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Interesting column in the Times today from Hao Qun, a novelist and blogger from China.  He was having a meal with some other bloggers, trying to figure out who will be the next person to be arrested by the government.  Microblogging, according to Hao, has become the public square for China, the only way for information to quickly spread around the country.  Popular microbloggers in China have literally millions of followers, so even in a vast country, information on blogs can spread quickly.

A quote from Hao:

I have been asked if I’m afraid. A couple of years ago, in the early days of my blogging, I was scared. Now I am not. I think my shift is representative of that of many popular bloggers, who have been emboldened by the freedom we’ve found online, as my friends have.

I’m moved by Hao’s courage.  Nothing appeals to me more than an individual’s struggle for freedom of expression.  But Hao’s column gives me great hope for China.  In Poland, the communist regime collapsed when the opposition stopped being afraid and started to organize and agitate in the open.  If democracies rule with the consent of the governed, dictatorships rule by the fear of the governed.  When enough people stop being afraid, even the harshest dictatorships can collapse.

 

Turkey’s economy has boomed this past decade.  As reported in the Economist:

In 2010 and 2011 the economy grew by a China-like 9%, leading to serious fears of overheating. GDP growth slowed to 2% in 2012. Despite surprisingly strong first-quarter figures this week, it is likely to be only 3-4% this year, not enough to keep unemployment down in a growing population.

China is in a similar position.  After a very long boom, a recent article in the NY Times reports:

A record seven million students will graduate from universities and colleges across China in the coming weeks, but their job prospects appear bleak — the latest sign of a troubled Chinese economy.

Revolutions don’t occur when things are bad.  Populations that expect oppression are remarkably docile.  Revolutions occur when rising expectations are suddenly dashed.  The unrest in Turkey has been led by the urban middle class — exactly the people who have benefited from economic expansion, and were hardest hit by an economic slowdown.  They are about a year or two ahead of China in middle class dissatisfaction.

The knee-jerk authoritarian response from Prime Minister Erdogan will only add fuel to the fire.  We can expect the Chinese government to do the same.

The situations are not exactly parallel, of course.  China’s government is much more oppressive and violent than Turkey’s.  Instability will take longer to occur in China, and when it does, it will be more violent.  Also, as authoritarian as Turkey has become, it’s still to some degree a functioning democracy, and the possibility of future elections will probably prevent an actual revolution.  But in different ways at different paces, life will become increasingly harsh for the people in both countries.

 

 

Say you have one country — for instance, the US — that isn’t allowed to examine data of it’s own citizens, but can examine the data of the rest of the world’s citizens.  Say you have another country — let’s call it the UK — that adheres to the same rules.  Let’s further say that the intelligence agencies of these countries work closely together and share information.  This seems a massive legal loophole that I haven’t heard anyone discuss.

It’s typical in US history for us (the public and then the government) to panic for a good decade when there’s any kind of threat.  Then when the dust settles a bit, we revise our policies and feel pretty apologetic for our mistakes (internment camps, anyone?)  I hope and expect we’re beginning that phase now with the “war on terror,” especially since Obama said recently that war is over.

Democracies can be run by the mob, but only for a while.  Then rationality begins to take hold.

At least that’s my hope.

Washington is currently bogged down in meaningless nonsense about the IRS, the AP investigation and Benghazi — scandals that don’t amount to much.  They are valuable to the Republicans because of exactly that — their meaninglessness.  No one wants to talk about long term debt declining as an economic issue, or the bankruptcy of conservative economic ideas, or the slow motion collapse of the EU, or spending more Federal dollars to expand the economy, or immigration reform.  These are all too complex and too threatening for the Republicans to talk about, so better to talk about nonsense.

Here’s something else we are not paying attention to:

Government troops and supporting militias went house to house, killing entire families and smashing men’s heads with concrete blocks.

Antigovernment activists provided lists of 322 victims they said had been identified. Videos showed at least a dozen dead children. Hundreds more people are reported missing.

This is a quote from the NY Times about what’s going on in Syria.  It’s moved from revolution, to civil war, and now to ethnic cleansing.  The article is about the Syrian government’s forces, but there have also been and will continue to be mass murder of civilians by the Sunni forces as well. How could there not at this point?

This is more than just a human tragedy.  This also indicates that Syria will not be put back together — the hatred has become too deep.  If Syria is divided between Alawite and Sunni, should it also be divided with a section for the Kurds?  the Druze?  What happens to the Christians?  And who will enforce the peace between these borders?

My fear is that Syria is way past saving — and we’ll end up trying to save it anyway.

Given the tremendous pressure on the Obama administration to “do something” about Syria, it’s incredible that they haven’t.  Yes, Kerry did meet with Putin, and there’s some plan to have a conference, but it’s unlikely anyone actually wants to negotiate.

What’s happening in Syria is a literal fight to the death — if the Alawites lose the war, they expect a genocide against them. This is not paranoia, but a blood feud they have contributed to with their own atrocities.   If the Sunnis lose the war — well, they’ll keep fighting until they don’t.  They have support from Turkey and the Persian Gulf states, and can always import fighters from Sunni countries. The radical Sunnis are the best funded, and have taken over the fight.  However, the Sunni side is a fractured mess, with multiple groups in a loose confederation that would not last after an actual victory.

This is a situation Americans are not used to, a conflict with no clear good guy. Syria is probably in for a long civil war followed by a gradual decline into warlordism.  There is an assumption in the States that we should be doing something — anything! — because we’re the superpower and that’s what we do.  But this is a war we don’t really want anyone to win.  Nor do we have the tens of thousands of troops to jump into this situation and end up fighting both sides of the conflict for no apparent client to take over after us.

When there’s no clear action to take, it’s best not to take any action.  Calling for a conference is a great way to seem to be doing something while actually steering clear of the snake pit. If prospects change, the US can always step in.  But you can only step in for the first time once.

So let’s hear it for the Obama administration, not taking the easy way out and doing something.

 

 

It’s become clear that the Obama administration has learned the lessons of Vietnam in its policy on Afghanistan.  From Martha Raddatz:

Maj. Gen. Robert B. Abrams, the top U.S. and NATO commander in southern Afghanistan, is confident the country won’t fall back into the grips of the Taliban and other extremists when international forces pull out in two years—pointing to what he calls a “homegrown” rejection of the Taliban and the readiness of the Afghan security forces.

It’s great that General Abrams thinks his policy is working.  Compare this to another article about the CIA bribing it’s way through the Karzai regime to keep it in power — which has only resulted in increasing the corruption and weakness of the central government.  The CIA bribery was designed to replace Iran’s bribery to buy influence with the Afghanistan government (the CIA has more dough than the Iranian government).  But it doesn’t seem that most Afghani politicians care about anything other than money — their loyalty is based on their tribe and their own personal interests, not the country’s.  If people don’t care about their country — Afghanistan, South Vietnam, whatever — we can’t make them patriotic.

Both articles linked to are very reminiscent of Nixon’s Vietnam policy of “Vietnamization.” Nixon’s stated goal was to have the South Vietnamese be able to prosecute the war without US troops.  Vietnamization and the peace agreement we had with North Vietnam provided the crucial fig leaf that enabled the US to get out without be left holding the bag.  Our client states can lose wars, but we can’t.

This is the lesson of Vietnam the Obama administration has applied to Iraq and now Afghanistan.  Iraq is on the verge of falling back into sectarian war.   With the Sunnis organizing and arming, and the Iraqi government has become more and more a front for Shia interests, the country is ready to explode again.   However, our hands are clean, since we are no longer occupying the country.  The Surge and the Sunni Awakening gave us just the breather we needed to get out of Baghdad. Whatever happens, it’s on Maliki’s head.

The same process is happening in Afghanistan.  I find it hard to imagine that anyone seriously thinks the Karzai government will last more than a year or two after the US army leaves, but that’s all we need to be able to get out of town and blame Karzai for not holding the country together.

It’s face-saving at its cynical worst, and it’s the basis of US foreign policy.  Welcome to it.

Frontline aired an extraordinary documentary from Olly Lambert on the civil war in Syria. He managed to spend time on both sides of the same battle zone with both the Alawites/Syrian army and the Sunnis fighting against them.   He also wrote an article, “I Almost Died in Syria,” about his experience making the documentary, which you can find here. Lambert feels deeply conflicted when he goes into war zones:

The only true and abiding memory I have of the weeks and months spent in places like Helmand province in Afghanistan or a field hospital in Iraq is a vague and intangible sense of my split personality.  One part of me becomes the journalist thief, prowling in search of people and stories to turn into a film. And at the same time I’m something quite different but also connected:  a profoundly moved and thin-skinned witness to the awful extremes of human behavior.  Both sides need the other, but they pull in very different directions.

In a civil war like Syria’s, most of the victims are civilians, and as in most civil wars, civilian deaths are intentional.  Lambert has the traditional producer’s concerns of “getting the shot” while at the same time witnessing horrific suffering and carnage all around him. (If you see the doc, there are multiple scenes of bodies being pulled out of rubble.)

This had traditionally been called “bearing witness.”  It’s an important and honorable role, but that doesn’t seem to make Lambert feel any better.  Bearing witness all too quickly becomes survivors guilt.