Post #50 – The Lessons of Ebola

The battle against Ebola is in danger of being lost.  A top official of MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders), the lead NGO in West Africa with about 3,000 people on the ground, said on October 16 that the organization has “reached our ceiling” in resources and that the disease was outrunning the capacity to stop it.  “70 in 60” is the latest warning from doctors who have visited Liberia and Sierra Leone: Unless 70 percent of those infected are isolated and in treatment within 60 days from now, the number of new victims will increase exponentially—by as much as 5,000-10,000 every week come December.  But stopping the disease is extremely risky: More than half the healthcare workers in West Africa who contracted Ebola have died.

As we are all too aware, epidemics can devastate societies and set back their development for generations.  Malnutrition has stunted the physical and mental growth of a generation of North Korean children.  HIV-AIDS has done the same in parts of Africa.  We can expect the Ebola virus to have a similar long-term impact on Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.  Thus, it is entirely apt to speak of Ebola as an international security crisis.  Without a dramatic worldwide response, the disease is bound to spin out of control and, as President Obama noted, “will spread globally.”

The fundamental drivers of the Ebola virus are grinding poverty and lack of preventive measures.  Both factors were cited by the heads of the World Health Organization and MSF in recent statements. Years ago I recall reading a study of global poverty in which the author said the main reason poverty is so difficult to halt is poverty itself.  That may seem like a silly statement, but it really isn’t—and the Ebola crisis shows it.  Impoverished populations, such as those living in the three countries most afflicted by Ebola, lack the money, education, and health care resources to deal with disease.  (One of the best indicators of the poverty-to-health care relationship is the ratio of doctors to population, and in these three countries that ratio is tragically low.  So many of their doctors have, of course, fled to richer countries.)  When a health crisis, or any crisis, erupts, poor people are least able to fight it.  And their vulnerability is passed on to the next generation, and the next. Ebola “isn’t a natural disaster.  This is the terrorism of poverty,” said Dr. Paul Farmer, famed for his humanitarian work in Haiti and co-founder of Partners in Health.

To make matters worse, the major industrialized countries typically only act when the crisis crosses borders and threatens them, as we see happening today.  Big Pharm—the major pharmaceutical companies—doesn’t emphasize research and development of vaccines that the poor cannot pay for.

In short, the rich-poor gap matters when it comes to international action, as Dr. Margaret Chan of WHO said.  The Ebola crisis, she observed, demonstrates “the dangers of the world’s growing social and economic inequalities.”  “The rich get the best care.  The poor are left to die” (www.nytimes.com/2014/10/14/world/africa/ebola-virus-outbreak.html).

Climate change may also be a factor in epidemics and pandemics. A just-released Pentagon report argues that health crises are among the many potentially destabilizing consequences of climate change (see 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, www.acq.osd.mil/ie/download/CCARprint.pdf).  Even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, a one-time climate change denier, now regards climate change as an immediate security challenge.  Few specialists have suggested a link between climate change and Ebola.  But we know that some consequences of climate change—such as rising sea levels, hurricanes, tsunamis, and drought—do play an important role in large-scale health problems as well as major social disruptions and consequent political instability.  In a word, environmental and social stresses are interrelated, and when government proves unable or unwilling to deal with those stresses, you can pretty well count on a political upheaval.

HIV-AIDS, SARS, avian flu, H1N1, and now Ebola—the list of local health problems that become global health crises is getting longer.  One of these days, some bright and courageous national leader is going to announce that, as a matter of national and international security, a significant portion of her country’s military budget is going to be shifted to confront global problems such as health care, climate change, and migrant labor.  But making that shift requires adopting a new paradigm of global community.  A high-powered group of former US officials, NGO leaders, and politicians, called Managing Global Insecurity, said as much in 2008 when it urged the US to embrace the idea of responsible sovereignty:

” . . . the vision necessary for a 21st century international security system is clouded by a mismatch between existing post-World War II multilateral institutions premised on traditional sovereignty—a belief that borders are sacrosanct and an insistence on noninterference in domestic affairs—and the realities of a now transnational world where capital, technology, labor, disease, pollution and non-state actors traverse boundaries irrespective of the desires of sovereign states.  The domestic burdens inflicted by transnational threats such as poverty, civil war, disease and environmental degradation point in one direction: toward cooperation with global partners and a strengthening of international institutions.” (www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2008/11/11-action-plan-mgi)

          That critique points to a far greater investment by the richest countries than they are making now in WHO, in their own disease prevention and control organizations, and in health care in the poorest countries.  Unless and until that happens, new security threats such as Ebola will continue to be dealt with episodically, which means leaping from one crisis to the next without the all-out international effort of prevention and treatment that is essential.

Post #49 – “I’m Not a Scientist, But…”

The People’s Climate March in New York City and (so it was declared) in 155 other countries has come and gone. Climate change, unfortunately, parades on. While people marched—an estimated 400,000 of them in New York—diplomats gathered at the UN Climate Summit, prepared to do the absolute minimum in response to perhaps the most pressing international security issue we face. They didn’t disappoint.  No doubt the so-called climate deniers were delighted.  They are the people who used to say that climate change is a figment of the imagination, but now they have a new line: “I’m not a scientist” (see Dawn Stover’s article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 26, 2014, http://thebulletin.org).

I’m not a scientist either, but I don’t disregard scientific facts or pretend that bad news is someone else’s problem.  My blog posts #1 and #8 reported on the dire warnings we have had about climate change and related environmental threats.  Here is an update, with some good news to go with the bad, since those posts.

Climate Change

National Audubon Society scientists report that over roughly the next 70 years, more than half the bird species in North America will be forced from their usual habitats by climate change. Many species won’t make it.

From a Washington Post article of September 9: “Concentrations of nearly all the major greenhouse gases reached historic highs in 2013, reflecting ever-rising emissions from automobiles and smokestacks but also, scientists believe, a diminishing ability of the world’s oceans and plant life to soak up the excess carbon put into the atmosphere by humans,” according to the World Meterological Organization. One of its chief scientists said: “The changes we’re seeing are really drastic. We are seeing the growth rate rising exponentially.” The level of atmospheric carbon is now just about at its limit—400 parts per million—and when it exceeds that limit, as is expected in another two years, dramatic climate-induced changes are likely.

For an uplifting video of our beautiful planet, and what our children and their children stand to lose, take a look at www.upworthy.com/it-might-be-the-most-mind-boggling-photograph-humanity-has-ever-taken?c=upw1.

Fracking

“A problem dressed up as a solution,” one demonstrator said of fracking (hydraulic drilling or fracturing). The Natural Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org), reporting on the Halliburton fracking site spill into a tributary of the Ohio River, points out that both the US and Ohio environmental protection agencies “had to wait five long days before they were given a full list of chemicals used” at the Halliburton site. In the meantime, Ohio residents downstream of the spill faced hazardous conditions and tens of thousands of fish died.  “More than 15 million Americans now live within one mile of a fracking site,” NRDC claims. (More on NRDC below.)

Meantime, a new study of the effects of hydraulic drilling on water supplies has found numerous additional organic and inorganic chemicals in the waste water that are dangerous to human health. While one of the study’s authors said the findings weren’t as bad as anticipated, they are certainly bad enough.  In fact, water treatment techniques now being used in fracking may actually worsen the problem because of the way bacteria interacts with the chemicals. (A summary of the study is in Andrew Revkin’s blog at http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/08/a-new-study-clarifies-treatment-needs-for-water-from-fracked-gas-and-oil-wells/?_php.)

People all across the Midwest who are living in the path of proposed pipelines are battling the companies that seek to lay pipelines on their land or take the rights by eminent domain.  For a compelling story from Pennsylvania, see Ann Neumann, “A Pipeline Threatens Our Family Land,” www.nytimes.com/2014/07/13/opinion/sunday/a-pipeline-threatens-our-family-land.html.

Carbon Tax

Someone called it Australia’s “tobacco moment”: The Tony Abbott administration reverse course on a carbon tax. Abbott is the first national leader to nix the tax, arguing that he would never put Australian businesses, workers, and families at a disadvantage by taxing them. (Bravo for shortsightedness!) As one Australian newspaper writer put it, “A major reform, established in law and largely working, has been rescinded.” There are no longer necessary emission targets, no longer pressure on industry to reduce emissions (www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/tony-abbott-battles-the-future-by-axing-carbon-tax-20140710-zt2d2.html). So long as Abbott’s administration is populated with climate deniers, Australia is simply going to be out of step with Europe and even with his own (and the US) military. As Andrew Wit reports (“US Pacific Climate Change and Collaborative Security,” The Asia-Pacific Journal,August 25, 2014, at www.japanfocus.org), Australia’s armed forces, as well as the US Pacific Command, are moving ahead on the security challenges posed by global warming.  Leaving their countries’ domestic politics behind, these military leaders understand that increasing hurricanes, storms, rising sea levels, and floods will put added pressure on humanitarian and other missions.

Leaders elsewhere in Asia are planning national markets for carbon permit trading to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  China, which accounts for about 30 percent of global emissions, has five trial markets right now, and plans to start nationwide carbon permit trading in 2016. If China follows through, its carbon trade market would be the world’s largest—much larger than Europe’s.  Other Asian countries also operate or are planning carbon markets: Kazakhstan, New Zealand, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

While China is going to be relying on coal for a long time to come, the Obama administration is getting kudos for seeking to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants. In June, the administration proposed new pollution rules that would probably shut down a number of these plants. Decrying this “war on coal,” Republicans in the US Congress have launched an investigation into the NRDC’s influence over crafting of the proposal. (The charge is probably true, and thank heavens for that! For some reason, however, the Republicans don’t seem nearly as agitated over the Koch brothers’ ownership and financing of dirty coal and its central role in the “I’m no scientist” propaganda.)  A New York Times article on July 29 gives another perspective, however. US coal exports are nullifying gains in reducing carbon emissions. The administration’s rationale for supporting such exports is similar to the usual justification for weapons exports—the other guy is doing it, so we have to keep pace—and let US gains become another country’s loss.

Nuclear Energy

I recently attended a conference at The Australian National University in Canberra where several experts provided devastating critiques of nuclear energy’s relevance in Australia and Southeast East Asia.  While China moves ahead with ambitious nuclear energy plans, seemingly oblivious to the lessons of Fukushima and Chernobyl, other countries, such as Vietnam, Thailand, and probably Indonesia, have either rejected nuclear power or are strongly leaning in that direction. Contrary to the notion that the future of nuclear power is bright as climate change takes hold, these experts’ opinion is exactly the opposite.  Australia, in fact, is in the enviable position of being able to rely entirely on renewable energy sources in the not-too-distant future.  But that change of direction is going to have to await the removal of Tony Abbott as national leader.  He’s a coal guy, and feeding China’s coal habit is uppermost in his mind.

The costs and potentially devastating consequences of reliance on nuclear energy plants haven’t changed Japan’s course under Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.  His Nuclear Regulatory Agency has certified the safety of two nuclear reactors, which mean they will come back on line when Abe gives the green light, probably in December. That decision should be understood as political, not scientific.  It ignores concerns about radiation leaks since the Fukushima meltdown. One piece of research that suggests what those leaks can mean over time is the effect on birds.  Prof. Tim Mousseau at the University of South Carolina is a renowned authority on this topic, having spent years monitoring the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on birds and other wildlife.  His troubling findings may be viewed on YouTube in a presentation before the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo (http://youtu.be/8IcTGUMwVtU).  Besides observing how radiation has caused deformities in birds, Mousseau also notes the deliberate distortion of evidence by a United Nations agency, whose supposedly expert investigation reported no such problems.

What Works Dept.

Paul Krugman’s September 19 New York Times op-ed, citing reports of the International Monetary Fund and the New Climate Economy Project, writes that simultaneously reducing greenhouse gases and maintaining economic growth are entirely possible  (www.nytimes.com/2014/09/19/opinion/paul-krugman-could-fighting-global-warming-be-cheap-and-free.html). And we don’t have to wait for an international agreement to move rapidly ahead.  A carbon tax or cap-and-trade is especially feasible now that solar power’s costs have come dramatically down.  The health care and productivity gains from reduced emissions will significantly offset supposed economic losses from new regulations.

Germany is not waiting for others: Its energy picture is now 30 percent reliant on renewables (twice the US rate).  German utility companies are taking a major hit as the cost of wind and solar power goes rapidly down, thanks in no small part to Chinese manufacturers of solar panels.  Power company executives, the New York Times reports, “are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans” (www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/science/earth/sun-and-wind-alter-german-landscape-leaving-utilities-behind.htm).   Take a look at the chart in that article: nuclear power is still very important in France and South Korea, coal in China, and natural gas in Russia and the US; but the wave of the future is hydro, solar, and biofuels.

Preserving coral reefs is another very serious problem: As we’ve known for some time, loss of coral in the Pacific and the Caribbean due to overfishing, runoff from land, something called “development,” and climate change are all responsible in some part.  But two writers report some good news (www.nytimes.com/2014/09/18/opinion/we-can-save-coral-reefs.html). Local actions (in Bermuda among other places) are saving much of the coral and making it resistant to climate change by preventing overfishing and excessive catering to tourism. Here again is a demonstration that we don’t have to await an international agreement in order to act.

 

 

Post #48 – Hong Kong on the Brink

The tense situation in Hong Kong is at a critical juncture.  The protesters have made plain that they are there to stay, though their numbers are dwindling.  They are demanding that the Beijing-appointed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, resign.  They want China to live up to its promise that elections in 2017 will be freely contested, not constrained by being limited to Beijing-approved candidates.  The Chinese government has made just as clear that its patience is wearing thin, and that it strongly supports Leung.  Will the outcome be an “Umbrella Revolution” or another Tiananmen?

An ominous sign of a potential police crackdown is use of the word “chaos” in Renmin ribao (People’s Daily, the official newspaper) to describe Hong Kong events.  “Chaos” (luan) was the word used in the spring of 1989 to signal the Beijing leadership’s unwillingness to let the protests at Tiananmen drag on indefinitely.  The word has a particular resonance in China: Its tumultuous modern history is replete with failed efforts to unify the country and prevent the formation of secret political cliques and factions.  In the leadup to the Tiananmen crackdown, top leaders signaled through the press that the students were causing chaos and that “turmoil” would not be tolerated. Though these warnings were followed by Premier Zhao Ziyang’s fateful meeting with students in the square, which earned him 16 years under house arrest, we know from later accounts that Deng Xiaoping had convinced his colleagues that the demonstrations were a threat to the political system and had to be put down.  Martial law followed.

Beijing is following the same script today.  Editorials of October 1 and 3 in Renmin ribao’s online editions dwelled on the demonstrators’ “illegal assembly” and “absurd and crazy kidnapping” of law and order.  The protesters are being called an “extremist opposition group” that is not only breaking the law but also threatening to disrupt years of prosperity and stability under communist rule.  The laws enacted by China’s legislature “allow for no challenge.”  The editorials scoff at the protesters’ talk of democracy and freedom, saying that “freedom without order isn’t real freedom, and will lead to social disharmony and instability.” Far from suggesting a path to compromise, the editorials are a warning of potential use of force.  Leung Chun-ying strengthened that prospect by setting a deadline, October 6, for protesters to clear out and let government workers return to their offices, or face “all necessary actions.”  They removed blockades, but many students are continuing their sit-in.

While Beijing has apparently ruled out concessions, it has authorized Hong Kong’s executive secretary (but not the chief executive) to meet with some students.  But to meet does not signify when or what to negotiate. Finding a face-saving formula will be extremely difficult, moreover, particularly since the demonstrators have no leaders, no common program, and no agreed-upon end game.  Should talks fail, or not be held, the opposition will face a choice between going home, hanging on and risking loss of public support, and escalating pressure such as by seizing an official building or office.

Beijing’s chief concern is the domino effect of lending legitimacy to the pro-democracy forces.  Even if it does not concede on the election issue, it no doubt wants to avoid appearing weak in the face of a popular protest.  To its way of thinking, successful demonstrations in Hong Kong might be followed by more of the same elsewhere in China, just as happened in 1989.  Demonstrations create an environment for anti-government groups to organize and call for all kinds of reforms, not least free elections from top to bottom in China’s political system.  Chinese leaders have therefore imposed strict controls over what the press reports about the demonstrations. Renmin ribao’s very limited reporting on Hong Kong attempts to show how strongly people in Hong Kong support China’s rule. But Beijing is well aware that it cannot suppress all the news out of Hong Kong.  For one, Chinese bloggers are quite adept at finding ways around the army of censors.  For another, thousands of mainland visitors funnel in and out of Hong Kong every day; a small number of them reportedly have even joined the protesters’ ranks.  Whether Chinese tourists are sympathetic to the demonstrators or not, they represent potential trouble when they return home and recount what they saw.

Beijing will have no more compunctions about ordering the Hong Kong police to crack down now than they did about bringing in the army in 1989.  International opinion is far less important to Chinese leaders than stopping “instability” in the empire.  Already, as happened in June 1989, the Beijing press has seen “the hand of Western powers” in the demonstrations, insisting that the Western media invented the term “umbrella revolution” just as it invented “color revolution” and “jasmine revolution.” To China, democratization is a virus, and the contagion effects must be firmly dealt with.  The British and American governments have expressed “concern” and sympathy for the demonstrators, but Beijing will easily deflect such “interference in China’s internal affairs,” as the criticism will be called. US and European Union sanctions are very unlikely to be imposed because of the huge commercial interests at stake, and besides, the West is too deeply embroiled in Middle East crises to want a confrontation with China.  The only leverage Hong Kong’s people have is their numbers and tenacity.  But time is not on their side, as students and workers discovered to their horror on June 4, 1989.

Post #47 – Mission Impossible

The New York Times editorial board has finally awakened to Obama’s “strategy” in the “war” (as it is officially called now) against ISIS. It is essentially the same strategy that has guided literally hundreds of US military operations abroad since World War II: achieve the maximum objective with the minimum commitment of US power and prestige.  Trouble is, the strategy rarely works, mainly because the enemy won’t cooperate and friendly forces are either inept or unpopular (or both). Thus begins the slippery slope to wider and deeper involvement.

The testimony of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is what got the Times’ attention: “If we got to the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I’ll recommend that to the president.”  A few days later the army chief of staff, General Ray Odierno, chimed in: “You’ve got to have ground forces that are capable of going in and rooting them [IS forces] out.”  In short, Obama’s supposed commitment not to deploy US ground troops to combat in Iraq or Syria—“a profound mistake,” he said September 7—is as firm as mud.  As happened in Vietnam, there will be “advisers,” more and more of them, as it becomes plain that the mini-max strategy of relying on air power to “degrade and destroy” ISIS proves insufficient.

Even without Dempsey’s and Odierno’s remarks, the Times and others should have seen the handwriting on the wall.  The widening of air targets from those originally announced (they were supposed to be limited to protecting threatened populations and US personnel); the increasing number of US advisers; the avoidance of a Congressional vote on war powers; the quick resort to air strikes in Syria, without United Nations or Syrian authorization; the shift in categorizing the conflict, from a “counterterrorism” operation to “war”; the shrill voices of pro-war Republicans and former military officers tied to defense contractors—all these suggested the Vietnam model of mission creep.

President Obama has followed in George W. Bush’s footsteps by indicating that the war against terrorism will extend well beyond his presidency.  Recall Bush’s speech to West Point cadets in 2006, which I quoted in post #45: “The war began on my watch.  But it’s going to end on your watch.”  Now here is Obama on September 12: “This [conflict] will be a problem for the next president, and probably the one after that.”  At the UN on September 23, Obama formally upgraded the “problem”  of ISIS to an historic venture, saying it would determine “whether the nations here today will be able to renew the purpose of the UN’s founding; and whether we will come together to reject the cancer of violent extremism.”  He spoke as though announcing the start of World War III.

ISIS poses a serious threat to various governments in the Middle East, but it is not a national security threat to the United States.  Though several governments are now said to be contributing to the US air strikes in Iraq and Syria, make no mistake: This is an American operation, just like the two Gulf Wars and Afghanistan. (On the fiction of a coalition effort, see www.nytimes.com/2014/09/24/world/middleeast/us-is-carrying-out-vast-majority-of-strikes-on-isis-military-officials-say.html.)  Take away US control and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and the others would actually have to defend themselves.  Interviewed on “60 Minutes” Sunday, Obama acknowledged US leadership of the war, but said that has always been the case and—in an eerie echo of a famous Madeleine Albright remark—“we are the indispensable nation.”

The perceptive observer Ahmed Rashid has written that governments and publics throughout the Middle East, most certainly including those now being counted on to support the latest “coalition of the willing,” are deeply suspicious of and hateful toward the US.  (Thanks to Benon Sevan in Cyprus for forwarding Rashid’s latest article, http://blogs.ft.com/the-a-list/2014/09/16/us-must-work-harder-to-win-over-arab-regimes-on-isis/.)  As much as they fear ISIS, Rashid writes, they don’t trust the US after watching it fumble and stumble in Iraq and Syria; and they worry about associating with the US and becoming a target of pro-ISIS groups in their own country.  Professor Mark Katz, reporting about a conference he attended in Riyadh, adds to this picture: Influential people in the Arabian Gulf states tend to blame the US for the rise of ISIS, believe dealing with ISIS is therefore mainly a US responsibility, and point to other security issues that are equally important to them (such as the unstable situation in Yemen, Shi’a extremism, and of course the Palestianian-Israeli conflict) (http://katzeyeview.wordpress.com/2014/09/19/arabian-gulf-and-regional-challenges-conference-report/.)

Hamid Karzai, the departing president of Afghanistan, took a large swipe at the US in a talk to his cabinet the other day.  He said the US and the West generally fought in Afghanistan for their own reasons, not for Afghanistan.  “It is not our war, and there is no fight among the Afghans.”  If the US and Pakistan wanted peace, they could produce it, he said.  “Ungracious” and “ungrateful,” the US ambassador to Afghanistan responded.  Yes, considering the enormous amount of money and the thousands of casualties the US has sacrificed there.  But perceptions count: Karzai’s mistrust of the Americans, never far from the surface, no doubt speaks for many Afghans as well as people in neighboring countries.

So the bottom-line question: Is it sensible, and in the US national interest, to support ever-deepening intervention in the Middle East?  Does anyone believe a military solution to the ISIS advance is possible or desirable, particularly inasmuch as ISIS arose out of three civil wars (in Gaza, Syria, and Iraq) that can only be resolved by political agreements?

For reference: The Congressional Research Office has just published Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2014 (http://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R42738.pdf).  Although we’re all aware of how often the US dispatches the military abroad, you might be surprised to see how many hundreds of times it has happened—and only eleven times by declaration of war.

 

 

 

Post #46 – Scotland’s Vote, Our (Possible) Future

            

Scotland’s vote for independence fell well short of victory.  But pro-independence Scots will surely try again, just like les Québecois.  From a practical point of view, perhaps the Scots are better off staying in the United Kingdom; independence would have raised difficult challenges concerning foreign and defense affairs, oil, and the environment, among many others.  Still, I found myself wondering what might be the implications beyond Scotland if it had gained independence.  Would that have prompted a similar movement in Wales?  Might Catholics in Northern Ireland have raised demands for union with Ireland?  What about Catalonia?  Kurdistan? Tibet? Chechnya?

Secessions of parts of a state to form a new one generally are not well received by other countries.  An independent Scotland—not to mention an independent Quebec, Kurdistan, or Tibet—does not have support from the US or any other major country so far as I’m aware.  Eastern Ukraine’s breakaway only has Russia’s support.  Someday, backing another country’s breakup might come back to haunt us, is the usual thinking.  Of course there are exceptions: the breakup of the USSR and the split of Sudan into north and south did not seem to arouse much disapproval.  The international approach to Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan is more typical: for all the ethnic, religious, and political forces within those countries that are pulling them apart, and that might make the case for division into new countries, no one seems in favor.

Nevertheless, I believe we are on the threshold of a new era, the likes of which we haven’t seen since decolonization in Africa and Asia after World War II, in which attempts at breakaways will be more common, and perhaps more successful than Scotland.  The reason is that popular dissatisfaction with government is rampant, regardless of political system. Demand (for services, satisfaction of grievances, regulations or deregulation) greatly exceeds what governments can supply. And the opportunities for people to display, communicate, and organize their dissatisfactions are also far greater than ever before.  Governments will become increasingly unable to calm or quash widespread anger.  Wisely or not, many groups will demand not just greater local autonomy but the right to fully govern themselves.

This possibility should not be surprising.  I think we—Americans, Chinese, Russians, French, Iraqis, you name it—are fast reaching the point where we see that our units of governing have become too large to accommodate the scope of the demands placed upon national leaders.  It’s no longer just a matter of ethnic or religious differences.  Climate change and other large-scale environmental problems, rapidly growing rich-poor divides, unemployment, cross-border immigration, migrant workers, tainted food and water deficits, unmanageable public health crises—all these are creating serious protests that challenge the managerial abilities of governments.  Central governing units need to be smaller if they are to be responsive and accountable.

“We are living in an era of unprecedented level of crises,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as a new General Assembly session opens in New York.  For how long can these crises be contained, or ignored?  Can they be handled nonviolently?  I’m happy to be old enough that I won’t be around when these questions are answered.  When they are, I can only hope the Scottish option is accepted as a reasonable alternative to chaos and terrible destructiveness.  My grandchildren may one day be living in a country called Cascadia (the Pacific Northwest of the US and Canada), and that increasingly sounds like a good idea.

 

 

Post #45 – America on Crusade: Now It’s Obama’s Turn

George F. Kennan, one of America’s greatest statesmen, warned in his classic American Diplomacy (1951) and many times thereafter of the country’s tendency to universalize its self-conceptions and its aims, particularly in war.  Presidents, regardless of party, have consistently proven unable to separate the necessity to defend against a particular threat based on a restricted notion of national interest from the idealistic ambition to remake the world in our image.  Thus, World War I became a war to end all wars; World War II was a fight for (Roosevelt’s) four freedoms and the “scourge of war”; Vietnam was a battle against all communist-backed insurgencies; and since 9/11, the “global war on terror” has been all-consuming.

Kennan correctly saw the dangers of such an expansive notion of war aims.  For if the stakes are global and not merely local, they require a total commitment.  War becomes a crusade on behalf of “freedom,” “(Western) civilization,” “democracy,” and inevitably, the American way of life. Regardless whether the US leader was Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, or George W. Bush, each one of them embraced the idea that the United States fought for and on behalf of all right-thinking people.

So now I come to President Obama and his speech of September 10.  I won’t repeat what I’ve said in earlier posts about the pattern of escalating intervention that his administration is following, which now includes about 1,000 US advisers, direct involvement in Syria, and dismissal of constitutional and legal war-making procedures.  To “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS will take a very long time, with risks and costs that his speech did not address.  Nor did he make the case that ISIS represents a national security threat.  In fact, he indicated that no specific threat to the US homeland had yet been detected, that the threat ISIS poses is to the Middle East, and that Americans are safer now than ever before.  (What is most likely to raise the threat to the United States, as well as to those countries that join it, is blowback from deeper and more destructive US military actions.)  Yet he insisted, as so many presidents before him have insisted, that Americans cannot be truly secure unless the terrorists are expunged.

Take a look at the end of this post at the language used by George W. Bush after 9/11.*  Doesn’t it strike you as being almost exactly like the language now being used by US officials, from the president on down, to describe war aims and demonize the enemy?  Americans have a long history of reducing the enemy to subhuman status.  The Germans, the Japanese, the Russians, the Chinese, and now Islamic militants (and apparently the Russians again) are the Other—“evil incarnate,” the director of Central Intelligence said of ISIS the other day. Sadly, such propaganda seems to be succeeding: The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, released the day before Obama’s speech, shows a huge majority in favor of taking the war to ISIS in Syria as well as in Iraq. A CBS poll reports similar results. And here we thought Americans were tired of war!

The argument of a war for civilization compels US presidents to ask for sacrifices of young lives and taxpayers’ money; pressing domestic issues are put on hold.  Many people may want the executive and legislative branches to finally get their act together and deal effectively with the many problems we face—climate change, immigration reform, the rich-poor divide, racism, gun control, jobs.  It’s a daunting list, but so long as the enemy is out there, we must put the list aside, show bipartisanship, and demonstrate international leadership.

Saving the world in order to save ourselves is a recipe for endless war.  President Bush told West Point cadets in 2006, “The war began on my watch.  But it’s going to end on your watch.”  He was more right than he could possibly have imagined.  Obama took pride in thinking he was ending US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan; but instead, he’s the next in line to fight the war on terror.  Once it was all about al-Qaeda; now it’s about ISIS; and sometime in the not-too-distant future it will be about some other militant group with ambitions just as grandiose as our own. As Obama said in his September 10 speech, “It is America that has the capacity to mobilize the world against terrorism.”

My argument is not on behalf of isolationism.  It’s about rethinking America’s place in the world and the limits of power and responsibility. Kennan, though best known as the “father of containment” of communism, in fact was a consistent advocate of humility in foreign policy: avoiding “delusions of superiority,” excessive moralizing, and notions of indispensability and virtuousness. The United States does have a positive mission in international affairs, one that has deep historical roots: I would list, for instance, supporting self-determination of peoples (read the Palestinians and the Kurds, for example); reducing global poverty and inequality; stopping and reversing global warming; working toward the elimination of weapons of mass destruction; promoting respect for international law (and abiding by it); and demonstrating by “shining example” (as our founders put it) the attractiveness of democratic governance.  This mission requires cooperation with other countries, searching for common ground with adversaries, sharing financial, technological, and other resources, and above all perfecting our own experiment in democracy and social justice.  It does not require deploying troops and bombers all over the world with the hopeless task of defeating “evil” and creating a new world order based on American values.

*Here are a few excerpts from two of Bush’s speeches.  Compare his language with Obama’s and others in his administration.

Bush at West Point in 2002:

“Because the war on terror will require resolve and patience, it will also require firm moral purpose. In this way our struggle is similar to the Cold War. Now, as then, our enemies are totalitarians, holding a creed of power with no place for human dignity. Now, as then, they seek to impose a joyless conformity, to control every life and all of life.”

“Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place. Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong. Brutality against women is always and everywhere wrong. There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and the guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.”

“America has a greater objective than controlling threats and containing resentment. We will work for a just and peaceful world beyond the war on terror.”

Bush at West Point in 2006:

“We have made clear that the war on terror is an ideological struggle between tyranny and freedom. When President Truman spoke here [in 1952, he said]: “We can’t have lasting peace unless we work actively and vigorously to bring about conditions of freedom and justice in the world. . . . Our strategy to protect America is based on a clear premise: The security of our nation depends on the advance of liberty in other nations. On September the 11th, 2001, we saw that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away could bring murder and destruction to our country. And we learned an important lesson: Decades of excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe.”

 

“So long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place where terrorists foment resentment and threaten American security. . . . So we are pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. I believe the desire for liberty is universal — and by standing with democratic reformers across a troubled region, we will extend freedom to millions who have not known it — and lay the foundation of peace for generations to come.”

 

Post #44 – Democracy Under the Gun: Hong Kong and Other Asian Stories

“Communist Party, you choke people,” reads the placard raised by a demonstrator in Hong Kong the other day.  He and a few thousand others belonging to Occupy Central (in Chinese, the organization is called Heping zhan zhong, or Peacefully Occupy the Center; but in English the official name is Occupy Central in Peace and Love) have been protesting for months against anticipated restrictions imposed by Beijing on elections for chief executive of Hong Kong. Now those restrictions have been enacted.  By tightening the rules concerning nominations for the position, China’s legislature has made it fairly impossible for an independent-minded leader to be elected.  Pro-democracy forces in the city had hoped that by 2017, they would gain control on the basis of one person, one vote.  But the system is now rigged to deny that principle in practice.  The new rules reflect just how scared China’s leadership is of losing control over a key city.

Whereas problems such as official corruption, water shortages, labor unrest, and threats to public health plague many other parts of China, in Hong Kong the chief issue is political.  It is now seventeen years since authority over Hong Kong passed from Britain to China.  Unlike other so-called autonomous regions of China, Hong Kong has enjoyed an unusual degree of political as well as social and economic freedom in keeping with its long-running stature as an international crossroads—and in keeping with Beijing’s pledge not to interfere with the city’s way of life for 50 years.  “One country, two systems,” Deng Xiaoping promised following China’s takeover.  But Beijing’s control has never been remote; it has maintained predominant influence over who runs Hong Kong and by which rules; and Hong Kongers are fully aware that China’s military can be quickly deployed should widespread “instability” occur.

Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong affairs has intensified of late.  As one former high Hong Kong official wrote: “Press and other freedoms are being eroded, and key sectors of the civil service, such as the police and anti-corruption agency, politicized.”  A Chinese government white paper in June insisted that “Hong Kong judges must be patriotic and in their rulings must safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development interests. Some 1500 lawyers took to the streets to protest at this blatant threat to the independence of the judiciary” (www.huffingtonpost.com/anson-chan/hong-kong-turmoil-beijing_b_5760212.html).

Opinion polls show substantial majorities in favor of open contests for legislative and executive positions.  China’s leaders read these polls, and the growing public protests behind them, as security issues: Allow Hong Kong more political liberties and people in other Chinese cities are sure to demand them too.  Moreover, people will start organizing parties to challenge the Communist Party’s authority, and the next thing you know, the one-party state will come under challenge.  Those elements of “instability” have always been unacceptable to Beijing.

Hong Kong’s legislature either must now adopt a new voting plan that reflects Beijing’s latest decision or stick with the old system that keeps political power in the hands of pro-China people.  In the meantime, leaders of Occupy Central and pro-democracy groups are deciding how best to influence politicians and public opinion—strikes? sit-ins? large-scale demonstrations?  China will not be patient with lengthy “chaos” in the streets, as they will call it. But at the same time, its international image will suffer if it suppresses the protest movement. In the worst case, we might witness another Tiananmen.  As the same former Hong Kong official wrote, “Something has got to give on the part of Beijing—and quickly—or Hong Kong faces increasing social turmoil and a complete breakdown of governance.”  Yet one looks in vain for any government that is speaking up for the people of Hong Kong or taking China to task.  Economic interests do wonders at silencing criticism.

Democratization is taking a hit elsewhere in Asia, though a few bright spots have emerged.  Thailand and the Philippines are supposed to be the most democratic countries in Southeast Asia. But the Thai military has once again intervened in politics following several months of turmoil in the streets.  A general now rules, backed by a rubber-stamp parliament composed entirely of his supporters.  In the Philippines, the president is seeking another term in office, which requires a constitutional change, at a time when corruption is again widespread.  Pakistan’s politics continues to be chaotic.  Protests in Islamabad against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s rule, now entering their third week, are becoming increasingly violent, raising the question how long the military will remain on the sidelines.  The protesters are demanding that Sharif resign over allegations of election fraud last year.

Malaysia’s political stability is often touted; but at this writing, three opposition politicians are in jail under a dragnet-style sedition law, leading one human-rights advocate to accuse the government of seeking to “assert power over the people and to create a climate of fear. And it’s working” (www.economist.com/news/asia/21615633-archaic-law-prime-minister-promised-repeal-makes-ugly-comeback-if-you-cant-beat?).

The brighter spots are Indonesia, where people just elected Joko Widodo president–a man of humble origins who defied the experts by defeating a former general, Prabowo Subianto, who stands accused of extensive human rights violations. And in Burma (Myanmar), though repression of a religious minority continues, the country seems to be gradually moving away from direct military rule and toward competitive politics.  These stories are incomplete, however; democratization could be rolled back at any moment, depending on the military’s outlook.  In Indonesia, for example, even though Prabowo accepted defeat (it took a court decision to end his challenge of the election results), the military is not known for graciously stepping aside, and neither is he.

Democratization is a never-ending process; keeping it on track requires constant vigilance and struggle.  South Korea took over thirty years to get rid of military-backed authoritarian rule, and even now, President Park Geun-hye’s popularity has evaporated thanks in part to a pattern of governing that reminds many people of the bad old days when her father ruled.  Thus, while Asia gets plenty of kudos for economic successes, we should pay at least equal attention to the many ways the democratization project is being threatened.

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.

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