Monthly Archives: April 2012

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

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

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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.