Accident or Provocation?

May 27, 2009

This NY Times story about the political turning point that came in 1967 raises some very interesting questions.  The shooting of an unarmed demonstrator by a West German police officer energized the European left, especially in Germany, and led eventually to the movement that shifted German politics from a conservative to a progressive stance.  Now, it turns out, the cop (who was acquitted of manslaughter charges and returned to duty) was in fact a sleeper agent for the East German Stasi.

There’s no evidence at this point that the shooting was intentional, or ordered by the East German government.  And it’s certainly the case that a not-insignificant percentage of West Germans had been recruited by Stasi.  Perhaps it was simply a case of an accidental shooting which happened to be committed by a Stasi agent.

However, the public exposure of the officer’s loyalties (for which he is reportedly unapologetic) have caused Germans to rethink the events the propelled the Bonn government to adopt the more leftist, progressive approach for which they are known today.  One wonders if, as seems possible, the shooting was a deliberate act by the Stasi to destablize West Germany.  If so, it would represent the single most efficient operation to effect a political reorientation in history.  One bullet, one life, no blowback, and a seismic shift in West German political attitudes (and by extension, European political attitudes).  Pretty slick.

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What’s So Civil About War Anyway?

May 24, 2009

Those of you who know me know that I am addicted to the near-constant stream of information I receive over the internet.  Fortunately, here in Afghanistan I’ve had some small degree of luck in finding and maintaining a proper connection, so I’m able to feed my habit without undue frustration.

One of the primary sources of daily information is the New York Times, despite it’s less-than-sterling reputation for tilting slightly to the left.  The “Grey Lady” still has one of the best foreign desks in the business (sorry BBC, you guys pretty much suck), and their correspondents based in places like Kabul and Baghdad are the elite of the journalism world.  Dexter Filkins and C.J. Chivers pop to mind, but there are many others of note as well.

In addition to robust foreign coverage, the New York Times has not forgotten that one of the primary strengths of a daily newspaper is in it’s ability to properly and exhaustively analyze stories, rather than just report them.  Any schmuck can get a quote at a press conference in Kabul; the trick is to put that quote into context and provide the analysis that makes it meaningful and useful.

Anyway, that’s enough of a hagiography for the NYT.  the point of all this is to direct you to an interesting little piece by Graham Bowley about the nature and duration of civil wars.  In it, Bowley asks the questions, “How long do most civil wars last? What is a civil war, anyway? And how, finally, are they ended?”

The answer to the question of duration, Bowley mentions the usual suspects, including the overlooked “time consistency problem” favored by classically trained economists.  However, the key point (at least as it applies to the ongoing conflict here in Afghanistan) is probably the evolution of self-interest among combatants.  Basically, the bad guys fight for so long that they become more interested in maintaining their existence as a cohesive organization than in finding an actual settlement, largely because the of funding and financial incentives that go along with it. (Think Taliban and the opium trade).

Note that in this one short piece, Bowley manages to include quotes from Max Boot, Paul Collier, Simon Schama and Edward Luttwak.  That’s a pretty impressive source list for a throwaway piece on the civil war without any direct reference to ongoing stories.

And by the way, I nominate Luttwak’s phrase “congealed war” as a worthy successor the often mis-used (and always overused) standby “frozen conflict.”  There’s just something more poetic about the idea of wars congealing rather than freezing over.


First World – Third World

May 22, 2009

I don’t generally have a great deal of affection for international aid workers, especially when they’re drawn from the ranks of the development programs at prestigious Western universities.  Too much academic nonsense and fruitless research, and not enough actual development work.

That’s why this guest post by Jeffrey Barnes (a self-described “veteran aid worker”) on William Easterly’s blog was particularly troubling for me.  Barnes describes a typical day working in Lagos, Nigeria, and discusses the oddities of moving rapidly from what he calls the World One (international flights, four-star hotels) to World Three (local government bureaucracies), with a brief sojourn through World Two (actual poor people).

As Barnes writes at the conclusion of his post:

Can we international travelers of World One really make the comfortable bureaucrats of World Three more responsive to the struggling masses of World Two?

Um…..I’m not sure, but might it be a good start if we stop talking about “capacity-building” and “team building exercises” for bureaucrats?  How about starting a business that actually provides, you know, jobs?


An Unlikely Leader

May 16, 2009

Once again I’m drifting slightly from this blog’s stated purpose, but I decided it was worth noting an interesting book review from today’s online edition of the NYTimes.  The review, written by Helene Cooper, is of the new memoirs of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia.  The book is entitled This Child Will be Great.

I generally don’t care for memoirs or biographies, as they by definition focus on one person for a great length of time and I find it difficult to maintain interest in any but the most fascinating of people.  For the record, I haven’t read this book yet (not many bookstores here in Kabul), but I intend to at the first opportunity.  I have been a fan of Johnson-Sirleaf since her election as president of Liberia and have followed her impressive career as closely as one can without ever setting foot in West Africa.

That said, the tone and style of Cooper’s review is disturbing to say the least.  The opening paragraph reads more like a feminist rant than a book review.  Consider:

In November 2005, Liberian women strapped their babies on their backs and flocked to voting tables all across their war-racked country to elect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Africa’s first female president. It was a seminal moment in the political history of not just Liberia but the entire continent, where patriarchal rule has long dominated, leaving African women on the sidelines to fetch water, carry logs, tend farms, sell market wares and bear the children of their rapists, while their menfolk launched one pointless war after another.

Note that, according to Cooper, one could draw the conclusion that no children are born in Africa without the occurence of rape.  Note also that Africa’s wars are apparently all “pointless,” a fact which is undoubtedly lost on those who instigated or participated in them.  While it is true that Africans in general, and Liberians in particular, have suffered a long series of brutal and often inconclusive wars, I don’t think that those fighting and dying in them, on whatever side, would consider them “pointless.”  Cooper makes it sound as if a bunch of bored African men just randomly decide to go out and kill each other for lack of something better to do.  The myriad causes of African conflicts, just and unjust, deserve better explanation than that, even in the context of a book review.

Later, Cooper describes Johnson Sirleaf as “the heiress to this line of long-suffering yet rock-strong women.”  

“Rock-strong?”  How did she come up with that overblown metaphor?  Has funding dropped so much at the NYTimes that they no longer supply a thesaurus to their writers?

Cooper also refers to the other leaders of Liberia, rebel and legitimate alike, variously as “madmen” or “lunatics.”  Liberia has had it’s share of brutal dictators, even more brutal rebels and assorted violent warlords.  They were not however,  all crazy.  In fact, most acted out of misguided but nevertheless real grievances against other tribes or the political leadership.  Their tactics and methods may appear reprehensible and indeed incomprehensible to a NYT writer who lives in D.C. but they were based on actual events and perceived injustices, not mental deficiency.

Cooper is no Africa expert (neither am I).  In fact, she’s the White House correspondent for the Times.  I wonder if President Obama will read this review and quietly pull Helene aside to ask if, in her opinion, all African men are lunatic murderers.


Mortgage Trouble

May 15, 2009

Completely off-topic for a blog about security issues and international relations, but nevertheless an interesting and tragi-comic story about how a senior economics journalist (at the NYT no less) gets into trouble with his mortgage and watches his personal finances collapse.

Made even more poignant by the fact that he’s completely candid about the decisions and the circumstances that led to the trouble, even going into detail on the effect it had on his mental state and his marriage.  Having previously worked in the real estate/mortgage industry (in what seems like another life now), and having had a no-doc, no income verification mortgage myself, I can relate to his difficulties.  I also remember being stunned that Washington Mutual would throw so much money at a guy like me, seemingly without asking the most basic of questions.  Fortunately, life’s circumstances got me out of that mortgage before it ruined me.  Unfortunately, I had to leave behind a lot of other good things at the same time.

Anyway, it’s a good article, worth reading even if you’ve never experienced the kind of troubles he’s talking about.

One question though: is it possible that one reason US newspapers are in such financial trouble because they’re paying their reporters $120,000 a year?


Chicken and the Egg

May 13, 2009

Stephen Walt has a compelling new article up on his Foreign Policy blog here.  In it, he discusses the various explanations for why the U.S. spends so much more than everyone else on defense, and is much more deeply involved in more parts of the world than any other nation.

Walt covers all the traditional IR bases here, including hegemonic stability theory, liberal internationalism and realist/structuralist balance of power theory.  All offer plausible explanations and, as Walt points out, all are probably at least partly responsible for the imbalance between the U.S. and everyone else in international relations.

But then he adds another factor which I admit I had not considered.  Walt posits that one of the hidden reasons for the history of activist U.S. interventionism (including the miltary kind) is that there are a host of powerful institutional interests in the U.S. that encourage that type of behavior.  He provides a laundry-list of such institutions, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Foreign Policy Association, various think-tanks like Brookings and AEI, and even some elite policy schools like Johns Hopkins and the Kennedy School at Harvard. 

While he is careful to point out that each of these institutions has their own agenda and policy prescriptions, the fact is that the vast majority of policy-makers, pundits and IR thinkers in the U.S. have a basically activist (i.e. anti-isolationist) approach.  They don’t agree on what should be done, but they all agree that something must be done.  There are comparitively few institutions (like the Cato Institute) that take a consistently minimalist or isolationist approach.  Thus, regardless of the specific policy proposals, the momentum is usually towards more action rather than less.

Walt effectively turns the role of foreign policy community on it’s head.  It’s not that all of these institutions exist because we have an activist foreign policy; it’s that we have an activist foreign policy as a result of the existence of these institutions.

As always, I’m sure that their are valid and convincing arguments against this theory, but the basic cognitive dissonance of it appeals to me.  Someone with a better grasp of structuralism or functionalism theory should take a close look at this idea.


The End?

May 12, 2009

My good friend Martin has a post up at his blog The National Pundit discussing the recently-declared end of the war in Chechnya.  He seems a little dubious, to say the least, that the end has actually come.  Admittedly, any announcement by Moscow these days has to be taken with a grain of salt.  However, I’m inclined to believe that they mean what they say here.

Martin’s view is that the internal politics of Chechnya are too unstable to keep the various rebel groups passive for long, and that as soon as Moscow’s hand-picked strongman is no longer in charge the countryside will revert back to its rebellious ways.

He may be right about that, but I suspect he is missing a key factor.  Americans (and their British allies) have gotten some very tough lessons in the difficulties of counterinsurgency warfare in the last eight years.  Irregular warfare amidst an indifferent or hostile population is extremely difficult, both in a tactical/operational and strategic/political sense.  The experience would make one justifiably wary of future COIN campaigns and highly aware of the difficulties of subduing a hostile population.

However, these are lessons that the Russians never learned…..by choice.  The Russian approach to counterinsurgency in Chechnya is fundamentally different than anything the West would consider acceptable practice.  It bears more resemblance to the classic campaigns of Attila the Hun and Geghis Khan than the modern US Army.  Liberal use of artillery of major population centers, indiscriminate airstrikes on anything that moves, the razing of entire villages and a brutal suppression of civilians, under the theory that they are no more than would-be collaborators, all are standard operational practice for the Russian Army.

To use the old Maoist example, insurgents are the fish that swim in the sea of people.  Advanced COIN theory holds that the trick is to identify the fish and then attempt to separate them from the sea.  Get the fish, leave the water.  The Russians, on the other hand, simply choose to drain the ocean and watch the fish flop around until they die.  Witness what happened the last time Chechnya rose in revolt.  Grozny became a ghost-town, the victim of the only sustained heavy shelling of an urban area since 1945.  Those who fled to the villages found themselves trapped by Russian mechanized infantry who did not attempt to discriminate between civilian and insurgent.  Numerous towns were emptied and leveled, thousands of people were arrested, interrogated and eliminated, and the remaining rebels fled to the mountains and laid low.  Chechnya wasn’t “pacified.”  It was depopulated.

There are still Chechens in Afghanistan who came here as jihadists and never went home.  A few, including a couple of the guys on my staff, are former mujaheddin who no longer believe in the Islamic cause but are nevertheless unwilling to return to Chechnya.  The reason is simple.  There’s nothing left.  When Afghanistan is preferable to home, that doesn’t say much about home.

There will certainly be a flare-up of violence in Chechnya at some point.  The remaining rebels will come down from the mountains and the Russians will chase them back up.  But the war, in any meaningful sense of the term, is over.  It has been since Grozny burned in 2000.

On a side note, keep your eye on Martin Knapp.  He and I don’t always agree on policy (I make a point not to argue with him on IR theory), but he’s wicked smart and heading to join the DC policy establishment in the near future.  I expect great things.  Or maybe a nasty scandal.  Either way, it’ll be entertaining.