Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Enigmatic Syrian Reactor

In September 2007, rumors and scant pictures appeared of an Israeli bombing of a Syrian nuclear facility. Israel bombed a facility in Syrian soil, probably killing Syrian citizens, and Syria didn't say a word. Israel apparently had good evidence that the Syrians were building a nuclear facility, and didn't say a thing--at least publicly--to the IAEA, the US, or any media source.

The above image is a before-and-after of the facility; Syria quietly razed the site after it had been bombed, and has not put up a fuss. In fact, the first acknowledgment that the site could be nuclear comes from the US Intelligence Community, which claims to have video evidence (to be shown to Senate tomorrow) of North Korean officials assisting Syria in constructing the plant, which appeared to be capable of refining small amounts of plutonium to weapons-grade. Why the wait, the secrecy?

Sadly, there's no clear answer. This is certainly curious; Syria has a tendency to overstate Israeli wrongdoings, but stayed quiet here. Syria was probably simply trying to prevent too much public attention from bearing down on it for its building of the facility. But why did Israel insist on staying quiet, especially when it became increasingly apparent that the Israelis indeed carried out the attack? I simply don't know. Perhaps a deal with the Syrians had been made. Indeed, the Israelis have just recently leaked that they might be willing to return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a peace agreement.

And on another funny timing note, Iran has recently agreed to give a detailed report to the IAEA about its nuclear program, and whether or not Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons (hint: the Iranians are going to say "no" to that). All this after Dick Cheney and Robert Gates both visited Oman--a friend of Iran--a few weeks ago, and after the US Navy parked the USS Cole back in the Persian Gulf coastal waters. Most interestingly, six-nation talks aimed at disarming North Korea's nuclear program just restarted. There's not enough out there to be sure of what all the timing means. Hopefully, the US decision to out the Syrians and North Koreans on their nuclear dealings comes as part of a greater political maneuver, but the timing is good enough that I would be genuinely surprised if it wasn't. Maybe the US is trying to pressure North Korea into disarming, or pressure the UN and the six-nations into bargaining harder. Maybe it is trying to pressure Iran by proxy, in particular as the US publicly blames Iran for supporting troublesome armed groups in Iraq (though Iran's official stance is supportive of disarming them). Maybe this is a golden opportunity to pressure both, and try to achieve a wrap-up of two of Bush's biggest foreign policy challenges in the last 8 years: Iraq and North Korea.

But we won't know for some time.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Modest Proposal on Tibet


Some believe the Tibet issue can't be solved because of issues of national identity, and others say it can't be solved simply because of politics. I have a proposal that could bring peace and stability to the Tibetan region... if Chinese officials are willing to put politics aside and take tough action.

The answer lies in a strange place. In International Relations, we rely heavily on case studies to look for consistencies between two situations, and try to make predictions about how a force in one time and place, duplicated, might affect a different one. In this case, the answer lies in a stunning success story where a country lost sovereignty but maintained its culture and nationalism, without abandoning pride for its overlords. The answer for Tibet lies in Scotland.


Scotland was conquered by the English time and again until they were formally subdued as the United Kingdom in 1707, despite wide Scottish protests. (For a concise history of Scotland, Wikipedia is a fine source.) The Scots have since lived with English rule in relative peace, despite a very strong national Scottish identity. Why?

The Scots are free to call themselves Scottish, make fun of the English, fly the Scottish flag, send Scottish divisions (with Scottish flags and regalia) to British military exercises, and send their own national teams to many tournaments (like the Six Nations Rugby League). These may seem small concessions, but we must remember that feeling like one's national identity is respected and one's national culture is free to live and grow is one of the big reasons modern nationalism exists.

The other is the idea of self-rule; that a people with a shared heritage, language, culture, etc, are best at governing themselves, and that it is right to. This concept is rather new in the world, and is part of the liberalism movement of the 20th century. Why did Scotland not fight to break free of the UK in the 20th century and attain self-rule? The first answer is economic; being a part of the UK gives Scotland total access to a juggernaut economy, joint defense that reduces defense spending, and economic assistance from London when it seems necessary.

The second reason is that the British have met the Scots halfway. The Scottish have their own parliament--though it is small and subordinate to the London parliament (you will notice the UK flag flies higher than the Scottish one), it creates local and private law that is different from England. Scots run Scottish courts and local offices. Scotland exists somewhere between a British Commonwealth and an American State, but it is wholly recognized as an integral part of the UK, and not a sovereign nation. This compromise allows London to enjoy sovereignty over Scotland in all ways it wants: economic aggregation, tax collection, military recruitment, and singular, London-based foreign policy, while allowing the Scots a level of national identity and self-control that makes them content (if not always thrilled).

To see whether this system could be implemented in Tibet, we must know why the Chinese are so desperate to hold onto it. The Chinese claim absolute sovereignty precedence over Tibet, but it is my opinion that they have no more claim to historical sovereignty over Tibet than they do over Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia, and parts of Russia; the Qing empire indeed extended far, and subordinated many "vassal states," but the Chinese have been willing to watch many of these former vassals fly off into their own nations. So the Chinese government talks a great deal of historical sovereignty, and uses it as a moral justification for Tibet, but it is slightly dubious--during the Late Qing and Republican periods, Tibet enjoyed total sovereignty, and it signed many treaties with other countries that the Chinese allowed (at the time) to happen.

Nonetheless, sometimes, conquering has (in the past) been a legitimate way of claiming sovereignty. The United States conquered all of its current territory from America's original inhabitants over a period of a few hundred years. The Russian Federation certainly came to be thanks to Russian Imperial expansion. I have no intentions of saying that China's claims on Tibet are illegitimate; only that they are worth debating. I do not have a normative answer on whether China's sovereignty over Tibet is legitimate in a cosmic sense; that is not the point of this exercise. The point is to show that China was willing to give up Southeast Asia but not Tibet, despite similar historical sovereignty. So that is not the answer in explaining China's heated defense of its Tibet stance; something else must be.

Tibet, like Xinjiang, is a large, sparsely populated area. Unlike even Xinjiang, it does not have oil or gas reserves. It has little economic value; but its strategic value is enormous. Tibet's southern regions are the tallest and most treacherous mountains in the world, and the sparse population north of them leaves little to find even if they are crossed from the south. This means any invading army (particularly from India) would not only struggle to cross, but find it impossible to continually supply any extended operation. Holding Tibet means that China's population centers are completely secure from the southwest, that no army on earth could successfully invade from that direction (Xinjiang's harshness and emptiness make the northwest a similarly difficult assault, though not quite so. To the south, China has thick and disease-ridden jungles--think Vietnam. To the northeast, Russia is far from its center and would have to supply an operation through Siberia, and to the east lies the Pacific).

Tibet is critical to Securing China. Remember the Century of Shame; invasion after invasion from the West and Japan, countless Chinese were killed, and the Chinese people were abused and treated as animals. The PRC's Communist Party rose to power under the promise that it would prevent such shame from ever happening again. Through developing as strong army and navy, developing the economy, pursuing an aggressive foreign policy, spending money on "respect" diplomacy (like the Olympics), and securing its strategic borders, the Chinese government is fulfilling its promise to keep the Chinese people safe through making China strong.

So holding Tibet is critical not only because of its great strategic importance, but because the Chinese, 50 years ago, demarcated their official boundaries, and dramatically stepping back from those boundaries would show weakness and an apparent willingness to cede territory for the sake of pleasing the West--something the Chinese simply are unwilling to do (luckily, the Chinese need for consistency on this map has led them to make no new territorial claims since the 1950's, as well, and this is a very good sign that Chinese territorial ambitions are not growing: here is the official Chinese map for the last 50 years). Tibet will never become sovereign, and that must be clear to all.

But we should hope that the Tibetan people can live prosperous lives of religious and cultural freedom, that the Dalai Lama can return to lead his people, that the ethnic tension and government crackdowns can end. Because granting Tibet sovereignty is simply out of the question (and anyone that thinks otherwise is naive), I believe the "Scottish Model" is by far the best solution.

The Scottish Model would not keep China from exerting its military and foreign policy rights over Tibet; that is, keeping foreign armies from slowly infiltrating in and setting up bases. It would not even keep China from taxing and regulating Tibet, although doing either gives the Chinese government minimal benefit.

But Chinese crackdowns on independence movements have been increasingly harsh, and the Chinese have used heavy-handedness and cultural genocide to try and annihilate the Tibetan independence movement, rather than alleviate it through other means. Unfortunately, this action has caused many Tibetans to believe that independence is the only way that the Tibetans can have religious and cultural freedom, and safety from Chinese crackdowns. This is not actually true, but the Chinese government is mostly responsible for making that point of view proliferate through Tibet in the last 20 or 30 years, when it could have been calming tensions instead.

The other problem the Chinese government has made for itself has been tying its own hands on the Tibetan issue through using nationalism. By pushing nationalism to the Chinese people as the fundamental reason for holding Tibet, they have driven Chinese public opinion towards an uncompromising stance. This is useful in helping the Chinese government justify more crackdowns, but makes things extremely difficult if the Chinese government is to try a more moderate and pragmatic approach. The Chinese people are already restless (over oil shortages, labor conditions, and public opinion turning against China before the Olympics); now is certainly not the time to try anything too new with Tibet. A Scottish Model would have to wait.

But a future Tibet that truly exists as an Autonomous Region (which it normatively should), with its own local parliament, a return of the Dalai Lama, and full religious freedom, is certainly functionally feasible. It would not keep China from enjoying the strategic advantages of holding Tibet. Furthermore, if the Chinese practice good border security, the Tibetan people will not have an increased ability to arm themselves to make too much pro-independence trouble.

Chinese fears of a full Tibetan uprising are likely to keep a Scottish Model from occurring in anything but the very far future. The tragedy of the current policy is that it's the very reason that pro-independence movements get so much support in Tibet and abroad. If the Chinese do not change their policy, Tibet will be a constant problem, a constant drain on government resources, and a constant Public Relations club that beats the Chinese face bloody. The Scottish Model solution would deligitimize the Tibetan independence movement abroad, and give the next generation of Tibetans much less to be restful about. It would cause Western countries to re-think their stance on China's human rights record, and make it much easier for China to achieve East Asian hegemony peacefully, as it hopes to.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Al-Qaeda in Iraq: Resurging or Going Out with a Bang?

There are two very different fights going on in Iraq right now, in particular since the end of the Sunni-Shiite civil war a year ago: an internal Shiite struggle for dominance (largely in Basra and the Sadr City suburbs... today, fighting killed 11), and a consolidation effort to eliminate Al-Qaeda. Today, we're focusing on the second.

In my last post, we saw a promising graphic of decreasing Al-Qaeda presence in Sunni strongholds that it has held onto for years, especially in Anbar and Baghdad. But recently, suicide bombings are making a comeback in Iraq, and just two days ago, 60 were killed as coordinated car bombs ripped through the country. Does this information contradict Petraeus' report? Is Al-Qaeda making a comeback?

I must first admit that I don't actually know the answer. Al-Qaeda could in fact be making a comeback; Petraeus could be wrong or just plain deceptive. More likely, based on some circumstantial evidence, Al-Qaeda is going out with a bang. Like a star going supernova, radical groups often make the most trouble when they are desperate. And it should be noted that even an extremely weak Al-Qaeda can set of car bombs in cities; Iraq remains a place where access to old Soviet weaponry and explosives is high; a group of five dedicated individuals could certainly still create chaos in Iraq, if they were not caught beforehand. This is quite telling of the prolonged danger in Iraq even if Al-Qaeda is eliminated, but is not particularly telling of Al-Qaeda's state.

A letter found in an joint MNF/Iraqi Security raid may be telling of Al-Qaeda's struggling state. The letter speaks to the importance that Al-Qaeda militants must impart to keeping their enemy in "psychological conflict," so that they "will not all unite against us." Al-Qaeda in Iraq should surely be worried about such a unity; it would lead to an Iraq where Al-Qaeda is not welcome. But random bombings, particularly targeted against Sunnis and Shiites alike, may well have the opposite effect. The bombing of the Golden Mosque was a brilliant tactical move in trying to divide the Sunnis and Shiites (and led to a year of massive bloodletting), but the most recent bombings all over Iraq are crude, random, and have the footprint of Al-Qaeda in Iraq all over them. The Iraqi and US governments are having a very easy time identifying Al-Qaeda in Iraq as the likely culprit, and there is no way such a bombing is going to bring a "psychological conflict" to the Iraqis--it is more likely going to unite them against a common enemy that is indiscriminately killing Iraqi civilians. Such sloppy tactics are indicative of an Al-Qaeda acting desperately and rashly, hoping to simply create as much chaos as possible in hopes that it will disrupt anti-insurgent operations that seem to have increasing success.

The second very interesting part of the letter is that it urges militants to not speak to their wives or families about Al-Qaeda operations; apparently, sloppy intelligence hygiene is giving US anti-insurgent operations a leg up in finding and raiding Al-Qaeda strongholds.

The final interesting part is the emphasis on attacking American-backed Sunni militias. During the civil war, these Sunni militias were anti-American and were soft allies of Al-Qaeda, as both were bent on disrupting the government and driving out the Americans. But now that the "Sunni Awakening" or "Sunni Renaissance" has occurred, Al-Qaeda's traditional strongholds are turning into hot zones. Al-Qaeda has no hopes of winning back wide support among the Sunnis (and will certainly not get it among Shiites or Kurds), but wants to quell Sunni attacks using terror tactics. But as the Sunni-Shiite civil war shows, attacking civilians (particularly, indiscriminately) will push the Sunnis even further away. Al-Qaeda is adopting a "Full Adversary" strategy; that is, making all elements of the populace and government an enemy. Given this, its ability to find sanctuaries in Iraq is likely to only shrink with time.

Sadly, this supernova effect is going to mean continued civilian death and carnage. But it will solidify Iraq's unity against Al-Qaeda, and lead to a stronger front to drive them out.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Petraeus' Great Iraq Update

On April 8th and 9th (with lots of pomp and circumstance thanks to the presence of all three presidential candidates, trying to show off for the press), General David Petraeus gave his Great Iraq Update to Senate, discussing progress and future strategy. Released to the public was a handout that each Senator received, and I humbly present my analysis of some of the better graphics from it.



Because I am a geopolitical wonk, I keep coming back to the Iraq Provincial Security Transition Assessment Map (or Provincial Iraqi Control Map). As we can see, some interesting progress has been made. Half of all Iraqi provinces (9/18) have been handed over, though the handover process stalled after 2007. In July, the third-last Polish-led province of Qasidiyah, as well as the once-restive province of Anbar will be handed over. Anbar's "renaissance" will be completed in July, and the Bush Administration is likely to hold it high as a sign of success in Iraq.

Interestingly, there seems to be no politically-motivated rush on the part of Petraeus to hand over other provinces; six provinces are going to be handed over immediately after the US 2008 election, if they are handed over on time. Petraeus may have been able to stack some of these provinces in a lump October 2008 handover to try and influence US voters to elect a more pro-occupation candidate like John Mccain, but has opted not to, presumably in favor of a more militarily sensible strategy.

Interestingly, all provinces but Tam'im are scheduled to be fully handed over to Iraqi Provincial Control by the time a new president is sworn into office. In doing so, Petraeus is able to (intentionally or not) preempt any new president's Iraq strategy by sealing the United States Military's fate as a secondary force in Iraq by 2009. The post-handover provinces in Iraq have not all been perfectly peaceful--the recent violence in Basrah has been an embarrassment to the possibly-hasty full UK pullout--but ethno-sectarian violence remains low (despite a small spike), and Al-Qaeda seems to be losing ground. Continued handover, despite March's spike in violence, looks like it will progress smoothly.



The next gorgeous chart here is ethno-sectarian violence in Iraq (this measures only deaths by inter-sect rivalries, rather than Al Qaeda bombings or Al-Sadrite militia spats with the Iraqi Army). As we can see, Iraq has passed its "civil war" stage of 2005-2007, and remains in a state of tough pacification and unification. Whether ethno-sectarian violence remains quite this low after a US drawdown over the summer remains to be seen, but political progress is slowly and painfully being made. More importantly than parliamentary benchmarks, perhaps, is Petraeus-led integration of Iraqi Army and National Police units into communities, mirroring the integration the Petraeus implemented with US troops. Such an integration provides a stable security base (lowering the incentive to support militias for one's street-side security) and also a friendly and helpful grassroots face for the government (increasing civilian support of its continued success). So while critics point to a strikingly slow development of nationwide laws that are meant to bring long-term stability, the ubiquitous-police society developed, especially in Baghdad, is likely to maintain stability in urban centers as the government continues to try and reconcile political differences.

McCain called Baghdad life "more or less normal" in a recent speech, and these graphs are the best evidence we can get to support such a claim. Assuming these graphs are not designed to intentionally mislead, Baghdad now looks more or less like a large American urban center in its ethnic violence density. Nationwide ethno-sectarian deaths remain at about 200 per month, or 2400 per year, which is about 8.2 ethno-sectarian deaths per 100,000 people (the US homicide rate is 5.6 per 100,000 even though this is a pretty poor comparison). Again, this doesn't include suicide bombings or the recent Mahdi-Iraqi Army fighting. On that note:



The MNF Coalition estimates about 300 total civilian deaths last month (12.3 per 100,000 per year), and Iraqi data estimates about 750 total civilian deaths last month (projecting to about 21 per 100,000 pear year); both estimates are higher than political scientists would see as sustainable and acceptable for a stable domestic society.



Finally, the last image is the most promising, if it's accurate. Even if Iraq does not become a fully stable and and pro-American society any time soon, Al-Qaeda remains the United States' enemy number one. To leave Iraq as a safe haven for Al-Qaeda would be a total military failure of the operation, regardless of any other political or military progress in the country. It remains the United States' moral obligation to clean up the mess created in Iraq by its overthrow of the Hussein regime, but it remains the United States' primary security obligation to eliminate Al-Qaeda at all corners, and deny them all possible havens. Progress in eliminating Al-Qaeda in Iraq since the Surge strategy has been stark.

Completing a rooting-out of of Al-Qaeda looks within reach. Continued progress on bringing political reconciliation, military stability, and delivery of daily necessities to the Iraqi people will create a sustainable country in which Al-Qaeda's destabilizing presence will not be tolerated.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Bush, Putin, and the Face of Eastern Europe to Come

Bush and Putin recently finished a press conference in Sochi (by the Black Sea), which followed a meeting between the two leaders to discuss missile defense and NATO expansion. The meeting and press conference showed an adversarial, yet highly respectful, position between both presidents that will keep growing US-Russian competition both tame and stable.

During the press conference, the two presidents spent most of their talking time complimenting each other (Putin said of "George": "I always appreciated his superior human qualities: honesty, openness and ability to hear a partner."), and looking fondly upon their seven years as statesmen and their management of difficult US-Russian relations.

Why the warm bonds? The US and Russia have much to quarrel over; Russia's human rights problems and natural gas brinksmanship worry US allies in Europe, and US plans for missile defense and ever-increasing NATO expansion threaten to successfully contain Russia into a future of dilapidated regionalism. But as he confessed in his "Person of the Year" interview with Time, Putin has a great deal of respect for Bush's dedication to his own country's strategic interests, willingness to "do what it takes," and tough-yet-respectful negotiating strategy. I suspect the two have become friends in the last seven years.

The next US president and Medvedev may not get along quite so well, unfortunately. Assuming Clinton is beaten by Obama, the Democrat candidate's "soft" foreign policy stances are likely to garner little respect from Putin's protege, and McCain's stance of removing Russia from the G-8 is not only an aggressive anti-Russian stance, but it denies Russia the respect that Bush has continued to give it, despite competition.

Pretty talk aside, Bush and Putin's meeting did little to reconcile the differences the US and Russia face on missile defense for Eastern Europe (the Czech Republic and Poland are already on board with US plans for installations in the next few years), and installations are likely to move forward.

Nonetheless, Putin scored a victory in NATO's most recent meeting in Bucharest, in which France and Germany vetoed invitations to NATO to the former Soviet republics of the Ukraine and Georgia. French and German representatives stressed they did not oppose in principle the admission of these two states, but instead urged that Russian backlash (in particular in the form of natural gas cutoffs) would make the move not worth their while yet. France and Germany may well be looking to increase their energy independence before allowing these two states in.

Unfortunately, both of them are only barely pro-Western, and only for the moment. They both have very large pro-Russian minorities that have protested vehemently becoming Western pawns against Russia. In Ukraine, the colors red and orange continue to stand divided across the Dnipro river, and are unlikely to come to terms soon; Ukraine will remain a battlefield for Western and Russian influence.

NATO did make progress at its Bucharest meeting, extending invitations to Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia (though Greece managed to put a rather silly condition of semantics into the invitation) for membership; they are all quite likely to accept. With the addition of these three nations, NATO's membership will reach a whopping 29 states, 12 of which were added after the fall of the Soviet Union.

While Russia scored a victory in keeping the Ukraine and Georgia from siding with the West, NATO's membership continues to grow, and its attempts to drive a wedge between NATO member states has failed. NATO continues to symbolize the most powerful and effective military coalition ever created, and member states have continued to respect each other's wishes and reach consensus for decisive action when needed, despite massive size. If a strong and powerful NATO is Russia's primary worry, then worry it should. NATO's drive into the once-volatile Balkans, re-integration of France, and near-victory on inviting Ukraine (Russia's most critical buffer-state) all mean that the organization's power and ambition are only growing.
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