Monday, December 26, 2011

Foreign Interests in the North Korean Power Transition

Kim Jong Il is dead. His son, Kim Jong Un is taking over.

At least, we think so.

The North Korean regime is run, essentially, by a military oligarchy. Generals and other high-ranking officials tend to garner strong loyalties by their troops, and thus have the power to enforce their wishes.

It is thus possible for military leaders to try to stage a coup or otherwise disrupt the government if they are unhappy (we've discussed this before after the Cheoan incident). The danger in the death of Kim Jong Il is that North Korea's military leadership may not be happy with Kim Jong Un as the new leader of the country. He is young, untested, and apparently a bit unsocial and reclusive. In any such transition (even if not to a leader that is particularly inept), the temporary weakness of loyalty and stability could prompt a move by one of these military leaders.

This stability risk is the source of the various approaches of various major powers that have an interest in North Korea. For the most part, these countries want to avoid war and chaos. Each has its own particular stake:

China: Like in the Cheoan incident, China will be backing Kim in order to preserve stability. Its very strong, quick backing shows that it will put its weight behind Kim in order to deter actors within North Korea from attempting a coup. A war in North Korea would mean a major refugee influx into China, which it is not at all prepared to handle.

Japan & South Korea: Japan and South Korea are showing some warmth in working to keep the region stable, as well. Japan is working with China directly, highlighted by a recent high-level diplomatic visit. Japan risks being at the wrong end of ballistic missiles that North Korea has aimed at the country that could be taken over by military factions even less interested in stability than Kim was (again, see the Cheoan incident). South Korea actually sent mourners to North Korea to express regrets for Kim Jong Il's death. The move is designed to start off on the right foot with the new regime and express an interest in potentially working together. South Korea not only faces the refugee threat that North Korea does, but also potentially a direct invasion if the wrong military leaders take power. It also, long-term, seeks unification with the North, and may be testing the waters to see how Kim Jong Un responds.

Russia: Russia has been quietly supportive. It is currently looking inward at its own protests, and to its WTO ascension, and may partially be distracted. Additionally, it does not want to be too closely associated with North Korea (it gets little out of its relationship with North Korea other than North Korea can prove a useful distraction against the United States and its allies), but similarly wants stability on the peninsula.

United States: The United States sees the transition as an opportunity to resume the six-party talks aimed at dismantling the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Expect the United States to show the most aggressive posture of any of the six-party members, but it will take some time before Japan and South Korea are ready to negotiate hard with Kim. That said, the United States making its intentions clear early on can slowly and steadily build momentum.

Kim Jong Un was placed in the seat of successor very quickly, after Kim Jong Il's older two sons became politically unpopular by various means--for example, Jong Un is a 4-star general despite no military experience at all. The posturing is meant, in some ways, to project to the world that North Korea is united in its choice for successor. Some factions may be looking for an opportunity to unseat Jong Un, but so far it looks like enough military leaders of the country are behind him to give him legitimacy, and that legitimacy will grow if he plays his cards well with the great powers around him--and they'll be looking to support him unless he turns out particularly rotten.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Aftermath of Europe's Disintegration

Dear Readers,

I apologise for my long absence from the blog. I've been busy, but I've also been holding back and feeling out the European situation before I wanted to say anything definitive about it.

As the European Debt Crisis worsens, we are starting to see the fault lines in the "Blocanization" of Europe grow wider and deeper. The core EU is torn between total control of its periphery, and jettisoning it completely. The former Soviet bloc countries continue to huddle together, waiting to ride out the eurozone storm and hold the Russians at bay when they come to capitalize on the fracturing of the Eurozone. Turkey's previous desperate love affair with the EU has become nearly a joke.

In the end, we're seeing Europe, as a concept, fall apart. The EU still exists, but it may dissolve in the next few years. If Greece or Italy leave, it will set a precedent that countries like the Czech republic, Poland, and the United Kingdom (all of whom have grown massively Euroskeptical) may take on and jump ship. This will happen, without a doubt, before any of these countries allow themselves to be pulled down by the Eurozone's debt crisis.

Even if these countries don't leave, they'll weaken the EU and make sure they are not as dependent on the fiscal responsibility of periphery countries in the region. Nationalism is coming back in Europe, and with ferocity. This nationalism, which many thought was being eroded away by Pan-Europeanism, will lead to European countries acting, once again, as independent entities, rather than a united force.

Geopolitically, it eliminates Europe from contestants for the role of 21st century hegemony. Despite its national pessimism, the United States is once again the front-runner--it remains the center of gravity of world trade and commands the seas. A growing Russia may be able to challenge the United States over the next 50 years. China continues to focus inwardly, and risks its own end similar to the "Japanese Miracle" if it cannot navigate its way out of the toughest bubbles in world history.

Look for surges in activity and influence-building from all three of these nations in the next decade or so, as they try to feel out what the new geopolitical system is going to look like.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Highlight: A Fractured Anti-American Islamist Movement

Al Qaeda released an article in its English newsletter Inspire calling Iran's President Ahmedinijad a conspiracy theorist, and that he should stop blaming the US for 9/11.

This is more than just boasting by Al-Qaeda. It's not simply that they want the credit for the attack on the WTC, but specifically, they want to be distanced from the US. Inadvertently, Ahmedinijad is claiming that Al-Qaeda are collaborators with the US, rather than sworn enemies. If the US was involved in a coordinated way, it would undermine Al-Qaeda's anti-US credibility.

Even if Ahmedinijad claims the US wasn't coordinating actively with Al-Qaeda, but simply knew about it beforehand and prepped for the attack, it would undermine Al-Qaeda's credibility in effective attacks. If 9/11's mastery was really at the hands of the US, then Al-Qaeda has summarily failed to attack the US on its soil since 1993 (which was ineffectual at best).

The split is a sign that different Islamist groups, while anti-American, are far from being able to unite in the cause. It's a sign that US foreign policy--to keep the Middle East broken up and fractured--is working.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Libya Mop Up: What's Taking the NTC So Long?

A few readers have asked, "Why is the NTC taking so long to capture Bani Walid and Sirte?"

Great question, and (luckily) simple answer.

Sun Tzu mentioned that you always want to give an enemy the ability to retreat. If not, they'll fight to the last man, taking many of you with them.

In past battles, Gaddafi forces have had the ability to retreat, and chose it, rather than be overwhelmed and destroyed, in the hopes of being able to reorganize and counter-attack.

All of Gaddafi's remaining forces are in these two cities, and they have nowhere to retreat to. They will need to be completely destroyed (surrendering counts) in order for the NTC to take these cities, which will be expensive and painful.

But ultimately, it is inevitable. The Gaddafi forces in Sirte have no supply lines and will fall to a siege. But, knowing this, they are likely to try to launch a counter-attack against NTC forces rather than be starved out. It's unclear whether NTC forces have significant reserves to deal with a counter-attack. Some rumors fly that they're stretched thin and are low on ammunition, but it's a game they're going to win in the long-term.

The problem is that people hate waiting.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Baltic Solidarity to an Emerging Russia

1) The Visegrad 4: Eastern Europe as a Major Player
2) The Re-Emergent Russian Bloc
3) Baltic Solidarity to an Emerging Russia
4) The EU Periphery: "Core" EU's Albatross
5) The Atlantics: A Return to Arms-Length Continental Management

Dear readers,

Sorry about the wait. Today we conclude our 5-part series on the Blocanization of Europe with our final installment: Baltic Solidarity to an Emerging Russia.

The Baltics have worried about Russia for a long time, likely surprising nobody. When Russia looks west, it sees both vulnerability and opportunity. Its vulnerability comes from open plains stretching from Moscow all the way to the Alps, giving potential invaders an easy route in (which we've seen taken advantage of many times), as well as St. Petersburg being potentially bottled up by European maritime powers in the Baltic sea. Russia thus seeks to create buffer space and exert influence over its western neighbors in order to protect its land and sea periphery.

The opportunities are in natural resources (Finnish timber, Norwegian oil, etc). Russia has made moves to squeeze control of these resources or the processing of them out of the Nordic holders.

So Russia has thus spent most of the 20th and 21st centuries attempting to exert control over these areas to in order to protect itself and realize financial opportunities.

So the Baltics have been traditionally fearful. Much like the V4, their faith in NATO has started to erode. Estonia has been the constant victim of political manipulation and cyber-attacks for a decade; Finland has been pressed by tariffs.

So the rest of the story is short. The Baltic countries are looking to each other for solidarity, especially military. Sweden and Norway sport surprisingly powerful military forces that will make any incursions by Russia a much more painful contest than the invasion of Georgia.

In particular, Sweden and Poland are discussing potential alliance-making; nothing as strong as the V4 itself or the Baltic's grouping, but something that could potentially functionally replace NATO altogether.

A Complicated Libya Transition

As Gaddafi's regime ends (as now it is a mop-up exercise), "the world" must begin thinking hard about how to help Libya transition over to a functional, democratic government--and what the effect on the region will be.

The short version:
-The rebels are deeply divided about the direction they want to take post-Gaddafi.
-Gaddafi still has supporters in Sirte and other parts of Western Libya that will fear reprisals and marginalization. The rebels will struggle to bring them into the regime.
-It's unclear how much of the civil service infrastructure will be left; that is, will the civil servants that made the cogs turn pre-war keep working?

This is a great opportunity for the West to learn from its mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq to make the transition to a new regime smoother. Mistakes not to repeat:
-Marginalizing the "old guard." They must have a reasonable place in the new regime, or they'll resist it.
-Don't declare victory too soon.
-Take a more hands-off approach: the National Transitional Council (NTC) will lose credibility if it looks like a puppet.

We'll see what the West can do. Luckily, the folks in Benghazi currently love the US to bits, so Obama has an opportunity to lead this transition well, and win back some legitimacy for the United States as a world leader.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Quick Libya Update

I know I owe everybody an update that discusses the Baltics--I promise, it's actually more interesting than you probably think it is.

It's worth a quick Libya update. For those of you rooting for the Rebels, they seem to have finally broken the stalemate.

Trained reinforcements from Benghazi and increased coordination with NATO are part of how the rebel forces have broken out from the safety of the mountain ranged and dared, successfully, the open desert. The presses from the east, while unsuccessful so far, have also taxed Gaddafi's forces and allowed the western front to be relieved, at least to some extent.

They are stretched thin, attacking multiple cities at once. But in doing so, they take advantage of the full force of NATO behind them, which is now hitting most of Gaddafi's troops in the west at once (see Wikipedia image below).

If the rebels manage to take and hold Gharyan and (most importantly) Al Zawiya, they will have successfully cut off Tripoli from any incoming supplies, including electricity, food, weapons, money. Many of Gaddafi's troops are mercenaries, and are likely to quit if the supplies and money run out.

Gaddaffi's loyalists will certainly launch a powerful, Alamo-style counter-attack, but can be hit by NATO airstrikes on the way out of Tripoli. But if the counter-attack is unsuccessful, the war will, for the most part, be over. Gaddafi lacks the command & control to coordinate effective offensives, and cannot make the long pushes that the rebels are making. He has been unable to exhaust NATO's patience (which is turning to excitement as the rebels advance), which was the only strategy he had to ultimately win back the entire country.

In the next few days, we'll see if we've entered the end game in the Libyan situation or not.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Atlantics: A Return to Arms-Length Continental Management

1) The Visegrad 4: Eastern Europe as a Major Player
2) The Re-Emergent Russian Bloc
3) Baltic Solidarity to an Emerging Russia
4) The EU Periphery: "Core" EU's Albatross
5) The Atlantics: A Return to Arms-Length Continental Management

Today we continue our 5-part series on the Blocanization of Europe by discussing the changes that will happen to the UK, US, Canada, and Iceland as the Continent splits into blocs.

The Atlantics are largely a classic story, and largely a bloc that has existed since the beginning of the second World War. The question of The Atlantics bloc has always been about just how much the Atlantic powers get distracted from each other.

To be clear, the Atlantics consist, fundamentally, of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom--I've (controversially, I supppose) tacked on Iceland due to perceived mutual benefit and a few historical interactions.

The United States, Canada, & United Kingdom have the exact same interest on the Continent: prevent any power from amassing enough wealth, power, and influence that it could project that power out of the Continent. For the UK, this threat is more immediate. But for the US & Canada, the fall of the UK to a Continental power would spell long-term disaster (if one consolidated the Continent from Moscow to London, its economy would be a bit larger than that of Washington & Ottowa combined).

We saw this during the first and second World Wars, as well as the Cold War--the US, Canada, and UK have a "special relationship" not despite geopolitics but because of it (which generally makes such a relationship more reliable and less fickle). It will continue to be so.

So why are we even discussing this? Trends looked, briefly, like they would turn awry for the North America / UK relationship in the 2000s, while Europe was upset with the US over Iraq and wildly enamored with its own experiment: a politically strong European Union. It appeared as if the UK had turned its attention towards the Continent, and would actually embrace a unified Continental power.

But this was never to be. The UK managed to sneak in a Eurozone deal in which it had the option of keeping the Pound as a currency for as long as it wanted (it will keep the Pound, for sure). The UK has lobbied against a stronger European military or foreign policy cooperation, preferring to limit its involvement to free trade, and a few domestically popular legislative concepts.

The UK has been skeptical of its involvement with the European Union, and has now grown exceptionally so. Unlike the United States, the European Union would not go to war with itself to maintain its cohesion--there is too much Nationalism at the level of each country, and the EU's tendrils of cohesion are already too weak, and getting weaker. As the UK pulls away, the European Union will do little to stop it.

The United Kingdom is very worried about recent Franco-Russo-German cooperation in military & economic matters. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was usually 2 of these powers versus the other, and the United Kingdom always sided with the underdog to prevent Continental consolidation. But the UK shudders to think of facing all three at once, and will turn increasingly towards the US for support if this cooperative trend continues on the Continent among its major powers.

And of Iceland? Iceland has no military at all, and depends on NATO for protection. But if NATO's cohesion weakens (which it will), it will need to cling to one of the Blocs for security. Why the Atlantics, and why not the Baltics?

As we'll discuss in our final installment on The Blocanization of Europe, the Baltics are too preoccupied with defending their borders from Russia to reach out to protect Iceland. The US, UK, and Canada will pick up the slack--the US rarely backs off an opportunity to have a forward base of operations in exchange for military protection, and will take the opportunity here as Russia's power grows (as much as Iceland may hold its nose during the deal).

Ultimately, the US, Canada, and UK will work together to play European powers off each other and try to keep the continent divided. They will back the underdog (in this case, the Visegrad 4) against powers like Russia & Germany that are looking to expand their influence across larger swaths of the Continent. North American / UK cooperation will only grow into the future as the Atlantics return to their old strategy of managing Europe at an arms length.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

EU Periphery: the "Core" EU's Albatross

1) The Visegrad 4: Eastern Europe as a Major Player
2) The Re-Emergent Russian Bloc
3) Baltic Solidarity to an Emerging Russia
4) The EU Periphery: "Core" EU's Albatross
5) The Atlantics: A Return to Arms-Length Continental Management

Today we continue our 5-part series on the Blocanization of Europe by skipping ahead to the EU Periphery, as it's currently of great interest to state leaders and armchair political scientists, alike. Rather than talking borders and weaponry, we'll be talking about money. It's just as important.
Standard & Poor's have cut the credit ratings of both Portugal and Greece to CCC, tied with a few other countries as the worst credit ratings in the world (see here for S&P credit ratings definitions). These, along with mediocre credit ratings for Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Ireland, put the Eurozone concept (and European unity in general) at major risk (see Wikipedia for an elaborated explanation of how the Eurozone and European Union differ).

The periphery states have become an albatross to the "core" EU states (for the "albatross" reference, please see Rime of the Ancient Mariner). Portugal and Greece have both already received bailouts, and Greece is likely to accept another in exchange for a modest austerity plan. Despite these bailouts, S&P (as well as Moody's, and other credit rating agencies) have tanked most of the periphery states in credit rating--indicating their likelihood to be able to pay back credit on time.

This is relevant for a few reasons:
1) Chronically weak periphery states will mean that the Euro won't overtake the US Dollar as the world's dominant currency. It will mean less influence for France and Germany on the world stage than they would otherwise have.

2) France and Germany may become tired of bailouts and allow defaults. The German & French taxpayers are subsidizing Portuguese & Greek deficits, and are likely to lose patience with it. If this occurs, Greece or Portugal may default, weakening both EU strength and solidarity.

3) France and Germany are looking for more financially stable partners. Generally, they are turning towards Russia, with little debt and significant earning potential (as well as few entitlement/welfare programs). Germany and France are likely to see much of the EU as a financial burden (rather than boon), and will focus on finding financial success elsewhere. This will drive Germany, France, and Russia closer together. Such a friendship has consequences beyond the EU Periphery--it will change the course of NATO, and US/UK strategy for a time to come (the latter of which will be discussed in our Atlantics section).

4) The continued struggle of EU periphery countries makes Eurozone obligations less attractive to potential members. Eastern Europe (technically obligated to join the Eurozone at some point) and the UK (with an option to join the Eurozone) are likely to balk at the idea of the financial burdens associated with Eurozone membership, and may try to find a way out.

Those who have read our previous posts are likely to see how this is a rather impressive compounding factor with other forces that are forcing Europe into blocs. The EU periphery is not going to become a bloc, perse--they are too weak to help each other--but the EU "Core" and V4 are likely to abandon the periphery at some point in hopes of better pastures elsewhere... and out of a fear of going down with the Eurozone ship, should it sink.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Changing US Strategy in the AfPak Region

There is writing that is moving from the walls directly to the Oval-Office-sealed paperwork: the United States will be removing the vast majority of its presence from Afghanistan, and soon.

A few pretty obvious signs are pointing to this:
-Defense Secretary Gates is stepping down
-The extremely popular General Petraeus has been moved to the position of CIA Director
-The President is making it clear he plans to accelerate troop withdrawal from Afghanistan
-The US and Pakistan are finally working together to hunt down a list of Al-Qaeda / Taliban leadership using CIA/ISI resources

These signs are indicative of 2 major changes:
1) The US strategy in Afghanistan is becoming one that focuses on anti-leadership attacks
2) The US has discussed this strategy with Pakistan--and finally gotten real cooperation

As we discuss this strategy, we must keep in mind the US' overall goal: to prevent jihadist groups from being able to either unite the Middle East against the West, and from being able to organize and launch coordinated trans-national attacks.

The US has largely succeeded in its first goal. The Arab Spring is (mostly) a relatively liberal-democratic movement, rather than a jihadist one. The US has won the "hearts-and-minds" campaign; al-Qaeda and its affiliates lack support from large populations, except perhaps in Yemen and Somalia.

In the second, the US has largely succeeded in all places but Yemen and the AfPak region. Yemen poses a different problem, but the AfPak region can be managed without the total collapse of the Taliban.

In fact, much of the Taliban these days consist of a Vietnam-style nationalist movement. Yes, they're still unsavory folks that want to bring a twisted form of Sharia to Afghanistan, but that is largely not the US' problem, as much as we may cringe to say it. There's little indication that much of the Pashtun Taliban know much about al-Qaeda or, if they do, care for the trans-nationalist doctrine.

On the other hand, much of the hardened leadership of the Taliban and other associated groups pose the bigger threat to the US' interests. These leaders can and sometimes will coordinate strikes, as we've seen in Pakistan and India. The new strategy calls for their systematic elimination by drones or CIA/ISI strike teams coordinating both tactics and intelligence. So far, it looks like it stands a chance at being relatively effective.

In the general push for Afghan security, a few benefits arise:
1) Focusing on the leadership hampers the Taliban's ability to coordinate, resupply, etc, when facing offensives
2) Withdrawing troops hurts the Taliban's nationalist message
3) The Taliban actually do want a negotiated settlement, and seem to be willing to do so once the US withdraws. Yes, they will have much more bargaining power then, but a negotiated settlement (at this point) is a much more palatable option than continued warfare for either side. They have reached a "painful stalemate," and are ready to talk.

Ultimately, we must remember that most of the Taliban are folks with very well-defined and limited aims, that don't include attacking the US (as angry as they may be). To a large extent, we can use the NVDA/Viet Cong as an analogy for most of these fighters, even if international interests are involved in funding them.

The most important part, though, is finally getting Pakistan's full help. Pakistan is shifting for 2 reasons:
1) US promises of quick withdrawal have now made helping the US politically palatable. The Taliban are not popular in most of Pakistan, and carry out attacks against the Pakistani people all the time. If Pakistan can help the US in a way that is politically palatable, it will--the US has just given it that opening.
2) With the US withdrawing, Pakistan is now legitimately worried about the Taliban threat growing, and is going to take higher responsibility to deal with it, and take control of the Waziristan region. The US withdrawal has been a bit of a "wake-up" moment for both the Pakistani leadership and its people.

Ultimately, total defeat of the Taliban is unlikely. Unlike Iraq, where the there was a small group of "irreconciliables" that were systematically destroyed, the Taliban represent a large group that is afraid of marginalization (much like the Sunnis in Iraq felt), and it must be negotiated with and brought into the government in some way.

Focusing on strikes against the leadership is likely the way that the US can bring this negotiation to the forefront, while keeping the Taliban as weak as possible, and ultimately preventing any transnational attacks from occuring.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Keeing Up with the War in Libya

A few readers have asked me about how to best keep up with the War in Libya. I can say, without shame, that the best source I've seen so far (as far as getting the facts) has been Wikipedia. Check it out.

The Re-Emergent Russian Bloc

1) The Visegrad 4: Eastern Europe as a Major Player
2) The Re-Emergent Russian Bloc
3) Baltic Solidarity to an Emerging Russia
4) The EU Periphery: "Core" EU's Albatross
5) The Atlantics: A Return to Arms-Length Continental Management

Our series on the "Blocanization of Europe" continues with an exploration of the factors behind the rise of Russia over the past decade, and what implications it will have for the continent.

As we discussed in our last post, Russia faced imminent marginalization in 2004, as NATO planned to incorporate Georgia and Ukraine into its alliance. A Western-led push into Ukraine had formented the Orange Revolution and the election of a pro-Western Yuschenko. Georgia's strongly pro-Western government was knocking at the gates of NATO and the EU. The US had successfully coaxed Europe into accepting the Baltics, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania into the EU in a fell swoop. Russia appeared to have an insurmountable united front poised against it.

This united front dissolved over the next 4 years. Some of it was due to Western distraction in the Middle East and complacency over Russia; some of it was the rift between the US and Europe over the Iraq war. But credit must be given to the Russian leadership, which successfully took advantage of every mistake the West made in order to shatter the united front:

-The carefully-timed invasion of Georgia highlighted Gerogia's vulnerability and the inability of NATO to come to its aide, and also turned popular support against the pro-Western elements that enraged Russia.
-Russia has engaged Iran and assisted its nuclear programme, enabling it to grow more assertive in the Middle East and largely upset Western plans for a hastier withdrawal from the region.
-Russia's intelligence forces engaged in a full-court press (both clandestine and propaganda operations) in Latvia and Ukraine, shaking Western support and mobilizing pro-Russian citizenry to become a more powerful political force.
-Russia threatened Germany and France with interruptions in oil & gas supplies, causing (in part) both countries to back off their bid for Ukraine and Georgia to enter NATO, thus kaibashing the entire attempt.

With NATO's plans successfully disrupted, Russia has been able to focus on two major geopolitical goals:
1) Solidifying its gas & oil supply dominance in Europe
2) Expanding its influence back towards the former Soviet states

Central Asia built strong ties with Russia during the Soviet Union, and they remain. The only major competitor for their support is China, which is a much more inward-looking nation.

Backlashes against the pro-NATO governments in Ukraine and Georgia have put these two states closer to the Russian bloc. Ukraine's ouster of the pro-Western government has eased ties with Russia and opened up stronger economic channels between the two countries. Russia's warm-water navy base near Sevastopol will remain in Russia's control. Moldova is currently a toss-up.

Russia has begun throwing its weight around as its power has grown. It has used Iran and Afghanistan to distract and frustrate the US, and shaken up confidence in the governments of Estonia and Latvia (while driving the Baltics closer together in defense--more on that later).

Furthermore, Russia is taking advantage of the EU's disharmony to build economic ties with key "Core" EU members--particularly Germany and France. Russia's vast natural resources and low-cost labor pool poses a great opportunity for the Core EU's largest (but slow) economies to start growing again and begin to bounce back from the weight of the falling EU Periphery.

What all of this means is that Russia is becoming a global player. Its base is sound (internal threats to the Putin regime are shaky at best), and it will continue to grow economically. It is rebuilding its military--in particular, its power-projection capabilities. It will grow to challenge the US on the global stage.

The thing that will make Russia different from the US--and the thing that will ultimately give the US a key advantage--is that Russia will spawn stronger and stronger alliances against it. The Visegrad 4 and the Baltic Bloc exist primarily to protect themselves from Russian domination. The US/UK will keep its power checked on the continent: their key interest is making sure no major power controls the resources and military of Europe. China will oppose Russia if it grows too strong.

The US, on the other hand, has scattered opposition at best. Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and Libya form the bulk of Anti-US governments (and Russia is stuck supporting these unsavory regimes)--besides Iran, they are largely irrelevant (or are becoming less relevant quickly). If Russia can pull Ukraine into its bloc for good, it will become a relatively significant ally, but it is unlikely to grow beyond that.

But at the same time, Russia will prove a highly disruptive force in Europe, and will test the loyalty and priorities of the US/UK onthe global stage. To a great extent, Russia will be the primary driver behind the major geopolitical changes in Europe into the forseeable future.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Quick Update on the V4

Timing is interesting.

The formation of the Visegrad 4 Battle Group seems to have awakened the United States to its own relative distraction from Eastern European allies.

Poland, which has been asking for American "boots on the ground" (if for no other reason than as a symbolic stand that the United States will defend Poland from Russia), finally extracted a pledge from President Obama, who will be visiting Saturday.

The US will be placing aircraft and trainers in a Polish base to beef up the Polish air force. The president has also assured the US commitment to the NATO precept: mutual defense.

The fact that President Obama needed to make this reassurance to an ally that was staunchly secure during the Bush years is a sign that the US has begun to recognize its poor attention to the area. It's also a sign that the V4 is being taken very seriously, and immediately.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Visegrad 4: Eastern Europe as a Major Player

Our "Blocanization of Europe" series will include a number of posts, each outlining what the new bloc will look like, why the bloc is losing faith in the NATO/EU system (if it ever bought in at all), and why each country is choosing the group it's choosing. Our upcoming posts should look like this:

1) The Visegrad 4: Eastern Europe as a Major Player
2) The Re-Emergent Russian Bloc
3) Baltic Solidarity to an Emerging Russia
4) The EU Periphery: "Core" EU's Albatross
5) The Atlantics: A Return to Arms-Length Continental Management

Today, we'll be discussing the Visegrad 4, if for no other reason than we find them the most interesting and most potentially game-changing bloc of Europe.

The formation of a Visegrad 4 "Battle Group" was the original even that prompted our thinking about the blocanization of Europe; it is both a symptom of and (will be) an emerging cause of declining European solidarity.

Ultimately, NATO's inability to completely defeat the Russian Bloc (by failing to integrate Ukraine and Georgia into NATO) meant that European security could not be completely ignored; that, combined with NATO's attention locked in the Middle East (and thus not on Eastern European security: the United States has pledged only a single army brigrade to the defense of the Visegrad 4) have led to a serious security crisis for the V4. With a strong Russia and a weakened will by NATO to commit to Eastern Europe's defense, the Visegrad 4 had to take matters into its own hands.

The Visegrad 4 battle group certainly projects a strong regional commitment to a unified defense of the plains from Russia; perhaps more importantly, it will have a significant material impact on the region's ability to defend itself.

The Battle Group will allow each country to streamline its military to adopt regional command and control; sharing resources will allow each country to reduce redundancy and redirect freed resources to extra firepower or new specialization. Shared intelligence will lead to greater regional awareness, and thus better response times and effectiveness. Most importantly, the Battle Group means that the V4's entire military force could potentially focus on a single area quickly (both due to bureaucratic reductions and effective regional planning on troop mobilization and transportation), thus making it much harder to "pick off" individual countries in the region.

Historically, such "picking-off" has been a key strategy for both Germany and Russia in consolidating power in the region (Germany and the Soviet Union were both successful in such a strategy in the 20th century); the V4's Battle Group nearly guarantees such a strategy will not work, as long as the will to support it remains (which it should into the medium-term future).

Romania and Bulgaria similarly recall the harsh rule of the Soviet Union, and wish to avoid any similar arrangement. They joined the EU and NATO in order to guarantee security against any repeat incidents, but the relative aloofness of NATO and a breakdown of confidence in the EU as a supranational structure is likely to push these two countries towards the next-best alternative: the V4.

Neither Romania nor Bulgaria has yet shown commitment to join the V4; in particular, Hungary and Romania have had regional disputes over territory and mutual security. But, if Russia's regional assertiveness continues to grow, these two countries will need to seek shelter. There is potential, especially in Bulgaria, to fall into Turkey's sphere, but a European rejection of Turkey's bid for EU membership is likely to push it towards the Arab region (where it already seem sto be facing).

The Visegrad 4's strengthening has implications beyond its own interactions internally and with Russia. Eastern Europe is currently the EU's most dynamic economic region, with highest yearly GDP growth on the continent. While the region is still economically troubled, its structural advantages set it up to continue to grow over the next decade.

If the EU's financial strength continues to weaken, the V4 may become the economic stronghold of the continent--and its influence over the region will grow as many countries come to depend on its growing economic strength.

Practically-speaking, the US and UK will not abandon the V4 entirely: they see the V4 region (in particular) as a stronghold against an emerging Russia, and will support it when times become dire enough. But Middle Eastern distractions have turned the attention of the V4's major allies, and this group will wisely remember not to depend too heavily upon Western allied support against Russia--it has failed multiple times in the 20th century (during the German invasion of Poland, the Hungarian and Czech revolts against the Soviet Union), and the Visegrad 4 will not sit by to allow another such failure.

Expect, in the future, for the Visegrad 4 to grow increasingly strong and assertive as it finds its center of gravity. The region faces many risks to its long-term security, but it is likely to have the influence and weight, when the situation grows "dire," to man its own front lines and call upon the help it will need from the US and UK.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Blocanization of Europe: An Introduction

I'll keep this one quick.

I've been doing some thinking about how Europe has been changing in the past decade, especially with the military rise of the Visegrad 4. It has been a dramatic change indeed.

A large portion of my next few posts will be focused on this series: The Blocanization of Europe. In short: the vision of a single unified Europe is beginning to show the signs of fray -- a "blocanization" of the continent is beginning, based on natural lines of national interest and security.

In particular, as we see NATO's commitment to European Security weaken, and the financial integrity of the European Union shaken, the ability to depend on the hope of a strong, unified Europe is diminishing.

We'll be focusing on the reasons for this, and the new blocs emerging--and what each means. As a teaser, I've attached a map of these blocs, built on my current understanding of the geopolitical makeup of the new Europe.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Quick Visual Biography of Bin Laden

I'm typically not a fan of re-posting, but this brief biography of Osama Bin Laden is actually a great combination of comprehensive and brief. Worth a look:

Click image to enlarge
Rise and Fall of Osama Bin Laden
Via: VA Home Loans, a company trying to sell you stuff, but it's a pretty good image, nonetheless.

Monday, May 2, 2011

What Bin Laden's Death Means

Bin Laden's death at the hands of American special forces sheds insight in two ways: learnings for the present, and implications for the future.

The Present (Answering the question "What does this demonstrate about the current state of the world?"):
1) Arab Muslim Sentiment: There has been little Arab outrage over the death of Bin Laden, or any other signs of upswollen support for the Al Qaeda movement. It's a sign that Al Qaeda has low popularity among the Arab Muslim world, which will cause it to be increasingly marginalized: "grassroots" movements like Al Qaeda rely on some popular support for both resources and sanctuary. It's a sign that Al Qaeda's message of global Jihad is falling on relatively deaf ears... and a sign that its ability to commit high-casualty transnational attacks is severely limited (as much as from pressure in Afghanistan as from losing the "propaganda war" for the hearts/minds of the Arab Muslim population).

2) Pakistan: one must be asking, "How did Bin Laden make it for nearly 10 years in Pakistan without being caught?" He wasn't even deep in a remote mountain area; he was in a relatively safe and populated town near Islamabad (people less than 1km away were tweeting about the noise from the American helicopters). Is Pakistan's intelligence service lacking in competence, or loyalty? Did Bin Laden have inside help? The US will need to figure this out.

Implications (Answering the "So What?"s hanging out there):
1) Al Qaeda Leadership: Damaged some, though not necessarily in any serious operational capacity. Al Qaeda became a relatively independent "cell" network that did sometimes interact with central leadership, but not terribly often. Tactics are generally left to the cells, and strategic (even if not "visionary") leadership is currently delegated to regional authorities (like Al Qaeda of the Arabian Penninsula, Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, etc).

Visionary leadership may well end up being lacking for Al Qaeda, but it may have been lacking for some time now. Bin Laden's grainy audio messages to go bomb this country or that country have largely failed to inspire any results, even if a few extremists were inspired to try.

2) The ground situation in Afghanistan: Little to no effect. Al Qaeda has been driven into Pakistan, and NATO is currently fighting a nationalist Islamist movement (the Taliban) rather than a transnationalist movement. The Taliban are certainly "bad guys" in the Western moral sense (in a much more clearly morally outrageous way than, say, the Viet Cong), but don't answer to Bin Laden and largely don't support his views of transnationalist Jihad. The Afghanistan "ground" situation won't change--the US hasn't beheaded the Taliban's leadership.

3) US Strategy: Ultimately, the signs are generally pointing to the fact that we may be slow to accept: that Al Qaeda, while still technically "in existence," is largely eliminated as a threat to the US. Other Islamist networks exist (in Algeria, in Yemen, in Saudi Arabia), but they have little traction to go transnational.

Not because of Bin Laden's death, but based on leading indicators from the response worldwide to Bin Laden's death, it may be increasingly clear: the War on Terror is won. Transnational terror movements are fractured and unpopular; the Arab world is more concerned with nationalism and democratic reform than it is with beating back the spread of Western culture through jihad.

Not to say there aren't many, many problems remaining in the Middle East. The US cannot ignore the region, but it can largely move towards a state where it is no longer burning its resources--and losing its sons--to the region.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Checking In on Middle East Unrest Predictions

Never let it be said that Foggofwar doesn't hold itself accountable to its predictions. Let's go back and see how we did. For now, we won't cover everything--only the interesting ones.

Libya: Certainly the most interesting case, Libya would give Foggofwar the excuse of "intervention by the world's most powerful military alliance." Ironically, we may not even need this prediction: Protests have still not reached Tripoli, and the Rebel/NATO alliance seems to be showing a serious inability to mount an assault across the long stretch of desert, and thus won't overthrow the Gaddafi regime: the West will lose interest before Gaddafi loses will or military capability. As Predicted.

Morocco and Jordan: Protests here have died down largely due to reforms enacted by the governments that have given protesters what they wanted. As Predicted.

Syria: Protests continue to rock the country, despite (or because of) Abbas' crackdowns. Abbas has the ability to keep a lid on the populous through serious security and political liberty reforms, which he may want to do in order to court the West, anyway. But Abbas has infuriated his country and squandered a strong, loyal security establishment. Increased Risk.

Yemen: Rumors fly that the Yemenese president is working with Saudi and US allies to transition out of government... and out of the country. It's been a surprisingly long, sustained fight, but it looks like this current regime is on its way out. As Predicted.

Bahrain: Bahrain has fallen out of the news sphere as of late, as the active unrest has stopped. Interestingly, the sustained crackdown continues, trying to marginalize the supporters of the protests. The regime is safe--for now. But the Shiite majority of the country has been alienated completely. Long-term, the regime will continue to face risk. As Predicted.

Briefly speaking, no other country has surprised us yet in the magnitude of risk or, more importantly, in regime change. Overall, we've done pretty well so far.

But we're happy to be proven wrong if things change.

Implications of the Current Situation in Libya

Short summary of recent events in Libya:

* Rebel and Gaddafi forces face east/west stalemate
* Gaddafi's forces organize and rally, pushing Rebels to Benghazi
* At some point, SAS (and probably CIA) inserted into Libya
* UN approves no-fly zone and "all necessary measures" to protect civilians
* Gaddafi declares ceasefire, declares willingness to talk to opposition, meanwhile moving forces into Benghazi
* Anti-Rebel operations continue in Benghazi (in efforts to "last-minute" end the Rebel forces)
* French strikes begin on land targets (tanks, etc)
* US/UK strikes begin on anti-air, fuel, airport, communication/command sites
* Arab League condemns ground attacks

"All necessary measures" is likely a deliberately vague clause, allowing the West to justify (at least to itself) nearly any military action, while abiding by its post-Iraq rule-following sensibilities.

Of course, the protection of civilians is a political mask over the true intent: regime change in Libya. As much as the Rebels are a bit of an unknown factor (and some of them are clearly Islamist), the West is quite tired of Gaddafi.

The implications are numerous and highly variable.

West-Middle East Relations
The West certainly hopes that its pro-Rebel action will endear it to the new anti-establishment movements and regimes that seem to be sweeping the Middle East. The West gets to claim "we helped without occupying!" when the new governments of the Middle East start making serious decisions. The fact that the Rebels asked consistently for Western help is a good sign that the PR has the potential to be good.

That said, the Arab league is condemning the ground strikes, saying that the West has already gone past its mandate of protecting civilians. Indeed, the "protecting civilians" focus of the UN resolution may be a political crutch to real action. The Arab League, moving towards a popular/ democratic rhetoric, is worried that the air strikes will lead to non-insignificant civilian casualties; these governments thus do not want to be perceived as supporting more Western action in the Middle East that seems to damage Arab/Muslim people.

The two questions as to the PR outcome will be the # of civilian casualties and the outcome of the campaign. More casualties will be tolerated in the short-term if Gaddafi's brutal regime is removed and replaced by something more friendly, but only if the front-line action is driven by the Rebels themselves. The West will need to keep some of its guns in check in order to avoid looking less like humanitarians and more like imperialists.

Part of the major risk is scope creep, though it depends on the country.

The United States has already committed to take a back seat after the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) campaign ends, allowing countries like France and Italy to take over enforcing the no-fly zone and preventing ground forces from entering Benghazi en masse.

That said, the risk is creating a stalemate, in which a withdrawal of air forces will allow Gaddafi to succeed, but an endless no-fly zone campaign might quickly frustrate both domestic European opinion and Middle East opinion.

To break that stalemate and seriously cripple Gaddafi's forces (thus giving the rebels the advantage) will require action beyond the original mandate, though this can often be done with enough discretion that only minor objections will be thrown up.

The West's goal here may be to make sure a friendly country, probably Egypt, is committed to supporting the rebels and making sure they can be rearmed, fed, and regrouped during the air campaign, such that they can make a sustained push west towards Tripoli when the initial SEAD campaign ends; Western forces are likely to be able to provide key intelligence to help the Rebels find isolated pro-Gaddafi units and overtake them quickly and decisively, which would further arm the rebels with artillery and armor.

Military Outcome
Likely military outcomes here are either a stalemate or a rebel victory. Gaddafi will struggle to get the forces he needs into Benghazi (and struggle to control them well enough to effectively occupy key population centers).

As a default, military units are now hiding in heavily populated areas, though if they're otherwise paralyzed, it may give Rebel forces there an opportunity to harass the units into a state of unpreparedness for a more sustained Rebel counter-attack.

While a Rebel victory is possible, it's also unlikely. The Rebels lack military leadership, and (unlike Yemen or Egypt) have not had major elements of the armed forces defect and turn their guns against the leadership. Until that happens, the Rebels would have to completely knock out the sizable Libyan army in order to claim victory over Tripoli.

Political Outcomes
If the stalemate persists, the Rebels are likely to keep their alternative government in the east, and a de facto split of Libya would occur. The Benghazi government could garner international support; especially from Egypt (which would want influence over the large oil reserves in that area).

but whether the Rebels win or not, the big question of its political makeup remains a major concern for the West. Clearly, the Rebels are anti-despotic, but what else? Libya had a brutal campaign against extremist Islam for some time--how strong are these influences in the Rebel group? Do the Rebels desire a secular state? Will it be Western-friendly? These are all questions left unanswered, and will largely determine the amount of sustained Western support for the government.

Western Cohesion and Trans-Atlantic Relations
Perhaps most interesting is that the biggest benefit the West is likely to get is its own internal sense of dignity and goodwill. With US-led operations in the last 10 years going militarily poorly and morally questionably, there have been a lot of bad feelings and aimlessness among the West, even with respect to itself. The West's strategic direction is confused and frustrated (especially as Russia seems to be running circles around NATO's internal conflicts). If Libya goes well, the West can achieve a "feel-good" victory like it had in the early 1990s, and a renewed confidence in its ability to be an effective and relatively-welcomed police force.

Western military cohesion will not be that of the early 1990s, but it may improve. Specifically, the US will have an opportunity to act in an effective support role, both improving relations with Europe (by allowing Europe to lead the operation that's most relevant to its immediate periphery), and setting up a system in which the US can limit its engagement. The US has far and away the best logistical/transport capacity and control, as well as the best battlefield intelligence. These two factors make it a perfect candidate to support other Western nations' campaigns against less impressive forces, and the US can benefit significantly by setting up alliances in which it maintains that role.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Middle East Protests and Regime Security as of Feb 18

As we continue to cover the Middle East crisis, I wanted to give an update as to my current understanding of regime security throughout the Middle East in light of the current protests that seem to be spreading throughout the entire region.

We've discussed briefly some of the reasons behind the protests, and these geopolitical forces will generally apply to countries besides Tunisia and Egypt.

Below, I've summarized the countries of the greater Middle East* and taken my best shot at assessing the risk to the regime based on the current level of protests and the greater structural factors behind the unrest in the country. In addition, I've color-coded the countries by risk on a map here. I'm happy to release the map into the public domain (this means you can use it as you wish, though I do appreciate credit).

The low attention span summary is that despite the protests, very few Middle Eastern countries face significant risk of regime change. Yemen is likely to see a change in government, and Algeria and Bahrain face an unclear future, but other regimes are relatively secure.

Secure Regimes, Few or No Protests:
-Saudi Arabia: I mention Saudi Arabia due to a surprising lack of unrest. As extremist violence has grown in the country, house Saud has struggled to balance its need for stability with calls for reform, but so far it has managed its oil wealth well enough (and dealt with extremism with a sufficiently fair and progressive hand) that it seems to have warded off too many fundamental causes of instability.
-Iraq: Sporadic protests have erupted in the north and the south of the country, but not in Baghdad. Ironically, the weakness of the current government (and the factious parliamentary system of the country) means that there exists neither a scapegoat (to protest against) nor a hero (to replace him).
-United Arab Emirates

Secure Regimes with Significant Protests:
-Iran: Mousavi and Kharoubi have once again emerged as leaders of the opposition movement, which is forming "green"-style rallies across Iran. Tehran's geopolitical stability is even higher than it was in 2009,

-Jordan: Jordan has often faced demographic instability (due largely to many Palestinian refugees living within its borders), but has generally handled it with some amount of grace. The king has won approval from the opposition by sacking his prime minister and cabinet, and appointing new leaders under a long-term economic and political reformist plan.

-Libya: It's tough to say just how large the protesters in Libya are; Kadafi's media control is significant. Certainly, there are protesters calling for Kadafi's removal in cities across Libya, but Tripoli seems relatively quiet compared to many other Middle Eastern capitals, and the "Day of Anger" seems to have flopped (due in part to security force intimidation). Libya is both willing to crack down hard on protesters and relatively economically secure, making overthrow unlikely.

-Syria: I am wary to group Syria into the same category as Iran and Libya, but the Syrian government has made a few concessions to a relatively small and wary group of protesters, and has also taken moves to suppress the protests that show at least some nervousness in the regime.

-Morocco: Morocco's liberalization efforts since the 1970's (including free trade agreements with the US and EU) have led to significant economic transformation in time. But Morocco's economic fates have worsened since 2008, and this stagnation hurts particularly in a country with nearly 20% youth unemployment and high illiteracy rates. Protests have sprung up, but the regime enjoys relatively wide popular support, and the success of a relatively capitalist approach in the last few decades make alternative economic models (and their standard-bearers) less attractive.

Regimes With Protests, at Risk:
-Sudan: After the Southern Sudanese secession referendum, it seemed tempting to believe that al-Bashir might consolidate power over a now-majority Arab country. Interestingly, Southern Sudan was one of the out-groups that was helping al-Bashir hold together a fragile coalition of Arab Nationalists and Islamists. Now, both Islamists and non-Arab opposition groups are emboldened and trying to push their agenda. To hold power in the short-term, al-Bashir is likely going to have to move closer to an Islamist group he's been trying to distance, which will likely pit him against the 45% non-Arab groups of his country, leading to a prolonged struggle for the future of Sudan.

-Algeria: Food price spikes have exacerbated the unemployment in Algeria, and trade unions have joined protests demanding change. Ultimately, the number of protesters has been kept small, due in large part to security force repression. But long before the Tunisian "Jasmine Revolution," president Bouteflika has faced an increasingly strong rivalry from the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DRS) for power. The protests give the DRS, which grew powerful during the civil war against Islamist fundamentalists, an opportunity to side with "the people" and attempt a regime change similar to the military-stewarded removal of Mubarak in Egypt.

-Bahrain: Bahrain has one fundamental threat to its regime stability: demographics. Like pre-2003 Iraq, Bahrain is a majority-Shia country ruled by a Sunni dynasty. Unlike Iraq, it is an economic powerhouse with relatively low poverty rates and has been driving moderate reform since 1999. The current Shia community is demanding an end to alleged discrimination against the Shia population in both politics and employment. The situation may have remained low-risk, but Bahrain has become a battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iran, much like Iraq was during its sectarian civil war. Iran sees this as an opportunity to potentially create an ally in the region. Bahrain has reacted surprisingly desperately, violently driving protesters out of Pearl Square, killing 3 and injuring hundreds. Bahrain may have to depend on sustained security repression to keep the Pearl Square incident from leading to a backlash of even more protests.

-West Bank Abbas is highly embattled, though this is due less with the current crisis (and the socioeconomic or demographic causes behind it), and more with the Wikileaks-prompted revelation that he planned to cede significant Palestinian territory to Israel in return for state recognition. The current wave of protest has increased pressure, but has little impact on the long-term endgame of how that will play out for the current Fatah regime.

Regime Change Likely:
-Yemen: Massive protests in Yemen, supported by both an impoverished majority and a radical religious fringe, are likely to take down president Saleh. Massive unemployment, illiteracy, and general poverty (made worse by poor government economic policy) make Yemen a prime target for regime change. Saleh's promise of neither running for re-election nor passing the presidency to his son has done nothing to quell the unrest.

Regime Change Partially Occurring:
-Egypt: The military is working hard to make sure the next regime is friendly (and under the military's control), without looking like it's turning a "revolution" into a coup. Expect the new boss to be similar to the old boss, but more savvy about unemployment and monetary policy.

-Tunisia: Massive protests across Tunisia were led by the 30%-unemployed youth against a regulatory system that left them with no prospects for employment or advancement, and are largely credited as being the "spark" that has set off the current Middle East crisis. President Ben Ali resigned and fled the country, with the Speaker of the Parliament taking his place in an "interim" role. The Tunisian protests continue (in a reduced state, though many of the protesters have no work to which to return), and will likely not abate completely until a compelling plan to meet their demands is formed by the transitional government.

*Note that Afghanistan and Pakistan are left out of this analysis--the current crisis has little to do with the significant regime risk both countries face.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Coup in Egypt Downs Mubarak

The quick version:

Mubarak stepped down as President of Egypt today, almost certainly from coercion from the Army.

The longer version:

Due to massive pressure Egyptian protesters, everyone (Egyptian Army, CIA, protesters) thought Mubarak would step down on the 10th of February. He made it clear he had no intentions of doing so.

It's unclear why he did this, but it looks like there may have been an internal struggle within the military leadership. The military's Supreme Council released a second Communique on the 11th supporting the idea of Mubarak sticking around, with the Vice President taking some undefined large share of the power (after a first Communique which implied that the army wished for Mubarak to step down). This second Communique suggests that the pro-Mubarak faction of the army had enough influence to stave off the coup and keep Mubarak in power.

This faction likely hoped that the army's support (and a "gradual transition") would depress protesters and mark the beginning of the end of the demonstrations.

It wasn't to be so.

On Feb. 11, the ranks of protesters swelled immensely. Protesters in Suez took over government buildings, and thousands in Cairo began marching towards the Presidential Palace.

The Army was directed to protect the Palace, and surrounded it with troops and tanks. The issue was thus pushed to a critical climax, giving the army 3 options:
1) Risk a violent confrontation with the protesters.
2) Stand by idly and let the protesters overthrow the President, risking the collapse of the entire regime.
3) End the stand-off before it starts by couping Mubarak themselves.

The massive risk of option 1 likely caused a sufficient subset of the pro-Mubarak faction of the army to defect to the anti-Mubarak faction that a consensus to coup was likely reached in the afternoon of the 11th.

The third option was the safest for the army; it allowed the army to fall on the side of the vast majority of the population's wishes. It means that, while there will be a major change in government, Egypt's trust in its army will only swell, making sure that the army will be able to maintain its influence and power in the regime, no matter what happens next.

We'll keep you updated.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Savvy Muslim Brotherhood Could Win Western Support

The Muslim Brotherhood has been illegal in Egypt for decades.

Since Mubarak began to teeter on the edge of demise, the MB has risen up to lead much of the protesting. It is certainly a large, and potentially quite influential force in Egypt.

Thus far, it has been a relatively moderate force, with relatively moderate discourse.

The West's fear in general is that the MB appears moderate and inoffensive only so that it could stay off Cairo's radar during the past 30 years, and that further down, there is a more strict Islamist agenda.

Whether that's true is tough to say. Other MB organizations have (likely) been indirectly involved with extremist-style violence, and have generally advocated for strong Islamist states.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood started hitting the PR trail virtually as soon as the protests began. They maintained popularity in Egypt despite the ban, and have the potential to be a formidable force in the next round of Egyptian politics.

The risk, of course, was that a power grab (especially early) could make both Western countries and the Egyptian Army sufficiently worried that anti-MB opposition might arise. Given that the Army is far and away the most powerful political group in Egypt, staying on the Army's good side will be critical to avoiding a drag-out political war.

And so, the MB's media office released a statement: "We are not seeking power." They've promised to not field even field a presidential candidate in the next election, and have declared that, "we reject the religious state."

In this move, the Egyptian MB has moved itself far from other Muslim Brotherhood organizations. Ultimately, the Egyptian MB no longer needs as much external help as it once did--it is no longer illegal, and enjoys great popular support in what may become a semi-functional democracy before the year is through.

These moves of reassurance will keep pressure off the MB as it establishes a stronger legitimate presence, and will likely gain even more popularity by being seen as a force that exists to help the common Egyptian citizen.

It's a strong enough stance that it's one the MB would struggle to pull away from (without appearing to betray its its promises). But there is certainly no reason that the MB should not field a presidential candidate in the second presidential election, nor take a significant holding in Parliament in this first election, even if it is unlikely to change its agenda in the short term.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Political Scientist's Approach to the Current Middle East Crisis

As a political scientist, I scrunch my eyebrows a bit at the current crisis in the Middle East. It tickles my sensibilities in the wrong way: can one man setting himself on fire in Tunis really bring down a well-established regional system of government?

Obviously, the answer is "not on its own." More deeply, the answer is, frankly, "not at all." Generally speaking, the Realist school of political science sees events like the self-immolation in Tunis as minimally significant to the broader brushstrokes of geopolitics.

What I mean is this: many folks in many countries at many times (including much of the Middle East) have set themselves ablaze, gone on hunger strike, or otherwise protested for change, and gotten nowhere. To say that the "conditions were ripe" in the Middle East under-attributes the importance of the conditions themselves.

An historical example:
After the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, tensions were high between the Austrians and Serbs. But the Austrians and Russians were largely ready to settle on a "March to Belgrade" by the Austrians, in which they'd simply hold the Serbian capital as the internal revolts were brought under control.

Two main factors led to World War I itself: offensive war methodology (the ubiquitous and profound belief that the best defense is a good offense), and Germany's border instability and desire to create buffer zones in Central and Western Europe.

Similarly, the election of Abraham Lincoln had ultimately little to do with the start of the Civil War. The Gulf of Tonkin incident had literally nothing to do with the American intervention in Vietnam.

Ultimately, all these events were caused by broad geopolitical factors that small, relatively random (in the scope of world politics) perturbations like a sacrificial protest cannot meaningfully change.

There will always be events that could lead to a crisis. Whether such a crisis emerges depends entirely on the geopolitical conditions going in. The Middle East is no different.

The reason for the current political instability is, ultimately, financial instability caused by decades of mismanaged central planning that led to sufficient dissatisfaction with the current regimes.

Oppression and suppression of alternative political groups is not a trivial point, but traditionally has not been enough in the past forty years of the Middle East to facilitate a popular change in government.

Ultimately, yes: the same geopolitical forces that drove the beginnings of the World Wars, the fall of the Soviet Union--these, too, drive the changes we're currently seeing in the Middle East.

Monday, January 10, 2011

China Continues a Stance of "Reassurance"

In my undergraduate years, I had the pleasure of working for Prof. Taylor Fravel, MIT's local Chinese foreign policy buff. I did research for a text called "Securing China," whose primary thesis was that Chinese military development pursues a single goal: securing its resource and population base by staunchly defining and defending the borders it identified in 1949 (when the Communist Party took over).

Prof. Fravel is part of a rather non-alarmist school of thought, contradicting the tone of much of modern US news media. The non-alarmist school believes that China's at-times rough-edged stance is primarily to ward off other powers (Russia, the US, etc) from encroaching on what it has asserted to be its territory (specifically, Tibet and Taiwan). Chinese behavior in the Korean peninsula is a different matter, and complicated (and can be discussed at another time).

But to be fair, while China is at times prickly, its primary communication policy on its military is one of reassurance. China has made sure to define very carefully what its arms are for (often these arms are for a hypothetical invasion of Taiwan); it has avoided building unnecessarily provocative (or otherwise globally-relevant) weapons, like aircraft carriers (this is accentuated by a Russian aircraft carrier, purchased in the early 1990s, that currently sits as a theme park). In particular, China has recently emphasized that its military is currently "decades" behind that of the US in technology and capability.

In this case, Beijing happens to be absolutely correct. Chinese troops still lack the training and tactical intelligence technology (nor its integration) that US troops have. More importantly (as the US and China would almost certainly never meet on the ground), Chinese naval vessels and air superiority fighters are, indeed, sufficiently behind in technology that a major confrontation with the US (assuming it brought two of its twelve aircraft carrier battle groups to bear) would be swift and decisive.

In particular, Beijing is emphasizing these differences in order to release some pressure from the US about the development of anti-capital ship missiles. Sophisticated anti-capital ship missiles are currently a weak spot in US (and any) naval power. Against powers like Russia and China bearing such weapons, US ships would be sufficiently exposed that they would take significant damage and losses in a pitched naval confrontation.

Secretary of Defense Gates was in China last week in order to try to push China on construction of these missiles--China did not budge. China also failed to make the progress it wanted--the US is continuing its arms sales to Taiwan. It will continue to make such sales as long as China does not offer a sufficiently enticing chip in return (and weapons development is something that one can only tenuously and temporarily offer to delay).

China will continue its stance of "reassurance" as it grows, such that it is not faced with a serious, concerted challenge until it is sufficiently modernized that it can handle it. That said, odds are low that it will become a "revisionist" or expansionist power (unlike Russia) in the near future, even if it does "catch up" with the US--there is no evidence in particular from Beijing that it wants anything different than it did in 1949--a consolidated territorial China.

Monday, January 3, 2011

My Skepticism and Optimism Over Reports of Progress in Afghanistan

One of the tough parts about an anti-insurgency campaign is that it's a pretty tough operation to measure with hard data. That drives people like myself quite crazy, at times. We depend largely on reports from mid- and high-level commanders, who have a bias to over-report success and under-report failure. But we do what we can.

There are a few reasons to be optimistic from some recent news. The first is that an (apparently) relatively large and relatively influential Pashtun tribe in Helmand, the Alikozai, have agreed to deny support to the Taliban in exchange for international aid and development.

It might be a key advance in an attempt to break a vicious cycle in the area, in which the local population doesn't support the Afghan government due to lack of services & security, and the lack of support from the local population bars the Afghan government from taking a foothold. The long-term strategy is to wash the Taliban out of stronghold areas (like Sangin), build government services and security, and thus not allow the Taliban to effectively move back in.

I'm mostly cautiously optimistic, though it'll depend entirely on whether the US is able to capitalize on this (and get more local allies), about which I'm rather skeptical. The US' only serious hope is in the brutality and unpalatability of the Taliban alternative.

I'm more skeptical about fact-lacking reports from senior US military leaders about the success of the North Waziristan campaign. A recent press release about "many, many" fighters/leaders killed or sent into hiding due to drone attacks brings only raised eyebrows. How many dead; what have the effects been? Where do we see relief of attacks? How are we entrenching the gains? None of it's there, and the risk is that, if out leadership is using these reports as signs of success, then we'll fall into the same traps as we did in Vietnam: mis-use our resources, mis-count victories, and ultimately lose.