Saturday, 31 October 2015

Trying to freeze the Syrian civil war?

An important part of the ethics of diplomacy is to never make clear one's actual objectives - nor for that matter, to ever acknowledge the full range of one's actions. Since the prospect of a political regime's collapse raises the risk or opportunity - depending on your perspective - for a state to shift position within the regional order any discussion about a regime's fate draws a crowd. Do not allow yourself to be confused by the public statements: until now a political transition has meant bringing Syria under the American-Saudi Middle East condominium. The Russians have paid lip service to a transition because civil wars only end with victory or some form of power sharing and even the Russians like to look constructive. So the great and the good assembled in Vienna and agreed that there should be:
a political process leading to credible, inclusive, nonsectarian governance, followed by a new constitution and elections. These elections must be administered under U.N. supervision to the satisfaction of the governance [sic] and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, free and fair, with all Syrians, including the diaspora, eligible to participate.
 Daniel Serwer makes a key point:
The Iranians have not signed on to delegation of his authority to a transitional governing body, but only to his fate being decided in UN-supervised elections. And implicitly the Americans and their partners have backed off the demand that he give up power at the start of the transition process, settling instead for his removal at the end, if the voters so decide (or perhaps earlier if the Russians are prepared to prevent him from standing at the elections)
The memorandum also provides for a renewed effort to stop the killing:
The participants together with the United Nations will explore modalities for, and implementation of, a nationwide cease-fire to be initiated on a date certain and in parallel with this renewed political process.
We may be seeing the first steps towards achieving a frozen conflict. No external stakeholder is prepared to give up on its ultimate objectives but the continuing civil war may be reaching a hurting stalemate. 

 The Russian intervention has stabilized the regime. The Russians are probably not so much concerned about a naval base or having a foothold in the middle east as they are concerned with pushing back against what they see as American efforts to act as a revisionist power. Iran has taken on the greatest direct costs to support Assad & Co. because the loss of Syria as an ally would be a major strategic set back. They too are attempting to look constructive now that the process is going to prejudge the outcome.

The U.S. appears to be moving along with its allies to support a process that while raising the prospect of a Syrian government without Assad et al, also agrees to formally extend the regime's life span.  In the meantime a renewed effort will be made to achieve a ceasefire while continuing the war against ISIS.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Signature strikes continued

The White House has revealed that the drone striking killing of two hostages (one American and one Italian citizen) was not directed at a specific individual contra a 2013 policy directive. According to the Guardian:
Among the most startling admissions was the fact the drone strike was authorized by a senior counter-terrorism official without any specific information about who was in the immediate area, which had merely been identified as a compound frequented by al-Qaida leaders.
The theory guiding this policy seems to be to degrade al-Qaida through attrition, killing its senior and mid-level leaders , and thereby forcing - if not an organizational collapse - at least a defensive posture , where survival rather than launching attacks becomes al-Qaida's primary objective.   No independent review of the policy appears to be undertaken to judge its effectiveness.

The Obama administration has acknowledged that it will pay compensation to the hostages families which reminds me of an argument I've previously made.  My argument is that there are two approaches economics give us to make the parties to a transaction internalize the cost of negative externalities The first is a tax and the second an appeal to tort law. If for example we worry that drone strikes are killing innocent people and causing significant damage to their property we should either:
  •  Make the CIA (or whoever is conducting the strikes) pay a large fine, in the form of compensation at say one or ten million dollars, for each civilian killed. It can't be a trivial sum or it becomes nothing more than a nuisance cost. The cost should also be big enough that it's noticed in the departmental budget.
  • Give the victims standing in US courts to sue.
In the absence of economic incentives what is required is transparency. Right now not enough is being done to protect innocent people and that  is by policy design. 

Saturday, 28 March 2015

What can we blame Canada for?

Besides Celine Dion, Justin Bieber and.......okay, maybe I should quit there. But really , what can a country be held responsible for? The reason I'm asking is this CBC documentary about the Vietnam War which alleges that:
While Canada chose not to join America in the fighting, welcoming draft dodgers and deserters fleeing military service, it did support America in the field with intelligence and earned huge profits from the sale of munitions and supplies to the U.S. military’s almost limitless demand.
Apparently Canada is the sum of actions undertaken by individuals, legal persons and governments that originate from within its legally recognized boundaries.  One way of arguing this is that since a government has the authority and capacity to regulate large parts of the activities of individuals and legal entities ; and since a government - especially a democratic government - is ultimately representative of its citizenry, we are all responsible for behavior our government can regulate.There are plenty of objections to this argument. First, how much the behavior of its subjects can any government ever be aware of? Or , how much of the government's own activities can the political executive or legislature monitor? Even when our government or citizens learn of objectionable activities how do we act given the restraints of time and resources? 

We could say that Canada is synonymous with its government because countries are after all political communities. Even then we might want to distinguish between what a government actually does through its own agencies and representatives; what it encourages its subjects to do; those private activities that it is indifferent to and those it is oblivious to. Each is a step down in culpability.

So if we reexamine the earlier accusations we have a few points to consider:
  1. Canada chooses whether or not to go to war;
  2. Canada sets its own immigration policy;
  3. Canada gathers and may share military or political intelligence;
  4. Canada may export munitions and other goods; finally
  5. Canada earns profits. 
Points 1 through 3 are not controversial, these are essential activities conducted by the national government and therefore the actions for which Canada can reasonably be held most accountable. Canada did not join the war. Canada accepted Americans feeling the draft and Canada as part of the International Control Commission probably passed military intelligence to the U.S.  However points 4 and 5 are related to private activities. While military exports may have required approval at that time, the profits earned remained in the private sector less taxes. The government either encouraged or was indifferent to these activities. 

Canada had since WWII progressed through ever deeper and more complex integration with the US in defence and intelligence. As a result there was an increasing integration of the defence industry, no doubt matching our general economic integration, and an established practice of cooperation between our military and theirs. The question arises , are their relationships that we can't get out of of? Or if we can, is it only at enormous cost to ourselves. To what extent are we responsible for our behavior then? For example, according to the CBC , a Uniroyal plant, in Elmira Ontario, exported Agent Orange, to the U.S. military. What impact would prohibiting the export have had on the future of the Uniroyal plant, and the general trade relationship, especially if we expanded the list of prohibited exports? Governments are in the position that any party responsible for the well being of another has felt, namely , the priority of that person's well being even above general moral principles. 

So in the end I don't think Canada is guilty of anything other than having an interdependent relationship with the U.S. while that country was at war. The Canadian government acted in way it thought was consistent with the well being of Canadians.  

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Arming Ukraine and strategic judgement

Recent debates about providing armaments to Ukraine ( see this post at the Duck of Minerva for a round up of the academic lit and policy commentaries) have focused on imposing a cost Russia while opponents tend to worry about the risks involved. Among the American policy making community there is a fear of somehow not being involved in the making of history - the indispensable nation and all that. This tends to involve a preference for concrete action and a show of seriousness via advocating lethal force. I would argue that when an adversary is undertaking a self destructive action, one shouldn't join in just to spite him. 

Russia's aggression has yielded, one clear territorial gain - Crimea - that does not in the short or medium run alter the balance of power anywhere and in the long run maybe only in the Black Sea. While Russia's annexation of large part of East Ukraine or integrating all of Ukraine into its economic and security structures would surely make Russia stronger , as well bringing its forces closer to Nato, it is unlikely to be able to achieve any of the above without incurring enormous costs that offset any potential gain. 

If Russia is undertaking actions that provide it little benefit in terms of the global and continental balance of power - in the short and perhaps long term - then what costs and risks should Nato and the U.S. be willing to impose on themselves?

I would suggest that any policy response should be calibrated to commit as few resources as necessary to frustrate the Russians while avoiding the risk of sprinting or even stumbling up the escalation ladder with all the attendant risks that involves. Unless a formula can be discovered to freeze the conflict - a frozen conflict may be Russia's objective - what is likely to occur, even if the Ukraine is provided new armaments,  is continuation of a low level conflict that destroys much of East Ukraine and costs a few thousand more lives. Ultimately our energy should be focused on stopping the killing. 

Any Nato response should try to avoid:

  1. A significant increase in the level of violence occurring in Ukraine;
  2. A commitment to Ukraine , in the medium to long term i.e. Nato membership, that increases the risks of a confrontation with Russia in the future;
  3. An open ended financial commitment to Ukraine that costs the EU states scare public  sector resources; 
  4. Legal recognition of Crimea's annexation;
  5. The further partition of Ukraine

Monday, 5 January 2015

Paranoia as a source of conduct

Russia's paranoia about threats , domestic and foreign, is one of the longstanding themes in discussing Russian foreign policy. Jeffrey Lewis took up this theme in his discussion of the sources of Putin's conduct last July. Below I've copied and pasted a few passages to comment on:
Washington endured the dangers of the Cold War because it refused to recognize Moscow’s right to build its security on the insecurity of its neighbors. It shouldn’t start turning now.
Actually, Washington – in practice – accepted the right of the Soviet Union to dominate its neighbours.  The presence of the Soviet Army in Eastern Europe tilted the strategic landscape, making it a hard, uphill trek toward Moscow in the event of a war. American inaction in during the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia indicated an acceptance of the political status quo. 

Earlier in his column, Lewis adopts the approach of appealing to the words of great men, in this case George Kennan, to suggest that Russia requires instability on its borders and the specter of a foreign threat to maintain the legitimacy of its political regime. 
I would argue that a large part of the Russian elite, as well as the general population, believe that Russia’s territorial dismemberment or its reduction to an “Upper Volta with nuclear missiles” – one  open for business with western hydrocarbon and mining concerns – is the goal of American foreign policy. 

The acceptance of USSR’s domination of Eastern Europe and Russia’s concern over Nato eastward expansion recognised Russian security fears or if you prefer: paranoia. Since then we could say that we have initiated a period reminiscent of a security dilemma. 
Putin’s actions in Georgia and especially in Crimea amount to a violation of the fundamental basis for the post-Cold War settlement, the abandonment of force as a means of turning Central and Eastern Europe into vassal states. That means the West is back in the business of containing Moscow. You can say this isn’t a new Cold War, but it’s hard to see what else a return to containment means.
The original basis for the Soviet withdrawal from Eastern and Central Europe was the promise that with the exception of East Germany, Nato would not expand to include any of the former Warsaw Pact states. Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea clearly violates the basic rules of the post – WWII international order. Russia’s efforts to destabilise East Ukraine are consistent with actual practice in world politics however offensive they may be when we oppose the political objective being pursued. 
Putin will try to isolate weaker states like Latvia, while trying to encourage others like Germany to remain neutral...........a central focus of Putin’s foreign policy is trying to pry Berlin away from the trans-Atlantic alliance.
What can Putin do to Latvia? The Baltic states have integrated into Nato and the EU, going as far as having adopted the Euro. The Russian minorities are seen as a source of vulnerability yet given their relative prosperity; the benefits of being a citizen of an EU member: Why would these people want to risk a Donbass scenario? The abduction of an Estonian intelligence official is the kind of limited pressure that is likely to be applied to the Baltics. 

The central question of Nato since the end of the Cold War has been the rational for its continuing existence. With the exception of Poland and the Baltics I don’t think there are any other Nato member states that regard their membership as vital to securing them from potential Russian aggression. 

Responding to Russia’s aggression and its efforts to intimidate its neighbours represents a classic collective action problem. Who benefits enough to take on the burden of action?
The Russians clearly believe that the majority of Nato members don’t want a war for distant places that they know little about – and might not even consider to be truly part of Europe. I am guessing that the Russians believe that while the outcome of its aggression against Ukraine is Kiev government that more pro-west than any in its history it does not mean that the west itself (read: German) is any more interested in expanding Nato and establishing a Cold War like frontier with Russia. 

Furthermore, should a formula for de-escalation be discovered in East Ukraine, there will be a strongly lobbying effort from German business to scale back most of the sanctions imposed during the crisis. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

What was the CIA thinking?

 From the Senate Intelligence Committee report executive summary:
To address these issues, the cable stated that if Abu Zubaydah were to die during the interrogation, he would be cremated.The interrogation team closed the cable by stating:
"regardless which [disposition] option we follow however, and especially in light of the planned psychological pressure techniques to be implemented, we need to get reasonable assurances that [Abu Zubaydah] will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life,"
Officers from the CIA's ALEC Station responded to the interrogation team's comments several days later. Their cable noted that the interrogation teamwas correct in its "understanding that the interrogation process takes precedence over preventative medical procedures."ALEC Station further observed:
"There is a fairly unanimous sentiment witiiin HQS that [Abu Zubaydah] will never be placed in a situation where he has any significant contact with others and/or has the opportunity to be released. While it is difficult to discuss specifics at this point, all major players are in concurrence that [Abu Zubaydah] should remain incommunicado for the remainder of his life. This may preclude [Abu Zubaydah] from being turned over to another country, but a final decision regarding his future incarceration condition has yet to be made." (PDF pg 34-35)
A few points (admittedly speculative):

  • The CIA knew what they were planning to do would be deemed immoral or illegal by many within the US government, the American people as well as abroad; 
  • One transgression leads to another. Why/how did they think it would be possible to keep Abu Zubaydah incommunicado for the rest of his life? Would this mindset itself endanger Abu Zubaydah's life?
  • So much of what appears to have occurred, has the appearance of an administrative failure; the failure to train and vet interrogators; to pursue inter-agency cooperation, especially with Justice; to rigorously evaluate the efficacy of methods; 
  • The administrative failure was by design. The program worked the way its leaders wanted it to. 

Sunday, 30 November 2014

British moral clarity in post liberation Greece

The North American (perhaps Anglo-Saxon is more correct) version of WWII is rife with omissions.  There were across Europe ( focus on Europe for simplicity's sake) multiple wars: The wars between the great powers and their minor power allies; the wars between the minor powers; the wars between occupation regimes and indigenous insurgents; and the wars between different groups of insurgents. In Greece, among others, all these wars took place. Britain adjusted its policy as required:
Britain’s logic was brutal and perfidious: Prime minister Winston Churchill considered the influence of the Communist Party within the resistance movement he had backed throughout the war – the National Liberation Front, EAM – to have grown stronger than he had calculated, sufficient to jeopardise his plan to return the Greek king to power and keep Communism at bay. So he switched allegiances to back the supporters of Hitler against his own erstwhile allies.
Further proof that cultural relativism is not a recent leftist innovation:
PatrĂ­kios was among the relatively fortunate; thousands of others were executed, usually in public, their severed heads or hanging bodies routinely displayed in public squares. His Majesty’s embassy in Athens commented by saying the exhibition of severed heads “is a regular custom in this country which cannot be judged by western European standards”.