Monthly Archives: November 2011

Will America’s “Power Play” in Asia Backfire?

In an address to the Australian parliament on November 17, President Obama declared "The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay."

Political psychologists define mirror imaging as the common human tendency to assume that other actors share one’s own values, perceptions, and calculations.  When this assumption is incorrect, as it frequently is in dealings with foreign actors, it can lead to intelligence failures such as Pearl Harbor and flawed strategies such as America’s approach to the Vietnam War.  Simply put, a failure to understand how a foreign actor is viewing your country’s actions, interpreting your motives, and weighing costs and benefits greatly increases the likelihood that you will make costly errors in predicting that actor’s behavior.

The United States has just achieved what several foreign policy experts have described as a stunning diplomatic victory in Asia.  It has isolated China, strengthened military, economic, and political ties with China’s neighbors, and reasserted American dominance in the Pacific.  But is America badly miscalculating the likely response from China by projecting its own calculations about the irrationality of challenging America into the minds of the Chinese?  Walter Russell Mead suggests as much in a recent blog post:

“An intense debate in China will now turn even more pointed. There will be some who counsel patience, saying that China cannot win an open contest with the US and that its only hope is to stick with the concept of ‘peaceful rise’…others will argue that the international system as it now exists, and American power in it, are weapons in the hands of a country which is deeply hostile to China and its government and that the US will not rest until China, like Russia, has been reduced to impotence. They think (they really do) that our aim is to overthrow the Communist government, replace it with something weak and ineffective — as in Yeltsin’s Russia — and then break up its territory the way the Soviet Union broke up. Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, perhaps more will be split off until China is left as a weak and helpless member of an ever more ruthless American order. To act like a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the international system would be to tie the knot in the noose intended to hang you; China must resist now, and ally itself with everyone willing to fight this power: Iran, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, Pakistan, perhaps even Al-Qaeda. And rather than trying to prop up the international capitalist system, China should do what it can to deepen crises and aggravate tensions.”

What do you think?  Is America’s challenge to Beijing on its “home turf” a wise approach or has the Obama Administration badly miscalculated by assuming that all of the powerful actors in China recognize the futility of challenging American dominance?  What will be China’s response to America’s first move in this new “great game,” as Mead calls it?

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The ICC, Libya, and the Fate of Qaddafi’s Son

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the powerful Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

The son and intelligence chief of former Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi have both been captured by militia groups in Libya within the last few days. Both men are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity, and a tug-of-war has begun between the ICC and Libya’s new leaders over where and how these fugitives will be tried.  Libya’s interim government, the Transitional National Council (TNC), had promised to turn over these suspects to the ICC in the Hague once they were captured, but Libya’s leaders are now rethinking those commitments amid strong political pressure from some Libyan groups to try the men at home.

As discussed in a previous World Politics News Review post, the ICC is a 114-member International Governmental Organization (IGO) designed to prosecute individuals accused of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  Although some countries, including the United States, have expressed concern that the ICC could trample on state sovereignty, the organization is supposed to adhere to the principle of complementarity, meaning it can only take action if national court systems are unable or unwilling to deal with the alleged perpetrators of these crimes.

In this case, Libya’s new government has yet to create an independent and effective court system capable of handling these trials, and the fate of Moammar Qaddafi–who was killed by a crowd of angry Libyans after being captured–casts further doubt on the country’s ability to hold a legitimate trial.  This situation therefore seems ideal for the ICC to step in under the principle of complementarity.  But many Libyans want Qaddafi’s son and intelligence chief tried at home for a range of offenses committed during Qaddafi’s long and oppressive rule.  One compromise that was discussed in a recent New York Times article would see the men tried first by the ICC on narrow crimes against humanity charges and then in Libya for a broader array of Qaddafi-era crimes against the Libyan people: “Holding a first trial in The Hague, lawyers and diplomats said, would have the benefit of keeping Mr. Qaddafi in a secure place and allow time for Libya to stabilize. The country also needs to build up a justice system, virtually from scratch, that is able to handle credible trials.”

What do you think?  Should the ICC relent and allow Libyans to try their own countrymen for crimes against the Libyan people?  Or would such an approach risk a trial that is–in image if not in reality–illegitimate, at a time when Libya is in desperate need of an independent and effective judiciary? If the ICC can pressure Libya’s leaders to take actions they don’t believe are in the national interest, has this IGO become too powerful?

Civil-Military Relations and the New Egyptian Uprising

Clashes between protesters and police in Cairo have reportedly claimed 24 lives in the past three days.

The escalating crisis in Egypt that has pitted the military against an uneasy coalition of Islamists and liberals reveals the importance of civil-military relations and their relationship to democracy.

Long a central actor in Egyptian politics, the Egyptian military gave President Hosni Mubarak the final push to leave office in February 2011.  At the time, many of the protesters welcomed the military’s prominent role as a guarantor of stability during the transition to democracy.  But after originally promising to hand power to a civilian government by September, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has recently announced that it will not relinquish power until a new constitution is ratified and a new president is elected, which may not happen until after 2013.  The SCAF has also provoked widespread discontent by unveiling this month “a set of ground rules for a next constitution that would have given the military authority to intervene in civilian politics while protecting it from civilian oversight.”  Specifically, the military called itself the guardian of Egypt’s “constitutional legitimacy.”  While the SCAF has backed off some of these guidelines and suggested that it would subordinate itself to civilian rule, these concessions have not placated the protesters, whose ranks have grown and who now battle soldiers and police in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Democracy requires that elected civilian officials have ultimate control over a country’s domestic and foreign policymaking.  Unelected military officers must be subordinate to the elected officials, both legally and in practice.  But in many countries at various stages of democratization–from Pakistan to Egypt to Turkey–the military has historically played a powerful independent role, stepping into politics and even removing leaders when it believes stability demands such action.  Egypt’s Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, are particularly opposed to such a role for the Egyptian military, since they believe (with good reason) that their dominance in upcoming elections and the subsequent government is exactly the sort of development the military would like to suppress.  Many U.S. officials are also concerned about an Islamist victory in next week’s parliamentary elections, which puts the U.S. in a difficult bind since its twin goals of democracy and stability in the region are apparently in conflict.

What do you think?  Are we witnessing the beginning of the second Egyptian Revolution of 2011?  Will the military bow to the demands of the protesters and accelerate the transition to civilian control, or will it remain intransigent and “double down” on its strategy of remaining the most important player in Egyptian politics?  How should Western governments, including the U.S. (which gives Egypt roughly $3 billion annually and therefore has significant leverage) respond to these developments?

Is Obama Making the Same Mistakes as Bush in Iraq?

President Obama announces that all U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011.

Foreign policy scholars tell us that leaders and publics frequently use historical cases to inform current judgments. This is called analogical reasoning, and it involves drawing lessons from past cases about what is going to happen, or how we should respond, in a current situation.  Unfortunately, research has shown that policymakers are frequently sloppy, imprecise, or self-serving in the lessons they draw from historical cases.

Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, in their book Thinking in Time, and Yuen Foong Khong in his book Analogies at War, point out that leaders often misuse history and even draw different lessons from the same historical case.  (American conservatives generally drew the lesson from Vietnam that political leaders shouldn’t micromanage wars and should always fight to win, whereas many liberals/progressives learned that military force is not an effective instrument for dealing with fundamentally political conflicts).  An oft-cited problem is that leaders seize on superficial similarities in cases and ignore the differences, leading them to make poor judgments.  For example, the lesson of Munich that one should never appease tyrants was often cited by U.S. leaders during the Cold War without considering how the present tyrant might differ from Adolf Hitler in his intentions or capabilities.  The same might be said for the argument that “Iraq is another Vietnam” due to surface-level similarities, such as the presence of an insurgency.

It is therefore interesting that  political scientist and Bush-era National Security Council staffer Peter Feaver, in a recent blog post, critiques Obama’s decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 using analogical reasoning that compares the withdrawal to a superficially very dissimilar case: Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in the first place.  Feaver cites three ways in which Obama’s withdrawal policy risks repeating the mistakes of the invasion:

1) Just as the Bush administration launched the invasion without making sure that they had enough troops to deal with the next stage of the operation (the occupation and reconstruction), Obama is withdrawing without thinking about the numbers of troops required to protect State Department employees and others tasked with continuing the reconstruction of Iraq beyond 2011.

2) Just as Bush allegedly “took his eye of the ball” by invading Iraq instead of focusing on defeating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Obama is letting his desire to end the war distract his attention from the need to keep the pressure on Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which may be reinvigorated by a full U.S. withdrawal from the country.

3) Just as Bush may have given a great gift to Iran by dramatically weakening its regional enemy (Iraq), Obama is compounding the error and strengthening the theocratic regime’s ability to achieve regional hegemony by pulling out all U.S. troops.

What do you think?  Does Feaver’s analogical reasoning represent a careful or sloppy use of history?  Is Obama undoing Bush’s mistakes by withdrawing quickly from Iraq, or is he following in Bush’s footsteps and only compounding the errors of his predecessor?

Levels of Analysis and the Euro Crisis

The decisions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel have emerged as a key individual-level driver of outcomes in the eurozone financial crisis.

The financial crisis unfolding in Europe provides a stark illustration of the complex interactions between system-level, state-level, and individual-level variables in contemporary world politics. Political scientists employ these three (and sometimes more) levels of analysis as an analytical device to categorize the causal “drivers” that produce outcomes in international relations.  This framework might shed light on the current Eurozone crisis as follows:

(1) The system level of analysis includes attributes of the international system and supranational actors.  The power imbalance between the wealthier and more financially secure European states, such as Germany, and those needing bailouts, such as Portugal and Greece, can be viewed as a system-level factor placing pressure on weaker states to abide by the stronger countries’ demands.  The same could be said of the “top-down” pressure from International Governmental Organizations (IGOs) such as the European Union and the International Monetary Fund on countries such as Greece and Ireland to enact austerity measures in exchange for bailouts.

(2) The state or domestic level of analysis includes factors such as political institutions, interest groups, public opinion, and political parties.  The ease with which governments can fall in parliamentary systems (as opposed to presidential systems) helps to explain the events of the past week in Greece and Italy.  The anti-austerity attitudes of public opinion and labor unions have led to political instability and a reluctance by some policymakers to agree to the harsh terms imposed by external actors.

(3) The individual level of analysis focuses on the choices, perceptions, and personalities of individuals (normally political leaders and other influential individuals).  The critical decisions by former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou to (a)  call for a referendum on the bailout plan, and then (b) to withdraw this request and hand over power to an interim government are causal drivers located at the individual level of analysis.  The perceptions and choices by other key players such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Central Bank Chairman Mario Draghi are also important individual-level factors that have shaped, and will continue to shape, the course of this crisis.

What do you think?  Do causal drivers at one level of analysis seem to be particularly influential in the current European financial crisis?  How are variables from different levels interacting to shape outcomes?  Is it possible to model these interactions and predict how all of this will end, or is such a feat beyond the skills of even our best political scientists?

Is Iran’s Nuclear Program a Threat to Anyone?

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is considered irrational by some in the West. But do we have any reason to fear a nuclear-armed Iran?

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a striking report today that accuses Iran of working to develop nuclear weapons. A New York Times piece calls the report “the harshest judgment the agency has ever issued in its decade-long struggle to pierce the secrecy surrounding the Iranian program. The findings have already rekindled a debate among the Western allies and Israel about whether increased diplomatic pressure, sanctions, sabotage or military action could stop Iran’s program.”

This new evidence that Iran is perhaps very close to developing a nuclear weapon raises the question: so what?

Neorealists such as Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer, who treat states as if they were rational, unitary actors, believe that a nuclear Iran would not be reckless and would neither launch its nuclear weapons at another state nor give weapons to terrorists.  Their argument, premised on rational deterrence theory, is that even Iran’s leaders–who sometimes appear irrational to Western observers–are sensitive enough to the obvious costs of nuclear retaliation that they would never jeopardize the existence of their country by launching a nuclear attack that has a chance of being traced back to them.  In fact, such thinkers have favored the selective proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional countries so as to stabilize regional rivalries and make war unthinkable.

David Rothkopf, in a blog post entitled “The World is Misreading Obama on Iran,” contends that a supposedly “dovish” President Obama may contemplate using military force to prevent the Islamic Republic from getting a nuclear bomb: “But in the end, as dangerous as an attack might be militarily and politically, if the President believes there is no other alternative to stopping Iran from gaining the ability to produce highly enriched uranium and thus manufacture nuclear weapons, he will seriously consider military action and it is hardly a certainty he won’t take it.”

But why is Obama so afraid of a nuclear Iran?  If the neorealists are right, a nuclear Iran can be deterred and contained, just like the U.S. deterred and contained the ideologically driven, fiercely competitive, and nuclear-armed Soviet Union for 40-plus years during the Cold War.

What do you think?  Do the assumptions of rational deterrence theory apply to Iran’s leaders?  Why or why not?  Are there other reasons to fear a nuclear-armed Iran, other than its actual use of nuclear weapons?