The long term view of North Korean nuclear program.

The Singapore summit was theatrical, unprecedented, and largely symbolic. Theatrical because the world witnessed a former reality TV star greet the world’s most reclusive leader. Unprecedented because it was the first time a sitting American president has meet a member from the Kim dynasty. And symbolic because the agreement was vaguer than those of the past.

It’s hard to imagine that if Hilary Clinton had produced a similar agreement that Trump wouldn’t have called it “fake nuclearization.”

What the historic meeting did produce was a de-escalation in tensions, which is a good thing. But no real breakthrough on the regimes nuclear weapons should be expected and it is not because of the threat posed by American hegemony. No, the writing is on the wall in Asia and while the United States will always be the worlds most powerful country, America’s days as the principal military power of Asia are numbered. It is, rather, China which worries North Korea.

The most overstated alliance is not NATO or the U.S.-Japan security alliance, but the Chinese-North Korean alliance. It is a cliché to argue that the road towards North Korean nuclearization is through Beijing. China does appear to have some leverage over North Korea. Almost 90 percent of North Korean trade is with China, and it is China who has used its veto to shield North Korea from international sanctions.

As well, North Korea is the only country China is technically obligated to defend in the event it is attacked.

Yet, this alliance is not a result of a shared ideology or some cultural affinity but from a Chinese desire to ensure regime stability at home. Like most of the middle powers of Asia, China’s rise is viewed skeptically by North Korea. While it is true that China may prefer a nuclear North Korea to a collapsed regime, its long-term aim for the peninsula is not clear. The uncertainty of China’s long term plans is exacerbated by the complicated history of the two countries. It was China, after all, that normalized relations with the United States at the expense of North Korea’s main benefactor, the USSR. It was also China that recognized South Korea as an independent state, despite North Korean claims that it was part of its own territory. And it is China that uses its trade leverage and UN veto in an attempt to manipulate DPRK politics.

It is not unreasonable to assume that Kim trusts China less than he does America. After all, Kim’s first set of policies were to purge his regime of Chinese influence. This included executing his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, recalling North Korean business elites living in China, and assassinating his half brother who, until his death, was protected by Beijing.

An unintended consequence of hegemony (whether global or regional) is the incentive for rouge states to pursue nuclear weapons. China has designs to replace America as the hegemonic power of the region and part of their grand strategy includes geopolitics. Considering that the current leadership of China has made historic claims of ownership to the peninsula, it should be no surprise that North Korea bristles when China attempts to control its public policy. From an American perspective, this makes negotiations for the dismantling of the DPRK nuclear weapons complicated. Unless America can control Chinese foreign policy, it is not likely that DPRK will denuclearize regardless of Chinese policy.

Understanding North Korea’s nuclear program as a deterrent of China presents the United States with an ideal opportunity to quietly withdrawal from the issue of DPRK nuclear program. The United States spends a great deal of its resources in an attempt to denuclearize the peninsula, yet with little return. America does all of this despite China being the biggest beneficiary of a dismantled nuclear program. Furthermore, American policy is arguably counterproductive. It is American power that creates the Chinese-North Korean alliance. Once that power recedes, a new front will open between China and North Korea which is arguably in America interests to see happen. If American grand strategy is to ensure no regional hegemon emerges in Asia, the United States should quietly welcome a nuclear Korea as it would mostly serve as an obstacle to Chinese hegemon.

The paramount question of international relations today is how to handle China’s rise. The middle powers of Asia have all made it clear that they are wary of how a future China will behave, North Korea included. North Korea’s strategy for handling a future China will be to direct their nuclear weapons at Beijing, not Washington DC. The United States should therefore slowly disengage from the region and allow Pyongyang to be Beijing’s headache.

The Iranian deal and US foreign policy.

As expected, President Trump has pulled out the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,and reactions ran the spectrum. Pulling out of JCPOA has be called an act of “vandalism,” a “disaster,” and according to Bernie Sanders, “has put America on the path to war.”

The goal of the deal was to halt the Iranian pursuit of a nuclear weapon. In exchange for stopping its program, as well as shipping its enriched uranium abroad and allowing inspections, Iran had 100 billion dollars unfrozen and would be given permission to engage with the world economy, sanction-free.

Trump objected to the deal because the more intrusive measures retarding Iranian nuclear progress expire after 10 years. He objected to Iranian behavior because that they were testing intercontinental ballistic missiles and building a military network in Syria. Apparently, both of these warranted a withdrawal.

For the record, I think it was a bad deal but not because of the reasons raised by Trump. The Iran deal was bad because it only addressed Iran’s nuclear program and not the source of their nuclear ambitions.

There are number of explanations for why states seek nuclear weapons, but the historical record of nuclear proliferation is clear. As of today, there are 9 nuclear states. What each state had in common when they initiated their program was their security environment. Each and every state that has successfully gone nuclear was at one time a threatened state which could not outsource its protection to a more powerful ally. Non-threatened states that can go nuclear, such as Norway or Mexico, do not need them. States without the material or knowhow, such as Tanzania or Laos, for obvious reasons never do either. Threatened states which can outsource its security to a reliable ally, such as West Germany, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea, also do not acquire the bomb.

The conditions that convince a state to embark down the costly and controversial path towards nuclear weapons apply to Iran perfectly.

Since 1979, the state of Iran has had to exist in a highly unstable and hostile security environment. They have a Sunni regime to both the left (Saudi Arabia) and right (Pakistan), one of which is nuclear. Until 2002, they had a Baathist regime which they fought a bloody 8 year war against. And then there is the United States, which overthrew the democratically elected Mossadeq government, has upended three neighboring regimes in the last 15 years, supported Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, and on a routine basis openly debates if it should attack Iran. Iran’s only benefactor, Russia, is viewed skeptically and considered unreliable. Frankly, when Iran looks beyond its borders, it sees a deeply hostile environment with itself in the center, largely alone.

This environment is rarely appreciated by the United States and is why the Iranian program makes perfect sense from a security perspective.

To note that there are structural reasons as to why Iran pursues nuclear weapons doesn’t excuse the government’s behavior. Iran is a terrible regime and routinely violates the basic human rights of its citizens, especially those already vulnerable, such as women and homosexuals. But that has nothing to do with their nuclear program. The issue is that American foreign policy is contradictory. America simultaneously pursues both regime change and denuclearization in Iran. The more the United States seeks to reform the domestic politics of Iran, the stronger the regime’s demand for nuclear weapons grows. Until this contradiction is sorted out, no treaty will be of any real value.

The battles of political ideology have not ended.

After the Cold War, the West had assumed the contest of ideologies had been settled and that the last man had emerged. Political liberalism was victorious and non-democratic regimes were on “the wrong side of history,” as President Bill Clinton told the Chinese. The world seemed to agree as it experienced the third democratic wave. It was expected that alternatives to open markets, democracy, and individual human rights would not be welcomed but imposed.

Yet, in 2018, this is no longer true as both China and Russia offer alternative political models which are both gaining appeal around of the world.

What does Russia offer? Mostly a response to the social costs of liberalism. The cultural consequences of open markets and respecting civil liberties are not welcomed by all of society. The multiculturalism which results from respecting individual rights often challenges the traditional foundations of society. What Russia offers is a model to confronts these trends. Under Putin, Russia  is the defender of “the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life” against those that “revise their moral values and ethical norms.” To pursue these goals, Russia offers a semi-autocratic state with leadership not subject to the rule of law or a critical press. In place of a rule bound, consensus driven executive, Russia offers a democratically elected leader yet one not obligated to respect individual rights. Once in power, the majority can impose what it wants on the non-majority. Such a model is usually referred to as illiberal democracy and is arguably the most powerful political trend in the Western world at the moment, recently planting roots in Poland and Hungary.

What China offers is something similar in spirit but with different motives. While Russia promotes a democratically elected head of state tasked to combat the erosion of traditional values, China offers an authoritarian political model responsible for economic growth. The common narrative that emerged after 1989 was that economic development was only possible when state interference was minimal. Free trade, private property, and democratic participation were all thought to be essential ingredients for a healthy economy. China demonstrated that this isn’t entirely true and that an alternative path exists, consisting of state own industries, politically controlled capital, and deep participation in the global supply chain. The political component of this model is an autocratic state with strict one-party political rule. Human rights are not respected nor is public criticism tolerated, and democracy is out of the question.

And the China model has its fans. Before his death in 2012, Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi routinely lauded the Chinese growth model and stated he sought to imitate it in Ethiopia. It is obvious why the ruling elites in Africa and Central America find such a model appealing. They get the economic growth but are also allowed to retain their positions of power. But there is a good amount of admiration for the China model among the governed as well. In 2017, Canadians viewed China more favorable than the United States by 5 percentage points. While it does not offer human rights or political participation, the China model is appealing because experiments with democracy and free markets have failed in other parts of the world. According to the World Bank, in 1980, the gdp per person in the worlds largest democracy (India) was 263 dollars. China’s was 194. In 2016, India has a gdp per person of 1,709 and China 8,123. You can see why there is no “India model.” Many view free markets as chaotic and the democratic process slow and inept. Such beliefs were confirmed by the financial crisis of 2007 and chronic political gridlock in America. Not only did China’s economy grow during the great recession, but they have maintained a relatively high degree of social and class cohesion in the process (albeit with a steep cost to human freedom).

What are China and Russia motivated by? They want deference from their neighbors and it is expected that states that share their politics will be more likely to do this. Some of the desire for deference is security driven and some by prestige, but either way, the West should allow it to occur. The principal reason why the Putin model is so popular is because of liberalism overextending itself. The more that Brussels and D.C. pushed their politics into Eastern Europe the more appealing the Putin model became. While not ideal from a human rights perspective, it would be better to find a compromise with the reactionary elements than stubbornly impose on them values they do not want. In regard to the China model, the United States should want to know if alternatives to the Washington Consensus are available. The traditional path to growth has not worked everywhere, as observed with Argentina in the 2000s. Unlike the Western model which is highly ideological, the China model is flexible and pragmatic, and could perhaps better suit the needs of a developing country than Western orthodoxy. Frankly, what the West should do is act more Western, and allow the market place of ideas to determine which model is more suitable for developing countries.

What does it mean to have a libertarian foreign policy?

This essay will present the basics of what a libertarian foreign policy is and how it fits into the wider discussion of American grand strategy.

In the broadest sense, libertarianism is a political doctrine that defends personal liberty at the expense of collective goals, such as equality or order. The libertarian ideology addresses the relationship between the individual and his government and it’s assumed that if rights are symmetrical, decisions should be voluntary and free from government coercion. The obvious conclusion is that libertarians prefer a government with a limited number of responsibilities. Exceptions for government intervention usually include market failure such as public goods.

There are two main strands of libertarianism and both share the described outlook. One is a rights based libertarianism which argues that individuals have a moral right to freedom which exists prior to society. Rights include self-ownership and ownership of property and the purpose of erecting government is to protect these rights. Any initiation of force that goes beyond this is considered illegitimate.

The other type of libertarianism is consequence based and is known as consequentialism. This style of libertarian thought shares many of the conclusions of a right based libertarianism but arrives at policy positions by focusing on the unintended consequences of policy. Consequentialist argue that the unintended consequences of public policy are usually perverse, often harming those it was intended to help. These libertarians usually refrain from using moral language to frame policy issues and argue against intrusive policy due to its inefficiency.

In my opinion, it is the consequentialist strand of libertarianism that is more convincing and it is usually the strand of thinking that influences the more respectable arguments for a libertarian foreign policy. I therefore present the basics of a libertarian foreign policy by using the framework of the consequentialists.

So how does a consequentialist outlook translate into foreign policy? A consequentialist foreign policy argues for a limited number of objectives which mostly pertain to the physical security of the state. The two dominant themes of a libertarian foreign policy are non-intervention and non-entanglement. Non-intervention means that the United States should refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of other states. Non-entanglement means that the United States should avoid permanent security alliances and the indefinite stationing of its military abroad. Non-intervention and non-entanglement are referred to as a strategy of restraint and are at odds with the current US grand strategy of liberal hegemony. In place since the end of the Cold War, current grand strategy is hegemonic because America seeks to retain its dominant position in the international system. It is liberal because it seeks to spread liberal values and its associated institutions, most notably democracy. It seeks these two goals through both selective engagement (intervention) and extended deterrence (entanglement). Those who own a libertarian outlook consider the unintended consequences associated with such an active foreign policy to be self-defeating.

Intervention can take a variety of forms, from “smart sanctions” to outright regime change and those who favor intervention often argue for humanitarian goals, such as protecting unarmed civilians or spreading democracy. While such goals are laudable, consequentialists are usually reluctant to support intervention because of how historically divorced intentions are from outcomes. Consequentialist assume that social orders are spontaneous which means that they are the result of human action but not human design. Interveners often fail to appreciate the wide range of local and historical factors which give shape to a foreign culture and to try to reengineer a society from the outside will often backfire. This is especially true when using such a blunt instrument as military force. An informative example is the 2011 humanitarian intervention in Libya. The NATO directed military strikes were designed to protect civilians during the Libyan uprising yet the intervention lead to regime change which eventually lead to a humanitarian crisis. Under Gaddafi, Libya was comprised of a loose collection of clans which were kept in order by his dictatorial style of rule. The military strikes lead to the unraveling of this arrangement, turning Libya into a failed state. It is today composed of competing tribes, including ISIS, all of which have committed gross human rights violations. The intervention also had repercussions outside of Libya as the military strikes produced a refugee crisis, instability in Mali, complicated a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s nuclear program, and alienated rival powers who considered it disingenuous of the west to use the authorization to protect civilians to engage in regime change. Gaddafi was clearly an unsavory leader yet his removal lead to a series of events that arguably add up to something worse.

The other theme of a consequentialist foreign policy is non-entanglement which means to avoid permanent security alliances and the stationing of military troops overseas. As of 2016, the United States has approximately 800 military bases abroad and has signed security treaties with nearly 70 countries. Despite most of these security commitments being relics of the Cold War, there is a pervasive logic to retaining them as they are thought to provide the public good of security. The two main mechanisms at work are deterrence and assurance. The United States security commitments deters third party attacks on its allies. American assurance prevents American allies from preparing for such an attack, thus avoiding a spiral into conflict and in certain situations, nuclear proliferation. Yet, the extensive network of alliances is not cost free and has unintended consequences which include shirking, moral hazard, and the power problem. Shirking describes the tendency of American allies to not provide for their own defense and free ride on the American tax payer. This is an obvious problem in Western Europe as all but a small handful of NATO members meet their contractually obligated defense outlays. As described by MIT’s Barry Posen, NATO today is essentially “welfare for the rich.” The moral hazard of America’s security architecture describes a situation in which an American ally becomes more risk tolerant knowing that it can pass the costs onto the United States if their gamble backfires. Such a situation was displayed by Saudi Arabia’s escalation of the Yemen conflict. One reason why Saudi Arabia was so inclined to pursue a military solution in Yemen was because of the tacit insurance given by the United States if its adventurism failed. As many have pointed out, this is exactly what happened as the United States was dragged into cleaning up a humanitarian catastrophe it did not create. The last unintended consequence of the American alliance system is the most serious and is referred to as the power problem. Coined by CATO’s Christopher Preble, this is the irony that a stronger military often results in its promiscuous use, usually producing a less secure environment. The United States wide network of alliances and far reaching military presence creates a temptation to use it, often for non-strategic reasons. This attitude was expressed by Madeline Albright when she asked Colin Powell “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”  Such hubris was demonstrated in Iraq. The Iraq War had several causes, but at the heart of the American motivation to invade Iraq was an overconfidence in what the worlds most powerful military could actually achieve. The leadership that lead the United States into the Iraq War genuinely assumed that it would be easy for the world’s sole superpower to introduce liberal institutions to a society with no prior experience with them. The two dominant cultural themes of Iraq, tribalism and Islam, generally retard democracy, but encouraged by its abundance of hard power, the United States proceeded anyway. The unintended consequences are legion. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein turned Iraq into a chaotic mess, gave birth to ISIS, extended the influence of Iran, produced a mental health crisis among returning veterans, and strained American relations with other democracies.

Not all consequences are negative and those that are not should be considered when weighing foreign policy options. The United State may have failed in installing democratic institutions in Iraq but its demonstration of military power may have possibly deterred others from testing its capabilities. Yet, the evidence produced by 30 years of liberal hegemony indicates the United States needs to become more libertarian and scale back its foreign policy objectives. All attempts to export democracy have failed. America’s large coalition of security dependents at best free ride and at worst drag the United States into messy situations of little strategic value. And the liberal hegemony policies of intervention and extended deterrence have resulted in the sloppy use of force which has destabilized the international environment. Using data produced by the Congressional Research Service, the United States used its military approximately 40 times during the Cold War (1945-1991). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has used its military almost 200 times. Without an opposing force, the United States has used its armed forces in every non-strategic way possible. As a police force in Somalia to democratic reformer in Iraq, the United States is best described as a liberal hegemon on the march. The unintended result of such an overreaching foreign policy is that the United States has created humanitarian crises, turned manageable situations into unstable ones, and incentivized its rivals to set up rival alternatives to the liberal world order.

Is North Korean antagonism rational?

Nearly every serious thinker agrees that the North Korean ownership of nuclear weapons is rational. Rational in the sense that, like any other regime, the primary goal of the North Korean leadership is survival. Yet, unlike other regimes, the North Koreans have an immediate and capable threat at their doorstep. For the past 64 years, North Korea has had to discourage an invasion of an American military stationed directly at its southern border. Nuclear weapons are widely acknowledged as the most efficient and perhaps the only way of doing this.

The logic is pretty straightforward. When nuclear weapons are introduced to the bargaining process, victory becomes so costly that both sides are deterred from waging conflict, let alone pursuing regime change. This is because both sides are vulnerable to a nuclear strike, regardless of what happens on the battlefield. If a state has second strike capability then it doesn’t matter how disadvantaged they are in traditional military metrics as nuclear weapons neutralize any gains earned on the battlefield. As highly desirable it would be to dispose of the Kim regime and reunite the peninsula, the potential death of 200,000 South Korean civilians has, at least for now, been enough to deter American military action.

The issue, however, isn’t if North Korean ownership of nuclear weapons is rational. We all recognize that it is given their environment. The issue is whether those in Pyongyang abide by the rules of mutually agreed destruction. North Korean foreign policy very often appears to be a reflection of the personality of its leader. Both in rhetoric and action, North Korea can appear to be unpredictable and irrational. In the words of Nikki Haley, North Korean seems to be “begging for war.” On a fairly routine basis, the North Koreans threaten the United States and its regional allies. Japan was threatened with nuclear clouds.  The United States would be turned into “a sea of fire.” Even Guam was threatened with a “salvo or misses.” Even more provactivley, North Korea has on several occasions initiated conflict, sending missiles over Japan, sinking the South Korean Cheonan, and firing artillery shells at Baengnyeong Island in 2010.

If war with the United States would be suicidal for North Korea, why do they constantly antagonize? After all, nuclear weapons were attained to ensure the survival of the regime, not lead to its end. I would argue that the belligerent and at times erratic behavior of North Korea is in fact rational. In order for nuclear weapons to be an effective deterrent, a state has to convince others that they would indeed use them, despite it being suicidal. This is one of the great ironies of nuclear weapons as their unprecedented destructive power result in a loss of credibility. Prior to nuclear weapons, war was once a normal instrument of coercive diplomacy and the threat to use it could pressure others to bend politically. But in the era of mutual vulnerability, the second strike capability of your opponent makes the bargaining leverage of nuclear weapons futile. How serious of a threat are nuclear weapons if they ensure the death of the regime that would in fact launch them? A regime would have to be crazy to be the first to use them as they would be signing their death certificate. That is, unless, it was part of a strategy to convince an opponent to take their nuclear capability seriously.

Putting the North Korean belligerence in perspective is important because nuclear weapons do not make war impossible, no matter how catastrophic it would be. The United States has invested a lot of its reputation in resolving the Korean issue and there are audience costs. It is not entirely implausible to imagine a scenario that the United States tie its hands publically by drawing a line in the sand only to see North Korea cross it and escalate an already tense situation. Trump has already stated that his administration will never let North Korea advance their nuclear program to the point that they can harness an intercontinental missile with a nuclear weapon. Military action could be used to retard such progress creating a spiral until a nuclear strike is employed.

North Korea isn’t crazy. Despite North Korea “begging for war,” it’s the last thing they want. The United States should recognize that North Korea is stuck in the situation of having to defend itself by convincing the United States that it is willing to commit suicide. How exactly does a state coerce an opponent by threatening to kill itself? I assume the only way to do that is to appear unhinged and impetuous. The alternative interpretation of North Korean behavior is that their grand strategy has been to endure 20 plus years of sanctions and international isolation in pursuit of an end goal of self-destruction.

State building over multiple nations in Afghanistan.

The aim of the Trump “mini-surge” is largely a repackage of policies already seen including the training of Afghan forces and an increased focus on counterterrorism operations. The logic defending the continued American military presence in Afghanistan is to help provide the physical security that would allow for the strengthening of Afghan governance. Those in favor of the surge argue that it is not possible to improve Afghani governance unless pursued in a physically stable environment. Along with the dismantling of Al-Qaeda and its terrorist camps, this has been the reasoning that defends keeping the American military in Afghanistan.

So, if the argument for more American resources being sent to Afghanistan is that it will help build a self-sustaining Afghanistan government, then we should evaluate progress based on that criteria. What has the United States put into Afghanistan and how does it compare with the return received for its investment?

The investment? American troop strength has varied over the past 16 years, with a peak around 100,000 in 2010. In addition to troop deployments, the United States has provided Afghanistan $117.26 billion for relief and reconstruction since 2002. Note that this doesn’t include contractors or the contributions made by American allies.

The return? In rule of law, regulatory quality, control of corruption, government effectiveness, and political stability, the World Bank ranked Afghanistan at or near the very bottom in each category for the past 18 consecutive years. Freedom House ranks Afghanistan as “not free” for every single year of the American war. Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Afghanistan 169 of 176 in its metric of corruption perception.

Why has America achieved little to any progress in erecting an effective Afghanistan government despite sending so many troops and investing so much aid? Surge defenders argue that the lack of success in Afghanistan is because of mistakes made by the intervener; that is, the failure of America in Afghanistan is a result of relying on a combination of air power, special forces, and indigenous militias instead of a full-blown occupation. These are the people who always argue that “we would have been successful if we had a bit more resources.” It is still difficult to take these surge arguments seriously when the amount of time and money spent in Afghanistan is already far larger than what the United States invested in both Japan and Germany, combined. There is also the obvious fact that little to anything changed in the quality of the Afghan government after the 100,00 troop Obama surge.

The fact is that the poor performance of the Afghanistan government is not because of American commitment. The poor performance of the Afghanistan government is because America is trying to build a central state over multiple nations.

A state is a self-sustaining set of institutions that govern over a well-defined and internationally recognized area.

A nation is a collective identify of people rooted in a combination of a common language, shared traditions, and most often, ethnicity.

The United Kingdom is a state with four nations. The Kurds are a nation without a state. Japan is a nation-state.

For most of its history, Afghanistan has been multiple nations exercising local autonomy under a weak state. Even after the billions spent and hundreds of thousands of troops deployed, this is Afghanistan today.

As of 2016, Afghanistan had about 33 million citizens, 40 percent who identify as Pashtun, 33 percent who identify as Tajik, 9 percent who identify as Uzbek, 11 percent who identify as Hazara, and 8 other groups who number between 1 to 2 percent of the population. Ethnic fueled fighting is nothing new to Afghanistan. Just before the arrival of the coalition troops in 2001, Afghanistan was recovering from a series of ethnic civil wars that claimed an estimated 100,000 Afghans. The Taliban, America’s main antagonist in the conflict, is largely drawn from the Afghan Pashtuns and the only thing that the other tribes have in common with each other is a fervent hatred of Pashtuns. Ethnic tensions of Afghanistan are so strong that their Census is not even able to record tribe membership of the results producing violence.

The tendency to identify with the tribe and not as an Afghanistan makes it difficult for the state to consolidate power. Franky, an interest for a strong Afghan government is largely limited to Washington D.C. and among those Afghans who run it. America needs to better set priorities and recognize building a central government over competing and distrustful ethnic groups is neither strategic and, most probably, possible. Instead, the United States should look to gradually turn over all security operations to the Afghan National Army, cut its losses, and not fight against centuries of Afghan history.

Why America should withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for over 16 years. As of this writing, America has approximately 8,500 troops there now, mostly regulated to an advisory role. The Trump administration is reportedly sending an additional 4,000 American troops to theater while authorizing the Pentagon to send more if it deems it necessary.

Why exactly are American troops still in Afghanistan? After the twin towers fell, America launched Operation Enduring Freedom with two objectives. One was to destroy al-Qaeda and their terror camps. The other was to punish any organizations that supported the terrorist network which, after they failed to turn over al-Qaeda’s leadership, included the Taliban.

That was in 2001. Since then, the mission in Afghanistan has gradually grown into a state building project. This change in objective was a consequence of the post-9/11 consensus that ungoverned spaces were a threat to American security. In order to keep America safe from terrorism, it was essential that America build a functional and democratic state in Afghanistan.

When evaluating American progress on the task of state building, the metrics are dismal. For starters, a sizeable portion of Afghanistan is either under Taliban rule or contested. As of February 2017, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction estimates that the American supported Afghan government has no control of 40 percent of Afghanistan. The remaining 60 percent of the country is under the command of the democratically elected government but it is clear that it is not being properly governed. Corruption and abuse of power is utterly rampant. Transparency International ranked Afghanistan the third most corrupt state in 2015, the World Bank’s Control of Corruption and Ease of Doing Business ranks Afghanistan 186 out of 190 for both “dealing with construction permits” and “registering property,” and when surveyed by The Asian Foundation, approximately 90 percent of Afghans responded that corruption was a problem in daily life.

Considering that this is what 783 billion dollars and 20,000 American casualties gets the American public, America should determine if it makes sense to escalate America’s longest war.

It is not clear that it does.

For one, al-Qaeda has had a safe haven in Pakistan. Up until his death, Usama Bin Laden had been managing the day-to-day operations of al-Qaeda from what some have referred to as the West Point of Pakistan. In his 2015 work The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism – From al Qa’ida to ISIS, former CIA official Mike Morell writes “Before the raid we’d thought that Bin Ladin’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, was running the organization on a day-to-day basis, essentially the CEO of al Qa’ida, while Bin Ladin was the group’s ideological leader, its chairman of the board. But the DOCEX showed something quite different. It showed that Bin Ladin himself had not only been managing the organization from Abbottabad, he had been micromanaging it.” Other core leadership of the terror network have either been killed in Pakistan or suspected of residing there. Al-Qaeda’s presence has become so influential in their post 9/11 home that some even suggest that we have seen the “Pakistanization” of al-Qaeda.

Even if American attempts to eliminate al-Qaeda in Pakistan were successful, it is not even clear that the more dangerous branch of al-Qaeda is in Southern Asia. Under pressure from American drone strikes and special operations, al-Qaeda has become decentralized with arguable more threatening branches emerging in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Writing for The Washington Institute, Aaron Y. Zelin noted that “In many ways, the center of gravity for al-Qaeda has shifted from the AfPak region more to Yemen, Syria, and even Libya…” All three states are essentially ungoverned and if state building in Afghanistan is vital for American security then we should also pursue a similar strategy in these areas.

The truth is that despite having safe harbor in parts of Pakistan, the Arabian Peninsula, and Northern Africa, al-Qaeda has not been able to manage another successful terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. Their failure to do so is because of an aggressive anti-terrorist strategy consisting of drone strikes, special operation raids, enhanced intelligence, and the multiple layers of homeland security established after 9/11. Fighting the Taliban and building a government in Afghanistan had little to do with this.

American priorities are mixed up. Washington is sending American men and women to defend a corrupt and self-serving government against an organization that has no larger goal beyond ridding their homeland of Americans. At this point the Taliban are not fighting for a restoration of an Islamic emirate but to expel foreign forces. Therefore, increasing the number of foreign fighters should only be expected to intensify the conflict. The main mission of al-Qaeda, however, has not changed which is to restore a “true” Islamic government in the Middle East. This goal is pursued by committing acts of terrorism against the United States. Al-Qaeda should therefore be defeated yet fighting the Taliban in order to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven when the organization already has several doesn’t seem logical. Instead of sending more Americans in harm’s way to defend a government whose democratically elected Vice President is currently on the run for torturing a political rival, the United States should seek a power sharing agreement with the Taliban and not worry so much about what style of government it leaves behind in Afghanistan.

The Trump u-turn on China and Russia is welcomed policy: Why the United States should be wary of Russia, and not China.

During the presidential race, political commentators were equally dismayed and puzzled by the developing relationship between then candidate Trump and President Putin. All sorts of explanations were offered to explain the apparent goodwill, from naked business interests to an alleged sex tape. But whatever the reason, Trump complimented Putin on a regular basis, referring to Russia’s president as a “strong leader” and “smart,” and stated that he intended to have a good working relationship with Russia’s president.

China, however, would be the center of a Trump administration’s ire. Trump accused China of “raping” the United States and promised that on day one he would label China as a currency manipulator and erect steep trade barriers. During his confirmation hearing, his nomination for Secretary of State suggested denying Beijing access to their artificial islands in the South China Sea.

That was then but this is now. After 100 days of Trump, the expected rapprochement with Russia has cooled and Chinese-American relations have apparently warmed. President Trump has directed 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Russia’s ally Syria, accused Russia of complicity in Syrian war crimes, has made no attempt of removing the sanctions imposed after Crimea, and has publicly stated he expects the peninsula to be returned to Ukraine.

Trump, however, has failed to label China as a currency manipulator, reneged on trade barriers, and restricted Navy patrols in the South China Sea. Xi Jinping, apparently, is even President Trump’s friend.

This u-turn is highly welcomed news for the simple fact that Russia is the troublemaker, and China, not so much.

Russia is the bigger problem for American foreign policy primarily because Russia is seeking to undermine 50 plus years of European economic integration and political liberalism. As articulated in a 2013 Center for Strategic Communications policy paper titled “Putin: The New World Leader of Conservatism,” Putin’s strategy of gaining influence in Europe is by assuming the leadership role of a transnational movement that defends and renews traditional social values, both in side Russia in Europe. This means supporting positions that are anti-immigrant, homophobic, and Eurosceptic, among other anti-liberal policies. This essentially makes Russia a proselytizing power as Putin seeks to export these policies to Europe by hacking elections, funding far right parties, and spreading fake news. The French presidential election offers ample evidence of this strategy in motion.

Compare this to China which has no designs on the political makeup of foreign states, doesn’t seek to export any particular culture to its neighbors and, despite lifting 800 million people out of poverty, doesn’t pressure others to adopt its version of state sponsored capitalism. They do hack, but not to influence election outcomes, and the fake news it produces is mainly for Chinese consumption and not to influence foreign elections.

The Chinese and Russian objectives for their respected neighborhoods are in contrast to one another. Russia’s objective is to sow political and economic uncertainty throughout their neighborhood, as a Europe divided by nationalism and economic populism is a plus for Moscow. But where Russia is deliberately stirring up tensions throughout Europe, China’s number one regional goal is stability. From their policy towards North Korea to their relationship with the United States, China’s number one goal is to avoid destabilizing the region. This is because unlike Russia, China has experienced legitimate economic gains and political consolidation over the past 30 years and would prefer not to upset this trend.

When one also considers that Putin’s Russia has also invaded two countries, committed war crimes in Syria, has sold arms to the Taliban, and violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, it is rather clear that Russia, and not China, should be considered the bigger problem for American. American priorities and rhetoric should reflect that.

 

 

Don’t escalate the fight against ISIS.

President Trump has identified ISIS as his highest priority and, acting accordingly, has deployed 1,000 Marines to Syria, pledged future support to Iraq, and requested an additional 5 billion dollars to help escalate the fight.

There are good reasons for the United States to be concerned with ISIS. At its height, some estimated that ISIS controlled approximately 35,000 thousand square miles including such major cities as Mosul, Ramdi, Falluja, and Raqqa. Outside of the Middle East they have inspired similar style caliphates, such as Boko Haram, as well as terrorist attacks against the west.

Yet, it is still not clear that it is in America’s interest to get furthered involved in this fight. This is because there are other groups in the region who have a stronger incentive to defeat ISIS and, by most metrics, appear to be doing just that.

According to IHS Conflict Monitor, ISIS lost approximately a quarter of its territory in 2016. Ramdi and Falluja were recaptured and ISIS is on the verge of losing Mosul and Raqqa. Their reduction in territory was accompanied by an estimated loss of 50,000 fighters.

Their financial problems are mounting as well. It has been reported that the Caliphate’s monthly revenue and oil production are down 30 percent and salaries have been cut nearly in half.

All of this has resulted in a lowered morale, an increase in infighting, and a rise in desertions.

American air strikes certainly played a role in creating this situation, yet it is probably not in America’s interest to get furthered involved in the conflict. ISIS is already battling a long list of enemies in the region that include the Assad regime, the Russian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Iranian, and Turkish governments, the Kurds, various Sunni rebel groups, Hezbollah, and basically most of the Muslim population at this point. All of these groups have different reasons for getting involved in the conflict, and at times their regional interests conflict with one another, yet all have an interest in defeating ISIS. Despite the complicated politics of the region, they have been working together to do this. To give just a few examples, Russia and Turkey have fought together in Al Bab, Iran has deployed its military to support the Assad regime and Iraqi government, and a variety of local militias which include Arabs, Syrian Christians, Turkmen, and Kurds are working together in taking back Raqqa.

ISIS poses the biggest threat to the region, not America. Therefore, it should be the regional forces that take the lead in defeating them, not some country on the other side of the world. Despite not always being well coordinated, this is what is happening. The Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian governments as well as the various local non-state entities have all made serious advances into former ISIS territory and have seriously reduced ISIS ranks. With the momentum for an ISIS defeat growing, the United States may be tempted to rush in and tip the balance, but it would be wise not to interfere. Further American involvement would reduce the incentive of the local forces to continue their fight against the organization as well as possibly producing unintended consequences. It was after all the American invasion of Iraq and the de-Ba’athification of the Baathist regime that lead to the creation of ISIS in the first place. There is no way to know how an American escalation of the fight will complicate the current conflict and with ISIS on the ropes, the United States would be wise to leave well enough alone and continue to let the local powers take the lead in defeating ISIS.

 

Trump’s transition team and terrorism.

Trump’s transition is taking shape and it doesn’t look like any political bridges will be built, at least not through who he appoints in his administration. Matt Apuzzo and Mark Landler have an interesting article in the NYT discussing the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama as attorney general, Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas as C.I.A. director and Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser.

These three don’t mince words when discussing Islam and terrorism. Some of the quotes and positions attributed to these three are outright ridiculous.

For example,

General Flynn similarly favors the immigration ban and has expressed support for the idea of forcing Muslims in the United States to register with the government. He once erroneously wrote on Twitter that Shariah, or Islamic law, was in danger of taking over the country.

As well,

Mr. Pompeo has said Muslim leaders contribute to the threat of terrorism by refusing to repudiate it, although Islamic leaders and advocacy groups have done so repeatedly, and often. “Silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts and, more importantly still, in those that may well follow,” Mr. Pompeo said in 2013.

From reading the article, it’s clear that all three nominees share the idea that there is a special relationship between Islam and terrorism. As William McCants, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution states, “The thinking here is that…religion is the key factor that influences everything else.”

This is what is bothersome about these appointments. I’m no apologist for Islam. There is a good amount of evidence to support the argument that Islam has a unique relationship with terrorism. Most, if not all, recent large-scale terrorist attacks have been done in the name of Islam. I don’t know of any modern Christian equivalent to 9/11 and I’ve never seen a headline about a Jew beheading a journalist in the name of Judaism. And it is not just those who commit terrorism but the sympathetic outlook of many Muslims. You can find plenty of similar survey data but here are 2010 results on Muslim views of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. Indonesia, usually offered as an example of the compatibility of Islam and modern governance, had 25 percent of surveyed Muslims express confidence in Bin Laden.

views-of-bin-laden

My take on how to approach the relationship between Islam and the terrorism is to remind myself that (1) Muslim attitude can be differentiated by area and (2) the issue of Islam and terrorism is relatively new. Two antidotes generally shape my thinking.

Regarding the first point, the Muslim community in the United States is, on average, well adjusted. There have been several spectacular attacks like San Berdino and Orlando, but overall Muslims living in the United States are fairly well assimilated. In terms of terrorism, Muslims have been responsible for approximately 6 percent of all terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005.

See the data provided in Omar Alnatour’s Huffington Post article here, which states “According to the FBI, 94% of terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005 have been by non-Muslims.” This is misleading considering in 2015 there are only 3.3 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States and represents 1 percent of the overall population. This is the largest it has ever been so it seems that Muslims do cause a disproportionate amount of terrorism compared to other groups. But there is comforting data of American Muslim views towards terrorism. Less than 8 percent of American Muslims consider suicide bombings sometimes or often justified for defending the religion. That number is larger than we would like but it is not benchmarked and I don’t expect it to be significantly different from a similar style question posed to American Christians.

american-muslim-views-towards-terrorism

The other perspective I keep in mind is a long view of history. Islam hasn’t always been linked with terrorism or has been illiberal. Although not perfect, Islam has been relatively tolerant towards other faiths, most notably Judaism. Radical Islam didn’t really emerge until the work of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian cleric who made his name by discrediting Arab leadership advocated a holy war against the post colonial regimes. But we didn’t see any serious amounts of Islamic terrorism until the 1970’s, with the Al Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and this was a response to the failed state building process of postcolonial Arabia and the success of Israel.

My point is that Islam is a little over 1,600 years old but Islamic terrorism in any serious form is only 40 years old. If the problem was “Islam” why don’t we have 1,600 years of terrorism? It seems to me that the religion didn’t change but the culture in which it is interpreted and practiced has. Like all major religious texts, the Koran has a large amount of ambiguous and culturally backwards passages that lend themselves to explanation. Just as you can find a passage advocating (2:244) you can also find a passage for tolerance (2:256).

How do we persuade Muslims to focus on the latter and not the former? Probably do the opposite of what Trump and his new cabinet members want to do. What motivates Islamic terrorism is an underlying sense of alienation in a context of economic, cultural, and political stagnation. Islamic terrorism is an attempt of asserting one’s identity as a response to the failure of Islam to offer any viable alternative to the modernity (i.e. the west). I’ll write more on this in a later essay, but for now read Bernard’s Lewis’s piece here.

So the issue is not only do we have someone who claimed Islam is cancer as a future National Security advisor, he is part of an administration which ran on a platform of 1) extreme vetting (or a ban, not sure what he wants at this point), 2) bring back waterboarding, 3) retaliating against terrorist by bombing their families, 4) frame the issue of terrorism as Islamic terrorism. If you agree that the root of Islamic terrorism is estrangement from the modernity, you will also agree that these policies and appointments only exacerbate the issue. The shape that Trumps administration is taking shape suggest that his administration will further dehumanize the wider Muslim community and to reframe the debate as one between the West versus Muslim instead of civilized versus uncivilized.