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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

The Geopolitics of Sectarianism (Syria, Iraq, and Regional Contagions)

Nine months after the full withdrawal of American soldiers, Iraq is being squeezed on many fronts. Internally, a Sunni-based insurgency persists. Troubles remain in part of the northern Kurdish region, leading to Turkish military incursions. Tensions between neighboring Iran and much of the world remain high. Oh, and there is Syria. The problems in Syria are a potent reminder of just how unstable sectarian politics can be, particularly given the cultural geography of the Middle East.

Though Iraq’s leaders profess to be democrats, they seem to be moving in a direction of greater support for the decidedly un-democratic Assad government in Syria. Planes delivering weapons to Assad have been transiting Iraqi air space from Iran, despite the efforts of U.S. and other diplomats to halt the flow. Established democracies (in the West) also support authoritarian governments at times, out of geopolitical realism. Given his recent tactics, though, Bashar al-Assad is no longer a run-of-the-mill dictator.

The bigger picture is about much more than the fate of a political dynasty in Syria. As others have noted over the last year, the Syrian uprising – unlike those in North Africa – has the potential to instigate a catastrophic regional contagion. Syria’s marginalized Sunni majority is the core of the anti-Assad forces. In neighboring Iraq, the Sunni minority remains uneasy after the upheaval that began in 2003. Elsewhere – in places like Bahrain and Yemen – Sunni-Shiite tensions are palpable.

It is easy for outsiders and Westerners to recognize the flaws of sectarian politics in the Middle East. For many Muslims, though, the sectarian contest is the fundamental dimension of domestic political life. And, if one does not accept some level of separation between mosque and state, there is little space for democratic compromise.

The rest of the world will soon find out whether the Syrian conflict can be contained. Even if it is, the specter of sectarianism will persist in the region.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

The United States is not a Failed State

It is now fashionable on the American far right to describe America as a “failed state.” Though this blog is mostly about developing countries, it is worth taking a look at this libertarian-influenced assertion. What these U.S.A.-as-a-failed-state claims confuse are ideology and institutional effectiveness.

Over the last four years – roughly coinciding with the onset of the Great Recession and the beginning of the Obama presidency – the libertarian fringe of American politics has awakened. The Tea Party movement is a force to be reckoned with, despite the fact that a clear majority of voters disapprove of most key libertarian positions. Not least, the Tea Party movement has influenced many Congressional primaries in 2010 and 2012, and pushed the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, to adopt positions that are now giving him trouble in the general election.

Beyond these electoral impacts, though, the libertarian fringe has popularized a discourse about state failure that confuses many. From a libertarian worldview, most government programs and initiatives are ineffective, and “failures.” At the extreme, some radical activists are seeking to withdraw from the jurisdiction of sovereign states and establish pure libertarian utopias on the high seas.

Thankfully, this libertarian worldview is not the majority view in the United States (or virtually anywhere). A narrow fringe may dislike many of the features of modern states, but that preference is not to be confused with the majority view of citizens. Effective states – the opposite of failed states – are those that benefit from popular legitimacy and deliver on basic expectations of governance. On these counts, America is definitely not a failed state. American governments – at local, provincial, and national levels – provide effective policing, a strong system of courts, physical infrastructure, and other basic public goods. And despite widespread frustration with elected officials – currently exacerbated by the effects of the financial crisis – most Americans have deep reverence for the Constitution and our system of government. There are also no serious efforts to fragment American territorial unity.

That said, the United States currently has some significant dimensions of political dysfunction (see a recent book by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein). If unchecked over the next decade or two, these problems could lead to more serious institutional decay. In particular, control of the federal government is frequently shared between the two major parties. And these parties have recently been more interested in running perpetual campaigns, rather than accept their duties to govern. Divided government can work, but it has not been working very well in the last decade. (Parliamentary-type systems of government often do not have this type of dysfunction.) Even as the country is faced with an intensifying demographic imbalance, Republicans and Democrats seem to be more interested in demagoguery than in fiscal compromise.

In short, the concept of “state failure” is useful and highly relevant to our 21st century world. Countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Yemen can accurately be called failed states. Though the United States is currently far from being a “failed state,” it is also true that any state can experience institutional decay and loss of popular legitimacy. Americans in particular should set aside hubris and ethnocentrism and recognize troubling trends in our own politics.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

Libya’s Long Road

On September 11, 2012 the United States Consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked by several dozen assailants armed with sophisticated weapons. The attack killed the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and several other diplomatic staff. On the surface the attack seems to be related to the release of an obscure online film, produced in the U.S. by clumsy critics of Islam. Related protests have occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. While the Libya attack may or may not be the start of a new season of heightened tensions between the United States and the Arab world, the attack does put a spotlight on state weakness in Libya.

Secretary of State Clinton acknowledged the confusion that many feel about the attack:

Today, many Americans are asking – indeed, I asked myself – how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be.

But we must be clear-eyed, even in our grief. This was an attack by a small and savage group – not the people or Government of Libya. Everywhere [Ambassador Chris Stevens] and his team went in Libya, in a country scarred by war and tyranny, they were hailed as friends and partners. And when the attack came yesterday, Libyans stood and fought to defend our post. Some were wounded. Libyans carried Chris’ body to the hospital, and they helped rescue and lead other Americans to safety. And last night, when I spoke with the President of Libya, he strongly condemned the violence and pledged every effort to protect our people and pursue those responsible.

In short, how could a grateful Libya allow this attack to occur?

For those who follow Libya closely, such as Paul Salem of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the attack was shocking but not surprising. For more than a generation (1969-2011), Libya was governed through the highly personalistic rule of the Muammar Gaddafi. The eccentric and ruthless dictator established little in the way of institutions that would survive him; he ruled largely through caprice and ever-changing fiats. As Libyans struggle to establish democracy, they face a long, tough slog to establish formal institutions of governance guided by the rule of law and rational administration. It is hardly surprising that Libya is somewhat chaotic 11 months after Gaddafi’s death. Not least, tens of thousands of armed fighters are still operating in irregular militias throughout Libya. Other transitioning democracies – including those with a more helpful past – also face long roads to establish social and political order rooted in law and freedom. The United States and other democracies must be patient with the Libyans, even as we seek to bring the Benghazi attackers to justice. Lasting democracy cannot be established in one or two years. Anyone who says otherwise is simply wrong.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.