Jeffery Sachs on American involvement in Syria

America’s official narrative has sought to conceal the scale and calamitous consequences of US efforts – in defiance of international law and the UN Charter – to overthrow Assad. While the US vehemently complains about Russian and Iranian influence in Syria, America and its allies have repeatedly violated Syrian sovereignty. The US government mischaracterizes the war as a civil war among Syrians, rather than a proxy war involving the US, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar.

The blob is strong. So strong that a man who for the past 15 years has complained of regime change and nation building can’t resist the temptation to make semi-permeant American troops in Syria.

You care read the rest here.

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.

Graham Allison on the clash of civilizations

The impending clash between America and China that is. It seems that what separates China and American (culture) and what they have in common (a superiority complex and obsession to be number one) all lead to war. 

I’m more optimistic, but what is laid out in the article is compelling.

Here is one bit regarding the Chinese view on America’s most prized export.

 

For Americans, democracy is the only just form of government: authorities derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed. That is not the prevailing view in China, where it is common to believe that the government earns or losses political legitimacy based on its performance. In a provocative TED Talk delivered in 2013, the Shanghai-based venture capitalist Eric Lichallenged democracy’s presumed superiority. “I was asked once, ‘The party wasn’t voted in by election. Where is the source of legitimacy?’” he recounted. “I said, ‘How about competency?’” He went on to remind his audience that in 1949, when the Chinese Community Party took power, “China was mired in civil war, dismembered by foreign aggression, [and] average life expectancy at that time [was] 41 years. Today [China] is the second-largest economy in the world, an industrial powerhouse, and its people live in increasing prosperity.”

Highly recommended you read all of it which can be found here.

North Korea is not a state sponsor of terrorism.

To put NK back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism is to continue the tendency of the US to deem all undesirable behavior as terroristic. It turns the word into a political tool and divorced from reality.  Terrorism is a serious issue and should be taken seriously, but not all violence, or in the situation of NK, diplomatic disagreements, fall under the umbrella of terrorism. To use the term in such a sloppy and haphazard ways only serves to make the term in the long run meaningless and to further chart a path for the central government accumulating more power.

For a good write up regarding NK and terrorism, see Micah Zenko’s 2014 writing in Foreign Policy.

 

The Uncounted.

The NYT pushes back against claims that the air attacks against ISIS had minimal civilian casualties.

From their investigative reporting they states…

“We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history. Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes… remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.”

An obvious way to shift the burden of managing China’s rise.

Good and brief discussion of the Quad written in the South China Morning Post today.

Proposed in 2007 by Japan, the Quad would consist of Japan, Australia, India and the United States.

The proposed alliance (which arguable already exists) is more than capable of confronting China if need be. Collectively they represent approximalty 25 percent of the worlds population (compared to 18.6 percent for China) and approximately 36 percent of the worlds GDP (compared to 15 percent of China).

There would be possible shrieking but there are strong incentives to cooperate on such a self-interested task. For one, all 4 have comparable ideologies and political systems. But 2, and most importantly, all 4 own genuine interests in shaping the rise of China.

Instead of being the dominant player, the self anointed leader of the free world should pursue a more distributive role and allocate more responsibility to its regional allies.

 

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.

Good overview of the diplomatic nuances of the North Korea situation.

Here is one bit.

Number three, we have to work as closely as we possibly can with China in particular to work toward more of a coordinated strategy. The game we have played with China, and that China plays with us, is that we always tell China, “You could bring these guys to heel; if you really, really wanted to do it, you could.” The Chinese will say, “You Americans, you’re the threat to them,” and so on. We blame one another — that creates running room for North Korea.

You can read the rest here.

Forget Diplomacy With North Korea if Trump Decertifies the Iran Deal

While the deal with Iran is not directly tied to any prospective talks with North Korea, how the administration handles the Iran deal will set the broader environment for any talks with North Korea. On a basic level, it will signal that the United States is not a reliable negotiating partner. The United States would not be abrogating the agreement with Iran because Tehran was not living up to its end of the agreement, but rather because the United States was not satisfied with Iran’s policies on other matters that were not related to JCPOA. Instead of choosing to engage Iran to resolve concerns over the regime’s support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, the release of Americans in Iranian prisons, and its ballistic missile program, the United States would be leveraging the current deal to resolve these issues.

You can read the rest here.

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.