President Trump has all but declared war, at least a cold one, on Islam. So far, it’s just a rhetorical war, and the man’s actual foreign policy is harder to predict than his domestic policies, which was our focus last week.
Regardless of our constant obsession with every minor action and utterance of our new president…
[Update Sunday night – You all know I usually try to keep us from wandering too far for too long off-topic. But, how can we fixate on Turkish politics at a time like this, given the worldwide reaction to Trump’s EO on refugees? Let’s start with that before we get into our topic. BTW, this Administration’s immigration policies might all by themselves have some influence on the future of political Islam.]
…the rest of the world hasn’t gone away. Never has. Never will. About 40 of the 200 countries in the world are Muslim-majority nations. Many of them, especially the 22 Arab nations, are in the early stages of what promises to be a decades-long or centuries-long transition from authoritarian, one-party dictatorships to…well, to something else. Possible outcomes in these countries for the next few decades range from a painless move to liberal democracy (very unlikely, I’ve read) to a tragic region of failed states and all-against-all civil wars like Syria, Libya, and Iraq have endured (less likely, but nightmarish). Where in between they end up and how awful the road getting there will be are some of the most important questions of the 21st century.
That’s why I wanted us to discuss what’s going on in Turkey. Turkey? Well, as you may be aware since 2002 Turkey has been run by an “Islamist” political party known as the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. This 15 years is far longer than any other Islamist party has been allowed to rule anywhere else. Under its charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP won democratic elections a half-dozen times and survived a military coup attempt last July. Just a few years ago Turkey’s AKP was hailed as the world’s only successful model of a liberal Islamist political movement that accepted the rules and limits of democracy.
Boom. Splat. If you follow the news, you know this has all been blown up. Erdogan has steadily moved Turkey downhill towards authoritarianism and tyranny for a few years now. He has used the coup to finish off democracy, crushing the opposition parties, the military, and the courts that stood as the last major roadblocks to Turkey becoming just another Arab thugocracy.
Does Turkey’s downfall mean that hope for a moderate version of political Islam was an illusion all along? If so, many (albeit not all – e.g., India) of those 40 Muslim-majority countries may have to kiss democracy goodbye for a long, long time, since Islamism is far more publicly popular in these very conservative countries than liberalism is.
I’ve been reading a lot on this subject lately, including this book and this book and some journal articles. So, I will open our meeting on Monday with a brief description of what has been happening in Turkey and why it matters. Also, I will identify several of the major arguments we will be working with concerning whether moderate Islamism is/is not sustainable and is/isn’t compatible with democracy.
- Turkey – Why do recent events in Turkey matter? — A brief history of modern Turkey and its version of Islamism. — Why did people used to say the AKP was a model for moderate Islamism? — Why has Erdogan dismantled Turkish democracy and become a tyrant?
- Islamism – What is Islamism, anyway? What separates moderate Islamists from the radical/revolutionary and/or violent ones?
- Lessons: What should the West learn from Turkey’s failure re:
- Whether Islamist movements can be trusted to accept democracy?
- How badly past/present Arab dictators (Mubarak, Assad, Saddam, Kaddafi, etc.) screwed up their countries and make democracy so hard?
- The future of the region?
- USA: What can/should we do about any of this (Turkey, Syria, ME, etc.)? [Hint: Trump’s “take their oil” since “to victors belong the spoils” gets an F.]
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- What’s happened and why: Short version Good.
- Better, deeper: Long version.
- More on the USA-based Gulen movement.
Islamism and liberal democracy –
- A short history of Islamism.
- Islam and democracy are incompatible for foreseeable future, but all is not lost. I loved his book.
- A Tunisian Islamist disagrees.
- The limits of the “Islamic” label. Fareed Zakaria.
- The Middle East’s worst problem in one map. You see the point.
USA Policies –
- We need to call out the zealots and support reformers in the Middle East. Conservative POV, kind of.
- Donald Trump resembles an authoritarian Middle Eastern leader.
NEXT WEEK: Have America’s Elites Failed Us?
What better way to start the New Year than by debating an impossibly complicated question? How in the world could we judge the benefits and costs of the Global War on Terror (GWOT)? I still call it the GWOT because, even though President Obama mercifully retired the clunky phrase in 2013, it remains an apt description of the sheer scope and scale of our anti-terrorism efforts.
The easiest measure of anything government does is its budgetary costs. For the GWOT, even that is hard to gauge. That’s partly because some spending is secret but mainly because anti-terrorism is an embedded function throughout government at all levels now and it’s hard to separate out the anti-terrorism spending. Almost 1,300 government organizations and 2,000 private companies work on anti-terrorism. One estimate puts total GWOT spending since 9/11 at around $1.7 trillion and others put the long-term costs (inc. caring for the disabled vets) at more than $4T. Critics often express such monetary costs in terms of the opportunities foregone to have spent the money solving America’s other problems or leaving it in taxpayers’ hands.
There have been many, many other costs to fighting Islamist terrorism, of course. 5,000+ American dead and 50,000-100,000 wounded (excluding 9/11 casualties and the, ahem, 1 million or so foreign civilians.). Weakened civil liberties and creation of a vast surveillance state. Accrual of unilateral presidential power. A fearful electorate. Loss of respect for American leadership. There are many more, some serious, others perhaps not.
Yet, we cannot ignore the benefits of anti-terrorism efforts. Al Qaeda has been decimated over 15 years and (for the moment) largely is reduced to rooting for lone wolf attacks by extremist social media junkies. ISIS, AQ’s rival and wannabe successor is slowly being rolled back, although at great cost. Our government has prevented all but a handful of Islamist terrorist attacks planned on U.S. soil since 9/11. Anti-terror efforts also have yielded other benefits that are less visible, like a revamping of public health and emergency response/disaster relief infrastructure and greatly improved international intelligence-sharing and money laundering enforcement.
What’s the bottom line? Well, that is for us to discuss. But, a few points I will come back to during our discussion:
- There is a reason they call it “asymmetrical warfare.” The costs of defending against terrorist attacks are inevitably huge compared to the damage of any single attack.
- The damage attacks do goes far beyond their immediate casualties. The public grows fearful and vengeful. Politicians panic. Democracies get brittle and fragile. How much crazier would our politics be if other 9/11-scale attacks had succeeded or if we had Europe’s ISIS problem? In comparing costs to benefits of anti-terrorism, we have to look at the dogs that haven’t barked, too.
- The GWOT is far larger than the catastrophic Iraq war. How would you judge counter-terrorism had we not invade Iraq?
- President Trump will soon control our vast surveillance and counter-terrorism apparatus.
I’m still pondering ways to structure our meeting to accomplish more than just let us serially vent about our biggest war on terror pet peeves (Iraq, torture, NSA, not preventing ISIS’s rise, drones, etc.) Later this weekend I will try to do some discussion questions that might help us. Have a good New Year!
(AND, start thinking about topic ideas for 2017!)
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The enemy: How terrorist groups and the threats they pose are evolving. Worth knowing.
- Spending too fight terrorism has been staggeringly high.
- Casualties: Ours, as compared to deaths/wounds in other US wars. [Plus 1m or so Iraqi and other foreign civilians.]
- The permanent war:
- Evaluations of GWOT:
- Short: It cost a lot, but do not call our efforts a failure. Recommended.
- Long RAND Corp. (20p pdf): We’ve done pretty well. Recommended
- Long US Army (17p pdf): No, the GWOT has not accomplished most of its objectives. Not
- Donald Trump will…
NEXT WEEK: The coming tidal wave of elderly prisoners.
It’s a particularly apt time for us to discuss the moral justifications for war. Monday is Memorial Day, sure, and for several years we have been agonizing over whether there is a moral imperative to intervene in Syria’s civil war and/or use U.S. ground troops to destroy ISIS.
But, several recent developments sweeten the pot for us. Today (Friday) President Obama visited Hiroshima, and he offered no apology for the atomic bombs. Just last month the Catholic Church decided to formally abandon (wow) its long-standing Catholic Just War Doctrine after a 3-day meeting convened by Pope Francis. That doctrine lays out the conditions under which a war may be started and conducted and still be moral. Francis is said to be working on a new encyclical on war and violence which will bring doctrine “closer to Christ’s teachings.” And, of course, on any given day Donald Trump tells cheering crowds that he would revive torture, murder terrorists’ families, and just annihilate all of our enemies without regard to the moral costs to innocents or to us.
The exact details in Just War Theory are, I figure, up to Catholics to decide for themselves. But, I thought the Just War Doctrine would serve as a nice stepping off point to explore the moral justifications of war more generally because the moral questions the Doctrine seeks to answer are the same ones we wrestle with any time we contemplate use of military force. As was noted when we debated the causes of modern wars last year, armed conflict in the 21st century is evolving in some important ways. I ask you: Do the moral justifications for war need to evolve with it, to better reflect a new century of stateless terrorist networks, hybrid revolutionary-terrorist-criminal group like ISIS, failed states, cyber attacks, and drones?
Below are some readings on Just War philosophy and these emerging issues in war and morality. I’ll see you all on Memorial Day evening. A new topic list for June – September will be available.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Catholics: What is Catholic Just War Doctrine? What moral questions does it address and when does it say war can be a moral act?
- Laws: How do the international Laws of War and U.S. law permit wars to be started and fought?
- Presidents: How did Presidents Obama and George W. Bush do so? How different? What is Hillary’s/Trump’s POV?
- Public: Do Americans agree on the moral justifications for waging and conducting wars and their aftermaths? Do conservatives and progressives really disagree much? Why do they cheer Trump’s bloodthirsty remarks?
- You: When do you think war is justified? Self defense only? Defend our allies? Preemptive and preventive war? Stop nuclear proliferation. Humanitarian intervention? What’s fair in drone use, cyber defense/offense, Gitmo, torture, etc.
- 21st century: Do political changes (like terror networks and failed states) and technological developments (like cyber warfare and drones) change the moral calculus / moral limits on war?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Just War Theory basics:
- An expert explains it in 2012 at NYT: Part 1 and Part Two. Recommended
Or, see this 2015 Wash Post explainer: One. Recommended.
- Much more detail on just war philosophy, if you want it.
Obama and just wars:
- Obama’s POV on when war is morally justified. Recommended.
- The Obama Doctrine: An amazingly candid (but optional very long) interview with Obama 3/16 at Atlantic Monthly.
- Are the international Laws of War under siege or gaining ground? Recommended.
- ISIS and just war theory.
- Is drone warfare moral warfare? Read the one you disagree with.
Next Week: Are there better ways to police the police?
In a new century of dizzying changes, the Middle East remains the world’s most unstable and destabilizing region. More than a dozen large and strategically important countries were frozen in time for half a century by their cruel, post-colonial autocrats and the corrupt, hypertrophic states they created to cling to power. A great thaw is inevitable and can only be welcomed. Despite the violence and disappointments of the aborted Arab Spring five years ago, the Ancien Régimes’ days are all numbered. The urgent question we will consider on Monday is what will replace them?
The consensus I read is that, at least for a while, the heirs to power in many of these nations will be “Islamist” political parties. Islamism, or political Islam, refers to the philosophy that the legal and political systems in a Muslim country must be based on Islamic principles. Obviously, since no society ever agrees on exact religious principles, there is no single Islamist set of beliefs or unified movement (despite the dreams of Al Qaeda and ISIS). Each country has multiple, competing Islamist parties and/or social movements that represent different philosophies, sects, ethnic groups, and societal interests.
Are any of them compatible with democracy and a peaceful foreign policy? Well, so far the most radical and even revolutionary and terroristic Islamist movements have gained the strongest positions. These include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and – most hideously – ISIS and other Al Qaeda offshoots in Syria and parts of Sunni Iraq. And let’s not forget the crusty old radical Shiite regime in Iran and the new one we created in Iraq, or the radicalized messes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But, there is hope. More moderate Islamist political parties are sprinkled throughout the Middle East. Most notably, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party has won elections in Turkey for a decade, mostly in a democratic manner. Still, I’m not sure any one is confident that Islamist political parties can become or remain democratic – especially in the traumatized, divided, and chaotic nations they will inherit all over the Middle East.
So, I thought we could start with the most basic and probably most important question: What are the sources – the causes – of radical Islamism? I’ll open with some brief remarks on (1) the main strains of radical Islam, and (2) conventional wisdom on the main drivers of that radicalism. I hope we can discuss the role religion plays in spurring Muslim radicalism without getting stuck in the stupid gear that our political system is stuck in, “Is the Islam religion itself the sole cause of radicalism and terrorism, Y/N?” Islam plays a big role, sure. But, what role, why, and what else contributes?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Islamists are poised to dominate the 21st century Middle East – at least for a while. Recommended.
- Islamism: What is it + a brief history. Recommended.
- What are its main tenets? By an ex-radical.
- Causes of the most radical variants of Islamism:
- Saudi Wahhabism is a huge driver. Ironically, ISIS’s big goal is to replace Wahhabism as the voice of Sunni Islam. Recommended.
- Modernity: Radical Islamism is mainly a reaction against modernity and Western power. Recommended.
- Thanks, post-WWI European mapmakers!
- In Western societies alienation + propaganda can turn Muslim immigrants towards Jihad.
- Conservative POV:
- Islam itself is the main cause of Islamic radicalization. (
Reasonably nuanced, actuallynasty and shallow – I apologize)
- A short debate on whether Islam is the problem. (Useful – With Ayaan Hirsi Ali)
- Islam itself is the main cause of Islamic radicalization. (
- The future:
- Will Islamism die when Arab autocracies die?
- Or will the Saudi-Iran Cold War keep fanning the flames of Islamism? Recommended.
Next Week: The Supreme Court and the 2016 election.
No matter what else happens in this train wreck of an election, experts will spend years trying to understand what happened and why. There are a lot of causes and culprits. But, the causes and consequences of political fear-mongering might be subject number one. How big a role has Donald Trump’s appeals to plain old fear of foreign and domestic enemies (immigrants, foreigners, traitorous U.S. elites, etc.) played in his rise, and why have his incitements worked so well?
The answers, in my view, are complex and go well beyond Trump to some core issues warping our politics. Yes, Trump fear-mongers a lot, it’s ugly, and it’s working. But, two things. First, fear is not the only basis of the man’s appeal. Polls reveal that his supporters are not just mindlessly seeking a strongman to crush our enemies, although support for Trump does correlate strongly with authoritarian personality traits. Trumpistas are more pessimistic in general about their own future and the country’s future than any other group of voters. They express zero trust in our political or corporate elites. Many seem to harbor deep resentments of recent cultural/demographic changes in our country and feel that “political correctness” has delegitimized their fears. None of these beliefs are likely to disappear when Trump does. The Donald is the punishment, not the problem.
Second, it’s not just Trump! His fearmongering has fallen on fertile ground because the Republican Party’s leaders at all levels has spent years priming its own voters to be paranoid. Especially lately, from ISIS to Ebola to China to our disloyalmuslimkenyantraitor president, the GOP – and the conservative news media – has become The Party of Fear. Democrats are starting to use some scare-mongering tactics of their own, IMO, arguably including some of the stuff that Bernie Sanders says. (Our democracy is “dead?” Really?)
My point is that a high level of fear and fear-mongering is a loaded gun in politics. Eventually, somebody will pick it up and, deviously or innocently, start blasting away at the fabric of our democracy. Trump is just really good at it.
As for us, I think a discussion of fear-mongering has to ask the right questions to be useful. I propose we start on Monday night by asking the first couple of discussion questions, below: What does and does not constitute political fear-mongering, and under what conditions is it effective? Then, I’m sure we’ll have ample time to debate how one of our political parties – and maybe, eventually, the other – came to use fear-mongering as a central pillar of its existence.
I will be brief in my little opening remarks, summarizing the 3-4 main theories of why appeals to voter anxieties (which are used in every election, obviously) are so much more prominent/prevalent in today’s political environment. I definitely will give a few jaw-dropping, sky-is-falling quotes from the Republican presidential candidates this year. They are amazing to behold; they’re just not the whole story or the only thing to worry about.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- WHAT: What is fear-mongering? Is it about (a) fake/exaggerated threats, (b) scapegoated culprits, or (c) phony solutions?
- WHAT NOT: How does fear-mongering differ from what politicians should do: Raise awareness of our problems, criticize the other side’s failures, and proposing solutions?
- WHO/WHEN: When does fear-mongering work and on whom?
- When: Foreign threats/war? Rapid social change, in times of rapid social change and economic stagnation?
- Who: A vulnerable psychological type? People on the botto of our society? On the top but losing their privileged status?
- What are people afraid of? Legit fears?
- Who is doing the fear-mongering? Why?
- ON/OFF: Is fear-mongering controllable? Can politicians turn it on an off at will, or is it like riding a tiger? Does it make our politics hostage to events?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Why/when does fear mongering work?
- There’s a fine line in politics between responding to fear and exploiting it. Recommended.
- The key role the Internet and news media play in fear-mongering.
- Trump, fear-mongering and the authoritarian personality. A must-read.
- A Black president and a deep recession catalyzed White fears of a “racial inversion” of political and cultural power. Recommended.
- Demanding absolute, 100% security from all foreign threats has caused a permanent sense of dread.
- Trump, the GOP, and fear-mongering.
- Liberals, Democrats, and fear-mongering:
Next Week: Political Correctness – A serious problem, an excuse, or a little of both?
This was James’ idea and I’m off this week. It’s a good topic for the obvious reason that Russia is an important country and more and more analysts are using the F-word to describe both Vladimir Putin and the political system he is creating.
A second reason James’ idea matters is because far-right political parties are a bit on the march these days in Europe and in a few others countries, too. Several openly fascist parties have done well in elections in the years since the continent’s economy went into the toilet. The recent immigrant crisis has provided additional impetus. Far-right parties have gained strength in the Netherlands, the U.K. and France, just to name a few off the top of my head. People are worried all over Europe an outside of it, too.
Gee, we sure are lucky that no crypto-fascist politician is surging in American politics these days, amirite?
The articles linked to below discuss all of these issues and more. Enjoy the meeting, everybody, except the Trump abomination. I hope we can save that topic for our meeting in two weeks on fear-mongering as a a political strategy, which I will be back for.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
It’s James’ meeting, but I was thinking some obvious questions are
- WHAT: What is fascism in the 21st century of globalized economies, open borders, internet networks, etc.? How would it differ from, say, Mussolini’s version?
- In what ways is Putin’s Russia fascist, as opposed to a garden variety authoritarian government?
- WHY: Whose fault is this? What elements of Russian society support this swing to fascism; e.g., elites like the military, oligarchs, and the Orthodox Church hierarchy?
- EFFECTS: Who’s harmed by Russia’s fascist drift, besides Russians?
- Its neighbors, like Ukraine?
- U.S. interests? ** Is Russia’s threat to us exaggerated? **
- Will Russia turn back or plunge into full-blown fascism?
- Will fascism spread to other parts of Europe via far-right and anti-immigrant political parties? Why?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- A good definition of modern fascism. Recommended.
- Is Putin’s Russia fascist?
- Is Russia a threat?
- Is fascism returning to the rest of Europe?
- CivCon 5/14 mtg: Are we in a new Cold War with Russia?
Next Week: Fear-Mongering as a U.S. political strategy.
I have long argued that there is no real “civil war” in the Republican Party, at least not over its domestic agenda. They are arguing mainly over tactics and leadership, not policy differences. This week’s meeting, though, is about the one major area where the GOP is truly divided: Foreign policy.
To some extent, this is a function of having no sitting president, since the president is so central to setting foreign policy. Yet, I think the Republicans truly are adrift on foreign affairs. It’s not just that their leaders are making more and more extreme statements on foreign affairs (Read the links below to get a sense of the bizarre statements their presidential candidates have repeatedly made at their debates.) It’s that, underneath this bumper sticker-level rhetoric, the GOP has not seemed to have settled on a doctrine or strategy on foreign affairs that could replace the neoconservatism of the Bush years. Neocons are fighting like Hell to reassert their influence in the GOP. Rubio is one. So is Jeb Bush. I think now would be a good time for Civilized Conversation to try to figure out what the GOP stands for in foreign policy beyond condemning everything Obama has done and promising miraculous outcomes.
Neoconservatism, you’ll recall, began in the 1970s but really got its groove on as a product of conservative intellectuals rethinking the U.S. role in the world after the fall of the U.S.S.R. Its ranks included theorists like Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and Richard Perle; and some seasoned politicians like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and McCain. To simplify somewhat, neocons believed that post-Cold War it fell to the United States to dominate global affairs, especially militarily, and that the United States should use military force and the threat of it to prevent any other power from becoming strong enough to challenge U.S. dominance anywhere in the world. They also believed the USA should compel regime changes in “rogue states” like Iran, North Korea, and (especially!) Saddam’s Iraq. Finally, some of the younger neocons emphasized that future U.S. military interventions to achieve national security goals should try to birth democracies, or at least stable pro-Western governments.
After 9/11, the neocons’ big moment came. Their philosophy quickly became the core of the Bush Doctrine of preventative war and the Global War on Terror. You know the rest of the story. Eight years later, Barack Obama was elected by a weary public to pick up the pieces. Obama’s foreign policies were a mix of more war and military force, diplomacy, and some retrenching/winding down of old wars. Obama’s results were mixed, too, as we have discussed on several occasions.
As for the Republicans, it’s hard to tell what they believe now. Based just on their presidential candidates’ statements, it seems they believe that
- every evil in the world is coming to kill us in our beds (led by an entire religion, Islam) and we should all be terrified;
- It’s all because Obama’s weakness, cowardice, and/or secret sympathy with the enemy emboldened them; and
- The GOP’s strategy is to kill every enemy as dead as possible (somehow), but without inconveniencing Americans too much.
That is why I wanted to have this meeting. There has to be something nuanced and sophisticated underneath all of that hyperbole, doesn’t there? This is the party of Eisenhower, George Bush Sr., and Bob Dole, after all. Maybe there is more continuity in U.S. foreign policy than it appears at this weird moment in our political history.
I will start us off on Monday with…something. Since many progressives use “neocon” to mean “all conservative beliefs I hate,” maybe I’ll try to define the term’s different meanings to different people. I’ll also read the links on Rubio and the other prez candidates’ POV to see if I see any pattern other than hawkishness.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- HOW does foreign policy get made for a party that does not hold the presidency? Who makes it (Congress, interest groups, think tanks, Fox and talk radio) and how can we know what they believe when no one is in charge?
- NEOCONS: What were the neocons’ original core beliefs? Did they have merit, despite the Bush failures?
** Who are today’s neoconservatives? Has their thinking evolved?
- OTHERS: What other competing foreign policy factions exist in today’s GOP?
** Which presidential candidate is represents which competing POV?
** How popular is each alternative within the Party?
- THE BATTLE: What drives the GOP FP debate? Events and fear of attack? Belief that Obama has been weak/naïve? Suspicion of diplomacy? Xenophobia or fear of Islam? Partisanship and fear-mongering? Lack of experienced leadership?
- THE WAR: Which faction/POV will come out on top? Wither the neocons?
- DEMS: Is Hillary Clinton a bit neocon? Will this help or hurt her in the primary and/or general election?
OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –
- The neocons are back:
- No, there’s no GOP consensus on foreign policy.
- GOP presidential candidates:
- Marco Rubio is an uber-hawk who appears to loathe diplomacy and believe Islam is the enemy. Recommended – Is this just rhetoric?
- Jeb wants to bring back the Bush Doctrine. Recommended.
- Cruz is less hawkish. Trump may be too, but he has hired no FP advisors!
- Contrarian POV:
- [Update: Just as an FYI to those that want a more thorough case against neocon ideas, including Hillary Clinton’s neocon instincts, see this long journal article.]
Next Week: Socialism’s meaning today.
I love the smell of grand strategy topics during the holidays! I’m not sure why, but I’ve scheduled some big-think foreign policy topics for late December in recent years. (Arab Spring 2014, our post-War on Terror foreign policy 2013, religion’s effect on U.S. foreign policy 2011). But surprisingly, we haven’t discussed China as a separate topic in since 2011.
That’s kind of a bad oversight. I mean, for at least 20 years everybody has been saying the 21st century will be an Asian Century. They argue that we are in the early years of a big shift in the center of gravity of the world’s economic, political, diplomatic, and maybe even military power. As Asian countries grow even richer and more powerful, the U.S. and the West’s ability to shape global events, agreements, and governing institutions to our main benefit may fade away even more quickly. Most analysts I read say these fears are exaggerated and they doubt that even mighty China will ever actually eclipse the United States.
Yet, China’s rise is a reality and it will have to be accommodated, balanced, or contained, depending on one’s point of view. The big grand strategy-level worry re China arises out of what every World History 101 student should know: The world has a bad track record of peacefully accommodating rising, aggressive new powers. (Think Germany and Japan in the 20th century, or Holland in the 1600s.) Emerging powers tend to want to disrupt or abolish the existing international political order, while status quo powers fight to keep what they have. Will China’s rise be easier or turn out better? How can we help that come to pass?
I will open our meeting on Monday with some analytical framing of the main strategic questions concerning China, as I understand them. Then we can discuss the following questions and other issues.
Discussion Questions –
- TODAY: How does China rate today as a world power and why? What issues do we have with China? What have we done so far to manage China’s arrival as a global power?
- What are U.S. strategic interests in Asia? What matters to us the most? Does China actually threaten vital American and/or global interests?
- TOMORROW: Will China’s power just keep growing indefinitely? What could prevent that?
- CHINA’S POV: What does China want in its international relations? Do they want the responsibility of global power or just its benefits?
- STRATEGIES: Should we accommodate China’s power, balance it, contain it, or what? How will “the system” have to be changed to accommodate China?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- China’s rise and history’s lessons:
- YES, China will be our adversary:
- It wants to be our enemy because its interests clash with ours. Recommended but long.
- So, we should stop assisting China’s rise and start counterbalancing it. Pithier.
- NO, China is not destined to be our adversary:
- BOTH, kind of: Our incoherent China policy. Recommended.
- Masochists Only: Long/scholarly articles:
- U.S. power will endure; don’t overreact to China.
- USA should pull back in Asia and let China be a regional power.
- No, we should push back and balance China’s new power.
Next Week: Conservatives’ “religious conscience” movement and the culture wars.
A quarter of a century after it ended, the Cold War has turned into a frequently-used metaphor some of our current conflicts. It’s often said that the United States is in a new Cold War with Russia, and Iran, and China, and North Korea. Cyber war is Cold War, apparently.
I suppose labelling every conflict as a new Cold War is better than the metaphor Republican presidential candidates have started using to describe our war with ISIS: World War III. Still, such liberal use of the Cold War label grates on me. Since New Year’s Eve 2015 will mark the 24th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union (the Cold War ended in 1989 or earlier, arguably), I thought it would be a fine time to discuss the Cold War both as history and metaphor.
Most of us lived these events of course. I followed them pretty closely from my lowly perch as a grad student in international relations (1987-89) and then as a congressional analyst. If you were not around in those days as an adult, it is hard to describe how astonishing the Cold War’s sudden end seemed. The “what-was-the-Cold-War?” descriptions for history students that I find on the Internet don’t just fail to convey the sense of dread in those days. To me, they seem puzzled by the whole thing. What was all of the fuss about?
Since it’s a busy Christmas week, on Monday night I’ll give a very brief opening on theories of the Cold War’s causes and why it resolved so peacefully (for us). Then, I want to hear what you think both about the causes and outcome of the conflict and about the promiscuous (IMO) use of the Cold War metaphor. I think the big payoff this week will not be learning cool new facts about the history we all passed through, but rather will emerge from our comparing the Soviet threat and our responses to it to the threats we currently face and our responses to them.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Cold War’s beginning and its causes:
- The Middle:
- The End:
- Today we’re way safer than in the Cold War. Recommended
- We need a new Cold War, so we don’t fight a new hot one. Recommended.
- New Cold War candidates: Syria is one (?). Iran is another; Or, baloney, no it is not.
Next Week: Ho, ho, ho. How is a religion different from a cult?
On his first day in office, President Obama banned torture via an executive order. This past summer the Senate voted to outlaw torture for good a part of a routine Defense Department funding bill. It’s not law yet since the House is hostage-taking per usual. But, it will become law.
So, a mere 15 years after the Bush White House ordered torture on a large scale in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, and around the world. (If you doubt it read the links below.), is that it? Was our one-presidential administration experiment with torture as a deliberate national policy just a one-off affair and a fading memory? Or, could it happen all over again? After all:
- Torture was illegal in 2001, too, and that didn’t stop them;
- No senior U.S. government officials were ever prosecuted for ordering torture and only a few low-level people were convicted of performing it;
- The public approved of using torture or, at best, was easily persuaded either it wasn’t really torture or torture was necessary to protect the country;
- The torture regime’s main architects are openly boastful of how limited and necessary it was; and
- Republican politicians – including some presidential candidates – say openly they would torture again if “necessary.”
On the other hand, reviving a torture regime might be hard to do in the future, no matter who wins which elections. A lot of thoughtful people in our political system understand what a mess the Bush torture regime was and that our country paid a high price for fairy limited (but NOT zero) benefits. All of those investigations of torture – by the Senate Intelligence committee, Amnesty international and other outside organizations, and the news media – have been pretty damning. It’s not at all clear to me that we would adjure torture if the circumstances were favorable to it (climate of fear, despised enemies, panicked leaders, etc.). I predict a good discussion..
I’m also hoping that we will focus more on the future conditions that might lead to a repeat of torture, rather than on stale debates over its efficacy Of course, focusing on the future requires understanding why we tortured in the first place, So, I will open the meeting with a brief retrospective on what the torture regime consisted of and why it was done.
A new topic list will be available, too.
Discussion Questions –
- WHY: What led the USG to adopt torture on a large scale after 9/11? Which individuals and institutions failed?
- WHAT: How widespread was the torture and was it really administered in a careful and controlled manner, as torture’s advocates insist?
- WORKED? Why do some say torture “worked?” How has this argument been refuted?
- FUTURE: Under what conditions would pressure build to do it all over again? Which individuals and institutions would have to fail again?
- YOU & ME: What role will public opinion play if we face this choice again? Will memories of the post-9/11 torture help or hurt?
Suggested Background Readings –
- Key finding of the 2014 Senate report on torture.
- Some of the most brutal, brutal details. It was not “just” a bit of waterboarding. A must-read.
- Forget Gitmo: Torture by U.S. personnel was widespread in Afghanistan. Must-read.
- WHY these decisions were made: The basics.
- Why torture is wrong, in case you need convincing:
- WILL WE torture again?
- Very likely says Amnesty International, since prosecuting no one sends a loud message
- Of course we will. Especially since the public has grown more supportive of torture in the last 15 years, including about 70% of Republicans. Recommended.
- Some but not all GOP presidential candidates have publicly put torture back on the table.
Next Week: Democratic Presidential Debate Wrap-Up (New Schedule Begins)