Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Is Iran's Opposition Growing or Shrinking?

More protests and clashes in Iran this weekend; after a protest-turned-violent over the death of the leading opposition cleric, this weekend's unrest came during a Shiite religious festival (of sorts) in honor of the 7th century martyrdom of Mohammed's grandson.

The protests are certainly getting their fair due of attention in Iran, and wearing on the nerves of the ruling "conservatives," but are they effective? Good question. A progressive opposition movement's exposure usually does, over time, lead to an increase in popularity (like in the United States during Vietnam). And as much as violent crackdowns have a serious human toll, they may be winning sympathy for the opposition movement from any fence-sitters left. In addition, the crackdowns are hardening the young men and women (especially women) in the movement now--over time, the old men of the conservatives will die off, and the progressives will strike themselves a big win, maybe in 2014.

But will they run out of steam by then? Or even if they do win, will it be too late for the US to close the Iranian nuclear pandora's box, as it were?

Thinking about this has gotten me to try to get into the head of the President, and figure out what he's doing. He's shown a great deal of restraint with Iran, which a lot of folks oppose. But think about this: should we authorize a strike to take down the Iranian nuclear program, we'd be giving Ahmedinejad and his crew the most incredible propaganda that they could hope for to harden their position. A strike would further radicalize the Iranians, make them more Western-phobic, and even undermine the legitimacy of the opposition movement (Ahmedinejad would have some credence to his accusations of Western influence and manipulation in Iran). No, a strike might be disastrous.

But just how much is the US staying out of Iranian affairs? Surely, opportunities for subtle propaganda influence are not simply being ignored. Even something as simple as Voice of America, a shameless, open alternative network to the Iranian state-run media, is having an effect.

The Iranians are not nearly as good at information control as the Chinese, and the United States is probably taking advantage of that fact as much as Iran's own opposition movement is. This, of course, is a guess. No overt cooperation will happen with the opposition movement, both to protect its legitimacy and to protect its integrity: no Iranian wants to be an American stooge, and the Green Movement won't allow itself to be a puppet.

But the incredible restraint shown by the Obama administration towards the Iranian regime may indicate some intelligence that we don't have. Will there be an internal overthrow of the regime? I think it's unlikely (the population is divided and poorly armed), but if popularity for the opposition movement in 2014 is strong enough, truly sweeping reform could be on the way. And I might be wrong about the level of armament of the population--the Basij militiamen are technically civilians, and are allowed to keep weapons in their homes. Surely, there are guns floating around Tehran in numbers. And the opposition movement is surely making efforts to show that the Ahmedinijad/Khaimeni regime has violated Shiite Islamic law. Under Shiite law, the population has not only a right, but a duty to overthrow regimes that are antithetical to the tenets of Islam. Certainly the motivation and legitimacy for armed revolt are there. If the means are there, too, then the Obama administration's stance makes perfect sense--stay out of Iranian internal politics as much as possible, and let the opposition's support grow slowly over time, until it is ready.

But then again, when was the last time an armed revolt took down a modern, well-armed government? It's been a while.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Geopolitical Complications at Copenhagen

The problems at the various climate summits are economically quite simple--there is both a tragedy of the commons problem (in the emitting of carbon dioxide) and a freerider problem (in the halting thereof). Even Europe has has largely decided that the moral payoff for "leading the way" in CO2 control is not sufficient to break its back alone, especially if it enables other economies to slurp up the CO2 "availability," as it were, that they create.

This, of course, is why anyone trying to control global CO2 output needs a treaty. But it is not so simple to simply forge a treaty on this and tell everyone to stop producing. Should all countries cut a portion of their CO2? Should we create a baseline CO2/capita standard which countries must meet? What, instead, of a CO2/GDP/capita standard? These different standards can be abstractly debated on their own merits, but each representative at Copenhagen is undoubtedly going to support the one that best suits their own self-interest.

Right now, one of the big hang-ups seems to be the US-Chinese rivalry, which stems far beyond simple fairness, egalitarianism, equity, whatever, into rather unsubtle geopolitical/economic warfare. The Chinese want to walk away with a "promise" to reduce CO2 output by a certain percentage, but do not want any oversight into their own in-house emissions reporting. The US, of course, is unwilling to sign anything that lets the Chinese get away with zero transparency, while the US gets constant comb-overs by the EU to make sure that it is putting in sufficient efforts to curb CO2.

And again, this goes beyond fairness, or effectiveness. Could the world at large reduce CO2 production to whatever reasonable levels it sets for itself without the Chinese getting on board until some years from now? Certainly. China may be a big contributor to world CO2 emissions, but it is not yet so big to single-handedly destroy any attempts to put caps on world emissions (where the US is certainly that big, as is the EU). This is, as usual, about long-term and arcane calculations about the relative power of the two perceived titans of world politics, the US and the People's Republic of China.

My own opinions about where the US should be aiming its sights aside (hint: Russia and Iran), the US sees a great threat to its pacific hegemony in the Chinese, and the Chinese probably see a great opportunity in this treaty, if it should come out the right way. Further, the Chinese have an advantage--for years, the Chinese have denied any aspirations of being a "world leader" or any of that claptrap. While they are concerned about their reputation in order to open trade and assuade the military fears of their neighbors, the Chinese lack the desire to be loved, admired, and followed that the US became addicted to in the Second World War (and not for entirely sentimental reasons. The relative love affair that the Western World has had for the US over the past sixty years has allowed the US to make bold moves in its own geopolitical favor and receive backing in legitimacy, money, manpower, military base placement, etc. It's been a very powerful tool, and it's far from lost, all the Bush-era apocalyptic soothsayers' opinions to the contrary. But I digress). The Chinese can legitimately look Copenhagen dead in the eye and say, "we don't care if you approve of our economic or environmental practices," as long as such disapproval
does not grow so large as to threaten boycott (which would certainly be difficult to legitimately threaten, although it would damage the Chinese and Southeast Asian economies far, far more than the economies of the US or EU, under-read cocktail-sipping fatalists' opinions to the contrary. But I digress). It's not an enviable position for the United States.

For the United States has a reputation to uphold, and it may be in a position where it is making a value judgment about that geopolitically powerful reputation and its geopoltically powerful manufacturing industry (which is still the largest and most formiddable in the world, a fact that would be more widely known if we were not so obsessed with predicting our own demise. But I digress). Should the US walk away and say, "no deal without China breaking its back as much as we do," its European allies will grow increasingly impatient and disillusioned about American exceptionalism, altruism, leadership ability, what have you. But should the US say, "the Chinese be damned, we're going to do the right thing," then it will quite disproportionately and quite significantly load a disadvantage onto its own manufacturing industry, its war machine, its economy in general--and ultimately its ability to project power into the pacific.

Manufacturing is a CO2-heavy process, even when it's not a coal-fired steel plant (of which we have precious few these days). You'd probably have nightmares over how much CO2 went into the air to make that brand new Prius you're so proud of buying (and re-buying after a mere 3 years to get the "higher effiency" model, in a misguided attempt to save the earth. But I digress). Military manufacturing is much, much worse. Military manufacturing puts a much higher emphasis on performance over price, to the point that it hits some seriously diminishing returns (to whit, the military often picks some very odd opportunities to say "only the best for our boys!" and "we need to save money," but I digress). And, until renewable technology really picks up, manufacturing price is often fairly well-correlated to CO2 usage to make it (of course, in the case of military hardware, the CO2/price ratio is higher than for most goods).

The short of it is this: A major carbon tax or cap-and-trade will be a disaster for the US military's already- enormous budget, in a country whose debt is already so horrifyingly large that both parties are balking at spending more (and the Greek debt crisis is hopefully teaching a lesson about the limits of the power of borrowing. But perhaps not. I digress). Additionally, the US will simply flat-out lose more manufacturing to China if it should impose limits on its CO2 production and China doesn't. While the US will make sure to subsidize its arms manufacturers, many other industry's won't be so lucky. The US would have to (until renewable technologies mature) be incredibly picky about just which manufacturing sectors are "Critical to national security," or it would annihilate its economy just to keep them all afloat.

And, of course, for every manufacturing plant the US loses, it's one China gains. China's ability to compete, in particular, in high-precision manufacturing would increase significantly--a prospect that US security advisors (for better or for worse) shudder to think about (the US still has rather obnoxious export limits on high-precision manufacturing equipment to China, as well as other "dual-use technology" that the US and EU currently specialise in making. But I digress). This manufacturing would, of course, make China's economic position more powerful in the Pacific, and enable its indigenous military hardware industry (which has been crawling obediently towards independence from Russian supply).

Increased tax revenues, increased manufacturing capacity, and increased trade partnerships in the Pacific would greatly increase China's geopolitical and military position in the region, where the opposite would apply to the US. This is one of the big reasons the US is so very obsessive about making sure the Treaty (that it's actually considering signing) is "fair" in the sense that it hurts the US and China equally.

I doubt, though, that the US is going to get its wish in that particular field until Chinese GDP growth starts to peter out. And if it can handle its looming demographic crisis, China is unlikely to see GDP grwoth slow for some years to come.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tradeoffs and Wisdom in Obama's Afghan Strategy

You guys read the speech. If not, read the speech.

"Our resolve is unwavering." But, perhaps, only for the next 18 months.

Seems a strange message. And it is. But it may not be unsound.

(Quick summary: 30,000 additional troops, some begging for 5,000 more from NATO, will take a crack at the Taliban while other troops, particularly from NATO, train Afghan forces at absolutely breakneck speeds. Then, 18 months from now, we begin the drawdown.)

This looks quite a bit like the surge strategy in Iraq. And it is. General Petraeus, now in charge of CENTCOM, is probably relatively satisfied. McChrystal certainly is.

The major criticisms from the left are pretty simple--this is a waste of life, of money, we should be leaving. I think the counter-argument here is that there are a few serious points at stake: the first was brought up by the President. There is a serious security risk here. Certainly more than there was in Iraq. And certainly, this is something that we should weigh on its own as a benefit against the cost of the next 18 months, rather than succumbing to the tragedy of sunk costs. The second point is that the odds of winning are probably higher than the left probably thinks. Like it or not, Petraeus, Gates, and Bush showed that "doubling down" in a region has the potential to break the fighting will of folks that have spent the past many years slowly grinding and dying in the mountains to eek out momentum. Afghanistan will be harder than Iraq, due largely to an even-more-dysfunctional central government (and much less centralized society), but it can be done. Third, the cost of losing can go beyond simple security in the medium-term. Victory and defeat can significantly affect the relationships between the United States and other significant powers (Iran, Russia, etc); Vietnam and Afghanistan are both excellent examples. When the US lost Vietnam, its security was not threatened by Vietnam, but the Soviet Union gained a long momentum (as the US wallowed in relative misery and indecisiveness), and the momentum switched after the Soviet Union lost Afghanistan. So I think, as a whole, there is a lot to gain, and a decent chance to get it.

The criticism from the right is, as far as I can tell, centered around "sending the wrong message," as Senator McCain said. The worry, in essence, is that the US is not able to project the will necessary to break the will of the Taliban--they may simply spend the next 18 months hiding in wait, knowing the exact date at which they should spring forth to take down the Afghani government. It is not an entirely illegitimate claim. But if the Taliban does actually take an 18-month break (or relative break) from the fight against ISAF, then ISAF will have two luxuries: one, it will get to spend its massive resources in building up the Afghan Army and government (likely, the Army will have the bulk of the legitimacy of government forces, like in Iraq for some time). Two, it will allow the US to get aggressive and claim territory, hunt bad guys, etc, rather than play guard duty. Every force likes being on the offensive, and the Taliban will have to choose between actively seeking engagement with NATO troops or hoping that they can hide and be just disruptive enough to not give ISAF the luxury of relaxing and building.

Additionally, it will instill some urgency (and, frankly, panic) in the Karzai government. For all his corruption, Karzai is committed to beating the Taliban and holding onto his power base--he won't achieve his own objectives by sitting back and hoping. Knowing that the US commitment (and thus the NATO commitment) has a time limit is likely to motivate him to get his government in good enough shape to keep it together on its own, rather than free-ride off US and NATO efforts.

All in all, there is a trade-off between the message to the Afghan government and the message to the Taliban, but I think the trade-off is being managed pretty well. Furthermore, the trade-off management might actually make enough Republicans and moderate Democrats happy enough that he'll get the requisition he needs to pull it off.

My confidence here isn't quite as high as it was with the Iraqi surge, but it's probably about the best bet the US has right not to pull a win in Afghanistan (even if, yes, "win" was not a word Obama used. Deal with it.) and walk home with not only a safer Middle East, but a much-inflated geopolitical position compared to 2004.
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