Monthly Archives: May 2011

Is State Sovereignty a Privilege of the Strong?

Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic on Trial in the Hague.

State sovereignty—the right to independence and noninterference in one’s internal affairs—is a bedrock principle of today’s international system.  It is an important international norm (a widely accepted rule prescribing appropriate behavior), it is enshrined in the United Nations charter, and its history can be traced back to the genesis of the modern Westphalian system in 1648.  However, as constructivists have pointed out, sovereignty is an evolving norm: at one time the powerful states of Europe—the leaders of the international system—only viewed fellow white, Christian countries as deserving of sovereignty, a view that justified imperialism in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.  The norm evolved gradually as a wider and wider group of countries was seen as deserving of sovereignty, and today the principle is widely accepted as applying universally.

While the sovereign equality of all states is a principle that today’s countries praise and claim to respect, there is growing evidence that for a certain class of countries, sovereignty has its limits. 

In March 2011 the UN Security Council authorized member states to use force to protect Libya’s civilians from a brutal crackdown by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.  NATO forces have essentially taken the side of the rebels in Libya’s civil war and some leaders, including President Obama, have called for Qaddafi to step down.  In a similar case a decade earlier, NATO forces bombed Belgrade, eventually forced Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic from power, and paved the way for an independent Kosovo after Milosevic had unleashed a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Albanians in Kosovo—a province of Serbia and thus ostensibly an “internal matter.”  This week’s arrest of war criminal Ratko Mladic in Serbia and his extradition to the war crimes tribunal in the Hague is only the latest example of political and military officials being held accountable to supranational authorities including the International Criminal Court.  The ICC, under its ambitious Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has gone so far as to issue arrest warrants for sitting heads of state including Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

In short, international norms seem to be evolving away from unconditional sovereignty and toward a “responsibility to protect” doctrine that says if governments fail to protect their own people from grave human rights abuses the international community has the right to intervene to do so.  But is this high-minded doctrine applied selectively to target only those countries who lack the political clout, economic pull, or military muscle to defend their own sovereignty?  Do China and Russia get away with human rights abuses because of their great power status and UN Security Council veto privileges?  Does Saudi Arabia get off the hook because of its oil wealth and powerful benefactors?  Does America’s superpower status render its political and military elites immune from ICC action despite allegations that the responsible for war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan?  If the answer to each of these questions is “yes,” is there anything that can be done about it, or was the historian and early realist Thucydides correct when he famously said that “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must”?

Choosing the Next IMF Chief: a European Power Grab?

Disgraced former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the front-runner to succeed him, French finance minister Christine Lagarde.

The resignation of International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn after his indictment on sexual assault charges and the subsequent scramble to find his successor have ignited a controversy over Europe’s “right” to place a European at the helm of the IMF. Such a right is nowhere codified in the IMF’s founding document, but a longstanding “gentlemen’s agreement” between the U.S. and Europe–dating back to the creation of the IMF in 1944–says an American always gets the World Bank presidency and a European always heads the IMF.  The details of this arrangement are discussed in this explainer from Foreign Policy.  It is no secret that the world’s wealthiest countries control the lending decisions of the IMF and the World Bank due to these institutions’ weighted voting procedures, which give more votes to those who have contributed the most money (a measure that corresponds closely to the size of countries’ economies).  So on the one hand, a gentlemen’s agreement among the rich is not surprising.  But in a globalized world increasingly characterized by the rise of non-European powers (China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, among others) Europe’s prerogatives at the IMF appear outdated, counterproductive, and downright unfair to many

Some proponents of a European IMF chief have cited the IMF’s central role in rescuing countries such as Greece, Portugal, and Ireland during the eurozone’s current financial crisis.  In a scathing attack on Europe’s sense of entitlement, Paul Blustein quotes the Swedish finance minister as saying “We are in a very difficult European situation, and it’s quite natural that we would have a strong European influence in the IMF.”  Blustein then goes on to call this thinking unjust, unwise, and unethical:

“As the region most desperately in need of IMF loans — and IMF-guided discipline — Europe shouldn’t get to choose the person with the greatest influence over the terms. The blatancy of that conflict of interest ought to prick the conscience of even the most hard-boiled believer in realpolitik. And the handling of the eurozone crisis to date has already aroused widespread misgivings that Europe’s most powerful governments are using their sway over IMF policy to obtain deals that suit their political interests.”

Similarly, in response to the German government’s claim that the eurozone troubles require the new IMF chief to be familiar with the details of that crisis, Joshua Keating observes sarcastically: “Strangely, when the IMF was primarily giving loans to countries in Africa and Latin America, local knowledge didn’t seem to be quite as much of a factor.”

In contrast, David Bosco makes an interesting argument that it doesn’t really matter who heads the IMF given its decision-making rules, and that even if it did matter, officials appointed to positions in International Governmental Organizations are capable of acting responsibly and independently of national loyalties. 

Although a number of candidates from developing countries have been floated as potential successors to Strauss-Kahn, Europe seems to be coalescing around French finance minister Christine Lagarde. So at this point it appears unlikely that the streak of European IMF heads will be interrupted.

What do you think?  Is it fair that the Europeans have a perpetual lock on the IMF’s top post, to the exclusion of developing economies which are frequently affected most seriously by IMF conditionality, the practice of requiring strict adjustment policies (often involving tax increases and cuts to social programs) in exchange for loans?  Does this simply exacerbate the North-South gap and undermine the independence of the IMF? Or is this controversy much ado about nothing, given the limited power of the IMF head and the possibility that international civil servants just might be able to separate their national interests from the best interests of the international community?

Did Obama “Sell Out” Israel?

President Obama’s much-anticipated Middle East speech on Thursday has unleashed a firestorm of controversy over a single, seemingly innocuous line: “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”  Recall that Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza,  and East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War, and many Israeli settlements now dot this strategic landscape.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted angrily to Obama’s statement, arguing in a heated conversation with Secretary of State Clinton and later in a personal meeting with President Obama that the 1967 borders are “indefensible.”  Jewish members of Congress were also critical of this “concession,” and an Israeli settler news organization even referred to the 1967 map as the “Auschwitz borders,” a phrase that New York Times blogger Robert Mackey notes Israeli leaders have sometimes used “to invoke the existential dread of the Holocaust when pressed to withdraw from the occupied territories as part of a peace agreement.”

 Interestingly, it isn’t clear how significant a policy change (if any) this represents for the United States.  White House spokesman Jay Carney claims that Obama’s statement has been wildly mischaracterized, with critics ignoring the “land swaps” caveat that would allow Israel to maintain certain key territories.  It has long been the private belief of many top Washington policymakers and Middle East experts that some version of the 1967 borders would unavoidably be the basis for a two-state solution, but no American president has said this quite so explicitly.  Thus it appears to many careful observers that Obama is executing a subtle policy shift toward the Palestinian negotiating position, if only to mollify them ahead of a September UN vote on Palestinian statehood that the U.S. and Israel oppose.

 It is worth noting that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu faces important domestic political constraints due to the rules of the parliamentary system and the makeup of his coalition.  His governing coalition in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, includes right-wing groups with pro-settler inclinations.  Unlike in a presidential system, in which presidents are elected for a fixed term, the head of government (Prime Minister) can lose his or her power if enough members of parliament pull out of the governing coalition, a fact that can give even small parties veto power over government decisions.  So even if Netanyahu was of a mind to compromise on the 1967 borders issue, it is not clear that he could do so and have his government survive.

Does the evidence suggest Obama’s statement represents a major U.S. policy shift away from Israel and toward the Palestinian position, or is it fundamentally a restatement of the existing U.S. position?  Did Obama make the right call in choosing such language or did he miscalculate, unnecessarily creating tension with an ally and domestic political trouble for himself at a time when there is very little hope for a settlement under the existing Israeli and Palestinian governments?

Military Intervention in Libya: Moral Imperative or Foolish Misadventure?

The UN-approved and NATO-led military intervention in Libya offers a great case study on the differences between the realist an idealist worldviews, and how these fundamental ideological differences play out in the realm of foreign policy choices. Realists claim to deal with the world as it is rather than how one might wish it to be (the problem with the “idealists,” in their view). Given limited resources and the constraints of an anarchic world, realists contend, states must focus on the national interest and avoid the entanglements associated with moral crusades in foreign lands. Idealists (sometimes called liberals) on the other hand believe that a state’s foreign policy should be guided both by its interests and its values, and that certain moral outrages (e.g., severe human rights abuses) obligate the international community to intervene, with force if necessary. While realists are thus sometimes stereotyped as warmongers given their willingness to use coercive instruments unimpeded by moral reservations when the national interest demands it, idealists are in some cases the ones itching to “pull the trigger” on military intervention while realists caution them to stay out.

Such is the case with Libya, where the U.N. has authorized member states to use force to protect civilians and President Obama justified the intervention as “preventing a massacre.” Idealists have been quick to praise Obama’s decision, and Middle East expert Marc Lynch articulates this case well:

“…had the international community not acted when it did, thousands would have been slaughtered as the world watched. The effects of that decision would have been felt across the Middle East, where America would have been deemed to have abandoned the people struggling for freedom in the Arab world. And it would have quite simply been wrong. I have long been conflicted about the decision to intervene militarily, primarily because of the absence of a clearly defined end-game and the risk of escalation. I doubt that Obama’s speech will convince many of his critics. But I now think that he made the right call.”

On the other side are the realists, such as Stephen Walt, who contend that intervention does not serve a vital (American) national interest, and decry the instability and uncertainty that will result from casting aside the status quo in the hope of achieving something better: “…The US and NATO had better be thinking long and hard about what they are going to do if and when Qaddafi falls. As we are now seeing in some other contexts (e.g., Egypt), revolutionary change is usually chaotic, unpredictable, and violent, and it creates opportunities for various forms of mischief. These dangers loom especially large in Libya…So if the liberal interventionists who got us into this war want to make their decisions look good in retrospect, they had better have a plan to ensure that political transition in Libya goes a lot more smoothly than it did in Iraq.”

Realists are not a monolithic group, and if a realist believed that intervention in Libya served the national interest (perhaps through the security benefits of democracy promotion in the Middle East or the fall of Qaddafi’s regime) he or she would support it. However, most realists who have weighed in on Libya have viewed the intervention largely in humanitarian terms and have therefore opposed it as outside the scope of the national interest and potentially damaging to that interest given the lack of a clear end game, the seemingly ineffectual nature of much of the bombing, and the potential damage to U.S. and allied credibility.

Does the U.S. and the international community more broadly have an obligation to protect Libya’s civilians? Why have we taken action in Libya while seemingly turning a blind eye to human rights violations elsewhere? Is there an “end game” in sight or are we destined for a long and costly conflict, reminiscent of Iraq?

Does Bin Laden’s Death Vindicate Bush-Era Harsh Interrogation Techniques?

The killing of Osama bin Laden has revived a debate over the usefulness and morality of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a euphemism for torture according to critics) employed by the George W. Bush administration to extract information from suspected terrorists.  Several Bush administration officials and conservative commentators have claimed that the enhanced techniques, such as waterboarding, produced the vital intelligence that led the bin Laden’s hideout.  Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s op-ed in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, entitled “The Waterboarding Trail to Bin Laden,” makes this case.  Mukasey argues that coercive interrogations, though used very infrequently, led to the capture of top Al-Qaeda operatives including Ramzi bin al Shibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed who were themselves subjected to these techniques and gave crucial information about bin Laden’s couriers—information that helped the U.S. track and kill the elusive bin Laden.  Upon taking office, President Obama discontinued the CIA program of harsh interrogations, a decision Mukasey suggests will harm U.S. security: “But policies put in place by the very administration that presided over this splendid success promise fewer such successes in the future. Those policies make it unlikely that we’ll be able to get information from those whose identities are disclosed by the material seized from bin Laden. The administration also hounds our intelligence gatherers in ways that can only demoralize them.”   

Opponents of Bush-era interrogation practices immediately fired back, contending there is little evidence that torture led to bin Laden, and pointing to the lengthy gap between the use of these techniques and the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound.  Adam Serwer of the Plum Line argues along these lines: “The pro-torture argument ignores the obvious — that if torture was so effective, bin Laden would have been dead long ago. Bin Laden was found through years of painstaking intelligence gathering, not through the barbarous methods supported by many Bush apologists.”  Former interrogator Matthew Alexander joins many critics (including Senator John McCain) in arguing that torture is not only immoral but practically it does more harm than good: it prompts detainees to fabricate information to stop the pain, it puts U.S. soldiers at risk, it harms America’s image overseas, and it serves as a potent recruiting tool for America’s enemies, including Al Qaeda. 

As is often the case, the answer to the question of whether enhanced interrogation techniques were pivotal in this case lies somewhere in between the stark narratives provided by either of these camps.  It appears that some of the intelligence that ultimately led to bin Laden did come from detainees who were subjected to these techniques (CIA Director Leon Panetta conceded as much in an interview with NBC news) but a great deal of additional intelligence gathering and analysis was required before the mission could be launched.  As National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor put it in a NY Times interview, “The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003…It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there.”

Should these facts prompt President Obama to reconsider his rejection of his predecessor’s interrogation policies?  Is Obama putting America at risk by leaving a potentially important tool in the War on Terror in the toolbox?  Or does the use of this tool actually harm America’s interests, undermine its values, and make us more like our enemies?

Bin Laden and the War on Terror

Perhaps not surprisingly, the blogosphere has been dominated by discussion of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces operating in Pakistan. While the mission itself was clouded in secrecy, perhaps the most detailed description was offered by Marc Ambinder at the National Journal.

The news prompted spontaneous gatherings outside the White House in Washington DC and at the World Trade Center site in New York City. It also prompted Peter Beinart to assert “The War on Terror is over.”

But as several bloggers have been quick to point out, Beinart’s assertion may be a bit premature. As Daniel Drezner points out, bin Laden’s role in al Qaeda had been minimized. Although he continued to serve as its figurehead leader, bin Laden had little role in the organization’s operational side. Al Qaeda itself had long been fractured into separate commands, each operating essentially as franchises of the larger organization. Operations in Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere will therefore not be affected by bin Laden’s death.

The real question that bin Laden’s death does raise, however, centers on US-Pakistan relations. A number of bloggers, including David Rothkopf, Julian Borger, and Stephen Walt all note that given bin Laden’s location it is improbable in the least to think that he was not receiving support from elements within the Pakistani government. What this means for the future of US-Pakistani relations remains unclear. The United States, however, continues to need Pakistan’s assistance in the war on terror. Al Qaeda may not be the threat it once was, but terrorists nevertheless continue to be key actors on the global stage.