The Cost-Benefit Analysis of Compassion

If you believe than US foreign policy should serve moral and humanitarian goals, then Afghanistan might be the worst place to start.

Time’s new cover represents an outstanding example of how a picture is worth a thousand words.  It’s hard to look at Aisha and consider withdrawing from Afghanistan.

But let us think about it another way.  Consider the hundreds of millions of people around the world living in horrid, oppressed, degraded conditions.  27 million people are enslaved; millions of women suffer from forced prostitution, female genital cutting, fistulas, honor killings, and worse.  Millions in Africa die each year from malaria and AIDS.  And as bad as this is, it overlooks the seemingly more prosaic, but similarly horrific condition of grinding, miserable poverty, living on less than one dollar a day.

The United States could fight these problems in countries where it would not require fighting a protracted, bloody, brutal, probably-unwinnable war, perhaps where governments either care about their population or at least simply neglect them.  And if it did so, it could save, improve, and empower tens of millions of people brutalized just as much as the woman on the cover of Time.

If we are serious about empowering women and fighting poverty — and we should be — we should use all the money and effort we are expending in Afghanistan, and turn toward other severe problems that do not demand the lives of thousands of American young people.  If fighting in Afghanistan derives from genuine geopolitical concerns — a case that has simply not been made yet — then of course that is another story.  But to support the Afghan war on the basis of humanitarian concerns misses the larger picture and runs the risk of making a mockery of humanitarianism.

The Korean reunification taboo

South Korea and its allies should started thinking seriously about the problems of sudden reunification.

Korean cherry blosssom near Yangpyeong, photo by me

Compare two rogue states:

* Nuclear weapons: Iran – none, but trying; North Korea – yes
* Belligerency: Iran – verbally hostile to Israel, supports Hezbollah militia, funds Hamas; North Korea – pattern of regular provocations, sank South Korean corvette in March with torpedo, killing 48
* Governmental system: Iran – unique hybrid theocracy/democracy; North Korea – post-Marxist hereditary divine monarchy held by unstable ageing playboy
* Repression: Iran – vigorous partial repression by theocrats, vigorous pushback from civil society; North Korea – totalitarian silence of the grave
* Economy: Iran – diversified, open, middle-income petrostate; North Korea – failed Stalinist autarky near starvation level.

It’s worrying then how little attention the world gives to North Korea. However, earlier this month Matt Yglesias and Robert Farley picked up a good piece by academic Minxin Pei on the prospects for an early collapse of the North Korean régime, and the ensuing security nightmare:

These critical issues are deemed too sensitive for US, Chinese, Japanese and South Korean government officials to discuss. As a result, few are thinking about these difficult issues, let alone exploring workable solutions that could help avoid a possible conflict between China and the United States over a collapsing North Korea and construct an enduring peace after the departure of the Kim dynasty.

It’s a cop-out to write off the North Korean government as crazy. In fact, they have played the United States pretty well over the nuclear issue and have got away with their bombs. North Korea doesn’t have missiles or bombers, but it does have submarines to deliver its handful of weapons. Not that it should make us sleep much sounder if we see the régime as rational and amoral rather than irrational and amoral: it might after all calculate, Dr. Strangelove-style, that using the bombs was the least bad option to keep itself in power. It’s the amorality that creates the danger.

The way I read the North Korean sabre-rattling (and use) is that it is designed to keep the South Koreans and their allies off balance, focussing on crisis management and preventing war, and not – for instance – planning coherently for the probable collapse of their régime. After all, if there was a good reunification plan, it would become more likely. It’s only anecdotal evidence, but my son, teaching in a small town near the DMZ, warned me that the topic is too sensitive for casual conversation. So Pyongyang may have spooked the South Korean public into treating the whole subject as unthinkable, because of its one unthinkable component, a nuclear conflict.

The monstrous North Korean régime should not be granted victory in this mind game. Here’s my suggestion to break the taboo: split the question. Reunification will have two phases:
A Рcollapse of the North Korean r̩gime and takeover of the territory by South Korea
B – political, social, cultural and economic integration of the two Koreas.

The problems you have with B are more or less the same regardless of how A goes.

Continue reading “The Korean reunification taboo”

The Central Problem in US-Israel Diplomacy

American Middle East diplomacy has rested for three decades on the premise that peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties. That premise is now obsolete.

My Uncle Moishe is a retired kosher butcher in Montreal.  His passions are the Montreal Canadiens, and Middle East politics, and not necessarily in that order.  He can and does talk about them both at great length, but more than a decade ago, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first premiership, he succinctly explained to me how the man operates.

“Bibi has three political principles,” Moishe told me.  “First, divide and conquer.  Second, divide and conquer.  And third, divide and conquer.”

So this week’s developments are hardly a surprise to me.  In fact, I pretty much predicted it a year ago.  But they point to the central problem in modern US-Israel relations: they rest upon a premise that is demonstrably false, viz., that the way to Middle East peace lies in direct negotiations between the parties.

This premise originated because Israel was concerned that in an international conference, it would be outnumbered and face pressure from the United States.  Moreover, an international conference would not force the Arab states to take the political risk of negotiating it.  This political risk was necessary because Israel was going to trade tangible land for intangible promises, so it had to know that Arab leaders had skin in the game.  Anwar Sadat demonstrated this both literally and figuratively.

But the operative factors behind this assumption are no longer true.  Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel.  In any event, the issue now is no longer Arab-Israeli relations, but Palestinian-Israeli relations.  And that relationship now matches a weak and dysfunctional Palestinian leadership with a weak and dysfunctional Israeli leadership.  There is simply no way that these parties can make the concessions necessary for peace –giving up settlements and achieving genuine compromise on Jerusalem for the Israelis, giving up the right of return for Israel.

So instead of hemming and hawing about what Hillary Clinton should say to AIPAC next week, or how George Mitchell will start “proximity talks”, the time has come simply for the United States to go around the various leaderships, and adopt Sari Nusseibeh’s brilliant proposal to demand a referendum in each population on an American Plan, which should resemble the People’s Voice accord.  My own preferred addition is push the People’s Voice through as a Security Council resolution, although whether it could attract a non-vetoed majority is anyone’s guess.  Maintaining the current posture of endless attempts to bring the parties together is degenerating into farce.

The direct talks approach has worked in several iterations for more than three decades.  It’s time to give it a decent burial.

The Climate “Partnership” with India

Obama’s climate diplomacy with India is constructive, modest — and realistic.

At least that’s what the White House is calling it.  (Okay, okay: technically, the White House calls it the “Green Partnership to Address Energy Security, Climate Change, and Food Security.”). 

Does it mean anything?  Maybe.

Essentially, it provides for some technical assistance to improve governance capacity and scientific knowledge, and some new initiatives to foster R & D.  It also takes the sensible position that the developed countries will adopt emissions reductions targets while the developing countries will adopt “nationally appropriate mitigation measures.”  The White House press release states in boldface that both President Obama and Prime Minister Singh “resolved to take significant mitigation actions and to stand by these commitments.” In other words, neither side is going to insist on the other doing the politically impossible.

Perhaps the most intriguing initiative in the whole thing appears to be a series of bilateral institutions: the US-India Climate Dialogue, the US-India Energy Dialogue, and the US-India Agriculture Dialogue.  Who knows what these things mean. 

But they reflect a realism in the Obama Administration’s climate diplomacy, namely, that putting all their eggs in the Kyoto/UNFCC basket makes little sense.  These institutions might mean nothing, but one could have said the same thing about the UNFCC at the beginning.  They open up space for the two nations to start discussing ways to take reciprocal and constructive steps to reduce emissions.

Early jobs for the Climate Dialogue might be the discussion of international intellectual property rules that inhibit technology transfer.  Another role might be fostering the creation of international sectoral agreements in certain high-emissions industries such as aluminum, steel, and cement.

Obama likes to play a long game, a pattern that the media has proved itself completely incapable of recognizing.  And with climate, the game will have to be very long.  He has damped down expectations for Copenhagen, and is beginning to build more solid foundations.  I hope we have enough time.

Karma yoga and “realist” foreign policy

As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Ignoring that principle isn’t realistic.

The problem with foreign-policy “realism” – the kind that’s always searching for “our sunuvabitch” – is that it’s so damned unrealistic in its calm assurance that the Law of Karma has been repealed, and that therefore what goes around will never, ever come around.

John Burns illustrates from the history of Afghanistan, where Barack Obama has a crappy hand to play because of Ronald Reagan’s “realism” about working with what later got to be called Islamofascists.

George F. Will Cuts and Runs

George Will is going to call for a ground troop pullout from Afghanistan. Is he right?

According to Politico, George Will’s next column will call for a withdrawal of US ground troops from Afghanistan:

“[F]orces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters,” Will writes in the column, scheduled for publication later this week.

So now it’s time for the real questions:

1) What do we know about this strategy’s ability to interdict Al Qaeda units? It sounds great and high-tech and sexy. Note: not just special forces units, but POTENT special forces units (as opposed to Limbaugh special forces units?). It relies on “intelligence”: do we have any human intelligence in Afghanistan? (Insert joke here: you know what I mean). But does it really mean anything?

2) In the pre-9/11 period, we would have loved to have done that, but could not get access to doing it. At times, Pakistan would allow flyovers, but the ISI is so infiltrated by Al-Qaeda sympathizers that it was pointless: Bin Laden would always be alerted. So that seems to imply a large presence in the participatory democracy of Uzbekistan. How confident are we of maintaining that presence?

3) And if the answers to these questions are 1) we don’t know; and 2) we don’t know, are we prepared to say, “yes, this will increase the chance of Al Qaeda reconstitution and the terrorism that would come with that, but that is a better deal than getting caught in quagmire”? The Republicans, who can reliably be counted to put party over country, will accuse Obama of selling out no matter what he does. So at least at some level the politics have to be considered.