Monthly Archives: February 2012

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

The weekly quiz is now live in MyPoliSciKit. Good luck!

Koran Burnings, Air Strikes, and the Perils of Counterinsurgency Warfare

Afghans protesting against the United States after American soldiers burned Korans as part of a garbage pile at Bagram Air Field.

President Obama has apologized for U.S. soldiers’ “mistakenly insulting the Koran” by burning copies of the Muslim holy book, but anger and violence against U.S. troops has escalated over the past several days.  This comes on the heels of a NATO airstrike that killed eight young Afghans, for which NATO offered its condolences.

These developments would be “bad public relations” for NATO and the U.S. in any war, but they take on added strategic significance in the context of counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare–the type of campaign NATO is pursuing in Afghanistan.  Whereas in conventional warfare the objective is to crush the enemy quickly and decisively, COIN warfare is less about military victory and more about “winning the hearts and minds” of the civilian population.  Specifically, the goal is to provide security and basic services to the civilian population so they will support the government and stop supporting the insurgents.  As the U.S. discovered in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, when the government is corrupt, autocratic, or incompetent or military force is used in a heavy-handed way–especially if civilians are killed–the population will tend to turn against the government and into the arms of the insurgents.

American and allied military leaders understand the imperatives of COIN warfare, but these requirements are easier to describe in theoretical terms than to implement in a war zone.  Two key “paradoxes of counterinsurgency” from Chapter 1 of the Counterinsurgency manual written by General David Petraeus seem particularly relevant to the current difficulties in Afghanistan:

Paradox #2: “Sometimes, the More Force Is Used, the Less Effective It Is.  Any use of force produces many effects, not all of which can be foreseen. The more force applied, the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal. In contrast, using force precisely and discriminately strengthens the rule of law that needs to be established.”

Paradox #9: “Many Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals. Successful COIN operations require competence and judgment by Soldiers and Marines at all levels. Indeed, young leaders—so-called “strategic corporals”—often make decisions at the tactical level that have strategic consequences. Senior leaders set the proper direction and climate with thorough training and clear guidance; then they trust their subordinates to do the right thing. Preparation for tactical-level leaders requires more than just mastering Service doctrine; they must also be trained and educated to adapt to their local situations, understand the legal and ethical implications of their actions, and exercise initiative and sound judgment in accordance with their senior commanders’ intent.”

Are the U.S. and its NATO allies on the verge of losing the war in Afghanistan?  With the Obama administration’s decision to end U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan by the middle of next year, is it inevitable that the population will turn back to the Taliban out of fear or necessity?  What, if anything, can be done to turn the tide in favor of the Karzai government and its external supporters?

Free Trade, Neo-Mercantilism, and the “Rules” of International Trade

President Obama shakes hands in the Oval Office with Xi Jinping, the current Vice President (and presumptive next President) of China.

President Obama welcomed Xi Jinping, China’s “president in waiting,” to the White House this week for a high profile visit.  Obama warned the visiting leader that China must play by the rules of international trade, a comment reflecting American concerns about Chinese currency manipulation, intellectual property transgressions, and other barriers to free trade.  But economic analyst Clyde Prestowitz questions the wisdom of Obama’s “lecture” in his latest blog post:

“It sounded right and fair and slightly tough as it was carefully crafted to do by top White House political advisers, and the president may even believe it. But he shouldn’t have said it.”

Why shouldn’t Obama have criticized China for not playing by the rules?  Prestowitz argues that there are no universally agreed upon rules for international trade; rather, there are (at least) two different games being played simultaneously, by different actors, with different sets of rules.  Some states embrace economic liberalism, or free-market capitalism, which emphasizes comparative advantage, free trade, and limited government intervention in economic affairs.  Others–particularly those who are not benefiting from the trend toward greater globalization and free trade–favor mercantilist policies, which emphasize national wealth and the protection of domestic industries from foreign competition through tariffs and other trade barriers.  Prestowitz spells out which parts of the world are playing each game: 

“The global economy is, in fact, sharply divided between those who are playing the free trade game and those who are playing some form of mercantilism. Of course, there is a spectrum of attitudes and policies, but roughly speaking the Anglo/American countries, North America, and parts of Europe are playing free trade. Most of Asia, much of South America, the Middle East, Germany and parts of Europe are playing neo-mercantilism. It’s like watching tennis players trying to play a game with football players. It doesn’t work, and insisting on playing by the rules doesn’t help, because both sets of teams are playing by the rules — of their game.”

What do you think?  Are America and Europe really playing by their own rules of free trade?  Is free trade or mercantilism (or some combination of the two) a better approach for achieving prosperity?  Does America have the right to tell China how to play the game of international trade?

When Doves are More Aggressive Than Hawks (and Vice Versa): The “Nixon to China” Phenomenon and President Obama

Can President Obama pursue aggressive foreign policy actions with greater latitude than any Republican?

An interesting paradox of world politics is that sometimes leaders who are known as “hawks” (hardline, confrontational leaders) are better able to appease foreign adversaries and make peace than their more “dovish” (cooperative and accommodative) counterparts. This also works in reverse: doves sometimes have more freedom to use aggressive tactics, including military force, than their hawkish colleagues. How can this be?

The classic example is Richard Nixon, the diehard anti-Communist who in 1972 became the first American president to visit Communist China and who strengthened American ties with China as part of his policy of detente (“relaxation of tensions”).  Ronald Reagan likewise made a career of fighting Communism, only to pursue a strategy of cooperation and conciliation (including sweeping arms control agreements) with the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.  It was often said that “only Nixon could go to China.”  Many have also argued that only Reagan, among contemporary American leaders, could have moved toward Gorbachev in the way he did, hastening the end of the Cold War.  The reason why these leaders were uniquely positioned to reach out in cooperative ways to their enemies is that their hardline credentials were unquestioned, which gave them political cover on the right (the conservative end of the political spectrum).  If a more dovish leader, such as President Jimmy Carter, were to take the steps that Nixon or Reagan did, he would have faced withering attacks from the right as an appeaser who was “soft on Communism.”  But Nixon and Reagan could not be credibly attacked in such terms, freeing them to take steps that were more in line with the preferences of many on the political left. 

The same dynamic appears to be happening today with President Obama.    Stephen Walt’s recent blog post “Why Hawks Should Vote for Obama” makes this case as follows:

“So why should hawks vote for Obama? As Glenn Greenwald and Greg Sargent have argued most forcefully, it’s because Obama can do hawkish things as a Democrat that a Republican could not (or at least not without facing lots of trouble on the home front). It’s the flipside of the old “Nixon Goes to China” meme: Obama can do hawkish things without facing (much) criticism from the left, because he still retains their sympathy and because liberals and non-interventionists don’t have a credible alternative (sorry, Ron Paul supporters). If someone like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or George W. Bush had spent the past few years escalating drone attacks, sending Special Forces into other countries to kill people without the local government’s permission, prosecuting alleged leakers with great enthusiasm, and ratcheting up sanctions against Iran, without providing much information about exactly why and how we were doing all this, I suspect a lot of Democrats would have raised a stink about some of it. But not when it is the nice Mr. Obama that is doing these things.”

What do you think?  Is this “Nixon to China” paradox the answer to Obama’s surprisingly hardline foreign policy actions in the above cases?  Would he really be a more hawkish president than any of the Republican challengers, as Walt seems to suggest?

Poll: Nuclear Disarmament

The Obama administration is reportedly considering dramatic cuts in America’s nuclear arsenal. Read the below blog post and then vote on whether or not this is a good idea.

Is Nuclear Disarmament a Good Idea?

The atomic explosion over Nagasaki, August 9, 1945.

The Obama administration is reportedly considering nuclear disarmament options that would include reducing the U.S. arsenal to as few as 300 strategic nuclear weapons, an 80% reduction from current levels.  A policy of deep cuts would be consistent with President Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world.  It would also be consistent with the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls not only for non-nuclear states to refrain from obtaining nuclear weapons (a well known provision) but for existing nuclear states to eventually eliminate these weapons (a lesser known provision).  Article VI of the NPT states:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Some analysts believe that a 300-weapon nuclear force would be sufficient for deterring adversaries and would help to convince countries such as Iran and North Korea to forgo nuclear weapons development.  But critics, including Republican members of Congress, have denounced such ideas as “reckless lunacy” that would undermine American security and do nothing to dissuade rogue states from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The Associated Press story that broke the news of these plans notes the revolutionary nature of the changes:

“New U.S. cuts could open the prospect for a historic reshaping of the American nuclear arsenal, which for decades has stood on three legs: submarine-launched ballistic missiles, ground-based ballistic missiles and weapons launched from big bombers like the B-52 and the stealthy B-2. The traditional rationale for this “triad” of weaponry is that it is essential to surviving any nuclear exchange.”

Indeed, during the Cold War the impetus for building thousands of nuclear weapons and dispersing them across multiple types of delivery vehicles and geographical locales was that if all of a country’s nuclear weapons could be destroyed in a first strike, retaliation could not be assured and there would be nothing to deter the enemy from striking first.  (The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, was built from these premises).

What do you think?  Are dramatic cuts in America’s nuclear arsenal a good idea or a dangerous one?  Take the poll and let us know your views.

Is the UN Security Council Broken?

The UN Security Council votes on a resolution endorsing an Arab League peace plan for Syria. The resolution was defeated by vetoes from Russia and China.

Yesterday’s veto, by Russia and China, of a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned Syria’s crackdown on regime opponents and supported an Arab League plan to end the violence has provoked outrage from Western governments, human rights organizations, and international relations experts.  The veto came amid a brutal crackdownin the city of Homs that reportedly left over 200 people dead.  Russia and China claim that the resolution unfairly singled out Syria’s government for blame and ignored the culpability of opposition fighters.

The Syria crisis is only the latest in a series of cases in which the UN has failed to act against atrocities seemingly condemned by its charter due to the veto power granted to the “Big Five” permanent members of the Security Council: the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China.  If any of these five members votes against a Security Council resolution, the resolution is automatically defeated.  (The Syria vote was 13 in favor and 2 opposed).

Even the UN’s strongest supporters have expressed great disappointment at this vote and have suggested that the UN has failed in one of its core missions.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement saying the vote “undermines the role of the United Nations and the international community in this period when the Syrian authorities must hear a unified voice calling for an immediate end to its violence against the Syrian people.”

Middle East expert Marc Lynch likewise highlighted the serious implications–far beyond Syria–of this failure: “…The failure of the UN to act, as Secretary General Ban Ki Moon suggested, harms the institution itself by revealing its inability to act in defense of the Charter’s promise. The next stages, whether military or not (and I expect not), will more resemble the Kosovo and Iraq campaigns which were launched without international legitimacy. This will significantly undermine the prospects that such actions will contribute to the positive development of international norms of atrocity prevention or the more controversial ‘responsibility to protect.'”

Is it time to drastically reform the UN, perhaps by eliminating the veto privileges of the Big Five, a group of countries that is increasingly unrepresentative of the international community at large?  Does the Syria vote cast doubt on the continued utility of the UN as an instrument of international peace and security in the 21st century?

Poll: The U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

As noted in the previous post, the Obama administration’s new timetable for the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan is controversial. We want to hear your views. Answer the poll question below and feel free to post a comment to explain your answer.

Exit Strategies, the Shadow of the Future, and the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announces that U.S. troops will end their combat mission in Afghanistan by mid-2013.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced this week that U.S. forces would step back from their central combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013, taking on an “advise and assist” role more than a year before all U.S. troops are scheduled to be withdrawn (the end of 2014). The New York Times highlighted the novelty and political significance of this controversial announcement:

“Mr. Panetta cast the decision as an orderly step in a withdrawal process long planned by the United States and its allies, but his comments were the first time that the United States had put a date on stepping back from its central role in the war. The defense secretary’s words reflected the Obama administration’s eagerness to bring to a close the second of two grinding ground wars it inherited from the Bush administration.”

The announcement was immediately seized on by critics of the Obama administration, who contend that setting an arbitrary deadline for withdrawal (rather than making withdrawal contingent on the achievement of key security goals) (1) gives “aid and comfort” to the enemy by encouraging the Taliban and Al Qaeda to just wait out the U.S. and (2) sends a dangerous signal to pro-U.S. Afghans that they had better not cast their lot with those who will soon be much weaker or gone altogether.  As with America’s withdrawal from Iraq, proponents of a clear exit timeline in Afghanistan contend that (1) the U.S. has spent enough blood and treasure in this conflict, and (2) setting a clear timeline will force Afghanistan’s leaders to step up and take responsibility for their own country rather than remaining dependent on the U.S. and its coalition partners.

Even a prominent supporter of a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan (realist scholar Stephen Walt) argues that announcing timetables reduces U.S. leverage since Afghan leaders know America won’t be around to punish noncompliance or reward compliance: a key concept called the shadow of the future.

What do you think?  Is the Obama administration’s timetable for reducing America’s combat role and pulling its troops out of Afghanistan harmful or helpful for U.S. interests?  Is it in Afghanistan’s best interests?  Are Obama’s critics right that the president is being driven by political motives and risks throwing away the hard-won achievements of the last 10 years of war?