One of the cool things about being as powerful and fortunate as the United States is that you get to preach to other countries about how they ought to behave. In that spirit, the U.S. State Department puts out a human rights report every year, and basically wags its finger at countries that don't measure up. Of course, the report tends to go easy on close allies, but it's still a useful document. Among other things, it provides data that scholars interested in human rights can use to test their ideas about the causes of violations and the policies that might alleviate them.
But as you might expect, the world isn't just sitting around and passively accepting report cards from Washington anymore. Case in point: China has just released its own human rights report on the United States, and it makes for rather interesting reading. It's hardly an objective assessment of life in America, of course, but much of the information contained within it is factually accurate. The incidence of gun violence and crime in the U.S. is far above the level of other industrial democracies, and having the world's highest incarceration rate is not exactly consistent with being the "Land of the Free."
China's point is that the United States is being pretty hypocritical in singling out other countries, and maybe we ought to remove the log in our own eye before we start telling everyone else what to do. Add to this the recent bipartisan report confirming that Bush-era officials authorized the widespread use of torture and the fact that none of them has ever been indicted or prosecuted, and American hypocrisy on this score looks even more damning.
The Chinese report may not be objective, and the fact that U.S. leaders authorized torture does not mean Washington hasn't done plenty of morally admirable things too. But this gap between America's professed ideals and its actual behavior matters. Not just in moral terms, but in terms of power and global influence too. Smaller and weaker states are more likely to tolerate American primacy if they think the United States is a generally good society and led by individuals who are not just ruthlessly self-interested. They will be more willing to tolerate the asymmetry of power in America's favor if they think that power is used for the greater good. The more that others view the United States as hypocritical, self-absorbed, and indifferent to others, the more likely they are to ignore U.S. advice and to secretly welcome those moments when the U.S. gets taken down a peg or two.
The 9/11 attacks produced an unusual outpouring of sympathy for the United States ("nous sommes toutes Americains" headlined Le Monde), and we've seen a similar reaction in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. But such expressions of solidarity tend to be fleeting and especially when U.S. behavior gives opponents an easy way to heighten dissatisfaction with America's global role. What's going on here is a struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the wider world, and it would be foolish to believe that we will win that struggle just because we're the "good guys." That may be how we see ourselves, but Americans are only 5 percent of the world's population, and plenty of other people around the world have a rather different view.
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I was up early this morning to get ready for a conference presentation at Harvard only to discover that Boston and the surrounding suburbs were in lockdown and that the university was closed for the day. Like most of you, I've been following Twitter and other news sources as law enforcement officials seek to corner the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. Blogging during a rapidly developing story can be dicey, but here are a few quick thoughts.
As I tweeted a couple of hours ago, knowing the suspects' origins doesn't tell you what their motives were. Let's assume that the two Tsarnaev brothers really did it (which is certainly where the publically available evidence seems to point). The fact that they were of Chechen origin raises various possibilities, but at this point in time we have no idea if their actions were inspired by Chechen nationalism, by anger at America, by some weird personal animosity or desire for glory, by religion or by something entirely different. The man who conducted the Virginia Tech massacre, Seung Hui-Cho, was a South Korean national, but his actions stemmed from mental illness rather than his national or ethnic identity. Until we know more, inferences about motive based on the suspects' origins are little more than guesses.
Whatever their motives were, it certainly doesn't appear to be some sort of well-oiled terrorist plot. As one tweeter I read noted, a sophisticated and well-financed terrorist organization doesn't try to stick up a 7-11 a couple of days after the attack. To see in this tragedy some rebirth of al Qaeda or "terrorists of global reach" seems misplaced, at least based on what we know now.
But as I suggested a couple of days ago, that observation doesn't change our situation very much. Given the nature of destructive technology -- in this case, fairly primitive bombs -- and the fact that there will always be a few people with a destructive agenda of some kind, there are always going to be senseless acts of violence. Governments and society at large can and should take reasonable measures to reduce that risk -- and yes, a saner approach to gun regulation would help -- but 100 percent safety isn't possible. Fortunately, the odds that any of us will ever experience a direct encounter with this sort of violence are still vanishingly small. Even if you're a police officer or a soldier, the odds are in your favor. For the rest of us, we are still remarkably safe by historic standards. And Americans are much, much safer than people in many other places.
And remember, four people have now died in Boston (not counting the dead suspect), but some fifteen people died in Texas when a fertilizer plant blew up. The world is not foolproof. Bad things do happen. That bedrock reality is not even interesting; what matters is that we recognize dangers for what they are, calibrate them properly, and respond to them intelligently.
P.S.: Continued kudos to the law enforcement agencies dealing with this problem, who identified the suspects with remarkable speed and have handled an extremely difficult situation with calm but decisive measures. Cable TV? Not so much.
Update: As I've watched today's events and pondered further, I've become convinced that public officials in Boston erred by locking down the City and most surrounding suburbs for an entire day. There may be a good explanation for this decision, but it hasn't been provided yet. The economic cost has been enormous (by one estimate about $1 billion), and it sets a worrisome precedent if a 19 year old fugitive can paralyze an entire metropolitan region. We didn't shut down DC when the snipers were operating there, and we didn't shut down Los Angeles when a renegade and heavily armed police officer was a fugitive. This response also belies our insistence that we're tough and we won't be intimidated. On the contrary: we look skittish and scared. I suspect public officials were deathly afraid of further violence, and of being blamed later for not taking precautions. We'll see. But I worry that potential copycats will be inspired rather than deterred by the combination of media frenzy and governmental overreaction.
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I attended a seminar yesterday on Mexico's illegal drug enterprises, which offered a pretty grim assessment of the challenge these organizations pose to Mexico and the United States. And then I read Hugh Roberts's op-ed in today's Financial Times, which argued that outside interference in the Sahel has mostly made things worse and will continue to do so in the future.
Which sparked the following question: why is the United States getting hot and bothered about the events in Mali (troubling though they are), while the problems caused by the violent drug organizations in Mexico fly mostly below the radar? As I learned at yesterday's seminar, the drug war in Mexico was never mentioned during the presidential debates, even though over 60,000 Mexicans have been murdered over the past six years and even though this violence has killed several hundred Americans in recent years too. Prominent senators like John McCain keep harping about violence in Syria and the need for greater U.S. involvement; why doesn't violence that is closer to home and that affects Americans more directly get equal or greater attention? To say nothing of the effects that Mexican meth and other drugs have on the United States itself.
It's a serious question: why do some fairly distant and minor threats get lots of play in our discourse and command big-ticket policy responses, while more imminent threats get downplayed? Here are some possible reasons.
First, direct and deliberate threats to attack the U.S. or Americans abroad generate more attention than threats that might kill even more people inadvertently. Groups like al Qaeda deliberately target Americans (and others); by contrast, drug gangs mostly want to make money and the harm they do to others is a by-product of their criminal activities. You know: it's just business. An understandable, if not entirely rational, reason to see them as less threatening.
A corollary reason is the fear of "Islamism" and the impact of the al Qaeda brand. We wouldn't be nearly as worried about "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" if it had stuck to its original name ("the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat"). No matter what your actual agenda is, putting on the al Qaeda label is a good way to guarantee you get a lot of attention from Uncle Sam.
Second, we are more likely to respond to threats when we think there is a simple, cheap, and obvious military response. This is partly because the U.S. military is well-funded, omnipresent, and good at blowing things up, which gives presidents more confidence that they might actually accomplish something they can brag about later. By contrast, we ignore or downplay problems when we know in advance that we don't know how to fix them. Trying to address the drug violence in Mexico in a serious way would require the United States to do more to reduce our society's appetite for drugs, or make the trade less lucrative by decriminalizing it (ok for pot, big problem for meth). And we can't just subcontract the response to the military, because our relationship with Mexico also involves lots of other agencies (State, Justice, INS, DHS, etc., etc.). If you're a politician and you don't have any answers, you won't bring up the issue yourself and you'll hope to God that nobody else does either.
Third, some threats get attention because somebody has done a good job of marketing on their behalf. I get several unsolicited emails a day from various Syrian rebel groups, each of them providing information designed to encourage greater U.S. participation. This is of course nothing new: the government of Kuwait hired a PR firm to make the case for U.S. action in the first Gulf War, and the British government waged an aggressive propaganda campaign to foster U.S. involvement in World War I. Threat assessment is never as apolitical as the Ideal Strategist would like; sometimes it comes down to which side has better threat-mongerers.
Fourth, we hyper-ventilate over Mali and downplay Mexico because the latter is close by and we have lot of positive relations there that could get disrupted if we went all-out after the drug lords. Sending drones and special forces into places like Yemen or Mali doesn't threaten a lot of other vital relations with those countries (e.g., US trade with Yemen in 2012 was only $500 million), but interfering in Mexico could jeopardize our $450 billion-plus trade relationship and cause other political problems, especially given the prior history of U.S. interference there.
All of which reminds us that there's a big error term in how great powers (and especially the United States) identify and prioritize threats. We'd like to think it was based on rational assessment of cost, benefits, risks, and opportunities, but that seems to be true only in the most crude sense. U.S. leaders did (eventually) recognize the geopolitical threats posed by Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union, just as we now worry about what a rising China might portend for the future. But at the margin, our ability to prioritize lesser threats properly is pretty paltry. How else to explain why we get in a lather when North Korea tests a missile -- something we've done hundreds of times -- while downplaying more immediate problems much closer to home?
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Unless the Obama administration (and in particular, Attorney General Eric
Holder), has more smoking gun evidence than they've revealed so far, they are
in danger of a diplomatic gaffe on a par with Colin Powell's famous U.N.
Security Council briefing about Iraq's supposed WMD programs, a briefing now
known to have been a series of fabrications and fairy tales.
The problem is that the harder one looks at the allegations about Manour Ababasiar, the fishier the whole business seems. There's no question that Iran has relied upon assassination as a foreign policy tool in the past, but it boggles the mind to imagine that they would use someone as unreliable and possibly unhinged as Ababsiar. I won't rehash the many questions that can and should be raised about this whole business; for compelling skeptical dissections, see Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Tony Karon, and John Glaser.
As I said yesterday, I don't know what actually happened here, and I remain open to the possibility that there really was some sort of officially-sanctioned Iranian plot to assassinate foreign ambassadors here on U.S. soil. But the more I think about it, the less plausible whole thing appears. In particular, blowing up buildings in the United States is an act of war, and history shows that the United States is not exactly restrained when it responds to direct attacks on U.S. soil. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and we eventually firebombed many Japanese cities and dropped two atomic bombs on them. Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, and we went out and invaded not one but two countries in response. When it comes to hitting back, in short, we tend to do so with enthusiasm.
Iran's leaders are not stupid, and surely they
would have known that a plot like this ran the risk of triggering a very harsh
U.S. response. Given that extraordinary risk, is it plausible to believe they
would have entrusted such a sensitive mission to a serial bungler like
Ababsiar? If you are going to attack a target in the United States, wouldn't
you send your A Team, instead of Mr. Magoo?
Hence the growing skepticism, including the possibility that this might be some sort of "false flag" operation by whatever groups or countries might benefit from further deterioration in U.S.-Iranian relations. If the Obama administration can't back up their allegations in a convincing way, they are going to face a diplomatic backlash and they are going to look like the Keystone Cops. They could even face a situation where rightwing war-mongers seize on their initial accusations to clamor for harsh action (a development that has already begun), while moderates at home and abroad lose confidence in the administration's competence, credibility, and basic honesty.
So my advice to Holder & Co. is this: you better show us what you've got, and it had better be good.
Photo courtesy of Nueces County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images
For the record: I don't know if there was a genuine Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. Let me repeat that: I don't know. And neither do you. All we know is that the U.S. government claims to have uncovered such a plot, involving an Iranian-American used-car salesman who allegedly was getting direction from some part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. This dangerous criminal mastermind reportedly thought he was paying a Mexican drug cartel to conduct the actual attacks, when he was in fact dealing with an undercover DEA agent.
As I said, none of us really know what was going on here, but several features ought to be kept in mind. First, the Iranian government is by all accounts a contentious and unruly body, and it is possible that some rogue element of the Revolutionary Guards came up with this cockamamie but obviously despicable scheme. Whether Supreme Leader Khamenei or President Ahmadinejad had anything to do with it, of course, is another matter entirely.
Second, the FBI doesn't have a terrific track record in identifying and documenting this sort of conspiracy, and we'd be fools to take their accusations at face value. There is sometimes a fine line between uncovering a real terrorist plot and subtly encouraging one, as in the famous case of the "Miami Seven," whose plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago appears to have been largely inspired by the undercover agent who eventually exposed them. Until we know a lot more about the actual time line and evidence behind these latest accusations, a certain skepticism is warranted. And I wouldn't be surprised if the government eventually reveals that the evidence of direct Iranian involvement is based on intercepted signals intelligence, which it will then claim it cannot make public without compromising sources and/or methods. In other words, just trust us...
Third, before we leap to the conclusion that this is more evidence of how heinous Iran's revolutionary leadership is, let's pause to remember that the United States and some of our allies have done similar things in the past. We tried to bomb Muammar al-Qaddafi's tent back in the 1980s, and the CIA tried to kill Fidel Castro and a few other foreign leaders back in the 1960s. And the United States has certainly backed various groups that used assassination and other forms of terrorism to advance their political aims, such as the Nicaraguan contras. Some of you might think that these efforts were justified; my point is simply that we aren't wholly innocent in this regard. That doesn't justify what Iran is accused of doing, but it might temper our own moral outrage a bit.
Lord knows there's plenty of grounds for concern about various Iranian actions (including their reliance on murder and/or sabotage on several occasions in the past), and no shortage of conflicts of interest between Tehran and Washington. But this story is sufficiently bizarre -- would a real Iranian agent actually try to hire a drug cartel to do his dirty work? -- and the potential consequences are sufficiently grave that we really ought to wait until we know more before drawing any conclusions at all.
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From the New York Times story revealing that Mohammed Zia Salehi, an aide that Afghan President Hamid Karzai intervened to free from charges of corruption, has been on the CIA payroll:
Anonymous American official: "If we decide as a country that we'll never deal with anyone in Afghanistan who might down the road ... put his hand in the till, we can all come home right now."
Sounds like a plan to me. I don't mean to be flip (well, maybe I do), but how much more evidence of the fundamental contradictions bedeviling our war effort do we need? We say corruption is endemic and is making the Karzai government unpopular, yet our own CIA is busily buying off Afghan politicians. We say our real goal is to defeat or destroy al Qaeda, yet we are spending billions on anti-corruption efforts and "nation-building." We pour millions of dollars into a very poor country, which then flows into the pockets of Afghan politicians and back out into private bank accounts in Dubai and elsewhere. We add more troops in order to quell violence, but that makes us look like foreign occupiers and leads to additional civilians casualties, no matter how careful we try to be. And we never seem to have a serious discussion of the actual stakes in Afghanistan, the costs of an open-ended effort, the definition of "success," or the likelihood that we will achieve it.
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I’ve mostly stopped reading Maureen Dowd, as I’ve tired of her Gossip Girl approach to commentary, but sometimes she really does nail it. Today's column on Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington cuts neatly through the fog of feel-good blather surrounding the trip, and underscores the extent to which the Obama administration is merely kicking this particular can down the road.
The problem is a familiar one. Once a great power commits itself to a weak client state, its prestige is on the line and it loses most of its potential leverage over the people it has chosen to back. Why? Because clients can always threaten to lose -- which is the one thing the great power doesn’t want -- and so threats to pull the plug on them aren’t very credible. Clients are even less likely to reform when their local support depends on patronage networks and other forms of corruption, and when they want to make sure they have enough money in their Swiss bank accounts to finance a lengthy exile should things go south.
Patrons can pound the table and complain, but they soon look rather silly and ineffectual, and its now as though we have an ideal replacement for President Karzai waiting in the wings. So the United States has to try carrots instead of sticks, which is why Karzai is getting love-bombed in DC this week.
Afghanistan is hardly the first example of this problem, of course. The United States couldn’t get its South Vietnamese clients to shape up during the Vietnam War, and key Soviet clients like Egypt repeatedly extorted additional aid from Moscow by threatening to resign or realign with the West.
Virtually everyone agrees that we can’t succeed in Afghanistan without a reasonably legitimate and effective government in Kabul, even if it is running a fairly decentralized state with lots of local autonomy. There is also widespread agreement that Karzai is an ineffective leader, and that corruption is endemic. We’ve tried browbeating him to no avail, and now we’re trying a charm offensive. But neither is going to work, and President Obama is going to face another difficult decision when that eighteen-month deadline expires next summer.
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The other news from Massachusetts yesterday was the death of mystery writer Robert B. Parker, who suffered a fatal heart attack while at his writing desk in his Cambridge home. He was 77.
I’m a big fan of crime and espionage novels (my favorites being Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, John Le Carre, Alan Furst, Dorothy Sayers, and (of course) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and I got a lot of pleasure out of Parker’s work too. Partly it was the Boston setting, but also the trademark repartee of his characters, the blend of grit and sophistication, and the code of loyalty that bound (some of) them together. In addition to the trademark Spenser series, he also invented several other leading characters, along with children's books and (recently) a series of Westerns.
Parker had a Ph.D. in English from Boston University and wrote his doctoral dissertation on Chandler. He liked to lampoon the pomposity of the academic world -- a fat target to be sure -- but he also provided graduate students and academics with some really valuable words to live by. An interviewer once asked him what advice he would give to a young author, and his response was at least as useful as most of the other guidance you’re likely to get from advisors and colleagues. (Confession: I’ve used it with my own grad students from time to time.)
What was his magic formula? Simple. “Keep your butt in the chair.”
He produced over 60 books, so there’s a lot to be said for those wise words.
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I'm clearing off my desk today and working on the opening lecture for my graduate IR theory course, so I'm not going to try to write a detailed commentary. Instead, let me take this opportunity to pass on a few pieces that caught my eye, on a wide array of subjects.
1. From the S Rajaratnam School in Singapore comes an optimistic assessment on the status of the Pakistani Taliban. According to Khuram Iqbal, the Pakistani Taliban have failed to gain popular support, and show no signs of becoming an effective mass movement (akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon). Instead, they are increasingly seen as a narrower terrorist group, reinforced their unpopularity. While they remain a problem to be dealt with, fears that the Pakistani state was on the verge of collapse or that the entire country might be "Talibanized" seem to have been greatly overblown. (Juan Cole: take a bow).
2. There is a fascinating article by Richard Oliver Collin in the latest issue of International Studies Perspectives, entitled "Words of War: Iraq's Tower of Babel." It is a careful analysis of the extraordinary degree of linguistic diversity and fragmentation in Iraq, and it underscores how ill-prepared the United States was to try to occupy and govern the place. Money quote from Collin's conclusion:
It cannot be argued that enhanced language proficiency in Arabic and Kurdish would assure military victory for the United States in its conflict with the various Iraqi insurgent groups. Language capability is a necessary but not sufficient condition for triumph in war and diplomacy. The evidence does strongly suggest, however, that American inability to create a basic communications capability has contributed importantly to the failure of the United States thus far to resolve its Middle Eastern problems at some minimally acceptable level ... Can this historical trend be changed? There is no reason to believe that the present spate of Middle Eastern difficulties is going to be the last chapter in America's involvement in the Middle East ....
The United States historically has attempted to pursue a policy of intense involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, sometimes diplomatic and sometimes military, but without a concomitant commitment to understanding the region's culture, religion, and particularly its languages. Since American foreign policy in the Middle East policy has never been more than sporadically successful, an argument can be made that Washington needs to match its military investment with a serious commitment to language and area studies. Language lessons are cheaper than tanks, and if America's linguists were good enough, the United States might not need quite so many tanks."
Note: he says linguistic competence is "necessary but not sufficient," so please don't assume that training some more linguists would suddenly give us a magical capability to reorder other countries at low cost.
3. If you're just now trying to catch up on the situation in Afghanistan (and why haven't you been reading the AfPak Channel here at FP?), a good short introduction is Thomas Billetteri, "Afghanistan Dilemma," CQ Researcher, available here. (Full disclosure: I'm quoted a couple of times, but so are lots of other people with varying views.) Billetteri takes no position on the policy choices facing us, but the piece is an excellent introduction to the issues.
4. I've also just finished a fascinating paper by two economists from the Universidad de los Andes, analyzing the effect of Plan Colombia on the production and distribution of drugs (e.g., cocaine). The analysis is fairly technical and some of the math is beyond me, but it's clearly a serious attempt to determine the impact of different policies and how the different actors involved (the U.S. and Colombian governments, the drug growers, the drug smugglers, etc.) interact in a strategic fashion. Among other things, the authors (Daniel Mejia and Pascual Restrepo) show that although Plan Colombia's drug eradication efforts have reduced the amount of acreage under cultivation by nearly 50 percent, actual cocaine production has decreased by only 11 percent and the prices of coca leaf, coca paste, and actual cocaine have remained fairly stable. Why? Because growers responded to eradication efforts by adopting more productive cultivation techniques, thereby producing nearly the same amount of cocaine from smaller amounts of land.
They also demonstrate that the Colombian and U.S. governments have conflicting interests in pursuing the "war on drugs." Specifically, the Colombian government benefits far more from every dollar spent on eradication efforts (i.e., against drug production) because that takes money away from the growers (and thus the insurgency). By contrast, the United States gets a larger "bang from the buck" from drug interdiction (i.e., against drug trafficking) because the main U.S. interest is in trying to keep cocaine out of the United States. Here's a summary of their main findings:
We find, among many other things, that a three-fold increase in the U.S. budget allocated to Plan Colombia would decrease the amount of cocaine reaching consumer countries by about 19.5% (about 60,000 kg). We also estimate that the elasticity of the cocaine reaching consumer countries with respect to changes in the amount of resources invested in the war against illegal drug production is about 0.007%, whereas the elasticity with respect to changes in the amount of resources invested in the war against illegal drug trafficking is about 0.296%. In other words, if the main objective is to reduce the amount of drugs reaching consumer countries, targeting illegal drug trafficking is much more cost effective than targeting illegal drug production activities. However, if the objective is to reduce the cost of conflict in Colombia, targeting drug production activities is more cost effective .... Furthermore, we find that the optimal allocation of resources from the point of view of the U.S., whose objective is to minimize the amount of cocaine reaching its borders, implies that all the U.S. assistance to Plan Colombia should be for the war against drug trafficking. From the point of view of Colombia, whose objective is to minimize the total cost of internal conflict, the optimal allocation would imply that all the U.S. assistance for Plan Colombia should go to finance the war against drug production."
I'm sure one can raise questions about their analysis, but this is the sort of work that really ought to be informing the debate over whether Plan Colombia is working and how U.S. assistance should be allocated.
So first we expanded our forces in Afghanistan. Then we took on the challenge of prison reform there (ignoring the fact that America's own prison system is a national disgrace). And yesterday we learned that U.S. armed forces are putting suspected Afghan drug dealers on a "kill or capture" list. In other words, we are now extending the "war on drugs" to Afghanistan, ignoring the fact that this "war" (first announced by Richard Nixon four decades ago) hasn't led to victory. The new strategy also ignores some of the obvious lessons of that "war," and places the United States on some pretty dubious moral ground.
A colleague with extensive experience in the field of criminal justice wrote me with the following comment yesterday:
If Obama thinks the Cambridge police 'acted stupidly' by arresting Skip Gates, I wonder what adverb he'd use to describe his own latest police strategy in the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. 'Gee, let’s kill the top drug dealers.' Sounds smart at first glance, but given how lucrative the drug trade is, what do you think will happen after few of the top leaders are bumped off? Answer: others will compete to take their places. Police in the United States are just beginning to admit that their own efforts to remove drug dealers from the street drug markets of the late 1980s may have been the cause of the spike in violence in America's cities in this same period. Why? Because the police operations threw drug markets into chaos, leading to a ruthless competition among those who would take the place of the dealers whom the police were eliminating. In short, this is a formula to escalate the cycle of violence in Afghanistan, not to end it. For anyone who's been awake and watching the many failed strategies in the US war on drugs at home, it just looks stupid.
And that doesn't even get to the legal/ethical questions here. The Obama administration now says they will put someone on the kill list if there are two credible sources plus corroborating information. Sounds to me like a reasonable standard for getting a search warrant, but not for an assassination. Gee, if that proves a legal and ethical standard, we might try it at home in the war on drugs. Sure is cheaper than those long prison sentences, and a far lower evidentiary standard.
And I love the claim by the architects of this policy: 'we just want them to choose legitimacy.' Do they just not see that they are forfeiting the very thing they claim they want? They don’t really give a damn about legitimacy -- defined as a morally defensible position -- they just want the drug dealers to choose our side. This is just like Bush: 'you’re either one of our drug dealers, or one of theirs.' And if you’re the latter, we’re going to kill you."
I would only add that we've had enough trouble waging the war on drugs here at home, where cops understand the local culture reasonably well and speak the relevant languages. Political rivals in Afghanistan are going to start ratting each other out to the Americans, and we aren't going to be very good at sorting out "credible sources" from accusations that spring from other motives. Just look at how many other intelligence errors we've made over the past decade; not because we're incompetent, mind you, but because accurate intelligence in a counterinsurgency war is very difficult to come by and errors are inevitable. But instead of the usual standard that one is "innocent until proven guilty," now simply being accused of being in the drug business is enough to get you killed.
And let's not forget that Afghan drug lords aren't socially isolated individuals: they are embedded in their own tribal and family networks. Killing them won't eliminate the drug problem, but it could easily anger their kinsmen and make efforts to pacify the country even more difficult. I hope my colleague and I are both wrong about this, but I fear this policy is another sign that we simply don’t know what we are doing there.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
Today we learned that the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan are now spearheading a major effort at (drum roll) ... prison reform. We've figured out that the brutal treatment that even petty criminals face while in jail is facilitating Taliban recruitment in the prisons, and so the United States is going to build some new facilities and try to get the Afghan government to change its incarceration practices. Your tax dollars at work.
Given that we are trying to defeat an insurgency, I don't have a big problem with any initiative that might weaken Taliban recruitment. But am I the only one who sees the irony in this situation? Prison reform is badly needed back here in the United States -- where the incarceration rate is the highest in the world (Russia and Belarus -- well-known bastions of freedom -- are #2 and #3). In fact, the incarceration rate in the United States is nearly four times the world average, and nearly seven times higher than in the EU. Recidivism rates in the United States are also high (about 60 percent), which suggests that prison life isn't doing a very good job of rehabilitating convicts. As sociologist Bruce Western has shown, this situation has far-reaching negative consequences. Although Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) has been trying to spearhead a reform effort, this hasn't generated a lot of momentum so far. So the Afghans may get significant prison reform before Americans do.
Let's not forget how we got here: about eight years ago a small group of anti-American criminals hijacked four airplanes and flew three of them into buildings in the United States. The ringleaders of the plot were in Afghanistan, and the Afghan government (at that time under Taliban control) refused to give them up. So the United States invaded to overthrow the Taliban and capture the al Qaeda leadership. Unfortunately, we failed to get the latter, and we bungled the subsequent reconstruction effort by going into Iraq, thereby enabling the Taliban to make a comeback. So now we're escalating there once more, in a potentially open-ended effort to build a functioning and legitimate Afghan state. And now that means fixing their prison system too. How does one say "mission creep" in Pashto?
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Debates about many foreign policy issues persist because it is hard to know what the right course of action is and reasonable people can reach different conclusions about them. But there is a special category of foreign policy where almost everyone agrees the existing policy is wrong-headed yet almost everyone also believes the policy is impossible to change.
I'm sure FP readers have their own favorites in this category, but I thought I'd start the conversation with three nominees of my own.
1.) Farm Subsidies and Agricultural Trade Barriers.
Like other industrial countries, the United States subsidizes a host of agricultural products and erects various trade barriers against foreign imports. This happens because the farm lobby is defending the narrow interests of the farm sector and many democratic systems give small groups (in this case farmers or agribusiness) disproportionate influence. (It's the usual story: A small group reaps the benefits of this policy while the costs are dispersed across the whole population). This policy makes food more expensive, encourages farmers to grow the wrong crops, squanders energy, and hinders economic development in poorer countries, thereby contributing to political instability. These policies also make it much harder to negotiate multilateral trade deals that would raise prosperity world-wide. So although nearly every detached observer thinks the policy is wrong, they also know that the political power of farm interests (both here and abroad) makes it excruciatingly difficult to change course.
2.) The Cuba Embargo.
We all know the old line that insanity consists of doing something over and over again but expecting different results. By that standard the U.S. embargo on Cuba is demented. If an embargo was going to topple Castro's regime, it would be long gone. The current embargo has been in place for nearly five decades, persisting even after the Soviet Union had collapsed and when it is clear that an old and feeble Fidel poses no threat. Hardly anyone thinks it is the right policy anymore (if it ever was), but it remains in place because a small number of well-organized and politically active Cuban-Americans care about the issue and the rest of the country doesn't care enough to override their preferences. Because Florida is a swing state and its politicians remain sensitive to the Cuban-American lobby, a policy that has probably helped Castro stay in power remains in effect. Maybe this policy will finally change under Obama (or when Fidel dies), but don't bet on it.
3.) The "War on Drugs."
This one is a bit more controversial, in the sense that there is still a genuine debate on some of these issues. But there seems to be a growing consensus that the "war on drugs" (which we've been waging far longer than the "war on terrorism") is both ill-conceived and poorly executed. In the United States, as in many other countries, our anti-drug policies focus primarily on the supply-side: we go after growers, traffickers, dealers and users. And the United States is especially quick to incarcerate anyone who possesses narcotics, even for relatively minor offenses. The results are almost certainly worse than the problem itself: our policy helps enrich drug lords and make it possible for them to destabilize whole governments, as they are now doing in Mexico and Afghanistan. Criminalizing narcotics possession has created a burgeoning prison population that is expensive to maintain and whose long-term incarceration produces a host of other social ills. (For a depressing analysis of some of them, see sociologist Bruce Western's Punishment and Equality in America). As The Economist recently argued, "the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless." Reasonable people still disagree on what a better approach might be, but decriminalizing narcotics possession and focusing on education and treatment programs would cost less and probably leave us no worse off in terms of addiction and its consequences. But a politician who seriously proposed such a course of action would almost certainly face a firestorm of criticism, so the current failed policy is likely to continue more-or-less unchanged.
There are some other enduring policy initiatives I think are equally misguided (such as missile defense) but the consensus against them is not as clear-cut. On these three, however, I think most well-informed individuals know the policy is wrong yet unlikely to change.
So three questions for readers.
First, am I right to say that most experts agree that these three policies are both wrong and resistant to revision?
Second, are there any other prominent examples of similar follies: misguided foreign policies that almost everyone thinks should be changed but won’t be?
And third, if a lot of stupid policies persist even when it is obvious they make little sense, what does that say about the capacity of democratic systems to learn from their mistakes?
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.