Drone Warfare and Its Limitations

There’s a nice TNR piece by James Joyner on Obama’s drone warfare doctrine and its role in the action-repression-recruitment cycle.  I see drones as the natural evolution of Clinton-era “fire and forget” foreign policy, which relied on smart weapon strikes to achieve policy outcomes rather than commit to politically costly force deployments.

Although drones have figured large in engagements with Al Qaeda, the massive manpower involved in Bush’s two wars helped mask the extent to which future warfare will be fought by robotic weapons fired from robotic delivery platforms operated at a safe distance.  The most bizarre development (for me at least) is that nobody in Congress in either party has seemed to question why the “drone air force” is largely in the hands of the CIA’s murky-by-design Special Activities Division rather than the Joint Chiefs and their multiple layers of oversight.

(Like extraordinary rendition, giving the CIA its own military force is something Democrats criticize when Republicans do it and suddenly shut up about when one of their own are in office.  But that’s a different debate — I just want to remind my liberal friends that this is not a “Bush era problem,” it’s a Washington one.  Note that left-liberals like Glenn Greenwald have been consistent in their critiques.)

Of course, drones have their place, and cost-benefits wise, they’re cheaper, stealthier, and more efficient than manned aircraft, which, more often than not, have become military industrial complex pork.  (Witness the challenges faced by pre-crazy Dick Cheney and Bob Gates during their tenures as SecDef when they attempted to slash the procurement budget.)  Drones don’t risk the life of a pilot, and because the operators can be “switched in flight,” human endurance is not a factor in drone warfare.  Yet we have to ask whether drones, like smart weapons before them, have created the illusion of no-cost military action.

From a humanitarian perspective, robotic weapons, rather than loosening the rules of engagement, require them to be tightened, since it is too easy for policymakers (and the American public) to accept collateral damage when looking at the battlefield through digital rather than human eyes.  Please read Joyner’s piece for some of the stats involved, but do note that even the drone-friendly figures posit a higher rate of collateral damage than we would accept from soldier-on-soldier engagements.

At the same time, our leaders overestimate the ability of drones to produce results.  Dispatching high value targets, as Joyner says, is a no-brainer, but having drones always on standby to suppress enemy forces is no substitute for, say, having an effective local police force, strong national government, or even American boots on the ground.  Moreover, by transitioning from being the global policeman to the global Robocop, we are not improving on the flawed premise that American foreign policy must be interventionist.  Indeed, we are only amplifying the problem by giving policymakers another tool with which they may go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

Exit the Dictator, Exit the Embargo?

In a quiet announcement this morning (h/t Slobokan), Fidel Castro told the people of Cuba he is finally stepping down:

HAVANA (Reuters) – Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro said on Tuesday that he will not return to lead the country as president or commander-in-chief, retiring as head of state 49 years after he seized power in an armed revolution.

Castro, 81, who has not appeared in public for almost 19 months, said in a statement to the country that he would not seek a new presidential term when the National Assembly meets on February 24.

“To my dear compatriots, who gave me the immense honor in recent days of electing me a member of parliament … I communicate to you that I will not aspire to or accept — I repeat not aspire to or accept — the positions of President of Council of State and Commander in Chief,” Castro said in the statement published on the Web site of the Communist Party’s Granma newspaper.

The National Assembly or legislature is expected to nominate his brother and designated successor Raul Castro, 76, as president. Raul Castro has been running the country since emergency surgery to stop intestinal bleeding forced Castro to delegate power on July 31, 2006.

If we can draw an analogy between Mao and Castro, then one might think of Raul as the Hua Guofeng of this story. The non-controversial Hua was chosen by Mao before his death to continue the status quo as China’s supreme leader, but was quickly outmaneuvered by Deng Xiaoping and slowly faded from political prominence at the close of the 1970s. Like Hua in China, Raul is probably not the best possible leader for Cuba, but rather an interim appointment allowed out of respect for Castro. What we should hope for now is for Cuba’s Deng Xiaoping to emerge, and, for its part, the US can do something to encourage the liberalization of Cuba by ending the embargo this year.

Like Castro, the embargo is a Cold War relic that made sense when the Soviet Union could project power through Cuba, and Castro, with Soviet money, could project power into Africa and South America. By all rights, the embargo should have collapsed at the same time as the Iron Curtain, but domestic political concerns — hey Walt and Mearsheimer, where’s your Cuba lobby book? — kept the US from taking this step. Instead, Cuba continued to grow ever-poorer in the 1990 and 2000s, and Castro could continue to point the finger at the US for Cuba’s economic decline.

This is not the same as saying the US is responsible for Cuba being an economic basketcase. It’s just that the embargo allowed Castro to continue with destructive economic policies that saw well-educated Cuban doctors and scientists taking jobs as bellboys in resort hotels. Generally speaking, embargoes only work when the population has the political power to punish their leadership in response to foreign pressures; in other words, the more democratic a nation, the more effective the embargo. This is, frankly, the most important lesson for the West to learn from Cuba as we try to deal with the regimes in Khartoum, Tehran, Harare, and Pyongyang, since in unfree countries, embargoes inevitably hurt most the people we wish to help.

There are a number of reasons why the US should end the embargo now. Just as Sino-US relations warmed as Mao grew closer to death, so too does Castro’s exit from the scene give us a chance to begin anew the Cuban-American relationship. Secondly, ending the embargo and investing in Cuba will undercut the clownish but dangerous anti-American activities of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and, arguably, warm up America’s chilly relations with South America. Finally, because he is in the last year of his presidency and has a Democratic Congress to work with, President Bush should find the political environment favorable to Cuban-American détente. Cubans in South Florida would naturally oppose such a move, and McCain, as the GOP nominee, would likely condemn it, but ironically enough Bush’s unpopularity might prove an asset in this case, since he could reach out to Cuba while his own party credibly distances itself from him, much as Republicans distanced themselves from Nixon in the early 1970s.

The specific details of policy would have to be hammered out by the wonks, though it seems safe to say that the embargo could be ended almost immediately, with investment managed to make sure that US funds aren’t channeled to political fronts — we want to subvert the regime, not prop it up — and that Americans don’t enable capital flight ala Russia in the early 1990s — we want to help the Cuban economy, not tear it down.

The question of the moment is: does Bush have the political imagination to open to Cuba now, and as a lame duck, does he have the political power to bring about such a change?

Update: So much for carpe diem. Pretty damn sneaky for Fidel to step down in an election year, don’t you think?

Bush’s Best Foreign Policy

President Bush is on an African farewell tour of sorts and the enthusiasm — whether genuine or state-sponsored — is reportedly quite prominent. Reuters correspondent Barry Moody writes,

Back home, Bush is suffering some of the lowest approval ratings in his seven-year tenure and has been buffeted by criticism of his handling of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ailing economy.

Not surprisingly he is enjoying the different reception in Africa.

Beaming repeatedly during a press conference with [Tanzanian President and current African Union head Jakaya] Kikwete, he made a point of referring to his welcome on the streets, which he described as “very moving”.

Moody’s piece does note that Muslim Africans are less than enthusiastic about the president’s trip and have even staged protests, which leads me to ask what factors are left out when explaining the praise for Bush’s accomplishments in Africa. And, in fairness to the president, they are real, noteworthy accomplishments:

Bush has spent more money on aid to Africa than his predecessor, Bill Clinton, and is popular for his personal programs to fight AIDS and malaria and to help hospitals and schools.

Bush has stressed new-style partnerships with Africa based on trade and investment and not purely on aid handouts.

His Millennium Challenge Corp. rewards countries that continue to satisfy criteria for democratic governance, anti-corruption and free-market economic policies.

Bush signed the largest such deal, for $698 million, with Kikwete on Sunday.

Because of the U.S. anti-malaria program, 5 percent of patients tested positive for the disease on the offshore islands of Zanzibar in 2007 compared to 40 percent three years earlier, the Tanzanian leader said.

Bush’s legacy in Africa would be saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of mothers and children who would otherwise have died from malaria or AIDS and enabling millions of people to get an education, he said.

So, what other factor may increase Bush’s popularity in sub-Saharan Africa?

Islam.

Or rather, Bush may be unwittingly popular thanks to the perception that America under Bush is an “anti-Muslim” power. Let’s set aside the president’s “religion of peace” rhetoric or the fact that the US, wisely or unwisely, has supported Muslims in various conflicts around the world. Despite all efforts by the administration to contrary, the language of Islamic fundamentalists has colored the thinking of many in the developing world, and just as Muslim radicals on one side assail Bush, Africa’s Christians, animists, and moderate Muslims like Kikwete on the other side praise him. In fact, these two factions represent a “cold” civil war present throughout much of African society today.

Islam in AfricaThough it often goes unmentioned in the Western press, sub-Saharan Africa is undergoing a Huntingtonian struggle between the Christian and Westernized elites who represent the status quo, and the Muslim and Arabized masses that swell as Islam moves ever southward. While we do hear about the conflicts in Sudan and Nigeria, we hear less about conflicts stemming from Muslim demographic and cultural shifts in other African countries. Even in a comparatively stable multiethnic country like Tanzania, there remains a fear of fundamentalism and the real possibility of terrorist activity. (In case one forgets.) In countries where the Muslim population is a growing minority, such as Sierra Leone or the Ivory Coast, tensions are even higher.

Seen in the light of this cultural conflict, Bush’s Africa policy serves a dual purpose: promoting development and fighting fundamentalism. For example, American aid which provides for improved government services has the added benefit of undercutting fundamentalist organizations that use charity to attract the poor. Similarly, an effective mix of modern approaches to combat HIV/AIDS can rebut the fundamentalists who tout that only sharia is the answer to Africa’s AIDS crisis. Lastly, improved trade between the US and Africa can deny fundamentalism the impoverished soil it needs to grow and thrive, a point a certain would-be president ought to consider while he rails against the evils of free trade.

In conclusion, aid for Africa is, by far, Bush’s best foreign policy initiative, and the only one his successor has a moral imperative to continue and improve upon, even if the next president isn’t seen as a foe of fundamentalism.

They Used to Be Called Conservative Democrats

I’ve was reading the little blogrow between Jules Crittenden and John Cole overnight. To be honest, I don’t read Balloon Juice as often as I used to, since I figure if I wanted to read profanity-laden rants against President Bush and conservatives, I’d check out Atrios instead, since he perfected the art. That said, it seems to me that Cole is getting criticism — not just from Crittenden but a lot of right-wing bloggers — for a change away from being someone he never really was.

I’ve known Cole for a long time, and he was never a rock-ribbed conservative Republican, but a “libertarian with a defense budget” (as I called him in a conversation ca. 2002). People like Cole were in the Republican Party because they were serious about national defense and opposed to big government, and on these two fronts Bush and Congressional Republicans have largely failed the GOP and failed the American people. And like many who supported Bush in 2004, Cole has a heavy case of buyer’s remorse. Accordingly, an honest conservative will assess where the blame lies for Cole’s “shift” and find the Republican leadership’s fingerprints all over.

Based on his positions, and given that there are still no voices within the Republican Party offering credible alternatives to Bush, I can’t criticize Cole for changing his party affiliation or even the one-sided nature of his blogging today. That doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a “lefty,” and if conservatives want to pile on because of a sense of betrayal, they’re missing the big picture. For one thing, people like Cole in the Democratic Party used to be called conservative Democrats, and I can’t recall any successful Republican candidate dismissing them outright as “lefties.” The point being, to win as a national party, Republicans need the support of people like John Cole, and if the big tent is closed to them, it condemns the party to being a national party no more.

P.S. If the first instinct of certain Republican bloggers continues to be to post their opponents’ personal information, they’re going to find a lot more people who sound like John Cole in the future.

Antecedents to the Blog

True confession time: expat.wordpress.com was registered some 2 years ago just for the sake of acquiring a WordPress API key. I had meant to eventually make use of the domain as a group-based travel and life guide for people in China with a special focus on Tianjin and Beijing. Unfortunately, this plan was nipped in the bud by the Chinese powers-that-be, who deemed the new free blogs on wordpress.com yet another threat to harmonization. After wordpress.com was blocked by the Great Firewall, I decided to shelve the blog. After all, what’s the use of a website for people who live in China that cannot be read by people living in China?

In the meantime, I had other blogs hosted on LiveJournal, MSN Spaces, and my own (now defunct) domain, matthewstinson.net, so I was still pretty busy blogging on my own. Like others, I had first got into the blogging scene via Blogspot in 2001, and I did more than my fair share of poliblogging, though over time my political commentaries slowed to a trickle. I attribute this partly towards a busier lifestyle, partly towards the enervating effect George W. Bush has had on the conservative movement, and partly towards the decline in civility among bloggers.

About my life I can only say that China, as wonderful and interesting as it is, is just not very blogger-friendly. Setting aside the obvious elephant in the living room, the aforementioned Great Firewall, most of China lacks the kind of communication infrastructure to make blogging quick and easy. For instance, when out of the house, I would like to blog from WiFi hotspots or by using my phone as a modem, but in a second-tier city such as Tianjin, WiFi hotspots are few and phone data services are too slow. (Beijing is slightly better thanks to the liberal proliferation of Western businesses in the city.) At home, connectivity is also an issue, with Chinese ADSL choking like an old-school 56K modem during peak hours. Still, the Great Firewall has to be factored in, since it made managing matthewstinson.net a bit of a headache after my Blog Service Provider was blocked. Because I can’t always use a proxy, it also more or less killed my LiveJournal writing and stopped me from making a Blogspot blog after I ended matthewstinson.net.

As to the political situation stateside, I’ll start by noting that I’ve never really been a fan of George W. Bush. I was, for a time, a fan of the people he chose to surround himself with, and had I been voting for president based merely on advisors, there’s no question that I would’ve voted for Bush over Gore in 2000. Yet when it came to Bush himself, there has always been a hollow blandness to the man, an unserious folksy demeanor that suggested Joe Average instead of Leader of the Free World. He was never meant to be an innovator or activist the way Gore has always been cast, and Bush’s bipartisan triumphs in conservative Texas were always shaky ground upon which to build a new national politics. As a serious conservative, I gained the sense in the first election that the choice between Bush and Gore was a choice between the right ideas implemented poorly and the wrong ideas implemented well. In the end, I chose to abstain from voting, and I don’t regret that decision.

Little did I know that Bush would prove me wrong. Not only have Bush’s ideas been implemented poorly, many of them — the Medicare drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, new protectionism, veto-free budgeting, the Katrina response, and state-building in Iraq, to name a few — have been the wrong ideas to begin with. At the same time, if I could not cheerlead for the president, I could hardly cheerlead for the Congress. Gone was the vision and vigor that Republicans brought to the Hill in 1994. Instead, the potential for real change was sapped by the lobbyists, by the activists, and by the inherently corrupting nature of incumbency, all of which saw reformers stepped on by senior members and the grassroots disillusioned by an orgy of big government as disgusting as any scene in a Hogarth painting.

My friends on the left attribute these failures to inherent flaws in the ideology of conservatives and libertarians. I would counter that what we’ve witnessed is not ideological decay but the structural weakness and rudderless leadership of the Republican party, which mirrors the situation Democrats found themselves in during the late 1970s. In short, my fellow Republicans: these are our Jimmy Carter years.

That is not to say that Democrats have suddenly become the party of ideas, though they are, without a doubt, the party of anger. Indeed, in Democratic displays of outrage and Republican flag-waving, both parties have eschewed intellectualism post-9/11 for the sake of political theater, and online in particular the parties play to the reptilian instincts of their base. While those new to the blogging game might not believe it, things weren’t always so smashmouth in the blogosphere.

In 2001, there was still considerable room for serious thinking and debate among political blogs, and I enjoyed it. Why, back then, even Atrios and Instapundit said nice things about each other! But by 2007, whatever nuance that used to exist in blog commentaries has been largely abandoned in favor of echo chambers within each ideological community and the clash of binary opposites between them. (To illustrate the latter point, consider how intelligent political commentary gets automatically pigeonholed these days.) Some happy exceptions exist, but even the most sober-headed bloggers will have a legion of ugly commenters to deal with.

The developments noted above forced me to make a few adjustments. I maximized my online enjoyment over the past three years by focusing on photoblogging (moblogging, really) and blogging on personal blogs for my friends and family to read. As for the rest, well, I didn’t have the stomach to engage as a partisan, yet I would not abandon ideas that I felt right because I refused to stand by party leaders when they were wrong. And so I went on hiatus for the sake of living a little and thinking a lot.

After my long break I’ve decided to start this blog up again (Like Cooking a Small Fish is essentially the fifth iteration of my political blog) because 2008 will be an important year in the US and China. America will choose another president — and potentially a radically different direction — while China, thanks not only to the Olympics but also to American electoral politics, will be thrust into the spotlight. There’s a wonderful opportunity here to explore issues of governance, the economy, and society, and the road ahead is not so narrow that the bombthrowers will be the only travelers.

Given my time constraints I want to make this an essay-style blog with a few posts each week rather than dozens of posts daily. I blog to relax, to get ideas out of my head and onto paper (symbolically, of course), and also because living in China means I need to write regularly lest the local color sneak into my English. If you read my blog, I hope you enjoy it, even if you disagree with me — and odds are you will.