Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Emerging Results of US-Russian Negotiations

With Russia's 65th Victory Day parade in full swing (and a grande one it is), and Gazprom looming over Ukraine's very independence, it may be hard to think that the US and the Russians are putting together a working relationship. But on the issue of nuclear weapons, the two states may have actually achieved a deeper understanding.

Of course, the two states will continue to be rivals as far as spheres of influence--of this there is no doubt. But, ultimately, there is common ground on the issue of nuclear proliferation, and the two states are taking advantage of this.

The common ground is such: Neither state wants nuclear arms to fall into the wrong hands. At the end of the day, it is much better for both Russia & the US that there are a limited number of nuclear-armed states. This both gives the Nuclear Club a strong bargaining upper-hand with other nations, and reduces the risk of arms ending up in the hands of (undeterrable) terrorist groups. Both states furthermore have sufficient retaliatory capacity that few minor changes (like # of warheads) can significantly impact.

Where are we seeing this cooperation play out? A number of recent events, not yet explicitly linked together by either state's spokespeople, suggest a wider cooperation afoot:

1) SMART. The renewed nuclear treaty really allows both countries to get rid of their older, obsolete arms easily. Fewer, more advanced arms allow both countries to save a bit on maintenance costs, but more importantly, help both countries keep track of their weapons (remember the 2007 incident a few years where a US [CORRECTION:]B-52 mistakenly flew with weapons? Russia is not the only state for whom it is difficult to keep track of them all). Beyond that, it's symbolic, but it shows both states are willing to put time into cooperating on the issue, even with many other competitive games underway.

2) Pressure on Iran. Russia and China look to be in favor of some limited forms of sanctions against Iran (not including, for example, a gasoline ban). While the sanctions themselves are unlikely to be crippling, Iran's loss of Russia & China's support on the issue would be. Iran is China's second-largest oil supplier--China's willingness to risk relations with Iran in order to keep it in line on the nuclear issue would be significant. But, ultimately, Russia & China don't want a nuclear-armed Iran, either. Russia would enjoy Iran's continued existence as a nuisance to the United States, but no more than that. Iran's possession of nuclear weapons would make it a threat to Russia and China's interests--not necessarily a nuclear strike (hitting either Russia or China would be suicidal); but it would grow increasingly daring and audacious in its region. China and Russia would certainly prefer to dominate the areas to the east and north of Iran themselves.

But if the US has won over the Russian and Chinese hands towards pressuring Iran to dismantle its nuclear program, the odds of its failure increase dramatically (namely, Ahmedinejad is likely to lose sufficient domestic support to press it forward if Iran loses its key allies over the issue). It may be the only option the US has to stop the program that doesn't include war.

3) BMD. We see also Bulgarian and Czech involvement in the American BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense) system. The Czechs have confirmed their own plans to place radar and missile systems within their borders; Bulgaria has made its intentions clear that they desire to be a part of the system as well. Such moves come amid the United States backing off pressure in Ukraine (where it has all but conceded the loss of Ukrainian autonomy in the near-term) and failing to counter Russian sympathy diplomacy in Poland. Some of this is the United States being, frankly, outmaneuvered by a truly brilliant Russian foreign policy.

But some of it appears to be a very quite understanding of spheres & values. The Russians are distinctly not making a fuss over the Bulgarian and Czech missile defense systems, where Polish plans for the very same thing were met with military officials murmuring of nuclear war (and not facing reprimand afterward). Russia & the United States may, for now, be deciding that they have more pressing issues to tackle than each other (as much as I may personally disagree with said policy).

The suggestion to be made is that an understanding of sorts may have emerged. Perhaps it is part of a larger deal, where the two sides have found room to concede on issues of less import to secure cooperation on issues of greater import. The opposition opinion is that Obama is being distracted by nuclear arms negotiations when there are more important areas to burn his time and political capital. But at the end of the day, the United States is simply not in a position to counter Russian expansion into Ukraine, Georgia, and certainly not Central Asia. Furthermore, the balance of interest is far in Russia's side--if Russia loses any of these 3 regions (especially Ukraine), it is in danger of being permanently marginalized. These areas aren't areas where the US is ready to fight and win--this unfortunate reality may be what's driving America's current deal-making (rather than conflict-making) strategy with Russia.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Venezuela's Energy Market May Be Chavez's Downfall

Wouldn't it be just great?

Venezuela is up for state-level elections in a few months, and things are not good in the energy sector (now adding to consistent woes in the food sector).

According to STRATFOR:

While the Venezuelan government continues to stress sabotage as the cause of the electricity crisis, government figures on the water level at the Guri dam are not consistent with the reported lack of rainfall at the reservoir.

The government has reached the point of blaming active saboteurs for its energy woes--whether this is simply propaganda or a personal delusion of Chavez is unclear, but the question at hand is this: how tightly does the government control information?

Somewhat-recent protests at the shutting down of an opposition television station suggest disgruntlement with the current information strategy of the Venezuelans (somewhere between the feelings of the citizenry of Iran and China on the issue). Such disgruntlement may mean some transparency exists over the actual mismanagement of Venezuela's electricity sector, which could mean that crackdowns and accusations of sabotage might only be making Chavez's life more difficult in the long run.

The election will tell. Unfortunately, even a resounding defeat for Chavez in the local elections is unlikely to lead to regime change in Venezuela or a loosening of Russian influence in South America.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Alternative Perspective on Karzai

Sven Ortmann, one of my favorite (and non-American, to boot) foreign policy bloggers, gives the rosier interpretation of Karzai's recent lashings against the US, which has some validity.

My only qualm with Ortmann is that I think the content that Karzai chose to squabble over is significant--in general, his challenges to the US are when it acts to undermine his consolidation of personal power, as far as I can tell, and I think that's more dangerous than what happened in Iraq.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

NATO's Persistent Karzai Problem

It's tough propping up a government when said government seems to want to fight you every step of the way.

Hamid Karzai has gone on a recent bender of accusations against, in particular, the United States, but also the UN and NATO in general. The particular meat of the accusations is that Western powers have "meddled" unjustly in Afghan elections, undermining the legitimacy of said elections and giving the Taliban a political talking point (specifically, the most recent rants mention the throwing out of 1/3 of the votes for Karzai in the first round of presidential elections).

The accusation is probably rather preposterous, but I might be wrong. Either way, the lower house of the Afghan parliament unanimously (that being everyone) voted against Karzai's decree that the UN can no longer hold 3/5 majority of the electoral fraud commission--instead, Karzai would himself appoint the entire body. Unfortunately, the upper house (1/3 of which are hand-picked by Karzai) decided that, procedurally, they could not vote on the matter within a year of the elections. Unfortunately, this means the decree will stand. for the indefinite future.

This isn't the first worrisome think Karzai has said about his relationship with the West. Recently, a visit by Ahmedinejad prompted Karzai to call him a "brother" and otherwise generally cozy up to Tehran. Karzai occasionally has fits about throwing out the Western occupiers, despite his dependence on them to keep his government afloat.

Karzai is, no doubt, a very frustrating character for the West. Somehow, the US has managed to build a relatively rosy relationship with a country that it is illegally invading and drone-missile-attacking to squash a Taliban force that said country has some interest in maintaining (this, of course, being Pakistan), but has not managed to keep on good terms with the tinpot dictator it's trying to support. I'm not quite sure whether Clinton has muttered the words, "Well, if you really don't want us..." but Karzai might just understand that the US (and in particular, the administration) has so much to lose that unilateral withdrawal is just not an option--and if that's the case, Karzai has a great bargaining position, despite his relatively flaky power.

It's not actually all that uncommon for a propping state to have trouble keeping its client state's leadership in line. al-Maliki has been a mostly excellent partner to work with, but this is the exception. The US and UK often fight bitterly with Israel; the US leadership groaned famously over the Saigon government in Vietnam, the KMT/GMD in the Chinese Civil War, etc.

But the question that comes to mind is this: why should Karzai be such a darn pain the butt? What incentive does he have to make the lives of the US leadership as difficult as he does? Wouldn't his life be easier if he wasn't publicly ripping into his supporters? Can't we all just get along?

Well, as you probably know, Karzai's in a pretty tricky position. As much as he loathes the Taliban at a very personal level, Afghanistan is obviously a very long way from being a Taliban vs. anti-Taliban kind of show. All those pesky warlords, tribes, ethnic groups, and what have you make Iraq look like Disneyland in terms of being able to reach a unified consensus and build a unified state.

At the end of the day, Karzai's got to make a lot of rather unsavory people happy enough that they won't directly challenge his claim to power. He's also got to build legitimacy with the general population, so they'll throw support behind him directly (meaning that the other power players in Afghanistan also have to side with Karzai to keep their own popularity and legitimacy). Karzai's in a rather precarious position.

And so, of course he's going to be rather cross when a little election fraud here and there (which he may not have even ordered personally) gets dragged out of the gutter and displayed for all to see--it's going to cast a whole lot of doubt on his personal legitimacy that he probably believes would not be cast if everything looked peachy. At the same time, of course he's going to get friendly with the Iranians--Iran and Afghanistan share a border, and Afghanistan's got a non-trivial Farsi-speaking minority that Karzai needs in his opus-coalition in order to keep power.

And it makes sense that Karzai would call Clinton right after to apologise--there may be a frustrated understanding that Karzai has to look tough against the US in order to try to build legitimacy among (the winnable) tougher nationalists or Islamists, and to show that he isn't implicitly condoning the prevailing impression of election fraud (without selling out the ground-level loyalists that worked so hard to stuff ballots and intimidate voters--such a rebuke would seem like an implicit betrayal).

So the guy's in a pretty tough position. Combine said position with a truly maniacal obsession with defeating the Taliban, a slightly-bigger-than-healthy paranoia, and a penchant for micromanaging that verges on power-obsession, and you've got the Karzai we know and groan today.

But what can be done about it? Well, this is the tough part. Ultimately, the leadership positions of Afghanistan need to be shored up without turning them into tyrants in order to do so.

The big win is probably going to come in developing the Afghan army. When regular folks in Afghanistan see the friendly neighborhood soldier keeping them safe and helping them out, there will be a lot more state buy-in. This can, in theory, be done in time (the New Iraqi Army was mostly built from scratch after the US de-Ba'athification... but it was tough). Furthermore, said army will make the local warlords a decreasingly viable alternative and decreasingly important force in the new Afghanistan.

Second, NATO has to show that the Taliban is a losing alternative. To this end, first, NATO needs big, flashy, high-profile victories in places like Marjah (which haven't yet been delivered, because they are militarily difficult). Second, NATO needs to win the PR war by showing that the Taliban are actually baby-killing extremist nutbags, and won't make life better for the average Afghani. Somehow, this is easier said than done.

Finally, the local police & administration need to be developed. This will be toughest of all. As you've probably heard a bunch, Afghanistan is not used to having any sort of serious central authority. Current administration is underpaid and corrupt, either selling out the central government for cash (usually from the Taliban) or thugging on locals to help prop up their warlord, or even the state. (Step one here is clearly to use our vast sums of wealth to start paying police officers more, and hire cross-functional accountability officers).

But it's going to be tough. Karzai's going to continue to be a problem for the West, and the West is going to have to live with it and work with it, or lose Afghanistan. But the friction between Washington and Kabul shows that we've got a very, very long way to go.