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.

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.

Honduras: Sliding Toward State Failure

The Economist magazine recently introduced a pair of articles on Central America as follows: “In the first of two reports on the threat of rampant violence to Central America’s small republics, we look at the risk of Honduras becoming a failed state.” It is premature to declare Honduras a failed state, but the magazine is right to warn about the gathering storm clouds in this corner of Middle America.

If physical insecurity is the foremost quality of a failed state, as argued by Robert Rotberg, Honduras is most definitely a failing state. Gang and drug-related violence is pushing Honduras in a very negative direction, despite some recent economic growth. The article in The Economist provides the terrible details about the country’s world-leading murder rate. For comparison, South Africa – a very violent society – now has a murder rate that is less than one-fifth that of Honduras, and declining.

Hondurans would be right to cast some blame for their plight on the United States and Mexico for external pressures related to illicit drug flows. Even so, it is very telling that the neighboring states of Guatemala and El Salvador are both seeing gains in physical security, as is Mexico.

Sadly, despite the country’s democratic trappings, the rule of law is breaking down in Honduras. The Economist article echoes a section from the 2012 Human Rights Watch annual report: “Violence and threats against journalists, human rights defenders, political activists, and transgender people continued [in 2011]. Those responsible for these abuses are rarely held to account.” Beyond these particular groups, ordinary citizens – and especially young adult males – are routinely the victims of crimes that are never investigated or prosecuted.

At some point, investors will no longer tolerate the lawlessness, and they will leave for other markets. Honduras simply does not have enough economic leverage to keep that capital within its borders.

Syria, Somalia, and State Failure

Damascus, Syria Skyline

The city of Damascus in a quieter time. The photo shows part of the capital city’s skyline in 2006. Photo credit: RabunWarna (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Two years after widespread anti-government protests began in Syria, the situation there is rapidly deteriorating. Last week’s issue of The Economist marked the deterioration  with a cover story declaring “the death of a country.” Indeed, the numbers tell a story of humanitarian catastrophe: 70,000 killed; 150,000-200,000 political prisoners; 1 million refugees; and 2 million displaced within Syria. These are staggering figures for any country, but especially so for a relatively small country  of 21 million people. In the three months since I last focused on the situation in Syria, this crossroads state has taken troubling steps toward state failure.

Here it is worth quoting from the The Economist’s editorial:

As the world looks on (or away), the country jammed between Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Israel is disintegrating. Perhaps the regime of Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, will collapse in chaos; for some time it could well fight on from a fortified enclave, the biggest militia in a land of militias. Either way, Syria looks increasingly likely to fall prey to feuding warlords, Islamists and gangs – a new Somalia rotting in the heart of the Levant. [emphasis added]

In certain respects, the comparison of Syria with Somalia is warranted. Both states suffered long under authoritarian rule prior to their descent into catastrophe. Both states have experienced fragmented civil wars, with rival anti-government groups targeting each other. Both states have been influenced by Islamist militants. Both states have significantly destabilized neighboring countries.

Syria, though, is not Somalia. And Syria is not likely to become another Somalia anytime soon. The fundamental breakdown in this comparison is the contrasting experiences of these two places with modern statehood. Those who know Somalia best (e.g. Ken Menkhaus) argue that resistance to centralized government has been a hallmark of this part of the Horn of Africa. Despite linguistic, religious, and ethnic homogeneity, most Somalis have adamantly resisted centralized government. The lack of legitimacy accorded modern state institutions led to the failure to construct a state after independence in 1960. Decades after independence, the central government had still not established basic state institutions such as courts and an effective police service. The ineptness of the Siad Barre government (1969-1991) and the turmoil associated with the end of the Cold War led to deeper problems for Somalia in the 1990s and 2000s. Somalis are still struggling to accept some form of Westphalian-type statehood, 53 years after independence.

The situation in Syria is strikingly different. Even with the deep ethnic and sectarian divides in Syria, a strong majority of Syrians embrace the concept of modern statehood. The anti-Assad forces – though divided – are struggling to capture Damascus and establish a new government for Syria. The Syrian rebels – now recognized in many foreign capitals as the rightful political representatives of the country – are seeking a rather conventional agenda with their war.

So, even if Syria soon becomes a “failed state,” the prospects for rebuilding the state are at least fair. Somalia, in contrast, has never really had a functioning state, despite the fiction of world political maps and the country’s seat at the United Nations.

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.

Mali as Mirage: State Failure and Regional Turmoil

Just two years ago, many outsiders were still praising Mali for its democratic credentials and relative stability.  The democracy monitoring group Freedom House categorized Mali as one of the few liberal democracies in West Africa. We can now see more clearly that the Sahelian state’s status in early 2012 was something of a mirage.

The Atlantic Council, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, recently held a lively panel discussion, entitled “Managing the Crisis in Mali and the Sahel.” The discussion was re-broadcast on CSPAN.

For those of you unfamiliar with CSPAN – especially non-American readers of this blog – this is the television network that shows sessions of the U.S. Congress, government press conferences, and other public affairs programs. Most Americans could truthfully tell you that they have never watched more than five minutes of CSPAN programming at one time. Even for me, a politics junkie, many CSPAN programs are quite dry and uninteresting.

In contrast, this Atlantic Council panel on Mali and its neighbors was lively and compelling. The full video is worth a look. If you don’t make it through the full video, here are a few high points, with some of my own commentary.

  1. Cote d’Ivoire’s instability in the 2000s is an underappreciated factor in Mali’s current crisis. Cote d’Ivoire’s turmoil disrupted and rechanneled Mali’s ties with the coast. This sequence of events is another reminder of the vulnerabilities of landlocked states. The panel also discussed the unintended and harmful effects of Libya’s upheaval for Mali.
  2. Mali’s economic foundation is now extraordinarily weak. Reconstructing the Malian state will require the emergence of legitimate economic activities that can supplant illicit trading and smuggling. In the years ahead, climate change will be an intensifying economic constraint for Mali and other Sahelian states.
  3. Mali’s civilian leaders did not adequately fund the military’s fight against northern rebels. As panelist Ricardo René Larémont bluntly stated, Mali’s military leaders had good reasons for launching their coup in 2012. Lack of weapons, equipment, and pay will lead many soldiers to leave the barracks and topple governments.
  4. International military training programs are worth doing, even if they don’t always have the desired results (e.g. Mali’s coup). On this point, particularly see the contributions of panelist Rudolph Atallah, who was formerly a top Pentagon official dealing with African affairs.
  5. Europe should be very concerned about intensifying flows of migrants and refugees out of this region.
  6. There is a debate about how threatening the region’s Islamist militants are to the West and the wider international community, contrary to the views of David Cameron. The Obama administration’s back-seat approach on Mali seems to reflect an ambivalence about how dangerous these militant groups actually are to the wider world.

Egypt’s Messy Transition and the Meaning of “State Collapse”

Cairo, Egypt Protests

Protesters in Cairo, Egypt, in February 2011, around the time of the fall of the Hosni Mubarak government. Photo credit: RamyRaoof (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Earlier this week, the head of Egypt’s military warned that his country was on the brink of “state collapse.” General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s pronouncement followed on sustained, angry protests in Cairo, and violence in Port Said and other areas. Most analysts read the general’s assessment as a thinly veiled threat of additional military intervention in domestic politics, and perhaps a coup. Unfortunately, many prominent news outlets have accepted this phrase – “state collapse” – at face value. Two years after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is facing disorder and great uncertainty in its political affairs. We should not confuse this reality with the much more dire circumstances of state collapse.

According to Harvard scholar Robert Rotberg,

A collapsed state is a rare and extreme version of a failed state. Political goods are obtained through private or ad hoc means. Security is equated with the rule of the strong. (emphasis in original, p. 9, When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, 2004)

For the sake of argument, we could even define “collapsed state” and “failed state” as synonymous. Even in this context, it is simply not appropriate to describe Egypt as a failed state.

The people of Egypt and concerned outsiders should be very wary about accepting senior military leaders’ pronouncements at face value. Even though militaries can play the roles of public guardians, their record in democratization processes is spotty. Civilian control of the military is difficult to establish and sustain, but it is essential in the process of democratic development. Established democracies – such as the United States – must be vigilant in constraining the political ambitions of their soldiers, lest they replace the rule of law with the rule of the strong.

I close this post with a few more thoughts about why Egypt is not a failed state, and certainly not a society on the brink of state collapse. Here are some specific characteristics that are in Egypt’s favor:

  1. On the whole, the country benefits from a strong sense of national identity. Rooted in common language, ancestry, religious background, and historical experience, Egypt is not a culturally divided state, despite small ethnic and religious minority groups, such as the Coptic Christians.
  2. The large protests in Cairo and elsewhere are evidence of intense political engagement on the part of ordinary citizens. Instead of withdrawing from the state, citizens are seeking to reshape government and law.
  3. Despite serious strains and dysfunction, Egypt possesses a fairly large and internationally connected economy. Too many Egyptians face grinding poverty, but agriculture, industry, and tourism are all important sectors that provide livelihoods for many.

The tendency of public figures and journalists to loosely use rhetoric is dangerous. Though scholars can descend into needless arguments about semantics, words must be chosen carefully, lest they lead to undesirable actions, such as military coups.

Angola: Recovering from State Failure

Campaign Sign for Angola's Jose Eduardo Dos Santos

President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos’ MPLA won another election in 2012, despite protests from the opposition about the conduct of the poll. Photo credit: Oscar Megia (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Forbes announced last week that the eldest daughter of Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos is Africa’s first female billionaire. Though much is unknown about  Isabel Dos Santos’ climb to this elite club, her status is indicative of the opportunities and challenges facing Angola.

For much of its history since independence in 1975, this African state has been wracked by armed conflict, grinding poverty, and bad governance. In short, Angola was a failed state for much of the not-too-distant past.

In the case of this lightly settled, oil-rich country, external factors were exceedingly important in Angola’s decay. The country suffered as the site of a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States, and involved other states like Cuba and South Africa. Prior to the Cold War meddling, the Portuguese – like the Belgians elsewhere in Africa – did a poor job preparing the colony for independence.

When the Portuguese left in relative haste, the Angolans initiated a 27-year civil war that also had significant connections with the global geopolitical struggle between Moscow and Washington. These dark decades can be summed up by a long list of depressing words and phrases: refugees, landmines, official thievery, food insecurity, bombed-out bridges, and empty schoolhouses.

After the death of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002, Angola’s fortunes have begun to improve. First and foremost, Angola has recorded a decade of peace. Economic growth has been impressive, even if concentrated in the export-oriented energy sector. Transportation has improved within the country, helping the country’s many small-scale farmers get their goods to markets. Many refugees have returned from neighboring countries.

Now, back to Africa’s first female billionaire. Here I provide an excerpt from the Forbes story, which includes a pertinent quote from the political scientist Peter Lewis:

How did a 40-year-old woman who started out with just one restaurant come into such a vast fortune? . . . “It’s clear through documented work that the ruling party and the President’s inner circle have a lot of business interests. The source of funds and corporate governance are very murky,” Lewis explained. “The central problem in Angola is the complete lack of transparency. We can’t trace the provenance of these funds.”

Lewis is careful to state that he cannot authoritatively comment on the particulars of Isabel Dos Santos’ wealth. The people who can comment on her wealth, likely do not intend to do so.

Even so, there are indicators that Angola’s ruling party has been somewhat less corrupt in recent years. New investments have flowed into the country. And, Angola has even remade itself as an immigration destination for financial crisis-weary Portuguese.

Yet, there are limits to the gains in governance. According to Freedom House, Angola remains an authoritarian state, despite holding elections. President Dos Santos has led the country since 1979, and looks set to do so for many more. The political opposition remains weak. And given the country’s continued reliance on oil exports (with the heavy involvement of the Chinese state), this is not a good mix for broad-based development. Angola is no longer a failed state, but its foundation for the future is uncertain at best.

Geographic Imaginations and the Volatile Sahara Desert

Recent events in Mali and Algeria have focused attention on the world’s biggest desert. Western intelligence agencies have long been concerned about terrorists and other rogue groups utilizing the vast, barren expanses of the Sahara. In many outsiders’ imaginations, the great desert is primarily a sea of seductive, rippling sand dunes.

Saharan Desert Sand Dunes

Though this is a familiar Sahara Desert landscape for many outsiders, only about 20 percent of the desert looks like this. Photo credit: Brandon Prince (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

This tourist-friendly landscape is characteristic of North Africa’s drylands, but only in part. Much more common is a rocky landscape strewn with scrub vegetation, and marked with scattered oases.

The Sahara Desert in Algeria

A rocky Saharan landscape in Algeria is punctuated by a desert oasis. Photo credit: Cernavoda (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Saharan Desert Scrub

Scrub vegetation in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Photo credit: bobrayner (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

These more characteristic landscapes of gravel and undulating terrain share much in common with parts of Afghanistan, although that Central Asian state is far more rugged.

As the world grapples with the effects of state failure, climate change, and other challenges in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa, it is helpful to have a more accurate geographic imagination about these lands.

Timbuktu, Mali

The culturally important city of Timbuktu, Mali lies on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, along the Niger River. Photo credit: emilio labrador (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).