Monthly Archives: October 2011

Should We Fear the Arab Spring?

Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the Chairman of Libya's National Transitional Council, recently decreed that polygamy would be legalized and banks would not charge interest.

Dictators across the Arab world obviously have reason to fear the phenomenon known as the Arab Spring. The wave of popular uprisings has already toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya since January, and tyrants from Damascus (Syria) to Sanaa (Yemen) to Manama (Bahrain) are feeling the heat from domestic protesters and rebels demanding change. But in recent days observers in the West have voiced concern that events are taking a dangerous turn, down a path that could harm Western interests and undermine the quest for democracy that has purportedly motivated much of the unrest.

These critics cite several recent developments in making their case:

(1) In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the
first free elections
have brought to power an Islamist party that some fear will not uphold basic civil liberties.  The authors of this opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor raise this concern: “Tunisia’s current constitution is not explicitly secular and keeps the possibility open for a more religious interpretation of the way the state should function. This is unlikely to change with the coming constitutional modifications, and the potential for oppression in the name of religion becomes a legitimate threat with Islamists in power.”

(2) In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is a powerful actor and will likely do well in the upcoming elections, scheduled for November 28.  Since the ouster of President Mubarak–a close U.S. ally–in February, concerns have grown in the U.S. that his successors may be less hospitable toward peace with Israel.  Attacks on the Israeli embassy in Cairo and against Coptic Christians have underscored the instability of this key country.

(3) In Libya, the chairman of the National Transitional Council has made statements indicating that Islamic Law, or Sharia, will play a greater role in Libya than many observers expected.  He has already decreed that the ban on polygamy be lifted and has said future banking regulations will ban the charging of interest.  As this report describes, “Mr Abdul-Jalil’s decision – made in advance of the introduction of any democratic process – will please the Islamists who have played a strong role in opposition to Col Gaddafi’s rule and in the uprising but worry the many young liberal Libyans who, while usually observant Muslims, take their political cues from the West.”

Are these criticisms premature and lacking in perspective, given the nature of the regimes that the Arab Spring toppled?  Or do they correctly sound the alarm about ominous developments that undermine democracy in the Arab world and the interests of Western powers?

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Internet Freedom in China: The Perils of “Glasnost”

People using the internet at a coffee shop in Beijing.

An article in yesterday’s New York Times reports that China’s government, after a period of liberalization in popular culture, has decided to clamp down on media and internet freedoms once again, imposing “some of the most restrictive measures in years.”  These new restrictions target 34 major satellite television stations (whose entertainment programming and use of audience voting must be curtailed) and the Twitter-like “microblogs” that have become increasingly popular over the past two years.  Sources inside the private companies that manage the microblogs are quoted as saying that “party officials are pressing for increasingly strict and swift censorship of unapproved opinions.”

These microblogs have emerged as a powerful medium for “whistle-blowing” to keep Communist party bureaucrats honest:  “Microbloggers, some of whom have attracted millions of followers, have been exposing scandals and official malfeasance, including an attempted cover-up of a recent high-speed rail accident, with astonishing speed and popularity.”     Despite the social benefits of such activity, the Communist Party clearly recognizes that giving Chinese citizens the freedom to criticize the government and potentially organize opposition movements could threaten their continued rule.

All of this is highly reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s flirtation with Glasnost (“openness”) during the 1980s in the former Soviet Union.  Gorbachev never intended to destroy Communism; rather, his goal was to strengthen and reinvigorate what had become a stagnant and corrupt system, holding bureaucrats’ feet to the fire by allowing the public to criticize inefficiencies and malfeasance.  However, once the Soviet people had a taste of (limited) freedom, the floodgates opened and their demands could no longer be denied.

Can China escape the fate of the Soviet Union?  (The USSR collapsed in 1991, not long after Gorbachev sought to open up the Soviet system).  Will China’s booming economy–in stark contrast to the USSR’s economic stagnation–allow its leaders to maintain power and contain unrest?  (China’s GDP growth has slowed somewhat, but it still remains over 9%, a very robust figure).  In other words, can economic rewards compensate for a lack of political freedom, and for how long?  Or in an era of rapid globalization, social networking, and the Arab Spring, is any regime’s efforts at centralized control and censorship of ideas doomed to failure?

With Qaddafi Gone, Can Libya Overcome the “Resource Curse”?

Libyans in Tripoli's Martyrs' Square celebrate news of Qaddafi's demise.

The death of Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi is widely regarded as a positive development for the Libyan people as the Transitional National Council (TNC) seeks to usher in a more democratic and prosperous future. But it is unclear whether Libya’s new leaders can extricate the oil-rich country from the grasp of the “resource curse” and bring both democracy and economic development to the Libyan people.  The resource curse refers to the fact that countries endowed with abundant natural resources frequently end up with autocratic regimes and poor populations.  International relations professor Peter Fragiskatos explains the causal mechanism underlying the resource curse in a recent blog post:

“Islam’s supposed hostility to democracy is often cited as the cause of authoritarian persistence in the Middle East and North Africa, but oil
is a far more credible culprit. Oil has sustained the rule of tyrants in the
region, whether it was Gaddafi, the shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein or the princes of Saudi Arabia. In place of taxes – and the calls for democracy and representative government they usually give rise to – the Gaddafi regime used oil profits to maintain its power. Flush with cash, the only real requirement it needed to fulfill was to adequately fund a security and military force that could silence any signs of dissent.”

Some analysts suggest the resource curse is all but inevitable.  An NPR report observes that “If the resource curse is inevitable, then you might imagine that Libya has much worse odds than Egypt at becoming a real democracy. Some leader will eventually take over those oil wells, capture all that wealth and become yet another despot.”

But other observers are optimistic, and they focus on the power of transparency to overcome the government’s monopoly on information and wealth production.  In an op-ed piece at the Huffington Post, U.S. Senators Dick Lugar and Benjamin Cardin tout an International Governmental Organization that is dedicated to overcoming the resource curse:

“In recent years, a number of  international actors — including responsible oil and mining companies and  citizens groups — have begun to tackle the resource curse problem by calling  for greater disclosure and accountability of revenues through voluntary participation in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.  An Oslo-based international organization, EITI requires member countries and the companies they host to publish payments and receipts, and to have the results audited and certified.  The voluntary EITI approach has  been enthusiastically endorsed by the World Bank, the IMF, and the G-20 group of major economies.”

What do you think?  Does the resource curse provide a convincing explanation for the persistence of autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa?  Or is this an overly simplistic argument?  What is the likelihood that Libya’s new leaders can create a democratic and prosperous state, and why?

The EU, Ukraine, and the Tymoshenko “Show Trial”

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister and prominent opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison on Tuesday.

On Tuesday a Ukrainian court sentenced former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison on “abuse of office” charges that many in the West have dismissed as politically motivated.  Tymoshenko is the leader of the political opposition against President Viktor Yanukovich and a hero of the West-leaning Orange Revolution of 2004.  Like several other former Soviet states, including Russia, Ukraine has stalled in its transition to democracy, with crackdowns on political opposition, restrictions on media freedom, and an erosion of basic civil liberties rendering the country an illiberal democracy in the eyes of many observers.

Although there are rumors that the sentence could be reversed in the coming days, the “show trial” of Tymoshenko has angered many European leaders and threatened to derail two pending agreements on free trade and closer association between the European Union and Ukraine.

Financial Times foreign affairs blogger Gideon Rachman argues that the EU bears some responsibility for the corruption and authoritarian backsliding in Ukraine.  He contends that International Governmental Organizations (IGOS), like the EU, can influence states’ domestic politics and internal development.  By refusing to even give Ukraine “candidate status” in the EU, the European Union failed to provide encouragement that “would have hugely strengthened the  reformers and the democrats in Ukraine.”  Rachman goes on to argue:

“[Such support] would also have allowed the European Commission to provide masses of  technical assistance to the Ukrainian authorities, as they adapted their laws to  meet the Brusssels “acquis”. That would have given a big boost to the rule of  law in Ukraine because -as many of the countries of Central Europe  discovered – the process of applying to join the EU is, in itself, a  powerful driver of internal political and economic reform.”

What other examples of links between states’ domestic politics and international organizations can you identify?  Is Rachman correct in blaming the EU for Ukraine’s sputtering democratic transition?  What is Ukraine’s alternative to closer ties with the West if the Tymoshenko verdict is not reversed and if European leaders insist on punishing Ukraine?

Intelligence, Rationality, and the Iranian Terror Plot

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, was the target of an assassination plot allegedly planned by Iran.

This week the Obama adminstration  accused Iran of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.  A Washington Post article described the bizarre plot as follows:

“The Justice Department unsealed charges against two Iranians — one of them a U.S. citizen — accusing them of orchestrating an elaborate murder-for-hire plot that targeted Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi envoy to Washington and a key adviser to King Abdullah. The Iranians planned to employ Mexican drug traffickers to kill Jubeir with a bomb as he ate at a restaurant, U.S. officials said.”

The incident has raised tensions between the U.S. and Iran and it isn’t clear where all of this is headed.  But for students of world politics, these events have already illustrated several important policymaking challenges.

1) The importance (and difficulty) of obtaining good intelligence. A number of experts are questioning the administration’s allegations against Iran, saying the plot doesn’t fit what we know about the way Iran or its Quds Force operates. The skeptics include prominent realist Stephen Walt, Middle East specialist Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert at Johns Hopkins, and other respected analysts.  As we learned from the Iraq WMD case, intelligence failures can have serious consequences, and a number of observers have already noted that the Obama administration’s accusations and increasingly heated rhetoric could strengthen hardliners in the U.S. and paint Obama into a corner.  If the plot ends up not to be Iranian in origin, these claims could damage the credibility of an administration that defined itself in opposition to the allegedly careless and rash Bush administration.

2) The limits of the “rational actor” model (and the powerful temptation to employ it nonetheless).  Political scientist Robert Jervis has highlighted the tendency for policymakers to assume that the behavior of other actors is more coordinated and centrally planned than it actually is.  Iran is not a unitary actor and one explanation for this uncharacteristically clumsy plot is that a rogue element of Iran’s Quds Force was “freelancing” rather than taking orders from Iran’s president or Supreme Leader.  Yet the Obama administration has assumed (as leaders frequently do) that any behavior linked to a certain state–Iran, in this instance–must have been planned and directed from the highest levels.

 3) The complexity of Middle East politics.  One expert notes that the most believable aspect of the entire plot is the Iran would target Saudi Arabia’s officials and regime in some way.  While many in the West view the Muslim world as monolithic, the Sunni-Shi’a divide has led to serious conflict not only within states, such as Iraq and Bahrain, but between countries dominated by different sects of Islam.  Saudi Arabia is a powerful Sunni leader in the region, while Iran’s population is largely Shi’a, and the “cold war” between these countries goes back decades.

What do you think?  Does the evidence linking Iran to this plot seem compelling?  Is the Obama administration succumbing to the unitary actor illusion?  What will be the ramifications if the allegations prove false?  If they prove true?

A Coming Trade War With China?

The U.S. Congress is considering legislation that would retaliate against China for manipulating its currency to the detriment of U.S. jobs.

The United States runs a $273 billion annual trade deficit with China, meaning it imports much more than it exports to the rising Asian power.  The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) recently estimated that this U.S.-China trade deficit cost the U.S. 2.8 million jobs between 2001 and 2010, with all 50 U.S. states affected by job losses in the manufacturing and services sectors.  As EPI notes, “increases in U.S. exports tend to create jobs in the United States, and increases in imports tend to lead to job loss.  Thus, a growing trade deficit signifies growing job loss.”

American leaders have increasingly blamed this trade deficit on China’s unwillingness to “play fair” when it comes to trade by keeping its currency’s value artificially low relative to the dollar.  While a weak currency doesn’t sound like a good thing, it makes a country’s exports cheaper abroad and it makes other countries’ imports more expensive at home.  This means goods and services produced in China are more competitive both in China and abroad, which creates jobs and economic growth in China and harms competing countries’ economic prospects.

In retaliation for China’s currency manipulation, the United States Congress is now considering legislation that would impose tariffs (essentially a tax) on Chinese imports.  China has claimed that such action would violate the rules of the World Trade Organization, which focuses on lowering trade barriers worldwide, but Congressional supporters of the legislation dispute that.  Proponents claim these steps could ultimately create up to 2 million American jobs.  The Senate is in favor of the bill but House leaders have blasted it as “dangerous” and President Obama appears unenthusiastic but noncommittal.  For its part, China has warned that such action could lead to a trade war, which would not be good for America’s economy.  In  New York Times editorial last week noted economist Paul Krugman downplayed the risks of a trade war:

“And the reality of the unemployment disaster is also my answer to those who warn that getting tough with China might unleash a trade war or damage world commercial diplomacy. Those are real risks, although I think they’re exaggerated. But they need to be set against the fact — not the mere possibility — that high unemployment is inflicting tremendous cumulative damage as we speak.”

What do you think?  Should the United States get tough on China for its currency manipulation?  Why is President Obama hesitant to join his fellow Democrats in supporting this legislation?  What will be the economic and political consequences if the U.S. imposes tariffs on Chinese imports?

Targeted Killings and Super-empowered Individuals

Radical cleric and U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, seen here in a video posted on radical websites, was killed by a U.S. drone strike on Friday.

The killing of U.S. citizen and radical Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki by a CIA drone strike in Yemen on Friday has rekindled a debate about the legality, morality, and practical wisdom of targeted killings as a method of fighting terrorism.  For an overview of the major arguments on both sides, see this Council on Foreign Relations debate and these pro and con articles from the National Review.  As the National Review debate makes clear, concerns about targeted killings cross the political spectrum.  Although many of the opponents of targeted killings are on the political left, conservative Kevin Williamson takes issue with the policy in his article  “Assassin-in-Chief”:

“It is impossible to imagine that the United States would accept that the King of Sweden or the Grand Duke of Luxembourg has the legitimate right to conduct assassinations in the United States on the theory that we might be harboring enemies who wish them ill; to say the words is to appreciate their inherent preposterousness. But our own president is empowered to target our own citizens, wherever they may be found, without even so much as congressional oversight.”

Beyond these important debates on the legality, ethics, and effectiveness of targeted killings, it is worth noting that the growing attractiveness and prevalence of such tactics in the 21st century may be an indirect consequence of globalization and the rise of what Thomas Friedman has called “super-empowered individuals.”  Globalization has decentralized power, eroded the authority of states, and empowered non-state actors (including individuals) through the availability of technologies including email, the internet, and even potentially weapons of mass destruction.  In the prologue to his book Longitudes and Attitudes Friedman says:

“Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States in the late 1990s. After he organized the bombing of two American embassies in Africa, the U.S. Air Force retaliated with a cruise missile attack on his bases in Afghanistan as though he were another nation-state. Think about that: on one day in 1998, the United States fired 75 cruise missiles at bin Laden. The United States fired 75 cruise missiles, at $1 million apiece, at a person! That was the first battle in history between a superpower and a super-empowered angry man. September 11 was just the second such battle.”

As with bin Laden, Anwar Al-Awlaki exploited modern information technology to communicate with, coordinate, and inspire followers worldwide.  Both of these super-empowered individuals provoked the wrath of a superpower and were recently killed by that state’s military efforts.

Are these recent targeted killings a glimpse of the future of warfare in an age of globalization?  Can they be justified in under international and U.S. law?  What are the broader implications, both positive and negative, of the rise of super-empowered individuals?