Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

June 4, 2012
by Jeb
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And As Their Desperation Grows . . .

I recently co-published an article in The Huffington Post about the views of Syrian revolutionaries on the issue of international intervention. Drawing our data primarily from Arabic social media sources, we make the following argument:

As the regime has continued its repression and as the poorly armed Free Syrian Army (FSA) has proven unable to protect the population, opinion among revolutionaries has shifted markedly — from little support for any type of foreign intervention during the spring of 2011 to widespread advocacy for some of the most aggressive options on the table.

Hope it’s of interest to folks.

May 9, 2012
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Looking Forward, Not Backward in Ancient Rome

Glenn Greenwald has a great post over at Salon about the modern lessons of the Cataline Conspiracy and Julius Caesar’s unsuccessful attempt to prevent the conspirators’ extrajudicial execution. Greenwald draws smart parallels between Caesar’s defense of Roman legal precedent and the dangers of vesting the current executive with quasi-arbitrary power over the life and death of American citizens. Some interlocutors point out that the Cataline Conspiracy may have been overhyped by Cicero and his allies in order to enhance their own political power. Indeed, in one conspiratorial reading of history, the offenders were executed quickly in order to prevent the full version of events from coming to light.

That’s neither here nor there in the end. I agree with pretty much all of Greenwald’s points. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the legal politics of late republican Rome, and I think there’s actually a more crucial parallel to be drawn from that time period to the events of the present day, albeit with more ambiguous implications. Anybody who knows a bit about Roman history knows that Julius Caesar, far from being a consistent defender of republican principle, ended up bringing the whole edifice down when he invaded the Italian peninsula and established himself as dictator rather than relinquish command of his legions as ordered. He was not the first to do this (that honor goes to either Marius or Sulla), nor would he be the last (that honor goes to Octavian) but to the extent that the Republic still functioned properly before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, it ceased to do so afterward.

In the popular imagination, Caesar’s invasion was simply a megalomaniacal power grab, a notion to which there’s certainly some truth. The more nuanced reality, though, requires a detour into the structural contradictions between Roman law and Roman imperial politics. By Caesar’s time, Rome had subjugated most of the Mediterranean world. Traditionally, administration of the Empire’s provinces fell to the recent crop of consuls, who were given proconsular authority over some corner of Spain or Greece or Anatolia or Africa as a reward for their service to the Roman state. These were valued positions because of the opportunities they afforded for colossal personal enrichment. Through bribery, extortion and financial mismanagement, proconsuls could divert bewildering amounts of provincial silver into their personal coffers. This was in turn necessary because becoming consul in the first place required fortunes in bribes. Few could afford it; most borrowed the money against expected returns on financial malfeasance once they got to the provinces. The whole political architecture of the Empire, in other words, was built on an elaborate network of (largely illegal) debt, extortion and bribery. This meant in turn that returning proconsuls needed enough political backing to keep from being successfully prosecuted. As this cycle escalated over time, it created an all-or-nothing situation for leaders like Caesar, who would no doubt have preferred that his colleagues in Rome look favorably on his conquests without complaining too loudly about the means by which he achieved them. The Senate was not so inclined, and so the die was cast.

I think there are important if uncomfortable parallels to draw between the legal stakes of imperial governance in late republican Rome and the present day United States. I don’t want to get too cute here; a lot changes in two thousand years. But the core problem – that there are contradictions between the legal strictures meant to limit state power and the kinds of policies baked into the nature of imperial governance – matters immensely. Unchecked spying and surveillance, the erosion of basic constitutional rights, a ratcheted-up obsession with state secrecy, the nearly complete abdication of war powers to the whims of the executive; these have their roots in the functional necessities of empire and responses to the asymmetric threats that accompany it. As Greenwald frequently points out, the American political class has responded to this contradiction with a gentleman’s agreement not to enforce the spirit or, in many cases, letter of the Constitution when it comes to imperial policy. Hence nobody goes to jail for torture, the patent falsehoods that led to the Iraq debacle get dismissed as honest mistakes, the Federal judiciary acquiesces to a steady erosion of the Bill of Rights, the Justice Department turns a blind eye to executive malfeasance. We look forward, not backward.

And honestly, the lessons of the Roman experience are ambiguous here. Would the Republic have fared better had Rome’s political class established a mutual agreement not to prosecute one another for abuses of which they all aspired to be guilty? Is the rule of law eroded for elites better than law used as a cudgel for universalized behavior? Better to institutionalize imperial policy rather than tacitly tolerate it? Difficile quaestiones.


May 2, 2012
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Brief Thought on Television Debates

Posting has been basically non-existent as the semester has piled project upon project in a compressed period of time. Quasi-regular blogging should return soon.

There was a brief televised “debate” the other day between Paul Krugman and Ron Paul, in which Paul continued to display his lack of basic comprehension of monetary policy, or, really, the nature of money itself. But as Krugman himself noted after the exchange, that doesn’t really come through in the cable debating format:

Think about it: you approach what is, in the end, a somewhat technical subject in a format in which no data can be presented, in which there’s no opportunity to check facts (everything Paul said about growth after World War II was wrong, but who will ever call him on it?). So people react based on their prejudices. If Ron Paul got on TV and said “Gah gah goo goo debasement! theft!” — which is a rough summary of what he actually did say — his supporters would say that he won the debate hands down; I don’t think my supporters are quite the same, but opinions may differ.

This pretty much sums up why I don’t watch cable news. But since television remains a major component of public discourse, for better or worse, it’s worth thinking about how to make exchanges of ideas actually valuable. What if the participants were given access to a producer and a nominal budget, then allowed to make their case in the form of a ten minute documentary? Play the two back-to-back, give the participants a chance to put together a five minute rebuttal to their opponent, then maybe have the two on camera for a brief face-to-face. Obviously this would take planning and cost more money than just sticking two people in front of a camera for five minutes and hoping sparks fly, but it might actually elevate the level of discourse.

I know, I know, flying pigs too. But worth thinking about.

March 27, 2012
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Ethnic Hierarchies: Differences in Degree vs. Kind

I’m annoyed with Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s taken an irritating and inexplicably-popular American phrase about ducks and moved it into meme territory. It’s only a matter of time before some nostalgic guy with time on his hands spins up an “all your nuclear duck are belong to us” clip. But I digress.

There’s a back-and-forth over at the Daily Beast about the appropriateness and usefulness of the term “apartheid” when it comes to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The debate takes a number of directions, some productive and some not. For what it’s worth, after three generations of occupation, Beinart’s foundational reliance on the distinction between Green Line Israel and the Occupied Territories is pretty weak sauce. Hussein Ibish does better when he focuses on the patently unjust and immoral reality that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have endured for decades, semantic issues aside. That said, the popularization (and attempted codification) of the term “apartheid” does raise some interesting and relevant questions about how far states can go in codifying ethnic citizenship.

From one perspective, there is a continuum between the fairly benign jus sanguinis citizenship regime of Ireland and the reprehensible apartheid state of pre-Mandela South Africa. Both, after all, confer formally-institutionalized privilege based on ethno-racial background. That said, nobody with any sense would conflate the two, analytically or morally. One is a relatively common expression of the principle of self-determination as channeled through the sovereign nation-state.* The other was a system of domination that stripped an entire population of its basic political and human rights. Somewhere between those two poles lies a line separating acceptable (or at least tolerable) ethnic hierarchies from those that blatantly codify naked oppression. I’ve never seen a precise standard, since every concept involved remains contested (Beinart, for example, argues that the Rome Statute’s definition of apartheid doesn’t apply to Israel because “Jews and Palestinians are not racial groups” – a bit more research might have helped clarify things). Of necessity, a bit of a Potter Stewart test must be involved. Japan’s famously-restrictive citizenship laws skirt the line in my view; people whose families have lived in a country for generations really should have citizenship rights. The United States’s policy (deliberate or not) of maintaining an underclass of undocumented and thus exploitable immigrants also hovers near the boundary. Some cases, though, brook no serious argument: Rhodesia, Apartheid South Africa, Jim Crow USA and, yes, post-1967 Israel. Whether the communal hierarchies these regimes codify are “equivalent” isn’t the point. Every country, and every communal conflict, has nuances that preclude cookie-cutter analyses and decontextualized policy interventions. The question to ask is whether a given regime of ethnic recognition substantially restricts the inalienable human and political rights of a significant number of people. Israel may not be alone in constructing such a regime, but it is no less culpable for its company.

*It’s possible to find similar policies outside formally-recognized independent states as well. Quebec, for example, retains its own immigration authority. As a college student there I couldn’t apply for a visa from the Canadian government until I’d been granted one by the province.

March 24, 2012
by Jeb
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Egyptian Democracy Sacrificed On Altar of Obama Re-Election

From The New York Times, March 23d.

An intense debate within the Obama administration over resuming military assistance to Egypt, which in the end was approved Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, turned in part on a question that had nothing to do with democratic progress in Egypt but rather with American jobs at home. A delay or a cut in $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt risked breaking existing contracts with American arms manufacturers that could have shut down production lines in the middle of President Obama’s re-election campaign and involved significant financial penalties…The M1A1 components are built in factories in Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, several of them battleground states in an election that has largely focused on jobs.

March 12, 2012
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

The Internal Contradictions of E.U. Identity Construction

There’s been a flap this week about an ad produced by the European Commission touting the benefits of E.U. enlargement. Watch:

The video draws on the martial arts film genre, and shows a woman wearing a Beatrix Kiddo-esque yellow jumpsuit walking into an abandoned warehouse and being challenged by a Chinese man practicing Kung Fu, an Indian Kalaripayattu practitioner with a sword, and a black man performing Capoeira. The woman stretches out her arms and clones herself multiple times until the men are surrounded. All then sit cross-legged, and as the camera pans up to a bird’s-eye-view of the scene, the yellow-clad women morph into the stars of the E.U. flag. The English caption then reads “The more we are, the stronger we are.”

The spot was quickly pulled amid complaints of racism. And it’s pretty hard to escape such complaints when the core dramatic tension of the piece involves dark-skinned men threatening violence against a white woman. Stefano Sannino issued a statement for the E.C. calling the piece “a viral clip targeting, through social networks and new media, a young audience (16-24) who understand the plots and themes of martial arts films and video games,” adding that it “ended with all characters showing their mutual respect, concluding in a position of peace and harmony.” Fair enough I suppose, but you’d think someone somewhere in the course of development might have realized that anyone who doesn’t watch a lot of martial arts flicks would take a very different message from the video.

In any case, the ad, and the controversy over it, lays bare some of the internal contradictions faced by the E.U. in developing strong psychological attachment among constituent citizens. Scholars of historical nation-building have long noted the important role that oppositional narratives play in constructing and cementing national identities. External threats make great foils to cement in-group solidarity (consider the words of the Marseillaise: “Do you hear in the countryside/ the roar of these ferocious soldiers?/ They’re coming right into your arms/ to cut the throats of your sons and women!”). Internal ones are even better (Huguenots in France, Catholics in Britain, Jews pretty much everywhere in Europe). This video manages to hit both targets.

People familiar with martial arts will note that the styles presented have origins in some of Europe’s major up-and-coming economic competitors – Kung Fu from China, Kalaripayattu from India, Capoeira from Brazil. So the E.U. gets presented as the crucial bulwark against the rising power of the BRICs. Closer to home, the spot works as a narrative of immigrant threat. The Kalaripayattu master is in traditional Indian dress, but the turban, beard and scimitar-like sword play to orientalist caricatures of the Arab, and the Capoeira practitioner presents African immigrants in a fairly menacing light. The European Union: Intimidating people of color since 1992.

What’s interesting here is that European officials, with their attempted emphasis on multicultural inclusion and dreams of a post-national polity, don’t generally appeal to “Europe” as a bastion of socio-cultural protectionism. Some controversial events have created pan-European discursive spaces on their own – I’m thinking in particular of the Danish Cartoon Crisis of 2005-2006 and cultural fault lines it highlighted – but E.U. elites usually haven’t taken the lead in building constituent identity through othering, effective though the strategy may be. And, indeed, the post-national values that the E.U. is supposed to embody probably make that strategy difficult; it’s hard to transcend tribalism using tribalism. And so the E.C. pulled the spot, though not before the controversy gave it plenty of “viral” publicity.

March 2, 2012
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Thoughts on Obama’s Iran Interview

For those who haven’t already, I’d encourage readers to check out Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with President Obama published this morning over at the Atlantic. Whatever one thinks of Goldberg, he gets at some very important questions on the eve of Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu, touching in particular on the U.S. and Israeli stances toward Iran. Obama delivers a surprising amount of nuance for an elected official, and while I find some of what he says worrying, he makes a decent case for U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic.

I won’t attempt a detailed reading of the tea leaves here. The audiences for this kind of thing are myriad – American voters, the American Jewish community, European allies, Russia, China, Israel, and, of course, Iran – and it’s hard to tell exactly which statements are calibrated to which group. It’s also remarkable how much the president managed to maintain a measure of tactical and strategic opacity while at the same time sounding unequivocal.

I would note two things. First, Obama frames the problem with Iran’s nuclear ambitions as being about the nature of multidimensional deterrence, not one of terrorism or messianic intentions on the part of the regime in Tehran. It would be nice if that kind of debate were more prominent in the national conversation, and I’m glad that’s how it’s being framed at the White House.

Second, while I think Obama’s doing a decent job rhetorically threading the needle, it’s true that U.S., Israeli (as well as, to state the obvious, Iranian) rhetoric has painted everyone involved into a bit of a corner. It will be difficult, both strategically and politically, for the U.S. to acquiesce to an Iranian bomb, particularly given the Israeli capacity for independent military action. To this end, it’s nice to see Obama thinking in terms of offering a solution that allows Tehran to adjust its own policy without losing too much face. Wars do start over such things.

Overall, the interview actually makes me a bit nervous, as it represents a very specific and direct doubling down on the military angle, even if it’s de-emphasized. But at least it resembles a conversation among adults.

February 29, 2012
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Note: AIDS is not Karma

Yesterday, perusing the Washington Post, I ran across this fascinating article/excerpt from Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin on the origins of the HIV epidemic. Read the piece; it’s genuinely interesting. The argument in brief is that the particular confluence of late-era colonialism in Africa and the global ivory/rubber trade led to a large influx of porters and other colonial workers into remote parts of southern Cameroon, who then brought the virus into the bustling colonial metropolis of Kinshasa, providing it with the environment it needed to spread. It’s an important analysis of the confluence of politics, economics and biology that created one of the great and terrible epidemics of our time.

Then, a couple of hours later, I ran across this Robert Dreyfuss post over at The Nation, and I remembered why some people mock the Left. Dreyfuss introduces the Post article thusly: “Maybe it’s too much to say that imperialism caused AIDS. But at the very least, it’s karma—payback, if you will, for mass slaughter, slavery and vicious exploitation in central Africa more than a century ago.”

I invite you to pause for a moment and let that sink in. HIV as karmic justice for colonialism.

Even by its own twisted logic, of course, this is an absurd statement. Here’s a list, derived from 2007 CIA World Factbook estimates, of HIV/AIDS prevalence rates by country, rank-0rdered from highest to lowest. See all those former colonial powers up there at the top? Neither do I.

More to the point, though, this kind of thinking is just offensive. Understanding disease vectors, and how changes in political and economic interactions can affect them, is very important. It’s important as a historical matter, as well as for the way we think about contemporary pandemics. But to argue, even with tongue planted in cheek (which I’m not sure he’s doing here) that the millions of people living with HIV/AIDS around the world today are paying some kind of karmic price for the Berlin Conference is only marginally less revolting than labeling the epidemic God’s punishment for homosexuality.

Colonialism was awful. As a movement it combined the authoritarian indifference of medieval empire with the acquisitive rapaciousness of early industrial capitalism to create a horrific vortex of exploitation and human misery that spread across the globe. It was, entirely on its own terms, one of the great crimes of modern history. Those who can’t get that across without drawing stupid cosmic connections to contemporary suffering should find something else to write about.

February 21, 2012
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Disillusionment and Elite Discourse

Twice in my life I have been genuinely disillusioned by politics. I’ve been disappointed by politics more times than I care to count. For a progressive in a reactionary age, political disappointment becomes so omnipresent as to lose most of its intensity. Only twice, though, have political developments truly upended previously-held assumptions and revealed intense, unexpected ugliness and dysfunction.

9/11 doesn’t make the cut. It was, to be sure, a horrifying psychic punch to the jaw, but I was a pretty aware sixteen-year-old. I knew there was violence and terrorism in the world, had vaguely heard of al-Qaeda, and had read that Tom Clancy book where the guy flies a jumbo jet into Capitol Hill. I also wasn’t personally acquainted with any of the victims. So 9/11 didn’t really shatter any dearly-held preconceptions. Likewise with the run-up to the Iraq war. My still-teen-aged self didn’t think invading Iraq was a particularly good idea, and could recognize some of the “selling” of that war as overblown fear-mongering. But perhaps because I had a high school teacher who interpreted all of modern history through the lens of Machiavelli’s The Prince, or because I knew about Vietnam and remembered Monica Lewinsky, I wasn’t blown away by the notion that leaders would engage in a bit of fact-massaging in service to their own interests.

No, my first moment of disillusionment came during the summer of 2003, when it became clear that 1) Saddam Hussein had no WMD program to speak of, and 2) the Bush Administration would survive this revelation. My 2002-2003 self, cynically confident that institutional incentives would discipline the mendacious tendencies of elected officials, had assumed that Bush et al. actually had “slam dunk” evidence of Saddam’s weapons programs. I didn’t assume this because I thought they were honorable people incapable of misleading the public. I assumed it because they were willing to launch a massive, highly controversial war based on assertions about Iraqi weapons. Should those assertions prove false, I smugly believed, the indignant revulsion erupting from the American populace would be so intense as to render Watergate a sideshow in the history of executive malfeasance. There would be impeachment. There would be criminal charges. Maybe a lynching or two for good measure.* The righteous fury of a people whose sons and daughters had been sent to die over a fairy tale would, at the very least, leave a battered, discredited shell of an administration limping toward the merciful euthanasia of the 2004 elections.


Instead, in a PR pivot that I hope is studied by every communications major in this country, administration elites and media allies began rhetorically broadening the objectives, scope and nature of the U.S. Iraq mission such that, by the time it was clear no weapons existed, the weapons didn’t matter that much. Opinions on the war had become so tribal that to point out the obvious – this war was founded on a deliberate lie – became a matter of shrill partisanship treated as distasteful by media elites. Far from unified revulsion, outrage over the invasion was relegated to the status of left-wing talking (shouting) point. George Bush was reelected. Only Scooter Libby pulled a jail sentence. And he didn’t serve it.

The second shattering of rose-colored glasses came more recently, in the late summer of 2010. I’d heard some news reports about plans to build Cordoba House, an Islamic community center, in lower Manhattan. I’d also heard about some isolated protests over the plans. Par for the course, I figured. After all there are always a few wingnuts so freaked out by the word “Allah” that they’ll protest anything Muslim; but, in the land of religious liberty this “controversy” wouldn’t move beyond the fringe, right? Sadly, wrong. At the height of the dispute, substantial majorities of Americans opposed the “ground zero mosque,” and very significant minorities believed its construction ought not be legally permitted.

I’m not naive about prejudice and bigotry. I didn’t think Obama’s election signaled a “post-racial” America. I’ve never considered Americans immune to inter-religious animosity. I must admit, though, I was shocked at the extent to which outright Islamophobia had been rendered acceptable in mainstream discourse, and how much popular support it enjoyed. One of the few heartening actions the Bush Administration took after 9/11 was to emphasize Islam as a religion of humanity and peace, rather than overtly fan the flames of ethnocultural conflict. And, indeed, there’s evidence that Bush’s early statements had a salutary effect on popular opinion, especially on the right. After nearly ten years of war, coupled with a gradual loosening of self-imposed constraints on elite rhetoric, those effects had evidently been superseded. In a country where religious pluralism is, literally, a foundational value, enshrined in the Constitution and deeply rooted in national history and mythology, more than half the population felt the construction of a house of worship to be an insulting affront.

I’ve thought a lot about both of these episodes lately, because they speak to how extraordinarily susceptible the public can be to elite discourse, even when such discourse contradicts deeply-held beliefs or observable reality. Previously-unthinkable ideas now become acceptable to whisper, now become reasonable to say, now become imperative to shout. The capacity of free and uncensored media environments to literally erase or reconfigure recent history, reshape the bounds of acceptable thought and serve as unwitting (or witting) accomplices to feedback loops of tribal psychology is really quite impressive. It also leads one to wonder what might have happened had elite incentives been just a bit different. What if most Democratic elected officials had voted against the Iraq War, thus enabling them to build a robust and coherent narrative against executive lies without self-incriminating? What if the Republican attack strategy against Obama hadn’t banked so hard on “othering” him that “secret Muslim” became a barely-submerged talking point? What if, more broadly, people with a microphone and an audience felt some basic obligation to do more than play on peoples’ fears and tribal impulses?

It would be nice. But I’ve left that illusion behind.


*Meant as ironic hyperbole, but terribly put regardless. Mea culpa.