Monthly Archives: April 2012

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

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

Poll: Is an Atrocities Prevention Board a Good Idea?

President Obama’s creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board has generated considerable debate. Read about this board in the blog post below and then let us know what you think.

An Atrocities Prevention Board: Useful Tool or Farce?

President Obama at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

In a speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. last week, President Obama announced the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board.  This interagency body (with members from the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, and others) is designed to monitor situations that could lead to mass atrocities and recommend timely actions to prevent escalation.  This announcement drew swift and scathing responses from a variety of critics.

Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, in an article called “While Syria Burns,” argued that the Obama administration talks tough on preventing atrocities but has stood idly by as 9,000 Syrians have been killed.  He calls the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board “embarrassing,” and suggests it is an excuse for inaction: “I kid you not. A board. Russia flies plane loads of weapons to Damascus. Iran supplies money, trainers, agents, more weapons. And what does America do? Supports a feckless U.N. peace mission that does nothing to stop the killing. (Indeed, some of the civilians who met with the peacekeepers were summarily executed.) And establishes an Atrocities Prevention Board.”

Another critic, realist scholar Stephen Walt, argues that the board is problematic for three reasons: (1) it will increase the likelihood that the U.S. will get involved in more unwise and costly interventions in an effort to be the “global police,” (2) it will do nothing about the core strategic problems that prevent states from intervening in humanitarian crises, and (3) it helps perpetuate the myth that the U.S. has clean hands and should be judging others’ behavior when it has been responsible for atrocities in the past.

But Andrew Miller of the Council on Foreign Relations‘ Center for Preventive Action argues in a response to Walt that the Atrocities Prevention Board has the potential both to prevent genocide and to reduce the likelihood of costly U.S. intervention abroad:

“The APB will help ensure that atrocity situations don’t get sidelined in the policymaking process. The Clinton administration failed to address the 1994 Rwandan genocide in part because White House officials were focused on the dual crises in Bosnia and Haiti. Thus, as hundreds of thousands died in Rwanda, the genocide wasn’t even a side-show for policymakers; it was a “no show” in the words of then-national security advisor Tony Lake…

Does that mean the U.S. military is more likely to find itself in places of negligible U.S. interests such as Rwanda?  Simply put: No.  As the board’s title suggests, it will focus on prevention. Thus, its success will be measured on its ability to prevent tensions from deteriorating to the point where intervention is even considered. With a preventive approach, the United States can save more lives while expending less blood and treasure. Preventive tools such as economic sanctions or threats of prosecution used to deter would-be perpetrators and protect would-be victims are almost always cheaper and less risky than large-scale military operations.”

Who makes a more persuasive case: the advocates of an Atrocities Prevention Board or its critics?  Are we kidding ourselves that this board can actually make a difference, or does it have the potential to be a useful policy tool that saves lives, saves money, and stops budding conflicts from escalating into the worst kinds of atrocities?

Realism, Idealism, and the fate of Chen Guangcheng

Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng with his wife and son in 2005.

Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident and human rights lawyer, made a daring escape from house arrest this week and somehow made it to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, where he now sits.  This will make for an uncomfortable visit to China later this week by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as they meet Chinese officials in a “Strategic and Economic Dialogue.”  As explained in this New York Times analysis, the politics of this case are complex and militate against an easy solution for several reasons: (1) President Obama is under domestic political pressure in his reelection campaign to show toughness on China, (2) the Obama administration has praised Mr. Chen as a human rights leader, making it difficult to simply hand him over to the Chinese authorities, (3) moderate Chinese officials are under pressure from hardliners who will likely claim this incident is part of a U.S.-driven conspiracy to embarrass China, and (4) China’s economic and military rise has given its leaders greater self-confidence in dealing with America than at any time in recent memory.

Beyond these broad political constraints, Mr. Chen’s fate will depend on whether the Obama administration is more willing to act according to realism or idealism.  These opposing approaches to world politics emphasize very different priorities and methods.  For realists, the national interest (defined largely in terms of economic and military power) reigns supreme, and issues like human rights, the environment, and economic development are frequently viewed as an unnecessary distraction unless they directly affect the national interest in some way.  For idealists, these “values” issues should not be crowded out by national interests, narrowly defined, since we live in a global village and cannot divorce ourselves from the fate of other human beings.

Realist presidents like Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush have been willing to downplay Chinese human rights violations because a stable security and trade relationship with the rising Asian power is seen as vital to America’s national interests.  Presidents with stronger idealist inclinations, such as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, have decried the subordination of human rights to crass material self-interest but when in power have frequently pursued policies not much different from their realist counterparts.  If the Obama administration (which has shown some evidence of both realist and idealist tendencies at different times) chooses to focus on America’s economic and security interests, Mr. Chen may very well find himself back in the hands of Chinese authorities before long.  If, on the other hand, their concern for human rights (or fear of the domestic political costs of “caving” to China) is sufficiently strong, a prolonged standoff with China could result–with serious implications for the U.S.-China relationship.

What do you think?  Should the U.S. return Mr. Chen to Chinese custody?  What are the consequences of doing so?  Of refusing to do so?  Do you expect the Obama administration to act according to the dictates of realism or idealism in this case, and why?

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

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

Sunnis, Shiites, and the Arab Spring

Was Osama bin Laden a Sunni or Shiite Muslim? Can you identify the ruling sect in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria?

Today’s Formula 1 race in Bahrain occurred without incident, but many observers had feared violence would mar the festivities.  This is because Bahrain, like several other countries in the region, is experiencing ongoing unrest pitting anti-government protesters against the ruling authorities.  And, as in other Middle Eastern countries, this clash has broken down along sectarian lines, with Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims vying for power.

While some Western commentators speak broadly of the “Arab and Muslim world,” painting with such broad strokes obscures many of the differences that help to make sense of the politics of today’s Middle East.  A few examples:

* In Iraq, the Sunni minority (which was in power under Saddam Hussein) is now facing a resurgent Shiite majority which controls the parliament and much of the executive branch. This struggle involves political competition and violence, although one commentator argues much of the violence is really about jihadism rather than sectarianism.

* Like in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Bahrain’s minority Sunnis enjoy power over the majority Shiites.  Sunnis have now mobilized to protect the regime and crack down on protesting Shiites.

* Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power, has intervened in Bahrain, Egypt, and Syria with military, economic, or political tools to help support the rise of Sunni actors and the defeat of Shiite forces.

* Iran, the region’s leading Shiite power, has close ties with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syria’s ruling Alawite sect.  The Alawites split off from Shia Islam over 1,000 years ago and consider Iran an ally in maintaining power against Syria’s restive Sunni majority.

Despite the importance of the Sunni-Shiite distinction in understanding today’s Middle East, many American policymakers (even some counter-terrorism officials) have displayed their ignorance on this point.  See this Op-Ed piece from Congressional Quarterly national security editor Jeff Stein for examples drawn from Stein’s interviews with U.S. officials.

It’s easy to scoff at these answers, but can you do any better?  Take this quiz on the differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam and see how well you do.

Poll: Is Iran Seeking a Nuclear Weapon?

Iran’s nuclear program is back in the news after negotiations between Iran and a group of six world powers resulted in an agreement to continue nuclear talks next month.  Iran claims its nuclear program is solely for peaceful energy generation purposes.  Many Western countries, including the United States, doubt this claim and believe the Iranian government is pursuing nuclear weapons capability.  Take the poll below and tell us what you think.

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

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

Election “Management” in Autocratic States

Former vice president and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was one of ten Egyptian presidential candidates disqualified yesterday by Egypt's election commission.

Democracies aren’t the only states that hold elections. Autocratic states frequently hold elections also. But these elections fall far short of the “free and fair” standard in order to ensure outcomes acceptable to the regime. Common–and effective–tactics include putting only one name on the ballot (e.g., Saddam Hussein in 2002), intimidating voters, and having regime allies count the votes.

Another creative “election management” tactic has been used for years in Iran and appears to have been employed just yesterday by Egypt.  This measure preserves the appearance of a competitive election but disqualifies in advance any candidates the ruling authorities deem unacceptable.  In Egypt the High Election Commission eliminated 10 candidates for the upcoming presidential elections, including the three leading candidates: former vice president and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, leading Muslim Brotherhood strategist Khairat el-Shater, and ultraconservative Islamist Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.  They were all disqualified for technical violations but the underlying reason may have been a desire to avoid deep societal conflict: “The race has shaped up as a battle between Islamists and former officials of the Mubarak government. If the decision stands, it will effectively leave out the most polarizing candidates on both sides of the field.”  It is worth noting that Egypt is a regime in transition, so its interim rulers may be employing this tactic less to preserve their own power than to ensure a transition to the type of regime they ultimately want to see.

There is less ambiguity about the way this tactic is used in Iran.  An outstanding BBC guide entitled “How Iran is Ruled” describes the role of the highly influential Guardian Council in screening candidates (and legislation):

“The council has to approve all bills passed by parliament and has the power to veto them if it considers them inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law. The council can also bar candidates from standing in elections to parliament, the presidency and the Assembly of Experts.  Reformist attempts to reduce the council’s vetting powers have proved unsuccessful and the council banned all but six of more than 1,000 hopefuls in the 2005 elections.  Two more, both reformists, were permitted to stand after the Supreme Leader intervened. All the female candidates were blocked from standing.”

Iran’s Guardian Council similarly disqualified 2,000 candidates prior to the 2008 parliamentary elections (most of them reformers).  The same pattern repeated itself for the 2012 elections.

While this candidate screening tactic is employed most egregiously and openly in autocratic states, does something similar happen in democracies?  In what ways are the candidates for high office in democracies recruited or “vetted” by powerful elites outside of public view?  Is this qualitatively different from what happens in autocracies, or is it essentially the same tactic?  What are the implications for democracy?

Second-Term Presidents, Flexibility, and Obama’s Open-Microphone Moment

Oops...Presidents Obama and Medvedev didn't realize a "hot microphone" was recording their words during a sensitive exchange at the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in late March 2012.

Michael Kinsley famously defined a “gaffe” as when a politician tells the truth. On his recent trip to Seoul, President Obama was overheard (by an open microphone) making comments to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he no doubt intended to keep secret. In discussing nuclear arms control, Obama asked that the following message be relayed to incoming president Vladimir Putin:

“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space… This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”

A wide range of commentators, from conservative critics to left-leaning Jon Stewart, criticized the president for acting as if the American people and democratic elections were simply an impediment to his agenda.  But was he (as Michael Kinsley might argue) simply telling the truth?  Are presidents who no longer have to stand for reelection unconstrained by public opinion and able to finally act according to their own policy preferences?

Tufts professor Daniel Drezner says this bit of conventional wisdom is wrong.  He points out that presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush all pursued policies that departed from their ideological “type” in their second terms (e.g., Reagan compromising with the Soviets, Clinton using force without UN approval, and Bush pursuing less aggressive and more multilateral policies toward “rogue states”).   Drezner thinks these shifts can be explained by the moderating influence of facing reality: “I’d argue that precisely because presidents have fewer foreign policy constraints than domestic ones, they feel free to pursue their preferred set of policies from day one. Reality, however, quickly determines which ideas are working and which do not have any staying power. Over time, therefore, presidents change tack until they hit on a more successful formula. This usually means overcoming one’s personal ideology and embracing new ideas.”  In short, Drezner believes that the foreign policy powers of the executive branch in the U.S. system (both constitutionally granted and accrued over time) allow presidents to act relatively unconstrained throughout their presidencies.

Stephen Walt disagrees.  In a blog post entitled “How our election cycle screws up our foreign policy,” the Harvard professor and noted realist argues that presidents are actually constrained by domestic politics in unhealthy ways throughout their presidencies–but especially during the two years preceding the next presidential election.  Between fundraising, campaigning, and presidential primaries, two years of a four year term are filled with analysis, speculation, and preparation for the next election.  Walt shows that the American choice of a short presidential term and a long election process is unusual, cross-nationally:

“Other countries are not nearly so foolish. Parliamentary systems like Great Britain specify that general elections have to be held on regular intervals (i.e., every five years or so) though snap elections aren’t unusual. But I can’t think of any country that spends a year or more actually running the campaign. In Canada, for example, the Elections Act mandates that the minimum length of a campaign be 36 days, and the longest campaign ever recorded (in 1926), was only seventy-four days. In Australia, elections generally last about two months. Apart from the United States, the longest election period I could find in a brief search was Germany, at about 114 days for unscheduled elections. Needless to say, this period is still far shorter than the U.S. norm.”

Walt discusses a variety of problems America’s peculiar election cycle produces, most notably the tendency for presidents to cater to interest groups and the opportunity for foreign actors to take advantage of our domestic politics to further their own agendas.  If Walt is correct, then Obama was just telling the truth: the year or so leading up to the election is the period in which presidents will be least likely to step out and take controversial actions, while the beginning of a term is the time when the president enjoys the most latitude.

What do you think?  How constrained is the U.S. president in the realm of foreign policy?  If President Obama is reelected, do you expect him to act more liberal or conservative, more dovish or hawkish, than he did in his first term, and why?