State Secrets and Political Legitimacy

A former U.S. contractor with access to classified materials has helped re-open a debate about tradeoffs between privacy and security. It was surprising, but not shocking, to learn that the Obama administration—and particularly the National Security Agency (NSA)—has been using “big data” methods to troll through the phone records of millions of American citizens. Predictably, administration officials claim that numerous (dozens?) of terrorists attacks have been thwarted by the data mining. Official spokespeople have assured U.S. citizens that NSA and FBI agents have not been snooping on the actual content of their phone calls.

The New York Times and other major newspapers are right to roundly condemn the actions of the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. Public trust in government was not running very high before these latest revelations. Politicians of both parties have been guilty of over-reach in pursuing what many conclude to be unconstitutional searches. And, although I often disagree with their substantive stances on issues, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) should be applauded for pursuing these recent revelations in the judicial system.

The United States is not a weak or a failed state, but my country is struggling with public trust in our system of government. Few dispute the need for state secrets. Even so, the recent Congressional testimony of General (retired) Keith Alexander, NSA Director, adds to citizen distrust of senior officials. In weak and failed states, official half-truths and lies are commonplace. And, ominously for Americans, such lies are often justified in the name of “security.” Who doesn’t want to be more secure? On this point the libertarians have it right: Americans should be more concerned about security from government over-reach.

Failed States, Counter-Terrorism and Obama

Last week, President Obama delivered an important foreign policy speech, which has significant bearing on the future of weak and failed states. In contrast to the wide-ranging aspirations of Bush’s “War on Terrorism”—and even some of Obama’s earlier rhetoric about global counter-terrorism efforts—this speech set forth a modest foreign policy agenda.

During most of the George W. Bush administration (2001–2009), the grand narrative of global counter-terrorism dominated official rhetoric. The 2002 National Security Strategy declared that America and other stable democracies were fundamentally threatened by weak and fragile states. The experience of Afghanistan was used as the main example of how a failed state could become the source for global attacks.

In reality the Bush administration never had the resources, time, or political will to develop a truly global response to threats emanating from failed states. Even if Bush’s rhetoric matched policy realities, failed states have never primarily been terrorism-related threats. Yes, Yemen and Somalia could certainly be added to the discussion involving Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even so, the primary security threats associated with failed states are more local in character.

Obama’s recognition of the obvious last week is worthy of praise: Americans do not have the patience and spirit of sacrifice to sustain an unending, meddlesome global counter-terrorism effort. (Nor do Americans really want to engage in long-term nation building projects as part of a global counter-terrorism strategy.) Besides, such an undertaking was never really achievable anyway. Citizens and leaders in a democracy should be able to call out hubris when necessary. Particularly in an age of budgetary austerity, the U.S.A. has no business sustaining an open-ended illusion that one powerful country can remake vast regions of the developing world for its own ends.

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.

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.

The Drones are Here and Geopolitics Will Never be the Same

Predator Drone

The “Predator” unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is just one of many drones available for military and civilian use. This picture was taken in Cape Town, South Africa in 2010. Photo credit: Blyzz (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

“The United States launched another drone strike in Pakistan … in Yemen … and in Somalia.” These are familiar headlines in the post-September 11, 2001 world, especially under the Obama administration. Some analysts even credit these “unmanned aerial vehicle” (UAV) missile attacks with turning the tide in the fight against Al Qaeda. And, if Al Qaeda is fading away, governments’ use of drones is on the rise. Geopolitics will never be the same.

A recent Time magazine cover story highlighted the rapid expansion of UAVs in both national security and non-military arenas. The article, by Lev Grossman, is an even-handed assessment of the real and potential benefits and drawbacks of these flying wonders. Civil libertarians and privacy advocates are right to raise serious concerns about the rush to deploy drones in domestic airspaces. In the arena of foreign policy, the geopolitical implications of drones are also worrying. Here are some of the key concerns.

  1. Drones dramatically lower the material and political costs of war. As more countries acquire unmanned aerial vehicles, governments will have new capabilities to launch attacks on other states and their own populations. Minor provocations tied to drone strikes could rapidly escalate.
  2. Just as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is now fond of UAVs, other governments will presumably embrace drones for covert operations. Like “cyber-warfare,” the potential growth of lethal covert operations could be very destabilizing in regions like the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and South Asia.
  3. Respect for sovereign airspace (and national sovereignty more generally) is likely to decline, particularly with respect to weak and failed states. Admittedly, there are enormous benefits associated with gathering intelligence through a robot drifting or hovering thousands of feet in the air. Even so, critics are right to worry about neo-imperial over-reach.
  4. More and more innocent civilians may suffer from these drone strikes. In Pakistan alone, U.S. drone strikes have resulted in the killing of 261 to 891 civilians (i.e. non-terrorists / non-militants) since 2004. There is huge potential for much more carnage, especially if UAVs proliferate in certain zones of instability, thereby creating uncertainty about which government or group is responsible for the attack.

With respect to drone warfare, we are now in a period somewhat analogous to the early nuclear era, before the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (1968). The United States has once again led the way in developing and deploying bold new weapons of war. As drone expert Micah Zenko argues, it is very much an open question as to whether the international community will be able to appropriately use these technologies.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, and NATO’s Departure

Rural Afghanistan

It is the small, rural places of Afghanistan that will ultimately shape the country’s long-term political future. The village of Istalif is pictured. Photo credit: AfghanistanMatters (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

During his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama announced that an additional 30,000 American soldiers will be leaving Afghanistan over the next year. This announcement drew big applause in the United States, but the more significant Af-Pak news on this new year is emergent support from Pakistan. As NATO – and particularly the United States – draws down combat operations in advance of a 2014 withdrawal deadline, progress in Afghanistan will increasingly depend on internal factors in the region. Pakistan’s new supportive orientation is a welcome development, but it may not be enough to overcome the difficult internal dynamics of Afghan society.

As is well understood in South Asia, but often forgotten in the West, Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan has been driven by its fear of geopolitical encirclement. India, not Pakistan’s failed state neighbor on the West, is the essential reference point in Pakistani foreign affairs. In an effort to stymie Indian influence on its flank, Pakistan began supporting militant Islamist groups in Afghanistan during the 1990s. This support – though changed after 2001 – continued over the last decade.

It now appears, though, that Pakistan’s military – which fundamentally controls the state’s foreign policy decision making – favors a change of course. The generals now appear willing to risk greater Indian influence in Afghanistan for the opportunity to promote lasting, comprehensive peace in their war-torn neighbor. It is shocking how few news outlets in the West have seized upon this development as a watershed. It appears that war fatigue has so consumed Western publics that this news no longer sells sufficiently.

So, if NATO’s eminent withdrawal is focusing minds in Islamabad, the same may not be true in Afghanistan. Here we turn to the internal dynamics that will be decisive in determining whether the country will go beyond state failure.

To say that Afghanistan is a “failed state” is misleading. This designation suggests that Afghanistan has a tradition of successful centralized government. While its history over the last few centuries has offered brief moments of more effective governance, Afghanistan lacks a clear sense of national identity and an historical experience that unites all of its peoples and places into a common governing structure. Piles of development aid cannot easily change a political culture that primarily looks to local political institutions for collective action. Worse, the present Afghan state is highly centralized, even as it is weak and ineffective in many parts of the country. Federalism – though more appropriate for Afghanistan – is not easily implemented.

Should we therefore be pessimistic or optimistic about Afghanistan’s fate after 2014? Where we stand right now, we should be a bit more optimistic, given the improved external environment for state building. Even so, we should not be shocked if this rugged, landlocked place is still struggling mightily a decade from now.

The Geopolitics of the Keystone XL Pipeline

A tar sands site in Alberta, Canada

Petroleum extraction from “tar sands” – in Alberta Province, Canada (pictured), or elsewhere – is not “clean energy” production. Photo credit: howlmontreal (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

In the famous words of many politicians, “elections have consequences.” As U.S. President Barack Obama begins his second term in office, he will have a momentous choice to make on whether the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline – to connect Alberta’s huge tar sands deposits with the Gulf of Mexico – will move forward. And, given the recent indications of Obama’s new Secretary of State, a final decision on the pipeline’s fate is looming. There can be no doubt that a Mitt Romney administration would have quickly approved this massive infrastructure project on national security and economic grounds. Given Obama’s recent signals on climate change, though, approval of the Keystone project is in doubt.

Canada, of course, is lobbying hard for U.S. approval of the new pipeline. If connected with potential markets, the tar sands deposits in Alberta could place Canada on par with Saudi Arabia, in terms of fossil fuel exports. And as the energy geopolitics expert Michael Klare argues, the death of the Keystone XL Pipeline could be the death of the Canadian tar sands industry. That is not a minor diplomatic proposition, even among old allies.

The green coalition opposed to the pipeline is right to raise the long-term, global issues associated with climate change. For so many reasons, mobilizing action on climate change in America has been fraught with difficulties. It has now been over twenty years since the Rio Earth Summit placed a spotlight on the negative impacts of climate change. At some point – and soon – elected officials must show some true courage on these issues. Klare is right to identify the Keystone decision as a defining climate policy choice for Obama’s presidency.

So, here is a short list of other geopolitical relationships that Obama should weigh carefully in his decision:

  1. Global food security is at stake. Modestly cheaper energy prices won’t matter much if they are overwhelmed by much more expensive food, caused by climate change. Nor should we overlook the destabilizing effects of higher food prices in weak and failed states.
  2. The geopolitics of climate change is about much more than rising temperatures. One of the central risks of global climate change – already being observed – is restructured precipitation patterns. Though there has been too much hype to date about “water wars,” there are many plausible future scenarios under which states will go to war in a bid for fresh water.
  3. Climate change – barring a reversal of our present global course – is likely to lead to more civil wars and regional conflicts around the world.

Mr. Obama (and Mr. Kerry), the ball is in your court.