With everything going on with Syria and ISIS these days, you would think I’d be eager to offer my solutions to the problems facing the Middle East and, now, after the tragic events of the last couple weeks, the West. After all, there is no shortage of commentators and politicians offering up their recipes for combating ISIS –everything from “bomb the hell out of them” to vague pleas for multilateral partnerships that will somehow save the day.
Sadly, there are no easy plans for combating ISIS that don’t involve major drawbacks. If we were to invade like we did in Iraq, the outcome would likely turn out poorly. If we do little as we did in Afghanistan in the nineties, then the outcome likely turns out poorly. If we support the Kurds, Turkey objects. If we stopped opposing the Syrian government, which is politically impossible anyway, we’d lose the limited cooperation offered by the Saudis and the Turks. We try to create our own militias, and they end up disappearing or cooperating with al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian proxy. Finding a recipe to the ISIS and Syria problem is like finding a recipe for un-cooking an omelet.
The US administration’s slow-and-steady “just trust us” approach hasn’t convinced the majority of Americans. The administration is presumably hoping that if it wears down ISIS enough – hollows it out financially and militarily – that something good will happen. Presumably that something is an offensive by the Iraqi army, “friendly” rebel forces, and perhaps a spontaneous uprising within ISIS territory akin to the Iraq Awakening movements that turned the tide of the Iraq War. Then the remaining “good guys” of the Free Syrian Army will defeat or put enough pressure on the Assad government that its leadership steps down and the other Islamist forces battling the government agree to a negotiated settlement and democratic order. US policy is based on the hope that a lot of things will go right.
Russian policy is based less on luck and more on coldblooded pragmatism. The Russians view the re-assertion of control by the Syrian government over its territory as the best path to ending the violence. It might be sad that this would involve killing a lot of well-meaning insurgents and ensuring that Syria remains a dictatorship ruled by a minority group, but that’s the way it is. As horrible as the Assad government might be, the likely alternative, a government aligned with ISIS or Al Qaeda, is worse.
While all the regional players are primarily motivated by their ethno-sectarian affinities and fears, the American and Russian are the only coherent alternatives forward for the rest of the world. Which is the better path?
The Russian course is the one that is more likely to bring an end to the Syrian civil war and ISIS’s control over territory in the region. Their desire to apply the principle of Occam’s razor applies to a complex, multi-sided civil war may be distasteful, even tragic, but there’s an undeniable logic to it.
Outside powers might not like what the Russians are doing, which is why Turkey felt compelled to provoke a confrontation with them this past week, but there’s not much anyone can do to prevent the Russians from helping the Syrian government. In the end, the US is best to stay the course it’s on with ISIS, while continuing to help the Kurds and Iraqi government strengthen their capabilities to reestablish order in their own territories. At least that’s my best guess about one of the most complicated problems the world has faced in modern times.
I’m teaching my annual course on Research Methodology this semester, which probably sounds as dull as dirt to most people. What I do with the course, however, is not simply teach students where to look things up, but rather how to think critically (as well as I understand such a subjective term). This requires getting the students to unlearn a lot of what they learned about how to think and write. Mostly, they’ve learned a very lawyerly approach to knowledge in which all facts are somewhat subjective, cherry-picked quotations from authoritative “experts” make for good evidence, and making a convincing argument is more important than how the argument was derived in the first place (admittedly, this blog does those things as well). Most students leave college having learned this argument-in-search-of-evidence approach to thinking and learning, which is probably why some evidence suggests that higher education is not very good at teaching critical thinking. Some of those students will go on to be future leaders.
I, like many people, do not have the impression that most of our current leaders and would-be leaders are particularly good at thinking critically about the issues of the day. As it stands now, Donald Trump and Ben Carson lead the Republican field by a relatively large margin in polls, while Hillary Clinton holds a large lead over her only other viable competitor. Donald Trump may be seen as a consummate outsider and Clinton as a consummate insider, but their backgrounds in law and business are shared by about half of Congress. Carson, on the other hand, is one of a relatively small minority of doctors in Congress, who only make up approximately 5% of the combined House and Senate. It is worth asking, however, what being a businessman, doctor, or lawyer really brings to the table intellectually when it comes to whether these are the best backgrounds for our leaders.
Let’s start with the businessman. If you’re reading this blog, Donald Trump likely comes across to you as laughable, cringe-worthy, or somewhere in between. However, many people who support Trump would cite his experience in running businesses as a reasonable qualification for running a country. Aside from the question of whether Trump was actually a good businessman, would being one qualify someone to run the country. Perhaps when it comes to interpersonal skills the answer might be yes. However, if the question is whether business leaders necessarily understand macro-economics, the answer is clearly no. For a detailed explanation of why a company is not a country click here , but a lot of what it gets down to is that, as we witnessed in 2008, what might be in the individual self-interest of companies can turn out to be collectively disastrous. The problem, however, is not simply that Trump’s business experience would not necessarily translate into economic success. When he boasts that he will be “the greatest jobs President God has ever created,”, it’s not clear that Trump himself understands the limits of his background.
Which brings us to the doctor. Ben Carson arguably overestimates his own qualifications more than Trump. Since he was a neurosurgeon, many of his supporters undoubtedly think of him as a scientist as well. However, his pronouncements on issues from the big bang to evolution have, to say the least, raised a few eyebrows among actual scientists. The reason for this disconnect is that doctors are not, as a profession, scientists (although some do choose to pursue both routes) any more than construction workers are engineers. The practices and treatments underlying medicine are developed by scientists, but doctors are applied practitioners, not researchers, and thus are often unfamiliar with both the mindset and methods that scientists employ (this is especially true of areas outside of the health sciences, but often times even within. When I visited the neurosurgeon who once operated on my spinal cord, he told me he was afraid I would catch a cold because I had worn shorts to his office that day. He wasn’t kidding).
The large majority of doctors who are in Congress are Republicans. It is unlikely that very many of them understand how out of their element they are when discussing issues like climate change. Like Carson, most are simply ignorant of their ignorance, and yet venerated by many of those who elect and pay them to understand complicated issues.
So, what about lawyers – the single largest professional background of our national leaders? For reasons I started off discussing, I often suggest to my students that legal reasoning is pretty much the opposite of scientific reasoning. Does that mean Clinton is also unqualified to lead? Well, not necessarily. First, she hasn’t been a lawyer in a long time, and has had lots of time, as an insider, to learn valuable lessons about policy. Second, since lawyers don’t even claim to be scientists or economists, they are at least able to consider different claims and counterclaims with a more open-mind than someone who wrongly consider themselves experts on a subject.
Nevertheless, those with legal backgrounds in government almost certainly tend to base their judgments more on their political and personal biases than any deep understanding of the issues they consider – even when they end up on the right side of an issue.
If business leaders, doctors, and lawyers all have major shortcomings when it comes to handling the complex issues of the age, what professional backgrounds might be better off replacing some of their seats in government?
For starters, how about more actual scientists and economists? Out of 535 members of Congress, there are currently two natural scientists with higher level degrees and one economist. Let’s hope that the rest of Congress and the presidential candidates at least have a few actual experts cued up in their cell phones. Or better yet, is there still time for Neil Degrasse Tyson to throw his hat in the ring?
My research over this last summer took me to an interesting place for an international relations scholar. It took me to Texas. I didn’t literally travel to Texas, but surrounded myself with everything I could find about Texas in the 1830s and 1840s, a time when Texans (or Texians as they were originally called), fought for their independence from Mexico and their eventual incorporation into the United States.
The project originated with an invitation to speak on a panel next year that will be chaired by the well-known international relations scholar, John Mearsheimer, on the topic of Nationalism in International Relations, which just happens to be the name of my first book. In particular, I’ve been interested in how strongly one could draw parallels between Texas’ history and similar modern day separatist movements that have been encouraged by outside countries such as the events of eastern Ukraine and Russia’s involvement.
While drawing analogies is always a dubious business when thinking about international events, as a way of straightening out my thoughts before writing something more formal, allow me offer a few similarities and differences between Texas in the 1830’s. First the similarities:
1). Texans and Eastern Ukrainians both started their uprisings during times of transition in their homelands that provided both motivations and opportunities for separatism. For the Texans, it was Santa Anna invoking emergency powers under the Mexican Constitution of 1824 and using those powers to dissolve Parliament and state governments. This caused uprisings in several areas of Mexico besides Texas, and the Texans, who were appalled at the “absolutism” that had replaced fragile Mexican democracy, viewed the chaos as a limited window of opportunity.
For Ukrainians, the overthrow of the democratically-elected Russophile government of Viktor Yanokovich and the chaos and violence surrounding his ouster led to both the opportunity to take advantage of a near-collapsed state as well as fears that the new government would be antithetical to their interests as a people who identified heavily with Russia. Like Texans who likely viewed other revolutionary movements throughout Mexico as evidence justifying their cause, Eastern Ukrainians viewed celebrations of the ouster of Ukrainian authority in Crimea as an important inspiration.
2). Cultural “otherness” is important. The Texans of the 1830s had, for the most part, once been Americans, and still identified with the language, dominant Protestant religion, symbols, and culture of their former homeland. Although Mexican Tejanos fought alongside in roughly equal proportions with Anglos in Texas, the majority of Texans likely although considered themselves Americans first and foremost – and definitely not Mexican.
While Eastern Ukrainians were culturally much closer to other Ukrainians than Texans were to Mexicans, many speak Russian rather than Ukrainian, are associated with the Russian Orthodox rather than the Ukrainian Orthodox church, and, if they are older than 24, lived in the Russian-dominated Soviet Union. The cultural divide in Ukraine was reflected in earlier elections that continually saw a population divided as much by separate identity as much as separate interests.
3). People in the homeland care about the struggles of their ethnic “kin,” even if their governments are reticent. In the case of Texas revolution, the American government under Andrew Jackson was slow to act and never provided material support to the rebels. Partly this was because events unfolded so quickly in Texas, and it is hard to say what would have happened had events drawn out longer. Partly, however, it was because Jackson felt that it would have been “dishonorable” for the US to outright steal Texas from Mexico.
Nevertheless, across America, fundraising and volunteer drives were widespread and played a major role in providing the men and materials needed to field the various militias that took place in the Texas revolt. While the government felt constrained by international norms, the people of the US acted out of emotional ties to their former friends and neighbors in Texas.
In eastern Ukraine, the amount of involvement by the Russian government is still unclear. Just as Santa Anna accused the US government, rather than Texas settlers, as the main instigators of the Texas revolt, the Ukrainian government views Russia, rather than locals, as the main culprits in the Ukrainian war. Nevertheless, the extent of Russian involvement will only be learned in years to come.
Undoubtedly, however, Russian citizens, by admission of the Russian government, have left Russia in significant numbers to go fight for the people of eastern Ukraine. It might be that the Russian government has offered significant covert support to rebels in Ukraine, but the alternative, that most of the Russians there lack official support, is also plausible.
4). Realpolitik matters. The international stakes for the Western Hemisphere were high during the fight over Mexico, which dragged on as a semi- “frozen conflict” for nine more years after the Texans decisive battle as San Jacinto. The US government was initially reticent to annex Texas, despite the pleas of Texans fearing for their continued independence, because it feared war with Mexico and even possibly Great Britain and (to a lesser degree) France. Just as NATO allies today fear an expansionist Russia, Great Britain, in particular, understandably viewed an expansionist America as a threat.
In the end, however, the stakes for Great Britain were not high enough that it was willing to take a firm stance in favor of Mexico, especially without French support. Ultimately, it was the US fears of Great Britain cozying up to Texas and using it as a strategic partner to undermine or even someday invade the United States that tipped the scales in favor of the US deciding to annex Texas.
For Russia, the salience of Ukraine is similar to that of Texas for the US after the Texans won independence. Just as trade agreements between the Texas Republic and Great Britain were seen by many Americans as a first step toward an imagined future when British troops would be marching again on New Orleans or British abolitionism would breed a slave revolt in the American South, the visceral Russian reaction to closer trade ties between Ukraine and the EU, which ultimately started the whole recent chain-of-events, was a product of past historical strategic vulnerability and domestic feelings of insecurity.
While other parallels exist, in the interest of space, let’s move on to some crucial differences between early Texas and present-day Ukraine.
1). Russia has acted more aggressively and faster, than the US government of the 1830s. While Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia of acting in a “19th century fashion” in Ukraine, it was actually the US government of the 1830s that exercised more restraint. Statements by Presidents Jackson and Van Buren indicated that they were keenly aware that the international community might not consider it acceptable if the US acted openly on Texas. While Putin at first tried to conceal Russian involvement in Crimea, and may be doing so now in Eastern Ukraine, the Russian government has been more than willing to weather international criticism and sanctions in order to pursue their agendas in the region.
2). Russians are far less divided on the justness of their irredentism than Americans were. Largely due to the divisive role of slavery in the United States, it took multiple votes and some legislative slight-of-hand to admit Texas to the union – and that by a mere two votes in the Senate. Russians, on the other hand, voted 443 to 1 to admit Crimea to the Russian Federation and, according to a Russian opinion poll, 65 percent support Russian volunteers in Eastern Ukraine.
3). Western opposition to independence in Eastern Ukraine is much stronger than British and French opposition to Texas independence. Modern day leaders and diplomats are less tolerant of any changes to borders than their 19th century counterparts, who were willing to offer recognition on a “de facto” basis. Even potentially friendly regions like Somaliland, which has had its own functioning government for decades, are shunned. Added to this is the affective dimension of Ukraine representing a David to the Russian goliath, and it’s pretty clear where the US and most other Western countries stand, if not necessarily the extent of their commitment to the Ukrainian government.
That leads us to the final part – if we’re to draw on the events of Texas as a guide, what should the US, and other Western countries do, and Ukraine do?
Probably the most important lesson from the Texas crisis of the 1830s and 1840s that might be drawn is that there is a whole lot more at stake than just the region in question. Had Mexico been willing to part with a relatively smaller amount of territory and offered recognition to the new Texas Republic, they might have avoided a much greater catastrophe later on when the US annexed about half its land later in the wake of the Mexican War (a war ignited over a dispute concerning the new Texas border).
Likewise, the threat to Ukraine is not that it will have to part ways with just a relatively small part of its territory eastern territory. The threat is that Ukraine will provide a justification to Russia to reclaim much more than just the currently disputed areas. Although maybe not the most likely scenario, policymakers seem to be ignoring the threat of Russian revanchism in the rest of Ukraine in favor of a narrative that has the Russians, emboldened by their efforts in Ukraine, turning their attention to the Baltic countries.
The Baltic countries are NATO allies, however, and that security commitment is almost certainly clear and strong enough to discourage Russian involvement. Ukraine, like Mexico of the 1830s and 1840s, however, has no clear alliance commitments, and is facing off with a rival that has clear military superiority. The only sensible course of action is to try to entice the rebellious populations of the east with offers of greater autonomy and decentralization, and, failing that, offer recognition to the new states of the eastern Ukraine. Guaranteeing their security would reduce the incentives that the new states would seek annexation with Russia and would enhance the security of the rest of Ukraine who could then get on with the business of working toward integration with the relatively peaceful and prosperous West.
Modern scholars of civil conflict would not actually label the conflict surrounding the US Declaration of Independence as a “revolution.” Rather, on July 4th, 1776, more or less, the United States seceded from the United Kingdom in an “extra-systemic” or “extra-state” conflict. As modern taxonomies suggest, at least, a revolutionary conflict is characterized by citizens attempting to overthrow rather than break away from their government. For example, while they may have been expressed similar values of equality and liberty, the French and American “revolutions” were very different in that the French revolutionaries sought the overthrow the French monarchy while Americans wanted to cut ties with the English government.
After our own war for secession, however, American support for other global secession movements has been inconsistent. While other leaders from Simon Bolivar to Ho Chi Minh have taken inspiration from the American example, the US government has often struggled to balance sympathetic affinities towards secessionists with state interests and a desire for regional stability.
When perceived US interests have dovetailed with those of would-be secessionists, it’s been much easier for US leaders to come out openly in favor of rebel groups and to extend recognition to newly formed states. Although (out of a prudent desire not to antagonize Spain) the US did not openly support Latin American independence movements, it was quick to recognize the newly formed Latin American states and even extend US protection to those states with the since-oft-maligned Monroe Doctrine – a policy that happily wedded US revolutionary identity with the strategic benefit of keeping the European powers at bay.
When secessionism found its way to Europe in the subsequent decades the US was in an even better position to express its identity, without having to worry as much about the diplomatic or strategic fallout. President Monroe expressed his open support for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, and later, in 1848, the Hungarian secessionist Lajos Kossuth, became a national hero in America for his efforts to break away from the Austrians.
Of course, when secessionism came to the United States, the federal government ultimately decided what had been justifiable for North Americans, Latin Americans, Texans, and oppressed European folk was not justifiable for white southerners. As was often the case to come, overriding strategic interest (in this case, preserving the country itself) was first rationalized, and then internalized, as the overriding moral imperative for northerners who, in many cases, may have spoken openly in favor of northern secession in earlier years.
After the civil war, the US government largely returned to positions that tacitly or overtly supported independence movements. Despite turning to imperialism itself in the Caribbean and Pacific, US support for the breakup of European empires continued unabated, culminating in Wilson’s 14 Points, which included provisions for the self-determination of peoples in the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, the adjustment of Italy’s borders along national lines, and the independence of Poland.
During the Second World War, FDR pressed Churchill, largely behind closed doors, for a postwar order that would invariably result in the end of European imperialism. While there were undoubtedly strong US interests in reworking the global economic order, FDR, according to his son Elliott’s memoirs, his father saw the plight of colonial societies as analogous to that of Americans during revolutionary times and the new Bretton Woods order as a way of promoting development among peoples locked within imperialist economic arrangements.
The Cold War and the newly established American hegemony, however, permanently changed US views toward secessionist movements. There were no more cases of far-away movements that Americans could speak of as “firing” their “soul” as John Adams once wrote Thomas Jefferson on the matter of Greek independence. Although the US put the stake in the British Empire during the Suez Crisis of 1956 and tepidly supported global decolonization, it also opposed the communist nationalists of Southeast Asia and sided with status quo powers in areas like Cyprus and East Timor. After the early sixties, perceived strategic imperatives as well as the fear of a secessionist-type situation drawing in the superpowers and escalating into nuclear war, led the US to almost uniformly support the territorial status quo, with the permanent enshrinement of European borders codified in the Helsinki Accords of 1975 illustrating the norms of the new age.
While generally supportive of secessionist movements before the Cold War, and generally opposed during age of Mutual Assure Destruction, the question of which secessionist to support became an urgent issue during the nineties and continues up to the present. Shortly after the Cold War, the US found itself leading NATO bombing campaigns to prevent Serbs from seceding from the newly seceded Bosnian state while later bombing Serbia to force that country to relinquish the province of Kosovo. During the next decade the US vocally criticized Russia for its actions in Chechnya while supporting the Georgian government’s right to crackdown on South Ossetians. In the meantime, the US offered varying levels of encouragement or discouragement for secessionists in Eritrea, South Sudan, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Tibet, Kurdistan, and Sri Lanka, just to name a few – and, well, don’t get me started on the Eastern Ukraine.
In short, the current US stance toward secessionism is completely rudderless and open to justified criticism that the US only supports those movements that support its own political and strategic goals while opposing those that don’t.
Just like uniformly promoting democracy can lead to trouble, there will always be practical reasons to oppose specific groups seeking their own state (ISIS, for example). That should not, however, preclude Americans from generally supporting the greater exercise of self-determination by groups seeking it. Despite reservations, the US government in the early Cold War did generally support independence movements and was willing to pressure its allies to varying degrees to let go of nations that wanted to pursue their own path and destiny. We should return to this policy of judiciously promoting self-determination and be willing to risk irritating our allies in the process. Rather than supporting the preservation of existing borders and political arrangements in cases where US interests are tangential, we should remember our own roots this Independence Day, think how much our own secession meant to us, and not forget that we needed a bit of help to achieve it as well.
One of the criticisms of President Obama’s foreign policy is that he seems to lack what George H.W. Bush once called “The Vision Thing.” The argument is that rather than adopting and advocating a clear-cut direction for future US policy, the Obama administration seems to be fighting international fires around the world without any sense of end-goals for the international order, or America’s role in it.
Ian Bremmer examines this question in an interesting and even-handed piece in Time magazine that is a synopsis of the main ideas in his new book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World. He offers a simple (and admittedly simplistic) typology of that includes three potential choices for the future of US foreign policy. Those choices are: to view the U.S. as “Indispensable America,” which he paints as somewhat of a neoconservative activist approach to foreign affairs; to adopt a more minimalist and realist “Moneyball” approach that involves prudently involving the U.S. only in conflicts central to its interests; and an “Independent America” approach, which is essentially an America-first, quasi-isolationist, hands-off approach to events abroad.
His article includes a look at differences in the outlook of different American generations – with the trend being toward greater isolationism (Bremmer doesn’t really like that term, given its negative historical connotations) among younger generations. This accords with my experiences teaching students that were mostly born after the Cold War and increasingly can’t recall 9-11, but have lived most of their lives with the seemingly endless conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the end, Bremmer concludes that the “Independent America” approach is both a likely and desirable direction for future U.S. policy.
Another work that came out in the past year, The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder, by Peter Zeihan, similarly predicts a retreat of America from its global role, and offers detailed predictions of what a largely American-less world would look like. With the exception of a United States that is endowed with favorable geography, natural resources, and relatively favorable demographics, it’s not a pretty picture as other countries return to a world he depicts as a pre-WWII Hobbesian dogfight for resources and autarky.
Like many self-avowed libertarians (an outlook he suggests doesn’t influence his predictions, but clearly does), Zeihan invests himself in a future reality that is at best vaguely plausible rather than particularly likely. It does succeed, though, as a cautionary tale of what the world might look like without the U.S. led globalized world order.
What Zeihan and Bremmer underestimate, however, is the institutional inertia that, barring major catastrophe, keeps the trajectory of US foreign policy largely stable. Changes in the direction of US foreign policy are not likely to come about radically, even if, say a Rand Paul or Elizabeth Warren, were somehow to be elected President. The web of US commitments to other countries runs very deep, and there is now way to withdrawal from those obligations easily or without great, and visible costs – especially in the economic sphere.
Militarily speaking, things are not much different. Reducing military spending is a desirable goal, but, in the end, the US can either have a global military presence or not, there’s not a lot of room in-between. In other words, the US can have a 10 major aircraft carriers in the navy or 1-2, but it’s not likely we’re going to see a US navy half its size that’s only able to cover half the world.
Thus, both militarily and economically, the future US global role in only likely to change incrementally, and only up to a point, rather than radically.
To some degree, we have witnessed incremental change in the Obama administration’s tentativeness to deploy military forces in anything other than a support role in conflicts like those in Libya, against ISIS, and now in Afghanistan. However, what many would describe as a retreat from a vision of America as the indispensable nation, is really an attempt to shift away from international activism to the degree that it is feasible given how enmeshed the US with regional and local obligations and institutions.
The shift to a more “moneyball” foreign policy is about as much as would-be isolationists can hope for any time in the coming years. At the very least we can look for others to share our burdens and avoid making costly mistakes. However, the worst outlook would be to pretend that we can hide from the world, sheltered from the global economy and not lifting a finger to influence particular international events abroad when we have the resources, the costs of intervention are low, and the costs of not doing so high.
Whatever the news-of-the-week, the global system largely created and led by the United States has led to a world that is more stable and prosperous than any other time in human history. We shouldn’t, and are unlikely to, walk away from it any time soon.
Five years from now, we’ll look back at the events in Yemen today, and the American response to them, as either a turning point away from the rudderlessness of the past decade or as a lost opportunity to right the ship. Yemen is a failed state of the similar sort that incubated the modern age of terrorism in other impoverished backwaters like Sudan and Afghanistan. By not repeating the mistakes of the past, the US can improve its standing in the region and improve its security both in Yemen and throughout the Middle East.
The main concern of the US in Yemen has been Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yemen was the ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden, the launching point of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, the hideaway of master Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al Awlaki, the training center for would be “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the origin the 2011 “cargo planes” bomb plot – just to hit the high points.
The US response has been to combat the symptoms without finding a cure for the disease. Drone strikes have hindered the operations of AQAP, but have never and will never eradicate the presence the violent radicals that thrive in the absence of a viable Yemeni state. The most that can be said of earlier Yemeni leaders, first under President Saleh, a long term autocrat pushed aside by the ripples of the Arab Spring, and his successor Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, is that they tolerated US airstrikes (while doing more to weaken than to strengthen the country itself).
So, now the country has fallen into a multi-sided civil war between the three now-familiar factions that are battling it across the region: namely, Shi’ites (Zaidi Arabs commonly labeled Houthis today), radical Sunnis (Al Qaeda and their like-minded quasi-rival ISIS), and the less-radical Sunni “moderates” (with big, heavy quotation marks). These are the same three groups, writ large, fighting in Syria and Iraq. Areas such as Afghanistan, Libya, the Palestinian Territories, and Pakistan face similar violent divides, albeit with less of a Shi’ite role.
Meanwhile, a nexus of like-minded “moderate” states included Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and most of the Gulf States are assuming, due to a combination of a heavy dose of identity-based affinity (vis-à-vis Shi’ites) and perceived strategic and internal interests (vis-à-vis both groups), a patron role in supporting various groups around the region seeking to battle the Shi’ite and radical Sunni tide. For similar reasons, Iran has continued to play a similar role in empowering and supplying Shi’ite militants, as it has since 1979.
When Houthi Shi’ites seized the capital of Yemen late last year, the Saudis sprung into action as they did in 2011 when the Shi’ite majority there threatened to topple the Sunni monarchy in nearby Bahrain in 2011. Unlike in Bahrain, a country of barely a million people versus Yemen’s almost 25 million, the Saudis have only responded with airstrikes rather than sending in the troops. Also unlike Bahrain, where the US just kind of looked the other way, the US has been supporting efforts in Yemen with logistical support, intelligence, and, this week, a show of naval force to dissuade Iranian efforts to supply the Houthis.
The big question is why the United States is supporting efforts in a multi-sided civil war in an unbelievably culturally and politically complex environment (I won’t even get into Yemeni tribalism or the North-South divide) in support of a Saudi government with questionable motives, questionable competence, and a track record of supporting anti-Western groups, all the while destroying what remains of political order in Yemen and thus empowering the one group we care about – the forces of Al Qaeda and ISIS?
The short answer (and I can’t say I know what happened behind closed doors at the White House, Foggy Bottom, or the Pentagon) is probably that we were largely drawn in on short notice out of a desire to show diplomatic support to the Saudis, a sincere concern that without US intelligence more collateral damage would occur, and a knee-jerk reaction to the idea that somehow we’d be containing Iranian influence and helping to restore order.
Unfortunately, this type of crisis-type reactivity to events, while sometimes unavoidable, seems to be an all-to-frequent hallmark of President Obama and his team’s foreign policy. Yemen is not a lost cause, however, and it is time to grab the reigns and try to influence the future course of events in the Middle East in a more favorable direction.
Yemen, in tandem with our nuclear negotiations, has the potential of opening the door to a new era of greater cooperation with Iran, and we should seize it. The only way to address all the myriad of conflicts throughout the region at once is to find a way to build trust and a working relationship between ourselves, the Iranians, and Sunni governments, especially the Saudis. In Yemen, the Saudis, the Houthis, and the Iranians have all called for serious negotiations. In Yemen, there exists a conflict that nobody seems to want to fight except the Al Qaeda types, and this presents an opportunity.
The United States must launch a diplomatic initiative akin to the efforts its put in the past in trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue – with equivalent promises of foreign aid in the case of a settlement to match (such aid, no matter how large, would represent a small drop of what we’ve committed money-wise to the War on Terror). Unlike the case in Syria, where the continued presence of a bloodstained autocrat and the fear of genocidal reprisals make peace a distant prospect, power-sharing in Yemen is doable.
A future in which an effort is truly made to rebuild the Yemeni state, and a Middle East in which the US and Iran transcend the chest-thumping antagonisms of their nationalist contingents and achieve a modicum of cooperation on their many common interests throughout the region is a future that is much more promising than the current chaos we’ve been sucked into and from which we seemingly have no grand strategy for extracting ourselves.
Geopolitical struggles surrounding the competing ideologies of communism, capitalism, fascism, and democracy heavily influenced the course of events in twentieth century international relations. However, focusing on great powers, great wars, and great ideologies lends itself to the neglect of what has been the one consistent source of conflict throughout the century – the influence and destabilizing implications associated with the pursuit of nationalist objectives . . .
Those were the first sentences of my first book, Nationalism in International Relations, which I wrote roughly a decade ago. One of my main points was that the Cold War did not represent as much as a break in history as people often thought – that the same types of ethnic and religious rivalries that had existed before the Cold War also largely defined conflict during the Cold War and would likely continue to do so throughout this century.
Oftentimes people ask me what my next book will be about. If I were to write another book, I think I would want to explore perspectives on national self-determination in the modern world. Just like labeling earlier decades the Cold War and the age we live in something like the Age of Terrorism, big picture labels hide the underlying dynamics of nationalism that drive much of the conflict that exists today at the local and regional level.
Let’s look at the three groups that probably made the headlines the most over the past year – Ukrainian separatists, Boko Haram, and ISIS.
In the case of Ukrainian separatists the goal is fairly clear – less association with Kiev and closer ties with Moscow, perhaps even a desire among some to be incorporated into Russia (as most Crimeans have supported). The problem, of course, is that the Ukrainian government, and most in the West, want to maintain the territorial status quo and see the Russian government’s support for the separatists as motivated as a desire for power and influence more than ethnic affinity.
Historical memory, however, plays an important role in informing the nationalism underlying the conflict. The name of Ukraine itself comes from an old Slavic root for “border” or “edge” – as in the edge of the Russian empire. Historians often trace the Russian people back to the old Viking settlement of Kiev-Rus where the capital of Ukraine now sits. Catherine the Great’s conquest of the Crimean peninsula was made official in 1783, the same year that the American Revolution ended and as much a part of Russian historical narrative as the Revolution is to ours.
If the role of nationalism and historical identity has often been downplayed or misunderstood in the case of Ukraine, it has gotten even less attention in respect to the motivations of Boko Haram and ISIS.
Boko Haram and ISIS members themselves may think their movements are fundamentally about Islam – but their vision of Islam is filtered through a highly nationalistic lens. Boko Haram draws mainly from the Kanuri ethnic group which populates northeastern Nigeria and neighboring states like Niger and Chad. Just as Ukranian separatists and many Russians draw upon cultural and historical narratives, Boko Haram imagines fighting for the return of a modern Bornu/Kanem-Bornu empire, an entity that dominated the region for centuries only to decline and eventual fall to outside domination. Boko Haram plays to a similar set of affective associations as Chinese or Serbian nationalists when calling for the righting of historical wrongs that led to the humiliation of their people by outside forces.
The narrative is similar for many of those attracted to ISIS, except the timeline stretches even further back. It has become fashionable among ISIS sympathizers to refer to Westerners, or, more specifically, the idea of the West, simply as “Rome” – presumably in reference to the Vatican’s role in inciting and organizing the Crusades. The familiar narrative is one in which the golden age of Arab-Muslim rulers slowly declined and was eventually humiliated by the collective efforts of outsiders.
Nationalism is a tricky thing, however, and people can rally around a variety of identities. In the case of ISIS, it’s not just an Islamic identity, but a Sunni Islamic identity – and primarily an Arab one at that. That Arab part of the identity and different cultural ties and historical memory will prevent ISIS from ever really developing close contact with groups like the Taliban or Boko Haram, but it does appeal to those in the Arab world who may not like the fundamentalist rhetoric and violence, but nevertheless feel that Arabs should be allowed to turn back the clock on old colonial borders and govern themselves free of the oppression of the Shiite majority in Iraq or the Alawite/Shiite minority in Syria.
(All of this is not to say that I think ISIS or Boko Haram are simply poor oppressed souls trying to right historical wrongs. As I’ve written in the past, I think these groups are as close to evil as we can define it. I have a lot more sympathy for Ukrainian separatists not so much because of what they want, which is in many ways similar, but how they go about fighting for it, which is very different).
What is important is that we try to understand the nationalist aspirations driving these conflicts. From Vietnam to Iraq (with many points in between), the US, its government and its media in particular, has simply never really gotten nationalism. Fundamentalist Islam, in some ways, represents the new Communism. The rhetoric might appeal to many, but it’s the underlying ethnic affinity and dreams of restoring national glory that drives much of the violence.
Our instinct in dealing with nationalist groups should first and foremost be prudent and realize they are often driven by motivations that are complex and, perhaps, in some ways justified. In terms of the broader picture, insisting that the world’s borders are to remain eternally and perpetually fixed as they are in 2015, without any regard to the aspirations of minority groups, creates the conditions for radicalism in the future.
Usually when I go to movie theaters I go during off hours to avoid the crowds. So, imagine my surprise last month when the 3pm weekday showing of American Sniper I attended was packed with moviegoers during the film’s second week.
Since then, the movie has become a bit of a phenomenon. Although it has virtually no chance of winning, it has joined seven other movies on the list of Academy Award nominees. Its total domestic box office sales, 280 million dollars and counting, trailing only The Passion of the Christ on the list of R-rated movies.
The huge box office for American Sniper and The Passion of the Christ have similar roots. While they are both reasonably good movies in their own right, the true secret to their success has been that they’ve tapped into a desire among many Americans to affirm their self-identity – whether religious or patriotic. Among certain social networks, seeing these movies is as much or more an exercise in asserting in-group belonging as it is seeing something interesting or entertaining. That’s not to say that bandwagon-ing among friends and relatives doesn’t help (or the effect create by media controversy), only that both these films represents a litmus test for some Americans who feel a need to differentiate between those who “get it,” like they do, and those who don’t. Since there is a correlation between the need to draw in-group/out-group distinctions and membership in the Republican Party, it is not surprising that American Sniper would provide grist for the conservative e-mail mill.
The movie has become a bit of a Rorschach test for the left as well. Liberals have encouraged the “right-thinking” crowd’s self-affirming patriotism-by-proxy by slamming the movie as pro-war propaganda, mythmaking, and full of lies. In particular, the fact that the movie lacks “context” is a theme that one sees a lot in liberal commentary. What about the fact that the Iraq war was launched under false pretenses or mistaken assumptions? How can the movie imply 9-11 and the Iraq War were connected? What about the 100,000 plus Iraqis who died and continue to die as a legacy of the conflict?
To these liberals I’d ask how many movies, particularly war movies, actually provide context? Most soldiers and veterans seem to say the same thing – that they were fighting for their buddies and didn’t much think about or consider some bigger picture. The essence of a war movie is to capture this dynamic, not necessarily explain the complicated history of American involvement in the region. When the central figure in the movie, Chris Kyle, is depicted as joining the military in response to 9-11, it is because many soldiers did just that (although not Chris Kyle himself).
As for Chris Kyle being romanticized and his many flaws, as a questionably psychopathic, arrogant, and either dishonest or delusional person, being glossed over – well, that’s part of movie-making (although I think it would have been a better, albeit less popular, movie had Eastwood explored Kyle’s pathologies a bit more). How many who have criticized the lack of candor in this movie were silent about the sanitized, adultery free depiction of MLK that also came out in recent months?
I saw another movie that was presented at my university last month called Five Broken Cameras that was a nominee for the Academy Award for Foreign Film in 2012. It was an engaging first-hand look at life in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The heroes of the movie were the filmmaker who recorded the footage and his friends who protested the Israeli barrier that was being constructed near their village. The villains were largely silent walls of Israeli soldiers who were unable or not allowed to talk to converse with the protesters, but were quite proficient at shooting things at them. There was no context, no explanation of the terrorism that shook Israel a decade ago that killed and maimed thousands of Israelis and provoked them, out of self-preservation, into building their barrier. It was just a good movie that showed the everyday desperation of an occupied people rallying on behalf of one another.
Rooting for the good guys against the bad guys isn’t necessarily a bad thing in movies. It makes for good drama and relatable situations. However, it’s up to us, as adults, to realize that there are shades of moral grey in the world and to educate ourselves about the context and consequences of decisions made in our names, especially when it comes to issues of war and peace. American Sniper doesn’t do this, because it depicts a man who didn’t think like that. He was a helluva soldier, but was not the type of person you would want making policy.
Greetings to all, and welcome to my slightly-belated New Years’ prediction edition of this blog! For those who follow this blog regularly, my other blog engagement that I mentioned in December has been delayed due to technical problems. So, for the foreseeable future, please keep on checking in for my thoughts on the world this year.
Last year’s prediction were somewhat of a mixed bag in terms of success, as I’m sure this year’s will be as well. But what fun are safe predictions? So, here are my daring predictions on the New Year, with one foot hopefully planted firmly in reality:
1). Scott Walker will be the leading Republican hopeful at the end of the year. If 2012 was any indication, support for Republican candidates will be very fluid. Does anyone remember when Herman Cain was leading the pack? Walker will appeal to Republican voters who like conviction politicians and, Mitt Romney aside, politicians with an anti-elitist folksy side. The fact that he was a college dropout will mostly work in his favor for a Republican electorate that is eager to find someone relatable.
2). Northern Iraq will be under the control of the Iraqi government by the end of the year – sort of. Maybe the biggest surprise of 2014 was the swift takeover of northern Iraq by ISIS, when 20,000 or so ISIS militants routed a much bigger Iraqi security presence in a couple of weeks. At the time, the Iraqi forces were poorly led, poorly motivated, and caught off guard. With a year to regroup and reorganize, the shear advantage in numbers possessed by the Iraqi government, aided by the current multinational air campaign, should result in a successful offensive to recapture major cities like Mosul. Violence in Iraq, however, will still remain a sad fact of life as Prime Minister al-Abadi tries to coax alienated Sunnis back into more mainstream political life.
3). Predictions that the US economy will grow at about a 3-3.5% rate are about right. Not much of prediction when I agree with everyone else, right? Last year I argued that predictions for US economic growth were too pessimistic, but this year there are two large countervailing tendencies at work. First, as the the US economy begins to reach its productive potential, there is some really strong momentum leading into the New Year. With Republican control of Congress, it is probably also less likely that we would witness the same kind of uncertainty-creating debt-default, government closedown-type brinksmanship that we’ve witnessed during some years in the past. Low international oil prices should also add some wind to the US economic sails. On the other hand, much of the rest of the world, especially the EU, and to a lesser degree, China, is likely to witness subpar growth, which will represent a drag on the U.S. economy. My prediction for the first three quarters is an average rate of 3.3% growth and 4.7% unemployment by the end of the year.
4). Venezuela will see major instability in the wake of Parliamentary elections. I predicted this several years ago in one of my prediction blogs, and the prediction turned out to be incorrect (despite subsequent protests). Venezuela is an absolute mess, and lower oil prices will affect it more than almost any other country. Hugo Chavez may have acted clownish at times, but succeeded in being a larger-than-life figure respected by large swaths of Venezuelan society. His volatile successor, Nicolas Maduro possesses neither the charisma nor competence to maintain public support as the country’s problems deepen. It’s hard to see things going smoothly when elections are held later this year. Latin America, in general, will see a shift to the right in politics.
5). Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud come out successful in March’s Israeli parliamentary elections. A victory by parties led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni over Netanyahu’s Likud Party would representative a very positive change in Middle Eastern politics – especially in regard to the largely moribund efforts to bridge differences between Israelis and Palestinians. Unfortunately, while it’s impossible to predict all the ins-and-outs of the complex Israeli electoral system and how much the left can “capture” the argument over Israeli voters’ economic disappointment, I predict that all the turmoil in the region will encourage Israeli voters to elect for a course of continuing to muddle through with a leader they feel secure with, if not particularly inspired by.
6). U.S.-Iranian nuclear talks will succeed. I’m going to stick by my prediction from last year, even though the obstacles to such an accord loom large. Even if the two sides can find compromises on key issues, conservatives in both the US and Iran will try to block any agreement that is reached. While President Obama, as is often the case these days, will likely find a way to bypass Congress, it’s less clear that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomenei will ever find it in his heart or his interest to trust the US. If the agreement is able to go forward, however, it will represent the triumph of state interests over individual ideologies and institutional chokepoints.
7). Tensions in Ukraine will lessen. Russia, which is under severe stress from international sanctions and loss of oil revenue, will lean on its associates in Ukraine to sign a new agreement with the central government that reduces tensions and allows for a larger voice and government with special group rights for the people of the region. The Crimea is gone to Ukraine for good, however, and its status will make it difficult for countries that have taken a harder line against Russia, mainly the US and EU, to reduce sanctions and distrust will continue to characterize the relationship.
8). There will be light at the end of the tunnel for the TTP by the end of 2015. With nuclear negotiations, the ability of negotiators to reach an agreement might be the easy part compared to it being accepted at home. On the other hand, the complicated negotiation around the potential Trans-Pacific Treaty, which have been in the works for five years, may finally begin look like they are coming to fruition. Such a treaty would likely make it through Congress and be signed by the President. But, I’m going to say probably not in time for years’ end.
9). Things in Syria will continue to be a mess. The Syrian move will make token moves to install figures associated with the opposition, but few militants will care and the fighting will continue.
10). Increased cooperation in Yemen. The US government will increase its cooperation with the now Houthi-dominated regime in Yemen, finding common cause against Al Qaeda militants there despite distaste with having to work with an Iranian-aligned group.
11). More hopeful times for Afghanistan. With new supplies and training, a new US support role, and, most importantly, new leadership there will be new energy among Afghan security forces during 2015. There may be a period of Taliban resurgence, but by the end of the year things will be looking hopeful in much of Afghanistan.
12). The Colombian government and FARC will finally reach a comprehensive agreement that ends the country’s four decade conflict (if an agreeable way to disarm the rebels can be found).
13). Remember when we were kids and we all thought we’d have holographic TVs by now (along with flying cars)? While I don’t think we’ll see that anytime soon, I think 2015 will be a pretty big year for 3D, well, stuff. TVs, video games, printers, medical technology – by a year from now 3D will be a term we use to refer to in reference to a lot more things than movies. Oh, and yes, as I predicted last year, smart watches will be a big thing – but it’ll remain to be seen whether they’re just a fad.
14). New England wins the Superbowl in a big, boring, blowout.
15). I’m feeling the Oscar prediction pressure this year after going 3-3 in recent years. This year’s field seems wider open than usual, with five movies: Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, The Imitation Game, and Selma all having a realistic chance of winning the picture Best Picture prize. Boyhood’s the slight favorite, and apparently President Obama’s choice. Since I haven’t seen any of these movie’s yet, I’m going to fall back on my reasoning over recent years that Academy Voters like two things about movies more than any other factors: 1). Movies with themes concerning oppressed groups; and 2). Movies about Hollywood. The Imitation Game and Selma meet the first condition, but not the second. Birdman meets the second, but not the first. I’m going to guess that voters will go with the movie they relate to more as Hollywood-types, as they have two of the last three years with The Artist and Argo. So . . . my Best Picture bet for this year is Birdman. You got it here first. Put all your money on Birdman for your Oscar pools.
So, those are my fifteen, mostly optimistic, predictions for 2015. Unlike 2014, which saw some major crises development around the world, I predict 2015 will be less eventful. Undoubtedly, though, there will be some surprises in store that no one has even considered.
Greetings and holiday cheer to my regular readers and new ones alike. My apologies for missing last month, which, I believe, was the first month I’ve missed since 2011. To make it up to everyone, here’s a link to a site with back editions of an international relations themed show where I was the featured guest for two episodes earlier this month. As public access goes, it’s pretty professionally done. Unfortunately, due to the holidays perhaps, it seems like they are taking a bit in actually putting my appearance up – so, if you want to see me stammering my way through 45 or so minutes of television, you might have to check back in a week or two.
Onto the yearly tradition of looking back at the predictions I made in January about how 2014 would unfold. I have to admit, this year had some real clunkers. It’s easier to predict trends in politics than it is specific events, and this year was full of surprises. So, without further ado . . .
Prediction 1: Congressional Republicans will only hold 50 seats in the Senate after the election.
Outcome: Republicans absolutely routed the Democrats on Election Day. There will be 54 Republicans in the new Senate, a number higher than almost any relative objective prognosticator predicted. Since the White House and Congress are still divided by party, most people probably won’t notice much of a change beyond the growing willingness of the President to use executive actions to accomplish things in areas like climate change (or immigration reform, as we have already witnessed).
Prediction 2: Obamacare will still be a lightning rod politically and have lingering problems signing up younger people due to a weak mandate.
Outcome: It’s still unclear how many “young invicincibles” have signed up for Obamacare, but, happily, the whole thing is going much better than an optimist like me even expected.
Of course, none of the emerging success of the program prevented Democrats from running away from it before the election, and it will be interesting to see whether anti-health care crusaders manage to threaten the whole edifice this year when the Supreme Court decides whether or not to eliminate federal support for state insurance exchanges based on a typographical oversight.
Prediction 3: Republicans stop threatening to crash the nation’s economy through debt ceiling shenanigans.
Outcome: Got this one right. My guess is that Republicans realized that threatening financial ruin in order to achieve ideological aims was a bad idea in an election year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this insanity repeated in the future, though.
Prediction 4: The US GDP will grow by about 3% and unemployment will be about 6.3%.
Outcome: The growth number for this year is tricky. Due to the brutal winter, US GDP declined on a -2.9% annual pace during the first quarter, followed by impressive 3.9% and 4.6% annual growth rates in the second and third quarter. This averages out to almost 2.9% growth, with the fourth quarter yet to be determined (although I’ve seen some early predictions that it will likely be quite good). I was worried my unemployment estimate was too optimistic, but robust job growth has seen that number drop to 5.8%.
Prediction 5: Immigration legislation still doesn’t pass.
Outcome: Here my pessimism was justified. Under intense, and somewhat understandable criticism, President Obama took what measures he could into his own hands on this one.
Prediction 6: Hillary Clinton will announce in December that she’s not running for President.
Outcome: Yet to be determined. I don’t really have much faith that I’m right on this one – but who knows? I’m still shocked Mario Cuomo didn’t run in 1992.
Prediction 7: Moderates will have the upper-hand in Syria and negotiations with the government will be taking place.
Outcome: That prediction represented the triumph of optimism over good sense, although there are apparently potential negotiations between the government and opposition in store for early 2014. Unfortunately, though, there are hardly moderate factions left in Syria these days and ISIS, well . . .
Prediction 8: Radical militants will control Northern Iraq and brutalize the civilian population
Outcome: . . . ISIS, along with the Ukrainian conflict, has dominated the news this year. Sadly, this pessimistic prediction came true, but I have hope that efforts in the region will lead to the reestablishment of Iraqi control over much of northern Iraq in 2015.
Prediction 9: Despite complications in the final days of negotiations, the US and Iraq will strike a nuclear deal.
Outcome: The US-Iranian talks came within reach of the finish line, only to encounter unbridgeable differences in the final days. I’m still cautiously optimistic about this one, as the negotiations have been extended into 2015 and both sides REALLY seem to want an agreement.
Prediction 10: Thailand’s military takes over in a coup
Outcome: Thailand’s military launched a coup in May and took over the government. There’s no timetable as yet for future elections.
Predictions 11: China’s economy does worse than expected and protests increase.
Outcome: China’s economy didn’t necessarily do worse than expected (depends on who was doing the expecting), but it did witness its slowest growth since 1999. As for protests, Hong’s Kong protestors’ would be “Umbrella Revolution” dominated the news much of the last half of 2014, but have ultimately petered out. The restraint shown toward the protestors by the Chinese government was admirable, but makes me wonder whether the lack of repression might encourage future protests in other areas of China.
Prediction 12: Google Glass and smartwatches become more mainstream, but people prefer the watch idea more.
Outcome: I think I was spot-on in terms of the futuristic watch technology catching on with the public, although it remains to be seen how much success next year’s Applewatch meets. As for Google Glass, I may not have been skeptical enough.
Prediction 13: Pope Francis’ popularity leads to high-profile celebrity conversions to Catholicism
Outcome: Does Shia Lebeouf count?
Prediction 14: 12 Years a Slave will win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Outcome: Bingo. My Oscar predictions since 2012 (before the nominations have come out each year, I might add) are now three-for-three. Check out my new blog next month, woodwellonhollywood.net.
Just kidding about the last part, by the way. Hopefully, however, this blog will continue in some fashion next year. For those of you who don’t know, the International Studies Association has asked me to be one of their official bloggers starting in January. Whether I can cross-post or how that will work out is yet to be determined. Whatever the web address ends up being, though, I’ll still be writing somewhere in 2015. Best wishes to all!