair of bifocals is beyond me. His stubbornness caused mishaps of the outlandish comedic variety, often drawing humor from the irony involved with Mister Magoo putting himself in grave danger unbeknownst to him but perfectly clear to the observing audience. The inability to see too much further than an inch past his face led me far too quickly to realize that he is the perfect symbol for Republican’s extremely nearsighted budget cutting mania, especially when it comes to the Foreign Aid budget.

In fact, ‘extremely nearsighted’ is putting it mildly and indeed gently when it comes to the overarching determination to shrink the size of the Federal government. I’m, if you could not tell, in favor of greater Federal power over the states, but I can understand the arguments that states’ rights people make in certain regards; when the country was founded, the Constitution was intended to truly bind the states into one country, while still preserving large swaths of independence. However, the world, the country, and even the Constitution, has evolved since those times, in ways that the established norms that were at the forefront of thought at the drafting of the Constitution could not predict nor would they be entirely applicable as a frame of reference in many of today’s issues. In areas like education, I can almost understand why some would advocate a reduction of government spending and an increase in the power of the states to determine their own course. When it comes to matters of national security and foreign affairs though, you really can’t make anything that resembles a Tenth Amendment argument. No debate is needed about the Constitutionality of the Federal government providing structures to advance foreign affairs. These are the issues that precipitated the very necessity of the Constitution; you need the Federal government to draw up the agenda and make the decisions necessary for the US to play on the world stage, in a way that fifty competing states just can’t.

Despite this need, the common defense provided for by the Preamble of the Constitution only extends as far as the armed services in the eyes of many. It’s ridiculously easy for GOP candidates and elected officials alike to take on straw-man Federal targets that the Republican Party thinks aren’t useful, or are over-bloated, or wasteful. These are all valid points in some areas, but not when it comes to the foreign policy mechanisms of the Federal government. The items in the budget under fire are some of the most important parts of the Federal government when it comes to keeping Americans safe, at home and abroad, at least on the same par as the deterrence that our armed forces represent. The United States is a poor target for states militarily due to the very basic fact that state-to-state, we still possess the hard power to take out almost any adversary in a blaze of blinding glory. There are maybe five states that could one day serve as an actual threat to the United States militarily, even less that would rate the level of existential threat. What you see instead of true sabre-rattling and actual military threats by states that disagree with or would wish to harm the United States is either support of various non-state actors who then act kinetically against the US and its allies or a slandering of the United States in the hopes that their views become a meme, part of the overarching narrative in global affairs today. The latter is what the US needs to get far better at preventing, because what’s the point of military deterrence when you lose every fight that isn’t on the battlefield? You can steamroll everyone’s army, but if nobody likes you enough to support any of your goals aside from at the barrel of a gun, what’s the point?

Arguments can be made that by sheer size of its economy that it makes it impossible for the US to be ignored, but the fact still remains that even trade alone does not make for partners whose goals align in lockstep with yours (see: the US and China). This need to influence other states without bombing or buying them makes particularly attractive Joseph Nye’s idea of soft power, a concept that the majority of Republican officials these days refuse to even acknowledge exists except to mock it. Strategically this makes no sense: When you can attract instead of deter, it makes things a lot simpler in terms of getting your way and is far, far cheaper in the long run.

As it stands, however, the Department of State is taking hits across the board, facing huge budget cuts as we (finally) begin discussing the FY 2012 budget.

As lawmakers scramble to trim the swelling national debt, both the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate have proposed slashing financing for the State Department and its related aid agencies at a time of desperate humanitarian crises and uncertain political developments. The proposals have raised the specter of deep cuts in food and medicine for Africa, in relief for disaster-affected places like Pakistan and Japan, in political and economic assistance for the new democracies of the Middle East, and even for the Peace Corps.

The financial crunch threatens to undermine a foreign policy described as “smart power” by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, one that emphasizes diplomacy and development as a complement to American military power. It also would begin to reverse the increase in foreign aid that President George W. Bush supported after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as part of an effort to combat the roots of extremism and anti-American sentiment, especially in the most troubled countries.

Given the relatively small foreign aid budget — it accounts for 1 percent of federal spending over all — the effect of the cuts could be disproportional.

The State Department already has scaled back plans to open more consulates in Iraq, for example. The spending trend has also constrained support for Tunisia and Egypt, where autocratic leaders were overthrown in popular uprisings. While many have called for giving aid to these countries on the scale of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild European democracies after World War II, the administration has been able to propose only relatively modest investments and loans, and even those have stalled in Congress.

Emphasis on the last paragraph cannot be stressed enough. In a time of global upheaval, where the world is looking to the United States for more than just military support, we’re instead severing ties, making it all the more likely that incoming rulers in states affected by the Arab Spring and other revolutionary movements will be that much less influenced by the United States, let alone friendly.

And let’s bear in mind just how little cutting the budget of the State Department will affect the overall budget, deficits and national debt. Over on Duck of Minerva, they’ve come up with an impressive list of analogies, about how little these cuts will help the overall budget crisis. My favorite has to be “Cutting foreign aid to address the budget crisis is like getting your hair cut in an effort to lose weight.” Numerous polls have proven that the American public has no earthly idea how much the US spends on its foreign aid, in March calling for the foreign aid budget to be cut from 25% of the budget to 10% of the budget. The problem, as anyone who reads cares about this stuff enough to actually read this knows, is that the actual percentage is close to 1. 1%.  As Josh Lyman once put it “68% of respondents think we hand out too much in foreign aid, 59% think it should be cut”, once again proving that The West Wing is applicable in nearly any situation.

Also of concern is that the same spending cuts are also threatening the growth of the Foreign Service:

Among the largest House subcommittee reductions was a nearly 20 percent cut in the funds that pay for Foreign Service officers and the civilians who support them. In justifying this action, the subcommittee report said it eliminated funds sought for 184 new staff because since 2008, some 1,622 Foreign Service officers and 1,001 civilians had been hired above attrition.

Ramping down the Foreign Service is about the worst idea you could possibly have at this time. As we begin cuts in our military which will necessarily affect our global strategy, and many people on both sides of the aisle say are necessary, we have to have some way to leverage US power into actually policy decisions by other states that benefit us. The most cost-effective way that we can maintain American prestige is to hire more Foreign Service Officers as the number of soldiers decrease, a strategy that Secretary Clinton has followed over the past several years, as can be seen by the amount of growth since 2008. To slow that growth is a tremendous mistake right now.

Now, I said “majority of Republicans” earlier, because there are most certainly vocal advocates of the benefits of smart power, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Secretary Gates spoke together with Secretary Clinton numerous times on the idea of smart power, to Congress and to the public, in ways that you would think would carry more weight than coming from State alone. Here you have the leader of the Department of Defense begging and pleading that the military be given more civilian support in keeping the peace, and the Congress saying ‘no’. In fact, with the proposed cuts, it seems to be more of a ‘hell no’. Shouted through a megaphone. The fact that the all-star combo of Clinton/Gates was ignored by Congress on advocating smart power says a lot to me about how little I want the Legislative Branch determining foreign policy. Granted, given their power of the purse some involvement is inevitable. But to use their platform to dash foreign aid against the rocks by strangling it to death, to mix metaphors, is atrocious.

The State Department is not alone in the crosshairs. USAID also took a hit in the same House subcommittee, going from $1.5B requested to $900M, which could seriously undermine the strategy laid out in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. What’s more, that perennial foe of the Republican party, the United Nations, is a prime target this Congress. The 1980s saw the US withdrawing from UNESCO due to objections of the Reagan Administration over the agenda. The US went into arrears in the 1990s as the United States refused to pay the entirety of its dues. Only through a push by Ted Turner the United Nations Foundation’s Better World Campaign and the results of a bipartisan effort were we able to pay off our debt and become members in good standing again. Already, those efforts are under threat, as we are currently $736M in debt to the UN. Thanks, House of Representatives.

Well, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtenin is at it again. Earlier this year, after being handed the gavel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Congresswoman convened hearings in January titled “The United Nations: Urgent Problems that Need Congressional Action” and in April called “Reforming the United Nations: The Future of U.S. Policy” with Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice testifying. The latest salvo, H.R. 2829, the United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011, was introduced in late August to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  Despite the bill’s title, filled with words that few people could disagree with, the bill would put unrealistic pressure on the Secretariat to produce changes that would be more detrimental than actually improving the UN. The GOP has long called for a ‘voluntary’ model for paying for the UN, in essence cherry-picking what it does and does not want to support and pay for, else the US would reduce its payments by half. In addition, the bill, if passed, would end U.S. funding for any UN agency that does not sign a special “transparency certification” with the U.S. Comptroller General. And it would cut U.S. funding to any UN entity tasked with implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be to have the US’ vote in the General Assembly withdrawn due to lack of payment? In addition, lawmakers seem to be missing out on the fact that the United Nations is the best foreign policy investment we could ever hope to make. In the January testimony, Better World Campaign Executive Director Peter Yeo stated that for every dollar of US investment in the UN, it delivers $1.50 in investment in American firms and companies. The same could most certainly not be said in the case of military spending in Iraq. Also, according to Ambassador Susan Rice in an interview on PBS in 2009, “if the US was to act on its own – unilaterally – and deploys its own forces in many of these countries, for every dollar the US would spend, the UN can accomplish the mission for twelve cents”.  So to fix the budget, the GOP would have us spend eight times as much on foreign intervention, or cut off all overseas missions. Sounds right to me. Thankfully, there’s been plenty of pushback against this bill, which never stands a chance of passage through the US Senate or not being vetoed by President Obama. That the GOP can score points this way though is highly disturbing.

Despite all of my arguments, it does stand to reason that it is hard to explain to American citizens why their money is going “over there” to build schools and roads when our infrastructure is crumbling, disaster relief when people are still struggling from last year’s oil spill in the Gulf, and food when we have children starving in our inner cities. The simplest of answers is “because we can”; that despite all of the economic hardships our country has had in the past three years, we are still the richest and most powerful state on Earth, and to turn our backs on the rest of the world would be callous beyond reason. The less altruistic view is the one that I ascribe to, that this foreign aid helps keep the world safer and America strong abroad, which is a necessity in a world that has shrunk down as we become more connected. To cut the knees out from under the foreign policy mechanisms now is amazingly short-sighted; this is a time where we need more friends abroad, not fewer, and withdrawing from the initiatives of the Foreign Service and the United Nations will undoubted prove detrimental in the long-run. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration floated the idea of combining the budgets of the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom, and DHS into a “unified security budget”. It’s an idea that’s worth discussing, but unfortunately, the GOP can’t see past their own face, or rather their next election, where the idea of cutting defense in favor of agricultural support seems downright un-American. The Mr. Magoo cartoons made light of the issue of myopia, but when it comes to the United States, it’s no laughing matter.

October 5, 2011

Base Assumptions: Predicting China’s First Overseas Naval Base

Alright, I know that in my introspective post on international relations theory I discussed moving away from the idea of Great Power politics as a baseline for IR, and it’s true, there’s too many factors in this multilinear world to allow ourselves to get caught up on just one factor, states. But let’s be real here: Great Power politics are just more interesting. Period. I can’t go full-on realist ever, but if you try to tell me that the machinations of states as they struggle for primacy is anything less than fascinating, you will receive the coldest of shoulders from me. There’s a reason that Paul Kennedy is still one of my favorite historians, and that’s because his subject matter is intriguing. Besides, even in a world that is without poles in some areas, there are still concentrations of power that exists in the hands of a few select countries. So is the case with China, my second area of intellectual fascination after the UN.

In any case, over the last few months, there’s been a goodly amount of buzz on the blogosphere about the implications of China launching a refurbished Russian aircraft carrier under the flag of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Despite the chatter, it looks like the Pentagon doesn’t much care about the deployment, though keeping an eye on supposed carrier-killing missiles that China is developing, as actually being able to use these tools effectively is going to take many, many more years.

That doesn’t change the fact that China’s Navy is now able to be considered a blue water navy, to a certain extent, capable of operating far beyond China’s shores. Operations have been taking place in the Indian Ocean for years now to head off Somali piracy and protect key shipping lanes. As the map from Wired Magazine below shows, a huge amount of sea traffic follows well-established routes and a great deal of that cargo is going to and from Shanghai and other Chinese coastal cities.

Major Shipping Routes 2009

Overseas methods are still far cheaper than overland or flight when it comes to transporting goods and materials. Wars have been fought and most likely will be fought to either control these routes of trade or to ensure that they remain open for the world to use. China’s navy is going to have to do one or the other one day, much to the chagrin of the US Navy, which sees itself as the protector of the seas around the world.

To become a true global naval power on the level of the United States, if not to become the dominant force on the seas to at least ensure that encroachment by the US to shut off trade is unable to occur, China is going to need someplace to shore up, refuel, and project its power from, away from the Chinese shoreline. At present, the Chinese military has sought to protect its sea lines of communication along what has been dubbed the “String of Pearls” [PDF], a set of friendly and often Chinese-built ports along the most critical of China’s sea lines of communication. The pearls fall along the line between the Horn of Africa and Hong Kong, including the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca among other potential choke points and has been used by the Chinese government to illustrate the non-offensive nature of the PLAN. This message of non-interference has made up the core of Chinese foreign policy for decades, even as it shows double-digit increases to its military budget annually.

All of these ports are owned and operated by their host country however, and despite close ties remain out of Chinese control. Memorandums of understanding are all well and good, but in a time of extreme need what is to stop the attempt to deny entry into these safe harbors? Granted, it’s an unlikely scenario that any of these locations would have the naval capability of deflecting a Chinese fleet, but why take the risks? What’s more, none of these ports are military in nature, instead being for commercial use only. That begs the question: where will the first permanent Chinese overseas naval base be located?

I’m not concerned about when or if this is going to take place – the fact is that it will happen and most likely within the next ten to fifteen years (which I am well aware is the most comfortable of projections for anyone unsure of a date). As I said before, sea routes are arguably as important now as they were over a hundred years ago for enabling trade, barring some unforeseen increase in technology that makes the air domain cheaper than transport by sea. As the PRC continues to grow and interact more with Latin America and Africa, seeking new markets sell its finished products and access to greater and greater amounts of raw materials that the Chinese mainland doesn’t possess, the eventual need to begin to set up and maintain overseas bases is as apparent as America’s in the 19th Century. Where that base is built will be much more key and display more about China’s potential strategic outlook than the timing around it. As a caveat, I’m not speaking of establishing bases in the context of colonization of an entire area and population, but rather as leased land to provide an area to establish ports, much as the United States currently has in Guantanamo Bay, Bahrain, or Okinawa. Furthermore, this is not meant to be like so many other ominous “China is a threat” posts on the blogosphere; this doesn’t presume that China means to attack the United States or anything ridiculous like that, rather that China, like all states, has strategic interests and can and will use a forward-projection of force to protect them when within its capability. I don’t see China acting in the manner of the United States soon and projecting forces outside its strategic interests.

As far as I can tell, there are three serious potential locales for the first permanent base: in the Gulf of Aden, on one of the Spratly Islands, or on the Indian subcontinent. The last is much less likely than the first two, but I include it for reasons I’ll get into soon. A base in Latin America also came to mind but I’m ruling it out for three reasons. First, it’s a bridge too far, no matter the close ties between China and countries on the Pacific coast of the continent like Venezuela. The idea of placing your very first overseas base at the outer edges of your naval capacity sounds like a recipe for disaster; any additional trade benefits would be hampered by the amount of fuel-carrying ships that would be needed just to get to the base in the first place. Second, trade that current exists between China and Latin America would almost certainly improve from the addition of a Chinese naval base, it currently would not be worth the investment. Third, and almost more importantly, no matter what rhetorical sparring China and the US may get into from time to time, I am positive that China is in no hurry to provoke the United States in what would surely be labeled a gross violation of the Monroe Doctrine and inflame tensions to unheard of heights, especially in a Congress that is already spooked by China’s rise.

Bearing those things in mind, we’ll begin with the least likely candidate that is still in the running: the Indian subcontinent. The Financial Times back in May report that Pakistan was inviting China to go beyond a request to take over operations at a port in the southwest of the country but instead build a permanent base:

“We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar,” Chaudhary Ahmed Mukhtar, Pakistan’s defence minister, told the Financial Times, confirming that the request was conveyed to China during a visit last week by Yusuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s prime minister.

This request was then turned down by a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman two days later.

It’s easy to see why China would reject the offer. While a naval base in Pakistan would allow for easy projection into the Indian Ocean, the costs that would come from such a move would far outweigh the advantages. First, it can be pretty easily seen that the Pakistani offer was intended to be a message to the United States in the wake of the Osama bin Laden raid. Pakistan has been working over the past several months to show the United States that it could just as easily have China as its partner in military and strategic issues, hoping to lessen the pressure for changes in Pakistani strategy against terrorist cells that operate within its borders. This message, “we don’t need you, we can take our business elsewhere”, was muted by the Chinese in a setback to Pakistan’s tactics but it isn’t clear that Pakistan would have gone through with the plan should China have accepted.

Second, constructing a base out of Pakistan would cause India to be even more nervous about Pakistan than they currently are, which is no mean feat. Having India go from a competitor for markets to a full-scale adversary is absolutely nowhere on the Chinese plan for a peaceful rise. This in turn would force the United States to choose between supporting India as a counterweight to China and Pakistan’s somewhat shaky partnership in combating terrorism. Should the US choose India, this places pressure on the China/India border while destabilizing Pakistan further, just what you want when the naval bases that the host country owns are coming under attack, let alone a foreign controlled base. In fact, just today, China has cancelled what was supposed to be Pakistan’s largest foreign-investment deal, due to concerns about security. A naval base would be both more and less secure than a coal mining operation, more secure but a much more likely target for assault.

This takes us to the second choice in the Gulf of Aden, off Africa’s eastern coast. The Gulf acts as the bridge between the Horn of Africa and the greater Indian Ocean. This in turn makes it the prime hunting ground for Somalia based pirates. Indeed, the Gulf of Aden has been one of the most dangerous waterways in the world for the last half decade, even with naval forces from the United States, France, India and China all patrolling the waters. China’s eighth patrol and escort flotilla recently returned from the Gulf, with a ninth already deployed. These patrol fleets are currently allowed to refuel at a French naval base, after the initial wave kept at sea for 124 days without docking, a logistical challenge that is avoided with ownership of a base.

Despite the dangers, the area is extremely vital to international trade. As the map above shows, a huge amount of traffic flows through the Gulf, as ships pass through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean at-large on their way around the Arabian peninsula and towards East Asia. Oil tankers are frequent travelers in the Gulf of Aden and China is dependent on the crude and refined that makes its way through. Were the area to become fully crippled by pirates, or the strait were to be closed by force, it would be a crucial blow to China’s ability to support itself. Any attempt by any navy,  other than the United States for now, to attempt to close the Gulf of Aden or the Bab-el-Mandeb will quickly find itself facing China’s ire.

China’s continued presence in the area makes it a natural for speculation about potential permanent bases. In December 2009, Chinese Admiral Yin Zhou gave an interview that was subsequently posted to the defense ministry’s website, suggesting that a permanent base in the Gulf of Aden would be beneficial to Chinese patrols, saying “I think a permanent, stable base would be good for our operations”. The defense ministry website being as tightly controlled, if not more, than the rest of Chinese media, the interview was most certainly sanctioned by the PLA. But two days after the interview went live, an article was posted in the China Daily, China’s English-language newspaper, quoting the Defense Ministry as saying that “Some countries have set up overseas supply bases (but) the Chinese fleet is currently supplied at sea and through regular docking”. The quick turnaround in this retraction is most likely due to international concern about the strategic meaning behind actually announcing its first base. In this particular instance, the test balloon was quickly shot down and avowed to have never existed.

The problem with a scenario where China breaks ground in the Horn of Africa or to the opposite side of the Bab-el-Mandeb is one of increasingly shrinking options for a proper host country with access to the Gulf of Aden. An option that came to mind was the former French colony of Djibouti, but it would seem that the Chinese have missed the proverbial boat there. Japan has instead opted to build its first overseas military base in this small country, for the very reasons that China would be wise to take up a stance in the Gulf: protecting trading ships from piracy. It’s worth noting that Japan’s decision to take this step was not met with nearly the same sort of intense speculation as China’s pondering. In any case, Djibouti is not likely to place host to two separate navies patrolling the same area. On the Arabian peninsula, Yemen has far too many problems for China to consider investing money and resources in building a naval base there. The payoff of constructing a stronghold would be far outweighed by increasing ties with President Saleh at a time where his regime is increasingly isolated and desperate. And so Yemen is duly ruled out.

This leaves the most likely location in this region as the relatively young state of Eritrea. After gaining its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has managed to stagnate in terms of growth and regress in human rights. Not that this matters to the People’s Republic, which maintains strong ties with Eritrea, serving as one of the impoverished state’s largest trading partners. The influx of money that would surely come with the construction of such a base and hosting of the Chinese navy would be a strong draw for Eritrea, as well as solidifying its link to China.

That brings us to the final option, the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea. I can already hear some people saying that this should not count as an option, as in China’s view, the islands are part of Chinese territory anyway. We’ll come back to that argument, but for now we’ll treat it the others, as locating a naval base on any of the Spratly Islands would be far enough removed from mainland China to make an impact on force projection.

Compared to Pakistan and the Gulf of Aden, this could very easily be seen as the conventional choice. As mentioned briefly, the Chinese lay claim to the entirety of the island chain, making it not outside the realm of possibility that arming the islands and constructing bases would be forthcoming to protect its territory. Relatively close to China, the islands could serve as a forward point as Guantanamo Bay at Cuba did for the United States at the initiation of the lease.

Aside from shoring up Chinese claims to the South China sea, the strategic value of having ships launch from the Spratly islands is clear. Such a base could easily be used to ensure that the Malacca Strait, between Malaysia and Indonesia, remains open to commercial vessels at all times and free of piracy. The strait is extremely important to international trade, as 25% of the world’s oil moves through it every year, as well as the mind-boggling statistic of 40% of the world’s trade total, making it a strategic chokepoint. Currently, the area is patrolled by the Indian Navy to prevent piracy, as part of a partnership with Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. The litorral states are well aware of the fact that China would rather patrol the area itself, but have strove to keep the Malacca Strait from becoming a flashpoint for the big powers, namely China, India, Japan and the United States.

All of this leads neatly into the main problem with calling the Spratly Islands the most likely choice of the location of China’s first overseas base. The Spratly Islands, for all their desolation and unproven mineral resources, are in part or in whole claimed by several states in the region, including China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Taiwan. While People’s Liberation Army has issued several declarations of ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the chain, others are not so easily convinced. Tensions have gotten even more tense over the last several years, with more aggressive Chinese claims being viewed warily by other states in the region, culminating in Chinese patrol boats clashing with Vietnamese oil and gas survey ships.

Moving so boldly in the region would be a near total reversal of China’s current foreign policy, which stresses its peaceful rise above all else. Any advantage that could be seen gained from constructing a base on the Spratlys would be outweighed could be counterbalanced by moving more neighbors into the camp of other powers in the region. At the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) meeting this summer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on all parties in the conflict to back up their claims to the Islands with legal facts, veering off from the US’ historical preference of taking no sides whatsoever in the dispute. Vietnam is also partnering with India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation to explore the areas around the islands it lays claim to, a move that has disturbed the Chinese, and lends credence to the fact that India is moving to take advantage of the fears a rising China stokes. In East Asia, as anywhere, when the beginnings of hegemony are seen, states who wish to preserve the status quo will band together to act as a counterweight to the rising state. It was true in Europe as Germany united, precipitating the alliance between the UK and France, and it can be seen here, though China is doing its very best to take as few actions as possible that push states into banding together in an anti-Chinese alliance. Militarizing the Spratly Islands would only inflame others in the region, and lead to even greater mistrust of Chinese intentions, and benefit India and the United States.

After weighing all of these options, I’m inclined to believe that Africa wins out in terms of the most strategic return on investment for China. The economic imperative of protecting the shipping lanes in and near the Gulf of Aden and the lack of geopolitical cost in setting up shop there makes it the ideal location, especially when compared to the other two. Constructing a base in Eritrea will serve the Chinese well, by allowing for the long-range missions necessary for keeping the commons open, and acting as a Western anchor to the range of the Chinese Navy, which will then have a vast swath of the Indian Ocean well within its reach. Will this actually come to pass anytime soon? I suppose that we will just have to wait and see, but I know that I, for one, will be ready to pull up this post at a moment’s notice when it’s finally proven or disproven. Your move, PLAN.

October 1, 2011

The Democrats really could use a foreign policy Girl Talk

First of all, I stand by my title fully and totally. I know that coming off of the Venezuela is the Lady Gaga of the United Nations article that I run the risk of overloading on pop culture references far too early in this blog’s life. But I have an article on China’s potential naval future that’s almost done, and I wanted something light before I drop that heavy knowledge on you.

Onward. Before continuing with this post, if you have never listened to mashup artist Greg Gillis, BKA Girl Talk, stop reading. Go download his albums right now. I’ll wait. I don’t care if you don’t think you like mashups, you’ll love this. Girl Talk’s music consists almost entirely of samples of another songs, that have been spliced and remixed and blended together into all new songs. Over the years he’s gotten tremendously good at it, to the point that I can’t listen to some of the songs he samples with then immediately progressing on to the next few bars of his version.

When listening to all this though, all you hear is great music. When you listen to it on somewhere like Mashup Breakdown that actually details all the pieces that went into the work, you start to get a better understanding of the parts that make it up, things that you never would have thought would go together, like Queen and the Jackson 5.

All of this is to say that this seemingly effortless blending of what were once unrelated into something new and lasting is something that the Democrats as of late have been horrible at. I don’t just mean their general messaging, which is always rocky at best. I’m specifically talking about their foreign policy messaging.

Take for a starter yesterday’s killing of US-born cleric cum al-Qaeda frontman Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen. No matter how you stand on the matter, the fact is that his death is something that in the past Republicans would base whole campaigns around. The 2004 presidential elections were based almost entirely on national security matters, with the view that Republicans absolutely trounced the Democrats when it comes to protecting the country. Now with yet another terrorist leader on the big “We Got ‘Im” board that I’m sure exists on the Situation Room’s wall, posted right under Osama bin Laden, President Obama can be seen as a true leader when it comes to keep us safe, right? Nope.

Like it or not, the Democrats have had a very difficult time of connecting their myriad policies into anything cohesive. What they need to get much better at is taking areas where they have traditionally been strong and blending them with where they have been seen as weak, using the former to bolster the latter and give new credence to their ideas overall. A policy mashup, if you will.

But how could this be done, you ask? What are some areas that would be an ideal testing of this notion? I’m glad you asked. What really got me thinking about this as a whole is the stunning inability of the Democrats to reframe the climate change debate. For the last decade, the overarching narrative of the green movement has been the case of hippies who care more about owls than people versus businesses that just want to keep Americans employed and can’t do so under tons of environmental regulations. This is an extremely stupid narrative, one that denies that climate change even exists, but it’s latched onto the American psyche like a bear trap.

Attempts by the Democrats to take this movement and mix it with their strength on the economy has failed, as a case where two positives somehow make a negative. Yes, the Democrats have had a traditional advantage on economic issues, and yes, there is no disputing the Democratic leadership on climate matters. Democrats pushed hard on the notion that investment in cleaning up the environment would produce more jobs and help pull the US out of recession. The two strengths in tandem, however, only led to an easy opening for Republicans to tar the Waxman-Markey bill as more Democratic tax and spending, playing right into their trap of allowing the right to claim that there were no good ideas for the recovery of the economy.

I think that a new approach is needed. The Democrats have to find a way to take traditional policies and ideas and intertwine them in areas that President Obama is seen currently as virtually unassailable: foreign policy. Absolutely nobody thought that this would be the conventional wisdom a little over a year out of the 2012 election, but here we are. The Republicans are inevitably going to nominate someone with little foreign policy experience and, odd as it may seem, they are going to take a pounding for it. More to come on that in pending posts.

So we have President Obama speaking from a place of strength on national security, but where does that leave economic measures and environmentalists? This is where the Girl Talk model comes in. Economic issues are often spoken of by Democrats as a matter of fairness and equality, breaking down barriers, and a society where everyone is looking out for everyone else, which I totally agree with. But that message is just is not hitting home for voters right now, no matter how basically it is stated. What needs to happen is a greater emphasis on the economic state of the United States as a national security issue. This has been done in fits and starts such as by now-former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, and more often by Republicans like Jon Huntsman,  but these statements tend to indicate that the size of the national debt is the only piece that actually counts against us in security terms. In reality, the United States’ greatest strength lies in its economic potential, not its military resources, because without the former we find ourselves as a much larger version of the DPRK, all muscle with no skeleton to back it up.

Obama’s American Jobs Act has been said to have the potential to forestall another recession and raise the the country’s GDP by at least a small amount in the coming year. All of this puts the US in a much safer position in security terms than if we were to enter another period of negative growth. President Obama’s barnstorming across the country, though, has been couched in the language of Democrats in the past: “It isn’t class warfare, it’s math”. Which is great and all, but doesn’t have the same impact as “this bill will keep us all safe”.

The same thing can be said of the environmental movement. If you really want to jump-start efforts towards climate change legislation, it needs to be played up as a matter affecting our national security. The fact of the matter is that as climate change alters environments around the world, we are going to see a massive amount of migration and shifting of state borders, as some states such as the Maldives are set to disappear all together as waters rise. Rising temperatures also forewarn of more desertification and greater food insecurity. These things lead to greater instability and increase the very factors that make extremism and terrorism appealing to youth across the globe. When everything is awful, why not use violence to attempt to make things better, especially violence against the place that seems like it managing to be the greatest contributor to but least affected by climate change. Forestalling climate change needs to be rightly labeled as a top security concern.

Finally, education reform could also stand with being remixed and advanced in a national security light. The US still has the greatest number of top institutions of higher education in the world. But the country is continuing to drop lower and lower on scales of countries with students that excel in math and science. The system has been broken for years, but education has been and remains a top concern for Democrats. What needs to be said to really drive this home would be something along the lines of: “America has succeeded because America has long had the smartest people, the most able people, working diligently to further our advances in the sciences and in turn making life better for us all. Without American advancing in computing, the smartphone in your hand would not exist. Without the men and women of the Manhattan Project, there would have been no atomic bomb, preventing the deaths of thousands of soldiers in World War II. The United States remains the most advanced technological society on earth, and for us to continue to our way of life against those who would do us harm, we must retain that position”. To allow our students to stagnate should be seen as a risk that the United States simply can’t take.

This new approach wouldn’t be a magic bullet to Democratic messaging woes, obviously, and could be met with calls of “fear-mongering” by the right, which I would find a delicious irony. In my view, investing in ourselves and our future has to be considered of the utmost priority to any real US security strategy. I further think this blending of ideas is a way that could get the Democrats to finally achieve some of what both liberal and moderate members of their party have been craving for the last three years. In turn, foreign policy and international security need to be viewed in a broader framework than the bombs and bullets dominated work of the past.

Granted, there are some Democrats working in foreign policy that believe this as well and are working on their own innovative ways to make this happen. Alec Ross’ work at the Department of State comes to mind, using social media as a way to make foreign policy operate better. But Mr. Ross works more in the background; you don’t really see him on the Sunday morning talk shows. Further, what I’m thinking is less operational and more big picture, the sort of thing that we saw in the development of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review under Secretary Clinton to match up with the Quadrennial Defense Review over at DoD, but with a greater public face to it.

So where does that leave the Democrats? As of this moment, nowhere. Instead of finding new mashups to put out and make into earworms, enticing people to view their ideas from a new angle, we see them playing their Greatest Hits collection. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people seem to be listening, and rehashing the same old songs just make it easier for their sounds to be cancelled out by the GOP. All of this spells trouble not just for Democrats but the United States as a whole.