Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Arming Ukraine and strategic judgement

Recent debates about providing armaments to Ukraine ( see this post at the Duck of Minerva for a round up of the academic lit and policy commentaries) have focused on imposing a cost Russia while opponents tend to worry about the risks involved. Among the American policy making community there is a fear of somehow not being involved in the making of history - the indispensable nation and all that. This tends to involve a preference for concrete action and a show of seriousness via advocating lethal force. I would argue that when an adversary is undertaking a self destructive action, one shouldn't join in just to spite him. 

Russia's aggression has yielded, one clear territorial gain - Crimea - that does not in the short or medium run alter the balance of power anywhere and in the long run maybe only in the Black Sea. While Russia's annexation of large part of East Ukraine or integrating all of Ukraine into its economic and security structures would surely make Russia stronger , as well bringing its forces closer to Nato, it is unlikely to be able to achieve any of the above without incurring enormous costs that offset any potential gain. 

If Russia is undertaking actions that provide it little benefit in terms of the global and continental balance of power - in the short and perhaps long term - then what costs and risks should Nato and the U.S. be willing to impose on themselves?

I would suggest that any policy response should be calibrated to commit as few resources as necessary to frustrate the Russians while avoiding the risk of sprinting or even stumbling up the escalation ladder with all the attendant risks that involves. Unless a formula can be discovered to freeze the conflict - a frozen conflict may be Russia's objective - what is likely to occur, even if the Ukraine is provided new armaments,  is continuation of a low level conflict that destroys much of East Ukraine and costs a few thousand more lives. Ultimately our energy should be focused on stopping the killing. 

Any Nato response should try to avoid:

  1. A significant increase in the level of violence occurring in Ukraine;
  2. A commitment to Ukraine , in the medium to long term i.e. Nato membership, that increases the risks of a confrontation with Russia in the future;
  3. An open ended financial commitment to Ukraine that costs the EU states scare public  sector resources; 
  4. Legal recognition of Crimea's annexation;
  5. The further partition of Ukraine

Monday, 5 January 2015

Paranoia as a source of conduct

Russia's paranoia about threats , domestic and foreign, is one of the longstanding themes in discussing Russian foreign policy. Jeffrey Lewis took up this theme in his discussion of the sources of Putin's conduct last July. Below I've copied and pasted a few passages to comment on:
Washington endured the dangers of the Cold War because it refused to recognize Moscow’s right to build its security on the insecurity of its neighbors. It shouldn’t start turning now.
Actually, Washington – in practice – accepted the right of the Soviet Union to dominate its neighbours.  The presence of the Soviet Army in Eastern Europe tilted the strategic landscape, making it a hard, uphill trek toward Moscow in the event of a war. American inaction in during the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia indicated an acceptance of the political status quo. 

Earlier in his column, Lewis adopts the approach of appealing to the words of great men, in this case George Kennan, to suggest that Russia requires instability on its borders and the specter of a foreign threat to maintain the legitimacy of its political regime. 
I would argue that a large part of the Russian elite, as well as the general population, believe that Russia’s territorial dismemberment or its reduction to an “Upper Volta with nuclear missiles” – one  open for business with western hydrocarbon and mining concerns – is the goal of American foreign policy. 

The acceptance of USSR’s domination of Eastern Europe and Russia’s concern over Nato eastward expansion recognised Russian security fears or if you prefer: paranoia. Since then we could say that we have initiated a period reminiscent of a security dilemma. 
Putin’s actions in Georgia and especially in Crimea amount to a violation of the fundamental basis for the post-Cold War settlement, the abandonment of force as a means of turning Central and Eastern Europe into vassal states. That means the West is back in the business of containing Moscow. You can say this isn’t a new Cold War, but it’s hard to see what else a return to containment means.
The original basis for the Soviet withdrawal from Eastern and Central Europe was the promise that with the exception of East Germany, Nato would not expand to include any of the former Warsaw Pact states. Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea clearly violates the basic rules of the post – WWII international order. Russia’s efforts to destabilise East Ukraine are consistent with actual practice in world politics however offensive they may be when we oppose the political objective being pursued. 
Putin will try to isolate weaker states like Latvia, while trying to encourage others like Germany to remain neutral...........a central focus of Putin’s foreign policy is trying to pry Berlin away from the trans-Atlantic alliance.
What can Putin do to Latvia? The Baltic states have integrated into Nato and the EU, going as far as having adopted the Euro. The Russian minorities are seen as a source of vulnerability yet given their relative prosperity; the benefits of being a citizen of an EU member: Why would these people want to risk a Donbass scenario? The abduction of an Estonian intelligence official is the kind of limited pressure that is likely to be applied to the Baltics. 

The central question of Nato since the end of the Cold War has been the rational for its continuing existence. With the exception of Poland and the Baltics I don’t think there are any other Nato member states that regard their membership as vital to securing them from potential Russian aggression. 

Responding to Russia’s aggression and its efforts to intimidate its neighbours represents a classic collective action problem. Who benefits enough to take on the burden of action?
The Russians clearly believe that the majority of Nato members don’t want a war for distant places that they know little about – and might not even consider to be truly part of Europe. I am guessing that the Russians believe that while the outcome of its aggression against Ukraine is Kiev government that more pro-west than any in its history it does not mean that the west itself (read: German) is any more interested in expanding Nato and establishing a Cold War like frontier with Russia. 

Furthermore, should a formula for de-escalation be discovered in East Ukraine, there will be a strongly lobbying effort from German business to scale back most of the sanctions imposed during the crisis. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

What was the CIA thinking?

 From the Senate Intelligence Committee report executive summary:
To address these issues, the cable stated that if Abu Zubaydah were to die during the interrogation, he would be cremated.The interrogation team closed the cable by stating:
"regardless which [disposition] option we follow however, and especially in light of the planned psychological pressure techniques to be implemented, we need to get reasonable assurances that [Abu Zubaydah] will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life,"
Officers from the CIA's ALEC Station responded to the interrogation team's comments several days later. Their cable noted that the interrogation teamwas correct in its "understanding that the interrogation process takes precedence over preventative medical procedures."ALEC Station further observed:
"There is a fairly unanimous sentiment witiiin HQS that [Abu Zubaydah] will never be placed in a situation where he has any significant contact with others and/or has the opportunity to be released. While it is difficult to discuss specifics at this point, all major players are in concurrence that [Abu Zubaydah] should remain incommunicado for the remainder of his life. This may preclude [Abu Zubaydah] from being turned over to another country, but a final decision regarding his future incarceration condition has yet to be made." (PDF pg 34-35)
A few points (admittedly speculative):

  • The CIA knew what they were planning to do would be deemed immoral or illegal by many within the US government, the American people as well as abroad; 
  • One transgression leads to another. Why/how did they think it would be possible to keep Abu Zubaydah incommunicado for the rest of his life? Would this mindset itself endanger Abu Zubaydah's life?
  • So much of what appears to have occurred, has the appearance of an administrative failure; the failure to train and vet interrogators; to pursue inter-agency cooperation, especially with Justice; to rigorously evaluate the efficacy of methods; 
  • The administrative failure was by design. The program worked the way its leaders wanted it to. 

Sunday, 30 November 2014

British moral clarity in post liberation Greece

The North American (perhaps Anglo-Saxon is more correct) version of WWII is rife with omissions.  There were across Europe ( focus on Europe for simplicity's sake) multiple wars: The wars between the great powers and their minor power allies; the wars between the minor powers; the wars between occupation regimes and indigenous insurgents; and the wars between different groups of insurgents. In Greece, among others, all these wars took place. Britain adjusted its policy as required:
Britain’s logic was brutal and perfidious: Prime minister Winston Churchill considered the influence of the Communist Party within the resistance movement he had backed throughout the war – the National Liberation Front, EAM – to have grown stronger than he had calculated, sufficient to jeopardise his plan to return the Greek king to power and keep Communism at bay. So he switched allegiances to back the supporters of Hitler against his own erstwhile allies.
Further proof that cultural relativism is not a recent leftist innovation:
PatrĂ­kios was among the relatively fortunate; thousands of others were executed, usually in public, their severed heads or hanging bodies routinely displayed in public squares. His Majesty’s embassy in Athens commented by saying the exhibition of severed heads “is a regular custom in this country which cannot be judged by western European standards”.

Wahhabism and IS

 Karen Armstrong explains in the New Statesman:
A whole generation of Muslims, therefore, has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own. While not extremist per se, this is an outlook in which radicalism can develop. In the past, the learned exegesis of the ulema, which Wahhabis rejected, had held extremist interpretations of scripture in check; but now unqualified freelancers such as Osama Bin Laden were free to develop highly unorthodox readings of the Quran. To prevent the spread of radicalism, the Saudis tried to deflect their young from the internal problems of the kingdom during the 1980s by encouraging a pan-Islamist sentiment of which the Wahhabi ulema did not approve.
Where Islamists in such countries as Egypt fought tyranny and corruption at home, Saudi Islamists focused on the humiliation and oppression of Muslims worldwide. Television brought images of Muslim suffering in Palestine or Lebanon into comfortable Saudi homes. The gov­ernment also encouraged young men to join the steady stream of recruits from the Arab world who were joining the Afghans’ jihad against the Soviet Union. The response of these militants may throw light on the motivation of those joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq today.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Firestone's soul sold for $15.6 million per year

According to a Frontline and ProPublica investigation, Charles Taylor's march to power in Liberia was aided and abetted by Firestone through cash payments, transfers of equipment (trucks) and foodstuffs. In return Firestone received the security required to operate its decades old rubber plantation. 

What could have Firestone done under the circumstances it faced in Liberia:
"The best and safest course was to await a resolution of the Liberian civil crisis and the establishment of a lawful government recognized and accepted not only throughout Liberia, but among the nations of the world," he said.Schremp acknowledged that the company had signed the memorandum of agreement with Taylor. It had paid taxes to Taylor's government. It had abided by Taylor's edicts. But, he said, the company never attempted to take sides in Liberia's conflict. It simply had no other "practical alternative."
What was Firestone's motivation?
On Bridgestone's balance sheet, Firestone's Liberian plantation wasn't a large item, generating about $104 million in revenue and $15.6 million in profits in 1989, the year before the civil war. But the 15 percent profit margin the plantation achieved that year was a bright spot on a corporate ledger drowning in red ink.Top managers "were under a lot of pressure from Akron to get the plantation going," said Ken Gerhart, the Firestone manager who ran the company's soda bottling plant in Monrovia. The plantation "was very, very profitable. It was very efficient." (Bold not in original)
The role of the U.S. Embassy under Ambassador DeVos:
De Vos, dressed in a rumpled suit and bow tie, and large, square glasses, was sweating profusely. He greeted Taylor. Then, he introduced Ensminger, tan, fit and mustachioed."This is Mr. Ensminger, the director general of Firestone," De Vos said.Taylor looked puzzled. "Oh, he works for the embassy now?""No, America works for him," De Vos replied.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Myths of bipartisanship

Legislators by definition legislate. According the mainstream Washington press corps, if only Obama would build a personal relationship with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, then things would get done in Washington. Apparently there’s a lack of trust or the necessary personal warmth required for compromise. Comprise, of course, equals bipartisanship. We are to believe that a bipartisan compromise begins in the middle where the cooler headed moderates and experienced hands of the older generation meet and come to an agreement that no one will like. Universal dissatisfaction with legislation is taken to be proof of its wisdom. 

The reality is that this is not how politics works. 

Legislators do not necessarily want to legislate

The legislative process is a multiparty negotiation.  As in any negotiation the parties have to choose between any prospective agreement and their best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Legislators can prefer inaction out of principled disagreement or just to keep the issue alive for the next general election – political opportunism is shocking, I know.  President Obama, for his part, can prefer executive action or a veto to the kind of compromise necessary for legislation to be enacted. 

Bipartisanship is not centrist

Party affiliation is not akin to the playground distinction between shirts and skins. The Republicans and Democrats have genuine and stark ideological differences. The congressional leadership of both parties will, in general, want to win the support of a majority of their respective party caucuses for any bill they are going to support. 

If Mitch McConnell is looking for 60 votes to overcome a potential filibuster, he’ll be sure to target 6 to 8 votes among the Democrats and try to keep his entire caucus united. If a handful of Democrats in the senate defect from their party on any given vote, a united Republican party can deliver conservative legislation for the president’s signature.  As noted above, they may be happy to see a veto. 

In any case McConnell is unlikely to personally support legislation that does not have more Republican than Democratic votes. On balance it’s hard to argue that this doesn't shift the policy agenda in a Republican direction in terms of both priorities and policy content. The president thus can help advance a more pragmatic Republican agenda at the expense of his own party's priorities. The Washington press corps will praise him for bipartisanship.