Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Taken for a Ride 

I saw Charlie Wilson’s War Saturday night (two thumbs up, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is fantastic, and the great irony about the film is that they had to tone it down from Wilson’s actual life). What’s most fascinating about watching a movie like that is how much of a commentary it is on the present day, as the events from 20+ years ago have a direct and not at all subtle link to the present day’s politics.

There’s a very poignant scene in the movie where Wilson goes to Pakistan for the first time and meets President Zia ul-Haq and his two military advisers. They are asking Wilson for billions in new aid, and at the end of the pitch, Zia says “all the money should flow through us.” And it did.

Now, 20-some years later, the US is fighting another war in Afghanistan, sending billions through Pakistan to fund it. Pakistan is now the #3 recipient of US foreign aid, receiving over $700 million in FY 2007. Two investigative stories in the NY Times reveal that the billions already spent have been fruitless at best and damaging to US interests at worst, while future plans to develop a new AID package for the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan might be dead on arrival, regardless of how the US organizes its operation.

The idea behind the initial and ongoing direct payments to Pakistan were to build the Pakistani military’s effectiveness in counter-terrorist operations and quelling the insurgent Taliban / Al Qaeda forces. However,
Bush administration and military officials said they believed that much of the American money was not making its way to frontline Pakistani units. Money has been diverted to help finance weapons systems designed to counter India, not Al Qaeda or the Taliban, the officials said, adding that the United States has paid tens of millions of dollars in inflated Pakistani reimbursement claims for fuel, ammunition and other costs….

The $5 billion was provided through a program known as Coalition Support Funds, which reimburses Pakistan for conducting military operations to fight terrorism. Under a separate program, Pakistan receives $300 million per year in traditional American military financing that pays for equipment and training…

“I wonder if the Americans have not been taken for a ride,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Bush Administration is now reviewing its AID program to Pakistan. The goal is to have funds flow to the massively underdeveloped northwestern provinces to build social and governmental capacity to combat terrorist influence. But,
Because the United States is viewed with such opprobrium, it will not be identified on any of the aid, preventing any possible flow of good will. The aid will instead be presented as Pakistani. That, said a senior United States Embassy official, would help the Pakistanis feel like owners of the effort. “This is about teaching them how to get smart about how to run the country and win people’s support,” the official said.

Asked what he thought of the American goal to improve the “capacity” of the administration of which he is a senior member, Mr. Iqbal, the Pakistani official, who attended college in the United States, replied, “Bunkum.”
So here (not Iraq) you have the ‘central front in the war on terrorism’ and the US is pouring in all kinds of money in military and development assistance, and with next to nothing to show for it. Standing right there next to nothing is
one senior American military officer in Afghanistan said that he did not know that the administration was spending $1 billion a year until he attended a meeting in Islamabad in 2006.

“I was astounded,” said the officer, who would not speak for attribution because he now holds another senior military post. “On one side of the border we were paying a billion to get very little done. On the other side of the border — the Afghan side — we were scrambling to find the funds to train an army that actually wanted to get something done.”


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Huray AU! 

AU beat cross-town rivals Maryland Terrapins in hoops today for the first time since 1927! The one person on the team who I know for a fact is an SIS major had 2 points in 14 minutes.

AU's other major sports star, national champion wrestler Josh Glenn is also an SIS major.

Where else do you have major college athletes majoring in international relations?

This could be the highlight of the AU hoops season, right here.

Friday, December 21, 2007


In the post- 9-11, post Iraq world of Intelligence and policy, the great hue and cry has been that the US needs better Human Intelligence. To that end, the Intelligence Reform act created the National Clandestine Service out of the CIA's old Directorate of Operations, in an attempt to beef up our human intelligence capability.

Joseph Weisberg, writing in the Washington Post, raises an interesting and provocative argument:
Although we dedicate enormous resources to recruiting "human sources," there just aren't many good ones available. The central problem is that the people who actually know the secrets we'd be interested in aren't recruitable. Officials at the highest reaches of foreign governments have wealth and power and usually no compelling reason to put those at risk. The most knowledgeable members of terrorist groups are ideologically committed and aren't going to work for the CIA or anyone else.
Those 'assets' that the CIA (or other agencies) do manage to recruit, he asserts, are essentially useless:
Intelligence from almost all CIA assets is unreliable for the simple reason that so many of them are double agents, meaning that the CIA recruited them but that they are being controlled by their own countries' intelligence services. When I worked at CIA headquarters in the early 1990s, I once suggested to a friend who worked in counterintelligence that up to a third of all CIA agents could be doubles. He said the number was probably much higher.

Concrete proof is always scarce in these matters, but from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, most and very likely all Cuban agents on the CIA payroll were doubles. So were a majority of East German agents during the Cold War.
So why even bother? Now, Weisberg is does not want to totally scrap HUMINT, he just feels that the CIA should target more obtainable and useful (and boring) information and get over the myth of the super-spy:
Sympathetic Europeans who work at companies involved in the illicit transfer of nuclear components might help us understand how the underground nuclear supply chain works. Scientists who attend highly specialized conferences might glean valuable insights into foreign capabilities.
What Weisberg's article made me think about (and this is an example of poor blog writing, as I'm burying the lead, but the nice thing about blogs is that I can write as I think, and this is what I was thinking on Sunday...) is perhaps "secret" information is really not all that valuable. Perhaps this massive expansion of the intelligence community, producing a great number of classified intelligence products is only marginally more useful than a subscription to the Washington Post, Google, and regular reading of Abu Aardvark.

What leads me to this question is not any empirical study-- I've never read a classified TS document (though once, as a State Department Intern, I did have a Secret clearance to read cables and such, but little that I read then was all that exciting, and what was dealt with operational security, like the plans for a Secretarial trip to Lebanon that was of course public news the minute she landed...). Rather, what gets me here is some of the theoretical work I've done on language, building on Wittgenstein's Private Language argument--you can't have a private language because to have a meaningful social relations, you must speak in a way others can understand. Red, Pain, Beetle In the Box, that kind of stuff.

Add to this one of the rules of Networks. The bigger the network, the more powerful it is. The original Fax machine wasn't all that valuable because there wasn't anyone else to fax to. Only when everyone had a fax machine did it become a valuable thing to have because then you could actually use the fax to communicate and expect people to be able to fax.

Put this together, and perhaps you get to the point where information--intelligence--is only valuable when lots of people know it. Thus, secrecy, classification, and the like are usually more harmful than beneficial. As an illustration, consider the NIE on Iran. The public conclusion has been very powerful and had a tremendous impact on both the domestic political debate on what to do about Iran's nuclear program, as well as the way Iran views the potential for negotiations with the US about its nuclear program. I don't know what is in that report, but does it matter?

Now, I can understand two counter-arguments for 'secrecy' and classification.
1) OP-SEC: When I was interning at State, Secretary Albright was going to Lebanon. The first visit by a US SecState in several decades. Obviously a difficult security situation, and you don't want to put her at risk, so the trip details are classified. But, once she got there, it was all public.
2) Sources and Methods: This is no different than the reporters who have anonymous sources--people talk more freely on a not-for-attribution basis. But in this case, what difference is there between a CIA officer and Dana Priest? (she's a Post Reporter who covers national security). Once, in a chat she was doing, someone asked her the question-- who has better info, you or a spy--and she said her. People were more willing to talk to a reporter than a spy for a whole host of reasons. Essentially, being overt was more of an asset than being under cover.

So, I've just taken an interesting Post Op-Ed on the problems of HUMINT and turned it into an ontological discussion of secrecy in spying. Not quite sure how I got there (well, actually I am rather sure of how I got there, but not in any way that I could explain in a blog post. Private language and all that...).

But, its going to be a fun long weekend with plenty of time to blog over the next 4-5 days, so a) you have more of this to look forward to and b) i hope this keeps you as entertained as it does me and c) if you've read this far, you deserve a medal or a cookie or something. Perhaps go read this Drezner post and decide if its Funny. I am still not sure.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

The Mitchell Report and Global Governance 

Obviously, the Mitchell Report is all the big news in the world of sports, culture, and politics this morning, and is receiving saturation coverage. Rather than try to add my 2 cents as a baseball fan, I thought I might try to tease out an interesting IR angle to the whole thing.

As I was driving home yesterday, I heard Selig in his press conference assert that Baseball had one of the most stringent testing drug policies (now) of any major sport. The radio commentators were discussing this and said, well, if by major sport you mean NFL, NBA, and MLB, then yes. But, compared to the testing at the Olympic level, it has a long way to go.

Earlier this morning, on my way into work, I heard Sen. McCain on ESPN, and they were asking him what, if anything, the government could do about this (and recall that most of the good stuff in the Mitchell Report is the result of government work--the hearing and several drug busts and plea agreements). McCain said (paraphrasing): Not much, except to fund the USADA to improve testing practices and perhaps work more with the World Anti-Doping Agency.

From an IR perspective, I think this raises a rather interesting question--given that there is a robust international organization with a well developed regime of anti-doping rules and norms that apply to international sport, why is it that the major US sports feel that they are somehow exempt or above or beyond these global norms? Past attempts to apply Olympic-level testing to US pro athletes (NHL hockey and NBA basketball players) by the USOC met with resistance from the leagues and players associations of those sports.

So, why is it that the US and US-based organizations place themselves above this global anti-doping norm? Many major international sports have an Olympic-caliber anti-doping regime, which requires tough random testing, and a number of their most significant events have been hit by drug scandals (Tour de France...). As US pro sports go global in an every increasing way (particularly baseball and basketball), how can they make global inroads and yet flout a global norm on drug testing?

I suspect the answer has something to do with Hegemony (free preview of my Spring class!) in two ways. First, I think the sheer market size of the US and the dominance of the US professional sports leagues in their respective sports means that they don't need to comply. The best basketball in the world is in the NBA, and its become a very international league, with the best players from everywhere. The NBA doesn't need anyone else. Same with MLB--you now see the best Japanese players coming over, wanting to play in the Majors in a way that they didn't even 5 or 10 years ago.

Second, I think there's an identity component to it--why we call it the World Series or the Superbowl winner World Champions. They aren't world champs, they just won a league. But, the US doesn't recognize any other league as being on par with the US leagues. Interestingly enough, the major sports are starting to recognize the impact of globalization and playing US vs. the World all star games or stating up such things as a World Cup for baseball. But, the World Baseball Classic is largely an MLB dominated activity, not an international event like The World Cup.

Hegemony. When your champion is the world's champion.

So, why then doesn't the hegemon follow the world norm on anti-doping?

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Must read 

Patrick Jackson has an excellent post up at the Duck about the NIE.

Its a must read.

See it here.

Elections, Democracy, and USFP 

Last week there were two major elections, in Venezuela and Russia, and looking back on them together offers a moment to discuss democracy and US foreign policy of democracy promotion.

This allows us to ask the question—are Russia and Venezuela really democracies? The US has been highly critical of Hugo Chavez and his political revolution in Venezuela, and somewhat less critical of Vladimir Putin and his power grab in Russia. Both purport to be democracies, but the US is challenging that assertion in each case. The elections mark a chance to interrogate our notions about the definition and status of democracy.

In some respects, the mere having of elections might be sufficient to label them democracies. One thing that I’ve noticed of late is the tendency to dumb-down democracy to the mere holding of elections. If you are elected, then you are the legitimate leader, and therefore anything you do is legitimate. As an illustration, recall the declaration of emergency rule in Pakistan. It was roundly condemned in the US, but differently by various people. I had my class do a short discourse analysis assignment on this, and one thing that came up was the difference in how the democrats vs. Bush called for a return to the status-quo ante. Bush simply said: take off the uniform and be elected as a civilian president. Others, however, called for the restoration of the constitution, the restoration of the Supreme Court, and the freeing of jailed opposition leaders. Bush did not. Likewise, think back a few years to Iraq, the purple finger day as they voted in the present government. Iraq had an election and that secured US victory. They voted for a government, and that was all that mattered. Bush, and thus the US, seems to be saying that so long as you are elected, you are a legitimate democratic leader.

This inclination by the Bush Administration has emerged in domestic politics as well, as Bush says don’t question my methods on anti-terrorism, torture, or domestic spying. Don’t oppose my appointments or my war. I won the election, I get to do what I want, end of story. This assertion of executive power has been a stated agenda of VP Cheney, and has served to annoy many a member of Congress.

What is lost in all this is the more nuanced, complex, and messy definition of democracy that includes representative government, rule of law, separation of powers, individual rights, and fairness and equality of all before the law. Bush certainly doesn’t talk about any of this in Iraq. We talk about security, violence, and the elected government. Not discussed is the status of the rule of Iraqi law or the development of national political institutions. These elements are important constitutive elements of a functioning democracy. Democracy is not just about how one attains power (election) but also how one exercises power (laws, institutions) and the limits of that power (laws, rights, checks and balances). Most importantly, democracy locates the source of power within the people, not the leader, allowing the people to transfer power to an opposition without compromising the integrity of the state.

It seems that we’re learning that Chavez’s Venezuela some important parts of this—much more so than Putin’s Russia. Both Chavez and Putin had turned the respective elections into mechanisms that would allow them to hold onto power longer then they are currently allowed under the present rules. Chavez offering constitutional amendments that would permit him an additional term, Putin offering his name at the head of his party’s list such that he might become prime minister after his presidential term is through.

One of the most important moments in a democracy is allowing power to flow back and forth between opposing factions vying for power. It is why George Washington is deservedly an American hero and icon—he set the tone of voluntary giving up the office to a successor, of peacefully passing power from one leader to the next. With his acceptance of the legitimacy of the No vote on the current round of constitutional ‘reforms,’ Chavez has allowed the opposition to win. That’s a positive signal. Putin, on the other hand, bullied and harassed opposition parties he was already poised to trounce.

The real question about the status of democracy in both countries can only be answered at the end of each presidential term. Does each man give up power and pass it on to a successor? Can you really see Chavez handing over power to an opposing government after losing an election. Putin? As much as many didn’t like it (and I’d imagine he really didn’t like it), Clinton gave power to Bush, just as Bush will give power to Clinton or Obama or whoever wins the upcoming US presidential election. Genuine democracies recognize the value of the system and the rights of others to play fairly within the system.

The great failing of the US which occupies so much of the discussion here and elsewhere on this front, is to extol so much of the virtues of democracy, like Bush’s second inaugural, and then abandon those principles in the face of immediate gain or need.

But, I think its valid to ask, so what? Is the US the only country, is Bush the only leader, who offers platitudes of freedom and democracy and then turns on those statements the next day? Why do people get more upset when the US fails to live up to its words than any other country in the world?

I think there are 2 reasons for this.

The first is US Hegemony. The US is not like other nations, its the one that set up this system where Democracy is the preferred system of government, and only the can really change it. The US, as an agent of a liberal hegemony, has made it so that all major international institutions, forums and agendas advance the banner of democracy. Consequently, the US version and views and statements of democracy matter more than others.

The second is disappointment. Despite the fact that so many people don’t like the US (check any global opinion survey) many still want to move here or send their kids to school here. Why? Because, I think, people know that many Americans are largely good folks, and that in daily life, these principles of democracy are better expressed here, by the average American, on a routine basis than just about anywhere in the world. Despite all the structural impediments to advancement often discussed, it is still possible for anyone here to succeed in a way that simply isn’t possible nearly anywhere else in the world. I think people are more disappointed in US failures to live up to those foreign policy platitudes because they know we can, and sometimes do, when others just cannot. Its not all idle talk from the US, and hence the disappointment and betrayal when it can’t live up to the standards it sets for itself and others.

In other words, lots of nations are hypocritical in foreign policy statements, but few to the degree that Americans are. The US always criticizes in the name of such democratic ideals, the US calls for action in the name of such ideals, and much more so than other states who are much more comfortable talking about interests instead of ideals. So, the US talks an idealistic game, but then shirks away in the face of criticism that it violates its own ideals by alliances with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the like.

Or, perhaps there’s a third reason—people really do believe in these American principles of democracy and are deeply pained and hurt to see them thrown under the bus in the name of interest and stability. It certainly could lead if we, as a nation, truly believe those principles, or if those who do are simply fools and patsies for taking them seriously. Indeed, if more Americans were genuinely troubled by compromises in our democracy principles, perhaps the US wouldn’t violate them so much.*

Which brings us back to Chavez and Putin. In both cases, the US will criticize the general direction of the government of each country—probably more heavily Venezuela than Russia. And yet, Chavez, for all the criticism by Bush, is probably the more democratic of the two (or three, if you want to toss in Pakistan—really, more than a lot of US allies) while Putin is the more authoritarian, and taking his country down a more authoritarian path. But, really, what can the US do to Russia? What can the US do in Pakistan? Iraq? Iran?

Democracy is more than just holding elections. Its messy, its hard, and it takes a while to figure out and put into practice. In that time, polities can and do develop the institutions, structures, and processes that make a genuine democracy feel democratic, even in non-election years. Its not something that one can adequately judge moment to moment, it requires a close look nuance and the chain of unfolding events. Perhaps its time to put some of that nuance back into US foreign policy.

*significant debt owed to anonymous friend for inspiring this discussion

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