28 July, 2008

Reputation in international politics

Dan of txdap asks all the right questions. I was overgeneralizing on what we can say about the sources and influence of national reputation on international relations. He was right to call me on it. I remain convinced, however, that the concept of "reputation" is often too vague as to be useful--or at least it is used that way. And while there are some interesting studies what's really remarkable is how few there are. Anybody looking for a research project?

A quick review of recent literature:

Reputation does appear to affect alliance behavior. A strong reputation for sticking with past alliances affects alliance formation and dispute resolution. (1)

Crisis behavior is less clear. Failed (or successful) crisis deterrence, for example, doesn’t seem to matter as much as is commonly assumed in the literature in strategic signaling. In fact, the effect of past action (standing firm, or backing down) on reputation seems to be pretty low. (2)

Some of the most interesting work is being done of the expected domestic consequences of backing down, and what effects that has on foreign policy. In democracies, regardless of whether or not reputation has a strong effect on foreign leaders, the belief by key domestic audiences that it does, and the expectation by a democratic leader that he would suffer politically if he were seen to back down, does seem to lead to a stiffening of the spine by that leader. (Consider JFK’s comment on Cuba, that if he let the provocation slide he’d be impeached.) (3)

When it comes to deterrence (of various kinds), there have been few studies of the effect of reputation. Those that have been done find “little support for the strong-interdependence-of-commitment argument that potential attackers infer the defender’s reputation for resolve from its prior behavior in disputes with other states across a broad range of geographic locations.” (4) It’s not that reputation is insignificant, but its significance is very context-dependent, and situational variables are consistently more important. It also appears that “lessons learned” don’t stick for very long, as the strategic situation changes and/or leaders are replaced. The middle east--especially the Arab-Israeli dispute--is a good example of this.

(1) Gibler, Thomas M. The Costs of Reneging: Reputation and Alliance Formation. Journal of Conflict Resolution; Jun2008, Vol. 52 Issue 3, p426-454.

(2) Danilovic, Vesna, and Joe Clare. Reputational Effects of International Conflicts. Conference Papers — International Studies Association; 2007 Annual Meeting.

(3) Tomz, Michael. Domestic Audience Costs in International Relations: An Experimental Approach. International Organization; Fall2007, Vol. 61 Issue 4, p821-840.

(4) Huth, Paul K. Deterrence and International Conflict: Empirical Findings and Theoretical Debates. Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 1999. 2:25–48. Huth is probably the leading researcher in this area. He's certainly one of the best.

Deja vu

The more I see, the more the current election reminds me of the election of 1912.

Obama = Woodrow Wilson (clearly a role model)

McCain = Theodore Roosevelt (McCain has called himself a TR Republican)

Barr = Eugene Debbs (libertarian or socialist, the radical alternative)

Bush = William Howard Taft (?)

The biggest difference is that Bush is not allowed to run for reelection.

23 July, 2008

Defining victory

It seems to me that much of the argument between the candidates on Iraq is based on a fundamental disagreement over what constitutes victory. Recent interviews with each of the candidates spell this out. In each case, Katie Couric asks "what is victory?" and here is how each candidate responds. The emphasis is mine.

I know what this conflict is all about. I will bring our troops home. I will bring them home in victory. I will not do what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said would be very dangerous. We will have a stable Iraq that we won't have to return to because we have succeeded in the strategy and we will come home with victory and honor and not in defeat. Sen. Obama has said that if the surge failed that he might have to send troops back. After this surge has succeeded and we’ve won a victory, we’ll never have to send Americans back.
What happens is that if we continue to put $10 billion to $12 billion a month into Iraq, if we are willing to send as many troops as we can muster continually into Iraq? There's no doubt that that's gonna have an impact. But it doesn't meet our long-term strategic goal, which is to make the American people safer over the long term. If that means that we're detracting from our efforts in Afghanistan, where conditions are deteriorating, if it means that we are distracted from going after Osama bin Laden who is still sending out audio tapes and is operating training camps where we know terrorists' actions are being plotted.

If we have shifted away from the central front of terrorism as a consequence of enormous and continuing investments in Iraq, then that's a poor strategic choice. And ultimately, what we've got to do is - we have to recognize that Iraq is just one of our … security problems. It's not the only one.
There seems to be a major difference in focus, as well as assumptions. I hope McCain has a more broad concept of victory than the one he articulates here, because what he's calling for isn't strategic victory, it's operational. Operational victory on the wrong front can be worse than irrelevant. It would be as if the US fought World War II by invading Brazil. Even if you win there, it doesn't really matter.

McCain seems to be assuming Iraq is the center of gravity, the necessary battle if one is to win the war (or at least not lose it). Obama seems to be assuming Iraq is peripheral.

So which is right? I'm fairly certain that Iraq was peripheral in 2001, and in 2003. The American commitment made Iraq more important, and it encouraged a transfer of enemy resources to that front. If and when the US shifts to another front, some of those enemy resources will follow. I don't care much about perceptions of "American resolve," because those can be influenced by other means, and they aren't all that important in the long-term calculations of most opponents anyway. It's a poor bet to assume another state will be so internally fragmented that it will refuse to use its capabilities. And while some people will make that bet (Saddam Hussein comes to mind), most will apply some kind of worse-case assumption.

If it is American choices that have increased Iraq's importance, other choices can reduce it. I suspect that two years after most combat troops are out of Iraq--however it is accomplished--the country will not be considered important enough to go back in with a similar force, no matter what happens there.


Dan of taxdap makes some good points about the New Core, but it also gets me thinking about the nonproliferation regime. The US-India nuclear deal seems to imply that the NPT regime needs a major renegotiation, or that it's finally time to write it off. What could replace it? Who is "worthy" of being a nuclear weapons state, and what should be done about those who fail to meed the standards? Maybe the US should promote a policy that only democracies can have nuclear weapons? It fits the "Commonwealth of Democracies" idea. There's a lot of leeway in who you can label a democracy, so we can include whatever nuclear powers whatever nuclear powers the commonwealth chooses--sort of like letting Russia in the G-8 when it doesn't really deserve it.

It's time to accept that the current nonproliferation system is pretty much damaged beyond repair. From the start it was based on a division of the world into two classes of states, with a compact between them Neither of those points are entirely valid now. The problem is a lack of consensus regarding what to do next.

18 July, 2008

Ready for the olympics

The erosion of rights

I gave a talk to a group of civic and business leaders on Wednesday. The topic given me was "the PATRIOT Act after 9/11." Of course, being an academic, I looked at the trends well before 9/11.

Some people seemed surprised by how long the process eroding our rights has been going on, and many were surprised by just how far it has already gone. The complicity of the courts is eye-opening, too. Consider the most recent ruling on "enemy combatants," the Al-Marri decision. A longer review, from Glenn Greenwald, is here. But lets just look at what the panel of judges of the Fourth Circuit Court put into the text of their opinions. Everyone accepts that

In the words of the majority opinion, this didn't matter.
What matters is whether the President labels one an "enemy combatant." Attach that label, and you can can be placed in detention (in al-Marri's case, solitary confinement) for years. Hell, the government can lock you up forever.

So what, you ask? He's probably guilty of something? Besides, he's not even a citizen. Actual guilt and citizenship have nothing to do with the precedent. In the words of another judge on the court,

And that means

Sleep well, America.

Sad news

David Dixon, professor of History at SRU, died this week of a heart attack. He was one of the really good ones. I'm proud to be his friend. He'll be missed.

14 July, 2008

Obama on foreign policy

There's an interesting one-on-one with Fareed Zakaria on the CNN website. Comments?

Oil: how bad can it get?

It was about ten years ago (when oil was about $10 a barrel) that Osama bin Laden said that the price of oil should be $144 a barrel, in order to undercut the West and compensate Muslims for harm done to them. The New York Times, a month after 9/11, referred to the possibility when discussing nightmare scenerios. We're there now, and to the extent that bin Laden can claim some of the credit (deserved or not), this is looks like a geopolitical victory and a propaganda coup.

How bad can things get? The New Scientist (28 June) reports on a 2005 simulation of a hypothetical oil shock. The article is subscription only, but interesting commentary on it can be found here. An excerpt:

According to the New Scientist report, “In 2005, a group of current and former US government and national security officials were asked to address [the question of a large-scale supply interruption] in a live role-play exercise.” Teaming Shell Oil, counter-terrorism specialists and industry analysts, the simulation explored the possibility of a mounting compound disruption of supplies. Over the course of the 2005 simulation, the price of a barrel of crude reached $123.

“Against the recent peak price of $139, that rise would take the cost per barrel to $295,” reports Ian Sample for the New Scientist. Speculation due to the dim security outlook would then push the price to $161, which translates to $341.69 when accounting for current prices. Former CIA chief James Woolsey, one of the simulation participants said the scenario explored was “relatively mild compared to what is possible”.

Which is one of the reasons Woolsey drives a Prius (and so do I). He also uses solar power and biofuels, and as the initial capital expenditure drops, solar is looking better and better to me, too. I'm counting the months until we see a practical electric/plug-in hybrid on the market.

Working as designed

An analyst of African affairs, cited by VOA, adds a note of reality to the most recent "failure to intervene" in Zimbabwe. A relevant section:

On Friday a UN Security Council draft resolution to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe was vetoed by both China and Russia. Zimbabwe’s information minister described the resolution as a Western plot and has welcomed its rejection.

UK Ambassador to the UN said the Security Council has failed the people of Zimbabwe.

However, reacting to the veto, Herman Hanekom, independent analyst of contemporary Africa said it was Russia and China that failed.

“I don’t think the Security Council as such failed. What failed was Russia which cannot really speak of a good human rights record, then there’s China which also failed…”

This is exactly what the Security Council was designed to do. It was intended to cloak joint actions by great powers with an air of respectability, while making sure that none of those powers would be able to act with UN authority in opposition to the will of the others. (They can still act--the veto protection will keep them free from Security Council interference--but not with the legal authority granted by the UN seal of approval.)

Now, you may not like how it works, but don't complain that the Security Council isn't doing its job. This is its job.

13 July, 2008

Don't leave home

You can understand the resistance of this administration to joining the International Criminal Court. It's not about protecting American soldiers, I suspect--it's about protecting themselves. As the days count down on this presidency, the talk of war crimes prosecutions is slowly growing larger. From a recent review:
Mr. Bush's 2005 proclamation that 'we do not torture' was long ago revealed as a lie. Antonio Taguba, the retired major general who investigated detainee abuse for the Army, concluded that 'there is no longer any doubt' that 'war crimes were committed.' Ms. Mayer uncovered another damning verdict: Red Cross investigators flatly told the C.I.A. last year that America was practicing torture and vulnerable to war-crimes charges.

Top Bush hands are starting to get sweaty about where they left their fingerprints. Scapegoating the rotten apples at the bottom of the military's barrel may not be a slam-dunk escape route from accountability anymore.

No wonder the former Rumsfeld capo, Douglas Feith, is trying to discredit a damaging interview he gave to the British lawyer Philippe Sands for another recent and essential book on what happened, 'Torture Team.' After Mr. Sands previewed his findings in the May issue of Vanity Fair, Mr. Feith protested he had been misquoted - apparently forgetting that Mr. Sands had taped the interview. Mr. Feith and Mr. Sands are scheduled to square off in a House hearing this Tuesday.

So hot is the speculation that war-crimes trials will eventually follow in foreign or international courts that Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, has publicly advisedMr. Feith, Mr. Addington and Alberto Gonzales, among others, to 'never travel outside the U.S., except perhaps to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Will these people be tried? Almost certainly not. Much like Nixon, those who come next will mostly likely decide the best thing for the country will be to pardon anyone and everyone who might be prosecuted. And while this is one of the situations the ICC was designed to handle--a country that refuses to investigate or prosecute the possible crimes of its leaders--I don't see any way to make it work.

Then again, I've been wrong before. Could a retired American official be picked up in international waters? Will one need some special medical treatment abroad? Will one be so arrogant that he ignores the possibility of his own arrest? Will some future president decide it's in his best interest to ship some of these people to the Hague? A presidential pardon can keep you out of an American courtroom, but it doesn't mean anything anywhere else. War crimes are subject to universal jurisdiction, with no statute of limitations.

The Saudis can't save us

Thanks, Fabius Maximus, for a pointer to a recent Business Week article on Saudi Oil production. The relevant excerpt:
It appears that for at least the next five years, and possibly longer, the Saudis are likely to produce less crude than promised, according to fresh data on the kingdom’s oil fields obtained July 9 by BusinessWeek. Saudi officials have said they
would increase production capacity to 12.5 million barrels a day next year, from the current 10 million barrels a day, and could even ramp up to as much as 15 million barrels a day if the market demanded it.

… But the detailed document, obtained from a person with access to Saudi oil officials, suggests that Saudi Aramco will be limited to sustained production of just 12 million barrels a day in 2010, and will be able to maintain that volume
only for short, temporary periods such as emergencies. Then it will scale back to a sustainable production level of about 10.4 million barrels a day, according to the data.

BusinessWeek obtained a field-by-field breakdown of estimated Saudi oil production from 2009 through 2013. It was provided by an oil industry executive who said he had confirmed it with a ranking Saudi energy official who has access to the field data. The executive, who has proven reliable over several years of reporting interaction, provided the data on condition of anonymity to protect his access to the kingdom and the identity of the inside contact who confirmed the information.
For several years now, it's seemed to me that there are no reasons for the Saudis (or anyone else in OPEC, for that matter) to provide a reliable estimate of their known or probable reserves. In OPEC--and in the world at large--what people believe your reserves to be are a source of power. Whether you actually have the oil is less important (in the short run, at least). So now we see people begging for increased production from people who, in all likelihood, couldn't deliver it even they wanted to.

Is this "peak oil"? It depends on what you mean by the term. If this knowledge (or perception) is getting around, however, it would make it even more sensible to engage in "speculation" in the oil markets. What do those "speculators" know (or think they know) that we don't?

Holding hostages

If the United Nations is serious about its engagement with Sudan, it should tell [Luis Moreno-Ocampo] to suspend what he is doing with this so-called indictment. There will be grave repercussions.

--Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, Sudan's ambassador to the UN.

So what's the proper response? It's times like these I wish we had a competent "Team America" (or Team UN) to go after the bad guys.

Playing to tie

This fits with what I've seen elsewhere, as well as Freedman's recent analysis on Stratfor. I get it from the Security Framework Project. I wish people in authority would admit it, and let the public in on the secret:

I think we need to refocus our priorities on al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda is
strongest in Afghanistan, and the border of Pakistan. We need to make
sure we're doing what's necessary to go after the person and the
organization that killed 3,000 innocent Americans back on 9-11 of 2001.
But I've talked to senior members of the Bush administration who have
told me, off the record, that we're playing for a tie in Afghanistan,
which is not acceptable in my view.

- Rep. Patrick Murphy, the only Iraq War veteran in Congress
Actually, I can see playing for a tie if you expect the opposition to fall apart on its own, but that doesn't seem to be the case this time.

More generally, much of what's wrong is we still don't identify the enemy, or our allies. While alliances are always imperfect, Pakistan barely even qualifies as an ally. Pakistan is not and never was a complete ally, because Pakistan is not and never was a complete country. At best, some elements in Pakistan have worked with the US (of elements thereof) on limited issues of mutual gain, or as a result of personal payoffs.

So long as there are safe havens for the enemy in Pakistan, as I suspect there will be for a long time to come, the US can't have a traditional military or political victory in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has its own identity problems. The center of gravity in Afghanistan has never been the cities, and the sense of national identity has always been very weak. You can't defend someone who isn't really there.

So what's to do? We can (and sometimes do) play people against one another. We can (and sometimes do) develop good intelligence and act on it. We can (and sometimes do) maintain a dirty, invisible "war". We can declare a local "victory" and shift our military resources elsewhere.

Maybe I'm just tired today.

03 July, 2008

The scum rises to the surface

Two of my least favorite people--David Addington and John Yoo--appeared before the House Judiciary Committee last week, demonstrating why some people should never be allowed near the levers of power.

Rebels and the price of oil

John Robb, author of the Global Guerrillas blog and Brave New War, has been pointing to the Nigerian delta as a example of what can go wrong when a small, dedicated network takes on the vulnerabilities of the system of global oil production and transport. Now they are threatening the tankers, too. Threatening to disrupt supplies will have an effect on prices, of course. Beyond "speculation" (whatever that means in this context) the ability to disrupt supplies means any reasonable person has to add an insurance factor to cover possible losses. Even by existing, and making a credible threat, a terror group can shift the balance of supply and demand.

Moreover, they know it. Therefore, one indicator of a forthcoming act (an attack or a credible threat) may be that some local groups purchase oil futures, secure in their knowledge that they can drive the price up. It wouldn't be easy to find these signals, but I hope someone is looking for them. Even though it's not a new idea--protection rackets, anyone?--I hate the idea that some people are using terror to finance terror. One of the few good things about conventional war in the modern world is it is almost impossible to make a profit from fighting one. (Arms suppliers can profit, but the the purchasers seldom do.) But terror for megaprofit is a real possibility.

George W. Jefferson

I'm a fan of Thomas Jefferson. He's not my favorite of the founders (that would have to be Washington), but his eloquence and the breadth of his interests--as well as his willingness to make a direct attack on the crust of religion that so often hides deeper truths--makes him one of the people I'd most wish to meet, if the chance ever arose.

Scientist, ambassador, author, naturalist, political theorist, inventor, bibliophile, president, architect, educator. Admittedly he was far from perfect, but that's still one hell of a resume. And now G.W.B. intends to celebrate the fourth with a speech from Monticello. It was Jefferson who wrote of the need for "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." It was Jefferson who argued against allowing the suspension of habeus corpus at any time, for anyone--citizen or not. It was Jefferson who overturned the Alien and Sedition Acts (the great-grandparent of the so-called PATRIOT Act). It was Jefferson who declared that a free press without a government was preferable to a government without a free press. For G.W.B. to step on that site and try to cloak himself in the mantle of Jefferson is enough to make me ill.