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.

A post Trump America.

One of the most depressing and sad episodes of American political history is almost at a close. The 2016 presidential campaign was the most culturally and politically divisive contest in recent memory and exposed deep cultural divides in American society. Perhaps a new normal emerged? One in which race baiting, sexism, and xenophobic rhetoric becomes acceptable political theater. Nearly all polls suggest a win for Hillary Clinton, yet what does this leave us with? How could someone so politically incorrect, so brutishly and unapologetically crude come so close to being the President? What will a post Trump America look like?

It’s well understood that the roots of Trump’s rise are found in a growing sense of demographic anxiety. Economic misplacement and the Republican party’s frustration with their never ending search for an authentic conservative played a role, but I think at root we have the “deplorables” because of the shifting distribution of cultural and demographic America. His supporters are unapologetically white and they are responding to the perceived trend that the United States is becoming less so. Below is a chart which I think sums up the source of their grief.

changingfaceamerica1965-2065-pew

The above trends are alarming from a governing perspective. Frankly, the less homogenous a body politic is the less well its political institutions perform. This was best discussed in Putnam’s work “Making Democracy Work.” The central premise is that political institutions are more efficient when there is a high amount of social capital. Social capital helps find solutions to problems of collective action problems by building institutions of trust and norms of reciprocity, or what he calls a rotating credit association. Social capital includes a shared language, community bonds based around culture, and other networks of civic associations. The more heterogeneous a society is demographically, the less social capital. This explains in part why we are observing such stark fault lines in American politics.

One of two things must give if the politics that made way for Trump are to be addressed. One, the mentioned demographic trends must be halted. This is exactly what Trump and his supporters demand and includes policies like building a wall and halting all Muslim immigration.

The other alternative involves thinking about how we conduct public policy. I would argue that this means refocusing public policy away from allocation and more towards facilitating cooperation and emphasizing personal responsibility. The tribalism that comes with this sort of demographic change is heightened when so much of government policy is an attempt to redistribute income. For FY 2012, federal spending on welfare programs alone was roughly 1 trillion dollars, and this doesn’t include Social Security and Medicare. No one can discount all aspects of these programs, but this style of governing doesn’t perform well in a heterogeneous society. Look at how brittle the social democracies of Europe are with the migration crisis. A consequence of these redistribution programs is that individuals often feel that they are competing with each over the biggest slice of the pie, breeding resentment and animosity among the participants. These are mostly mean tested programs, but its perception that is important, and one of the most common complaints of Trump’s supporters is that “others are cutting in lines.”

An easy fix (conceptually, not politically) would be to reorient public policy away from redistribution and towards creating incentives for being industrial and self-reliant. Both parties are responsible of creating public policy that promotes a rent seeking, zero-sum attitude. Instead we should design legislation that sought to realign competing self-interests towards more cooperative behavior. I don’t have an answer for what this specifically looks like but it would be libertarian in spirit and would include reducing the scope of the welfare state. Allowing for more personal responsibility avoids perceptions that bureaucrats are creating distributional conflicts and would help dampen any social conflict stemming from changes in demographic trends. It’s either that or we try to ensure the United States remains defined as a country by one dominant race.

The Selectorate theory and Syrian regime survival.

 

Demand is growing for US involvement in Syria but not all rebellions are created equal. There is no indication that the Assad leadership will abide to any power sharing transition like what was observed in Tunisia or Egypt. Not only is Assad’s party stubbornly clinging to power, Syria stands apart from other movements of the Arab spring for its level of conflict. The violence taking place in Syria is both qualitatively and quantitatively different. It is estimated that approximate 11 percent of Syria has died, some of which have occurred through chemical attacks.

There are a host of historical and cultural reasons why some regimes do not gracefully transition to power. Outside powers, such as Iran and Russia, are aggravating the situation and there is a precedent in Syria of taking a heavy hand towards rebellions. But little discussion has been made of how the existing Syrian political economy exacerbates the length and amount of conflict being observed. I suggest that the reason why Syria is such as violent mess is because of the incentives of those in power to remain loyal to the leadership. I draw on insights produced by the selectorate theory which argues that regime loyalty and the lengths they will go to retain power are shaped by two institutions, the winning coalition and the selectorate.

For the uninitiated, the selectorate model argues two institutions shape regime stability. The selectorate is the subset of residents that have a genuine opportunity to select state leadership. Selectorate membership is derived from state specific institutional characteristics such as lineage, wealth, or legal qualifications. In democratic regimes, especially those commonly referred to as western, the selectorate is generally all citizens over the age of 18. The size of the selectorate in authoritarian or military regimes is usually more narrow and generally consists of a small coalition of elites. The winning coalition is that subset of the selectorate that abides by state specific institutional conditions to confer political authority over the residents of the state. Political candidates of any style of regime must by definition form their winning coalition of supporters from the selectorate. This is done through public policy which can be allocated to either private or public goods. What shapes the allocation of state resources is the pressure of a challenger. If an incumbent fails to offer members of the winning coalition the best public policy bundle, a challenger will be able to persuade members of the winning coalition to defect. Holding utility constant, it is assumed that members of the selectorate would prefer to receive private goods to public goods. In general, the larger the wining coalition, the more incentive leadership has to offer public policy in the form of public goods. This takes the form of efficient institutions, the impartial rule of law, and transparent governing. When the winning coalition is small, there is an incentive to offer public policy to the winning coalition in the form of private goods. This includes state licenses, income from rent seeking, and other forms of corruption.

The relationship is made clear through an example. Let R be the total amount of income produced in a state where R= $1,000. If W is the size of the winning coalition and all of the state resources are allocated towards private goods, then $1,000/W decreases as W increases. That is, $1,000/2 > $1,000/4, 1,000/4 > $1,000/6, and so forth. Public goods, however, are not discriminatory and their consumption by one individual does not preclude consumption by others. It is assumed that the preference for public goods are uniformly distributed in the winning coalition so that all members of the winning coalition benefit evenly from their production. Unlike private goods, the size of the wining coalition does not effect the consumption of public goods. If R=$1,000 and the public good gives each member of the winning coalition the equivalent of $30 worth of utility, then for a state with a winning coalition of 40 members, public goods will be produced because $1,000/40=$25 per member, which is less than $30. If the winning coalition consists of 20 members, then $1,000/20 = $50 and private goods will be produced because $50>$30. The more members in a winning coalition, the less state resources are available to be distributed among those in that coalition. For those interested I provide this more formally as an addendeum.

The theory has a host of interesting applications including the democratic peace theory (winning a war is treated as a public good so democracies will divert a large amount of resources towards winning them) to how leadership responds to natural disasters.

In addition to shaping what sort of public policy state leadership will offer, the selectorate and winning coalition explain regime loyalty. The amount of loyalty is proxied by the ratio of the winning collation to the selectorate, or W/S. If W/S is large, the loyalty of those in W will be low because if W is large or S is small then the probability of being included in the next coalition is high. If W is small and S large than the probability of being in the next coalition is low. Let W = 300 and S = 2,000,000 then the probability of being in the next coalition is 300/2,000,000 or 0.0015. This is a very rough approximation of North Korea. If W = 65,000,000 and S = 150,000,000 then the probability of being in the next coalition is 65,000,000/150,000,000 or 0.43. This is a very rough approximation of the United States.

A small winning coalition with a large selectorate induces loyalty as public policy is largely defined by private consumption and the fact that a member of the winning coalition is easily replaced. A member of W is less valuable to the challenger when W/S is small. The probability of being in the next winning coalition is too small and the costs are too great to expect any orderly regime change. Unfortunately for American options in Syria, a large selectorate and a small winning coalition is what Syria has. The ratio W/S explains a good amount of why Syria is approaching its 5th year and why the violence only seems to being increasing. Those in the winning coalition have demonstrated that they will go to great lengths to retain power including the use of chemical weapons against civilians. This means that the Assad regime will not go quietly as other regimes such as Egypt which has about half the size of a selectorate as Syria does. As I’ve wrote before on this blog, a sober assessment of American priorities should be taken prior to taking initiatives towards involving itself in Syria. Those advocating that “Assad most go” needs to mindful of the existing political economy in Syria and what that means for a power transition. After 5 years of civil war, it’s obvious that a regime change will not occur with a light footprint strategy. If the United States wants a power transition, it needs to fully commit because the Baathist party of Syria has far too much at stake to entertain any minor compromise of its political power.

 

Appendix.

Below is a simplified version of the selectorate theory. I’m still new to wordpress so if someone has a better way of writing equations let me know, but I was forced to cut and paste using my MAC’s screen shot feature.

I reduced the model to only demonstrating the relevant parts for the above discussion. The model is more involved and elaborate than presented here, almost to the point of sacrificing parsimony for granularity. For the interested reader, I highly recommend the following book. It is the most comprehensive treatment of the Selectorate Theory to date and has deeply shaped my thinking on foreign policy.

State leadership will attempt to maximize discretionary income, which is the difference between total state revenue and public policy.

 

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Total state revenue explicitly modeled takes a common form. It is assumed that the tax rate is applied evenly across all residents. I treat as exogenous.

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Public policy offered by the incumbent is a bundle of public and private goods so that

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Public policy of the incumbent can be modeled explicitly as

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It is assumed that private goods are distributed evenly to the winning coalition which allows W to serve as a proxy price for private goods. If M­g is the amount of an incumbents public policy allocated towards private goods, then each member of W receives Mg/W share. If the winning coalition increases, so does the overall cost of providing private goods. If the winning coalition decreases, so does the overall cost of providing private goods.

The objective function of the incumbent fully assembled and explicitly stated is below.

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Leadership will choose to maximize If a Markov Perfect Equilibria is assumed, then holds due to the challenger constraint. That is, to prevent defection from his winning coalition, the incumbent was required to offer a bundle of private and pubic goods in the previous round that provided at a minimum the same amount of utility to the least affiliated member of his coalition that a challenger did. The model assumes that each member of the selectorate has a level of affinity for political leadership that is based on cultural and ideological connections. The full set of affinities for those in W can be linearly ordered based on the strength of affinity for leadership. If is affinity then the set of all affinities of those in the selectorate can be arranged where 0< < 1. Affinity for leadership is treated as a residual of support after utility from public policy is consumed. This will allow for any stalemates between incumbent and challenger to be resolved if utility derived from public policy is the same between incumbent and challenger. That is, a member of the selectorate will arrive at their choice of leadership based firstly on utility derived from the combination of private and public goods offered by leadership. Affinity for leadership will only decide support of leadership if public policies offered by candidates are the same. A political rival will attempt to persuade the member in the incumbents winning coalition with the lowest affinity (or lowest affinity member (LAM)) to defect by offering a public policy that offers them more utility than the incumbent. An incumbent only need to match this utility as he benefits from what is described as the ‘incumbency advantage’. This is the advantage enjoyed by incumbents when the utility offered from the challenger is discounted by the fact that a challenger must first attain power and the utility offered by someone not in leadership is uncertain. To defect from the winning coalition would result in a forfeiture of all utility offered by the leadership’s public policy.

The constraint is that the incumbent must match the best public policy bundle of any challenger.

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The Philippines and American credibility.

“America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” These are the words of the Philippines president announcing his “separation” from the United States. A large part of the recent Philippine separation can be explained by the personality of its leader. The man makes Trump look like Winston Churchill. For a list of Duterte greatest hits, see here. Although the statement has been qualified, the “separation” is alarming for the United States and its allies as the bilateral alliance is the bedrock of the American strategy for achieving South East Asian stability. The defection of the Philippines, however, may not be particular to its leader but a consequence of diminished American credibility and the inability to clearly define US foreign policy objectives.

With the Syrian red line, the lament for the ruin of American credibility is rife. See here, here, here, and here. Credibility has an unflattering history in American foreign policy. President Obama complained of the “fetish” for credibility and how it results in “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone.” In the most notorious example of credibility being pathological, the United States waged what most agree was a meaningless war in Vietnam largely to maintain credibility.

The United States is suffering from a lack of credibility amongst our South East Asian allies, but Syria is not the root cause. The academic literature points to states evaluating their opponents power and interests when judging the credibility of their statements. So backing down from a Middle East quagmire wouldn’t reduce the credibility of the United States in the Far East as the US doesn’t have any strategic or economic interest in the civil war. The lack of American credibility in the Far East results from our inability to clearly state our vision for the region and to successfully implement our stated policies.

Asia is on the cusp of a reorientation of the regional “rules” with a revisionist China offering the middle powers an alternative to the American lead order. What China proposes is something modeled on their past “Sinocentric” tribute system although updated to include modern intuitions such as international financial banks and foreign direct investment. China has the final say on non-domestic regional politics and will not limit its use of power and economic leverage against those who disagree. An obvious example is China’s behavior in the South China Sea. But members of the China led order are offered a deep respect for state sovereignty and China wouldn’t take issue with the tactics used in the drug war of a neighbor. The American order is just the opposite. The United States will largely refrain from great power politics with the regional players yet will involve itself in their domestic matters from time to time. This approach takes shape as a hub and spoke alliance network and multilateral trade agreements. Increasingly, the middle powers are being pressured to choose which camp they are in, the separation being one example of a regional actor defecting from the US.

Why did the Philippines separate from the US? The vital element of the American order is whether or not the region thinks the US staying power is reliable. China does not need to convince any of the regional actors that China is not going anywhere. America does and American credibility for remaining committed to the region is suspect. The sources for the lack for credibility are varied including the failure of congress to approve TPP, the republican nomination of someone who openly complains and questions the wisdom of our regional alliances and the Obama doctrine itself. There never appeared to be any organizing principle of the Obama doctrine but series of ad hoc and inconsistent policy prescriptions. The signature Obama policy in Asia is the pivot which is itself contradictory, attempting to both economically engage China yet militarily contain them. Most actors are left wondering what exactly the US intends for the region and how committed they are towards pursuing whatever goals those are. It’s clear that China’s rise alarms the region and that most members prefer the benign hegemony of America to the great power politics of China. But with the staying power of the US questionable combined with the perception that the Untied States is a declining power, it isn’t surprising that Duterte would take advantage of the political leverage created by the recent diplomatic row with President Obama to bandwagon with China.

Syria and mission creep.

During the third presidential debate, the probable 45th president has confirmed her support for a no fly zone (NFZ) in Syria. Calls for a NFZ are mostly driven by humanitarian reasons. The vivid imagery of Syrian suffering pressures the west to respond and a NFZ is a way for the United States to address this suffering while minimizing risk. The problem is that the NFZ is a policy proposal that doesn’t match the facts on the ground and will most probably result in mission creep.

Mission creep is the tendency of small scale interventions to incrementally expand into more ambitious projects. The term was originally coined by Jim Hoagland when describing US involvement in Somalia. What started off as a humanitarian mission in a failed state was modified into a police action against a local warlord. The consequence was the death of 18 American soldiers and approximately 200 Somalis.

How does this apply to a NFZ in Syria? A NFZ would fail to properly address the civilian casualties in Syria and would lead to a demand for either a safe zone or result in a dent in American credibility. A NFZ is just what it says. It’s airspace that is patrolled by the west to prevent belligerent parties from entering with their aircraft. Note that a NFZ is conceptually different from a safe zone as a NFZ does not address conflict on the ground. Because the demand for a no fly zone is driven by concerns over civilian casualties, it’s important that a NFZ properly address the cause of these causalities. Unfortunately a NFZ in Syria does not and this is confirmed by the data.

Finding reliable and current casualty rates of Syrian civilians is difficult to attain. Finding how they were killed is even more difficult. Violations Documentation Center (VDC) is the only source I know of that produces data on the number and method of civilian casualties but they do not publish regularly. In September of 2015 the NYT published VDC data which noted that of the 85,404 civilians casualties they were able to record, approximately a fifth were from Syrian aerial bombings. Their most current report is part of their monthly series (which is also not published regularly) which reports that for August 2016, 39 percent of the 1,737 civilians deaths were from aerial or barrel bomb attacks. An increase but most probable from the involvement of Russia and I would assume that most of these deaths are in Aleppo which would not be included in any proposed NFZ.

What does this have to do with mission creep? Everything as the policy prescription does not match the reality on the ground. As noted, most civilian casualties of the Syrian conflict are not the result of aerial bombardments but from sources other than Russian and Syrian aircraft. Additionally, most aerial attacks are in areas that would never be plausibly included in a NFZ. But even if a NFZ were to reduce civilian deaths from Syrian and Russian aircraft, overall civilian casualties may not significantly drop as the Syrian government could substitute tactics and rely less on aerial attacks and more on mortar and artillery. What is to stop renewed demands to address the civilian casualties that continue after the NFZ is erected? What do we expect the US response to be to ground conflict between the multiple belligerents occurring inside the NFZ? What would happen if a Russian aircraft entered into the NFZ? These are all questions that have not been discussed at this point and all are plausibly answered by some form of mission creep. A NFZ only serves to deepen the United States into a conflict by way of an inappropriate policy. It is deeply unfortunate but the truth is Syria has no strategic or economic (oil) value to justify American use of force in the area. If the aim of the NFZ is to save Syrian civilians, the most obvious solution would be to have some sort policy which allows for the resettlement of refugees. Such a policy would be politically difficult, especially in the age of heightened demographic anxiety, but would directly address the tragedy of civilians being caught in the middle of a civil war.