Mittwoch, 26. Januar 2011

Where Michelle Bachmann Really Fell Short

As you, my dear reader, will have noticed, I finally came around to comment a bit on the Tea Party. Following yesterdays State of the Union, much ink has been spent on the Tea Party-rebuttal, delivered by Michelle Bachmann. Michelle Bachmann, who has been to Iowa just the other day, testing soundbites for a potential presidential run (I'd sure welcome that, splitting the Tea Party/Social Conservative field between Huckabee, Palin, and Bachmann, the Republicans might eventually end up nominating someone at least a bit serious - though I've no earthly idea who that would be). Testing Iowa, Bachmann made some nonsense remarks on American history, basically suggesting something along the lines of equality was written into the constitution and ever since only had to be conserved. Chris Matthews of MSNBC's Hardball rightly ripped the Tea Party apart for that:

But it appears to me that - I know this might sound silly - that Matthews is not taking the argument far enough. History is more than some facts neatly arranged on a timeline. History, as every historian will agree, is about competing narratives. And the Bachmann narrative fell remarkably short of making any sense whatsoever. American history is a constant struggle toward more equality, a sense of equality enshrined in the constitution but never actually reached or achieved. This constant struggle is what made America the exceptional power and is arguably the most potent narrative in history. It gives meaning to the struggle of Union soldiers, GIs fighting on Iwo Jima, civil rights advocates and finally those soldiers constantly protesting against Don't Ask Don't Tell. My point is this: If you don't perceive American history as the struggle toward more equality and if you don't want to contribute to that particular struggle, why in the world would you want to run for president?

Montag, 17. Januar 2011

Walt on Tunisia

Stephen Walt is simply amazing. I hardly ever agree with him but his latest post on Tunisia is worthwhile reading if only to see a hero of international relations theory making kind of a problematic argument. Here's the deal: The question all political scientists and historians have in front of them right now is whether or not the ouster of Ben Ali in Tunisia marks the beginning of a wave of democratic revolutions in the Arab world, whether or not, to put it differently, revolution can be contagious (obvious candidates would include Egypt and Syria – hows that for an Arab vanguard, anyway?). Now, Walt believes that it is unlikely that the revolution will spread. I tend to disagree (and I mean it, I tend to). But, lets look at Walt's argument:

First, argues Walt: “(...) the actual revolutionary potential of any society is very difficult to read in advance, and a rising revolutionary wave often depends on very particular preferences and information effects within society. Put differently, whether a genuine upheaval breaks out and gathers steam is a highly contingent process.” The revolution probably isn't going to spread because revolutionary settings are complex? Despite being complex they are also contingent and therefore it won't spread? (And notice the last assertion is just that an assertion, not an argument).

The second—Arab governments will be inclined to crack down harder and earlier on—I find somewhat compelling, whereas the third—Tunisia might experience some turmoil or some kind of anarchy and the revolution might therefore be less attractive for other disenfranchised populations to be repeated—I find irritating.

So, here is what I think should be taken into account:

First, contingency and sophistication are indeed important in judging any historical event, but the period we live in is different to others before for the changing nature of the way history tends to unfold. Links between different societies are today more real than ever before and though that leads to an even more sophisticated picture, contingency no longer trumps interdependence (and it appears to me that this is perhaps the real meaning of globalisation).

Second, if the Tunisian case illustrates anything than its this: Revolutions cannot be predicted, something I've argued for quite a while, now. However, it also shows that revolutions can be sparked by seemingly minor events, petty episodes might set an entire country aflame. That is hardly anything new, its seems to me that this innate to any revolution.

Which leads me to argue that third, the decisive factor is whether or not a regime has managed to enact enough reform to counteract revolutionary settings. The Tunisian case reinforces what historians have argued in all sorts of different cases: That reform is the minimum of change necessary to prevent the accumulation of revolutionary potential. When I look into Iran or Syria or Egypt for that matter, I do not get the impression that any of these regimes has followed that line of thinking.

But again that does not mean that Tunisia is going to be the spark that ignites the fume, the jury is literally still out on that. But what it does mean is that the regimes in Syria, Iran and Egypt are going to fall.

Freitag, 14. Januar 2011

The Tea Party Movements Awkward Relation with Conservatism and the Constitution

As you may have noticed, your humble blogger has largely stayed away from commenting on the Tea Party Movement and its self-proclaimed darlings, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Well, that's about to change, because I do feel strongly about American politics and the Tea Party has some rather bizarre claims about the American constitution and an awkward relationship with conservatism.

I have already voiced my displeasure with Sarah Palins remarks on the Tucson shooting. But her self-centred comments were noteworthy, nonetheless. Well, not in a good way. I've already pointed out that when she needed to appeal to the nation, she choose to appeal to her basis; instead of providing comfort, she tried to vindicate her rhetoric and political style. But the overall point is this: She thinks she's the victim since she's been linked by all the lamestream-media hypocrites, as she likes to call it, to the Tucson shooting, for putting cross-hairs on congressional districts. Again, I do not think that there is an actual connection. But for quite a while two things kept striking me as odd.

Her whole notion of being the victim of a vicious lamestream-media attack is a bit ridiculous. For one thing, it might be unfair to charge her with some of the responsibility for the shooting, but than that's politics. For another, she has never shied away from making totally fabricated connections herself. Remember, when in the 2008 presidential campaign, she accused Barack Obama of paling around with terrorists? Whining about such connections is therefore just another example of her awkward double-standards. It also shows the difference in stature between her and President Obama. When he was connected to the racist views of reverend Wright, he rose above the occasion, held a very presidential speech on race relations in the US and practically saved his presidential race. Sarah Palin, on contrast, you get the point.

But what I find particularly, lets be honest, disgusting, is that Palin, Beck and parts of the Tea Party Movement describe themselves as conservatives, when clearly they are anything but conservative. I admire the American constitution and I think it deserves protection and I think it needs politicians who are doing everything they can to conserve it. But when, as Beck recently did, you argue that America is a Christian nation and the separation of church and state has gone far enough, than that is not a conservative argument. The conservative argument would have been to point out that the separation of church and state is a principle and as such is absolute. There is never too much separation, by definition there can only be too little. When you, as Palin recently mentioned, want to repeal the 14th amendment, again that is not conserving the constitution. When, as Tea Party activists have argued, you want to repeal the commerce clause, that, I am afraid, is not a conservative position. These are the exact opposite, these are reactionary arguments and that is what the Tea Party and its darlings are, they are reactionaries. Someone needed to point that out and it might well be me who volunteers.Take a look yourself:

Mittwoch, 12. Januar 2011

Palin let the Pitch go by

In the wake of the Tucson-shooting the question that most concerned the news media and TV-pundits was when and how Sarah Palin would respond. She did today and it did not do her any good. As a matter of fact, for presidential hopeful Sarah Palin it was an opportunity missed. Here is why:

First: By quoting Ronald Reagan she pointed out that a criminal act stands on its own. And here she is quite right (After all, it seems Jared Lee Loughner was rather apolitical and though I do think that her rhetoric contributed to the heated political climate and though I despised her putting cross-hairs on congressional districts, making a connection between her and the assassination attempt and massacre is premature to say the least). But she did not stop there. After saying that every criminal act stands on its own, she argues: “journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.” Well, that simply is contradictory and John Dickerson just pointed that out on Slate.

But it is more than just a case of conflicting logic. It serves as evidence for what her critics have argued all along, anyway: That she is playing double standards, there is no connection, but you know, except when there is a connection between hatred and left-wing pundits on MSNBC. Tonight, her critics are correct and this will be ammunition not only to Keith Olbermann, but also to those in the GOP who fear nothing more than a Sarah Palin presidential run.

My second point of criticism is this: She used this opportunity to vindicate her rhetoric and campaign style. Only, that was not the moment to do that. Had she been presidential material, she would have provided comfort and left the debate for another time (and lets not kid ourselves here, the media would still have run that prime-time in a week from now). Put differently, instead of focusing on the tragedy, she made the speech about her political style. And that's a huge mistake and it is also a misstep in tone.

By the way: If you're presidential material, people do not want you to pray for guidance, they want you to lead. That at least is what politicians are supposed to do and good ones manage. Good ones also take such criticism and treat it as an opportunity. So, what does her speech do politically, you are inclined to ask? Not any good. The only thing she could have won today was some independents who would have thought her likeable. But today's speech did not do that. At a moment when she would have needed to appeal to the nation, she appealed to her basis. And that's what makes today's performance a failure.

Dienstag, 11. Januar 2011

Piracy off the Shore of Somalia – Once Again Misread

Birgit Mahnkopf has argued in a recent issue of the Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft [pdf] that piracy off the coast of Somalia is part of the “new scramble on[sic!] Africa.” She fails to give any evidence for that thesis, but what is equally important is that she has a fairly strange way to argue and that much of her argument is resting on a simply incomplete reading of the situation.

Not that I disagree with the notion that combating piracy is primarily a policing issue, as Mahnkopf argues. It certainly is. But arguing that the United Nations Security Council broke norms when authorising hot pursuit to apprehend pirates in Somali territorial waters is more problematic than Mahnkopf acknowledges. For one thing, the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia has invited the UN to do just that (something Mahnkopf conveniently fails to mention at all). For another, it is the United Nations Security Councils job to re-interpret international norms. Take the issue of Somalia: When the United Nations Security Council in 1992 authorised the UNITAF-intervention in Somalia it did so arguing that the famine in Somalia was a danger to international peace. It was the first time the UNSC ever decided to make a famine an issue of peace. Bottom line here is that the UNSC is well within the limits of its authority to interpret international law as it did.

More to the point: Mahnkopf argues that in international security circles a connection between piracy and terrorism has been made that is misleading since no such connection is proven. That simply is not true, or at least not as widespread an argument as she wants us to believe. There is, however, a distinction between al-Shabaab (Somalia's current Islamist militia) and the Union of Islamic Courts (al-Shabaabs predecessor that was defeated in 2006 by an Ethiopian intervention force). It is not al-Shabaab that has denounced piracy, as Mahnkopf argues, but the Union. Al-Shabaabs position on piracy is less clear. Though there is reason to suspect that al-Shabaab is also condemning piracy, we simply do not know for sure.

Mahnkopf argues that piracy and the international community's efforts to fight it have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. How does she back that up? She points out, correctly, that the number of pirate attacks has increased despite the presence of four different naval groups in the region. But that, I am afraid, doesn't make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. The number of pirate attacks could well have sky-rocketed without any naval presence. Arguing, as she does, that the presence of navy vessels does not deter pirates is simply speculative.

I also take issue with the potential scenarios she is describing. The international naval presence, she argues, could motivate pirate gangs to seek cooperation with al-Shabaab or organised crime syndicates and finally trigger a move to re-register ships, and turn captured ships into what is known in security circles as phantom ships, as happened in the late 1990s in South-east Asia. But that’s utter nonsense. The environment in South-east Asia allowed for hiding even large ships, the Somali coastline simply does not. There are quite a number of other points I take issue with (backing up your argument with data from 2005 for one thing) and some of her ideological underpinnings are simply nonsense as well (if an African government sells fishing-licenses to a European company that might well be damn stupid, but it is not, as Mahnkopf argues, neocolonialism).

Here, finally, we have arrived at the juicy part. Mahnkopf argues that because the official arguments for combating piracy do not make any sense (that is to her), it has to be about the global power balance. Honestly, I do not know how often I have encountered that sort of argument: Since A (i.e. combating piracy) cannot be the motivation it has to be B (i.e. geopolitics). How the hell are we to operate with such conclusions? What about C (lets say, for the sake of argument, safeguarding globalisation) and D (for instance incremental factors or perhaps opportunities for cooperation between US and Chinese navies)? What Mahnkopf is doing is simply not science of any sort, its irresponsible journalism that insinuates rather than argues.

Samstag, 8. Januar 2011

Will 2011 Mark the Consolidation of Democracy in Africa?

In recent years I and some others have argued that Sub-Sahara Africa is preparing for a major economic take-off, referring to some African states in East Africa as potential tiger economies. Particularly Eastern and Southern Africa are witnessing unprecedented growth rates, leading to the formation of a small but yet significant middle class in countries like Tanzania, Kenya, and Botswana. Some have dismissed that as wishful thinking or statistical irregularities, arguing that it is driven mainly by a demand for natural resources. An economic development, therefore, that would falter if not crater once the world economy takes another dive. But following ten years of steadfast economic growth, it might be time to stop talking economic irregularities or going off on how globalisation fuels injustice and a new economic imperialism. However, the question we all felt uneasy about is whether this latest addition to the positive effects of globalisation is duly accompanied by a consolidation in democratic structures and governments on the continent. One way or the other, 2011 will give us some answers. Those of my dear readers, who follow international relations closely know that this weekend will witness the referendum for independence in Southern Sudan. Less known but perhaps equally important are some presidential and parliamentary elections that are due in the coming months:

In January 2011 Niger is going to the polls to elect a new president. The poll is significant since Niger had experienced a coup d'etat last year to oust one of Africa's most corrupt dictators, Mamadou Tandja (picture), who has had a particular reputation for embezzling state funds. The coup was one of those only half-heartedly condemned by the international community, realising that it was perhaps the only way to get rid of a dictator who was bound to destroy the state's remaining few and weak institutions. Elections will be crucial in the transition to democracy.

The very same month Mauritania will elect a new national assembly, again a crucial vote. Mauritania has been plagued with occasional coups and is at the same time a front-line in the war against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (the former Algerian GSPC). Nonetheless, the development in Mauritania in recent months gives reason to be slightly optimistic. The Central African Republic is going to vote for a new president and a new national assembly in two rounds between January and March 2011, marking another test for the consolidation of democracy on the continent. From February to May Chad will vote on basically everything, a new parliament and president included. Assessing the prospect of democratic elections in Chad and CAR is difficult, elections could mark a significant departure from the past, but much will depend on whether France is willing to press for the implementation of democratic standards.

The fate of democracy in Sub-Sahara Africa, however, will not be decided by these elections. Three polls are going to be far more important in that regard:

First: Uganda is facing presidential elections in February. Following the end of the Cold War, Sub-Sahara Africa witnessed a number of former rebel leaders assuming presidential office, Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia, Issaias Afewerki in Eritrea and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, all of them hailed as Africa's “New Leaders”. The problem being that Meles and Issaias were turning toward authoritarian rule over the past two decades. The notable exception was Uganda, where Museveni has upheld democratic principles. However, the Ugandan constitution stipulated that the president would be term-limited. Approaching the end of his second term, Museveni moved toward standing for a third term, even though the constitution clearly ruled that out. He did not dump the constitution, but changed the provisions through a vote in parliament. Most observers were puzzled and the question remains whether his move showed respect for the rule of law and democratic principles or was in fact a Machiavellian manoeuvre to cling on to power disguised in a pseudo-democratic process. This year's election will provide some clues on that question.

Nigeria will vote in April this year, with current president Jonathan Goodluck standing for his first official term. The big question is, whether these elections will be a catalyst for North-South divisions and ethnic and religious upheaval or whether they will help to consolidate the state in Nigeria. Truth is, we simply don't know how elections in Africa's most populous country are going to spell out. This way or the other, these elections might well be the most decisive in Nigeria's recent history.

Third, Zimbabwe will be back on the agenda. Following the turmoil of the last election the conflicting parties agreed on a government of national unity. But the government of national unity was never to be a government with shared power, instead, Robert Mugabe continued to dominate the government's institutions, unwilling to share control over the security forces. Even though Morgan Tsvangirai undoubtedly won the elections. In the agreement reached following the de facto coup by Mugabe, both sides agreed upon writing a new constitution before the next elections were to be held. But it increasingly looks like Mugabe is pressing ahead with elections before the new constitution will be submitted to the public. The government is increasingly fragile and Mugabe's party Zanu-PF is reportedly preparing for the same sort of blackmail and intimidation, rape and torture it has used in the last elections. In all likelihood, 2011 will experience a second round in Zimbabwe's power struggle, with Mugabe unwilling to surrender his office. Zimbabwe won't give us any clue as to whether democracy on the continent is consolidating or not, but it will be interesting to watch how the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) are going to deal with the somewhat inevitable crisis. Current patterns of behaviour suggest that SADC will be hesitant to exert any pressure, whereas the African Union will be acting more aggressively in bringing the parties together. The only upside here is that the African Union has made progress in actually adhering to its charter.

2011 will likely be a mixed bag for democracy in Sub-Sahara Africa. But don't be misled by some of the early elections, the crucial test for democracy in Sub-Sahara Africa will come in Uganda and Nigeria and here we might well witness some modest consolidation of democracy.

Mittwoch, 5. Januar 2011

After New Start – Now Comes the Tough Part

You will certainly have noticed, my dear reader, that New Start was finally ratified in the lame duck session of the 111th Congress. New Start has provided President Obama with a much needed foreign policy success. More than that it gave Obama something to show for his reset-policy toward Russia. But it appears to me that now New Start is done, the American reset-policy toward Russia is somewhat lacking direction. Russia is after all not an easy partner to deal with and the United States has not yet formulated what it wants to accomplish with Russia other than nuclear arms reduction.

Its not for a lack of challenges, certainly. Russia has experienced an authoritarian backlash in recent years and it remains to be seen whether Medvedev will prevail over prime minister Putin and manage the resurrection of some sort of democracy in the country, or whether Putin will manage to hold on to power and transform Russia into his model of a tsarist authoritarian state. So, I wonder, what is it the Obama administration wants to achieve next? Wouldn't it be lovely for the White House to come up with a decent strategy?

In my humble manner I am willing to offer some points of departure: The Obama administration has not yet formulated a strategy for dealing with Central Asia and even though NATO has agreed upon a new strategic concept, its anything but a blueprint for approaching Russia or any sort of action for that matter. We might want to figure out, for instance, what we would like to do with our beloved Partnership for Peace (I've been arguing for four years now that NATO's PfP needs some sort of consolidation, but anyway). So despite its initial success, its still sometime before we know what to make of the reset. So, no, its not exactly a new years resolution, but its on my personal things-to-watch-in-2011-list. 

Holiday Reading – Modern Classics in War and Warfare IV

This holiday season I finally had some time to enjoy a good book or two. I would recommend reading Ian McEwans Solar, one of his strongest novels, but that carries the risk of me being carried away and, after all, this is a blog devoted to international politics. So, here is my holiday reading list:

1. Ron E. Hassner, War on Sacred Grounds. Conveniently short, Hassner looks at why conflicts with religious underpinnings are particularly hard to resolve and usually drag on for centuries. His basic argument is that whereas territorial conflicts can be resolved by partitions, religious conflicts cannot. They are characterised by the indivisibility of the religious site over which a conflict is being waged, making a religious conflict really inextricable. Its a good read, though the thesis would hardly have needed 200 pages.

2. Colin Dueck, Hard Line. Dueck has written a superb short history of American Republican Presidents. His basic question is not whether Democratic or Republican Presidents have had more success in international politics and crisis management. He looks at changes within the Republican Party  itself and at the different angles from which Republican Presidents approached international relations. In doing so, he describes major realignments in party loyalties and concludes that some Republican presidents had more success than is usually ascribed to them, i.e. Nixon and Bush.

3. David Priestland, The Red Flag. Priestland added the latest in a row of  book on gobal history. His 600 pages are an apt description of the development of communism, from its inception to its collapse. Always sharp, this book is worthwhile reading. Priestland pays attention to developments within the Soviet Union and has a particularly readable chapter on communist inspired rebel movements. Its a brilliant book and historical science at its best.

Samstag, 1. Januar 2011

And Finally a Reminder - the War Lingers On

The closing days of 2010 carried a stark reminder of why it is, we spent so much time and money on fighting radical Islamism. Apparently five suspected terrorists planned to attack the editorial rooms of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in a Mumbai-style terrorist attack. In 2005 Jyllands-Posten published the famous Mohammed caricatures. There have been other attacks in the past and when the caricature was first published Muslim scholars attacked Denmark for allowing the caricature to be published in the first place and advocated a ban of Danish products. This planned attack and the upheaval in the past demonstrate what we should never forget: Terrorists fight the West for what it is, not for what it does. Our societies are being defined by freedom of the press and freedom of opinion. This is not about the act of publishing the caricature itself, it is about being free to do so without any sort of intervention, divinely, stately or otherwise. Just as the controversy around the Satanic Verses authored by Salman Rushdie is not about the integrity of Islam as a religion but about the freedom to write on any topic you please. The Indian intellectual Shashi Tharoor once pointed out that Salman Rushdie might have to blame himself, since he did not use his freedom of opinion in a responsible or reasonable fashion. I couldn't disagree more. The point, again, is not that I do think that Salman Rushdie did exercise his rights responsibly (he did). The point is that even if he did not, he would not have to blame anyone else than the people—i.e. the former Iranian revolutionary leader Khomenei—issuing the fatwa calling for his assassination. Freedom of opinion is a principle and as such it is absolute and entails the right to use it in terms that some might consider irresponsibly, as a matter of fact, this is what makes it so important and worthy of defense. Would it depend on its being used reasonably or responsibly it would necessitate someone who judges on its responsible use and that is just another way of introducing censorship. What would freedom of opinion be worth  anyway would it not entail the right to provoke?