Lindsey Graham and Syria’s WMD

The Obama administration is facing renewed calls for direct American intervention in Syria’s war. One of Obama’s key critics in the Senate is Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. Graham is a key Senate leader on military and foreign policy issues, and his views often influence members of both political parties. The following excerpt, which quotes Graham, is from the Washington Post:

Syria is “going to become a failed state by the end of the year” if we don’t intervene, Graham said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” He warned that “we’re going to start a war with Iran because Iran’s going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we’re not serious about their nuclear weapons program…. The whole region is going to fall into chaos.” (bold emphasis added)

In March, after allegations of chemical weapons use emerged, Senator Graham advocated the deployment of American soldiers to secure weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sites in Syria. Earlier this week, the South Carolinian seemed to back away from this more aggressive military option.

Even though the American public is war-weary, Graham and others in Congress are right to press the Obama administration on Syria. This key Middle Eastern state is headed for state failure. The longer this two-year war drags on, the more political and security fall-out there will be for Syria, its neighbors, and the rest of the world. As one example, the United Nations is projecting that as much as half of Syria’s population will be displaced inside or outside the country by the end of this year, if current trends continue.

Despite his tough talk about a chemical weapons “red line,” President Obama seems to be in no mood for war. Lindsey Graham may be right about the need for American military involvement in Syria. It is a frightful prospect to consider a failed state with devastating, unsecured weapons. It is far from clear, though, that intervention would arrest a slide toward state failure. The long-term record on failed state interventions is, at best, mixed. Foreign interventions can hasten state failure, too.

Geopolitical Hotspots

Aleppo, Syria

A fire provides lighting in a bombed-out apartment building in Aleppo, Syria, December 26, 2012. Photo credit: Freedom House (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Syria’s diverse coalition of rebels is gradually closing in on Damascus. The experience in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, suggests that the rebels may face a drawn-out fight for the capital city. Government loyalists in Aleppo continue to control parts of the urban area. This week, the Israeli government is charging that the Assad government has “repeatedly” used chemical weapons over the last month. Sadly, intelligence gathering in Syria is very poor right now, arguably a casualty of austerity cuts in the West.

Aden, Yemen

The photo shows part of a poor district in the city of Aden, Yemen. An estimated 20,000 refugees inhabit this district of 50,000 people. Photo credit: European Union (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Yemen faces many challenges, including dwindling oil and water supplies, trans-national terrorist activity, and a surging secessionist movement in the South. Twenty-three years after the northern and southern regions were united, at the end of the Cold War, southerners remain unsure about the wisdom of the unification. As the photo suggests, Yemen is also located near the volatile Horn of Africa region.

South China Sea Disputes

Pictured are a United States Navy supply ship and helicopter in the tense South China Sea region. Photo credit: U.S. Navy (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Even while world attention has been focused on North Korea’s provocative bluster, the maritime disputes in East and Southeast Asia still simmer. The multi-state dispute over small islands in the South China Seas is very much ongoing. China has recently announced plans to send tourists to the Paracel Islands, which are disputed with Vietnam, but administered by Beijing. This area borders the larger Spratly Islands zone, parts of which are claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Bucking the Global Trend: Africa’s Economic Growth

Europe’s economic funk continues. Japan’s aging society is struggling under a huge pile of public debt and slow GDP growth. Recovery in the United States is about what can be expected from a post-financial crisis expansionary cycle. And in China, Communist Party leaders are adjusting to much slower growth. In much of Africa, though, growth prospects are strong, if we can believe aid agencies such as the World Bank and USAID.

On April 15th, the Washington-based World Bank issued a periodic check-up on Africa’s near-term growth prospects. Partly fueled by high commodity prices – especially for energy resources and minerals – continental growth is forecasted to be more than five percent per year over the period 2013-2015. The optimistic forecast also highlights the impact of increased consumer spending in many countries south of the Sahara, including places like Ethiopia, Angola, Ghana, and Mozambique. Indeed, many sub-Saharan states have seen above-average growth rates for more than a decade, leading to some reduction in still-high poverty rates. The diffusion of mobile phones and more predictable macro-economic conditions are key factors leading to better growth prospects.

USAID and the World Bank are probably right about continued high commodity prices. Even if some of this new African wealth is squandered through corruption, better terms of trade will lift many ordinary people out of poverty. A cautionary word is in order, though. Enclave-based development – especially if it involves oil or high-value minerals – can facilitate political instability and armed conflicts. Think diamonds in Sierra Leone and Angola, numerous precious resources in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and oil in Nigeria. In short, over-reliance on mineral and energy exports can lead to so-called “rentier states” (and failed states) that do not necessarily promote broad-based human development. Careful observers of the DRC and Nigeria know about the “resource curse” all too well.

So, boosting international trade between Africa and other continents is set to grow significantly in coming years. With luck and better governance, many states will avoid the worst excesses of the resource curse.

The perennial problem of limited inter-state trade in Africa also requires urgent attention. Vast distances, colonial legacies, poor governance, and under-investment in transportation infrastructure have all contributed to high costs of trade throughout much of the continent. As USAID indicates,

Trade among African countries makes up only 10 percent of the region’s total trade volume. In East Africa, it costs 50 percent more to move freight one kilometer than it does in the United States or Europe, and in landlocked countries transport costs can be as high as 75 percent of the value of the goods they are trying to export.

Like South Asia (India and its neighbors), Africa possesses huge potential for growth in intra-regional trade and investment. This potential will only increase if Africa’s middle classes continue to swell.

The economic news out of Africa is relatively good, particularly compared to the world as a whole. Still, it is worth remembering the continent’s patchwork pattern of progress on governance, peace, and economic reforms. The overall trend is clearly positive, but recent news out of the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, and the DRC reminds us that progress is geographically uneven.

North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and the End of the Cold War

Is the end near for North Korea’s repressive governing dynasty? With the recent escalation of military tensions in Northeast Asia, it does seem as though the regime led by Kim Jong-un is more brittle than ever. The DPRK’s ratcheting up of tensions with South Korea, Japan, and the United States is most likely a response to internal threats to the governing clique. What is often missed in contemporary news coverage is the increasing flow of independent information to the citizens of this “peculiar failed state.”

In the 1980s, new flows of independent information helped lead to the fall of communism in the Soviet sphere of control in Europe and the U.S.S.R. Radio broadcasts and other flows of information provided an unflattering mirror for those behind the Iron Curtain. In the case of the old Soviet bloc, political liberalization from above facilitated the emergence of a new mass consciousness and political revolution.

In the North Korean context, technological advances – including devices as simple as personal computers, digital tablets, and memory sticks – are offering ordinary citizens more and more alternatives to regime propaganda. Illegal mobile phones, too, are an important part of the new societal reality.

In the West at least, the saber-rattling of the DPRK is attracting only mild interest. Perhaps Americans and others have simply grown too accustomed to the threatening rhetoric of the North Koreans. Let us not forget, though, that Kim Jong-un still presides over a massive conventional army and nuclear warheads. If the country’s rulers deem their internal political situation sufficiently desperate, they could push the United States and its allies to test a new “counter-provocation” plan. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The U.S. and South Korea recently agreed to a ‘counter-provocation’ plan under which they would respond proportionately to a North Korean attack but avoid escalating to heavier weapons or additional targets.

If serious fighting breaks out, it may be difficult to quickly de-escalate the conflict. Let’s hope the North Korean people will figure out a stable and sure path to political revolution before Northeast Asia erupts in widespread fighting. I am not too optimistic about this prospect. What are your perspectives on the Hermit Kingdom?

Obama’s Geopolitical Pivot to the Pacific

 

Submarine near Newport News Shipyard

The Newport News Shipyard (Huntington Ingalls Industries) in Virginia is the sole manufacturer of aircraft carriers in the United States. Pictured is a Virginia-class submarine. Photo credit: U.S. Navy (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

On April 3rd, the new United States Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, delivered his first major policy speech. Though broad in its outlines, the address provided further confirmation of America’s shifting geopolitical strategy. The relative shift from the Atlantic world to the Pacific world pre-dates the Obama administration, but that shift is taking on a new dynamic in this age of fiscal austerity.

In the early post-Cold War period, the United States was still primarily focused on engaging with and securing Europe and neighboring regions, including the post-Soviet states. An overwhelming concentration of America’s overseas military assets were located in the world’s most important peninsula of peninsulas (and to a lesser extent in Northeast Asia). Over twenty years after the close of the Cold War, America has gradually been realigning its military and diplomatic resources toward the western Pacific Ocean. As U.S. defense and foreign affairs budgets stagnate or decline in the coming decade, the world’s lone superpower will face stark choices about how to utilize shrinking resources.

In his policy speech at the National Defense University, Secretary Hagel indicated that naval and air power would play more important roles as the United States continues to pivot to the Pacific. Some see this shifting of assets as an expedient decision in an era of war-weariness, following the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Others see this as the logical outgrowth of shifting to a region (East and Southeast Asia) that is ambivalent about the large-scale presence of Army and Marine units. A reliance on naval and air power will allow the United States to leave a lighter footprint in the region.

Hagel’s speech also highlighted the soaring costs associated with America’s military personnel, particularly health care costs. Downsizing the Army and the Marine Corps would ease some of this pressure related to health spending, though the military is partly suffering the same burden that the entire nation is facing with regard to out-sized spending on health care.

From a personal perspective the continued pivot to the Pacific is meaningful for my local community, Hampton Roads, Virginia. My region is home to the world’s largest naval base (Naval Station Norfolk), Langley Air Force Base (officially part of Joint Base Langley-Eustis), and other naval facilities. As well, tens of thousands of workers in my home area build and maintain aircraft carriers, submarines, and other naval vessels. Even as the “sequester” cuts are already having some impact in my home area, the longer term prospect for the local defense economy seems less dire than some American regions with ties mainly to land forces, even though some Virginia assets will likely be re-deployed toward the West coast in the coming years. The pivot to the Pacific will significantly impact both global geopolitics and local economies in the United States.

Wikipedia and the idea of a “Failed State”

Wikipedia is not dying

Photo credit: Niccolo Caranti (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

As a former university professor, I have heard wildly varying perspectives on the reliability of Wikipedia as a reference source. Some educators have so reviled the Web site that they have created the perception among some students that Wikipedia should never be used in academic work. Personally, I do not take such a hardline view on this information commons encyclopedia. I have found the site to be remarkably helpful, especially when dealing with more obscure topics that do not attract undue bias and controversy. Independent, systematic comparisons of Wikipedia and traditional encyclopedias have also given support to the former. And, over time, Wikipedia’s leaders – both formal and volunteer – have reigned in some of the worst abuses on entries related to well-known persons and organizations.

So, how does Wikipedia fare with respect to the idea of a “failed state”?** As for basic discussion, I would say pretty good. Here is a key excerpt:

A failed state is a state perceived as having failed at some of the basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government. There is no general consensus on the definition of a failed state. The definition of a failed state according to the Fund for Peace [i.e. the organization responsible for the annual “Failed States Index”] is often used to characterize a failed state:

– loss of control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein

– erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions

– an inability to provide public services

– an inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community

My main point of argument with the above excerpt is the assertion of, “no general consensus on the definition of a failed state.” As one commenter on the associated Wikipedia “Talk” page points out, it is questionable whether a term without a widely accepted definition even deserves its own entry in an encyclopedia.

The authors are right to identify the Fund for Peace as a key reference point in discussions of failed states. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, the Washington D.C.-based think-tank enjoys disproportionate influence on this topic, partly because of the organization’s success in marketing their reports through the magazine Foreign Policy. Nonetheless, glossy, high-powered marketing does not necessarily mean that the analysis is the best available.

Unfortunately, the Wikipedia entry gives excessive prominence to the Fund for Peace publications. The entry does rightly note the charge that the term failed state is “sensationalist.” Over-use or over-application of a concept – as is annually done in the “Failed States Index” – tends to provoke a negative reaction to the core concept. Mis-application of a concept should not lead us to discard it, though.

 

** Note: Part of the genius (and the difficulty) of Wikipedia is its dynamism. Most content on the site can quickly be updated and revised. So, this review of the “failed state” entry on Wikipedia is simply based on the article content as it appeared on April 1, 2013.

The Fall of Bangui: State Failure in the Central African Republic

On the Sudan - Central African Republic Border

The Central African Republic is located in one of the most conflict-prone regions of Africa, which includes Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo credit: hdptcar (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Over the weekend of March 23-24, the brittle government of President Francois Bozize was finally overthrown. A coalition of rebels known as Seleka has now seized control of the capital city, Bangui. Bozize and many senior figures from his government have fled the Central African Republic (CAR). This new development re-confirms the country’s status as a failed state. Here are two key indicators of that status.

  1. Limited rule of law. The ousted president, Bozize, came to power through a military coup in 2003. Despite CNN’s designation of last weekend’s change of government as a “coup,” the successful rebellion has led to another unconstitutional change of government. In response to the illegal action, the African Union has suspended the membership of the Central African Republic. And, not surprisingly, the new Seleka government has suspended the country’s constitution, promising free and fair elections within a few years.
  2. A stark core-periphery pattern. As I have previously written, the divide between the CAR’s capital city and its hinterlands is immense and longstanding. The core region around the capital has been the main focus of government authority, while the outlying regions – especially in the North and the East – have largely existed outside national government influence. In the past decade, these “ungoverned spaces” have been regionally important as fighters and weapons have flowed across porous borders with Chad, Sudan, and the DRC. If the rebels are successful in retaining control of the capital, will they be any better at forging a geographically unified, well-functioning country?

Outside of obvious concerns about an intensifying humanitarian crisis in the CAR, it does not seem that the international community is all that concerned about the situation there. Notably, France did very little to oppose the fall of Bangui. Yet, we should applaud the African Union (AU) for quickly acting to suspend the CAR and sanction the country’s new leaders. For all of its dysfunction, the AU has at least created a regional political culture that stigmatizes unconstitutional changes of government. If only the AU would get tougher with African dictators that run sham democracies.