Fear and Saudi Reform

Walter Russell Mead writes

So what is behind the new Saudi activism? Fear. It’s an emotion that comes naturally to an oil-rich kingdom with a relatively small population in a neighborhood full of predatory rivals. For years fear made the Saudis cautious, since they felt they could take shelter behind a strong and confident America. Now they aren’t so sure.

There is more here.

The Middle East will have the most interesting politics of any region in the near future. The piece doesn’t even mention the Arab Spring.

America is treating Iran “disgracefully”

The language is over the top but Ryan Cooper as a good point when he writes

Whatever Iran has done, when it comes to arming and supporting morally odious nations and factions in the Middle East, the United States simply doesn’t have a leg to stand on. And now we have elected President Donald Trump — our very own Ahmadinejad, except more inept. Worse still, many of the economic benefits for Iran predicted by the nuclear deal have failed to materialize, in part due to business worries that American hardliners will clamp down again.

 

Remarkably, the Iranian public did not respond to these developments by electing their own conservative hardliner in the May elections this year. On the contrary, they returned Rouhani to office again — and by a larger margin than his first term. It’s a triumph of willful optimism.

I think May 19, 2017 should be a viewed by Trump administration as a confidence building measure. Rouhani is a moderate. I’m aware that term isn’t all the meaningful when compared to the ranting clerics of Iran, but this election was a choice between a moderate path towards reconciliation or rigid ideogloy. Plus, he does have an Instagram. The Iranian populace is largely moderate and are becoming less thrilled with the ruling clerical regime. year by year. The governing grip of the religious body just seems to get weaker and weaker with each generation and the United States should be start preparing the groundwork for when the distribution of political power favors the moderate masses and not the religious nuts currently in charge.

Why Is the U.S. Killing So Many Civilians in Syria and Iraq?

That is the title of a NYT Op-Ed today.

Here is the second half of the piece, noting that there are low hanging fruit in reducing these tragically high numbers.

One reason for the huge increase in noncombatant deaths is that the United States is dropping more bombs — a more than 20 percent increase from the last four months of the Obama presidency to the first four under Mr. Trump.

Also, more strikes have occurred in populated areas, like Mosul, the Islamic State’s last stronghold in Iraq. A 500-pound bomb aimed at two snipers there detonated stored explosives, which collapsed a building and killed 105 Iraqi civilians on March 17, according to Centcom. Since the Islamic State is using residential buildings as command posts, storage depots and fighting positions, noncombatant deaths are more likely.

Yet far more troubling factors have emerged.

Even as the American military has accelerated its bombing, there is no independent assessment of the intelligence used to identify targets. Brig. Gen. Richard Coe, who investigated a mistaken attack on a Syrian military convoy in September, acknowledged that there was no “red team” to critique the decision-making process, a common approach in many commands. “Each person is expected to do that on their own,” General Coe said, “and then, in the process, funnel up the pros and cons to decision makers.” Individuals immersed in identifying enemy targets cannot simultaneously evaluate their own judgments.

Until June 13, the American military had only two people investigating Iraqi and Syrian civilian casualties full time. There now are seven full-time investigators, still a meager commitment given that around 10,000 troops are stationed in Qatar at the command’s headquarters for the air war. A dozen people investigated such claims at the height of the Afghanistan surge in 2011. If the military were concerned about civilian deaths, more investigators with training and experience in targeting would be assigned to those teams.

There is also no longer any public accountability. On May 26, an American military press officer confirmed that the Pentagon will no longer acknowledge when its own aircraft are responsible for civilian casualty incidents; rather they will be hidden under the umbrella of the “coalition.” The United States military has been responsible for 95 percent of airstrikes in Syria and 68 percent in Iraq. Centcom should own up to its own actions rather than dispersing responsibility.

 

Congress has shown little interest in identifying the root causes of civilian deaths, holding commanders or lower-level officers accountable, or ensuring that the lessons learned from mistaken strikes are integrated into future operations. Congress could exercise its oversight role by mandating Pentagon reporting about what steps it has taken to mitigate civilian harm, funding additional awareness training for American and other coalition officers, and holding public hearings with senior civilian and military officials.

Since the air war began some 22,000 airstrikes ago, military officials have repeatedly claimed that they “do everything possible” to protect civilians. Making good on that promise is not only the right thing to do — it is also strategically vital to the longer-term effectiveness of the fight against terrorism.

Afghanistan: It’s Too Late

That is from the New York Review of Books

 

When Donald Trump’s secretary of defense, James Mattis, was called before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week to testify about the conflict in Afghanistan, he was unusually blunt: “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,” he said. The Taliban have been on a dramatic offensive, he acknowledged, the security situation continues to deteriorate, and the Afghan government holds considerably less territory than it did a year ago. In other words, prospects for any sort of positive outcome are as remote as they have been in this sixteen-year war—the longest war in American history.

 

Yet Trump—and Mattis’s—solution to this unwinnable war seems to be once again to send more troops. On Tuesday, Trump announced that the military itself would be given full authority to decide how many troops it needs. (By leaving all decisions in the hands of the military, he has abandoned the usual inter-agency consultations, especially with the State Department.) And Mattis is talking about a review to be completed in July that could add as many as 5,000 troops. It may be too late.

 

What follows is a convincing laundry list of obstacles to the American mission of state building in Afghanistan.

You can read the rest here.

Europe may no longer be able to rely on the US for defense against Russia. Here are its options

This is at Quartz.

Options discussed include

  1. European Army
  2. Increase spending and pool resources
  3. “Get good at what’s actually possible without the US”
  4. Convince the US it needs Europe
  5. “Don’t do anything drastic”

The issue with NATO isn’t that the allies are free riding. Don’t get me wrong, NATO is “welfare for the rich” and its utterly stupid that Americans are arguably paying more for European security than Europeans do, but to me the issue is that the alliance has been extended into areas into territories that produce the security dilemma from a Russian perspective.

Taking political stock of the past 18 months, It is becoming clear that 1) the original NATO is becoming more essential than we realized and 2) it needs the United States to lead. There is too much latent populism and nationalism on the continent to let Germany rise without some sort of outside check to manage it. And frankly, NATO can’t survive without the United States. You have clear evidence of shrieking now. If the United States were to transfer power to NATO and the alliance was actually somehow needed, why would we assume buckpassing wouldn’t emerge as the dominant response?

China as a Rising Power Versus the US-led World Order

That is the title of Suisheng Zhao’s short but informative piece.

Here is the abstract.

Although a rising China is not a status quo power content to preserve and emplace the US-led world order, it is not yet a revolutionary power discontented with and willing to undermine the existing order. Not only is China far from the position to overtake the US power, it has not articulated distinctive values to underwrite the world order. China is a reformist/revisionist power, dissatis ed not with the current order but its position in the order.

You can read the rest here.

On a different yet related note, in Zhao’s footnotes I was directed to David Cowhig’s Translation Blog, a translation blog from Chinese to English or what looks like mainland publications. Very much appreciated service and a Web site I expect to consult often.

Why does Trump prefer Dictatorships over Democracies?

Lots to disagree with this post from the American Prospect but here is one bit that I found interesting

 

What Trump clearly admires is a nation where the top guy, or guys, can give a clear yes or no, and that’s all it takes to make things happen. Indeed, he’d clearly like to get away with that here in the Good Old U.S.A., but those damn laws, agencies, checks, and balances all get in the way. He fires James Comey, and still the FBI continues its investigation. That’s not how they do it, apparently, in Dubai, or Saudi Arabia, or the Philippines, or Russia.

 

Which brings us to the third tendency shaping Trump’s foreign policy: his preference for autocracy over democracy. He admires strong men and tin-pot dictators in countries where those men (and they are always men) can declare, l’état, c’est moiThey can be illiberal democrats, like Hungary’s Victor Orban; monarchs, like the sultans of the oil emirates; or plain autocrats, like Putin. The key is that they are unconstrained by opposition, minority rights, or democratic obligations; their will is law. That’s why the eroding democracies of Eastern and Central Europe like Hungary and Poland appeal to him more than the established democracies of Western Europe that have been traditional U.S. allies

Hegemony with Chinese Characteristics.

I argue that these conclusions are premature. China’s grand strategy is clearly aimed at supplanting the United States as the dominant military power in East Asia. But this alone does not mean that Chinese and American interests are incompatible. The real question is what China plans to do with its emerging regional preponderance.

 

Would China use its hegemony to maintain an economically open, institutionalized, and rule-based regional order, even if one that is tilted in its own favor? Or would it seek to fundamentally overthrow these decades-old rules and norms in ways that effectively exclude outside economic engagement and threaten the territorial integrity of America’s regional allies?

 

If the latter, then the costs and risks of a more confrontational policy of “containing” China’s rise may be justified. If the former, then Chinese regional hegemony is perfectly compatible with America’s substantive interests, and may even help reduce the burden of the United States’ expansive global commitments. To date, there are surprisingly few indications that a Chinese-led regional order would be antithetical to core American interests in the region.

The author is Kyle Haynes and you can read the full version at the Diplomat.

My only disagreement with the piece is that he implies that Taiwan is an American core interest. It is not and the balance of interest is vastly in favor of China on this interest.

I second Edelman and Tahiroglu’s suggestion to call Turkey’s bluff.

 

They have a piece in Commentary discussing the increasingly frayed relationship between Turkey and the United States.

They write

“Thursday’s NATO Summit provides an opportunity for the alliance to get tough on its putative Turkish ally. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s destabilizing policies in Europe and the Middle East have made it appear less an ally and more a Russian Trojan horse. To keep Turkey on track, NATO has been appeasing Erdogan, to no avail. Turkey’s recent “Eurasianist turn” and Erdogan’s now-constitutionalized one-man rule have only complicated the relationship. It is time for NATO to remind Erdogan that he needs the alliance just as much as NATO needs Turkey.”

The origins of the Turkish-American alliance are found in the same logic as most of the semi-permeant alliances formed after WWII. We wanted to contain the red menace. This was particular important for Turkey as Russia was, and probably still is, Ankara’s main antagonist.

Akin Unver has two excellent pieces on Turkish-Russian animosity. Regarding Crimean, he writes

“Some have argued that marching on Crimea was a last-gasp effort by Putin to save his fragile rule. But from the Turkish perspective, Russia’s invasion of Crimea fits a 340-year pattern. First, some military historians believe, Russia tends to expand when all of its neighbors are weak and unable to respond. Second, domination of the Black Sea is usually a shot across the bow; it presages further interventions. Third, Black Sea domination has inevitably required a revisionist stance on the status of the Bosporus strait, because patrolling Russian ships can only move down into the Mediterranean through that single bottleneck…:”

In a different piece, he writes

“In the last centuries, Turkey has suffered greatly whenever Russia is on the rise. During the Crimean War, World War I, and the Cold War, it has tried to protect itself through Western alliances. Today, Russian resurgence threatens again.”

Highly recommend you read both pieces if you want good historical perspective of Russian-turkish relations.

But what do we get in return for protecting Turkish sovereignty?

For starters, the president has helped inflame populist sentiment across Europe.

He also orders his cronies to physically assault American citizens exercising their civil liberties in America.

He calls emergency NATO meetings when Turkey shots down Russian aircraft.

And he even frustrates our attempts to defeat ISIS.

Just like any other alliance, this one has become semi-permanent and needs to be reevaluated. We get access to an airbase that probably leads to adventurism in the Middle East. Thats about it.

With the exception of Ukraine itself, no other country should be more alarmed by Crimea than Turkey, yet Turkish leadership behavior has only gotten more brazen.

 

Do we want China to reform?

Moody’s recently downgraded China sovereign debt, a move which was probably overdue.

The article I link to writes that China “has 70 percent more money sloshing around its economy than the United States does, even though the American economy is bigger.”

As well, “More than half of the bank debt in China consists of loans from state-owned banks to state-owned enterprises.”

This isn’t sustainable and is only one aspect of the fragility of the Chinese economy. Other  issues include rising labor costs (making it increasingly difficult to rely on their workhorse model of exporting labor intensive goods), overcapacity, and a still sizeable amount of party corruption.

All of this suggests that China is headed towards an economic crash.

From a security perspective, most analysis I read imply that it is in American interest for the Chinese to reform their economy. The general line of thought is that Chinese economic reforms will help avoid a future economic crash that leads to some sort of nationalist inspired confrontation between China and the regional players (either America or our allies). Yet from a security perspective, if economic power is the best indicator of state power and China is indeed the next and most probable serious contender to America regional hegemony, it’s not clear that America would want China to reform.

For one, all major wars have been the result of an emerging power seeking to reorder its neighborhood to its likening. From Athens and Sparta to Nazi Germany and Europe, the wars that define eras are from not from the emerging powers stagnating but from emerging powers continued rise.

But two, the biggest geopolitical beneficiary of the American financial crisis of 08 was arguable China. It not only gained persuasive power for its style of politics, but from a pure relative power perspective, 2008 was a blessing to China.

Below are IMF data for the GDP based on purchasing-power-parity (PPP) share of world total expressed in percent of world GDP in PPP dollars. This is obviously crude and it’s difficult to know how much of the Chinese growth captured by the data is genuine but the chart is still informative.

 

You can find the data here.