Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Trouble With Exit Strategies

Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger famously argued that troops should never be sent abroad without a clear strategy for bringing them home. But how achievable are exit strategies?

Former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger famously created the “Weinberger Doctrine”–a set of tests that had to be met before U.S. troops could be sent into harm’s way.  These requirements were formulated largely to avoid another Vietnam-type “quagmire” (where the U.S. got bogged down in a costly and unpopular war), so they included the following restrictions:

(1) Only commit troops abroad when it is in our vital national interests

(2) Use overwhelming force, with the clear intention to win

(3) Have clearly defined political and military objectives

(4) Obtain support from the American people and Congress

(5) The commitment of U.S. forces to combat should be a last resort

A few years later, Colin Powell (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later Secretary of State) articulated a very similar doctrine that reiterated Weinberger’s concerns and also added broad international support and a clear exit strategy (implied by Weinberger’s point #3).

Perhaps the trickiest part of implementing the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine is the exit strategy/achievable goals requirement.   Some objectives, like removing a regime from power, are eminently achievable by the sort of brute military force the U.S. excels at.  But rarely do the political/military goals end there–usually policymakers are concerned about the type of regime that comes after (ensuring that it is relatively stable and legitimate and does not present a threat to American interests).  And if your goal is essentially to create a legitimate pro-Western regime from scratch (as in Iraq and Afghanistan) and your exit strategy is to pull troops out only when that has been achieved, then you will likely be faced with a dilemma: either (1) keep troops in place for many years in a potentially quite hostile environment or (2) pull troops out before the goals have been fully achieved.  Neither option is particularly attractive; in the case of the Iraq occupation Republicans have generally favored #1 and Democrats #2, and the debate has been strident.  If Iraq continues to “unravel” after America’s exit, expect Republicans to target Obama’s decision not to leave a residual force in Iraq during the 2012 presidential campaign.

But would leaving troops in Iraq indefinitely be a better option?  Does the presence of U.S. forces create a secure environment for political compromise or only enable leaders to avoid stepping up and taking responsibility for their own country?  Which exit strategy is less costly?

Iraq, Sectarian Violence, and the Myth of the State

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, a Shiite, appears to be moving against his Sunni rivals only days after American troops left the country.

Days after American combat forces completed their withdrawal from Iraq, it seems the country is on the brink of political chaos and perhaps even civil war.  Many Sunni Arabs (who make up a minority of the population but were favored under Saddam Hussein’s regime and now fear reprisals from the majority Shiites) have boycotted parliament.  Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki (a Shiite) has accused the Iraqi Vice President (a Sunni) of running death squads and has demanded that the Kurds (who enjoy a largely autonomous region in northern Iraq, where the Vice President fled to escape an arrest warrant) hand over the Vice President or face the consequences.  The Vice President is now calling for Prime Minister Al-Maliki to be replaced. There is increasing concern among Sunnis, Kurds, and some Western analysts that Al-Maliki is becoming a dictator like Saddam. And yesterday a coordinated string of bombings shook Baghdad, killing at least 63 people and wounding 185. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgent group, has been blamed for the attacks.

These troubling events highlight the fact that while the state may be a useful analytical concept for political scientists and other observers, the notion of a unified sovereign entity within identifiable borders frequently bears little resemblance to reality.  Critical theorists have sought to “deconstruct” simple concepts like the state and reveal a much messier underlying picture: in Iraq’s case, the messiness is comprised of three major ethno-sectarian groups, a fledgling central government that is not in complete control of its territory (see Kurdistan) and a population that frequently sees itself less as Iraqi than Sunni, Shiite, or Kurd.  While an iron fisted ruler like Saddam Hussein or a powerful occupation force like the Americans may have been able to create a sense of unity for a time, the underlying realities are emerging as U.S. forces withdraw from post-Saddam Iraq.  As one recent news analysis put it:

“While the U.S. troop surge of 2007 helped tamp down Iraq’s violence – and, the US hoped, created ‘space’ for sectarian reconciliation – in the years since, Iraqi politics have remained largely driven by sect and ethnicity, their politicians pursuing a zero-sum game for absolute power.”

Is the concept of the state still a useful way of making sense of the world, or is it a dangerously outmoded concept in today’s globalized  world that obscures more than it enlightens?

Autocracy, Legitimacy, and the North Korean Succession

Kim Jong Un is the appointed heir to his father, Kim Jong Il. But can he navigate North Korea's internal politics and stay in power?

The news media and the blogosphere are buzzing with speculation about the fate of North Korea in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death. At first glance, this might appear surprising: in a regime the New York Times calls an “odd mixing of…ancient Confucian monarchy with a 20th-century Stalinist cult of personality” where dynastic succession is the rule, shouldn’t Kim Jong Il’s designated heir, his son Kim Jong Un, be able to smoothly take the reins of power? The fact that many observers expect a difficult and uncertain transition reveals some often overlooked insights about autocratic regimes.

A popular stereotype pictures autocratic leaders as omnipotent: they can do whatever they want without having to worry about domestic political constraints from pesky actors like a parliament or the general public.  But political scientists have pointed out that even autocratic leaders must worry about domestic politics and must gain support from key domestic actors (often the military, the intelligence services, or powerful business leaders) in order to retain power and accomplish their policy goals.  When it comes to leadership succession, autocracies may not give power to a broad-based electorate, but they do have a more narrow “selectorate” made up of those actors who are ultimately responsible for selecting a leader.

In the case of North Korea, the army is clearly the most important domestic actor that any prospective leader must contend with.  Kim Jong Il’s widow, sister, and brother in law are also regarded as key elites who, along with the generals, will play a role in the leadership succession.

At this point, experts disagree about whether Kim Jong Un will be able to consolidate power and how long this might take.  But a constant in their analysis is the centrality of domestic politics in determining his fate.   For example, Georgetown’s Victor Cha believes Kim Jong Un will not survive, due to the weakness of his supporters and the enmity of the military: “The ‘great successor,’ as he has been dubbed by the state media, is surrounded by elders who are no less sick than his father and a military that chafed at his promotion to four-star general last year without having served a day in the army. Such a system simply cannot hold.”

Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt is more optimistic about Kim Jong Un’s chances, but he also emphasizes the centrality of elite politics: “If North Korea’s ruling elite understands their own fragility and recognizes the dangers that a serious power struggle might pose, then Kim Jong Un can survive by default.  Why? Because he’s the one leader that all the potential contenders can agree on, if only to avoid the dangerous uncertainties that an open contest for power would entail.”

What do you think?  Will Kim Jong Un be able to take the reins of power from hsi father, or will a nasty succession battle occur?  Will the regime survive?  How is North Korea’s current situation different from cases in which autocracies have experienced smooth power transitions?

Political Efficacy, the Middle Class, and the “Russian Spring”

In the wake of parliamentary elections, Russian protesters have taken to the streets in numbers not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union.

What prompts people living under tyranny to finally rise up and demand change? The Arab Spring of 2011 has given us a laboratory to examine various theories of revolution and political change. The events in Russia during the last week have given us an additional window into the causes of political change.

As discussed previously in this blog, Russia has stalled in its transition from communist autocracy to liberal democracy. But up until now, the Russian people have seemed content to sacrifice democracy for stability and economic growth, which Vladimir Putin has provided. Putin’s announcement, however, that he would seek the presidency again in 2012–where he could stay for 12 more years–and simply switch positions again with current president Dmitry Medvedev was poorly received by the Russian people. This discontent was exacerbated by last week’s parliamentary elections, which produced losses for the ruling United Russia party but were widely perceived as flawed and provoked massive demonstrations in Moscow.

Why are these pro-democracy stirrings occurring now?  Some evidence indicates that a new sense of political efficacy has gripped some Russians.  Political scientists have shown through survey research a strong correlation between perceptions of political efficacy–the belief that one can have an impact on political outcomes–and political participation.  Julia Ioffe writes in a Foreign Policy article:

“For years, polls showed well over 80 percent of Russians did not believe they could influence the political process. And, for the most part, they were right, not least because people who do not participate — either because they don’t want to, or because they’re disincentivized from doing so — can have little effect. The lack of incentives to participate was important, and it was by design…The [election] results, despite the forgeries and the trickery, at least accurately reflected in some way United Russia’s sinking poll numbers, and this seemed to have been the push the class of the fed-up needed: it showed them that if you go out and participate, even in a crooked system, something, even something small, can come of it.”

Who populates this vocal group of dissenting Russians?  Ioffe quotes a member of the Russian Duma (parliament) as saying: “We have a middle class now. It may not be as big as in Germany and France, but it exists. And the quality of the needs in towns has changed, from how to survive to how to live. They have what to eat and what to drive. The question now is how to live with dignity and justice.”  Indeed, scholars have suggested that the presence of a rising middle class is a key precursor to democratic change in a country, since people who have become accustomed to greater economic power and choices normally desire political influence that is commensurate with their newfound economic power.  Ioffe concludes:  “As could be seen at the week’s mass protests, and in the Twitter and Facebook blizzard in the days that followed, what these young, educated, urban, middle-class Russians of the Putin era need is exactly what [the Duma member] said they needed: dignity and justice.”

Grand Strategy and the Gap Between Academics and Policymakers

Could President Obama learn something from academics about how to conduct U.S. foreign policy?

Grand strategy refers to a country’s broad approach to achieving its foreign policy goals.  It specifies how one will employ the elements of national power (military, economic, and political capabilities) to achieve core goals.  America’s strategy during the Cold War was containment of Communism and its chief proponent, the Soviet Union.  For the decade after the Cold War, U.S. policymakers struggled to define a coherent grand strategy as scholars debated the merits of strategies including neo-isolationism, cooperative security, selective engagement, and primacy.  After 9/11 the Bush administration embraced a primacy-based grand strategy that provoked considerable domestic and international opposition.

In the wake of costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and growing fiscal limitations at home, the strategy of offshore balancing has become increasingly popular among scholars and pundits.  This strategy is defined by noted realist scholar (and offshore balancing enthusiast) Stephen Walt as follows:

“That strategy — which would eschew nation-building and large onshore ground and air deployments — would both increase our freedom of action and dampen anti-Americanism in a number of key areas. It would acknowledge that Americans are not very good at running other countries — particularly when their histories and culture are vastly different from our own — and that trying to do so is neither necessary nor wise. Offshore balancing would take advantage of America’s favorable geopolitical position, most notably its distance from most of the world’s trouble spots and centers of power. (Why should a country that has no great power rivals near its own borders be so eager to send its military forces deep into the Asian landmass, in search of monsters to destroy, especially when there are no threats to the overall balance of power in these areas? Better to follow Muhammed Ali’s famous advice and “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.)   Offshore balancing is not isolationism, however, because the United States would still be diplomatically engaged in many places and committed to intervening in key areas if and when the balance of power broke down. By eschewing costly onshore commitments and fruitless exercises in “regional transformation” and nation-building, however, it would husband the resources on which America’s long-term prosperity depends and help us rebuild a society that used to be inspire others and increasingly disappoints.”

But there are serious obstacles to translating the sorts of strategies championed by academics into concrete policy decisions.  First, such theories are frequently presented as simple “all upside” alternatives to the current dreadful policies–which must be the result of stupidity and malice–and thus they do not grapple with the difficult tradeoffs and uncertainties that confront real-world policymakers.  Secondly, assuming that a strategy such as offshore balancing would work wonders if implemented consistently by enlightened policymakers, one still runs into the problem that policymakers are politicians and are not free to make ideal foreign policy choices unencumbered by domestic constraints.  To his credit, Walt recognizes this:

“Nor is offshore balancing a magic bullet or a panacea. To make it work, you need to know a lot about the diplomatic and security constellations in key areas; you need expert diplomats who know how to play hardball in subtle ways; and you need a foreign policy establishment that pursues U.S. interests ruthlessly and doesn’t get sidetracked by ideological crusades or the pleadings of special interests. And in case you hadn’t noticed, those features are in short supply these days.”

What do you think?  Is there hope for “bridging the gap” between policymakers and academics?  Do scholars have something useful to offer policymakers, or are academics’ theories too abstract and their foreign policy critiques simply “Monday morning quarterbacking” from the sidelines?

State Failure, the Security Dilemma, and Libya’s Guns

Libya's interim Prime Minister Abdul Raheem al-Keeb has his hands full trying to establish a functioning government and disarm militias in the country.

An article in today’s New York Times describes a Libyan father’s accidental death at the hands of his son and raises an alarm about the vast arsenal of easily accessible weaponry in post-Qaddafi Libya.  On the night that Qaddafi’s “loathed and feared” son Muatassim was captured by Libyan rebels, the city of Misurata erupted in celebratory gunfire.  Rebel commander Hassan Nahassi, who had just returned home from the battlefront in Sirte in order to spend time with his family, acquiesced to his young boys’ request to fire a rifle in celebration.  His 12-year-old son Ali lost control of the automatic weapon and accidentally shot and killed his father.  Yet the surviving relatives and friends of Mr. Nahassi are not about to give up their weapons:

“Guns, many Libyans say, set them free. And with the future uncertain and memories of persecution fresh, almost no one is yet sure how to give the guns up, even as they acknowledge that much of their former ruler’s arsenal would be better not loose.”

Abdullah Kamal bin Hameda, a 22-year-old nephew of the deceased and now a caretaker in his uncle’s home, is quoted as saying the adults must keep the weapons out of children’s reach, but otherwise must keep them: “It is difficult to put down the guns right now, because I do not know who is my enemy and who is my friend,” Mr. Hameda said. “When we will have a new government, and it is strong and we trust it, then we will give them the guns. But not now, not to the N.T.C. [Transitional National Council, the interim Libyan government].”

Political scientists have pointed out that when governments are unable to provide security (a primary symptom of state failure) people commonly take up arms to defend themselves and their kin.  This frequently leads to the formation of militias along ethnic or sectarian lines, and can spark a security dilemma, whereby one group’s efforts to ensure its security (usually through an arms buildup) reduces the security of other groups, heightens tensions, and ultimately makes the original group less secure.  The security dilemma is more common in international politics, where there is no world government to ensure states’ security (a condition realist scholars call anarchy).  But when states fail, anarchy is produced within states.

Mr. Hameda’s experience is a chilling reminder of how state failure and its attendant security dilemmas can produce tensions and arms races despite people’s best intentions.  He told the New York Times that he “was eager to return to civilian life, and leave war behind.”  However, “he also said he intended to maintain a small armory at his home, where he has five automatic rifles claimed from the defeated Qaddafi forces, until he sees what comes next.  ‘My house is like an army base,’ he said.”