Wednesday, April 30, 2014

isolationist America?

No. Don't believe what you read today. The Wall Street Journal frontpages its latest poll, citing one question as decisive and concluding

Americans Want to Pull Back From World Stage, Poll Finds

Wait a minute. What their survey showed was that 47% of the people wanted a "less active" foreign policy, compared with 14% just after the 9/11 attacks.

Other surveys, such as the regular ones by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, show strong support for international engagement -- percentages in the 70s throughout the post-9/11 decade. If the question is worded whether the US should be world policeman, however, you get 70% disagreement.

What's happened is that the American public has soured on foreign military adventures, worries about the rise of China and the threat of nuclear proliferation, is conflicted about the benefits of economic globalization, but still sees the importance of an active role in world affairs and international institutions. That's a balanced and prudent judgment, not a retreat into isolationism.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

when do sanctions work?

A blogger at the Washington Post draws on academic research to conclude that economic sanctions have worked only 13 times since the end of World War I. It's an interesting list, notably because most of the examples were ones I never heard of. They also were for comparatively small changes by the sanctioned countries. 

The list doesn't include the anti-apartheid sanctions against South Africa, which I think proved effective. Nor does it include the U.S. refusal to support the British pound during the Suez crisis, which forced Anthony Eden to back down.

The broader lesson is that multilateral sanctions are more influential, if not decisive, when they are imposed by a large segment of the international community. That's what has worked on Iran, And it's why Russia will feel little pressure no matter what the U.S. does until the big European economies crack down, as they so far have been reluctant to do. "Feel good" sanctions that aren't widely shared only punish the sanctioners.

who's losing Iraq?

Looks like the Maliki government.

The WSJ has a discouraging article assessing the Iraqi military.  Some quotes:

"Despite nearly a decade of training from U.S. troops, the Iraqi army remains, by comparison, poorly equipped and far less motivated, say Iraqi politicians, Gen. Dulaimi and Hisham Hashemi, an Iraqi researcher on armed groups who is in regular touch with militants in Anbar.
"Even the most basic maneuvers can stymie the Iraqi military. Regional commanders who lack basic knowledge of military logistics often are clumsy when transporting food for soldiers on the move, leaving many enlistees to scrounge for themselves or go hungry, say officers and observers.

"Without meals, some soldiers simply leave. Though there are no official statistics, military personnel cite desertion as a persistent and growing problem, particularly for troops deployed in Anbar and other areas to the north where ISIS is active."

American soldiers who helped train the Iraqi military say that Iraqis abandoned the organizational and educational infrastructure U.S. forces had hoped would perpetuate a professional military.
"The whole concept of developing a professionalized security force just stopped right there with the [end of the] U.S. presence," says Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, who was the chief of the U.S. military's Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq, which is in charge of training troops, from September 2011 until May 2013.

Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, has proved unable to resolve the gridlock among the country's three main political blocs: Arab Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. With his army unprepared to handle the fallout, foreign diplomats, politicians and analysts say Mr. Maliki is governing over a state that is failing in slow motion.

"Partnership failed in Baghdad," says Fouad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdistan's regional president, Massoud Barzani. "After the election, if we cannot work together as three groups—Sunnis, Shias and Kurds—then Iraq is headed toward collapse."

Obama on the defensive

In a news conference at the end of his Asia trip, President Obama lashed out at critics of his foreign policy. Here's a major chunk of what he said:
My job as Commander-in-Chief is to deploy military force as a last resort, and to deploy it wisely.  And, frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests. 

So if you look at Syria, for example, our interest is in helping the Syrian people, but nobody suggests that us being involved in a land war in Syria would necessarily accomplish this goal.  And I would note that those who criticize our foreign policy with respect to Syria, they themselves say, no, no, no, we don’t mean sending in troops.  Well, what do you mean?  Well, you should be assisting the opposition -- well, we’re assisting the opposition.  What else do you mean?  Well, perhaps you should have taken a strike in Syria to get chemical weapons out of Syria.  Well, it turns out we’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike.  So what else are you talking about?  And at that point it kind of trails off.

In Ukraine, what we’ve done is mobilize the international community.  Russia has never been more isolated.  A country that used to be clearly in its orbit now is looking much more towards Europe and the West, because they’ve seen that the arrangements that have existed for the last 20 years weren’t working for them.  And Russia is having to engage in activities that have been rejected uniformly around the world.  And we’ve been able to mobilize the international community to not only put diplomatic pressure on Russia, but also we’ve been able to organize European countries who many were skeptical would do anything to work with us in applying sanctions to Russia.  Well, what else should we be doing?  Well, we shouldn’t be putting troops in, the critics will say.  That’s not what we mean.  Well, okay, what are you saying?  Well, we should be arming the Ukrainians more.  Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army?  Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we’re applying?

The point is that for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again.  Why?  I don’t know.  But my job as Commander-in-Chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it.  There are going to be times where there are disasters and difficulties and challenges all around the world, and not all of those are going to be immediately solvable by us. 

He sounds whiney and defensive, but I think he's right. His critics in Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, want "tougher" actions. You can never go wrong in U.S. politics urging tougher policies toward Iran, China, Russia, Syria, or terrorists. But it's disingenuous -- and dangerous -- to threaten use of force without the willingness to use it. Yet all of his critics claim that military measures can be carried out without the risks of "boots on the ground" or weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

who's losing Ukraine?

It looks like Kiev.

From today's New York Times:
In a glaring humiliation for the government, a military operation to confront pro-Russian militants in the east unraveled on Wednesday with the entire contingent of 21 armored vehicles that had separated into two columns surrendering or pulling back.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Ukraine's military operation to wrest control in the east from pro-Russian separatists was stymied Wednesday, as civilians halted army columns in their tracks and militants hijacked Ukrainian military vehicles and drove them around with Russian flags.
The faltering "antiterrorist" operation, launched a day earlier, leaves the government looking increasingly powerless in the face of separatists who are holding government buildings in as many as 10 cities close to the Russian border.
A security official in the capital Kiev said the government was well aware of the army's troubles, adding that its performance would improve.
"Unfortunately, we have no experience with military operations, so it's really difficult, but we're learning very fast," said Viktoria Syumar, deputy head of the National Security and Defense Council.

I hope that those advocates of military assistance to Ukraine recognize how little help hardware could be when the forces are poorly organized and trained to make use of them. I hope this is a lesson for all of NATO: armed forces need good training as well as equipment.

And just in case someone wants to ratchet up sanctions on Russia, note this from the Financial Times:

Europe’s resolve to impose tough sanctions on Moscow is cracking under corporate lobbying, as companies warn governments that any retaliation from the Kremlin could cost them dearly. 


Monday, April 7, 2014

don't know much geography

Sad to say, only 16% of Americans in a recent survey could locate Ukraine on a map. What's worse, the most ignorant people also favored the most militant responses. According to 3 academics writing on the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog:
However, the further our respondents thought that Ukraine was from its actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene militarily. Even controlling for a series of demographic characteristics and participants’ general foreign policy attitudes, we found that the less accurate our participants were, the more they wanted the U.S. to use force, the greater the threat they saw Russia as posing to U.S. interests, and the more they thought that using force would advance U.S. national security interests; all of these effects are statistically significant at a 95 percent  confidence level. Our results are clear, but also somewhat disconcerting: The less people know about where Ukraine is located on a map, the more they want the U.S. to intervene militarily.
I know it's not fair to expect large numbers of people to do well on a map quiz. [My favorite: which is closer to El Paso, Los Angeles or Dallas? Correct answer: LA] But public ignorance should be a factor in policy makers' calculations of public opinion.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Tammany Hall: noble or corrupt? Discuss.

I grew up reading authors steeped in the progressive tradition of clean government, a nonpartisan civil service, civic activism, and other good things. My Presbyterian parents taught me to be suspicious of people whose church was tightly controlled from Rome and who weren't allowed to interpret the Bible themselves.

So when I learned of Tammany Hall and machine politics in New York, I was properly disgusted. Terry Golway's new book on Tammany Hall has given me second thoughts.

First, the book cites numerous examples of anti-Catholic sentiments and actions in antebellum American. For example, Walt Whitman in 1842: “Shall these dregs of foreign filth – refuse of convent – scullions from Austrian monasteries – be permitted to dictate what Tammany must do?” 

Second, Golway shows how Tammany came to the relief of Irish immigrants during and after the potato famine in ways that Britain never even tried. Consider the statement by the head of relief efforts, Sir Charles Trevelyan:  the “great evil with which we have to contend [is] not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.” 

Third, the  book cites the efforts of the Protestant good government types trying to restrict the votes of immigrants. The Tilden Commission set up in 1875 to recommend better urban governance urged restricting the vote to property owners. And John Quincy Adams' grandson, Charles Francis Adams, Jr. said this:

“Universal suffrage can only mean in plain English the government of ignorance and vice – it means a European, and especially Celtic, proletariat on the Atlantic Coast, an African proletariat on the shores of the Gulf [of Mexico], and a Chinese proletariat on the Pacific.” 

Fourth, I was surprised to learn that, after the deadly draft riots in July 1863, Boss Tweed got the Tammany-dominated city council to vote a $3 million bond issue to pay the $300 exemption and pay bounties to substitutes. The city ultimately paid out $14 million, but there were no more riots. 

These discoveries help me appreciate how much Tammany and similar urban organizations were a defensive response to a hostile political elite. Yes, many of its leaders were corrupt by any definition. But they also tended to run an effective and responsive government, even if not an efficient one. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

campaign deform

The Supreme Court drove another nail into the coffin of campaign spending limits with its decision yesterday in the McCutcheon case. The ruling left intact, though maybe not for long, the existing per-candidate contribution limits.

I'm dismayed that big money plays such a big role in our politics -- and that a majority on the Court really doesn't understand how politics works today and why their supposed "free speech" principles are further corrupting out electoral system.

Nevertheless, I don't dismiss out of hand the suggestions of Jonathan Rauch, who for years has warned about the corrupting influence of unbridled interest groups. He argues for removing even more limits on contributions and spending.

If the burgeoning gray market in political money is to be countered, a few things need to happen. First, political money needs to be made easier, not harder, for politicians to raise. Second, the money needs to be encouraged to flow through channels that are ultimately accountable to voters and the national interest. Third, candidate and party donations need to flow in straightforward, observable ways rather than being routed circuitously, so that everyone can see what’s going on and vote or campaign accordingly. Fourth, disclosure needs to be improved for the nonprofits and other black holes.
He's at least half right -- that public disclosure of contributions needs to be increased. I'm not sure, however, that embracing large contributions won't have offsetting negative effects. Anyway, let's consider it.

Asian arms race

I think Europeans should improve their military capabilities and hope they learn that lesson from the rapid Russian seizure of Crimea.

But I wish Asian countries were not sliding into an "action-reaction" arms race, as the Financial Times reports today.The FT says:

"In 2012, for the first year in modern times, Asian states spent more on defence than European ones. From India to South Korea and from Vietnam to Malaysia, governments in the region are ramping up defence spending. Even pacifist Japan, which for years has been cutting its defence outlays, has recently started to reverse the trend as it reorients its defence posture towards what it perceives as a growing Chinese threat."

The article also notes that Chinese military spending has grown eightfold in 20 years, is now second to the US, and more than Russia and UK combined.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

the real "peace dividend"

Some good news: March 2014 marked the first time in more than a decade that there were zero U.S. fatalities among American troops engaging in combat, according to numbers from the Department of Defense.