Where the Military Goes, the Government Follows

West Point (7238241484)

United States Military Academy at West Point, by Peretz Partensky [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I recently had the pleasure of reading the transcript of General McRaven’s address to the cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. A copy can be found here.

Early in his speech, while reciting a Plutarchian litany of the great generals of our age, McRaven said of General Martin Dempsey, “…he presides over the greatest change in our military since World War Two and he does so… with a song in his heart.” I immediately found myself confused. Hadn’t the biggest change since World War Two been the transition from a draft army to a post-Vietnam all-volunteer force? Or the technological revolution that took place during the Global War on Terror? What was happening in the second decade of the Twenty First Century that could dwarf these other critical shifts?

I called my personal military expert, my Dad (who is a Captain in the United States Navy) and he explained to me the shifts presently underway. I will summarize as succinctly as possible. Before the First and Second World Wars, the US military was essentially a homeland defense force with slight capability to conduct foreign expeditions (as the Spanish-American War and following decades of imperialism illustrate.) But the great pressures of the World Wars, and accompanying geopolitical shifts, forced the United States to project immensely more power in Eurasia, and the infrastructure of the military was forced to change and expand to accompany this new mission. Indeed, the early Cold War saw an institutionalization of the various commands and programs which had been borne out of World War Two. The United States military was now a global, balancing, interventionist force, and its organization supported it in its mission.

It should come as no surprise that the federal government expanded dramatically in this time as well, the so-called golden age of the Progressive Era. A large part of this growth was due to domestic politics, internal pressures,  and chains of thought endemic to the United States stateside. But part of it, too, came as a corollary to the expansion and growing complexity of the military. More troops require more services; more bases require more oversight, and so on. More importantly, some of the basic social trends and methods of bureaucratic organization, at the widest level, seem to have had their historic roots in military organization before they entered the political mainstream of debate.

For example, the desegregation of the US Military preceded meaningful desegregation of American society by a decade. Similarly, the formal recognition of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a policy which discouraged active discrimination against homosexuals in the military, preceded by several years the massive national debates on gay marriage and other sexuality issues. On the bureaucratic side, the transition to an all-volunteer force in the 1970s and 1980s came alongside the conservative movement and its massive pushback against stagnating government services, and the reinvigoration of both institutions seems to spring from a similar root. Likewise, the American military expanded more during the Civil War than it ever had before, and after the war, the first components of the modern American welfare state were established. It seems that as a state’s war fighting ability is required to increase, so grows its military and government.

What we are seeing today, then, is simply shocking and almost completely unexpected. Encumbered by sequestration, and overextended after two long counterinsurgencies that drained the energies of the American people, the US military is entering a period of dramatic downsizing and reform. The world has changed, as has the domestic situation. Going forward, the United States must continue to play its pre-eminent role in protecting the global system, but as new powers arise, it must increasingly work with and against them, managing a tenuous balance of power through conventional and unconventional means while pursuing agents of disorder in this increasingly fragmented world. In the meantime, the old blue model of the welfare state is decaying and needs a rethinking and rejuvenation.

Amidst all this, the military’s new mission lies in agility and flexibility. It must have the capacity to project force as powerfully as it has in the past seven decades. But now, it must project this force as an agile ninja, rather than a cumbersome knight. It cannot afford to have merely the most firepower in the room; the US must be able to direct that firepower in the smartest manner. So with its own budgetary downsizing, the military is making the best of its resources to accomplish its mission. Rather than shutting down any of its regional commands, it is reducing their staffs. Instead of downsizing its plethora of bases, it is combining redundant ones and expanding the capabilities of each. It is protesting vigorously against technology deals that it does not need, and that only serve the interests of the constituents of certain politicians (as the case of the F-22 so vociferously demonstrates.) The military is taking seriously the notion that it has to get leaner.

A couple weeks ago I had the dubious pleasure of sitting in on a talk, on the horrors of sequestration, by an outgoing Republican congressman. When he finished, I raised my hand and remarked: “I have heard that of all the departments, agencies, and programs in the federal government, none will be able to conduct its mission after sequestration as well as the United States military. None will adapt to new fiscal constraints better.” “I’ve never heard that,” came his gruff reply. He seemed to be more a security hawk and nationalist than a prudent thinker on military and foreign affairs.

But as other government agencies react poorly to diminished budgets, as the wages of fiscal irresponsibility plague our government, as the affairs of the world march on without caring, it is increasingly apparent that the most certain victories our government is winning at present are those emerging from the Defense Department and the military chain of command. Perhaps the model the military now exhibits will become the general model the government will emulate, as was the case in 1865 and 1945, only now it sees a contraction rather than an expansion. Perhaps in light of fiscal constraints, bureaucratic malaise, and general governmental stagnation, the US government will look to the military model of efficiency and consolidate redundant programs, decentralize regional command, and encourage efficiency and innovation so far as is possible. Perhaps a new era of smart government is upon us, as the era of smart military certainly is.

The Bear and the Dragon

An hour outside of Mandalay in upper Burma (Myanmar), construction of the Sino-Burma pipeline tears through the thick jungle. The pipeline is a joint venture between China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprises (MOGE) and is designed to ease China’s dependence on oil/gas transfers through the Strait of Malacca. (Photo Credit: Reid Lidow, All Rights Reserved 2012).

An hour outside of Mandalay in upper Burma (Myanmar), construction of the Sino-Burma pipeline tears through the thick jungle. The pipeline is a joint venture between China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprises (MOGE) and is designed to ease China’s dependence on oil/gas transfers through the Strait of Malacca. (Photo Credit: Reid Lidow, All Rights Reserved 2012).

In recent months, international news has focused intensely on ominous developments in the East and South China Seas, along with the bloody sectarian dramas engulfing the Middle East. Conflicts across Africa, from Somalia to Nigeria to the Central African Republic, have also captured attention, though they remain largely under-reported in the Western press. Major political shifts between Iran, its neighbors, and the West, along with the confusion and unrest in the Ukraine as it seeks to define its relationship with its Eastern (i.e. Russia) and Western neighbors, rightly command the bulk of our attention as of late.

But in the midst of all this, beneath the eyes of a world preoccupied with clashes worthy of box office films, far subtler power plays are at work that will likely matter far more to the course of history than the flashpoints in Syria, Egypt, Somalia, and Ukraine. Consider foreign policy developments in Moscow and Beijing – though both states are plagued by internal unrest and beset by international humanitarian pressure, both states are clearly ascendant in their respective, and overlapping, neighborhoods. Their maneuvers in Asia will increasingly bring them into tension, and perhaps conflict, in the years to come. This is a development Americans should watch closely.

The tense relationship between the Bear and the Dragon in Russia’s Far East and China’s Northeast is legendary, from the days when exhausted Cossacks dealt with (and stole from) the Qing Dynasty. The Soviet Union propped up Communist states in Xinjiang and Mongolia while warlords, Nationalists, and Communists all squabbled over the ruins of China. When a Communist victory became apparent, the Soviets sought to make Red China essentially an arm of their global strategy, a relationship which Mao and his followers deeply resented. As the People’s Republic came into its own, it grew increasingly autonomous vis-à-vis patrons in Moscow, which would precipitate a series of violent border clashes in the late 1960s. Nixon and Kissinger’s skillful manipulation of this rivalry has been recorded in the history books. So fraught has been the relationship between the authoritarian giants that they only resolved their border disputes along the Ussuri River in late 2008.

The start of the 21st Century has seen a cooler, and on the surface more cooperative, Sino-Russian relationship. While the United States was distracted in Iraq and Afghanistan prior to 2011, both Beijing and Moscow began asserting themselves in their historic borderlands and defending each other’s positions. Their mutual condemnation of international interference in internal affairs, as seen with respect to Syria and Iran, seems to have pushed them closer together. Additionally, their alignment in the Shanghai Cooperation Association grants them at least hollow Eurasian authoritarian solidarity. Xi Jinping’s first foreign trip as President of the PRC was to Moscow; the diplomatic import of this visit should not be lost on us.

But the story does not end there. Important fractures continue to underlie the relationship, though they are far less tense in their present iteration. Russia and China remain powerful states with rising ambitions. Chinese-born workers and contractors take up a large share of the labor market within the Russian Far East province, and analysts estimate that the population of China’s border provinces is at least four or five times that of Russia’s border provinces. The immense resources of Russian territory are assuredly a powerful strategic draw for Chinese planners, and wary Russian policymakers strive to develop these resources without surrendering a total monopoly to the Chinese. What happens in this strategically critical region matters to Beijing and Moscow’s relationship.

Looking further afield, the Chinese and Russians are looking to balance their resources in the region to offset the other’s gains, though not explicitly. Russia has been working to improve its relations with South Korea, signing arms deals and free trade agreements far more generous than those it shares with its client states in Eurasia. To the South, Russia extended an invitation Vietnam, an old Soviet ally, to join its Eurasian Customs Union. To sweeten the pot, Russia has sold Vietnam refitted Soviet submarines. Looking West from Vietnam, the Kremlin is increasingly engaging with India, continuing to supply much of its military hardware while simultaneously negotiating bilateral energy deals. It is important to note that each of these three countries fought savage wars with China in the 21st Century and continue to engage in strategic competition with the dragon.

Russia’s grand strategy looks like a classic case of power politics. The ancient Indian strategist Kautilya argued that border states would always be enemies, and therefore states separated by a buffer would be natural allies. A brief glance at the map shows that China separates Vietnam and India from Russia, while South Korea borders China through North Korea, long China’s client state. Russia’s strategy is not necessarily bellicose, however as prudent statesmen have long recognized, when the time comes to exert pressure on another nation, it helps to have friends on that nation’s borders who fear and envy it.

Meanwhile, China continues its economic expansion and integration of the Asian continent. As has been widely reported, it initiated oil drilling in Afghanistan last year, making it the first energy investor in the war-torn state. Its pipelines crisscross Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia, traversing Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. China’s pipeline and highway projects in Myanmar stand poised to modernize that nation, while connecting the Indian Ocean’s trade directly to the Chinese heartland. Beijing also continues to provide security assistance to a Pakistan increasingly distrustful of the United States, and Pakistan hosts a Chinese port at Gwadar.

It is clear that the Chinese are concerned with boosting international economic development; foreign trade, especially in energy sectors, will be essential in sustaining China’s remarkable economic growth story as it seeks to pivot away from unhealthy domestic infrastructure spending sprees that have defined the last decade. But aside from being a mere cash cow, these foreign assets provide China with leverage in the host countries. That’s the power of the purse.

The new great game in Asia is not a particularly violent one, but it is an important one. As Russia and China rise and balance against each other, not unlike two scorpions in a jar, their interests are bound to clash. Policymakers in the US should continue to monitor these developments carefully as such problems will surely present challenges and opportunities. It is not hard to imagine American policymakers working with their Russian counterparts to contain a rising China while simultaneously working against an advancing Russia in contested regions such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East. American policymakers may even find themselves working more closely alongside their Chinese colleagues if the Xi Jinping era presents such an opportunity. The shifting geopolitical fortunes of Russia and China demand our statesmens’ most vigilant attention.

Deciphering The Third Plenum Report

The Key to Addressing Reforms When You Have No Intention of Implementation

18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China

18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. By 东方 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The hardest thing about running an authoritarian regime is assuaging the population’s desire for reform without actually doing so. It’s a tricky tightrope act that only the most agile of leaders can master. China’s recent Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress captured this balancing act in action. Unlike the Third Plenum of the 11th Congress in which Deng Xiaoping clearly articulated a set of free-market, economic reforms, this most recent meeting was a charade. The document released after their three-day meeting, known as the Plenum Communiqué, contained some legitimate calls for change. The only problem was that even in its original language the document is incomprehensible; it lacks coherent solutions and legitimate policy reforms. A drug addict with a monkey stenographer might have been able to pound out a piece of similar – or perhaps greater – substance.

To be fair, identifying necessary reforms in a country plagued by environmental issues, social and economic inequality, and political malfeasance is no easy feat. If Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang and their band of merry men released a statement with too many calls for reform and policy changes, the bar would be set unreasonably high. At the same time, if in the Third Plenum they called for insufficient changes there would be tremendous public outrage that might precipitate political activism.

In this case, being vague is the best approach. If China’s leaders prescribed legitimate reforms for their economy and political systems, just think of the instability it might prompt. The millions of migrant workers who are denied health insurance, educational opportunities, and economic freedom would get overexcited. Calls to curtail environmental pollution would give the millions of Chinese who live in cities with toxic PM 2.5 levels such a sense of relief that they might pass out on the streets during rush hour, dying of asphyxiation from exhaust fumes. Discussing democratization or even more transparency in government might distract Foxconn workers from assembling iPads. It is clear that rushing into reforms without proper thought and consideration is a bad decision for a country still in the early phases of development.

Engaging In Premature Reform is Dangerous

For now the safest way to engage in reform is by avoiding said reform at all costs. They say the longer you wait for policy changes the better they feel. The right time for reform implementation, however, remains unclear. One can’t simply engage in pre-hegemonic reform. At the moment, the party is simply waiting for that special generation to come along. The wait of course will be worth it.
China’s 18th Party Congress can’t be upfront about the fact that reforms may be only attainable in the far-away future. China’s 1.3 billion people are bursting with all kinds of desires to experiment politically, economically and socially. If China was too upfront about its intention to postpone reform, there might be a nasty schism and nationwide protests. And it isn’t that the Communist Party doesn’t want to reform with its people. It just doesn’t feel ready.

How to Lead on Your Population in the Most Effective Way

Sure you can’t engage in it, but you definitely can talk about it. Even just saying the word over and over can excite your countrymen enough without succumbing to their desires. It’s for this reason that in the Plenum Communiqué there was a lot of mention of reform and other words that are sure to excite its disgruntled, frustrated citizens. According to a press release by the Beijing News, no prior Third Plenum report had as many uses of the word ‘reform’.

The Plenum stressed that to comprehensively deepen reform, we must hold high the magnificent banner of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, take Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important ‘Three Represents’ thought and the scientific development view as guidance, persist in beliefs, concentrate a consensus, comprehensively plan matters, move forward in a coordinated manner, persist in the reform orientation of the Socialism market economy, make stimulating social fairness and justice, and enhancing the people’s welfare into starting points and stopover points, further liberate thoughts, liberate and develop social productive forces, liberate and strengthen social vitality, firmly do away with systemic and mechanistic abuses in all areas, and strive to open up an even broader prospect for the undertaking of Socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Chinese readers must have gotten excited just reading this. “Persist…”, “concentrate…”, “stimulate…” This proactive language would leave any reform-deprived person brimming with optimism, if only for a while. One Chinese blogger wrote, “In the end it’s not important whether the document is consistent from beginning to end, because everyone can find what they need in it.” So long as Chinese citizens are satisfied with their government toying with reform, the Communist Party may be able to kick the can down the road and refrain from true policy changes for some time. Sure, citizens’ reform frustrations will continue, but at least everyone can be assured that no one is rushing into any big decisions.

Brandian Revolution: Productive or Irresponsible?

Recently, unpredictable comedian Russell Brand sat down with BBC icon Jeremy Paxman to discuss Brand’s stint as editor-in-chief of the liberal British magazine The New Statesman and his 4,500-word editorial/manifesto on revolution. Brand, known for his lewd and disarming sense of humor, was eloquent and passionate speaking about the failures of democracy. Paxman, keen on trivializing Brand’s political opinion, was stunned as Brand called for a revolution to end a broken British-American political system that serves only the privileged and destroys the natural environment. Brand voiced a growing feeling among British-American youth, who—especially after the US government shutdown—“feel disenfranchised, disenchanted, disengaged, and, most important, disinterested in the idea that politics can change the world.” Brand argued that voting is a futile exercise, and only perpetuates a political paradigm that sacrifices the planet and the ‘99%’ in order to shelter the economic prosperity of the ‘1%’.

Brand’s political commentary was startling, and I often found myself nodding in agreement—perhaps due to Brand’s verbal magnetism rather than the merit of his arguments. So were Brand’s statements accurate? And is voting “tacit complicity” in the current system? Below, I will run through a fact check of a few of Brand’s points before debating whether Brand’s advice and vision for the future is productive or irresponsible.

Fact check:

…[the poor] don’t feel like they want to engage with the current political system because they see that it doesn’t work for them, they see that it makes no difference, they see that they’re not served…(2:45)

Brand’s message is correct: the poor are, due to personal and societal factors, disenfranchised. According to the US Census Bureau, in the 2008 presidential election, under 42% of adults with incomes less than $15,000 voted. Voter turnout steadily increased in proportion to income to more than 78% of adults earning more than $150,000. What causes this phenomenon among America’s poor? A multitude of factors: decreased civic engagement, workday voting, felony disenfranchisement, voter identification rules and the belief that voting will not bring instant change to the system. Unfortunately, low voter participation in protest of a broken democratic system only leads to greater marginalization. The poor don’t vote and, in turn, politicians make little effort to appeal to the underprivileged majority. While the privileged minority thrives, the poor only grow more pessimistic. As the old adage goes, ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’.

…300 Americans have the same amount of wealth as their 85 million poorest Americans… (4:05)

This figure goes uncited in Brand’s article and video interview and is difficult to verify when compared alongside federal census data. However, Brand’s observation of a massive income gap in America is accurate. In fact, it is worse than Brand states. The richest 400 Americans have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 157 million Americans (50% of total population). And America is not alone. Almost universally, the gap between the ‘have’ and the ‘have-nots’ is widening. Some may argue that modest income inequality is a healthy symptom of capitalism, but a system that celebrates billionaires as 46.5 million Americans live below the poverty line is clearly broken.

No one is doing anything about tax havens… (9:04)

Here Brand is mistaken, as politicians around the world are clamping down on tax evasion in the wake of the ‘Great Recession’. British politicians have launched a campaign against tax havens in the Commonwealth, such as Bermuda and the Isle of Man. American and German politicians have publicly criticized Irish banks for allowing companies like Facebook and Google to escape millions in taxes, and the US Justice Department has filed lawsuits against Swiss banks that knowingly shelter the money of US citizens and corporations. Whether a moral awakening or domestic financial and political pressure inspired this recent initiative is immaterial, as politicians are taking a stand against tax havens.

…stop voting, stop pretending. Wake up. Be in reality now—time to be in reality now. Why vote? We know it’s not going to make any difference. We know that already…” (5:50)

The question of whether “my vote counts” appears every election season; journalists write articles about the statistical value of each vote. For instance, statements like “your vote has a 1:10,000,000 chance of determining who is elected president” deter the average American from casting a ballot. One may be left thinking that their vote will be inconsequential in choosing elected officials or changing the current political paradigm. Yes, the political system might be broken, but not participating in the electoral system is an ineffective and irresponsible method of protest. This fact impels me to criticize Brand’s argument below.

Debate:

I have three rebuttals to the idea that “voting is tacit complicity” and “voting makes no difference.” First, if Brand’s vision were to become reality, then the electoral system would come to a standstill. However, a more likely scenario is one in which those moved by Brand’s manifesto abstain from voting and those content with the status quo continue to vote. Thus, the influence of those who Brand despises is inflated. As David Foster Wallace wrote: “In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.” How can those hoping for change endorse an emboldening of the diehards’ policies? Second, voting can have dramatic effects on policy at the local level. State propositions and local laws can determine whether contentious policies, such as the status of undocumented California residents or Colorado’s policy on marijuana, can come to pass. Third, a democracy, by definition, operates via civic participation. One could argue that a democracy that privileges certain socioeconomic groups over others is not a true democracy, but one should argue that a democracy absent of voting is no democracy at all. Rather, such a state becomes an autonomous government that has fully robbed the people of their sovereignty.

Brand argues for revolution—a cultural awakening acknowledging the ill effects of capitalist democracies and favoring a socialist utopia that will equality redistribute national wealth and eliminate profit. The issue with Brand’s vision, as Paxman notes, is that a governmental body is required to redistribute national wealth. And a government of unelected officials in complete command of national wealth – without accountability – is a terrifying prospect. One only needs to look at the Soviet, Chinese, Cuban, Laotian models, to name a few, to see that a government’s adoption of socialism is easier said than done.

Brand cites Scottish comedian Billy Connolly as inspiration: “the desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever being one.” I disagree. The desire to change, and hopefully better, the community through civil service is honorable, not incriminating. Closing the political door to a future generation of leaders who may have undergone Brand’s “cultural awakening” because of the failures of current leaders is downright irresponsible. The current British-American political paradigm is wrought with problems, but socio-political activism is not one of them. Of all people, Brand should recognize this reality.

A Call for National Unity

Nick Kosturos at West Point

The author pauses for a photo while attending the Student Conference on U.S. Affairs at West Point. The topic for this year’s conference was “Navigating Demographic Flows: Populations, Power, and Policy”

Two weeks ago, I had the honor of attending the 65th Annual Student Conference on U.S. Affairs (SCUSA) at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In addition to allowing students and cadets to explore various topics regarding the theme of “Navigating Demographic Flows: Populations, Power, and Policy,” the primary purpose of this conference was to foster a better mutual understanding between cadets and civilian students, also known as a “Civ-Mil Relations.” The idea behind these exchanges is that in the future participants may find themselves working in government or business together, and this program would afford all participants at the conference a better understanding of military and civilian lifestyles. Indeed, healthy civilian-military relations are essential for a well-functioning civilian-led democracy, which is why these types of programs exist and receive government funding. For four days, I was granted a fascinating peek into West Point life, including living in the barracks with cadets, studying in the library, and dining in the mess hall. I became very close to my cadet hosts and other students attending the conference. I was deeply affected by the cadet lifestyle and the unique shared experience offered by the Academy. West Point, while certainly not a place for everyone, offers our generation many lessons about the importance of shared experience in the development of a strong national identity.

 

West Point is composed of a diverse set of cadets from all walks of life. They differ in socioeconomic status, gender, race, creed, age, professional/academic backgrounds, and many other factors. While some cadets had already served in the military as enlisted members, most cadets came to the Academy straight out of high school. I recall a conversation with one cadet where he noted the variety of backgrounds and personal beliefs found amongst Cadets at West Point, but that amidst this diversity there was a common denominator uniting all: a desire to serve. I did not realize how strong this common bond was until I witnessed day-to-day operations of the Academy and personal stories of many cadets.

Unlike students at a normal university, cadets at West Point are subject to a daily, rigorous training schedule that makes college final exam season look like a cake walk. Cadets must participate in an average of 6 classes per term – including mandatory athletics, be subject to daily inspections, and march to and eat meals together. And these are just a few components of regular term schedule. As each cadet enters West Point, he or she must survive “Beast,” a summer-long basic training program employing mental and physical stress tests to effectively weed out those candidates who are not fully dedicated to the Academy’s mission. Throughout their time at West Point, cadets who do not perform adequately or break the rules must endure severe reprimands. A common punishment is called “Hours,” which entails walking back and forth in the public square while holding a rifle or sabre for hours at a time (only “Firstie” cadets or seniors are allowed to enjoy the lightness of a sabre while completing their hours). I spoke with a cadet who had to make up 120 hours because of, in my view, a slight deviation from the rules! However, other cadets assured me that there exists a purpose to these seemingly mind-numbing tasks. At West Point, there is little oversight by commissioned officers or other professional staff. The hierarchical nature of West Point teaches cadets to first follow and then lead, with senior cadets or “Firsties” responsible for management tasks such as conducting inspections and running summer “Beast” training for new cadets. Freshmen cadets, or “Plebes,” complete the less glorious tasks, such as taking out the barracks’ trash or escorting civilians, like me, around Academy grounds.

Understandably, some cadets expressed their desire to experience a traditional college lifestyle. When I mentioned I was from USC in Los Angeles, a lot of the cadets humorously grumbled about the weather and college parties, and it became clear to me that some wanted a break from the strenuous life of a cadet at a military academy. However, I was equally, if not more, envious of the West Point experience. The unmatched traditions, dedication to a sense of duty and common purpose (including at least five years of mandatory service upon graduation), the stringent Cadet Honor Code, and perhaps most significantly, the incredibly strong bonds between cadets struck a deep chord with me. This unity and cohesion is something that I feel is missing from political culture and American society in general, especially among my peers.

At a time when U.S. demographics are rapidly shifting, the wealth gap continues to widen, and Congress and our political culture are seeing historic divisions, the importance of fostering a national identity has become ever the more critical to sustaining a strong societal fabric. It is important to understand what I mean by “national identity.” I firmly believe that America’s strength is drawn from the diversity of its citizenry, but this diversity must be woven together by a common thread if our strengths are to be channeled in the most productive manner possible. National identity is developed through actions such as teaching a national history and common language, developing national institutions and symbols like monuments in the Capitol region, and, most importantly, allowing for some type of a shared national experience.

In 2013, there does not seem to exist a shared national experience for my generation. The educational system in our country is very fractured, with some students attending charter schools, public schools, private schools, community college, universities, or no school at all. Unlike our parents and grandparents, there is no World War that must be fought and no common threat like the Soviet Union’s “Evil Empire” that must be defeated. Indeed, it seems as if major bipolar conflicts and common enemies have brought Americans together in the past. Abstract issues such as climate change and the Global War on Terror have not mustered nearly as much national unity when compared to previous historical events. While the information age and social media may prove to be more conducive to greater unity, these technological tools have proven to be both uniting and divisive on a global scale. Therefore, in the absence of a shared national experience, I believe it would be prudent for U.S. policymakers to entertain discussions exploring ways to develop a stronger national identity. Programs such as AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, or mandatory military service could be used as inspiration for possible public service options. In addition, a thorough and long-needed re-haul of the public education system would also do wonders for shaping a meaningful national experience for youth. Regardless of the policy proposal, U.S. policymakers should always keep the issue of national identity and the utility of shared experiences in mind when developing civic policy, especially for legislation that impacts American youth.

There may be some who question the significance of national unity as the world becomes a small place through the auspices of globalization. However, as long as the nation-state remains the dominant unit of analysis on our planet, America’s national identity is critical to retaining a competitive edge in the international system. The West Point experience, while certainly singular in the sense of its rigor and military culture, reveals the benefits to be had from shared national experiences. This institution accepts youth from all backgrounds and transforms each class of cadets into a united group of individuals willing to serve for a cause greater than themselves. I have no doubt that some of the individuals I met at the conference are going to be leading this country in both the military and civilian realms in the near future, which comes as a comforting thought. The cadets’ shared experiences, sense of brotherhood, and devotion to service distinguishes them from other youth in an American society largely defined by apathy. My generation desperately needs a shared national experience to foster unity, patriotism, and a sense of civic duty. This unity will strengthen our national fabric while unlocking the full potential of the nation.

Neo-Colonial Capacity Building at its Finest: The U.S. in Libya

How the Department of State entered Libya and exacerbated yet another post-revolutionary crisis

Although you probably did a double take when news broke that the politician who lost to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election is now handling our volatile international affairs, Secretary of State John Kerry has already proved to be a defter politician than expected.

John Kerry (Wikimedia Commons)

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at a presidential rally at the St. Louis Community College during the 2004 presidential race. Kerry, then a Democratic Massachusetts senator, lost to incumbent Republican President George W. Bush in the election. (Wikimedia Commons)

While the post-Gadhafi state of Libya remains in shambles, Kerry’s actions as Secretary of State have already contributed to an upsurge in Islamic militia groups contending for power amidst the State Department’s “capacity building” project within the region. In what was supposed to be a top-secret discussion between the U.S. and Libyan governments, interim Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan agreed to a U.S. commando raid in Tripoli to capture al-Qaeda figurehead Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai (Abu Anas al-Libi) who was accused of orchestrating the attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The mission was designed to call no attention to al-Libi’s disappearance.

US Embassy Bombing 1998 (Wikimedia Commons)

The 1998 Al-Qaeda bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya claimed more than 200 lives. Abu Anas al-Libi, who was recently captured, is believed to be the chief orchestrator of the Nairobi bombing as well as the nearly simultaneous bombing in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. (Wikimedia Commons)

But the impatient State Department took it upon itself to improve the relationship; Kerry jeopardized the security of Libya’s nominal leader when his administration leaked that the Libyan government was aware and supportive of the al-Libi pursuit. After Zeidan expressed concerns regarding the operation to al-Libi’s family, Zeidan was “escorted” out of his luxury Tripoli hotel by a group known as the Operations Room of Libya’s Revolutionaries. Within hours, he was returned unharmed. While this bizarre six-hour kidnapping prompted by Kerry’s words may have seemed more like a coerced play-date than anything else, it is indicative of far graver problems.

Secretary Kerry Shakes Hands With Libyan Prime Minister Zeidan (Wikimedia Commons)

United States Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with interim Libyan Prime Minster Ali Zeidan following a press conference at the Department of State in Washington, D.C. The Department plans to work closely with the Libyan government in an effort to build regional state capacity. (Wikimedia Commons)

Coming out of this imbroglio, an initial concern is that al-Libi’s capture will only serve to further fuel al-Qaeda’s incalculable scorn for the West. This will drastically heighten security risks facing U.S. embassies and other American assets in the region.

Moving beyond the obvious missteps, most groups within Libya view the Prime Minister’s abnormal and unexpected kidnapping as a sign of an acute weakness within the government. Because the interim leader of the country could not even avert being kidnapped – regardless of the fact that it was only for a few hours – there is consensus among Libyans that he is not capable of leading the country forward. Zeidan is now considered to be something of a cancerous cyst to the already debased government; and with that now being the primary sentiment, we are likely to see the strongest push yet by Islamic militia groups quarreling for political power to orchestrate a coup. As unfathomable as it may seem, Libya will inevitably fall into a further state of degeneration and chaos because of this fiasco.

via Wikimedia Commons

Armed rebels and civilian onlookers gathered at a main gateway into the eastern city of Ajdabiya to cheer on fighters heading onward to the fighting. At one point, rebels drove a tank back from the front, received loud cheers, left, and returned again with more people riding on top, 1 March 2011. (Wikimedia Commons). Since Gadhafi’s ousting, Libya has struggled to establish and maintain a stable government.

Now that Zeidan’s capture (along with plans of another capture of another al-Qaeda operative) are public knowledge courtesy of White House releases, it will be infinitely more difficult for the State Department to carry out additional commando operations in pursuit of key al-Qaeda members. Had Zeidan’s detention remained under wraps, there would have likely been little suspicion of his whereabouts as brief disappearances are common fare in Libya. But because the operation became public, al-Qaeda is now aware of the fact that the U.S. is on the hunt. Subsequently, al-Qaeda is now likely to take care in covering its tracks and severing any communications that may provide intelligence agencies with a hot trail in their chase.

Ali Zeidan at US State Department 2013 (Wikimedia Commons)

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan speaking at a press conference at the U.S. Department of State on March 13th, 2013. Zeidan was kidnapped briefly by a militia group early last Thursday on the grounds that he had cooperated with the U.S. government and its invasion of Tripoli in its al-Qaeda hunt. (Wikimedia Commons)

So in his supposed focus on “building capacity” within Libya, John Kerry has managed to heighten the security risks posed by al-Qaeda and make the pursuit for key terrorist leaders abysmally more challenging all while plunging Libya deeper into a state of pandemonium. Bravo, Mr. Kerry – it seems as though you are the right man for the job after all!In sum, the brilliant leak from the White House, which seemed to have been something of a trial balloon released out of ignorance, greatly undermined the neo-colonial regime established in Libya by Washington and its NATO allies following the overthrow Gadhafi in 2011. The flop highlighted the incompetence of the U.S. in artificially establishing regimes within unstable regions such as Libya. However, this is not the only instance in which Washington’s intervention has proven itself to be futile and damaging. Consider other neo-colonial endeavors such as operations in Afghanistan and Iraq – both ended in seemingly endless states of war and state capacity remains frighteningly low.
Soldiers push against al-Qaeda remnants (Wikimedia Commons)

United States forces in Iraq counter remaining al-Qaeda forces in 2008. Now that future al-Qaeda-targeting plans have been leaked, Washington will face heightened difficulty in pursuing terrorist targets within Libya and the greater region. (Wikimedia Commons)

Although it is only Zeidan’s kidnapping that is at the center of national discussions at the moment, the repercussions will no doubt begin to unfold in the near future. Perhaps Libya’s impending situation will strike a chord within Washington and officials will finally come to realize that such neo-colonial interventionist efforts have, and always will, lead to heightened disdain for the West and more rapid and severe degeneration of the country being occupied. Given the White House’s track record, it seems more likely than not that nothing will be learned from the mistake. Going forward, American national security interests will face greater challenges in the region and, if the winds continue to blow in the same troubling direction, the State Department will continue to make diplomatic fumbles as it harms both itself and its “allies.”

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

America and Iran to Bury the Hatchet?

Barack Obama on the telephone with Hassan Rouhani

President of the United States, Barack Obama, talks with the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, during a telephone call in the Oval Office on 27 September 2013.
(Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran has no interest in building nuclear weapons, either for national prestige or for security reasons. He went on to remark that he is willing to sit down with President Obama and discuss a rapprochement between the United States and Iran. President Obama cautiously agreed, and the agreement has led to both criticism and applause within their respective governments. Few details have emerged, but the foreign policy community has already started chiming in on this surprising development.

In a year where the Russians have agreed to mediate negotiations for a Syrian truce and disarmament, perhaps nothing should come as surprising. Yet on the Iranian question, no greater shock could have come, save perhaps a preemptive strike by the Americans and/or Israelis. The United States and Iran have been diplomatically disengaged from each other since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and for the last 10 years relations have only worsened as the two states have played a sort of game of thrones over the ashes of Iraq and influence in the Gulf region. The Iranian nuclear program, funded for decades before the fall of the Shah by the very Western governments which now so viciously condemn it has for the last decade been the most visible point of contention between Iran and the United States. Additionally, Iran’s aspirations for regional leadership and dominance ensured that there has been no shortage of American efforts to contain the Shia nation and prevent it from upsetting the regional balance of power. The seeming radicalism of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, most callously expressed in his denial of the Holocaust, did not help the diplomatic situation in any way.

When Rouhani succeeded Ahmedinejad, there was buzz among the Western media suggesting that this man might be “our man;” he seemed progressive and democratic enough and his words sounded good. Add on to that the events of the Green Revolution in 2010 and the subsequent Arab Spring and there seemed to be an inkling that liberal populism might provide Rouhani the legitimacy necessary to fundamentally change Iranian policies – both foreign and domestic. But after a brief media honeymoon, his fame died a slow and quiet death, as Iranian policy did not appear to differ significantly from that of Ahmedinejad.

Fast forward to today, when we see Rouhani apparently making baby steps in a progressive direction. He has renounced over a decade of Iranian security policy, while making overtures to integrate Iran with the international community. As many commentators have noted, this should not be seen as a sudden change of heart; the Iranian President is undoubtedly still confined by certain limits and boundaries. Nevertheless, this change in tone marks a critical shift, one which will certainly have profound effects on the region. Already the Saudis and Israelis have voiced their disapproval of impending US negotiations with Iran. I recall becoming disillusioned after years of catching the oft-used “Israeli strike on Iran closer than ever before!” headline and resigning myself to the conclusion that the United States and Iran would remain enduring enemies, periodically exchanging harsh words but never anything more. It appears that this state of affairs may soon change.

This saga illustrates an interesting principle of politics best articulated by former Secretary of State George Kennan: “No other people… is entirely our enemy. No people at all… is entirely our friend.” Shifting power paradigms tend to manifest themselves in surprising ways; to the futurist or to the contemporary observer, this development may appear seemingly irrational, yet to the historian looking back it seems perfectly sensible. And thus great shifts in the balance of power are common occurrences in world politics, with many of them marking new political eras.

In 1992 the Europeans signed the Maastricht Treaty and established the European Union. Between 1989 and 1991 the Soviet Union crumbled and the world map was redrawn. In 1973 the People’s Republic of China turned on their former Communist friends in the Soviet Union and instead began working with the United States. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the former colonies of the old European empires claimed their independence. And in each case, observers were shocked; only two or three years earlier there would have been no indication that radical change was on the horizon. This is how the present cooling of relations between the United States and Iran should be viewed: a political anomaly that does not make sense now but one day will be heralded as a major breakthrough in international relations.

A Brief Reminder about International Law

 

There are always those Realists who, vigorously pursuing the intricacies of power politics, laugh down the very notion that international law holds any bearing over the foreign policies of states. The world, they assert, is inherently anarchic and international law tends to be a tool of subversion by dominant powers in those few cases when it has been effective. They point to the dramatic spectacles of the Versailles Treaty, and more laughably the Kellogg-Briand Pact, and note the increased occurrence of interstate wars in the 1990s when the international system was supposed to be at its height. At the moment many of them are busy writing editorials condemning the international-law-upholding rationale of a possible U.S. intervention in Syria.

While it is probably prudent statecraft to stare unblinkingly into the cold realities of the world, these Realists nonetheless are unfortunate in that they possess an unrealistic understanding of how international law works and functions. In fact, it has been around in varying forms since Thucydides, and disputes about it have usually taken up the majority of the resources of every country’s diplomatic services. Just as war and the balance of power are not final ends or goals in and of themselves, international law is more an aspect of the international system than its solution. Critically, it is nonetheless very real and those who disregard international law do a great disservice to themselves and their countries.

Like domestic law, international law is most effective in those affairs in which it is not noticed. The multinational leagues banning war are merely the sensationalist tips of the iceberg. An imperceptible web of treaties, norms, and gentleman’s agreements forms the bulk of international law, and the historical record seems to show that more often than not, states have followed it when it serves their interests.

It rarely comes to mind that immigration policies and trade arrangements between countries, while perhaps unduly influenced by disparities in power, are nonetheless conducted rather civilly. Exchange rates, tariff policy, immigration quotas and limits, border security, regulation of exports, and other similar affairs must be hashed out in agreements and molded to fit the realities of each bilateral relationship. In our modern world, many states must have diplomatic establishments able to regulate these low-level policies and many more with almost two hundred other countries around the world. And it is rare to see a newspaper flash reporting “Singapore and Liechtenstein embroiled in bitter tariff dispute!” though such conflagrations undoubtedly occur, largely  unbeknownst to the global public. It is true that states seem to let self-interest guide their conduct in these matters, especially given the immense domestic significance of foreign trade and immigration policies. But states wage these battles in fields of gavels and not of swords.

At a more systemic level, it must be noted that the existence of an international system, however anarchic, implies some advanced degree of international law. The celebrated Westphalian way of doing things enshrines sovereignty as prime, and is, in its essence, a method by which states can conduct their disputes without annihilating each other- a system of international law. It has developed standards by which foreign policy ought to be conducted, and while the “sausage making” is occasionally messy it is not nearly as messy as historical forays have been. The civilizations of the Middle East, East Asia, Central Asia, the Americas, and the Indian Subcontinent each appear to have developed their own international systems and methods of international law –before the Modern era – to regulate the relationships between their polities. I contend that the same qualities of these civilizations dramatically aided in the setting of norms and following of customs which led to relative stability. Nowhere is there less international law, and more chaos and destruction, than in the relationships between nations of widely separate civilizations. Where was international law in the Spanish and American conquests of the New World,? When a primitive people and their industrial conquerors face off, the Thucydidean dictum is validated, and the strong take what they can, while the weak accept what they must.

In sum, international law does not seem to stand on its own, but rather become imposed by cultural similarity and the eternal reality of the balance of power. As such, it is an organic phenomenon endemic to international politics and therefore must be included in any realistic analysis of why states do what they do. If we were entirely inclined to destroy each other at every given opportunity, we would have done so by now, and no laws could govern us. But international law, however mild, has affected us and guided the hands of our policy. Realists forget this fact at their own peril.

On America’s “Culture of Leaks”

 

Those individuals who believe Edward Snowden is a hero who exposed Big Brother should think twice. It may be easy to support an increasingly popular culture of Internet leaks and freedom of information for all things sensitive, but it is more difficult to examine the long-term consequences and implications of Snowden and other leakers’ actions for U.S. national security. While leaking has occurred long before Snowden and Manning, a new culture of internet freedom in which every tech-savvy person can be a world hero by disclosing government secrets seems to be growing in the U.S. I am very wary of this misguided “culture of leaks.” The leaking of sensitive information, even if well-intentioned, exposes some of our nation’s most sensitive sources and methods to terrorist organizations and foreign intelligence services, which makes us all less secure.

Let’s start with Snowden. This man did not merely blow the whistle, he trumpeted a storm. Snowden could have chosen to carefully release only the documents that succinctly showed violations of NSA surveillance policy and a potential overstepping of government surveillance, but instead he opted to flee to Russia and Hong Kong with multiple computers filled with highly-classified NSA security programs and other sensitive data. I am still dumbfounded that a man who preaches privacy and freedom would scurry away to Russia, one of the most oppressive great powers in the world today. In addition to this highly questionable circumstance, Snowden’s seemingly indiscriminate release of sensitive information cost the U.S. government dearly in research and development, resulted in a loss of international prestige, turned attention away from regimes that actually oppress their people, and damaged U.S. national security capabilities. Responsible whistleblowing takes restraint, thoughtful planning, and thorough exhaustion of internal channels, standards that are seemingly absent from Snowden’s actions.

Now that we understand Edward Snowden is no Deep Throat, I want to touch on Wikileaks, one of the biggest players on the receiving end of our leak culture. I am astonished that an organization dedicated to the mass transmission of our state secrets to all peoples and governments commands respect among so many fellow citizens. If these were the days of the Cold War when America faced the more discernable threat of a nuclear-armed “Evil Empire,” I doubt as many Americans would be supportive of a global databank of U.S. sources and methods ripe for the picking. My generation seems to forget that it is not just terrorists in the Middle East that threaten our national security, but also foreign governments. Just about every competent nation is constantly seeking to penetrate our private industry and government to steal sensitive trade information and government secrets. Indeed, there is no such thing as a “friendly” intelligence service. These foreign intelligence services and hostile transnational groups have already scoured Snowden’s leaked data and have adjusted their methods accordingly. I would not be surprised if Snowden was already debriefed by Russian intelligence officers. U.S. citizens should be more wary of global institutions that eagerly await more leakers to approach them for “assistance.” Organizations like Wikileaks, unlike the Intelligence Community, do not have a loyalty to our country and are working to further their own interests, which can vary from world fame to fulfilling certain ideological goals.

As Snowden relaxes and drinks Russian vodka at a dacha (cottage) near Moscow, U.S. national security professionals are in damage control mode. Now more than ever, our adversaries have a better understanding of how our national security apparatus operates and have adapted their operations accordingly. These groups include both terrorist cells that are constantly planning to attack U.S. and Allied targets, as well as foreign intelligence services that seek to steal our industry trade secrets and sensitive government information to gain an economic, political, and military edge. Indeed, I would be very hesitant to readily praise Snowden, Manning, Anonymous, and other distressing groups or individuals. As a concerned citizen, it’s up to you to counter this malice with two easy actions. First, read a few books and/or articles about our security services and the threats facing our country to gain a more complete understanding of current global challenges and the proper function of our Intelligence Community. To start, I would personally recommend Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy by Mark Lowenthal and a student subscription to The Economist. Second, and most importantly, consider finding ways to become involved in our government in order to responsibly facilitate the improvements you may wish to enact. This involvement could range from grassroots advocacy activities such as writing letters to your Congressman to interning for an Executive branch agency, an NGO/think tank, or Congress. We should not have to wait for unlawful and misguided security leaks for calls to activism and civic involvement. Our generation needs to make a more robust effort to become involved in the governmental process, and perhaps even work directly for the institutions that run our government in order to face these challenges. Our country deserves no less from our generation, and mere armchair activism via social media will not suffice.

Alexander Hamilton on Interventions in Revolutions

 

In the halls of Congress and the courts of public opinion, the battle of ideas and opinions raged between two camps: on one side, the interventionists, standing up for the ideal of liberty for all Mankind, and on the other, the noninterventionists, counseling prudence and moderation in all military affairs and undertakings. For across the ocean, seas of blood spilled across the plains of an ancient land embroiled in chaos.

In that ancient land, an oppressed people had risen up, casting off the chains of the oppressive dynasty which held them in subjugation. But their revolution had ended neither speedily nor happily. The forces of tradition and order had bounced back mightily, their iron fist seeking to stamp out the insurgency threatening their dominion. A long and bloody war had destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, and threatened the stability of the region, while inspiring legions of foreigners to join to fight in the battle between Right and Wrong.

The Americans watched, horrified. The interventionist faction noted that the common cause of liberty bound together the Americans and the revolutionaries in the crusade to bring democracy to all Mankind. They advocated that the government of the United States provide any sort of support possible: troops, supplies, weapons, finance. Meanwhile, the noninterventionists, tempered by the experience of a recent war and a politically divided nation, counseled that the United States should avoid expending blood and treasure in a region where it held no vital interests.

The year was 1793.

Revolutionary France fought the first of its wars against the monarchs of Europe, and accounts of the death tolls were received by diverse opinions in the young United States. Some, including Jefferson and Madison, recommended entering the war on the side of France; others counseled against it. Ultimately, America abstained from entering the war and remained faithful to President Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation. But throughout the war, intense debate raged among the Americans.

Presently, the United States finds itself in a situation with some parallels to that of 1793. We shall turn, then, to one of the most notorious and revered of the Founding Fathers, the most outspoken defender of the Neutrality Proclamation- Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.

In his essay Americanus No. 1, Hamilton outlined two questions for the nation to consider:

“I. Whether the cause of France be truly the cause of liberty, pursued with justice and humanity, and in a manner likely to crown it with honorable success.

II. Whether the degree of service we could render by participating in the conflict be likely to compensate [adequately for] the evils which would probably flow from it to ourselves.”

Hamilton chose not to ponder the first question, noting that the values of liberty, justice, and humanity were so sufficiently subject “to opinion, to imagination, [and] to feeling” that proper policy could not be built upon them. Instead he focused much of his analysis on the second question, one of greater practical – and lesser moral – value.

The United States of 1793 possessed less than a third of its current continental territory, and was far weaker than the hulking superpower it has since become. The decision to exert force to alter the outcome of a great power war overseas was therefore a proportionally more costly exercise then than it is today. Hamilton noted America’s comparative weakness and additional problems of logistics, geography, and diplomacy which the voices of democracy had ignored, and counseled restraint.

Historical comparisons are never quite as similar as they might seem. But between the debate on intervention in France and today’s debate on intervention in Syria, a general principle holds as obviously in the 21st Century as it did in the 18th: there are those in the United States who see America’s foreign policy duty to uphold our values- to be that “Shining City upon a Hill,” and “to make the world safe for democracy,”- as outweighing our duty to maintain our concrete and measurable national interests. Although there is not necessarily anything wrong with a moral approach, and in fact much good in it, our statesmen today nonetheless must, like Hamilton, consider also the amoral and practical consequences of the policies they pursue.

Hamilton’s foreign policy advice continues to be useful to this day, and all crafting policy for the Syrian War should bear it in mind:

“…Let us not corrupt ourselves by false comparisons or glosses- nor shut our eyes to the true nature of transactions which ought to grieve and warn us- nor rashly mingle our destiny in the consequences of the errors and extravagances of another nation.”