Friday, September 27, 2013

Retiring the Union Jack: Four Factors Behind Separatist Movements

Next September, Scotland will be voting on the issue of independence. Growing numbers of Scots suspect the benefits of a “united kingdom” no longer outweigh the costs and look to separate from Great Britain. The sentiment extends far beyond an old-fashioned nationalism: a political chasm has opened between the English and the Scottish electorates—the Scots believe policies implemented by the relatively conservative English majority over the objections of Scottish representatives hold the Scottish economy back from its full potential. The Scots are not alone in their separatist inclinations. The Basque Country and Catalonia in north-eastern Spain both possess long-standing separatist communities with considerable local support. Like the Scots, Catalonians may head to the polls in 2014 to vote for or against independence from a central government they increasingly perceive as restraining. How should we consider such proposals?

I must confess that no small part of my initial reaction is a product of the computer games that first sparked my interest in world history and current affairs. Playing a game such as Europa Universalis 4, a separatist movement is only ever a good thing when it happens to someone else; otherwise, it is an annoyance worthy only of suppression. It is no wonder that a game focused on the expansion of state-power in the modern era—both domestically and around the globe—should ignore the merits of the separatists themselves. A strong state with long-term viability is united and nationalistically homogeneous. Looking at the real world through that lens, one would see Scottish separatism as both a symptom of and potential catalyst for the decline of Great Britain as a global actor. Allowing such a division would leave two relatively weaker countries in the place of a single, stronger state.

America’s own history with separatism also lends itself to my bias against the idea. The Confederate States of America seceded from the Union for truly reprehensible reasons and all talk of separatism since comes from those equally awful, if not outright loony. The rhetoric of secession in America comes almost entirely from (right-wing) politics and lacks the more justifiable foundations of separatism exhibited in Europe. Those employing the rhetoric typically ignore that their states—typically Southern—receive more money back from the federal government than the revenues they generate. Fewer still approach the levels of national identity possessed by the Scots. Former Texas Governor and Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Perry has made the valid point that the state’s history and the unique nature of its admittance into the Union lend it a degree more credibility in its brandying of independence from Washington, but it is hard to believe that any American state is prepared to step outside the benefits inherent in the current arrangement, though no few Northerners would be ready to wish them good riddance.

That all said, I find myself supporting peoples in Scotland, Catalonia, and Northern Italy. To work out why, let’s take a look at the factors that influence separatist attitudes.

1) Economics
Money makes the world go ‘round and there’s nothing like feeling deprived of potential earnings to stir the pot of separatism. Some would say that the other factors I've listed below are mere justifications, reasons tacked on to the central motive: profit. This can entail an entire population in a resource-rich and industrious area rejecting adherence to a more lackluster whole, or merely a small cabal of elites working toward their own personal enrichment. I argue that it is important to take the other factors into serious consideration, but it is obvious that economic frustrations add enormous potency to any separatist movement.
Examples: Scotland is economically well-off, not least for the extensive undersea drilling in the North Sea. Contributing more to the U.K. per capita than anywhere else, some Scots believe their economic futures would best be served by severing with the woefully austerian policies of conservative-dominated England. Catalonia bears many parallels: with a strong economy drained by an ineffective and austerian government in Madrid, no few Catalans are raising their voices for independence. Northern Italy is not far different. The far more industrialized northern regions look down on the sclerotic south, whose culture is maligned as slothful and corrupt. (Of course, foreigners look on in disgruntled confusion as Italians, Northerner and Southerner alike, have repeatedly handed the country’s reins back to the blatantly-criminal Silvio Berlusconi…)

2) Politics
It should hardly be surprising that a minority long subjected to the policy preferences of a markedly different majority will look to gain a degree of autonomy. Scotland, being on England’s political left, has chafed under the rule of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative government. Even the principal opposition party, Labour, has seen its reputation plunge following the uninspired performance of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and the “New Labor” movement as a whole. Thanks to the bungling and distant government in London, growing numbers of Scots believe that local rule would carry greater effectiveness and legitimacy. A few examples of successful separations include Bangladesh—formerly a non-contiguous province of Pakistan, the local population took advantage of the high tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad to throw off the yoke of the latter’s distant and repressive government—Syria—a country whose entry into a political union with an arrogant and demanding Egyptian state was quickly reversed as Syrian elites realized they were better off on their own—and much any anti-colonial independence movement—local people resisting the will of rulers they have deemed illegitimate. These issues also make up the majority of the unserious separatist rhetoric in the United States.

3) Nationalism
Nationalism is a funny thing: consisting of ephemeral, socially-constructed, imagined-communities, various nationalisms have given rise to some of the most violent conflicts and worst regimes known to humanity, yet can wither and fade into nothingness in the span of several generations. Nationalism is a creature of the public consciousness, influenced by education, media, and a population’s internal social dynamics. It emerges from perceptions of a shared experiences, be they ancient history, contemporary tragedy, or idealistic goal for the future. Interestingly, these experiences can be embellished or even fabricated entirely. Though Scotland and Catalonia both possess longstanding histories as independent peoples, the American national identity was forged relatively recently in the Revolutionary War and expanded upon through sometimes-overwrought and unnuanced retellings of events such as the Battle of the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11.

Yet these identities can be chipped away from both above and below. Napoleonic France set about systematically undermining the diverse local identities within the borders it had defined solely by right of conquest, forging a unified French identity from populations that would have previously defined themselves by their region or town. Spain underwent a similar, if lesser process that has seen significant reversals over the last decades as local identities gained new relevance. With the proliferation of communications technologies and digital communities, location-based identity has had to contend with a wide array of alternatives. Though none necessarily supplant national identity, there is a crowding-out effect.

I would argue that nationalism is almost always a second-order factor in modern separatist movements. Those with grievances against a central authority look to differentiate themselves, and inflaming nationalist sentiment is a good way to do so.

4) Religion

Very similar to nationalism, religious identity today serves more as justification and multiplier for correcting other grievances rather than the spark that lights the fire. While religious conflict and tension can maintain a steady burn for centuries once set alight, many such struggles have roots in leaders and elites pursuing their own ends instead of peasant rabble independently roused to fervor by some divine spirit. Take Sudan, for example: The declining British Empire handed over governance to the more pliable elites, Muslim descendants of Arab migrants in the North, giving them dominion over the previously separate Christian South; while religion factored in, the civil wars that followed and subsequent secession of South Sudan had their roots in the Northern regime’s political interests. Like national identity, a people’s religion can become a way it divides itself from the disfavored government, while rousing them to greater action.
The reasoning behind Scotland's drive for independence is hard to dismiss: the country is economically-strong, may be better served by self-rule, and possesses a national identity of real legitimacy. It is as of yet difficult to predict the results of any referendum--plenty of Scots don't care to upend centuries of established institutions--but it is hard to deny them the right of self-determination. An independent Scotland need be no less friendly with their neighbors to the south. At worst, England takes notice and allows for greater autonomy. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Three Motives Behind the Russian Chemical Weapons Proposal

It has been less than two weeks since Russian President Vladmir Putin interjected himself into Washington’s march to war, sending shockwaves through the American media. By putting a sudden halt in the steady buildup toward U.S. intervention in Syria, he reignited American recognition that Russia can still be a major player in world affairs—though the talking heads remain uncertain how much malign intent to read into the action.  To gain a better understanding of the prospects of the deal, which aims to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles with international oversight, it is important to analyze the possible reasons for which he has made the overture.

1) “Poking a Stick in America’s Eye”
If one listens to the most adamant proponents of intervention or conservatives in general, it is hard to avoid this misperception. The move has been described a ploy to knock the U.S. down a peg and cause it to lose face in the international community: if America ignores the proposal and strikes unilaterally, it would be perceived as brash and arrogant; if America accepts the proposal and finds it to be a mere distraction, it would appear weak and gullible. That the latter point ignores the potential for the administration to turn the failure of the process into a far stronger justification for intervention goes to show how short-sighted interventionists tend to be. If they can’t think two obvious steps ahead, how can we trust their sunny optimism on an intervention’s consequences? Of course, none of this is to say that raising Russia’s international prestige relative to that of the United States is not a factor, just that it is the cherry on top of more substantive reasoning.

2) Serious Concern for Rising Radicalism
Rather than just considering the matter from the classic, us-vs.-them, Cold-War mindset, it is important to give some thought to Mr. Putin’s domestic concerns. Americans tend to be unfamiliar with Russia’s demographic situation, so tend to be entirely ignorant of the country’s troubles in the Caucuses and how that might be linked to the conflict in Syria.  The predominantly Muslim districts have chafed violently under Russian rule going back to the times of the Tsar and the region’s separatists have been responsible for truly awful terrorism throughout Russia. This is not to discount the legitimacy of their protest against Moscow’s control—indeed, Russia’s blood-soaked oppression went far beyond the pinpricks of the rebels. Nonetheless, Putin is correct in his assertion that Syria is serving the clarion call of radicalization for the world’s young, disaffected Muslims. The Free Syrian Army, the secular, U.S.-preferred opposition force may be the international face for the rebels, but have been factitious from the start and would be in no position to take over governance in a post-Assad Syria. Now, they violently vie for power with Islamist groups as much as they do against the regime. Contrary to the obstinate claims of John McCain, it is unclear that more substantial American aid at the start of the conflict would have averted this situation or left the aftermath of an intervention any more orderly.
Russia's Chechnya Policy
Mr. Putin fears a rebel victory will leave Syria the next Afghanistan, a hotbed for ultra-radical Islam that will cause flare-ups in the Caucuses, across Europe, and could even contribute to another attack on the United States. It is clear that President Obama shares these concerns, as his support for the actual fighters has been tepid at most. Grating though it may be, the United States lacks a dog in the fight and should aim to diminish civilian suffering and violations of international norms. The proposed deal would do both without backing either side.

3) Buying Time for Assad
One undeniable aspect of the proposal is that it would buy the Assad regime a considerable amount of time. Unless they insist on especially unreasonable conditions in the deal or provide blatantly insufficient support to inspectors, the safe and verifiable destruction of chemical weapons will take many months to carry out, months in which the United States will not be striking Syrian military assets. This both gives the Syrian military some room to expand on the gains they have made against opposition groups over the past months, and time for the opposition to hang itself in the court of international opinion. Should current trends continue, the FSA may become undeniably subordinate to the Islamist fighters and sour many toward the prospect of a rebel victory. In this scenario, Assad need cooperate only just enough to keep the inspectors happy.

There are obvious implications based off all of this for U.S. policy going forward, but I’ll save that post for another time. Don’t hesitate to voice comments or questions below!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sending the Wrong Message to Iran

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, Suzanne Maloney puts to rest the tired argument that the United States must intervene in Syria to send a message to Iran. Certain vocal proponents of striking the Syrian regime assert that the Iranian government will take a failure to punish chemical weapons use as encouragement to push ahead toward a nuclear weapon. They argue that, lacking a sufficiently large and bloodied stick, there would be no reason for the Iranians to voluntarily relinquish their nuclear ambitions*. Maloney aptly points out that these proponents lack an understanding of the Iranian point of view—one in which Iran, far from being a belligerent warmonger bent on domination of the region, has been unfairly pressed from all sides by a bullying America and a conniving Israel.

That their perception is wildly different from how American policy makers see events doesn't invalidate it. The perception is based on a different reading of history, but Americans too often discount or outright ignore the value Iranians place on Western slights against them. Indeed, Maloney points out that Iranian leaders are bitterly upset that America should raise such a fuss over Syria’s use of chemical weapons after silently looking the other way as Saddam Hussein gassed tens of thousands of Iranians—civilian and soldier alike. To many in Iran, America is simply seizing on an excuse to intervene and further its dominance of the Middle East.

Maloney writes that any attack would only strengthen recalcitrant hardliners in Iran, greatly increasing the likelihood that the US and Iran would come to blows over that country’s nuclear program by undermining the prospects of any diplomatic resolution. I certainly agree and fear that those proponents who argue for intervention on the basis of the “credibility” of our threat of force outright desire such a conflict. These same people often denounce the offering of carrots to go along with the stick, pushing the Iranian government into a corner and creating the very problems we seek to avoid. Iran does have an elevated sense of its deserved role in the region, but punitive American policy and rhetoric toward Iran ensures that role remain in opposition to our interests.

In the country’s most recent elections, the Iranian people voted out the hardliners and raised a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, to the Presidency. It remains to be seen whether the extent of his authority goes beyond what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, but his win reflects the desire of the Iranian people to pursue a path forward that both maintains the dignity of the Iranian people and improves relations with the rest of the world. Anti-Iranian pundits have lost the bogeyman they had in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who was, in fact, a lame duck years before this election), but risk squandering the opportunity for dialogue by maintaining an all-stick approach to Iran.

By pursuing the diplomatic resolution to the chemical weapons problem as offered by Russia and Syria, America demonstrates that its designs on the region are benign. Bringing Iran into the conversation would help prospects for nuclear talks by building trust and understanding that, if done right, may carry forward even should the Syria initiative fall apart. American hardliners must not be allowed to guide policy toward yet more conflict in the Middle East.

* Note that Iran has not been discovered to be pursuing outright weaponization. Though they are clearly pushing toward the capability to construct a weapon should they so desire, UN inspectors have found no evidence of the construction of a nuclear weapon. Iran should certainly be more transparent with their program, but they do have a legitimate right to pursue peaceful development under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Is Syria Stalling for Time?

On Monday, an off-the-cuff remark by Secretary of State John Kerry prompted a drastic twist in the buildup to intervention in Syria. When asked by a reporter whether Syria could take any steps to avert Western military strikes, Kerry answered in a not fully serious manner that Assad would need to "turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community". In a surprising move, Russian President Vladimir Putin seized the opportunity and expressed interest in such a non-violent resolution to the tension, should Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be willing. Assad, to a greater or lesser extent a client of the Russian regime, obviously agreed eagerly and caused a lot of headaches in the Obama administration. The prospect of a negotiated solution is at odds with the bellicose rhetoric to date.

But isn’t this just a stalling tactic? Is it not just a way for the murderous Assad regime to buy time to protect their more vital assets from the looming American strike? Is it not just Putin thumbing his nose at American foreign policy, stirring up uncertainty at no cost to himself?

Short answer: Yes. It remains to be seen just how willing Russia will be to accept a meaningfully binding resolution in the United Nations Security Council. Having already rejected a French proposal assigning blame to the Syrian regime for the chemical attacks, it is unclear whether Russia is entering into the talks in good faith. Furthermore, the logistics of outside observers overseeing the elimination of Syria’s dispersed chemical weapons stocks during wartime is nightmarish. UN inspectors investigating last month’s attacks came under fire on multiple occasions—with little way to determine whether rebel forces were responsible or if the regime’s own troops were trying to scare them away. This is an effort to draw things out in hopes of putting the regime on favorable footing in the event that strikes move forward.

However, American interests and Obama’s foreign policy would best be served by pursuing this diplomatic route, even should it fall apart. A refusal from Syria to go through with the process would further isolate it from the international community and increase international willingness to take meaningful action, likely drawing the UK and others back to America’s side. Though it would be unlikely to sway Russia or China to accepting UNSC authorization for the use of force, any action would have far greater international legitimacy for having seriously attempted a negotiated solution.

It is important to note that the additional time for Syria to attempt to shield their more important assets is meaningless. The chemical weapon stocks themselves were already widely dispersed and any strikes on them would have likely carried the gasses into the surrounding areas. The targets more likely to be struck—those that enable the regime to carry out the conflict: transportation and communications infrastructures; fuel/ammunition depots; airbases; etc.—are simply not going to be sufficiently hardened to withstand the full weight of American military force in the next months. The only concern we should have about the wait is that it may occasion a repeat use of the chemical weapons by the Assad regime. A true humanitarian tragedy, but something that would again solidify international consensus for action.

If anything, the proposal has saved the Obama administration from serious embarrassment. The authorization of the use of military force put forward in Congress has grown increasingly unpopular as, surprise surprise, the prospect of another war in the Middle East rallied public opinion against intervention. While not exactly war weary, the masses lack much enthusiasm for putting Americans in harm’s way for a matter so tangential to their interests. This does offer the diplomatic route some trouble, unfortunately, as the best way to keep Syria serious about destroying their stockpiles is for the credible use of overwhelming force to be the only alternative.

Obama has sometimes been ridiculously awful about controlling the narrative on his policies since his election in 2008, but this could turn out very well for him. He should pursue diplomacy and see where it takes him. Should the effort be successful, his handling of the conflict would be a major boost to his increasingly-derided foreign policy.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Elephant in the Room: Why the Reluctance to Vote on Intervention?

No matter the circumstances, any state wishing to initiate the use of force against another must receive authorization by the United Nations in order for the action to enjoy full legality and legitimacy under international law. Officially, at least. Blatant violations and devious subversions abound from all sides since the inauguration of the UN Charter in 1945. Yet the majority of world leaders still advocate for the supranational organization and rhetorically adhere to its mandates.

Why states maintain their rhetorical support for the United Nations is a topic for another time. More relevant to current affairs has been the Obama administration's reluctance to submit a resolution to the United Nations Security Council--the highest body at the UN, composed of the United States, England, France, China, and Russia, plus a smattering of non-permanent members--citing the "inevitability" of a veto from Russia and China. Russia has indeed asked that the resolution introduced by UK Prime Minister David Cameron be tabled until UN inspectors conclude their report in the next week, but that does seem an entirely justifiable demand.

Still, Russia and China's veto of a resolution placing punitive sanctions on the Syrian regime in 2012 earned much justifiable condemnation from around the world. A resolution allowing the use of force on the Syrian military, though unpopular among those peoples whose soldiers would get in harms way, would receive at least widespread acquiescence from world leaders willing to let others take care of Assad's murderous regime; so why not force a veto and rally world opinion against those who would defend the use of chemical weapons? Though this particular case may not be enough, it would lend itself to the growing consensus on the need to reform the Security Council for the 21st Century. The contemporary geopolitical stage is vastly evolved from that of 1945; why not drop the unilateral veto and make Council membership more representative of today's Great Powers?

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: the United States and its allies on the UNSC do not want reform. The perceived risks of introducing new actors and restricting veto powers outweigh the benefit of making the body more responsive to international opinion. Who has been the biggest user of the unilateral veto powers since the USSR stopped trolling the Council in the 1960s? The United States.

No matter how much it hurts the Council's legitimacy to have its most powerful member exercising its veto in its own interest, the capability is far too politically advantageous for the president of the United States to accept relinquishing. The domestic furor generated by accepting limitations on that capability would similarly be politically devastating, correct though the decision may be, particularly in utterly nutty state of today's political discourse. If today's Republicans refuse to sign on to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea for rabid fear of the death knell to American sovereignty--despite desperate urging by every single past US Secretary of State--they are not about to allow a real, if justifiable, reduction of American sovereignty.
Vetoes in the UNSC by country
Worst of all? The US vetoes over the last several decades have almost universally been in support of Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian territory and war crimes. Though certainly not the sudden atrocity of using chemical weapons against civilians (woops), the ongoing occupation and expanding seizure of Palestinian lands with intent to annex is in blatant violation of international law and human decency--even America's European allies have condemned its uncritical support for the illegalities still perpetrated by the Israeli government.

So long as any administration in power in the United States perceives so much political risk at allowing reform to move ahead, the process will receive little more than lip-service that frustrates our non-member allies and poisons the institution's legitimacy. Intervention in Syria may go to a vote, but the United States will stifle any talk of reform.

Monday, August 26, 2013

3 Reasons For (and Against) Additional US Involvement in Syria

Before we get started, it's important to emphasize that this post is on the merits of additional US involvement in Syria. Which is to say that, for as long as the proponents of intervention have been voicing their arguments, the United States has undertaken a policy of intervention--just not always the kind that will make the nightly news or present a sexy talking point. The Obama administration's policy has long been to provide real support to international efforts for refugees of the conflict. Similarly, opposition groups have received some amount of support, though never sufficiently to their liking. The United States and its allies around the world have cracked down on the Assad regime in a big way, stopping short only where doing so would violate international law or unduly endanger its own forces.

Here, we look at three reasons for and three against expanding the extant involvement in the Syrian civil war--whether it takes the form of anything from a "no fly zone" to an outright overthrow. Though there are a few good arguments for more action, I stand rather solidly as an opponent.

Reasons For

I. The Humanitarian Crisis

A UN refugee camp on Syria's borders
No one can dispute the dire humanitarian situation faced by the average Syrian. Hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes in the competing wakes of the clashing armed actors. Once idyllic boulevards have been cluttered with dust, debris, and shattered dreams. Those in the camps deserve a chance to make a new life for themselves, but have no opportunity to do so until the fighting stops or another state welcomes them into their own borders on a more permanent basis.

This reason can be taken both as a moral one and one more pragmatic--in the sense that thousands of refugees in neighboring countries are an economic dead-weight and political powder keg. Syria's neighbors share some of its diverse ethnic and sectarian character, so fear the boost to tensions of that nature.

II. The Regional Balance of Power

A reprehensible depiction of Iranian regional influence
With Saddam Hussein long forgotten, the government of Iran has regained its prominence as primary "villain" in the Middle East--or so many proponents of intervention have argued in the past decade. Syria's close ties to the Iran are indisputable and some would characterize those ties as those between puppet and puppeteer. Indeed, Iranian support to the Lebanese political party/guerrilla group Hezbollah and Palestinian organization of the same genre, Hamas, is widely acknowledged, though the particulars disputed.

Proponents of an intervention in Syria are often those who have long been proponents of an intervention in Iran as a response to that country's contentious nuclear energy program and its anti-American/Israeli rhetoric. Proponents assert that toppling the Assad regime would be a major blow to Iranian influence in the region and set the stage for finally dealing with the Iran problem--whether through more stringent isolation of the government or outright military action.

III. American Credibility

McCain (ardent proponent of ambiguous "intervention")  vs the line-drawer
On August 20, 2012, President Obama laid out a "red line" on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Of course, that red line was nowhere near as clearly stated as proponents of intervention have since made it out to be, as documented by ABC News. Still, whether the line was one of "chemical weapons use prompts immediate use" or not, many around the world certainly heard it that way. Some argue that the US should act now, even berating Mr. Obama for not announcing his intentions immediately (despite the fact that American and allied forces are now moving into position for potential action).

There are two kinds of credibility supposedly at stake here: 1) America's 'ultimatum' on the Syrian regime (and that of Iran, by proxy); and 2) the international consensus against the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Further Reading:

Reasons Against

I. The Facts on the Ground

Not the type we want ruling Syria
So many words have been wasted promoting the arming of opposition forces in Syria, completely dismissing the fact that those rebel groups favorable to the US are far from dominant in the diverse array of guerrilla organizations. While the Free Syrian Army gets talked up by proponents, a large number of fighters operate under extreme Islamist groups and even an al Qaeda franchise. The groups are unlikely to mount an effort against the interests of the US or its allies in the region so long as Bashar al Assad so preoccupies them, but giving them anti-air and anti-tank weaponry poses a serious threat to regional stability in the long run. We also must ask ourselves, "Who will take the place of Assad when he's gone?"

Further reading:

II. A War of Choice

Do we really want to tack Syria on top of this?
This reason needs few words, but the collective forgetfulness of proponents necessitates it. America only recently pulled its forces out of Iraq and is still looking to do so now. These wars have been profoundly expensive and, ultimately, unnecessary (Iraq from the beginning, Afghanistan from the Surge). Must we burn another heap of money and lives intervening in a conflict to which we can give no positive outcome?

III. Americans Don't Want War

Americans polled on intervention in Syria and chemical weapons use
A president must not always stick to public opinion. Franklin Roosevelt's slow push to get the United States prepared for conflict in the face of strong isolationist sentiment from the public is one great example. Nonetheless, waging an unpopular war is a good way to turn the country against one's party and maybe, just maybe, the masses may have gotten the thing right.

The poll above shows two things, one of which would seem to contradict this point. I say not. On top, in red, polls indicate that the American people have consistently opposed American intervention in Syria over the last year or so. I'd actually count the "not sure"s as against, given that it's something so drastic as going to war, but they didn't for some reason.

On bottom, the percentage that would support intervention in the event of Assad's use of chemical weapons. Here, we see a drastic swing in those who favor military intervention, but I suspect that the average respondent gave little more thought than "chemical weapons are bad" and thus agreed to the vague concept of "intervention". It will be interesting to see in the next few weeks, as things start heating up, what number of Americans will support the country sliding into another unnecessary war.

As usual, my analysis rests on news stories, blogs, and analysis from others, so the degree of separation from what's actually taking place on the ground could be significant at points. With that in mind, make sure you take some time to follow the events in the news.

Further reading/listening:
 Debate: The US Has No Dog in the Fight In Syria (Intelligence Squared US)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Three Justifications for US Military Aid to Egypt (and Why They're All Wrong)

An Egyptian Humvee passes through a blockade in Cairo
Following the repressive measures taken by the Egyptian military toward the Muslim Brotherhood, I argued that it was time for President Obama to at least put a hold on military aid to that country. But why does Egypt receive that kind of support in the first place? Below is a quick overview of the primary justifications for the program.

First, some numbers. Since 1978, Egypt has received a regular sum of $1.3 billion in military aid annually. This puts it as the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel. The Congressional Research Service estimates that total aid to Egypt--military and other--totals $71 billion since 1948.

There are three primary aims for the aid provided: stability, influence, and domestic support.

1) Stability -- The aid is explicitly targeted at maintaining the peace accords between Egypt and Israel concluded under President Jimmy Carter at Camp David. Successive administrations have concluded that continuation of the aid has been useful in keeping the generals quiescent and Israel free from attacks from state actors.

2) Influence -- The aid supplied, in addition to deep engagement between the two militaries in the form of war games and officer exchanges, is thought to not only keep the military from pursuing belligerent policy, but to instill in it a degree of American values and professionalism.

3) Domestic Support -- The aid is structured in such a way that the vast majority of expenditures wind up back in the U.S. The reason you’ll see M1 Abrams tanks sitting in the streets of Cairo these days is because the aid makes up almost 80% of Egypt’s weapons procurement, and they are obligated to turn to American suppliers. Keynesian though such stimulus may be, Republican and Democratic presidents alike have embraced the spending as promoting American manufacturing.

Do these justifications pan out? The events of the past months suggest otherwise.

The strongest of the three, the assertion that the aid brings Egyptian power-brokers into line with American interests and values, has been utterly trashed in the bloody wake of the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. While Army forces did not appear to lead the charge, it was entirely the will of the generals that Egyptian security forces commit the slaughter. The counter-revolution has begun and woe to those who stand against it. But is this reason enough to end the aid? What about Israel’s security?

Honestly, I've always seen the first justification as ridiculous on its face. In order to protect an ally from aggression, we bribe the potential aggressor with high-end military hardware? What a sensible policy that couldn't possibly create the very problem it ostensibly aims to prevent. Fortunately for Israel, the truth is that an Egypt dominated by the military is unlikely to pursue belligerence in any case. Like most armies in military states, the Egyptian armed forces have their fingers in many pies. Essentially an elaborate patronage network with guns, it owns a vast array of manufactures that go beyond the basic needs of a military. The “security” it provides from states that would never conceivably attack it and guerrillas in the Sinai who oddly persist despite the army’s overwhelming superiority. The generals have zero reason to promote a conflict that would devastate their assets.

As for the stimulus to the American economy the aid provides, it would be more efficiently spent elsewhere and in a way far more in line with stated American values.

It’s time to wash our hands of the mess.