Ethnonationalism > Healthcare?


Ethnonationalism > Healthcare?

After the Republican Party passed the American Health Care Act 2.0 with zero Democratic votes today, Democrats in the chamber taunted them by chanting "na na na na, hey hey hey goodbye" on the assumption that many of them would get voted out by their constituents. The optics on this little stunt were horrible—do these people only care about the number of seats they hold, and not about the passage of a bill that will obliterate healthcare coverage for tens of millions? But conventional wisdom is that these Democrats are right. Version 1.0 of the AHCA was super unpopular, and, oh yeah, it was opposed by virtually every healthcare-related group:

So surely Republicans will pay at the polls in 2018 and perhaps 2020 as well. Right?


But what if they won't?


The left is assuming that people who lose their insurance will switch and vote Democrat because the loss of healthcare is a traumatic experience that can literally mean bankruptcy or death. But what if that's not the reason people vote anymore?


In the 2016 election, people voted along ethno-religious lines more than ever before. The vast majority of non-whites voted Democrat. The vast majority of Christian whites voted Republican. As these groups have become increasingly equal in number, they have increasingly voted in blocs. Only 8% of African Americans voted for Trump, even though he was running against the second-least popular candidate of all time whose turnout lagged. A record 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. American elections are increasingly a census, where everyone votes along identity-based lines rather than ideological ones. And if an election is a census, to switch sides is to betray your tribe. What if white Christians — 54% of the population as recently as 2008 but only 43% today — feel it would be a betrayal to abandon their group, which already considers itself increasingly persecuted? That would make the loss of their insurance, or even their lives, a secondary concern. Moreover, many of those who lose their insurance won't be part of this in-group, but will belong to America's growing ethnic and racial minorities, who are disproportionately poorer than whites and thus dependent on Medicaid in greater numbers. Medicaid will lose $880 billion in the bill the House just passed. Insurance is all about pooling risk. Perhaps white Christians, the historic power group in the United States, do not wish to pool resources with these others, and are even willing to sacrifice their own individual lot to make sure they don't have to. America's segregated cities and increasingly re-segregated schools show just how far American whites have been willing to go to avoid sharing their lives, communities, and resources with other groups.


I want to stress, I am not white-bashing here, I am human-bashing. This isn't about whites or white evangelicals, it's about how people vote in demographically riven, economically stratified societies. Any historic power group in a democracy facing a demographic challenge can be expected to behave this way. And the overwhelming majority of minority voters who vote Democratic shows this works in all directions. This behavior is not retrograde or irrational: it's highly predictable and can happen any time a society that divides itself into roughly equal-sized identity groups goes to the polls.


But let's say you reject my premise that American political parties are turning into ethnonational power platforms. Let's say you think economic factors are more important in voters' minds. That guarantees nothing in 2018. Donald Trump was elected promising to bring back jobs (and after all, that's how half of America gets its health insurance... although the AHCA will do a number on that too). Economically depressed regions of the country rebelled against the establishment and free trade to elect an economic nationalist. Perhaps they believe that only Trump can fix it, as Trump himself believes. Perhaps that's more important to them, and come midterms they're willing to give the President's party the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they believe that establishment technocrats who could fix the healthcare system have rigged it in favor of elites, and they may not trust Democrats to fix it.


And even if you are still convinced that hordes of healthcare-deprived voters will nonetheless rebel against the GOP over the AHCA, consider this: the Senate map in 2018 is terrible for Democrats, and the House is so badly gerrymandered that the Democrats would need an overwhelming landslide victory to win even a small majority there.


Perhaps I'm wrong. But if Republicans still control both chambers of Congress after the 2018 midterms, the above reasons will probably be why.



Why Not Meet With Kim Jong Un?


Why Not Meet With Kim Jong Un?

  1. There's loads wrong with this, notably that Trump had no problem either with the concept of dynastic succession or the brutality, purges, and executions that have accompanied the young Kim's ascent to the throne. But let's leave that as a pop-up footnote for the moment.

  2. Though given their respective temperaments, I wouldn't be surprised if they got along swimmingly.

  3. There are in fact good reasons why not, of course. Most notably, it's completely unacceptable to resolve Korean peninsular issues without actively involving Seoul. However, North Korea has always claimed that its nuclear weapons program is a deterrent against the nuclear arsenal of the United States, so if they insist it's a bilateral issue, why not take them up on it and see what happens? We've seen where the alternative leads.

When Barack Obama was running for president in 2007, he said he would be open to meeting without preconditions with the Iranian leadership to resolve the nuclear standoff. Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, pounced. Obama could not be taken seriously as a candidate for such a stance, she said. Obama's statement was painted as a huge, potentially campaign-ending gaffe.

Except the American public didn't really care. Obama won the nomination and the presidency, and while he never did have a sit-down with Ayatollah Khamenei or any Iranian president, he did oversee negotiations of the Iranian nuclear deal that, even in the era of Trump, so far appears to be holding. Crisis averted.

This week, Donald Trump said he would be "honored" to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, called him a "smart cookie," and credited him with leadership skills for having taken over his country at such a young age. He had said something similar in 2016 on the campaign trail, and the comment fits into his longstanding worldview that if he can just meet face-to-face with important people, he and he alone can work out a deal.

Media and establishment types erupted on Twitter. And yes, there was the predictable partisan hypocrisy: conservative media and leaders let the comment go where they would have pilloried Obama as weak and naïve for having said the same. But does the general public care?

The real problem here is the question of legitimacy. The establishment foreign policy worldview is that meeting with bad leaders grants them legitimacy, as if even acknowledging them is the equivalent of Chamberlain capitulating at Munich. This is frankly silly, akin to the game kids play when they annoy a child by pretending he or she doesn't exist.

US: North Korea doesn't exist.

North Korea: I exist!

US: Did someone just say something?

North Korea: (Launches rockets)

US: Hey!

This isn't just an American tactic, though we do it more often than most. Long ago, the North Koreans decided that the South Korean government was a puppet state and demanded direct negotiations with the United States to end the Korean War (which is technically ongoing, if frozen). This posture is equally unreasonable, and the United States has insisted on dealing with the issue of denuclearization on the Korean peninsula through negotiations with six parties. The North keeps walking away from these talks and, in the meantime, advancing its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

The fact is, regimes gain legitimacy by their existence and their ability to govern and hold territory, regardless of how reprehensibly they do it. It doesn't matter whether Washington considers Pyongyang's government legitimate. It's there. Nor is it likely going away anytime soon, and certainly not due to any (sane) action Washington can take. Why not engage it by any diplomatic means available?

Now, do I think Trump and Kim Jong Un can resolve the Korean War with a face-to-face? Of course not! But why not give it a shot? Nothing else has worked, and this latest posture from Trump is a hell of a lot better than the previous week's threat to pointlessly and destructively turn the frozen conflict into a hot one with hundreds of thousands of needless casualties. Too often in international affairs, even the willingness to negotiate is denigrated as weakness. The only thing this stance does is allow problems to fester. Let Trump and Kim meet if they want. Why not?


The "America First" President joins the "Do Something" crowd


The "America First" President joins the "Do Something" crowd

The President of the United States, who once tweeted this...

... on Wednesday could be found saying this, in response to another Syrian chemical weapons attack that was almost certainly carried out by the government of Bashar al-Assad ...

It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal — people were shocked to hear what gas it was — that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines.

... and had his spokesperson Sean Spicer throw in this to boot:

These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 he would establish a red line against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.

And just like that, the America First president, who as far as I can tell still hasn't used the words "human rights" in a sentence, became a humanitarian interventionist. You know the type: the analyst who argues that if we just apply a little more military pressure to the same problem, it will convince a bad actor to stop doing bad things. This was the sort of foreign policy establishment thinking that Donald Trump railed against on the campaign trail.


Why does he suddenly care about Syrian civilians?

The biggest surprise, honestly, is that Trump reacted the way he did at all. He seemed genuinely shocked by this incident. But why this one? Trump seems to have no problem with extrajudicial killings when other leaders do them. He seemed to have no problem with all the other people Assad had killed. He just had a warm meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has a plenty questionable human rights record. A few days ago, his Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley could be found saying that removing Assad was not a priority. In fact, prior to this week, there was widespread speculation that Trump might actually join Russia to help Assad crush the rebels. A far more predictable response from Trump would have been to obfuscate, imply the videos were faked, suggest that the victims were terrorists who had it coming, etc. ... exactly what the Russians were doing.

Three possible explanations come to mind for the sudden about-face.

1. He was genuinely moved by the videos. They are deeply disturbing — I'm not even going to link to them — so this is possible. But it seems unlikely. After all, without putting too fine a point on it, I have yet to see this president show the slightest empathy towards anyone to whom he is not related by blood or marriage. It just doesn't seem his style.

2. He took this personally. This was not just a heinous attack on innocent civilians, it was a serious inconvenience to Trump's policies towards Russia, the Middle East, and refugees. Trump seems to respond reflexively to either flattery or insult. The fact that Assad would do this to him is what makes it particularly unacceptable in Trump's mind.

3. The effects of the attack were caught on video. Trump is particularly attuned to popular reaction to media images. My most likely theory is that he recognized that Americans would be outraged by what they were seeing, and jumped out ahead of that outrage. The videos humanized a war with inhuman statistics — hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced. A few specific Syrian children being gassed is horrifying, even to those who would deny them refuge in the United States.


So now what?

This evening the Washington Post reported that Trump was considering military action against the Assad regime. This means that Trump is now caught in the same trap that Barack Obama was after the "red line" episode. Any action taken against Assad will be deeply destabilizing to both Syria and international peace, given the direct support for the regime by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Overthrowing Assad would leave complete anarchy and a clearer field for Islamic State and others, and would be ruinous for the ethnic and religious minorities that support the regime and depend on it for protection. But anything short of overthrowing Assad will be ineffective given the nature of the regime and its inherent inability to accept compromise, political transition, or free elections. There are no good options here. Also, escalation is highly likely. Here's Micah Zenko:

Obama's solution was to go to Congress to get permission for airstrikes that he admitted at the time would not change the political calculus, get rebuffed, and then settle for the Russia-orchestrated deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria... which, as it turns out, apparently did not remove all of them.

Trump's next step is unclear. If he does nothing, he will be pilloried by the "do something" crowd. To wit:

But if he actually does something, that could easily be worse. There's a high risk of retaliation by Iran against American forces in Iraq and a serious risk of direct conflict with Russia. Even if these things don't happen, weakening the Syrian government means weakening the strongest actor left in the field, which likely prolongs the war and gets even more people killed. What's more, Russia and Iran have stood by Assad as he has done this and worse for years. Will Rex Tillerson be able to convince them to abandon their longtime ally? Why should they? Whatever replaces him will be no friend to Moscow or Tehran.

It is always possible that some decisive action could work, or at least compel the regime to find other ways of killing its citizens besides chemical weapons. But the most likely outcome is that Washington retains enough hostility to Assad to not accept him as legitimate, but not enough to do what is necessary to remove him. And the war will continue, probably for the rest of Trump's presidency, and possibly beyond.


Trump's foreign policy could be fascinating


Trump's foreign policy could be fascinating

More than any previous president, Donald Trump comes into office as a wild card on international affairs. He is not beholden to any of the standard orthodoxies of American foreign policy, and his contradictory statements and actions make it unclear what he is actually going to do. His policies are more Jacksonian than anything we've seen in modern times. He has expressed no interest in promoting American values abroad, only in acquiring good deals for the United States. He wants to ramp up military spending but it's unclear what for. He seems to think that the best way to handle asymmetric threats like terrorism is torture.

Here are four immediate thoughts for what we might expect.


Neoconservatism is dead, for now, again

Neoconservatives — who believe that Washington must forcefully stand up for American values abroad — have historically switched back and forth between Democrats and Republicans depending on what the ruling party's policies were. They hated Nixon's detente, but loved George W. Bush's presidency. Most of them were horrified by Trump's candidacy and defected from the GOP this cycle to favor Hillary Clinton, whose support of various interventions in the name of American values dovetails nicely with their worldview. Now, with her defeat, they are an ideology without a party.

It's remarkable that a Republican nominee could hate the Iraq War as much as Trump does. Never mind that Trump was not actually against the Iraq War when it happened, as he claimed. Unlike most establishment Republican candidates this cycle (Marco Rubio comes to mind), Trump could flout party orthodoxy with impunity... and even turn the issue against the Democrats, given that Clinton was their nominee. He has allowed the GOP to finally unburden itself from defending the war. Now both parties can have an honest debate about what's next.


Trade deals are dead

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is finished. NAFTA might be torn up. Trade wars are a legitimate possibility, recessions be damned, as is the United States storming out of the World Trade Organization in a huff.

We are about to find out just how important trade deals are in cementing ties in international affairs. TPP proponents have argued that if it did not pass, Asian and Pacific countries would turn to China, which would rewrite the trade rules of the region on its own terms. Will that happen? Or will countries continue to use the United States economically and militarily to counterbalance China's rise? The standard post-war liberal orthodoxy hasn't had a lot of counterfactuals to compare it to, and it's about to get one now.


Will Trump uphold our security commitments?

People who like the status quo and don't want to see nuclear proliferation and war on the Eurasian continent breathed a mighty sigh of relief when Trump said he would uphold America's security commitments to South Korea.

He had previously complained that Japan and South Korea free-ride on American defense commitments, demanded that both countries pay the United States more, and suggested that they should get their own nuclear weapons. After his victory, South Korea held an emergency security meeting to discuss its options, and soon after Trump reassured South Korean President Park Geun-hye in a phone call.

That's one hurdle out of the way. Now what about our security commitments across the other ocean? Just as with Japan and South Korea, Trump has claimed that the United States was getting a raw deal in Europe and Europeans were free-riding without contributing to their own defense. Given Trump's closeness with Russia, this raises serious questions about whether he will continue to uphold America's commitments to NATO. If he does not, all bets are off. Russian invasions of Baltic states? European nuclear proliferation? The return of balance-of-power politics on the continent? All in play.


Trump's win means that the war in Syria is more likely to end sooner

My biggest fear for a Hillary Clinton presidency was that she would ramp up American involvement in the war in Syria, turning it into a full-blown proxy war between the United States and Russia which would last as long as those two countries were willing to sustain it... which, as the Cold War demonstrated, could be decades.

With Trump as president, the rebels are doomed and they probably know it. Trump wholeheartedly buys the Russian line that Bashar al-Assad's government and ISIS are the only two viable actors in the field, and that the latter must be destroyed. The United States will likely now stand aside while Assad crushes all opposition, and might even coordinate with Russia to get the job done. Trump seems to view the world almost exclusively from a nationalist, what's-in-it-for-us perspective, and the plight of the Syrian people living under Assad's yoke simply doesn't concern him at all.

That said, the Syrian war has been so destructive that any outcome that stopped the fighting might be superior to continued bloodshed. An Assad victory is now the fastest, and most likely, way for that to happen.


This could end with ethnic cleansing


This could end with ethnic cleansing

Donald Trump will now be President of the United States. Many people are concerned that Trump will undo much of Barack Obama's policy legacy. While true, this does not distinguish Trump from any other Republican candidate. But Trump is a different candidate, and he is so mainly because he ran without a trace of compromise towards America's burgeoning minority populations, who he consistently demonized. The results are evident in the exit polls, where Trump won the white vote by record margins.

There are many intersecting reasons for his victory: class, gender, anti-establishment grievance, and economic factors. But ethnic identity seems to have been decisive. A white America was an integral part of the Trump campaign message (and even more so for many of his supporters), and despite his comments and behavior towards women, 53% of white women tellingly voted for him anyway compared with only 43% for Hillary Clinton.

Now victorious, there's only one problem for these folks: whites are a majority today, but they won't be for long. Demography is destiny, and American minority groups are growing faster than whites are. By 2042, according to Census Bureau projections, the United States will become a majority-minority country. That's scarcely a generation away. If whites are to maintain political control of America, as they seem determined to do, America will need to become less democratic and it will need to have fewer non-whites. This will primarily be achieved through systematic voter suppression — in some U.S. states, this has already begun — and the mass removal of millions of human beings based on ethnicity. This is generally referred to as ethnic cleansing.

This sounds alarmist. It isn't. If there is an example of a majority power group losing its political power demographically and surrendering it peacefully, I am not aware of it. Civil war or illiberal/anti-democratic suppression are more common outcomes. There are several ways this could occur, and none of them are pretty, for they all involve the brutal realignment of citizens with borders in order to protect the sovereignty of the national identity group in power.

Despite accounting for their lowest share ever, whites were still 70% of the electorate in 2016. But demography is like an oil tanker: it has to be stopped miles before it even sees the shore because it takes so long to slow down. So the deportations will have to begin now, something intrinsically understood by those who favored a candidate promising to build a wall with Mexico, ban an entire religious group from entering the country, and remove 11 million people from American territory. And as the deportations become more futile in coming years, they can be expected to increase in intensity and cruelty, ultimately targeting not just undocumented migrants but citizens as well.


This is all around the world

This, sadly, is normal. In recent times, we've seen numerous attempts by governments to fight population demographics. Most of these involved systematic oppression, ethnic cleansing, or both, often in previously peaceful, stable, and diverse places. Within my lifetime, conflicts from Kosovo to Bahrain to Croatia to Apartheid South Africa to Iraq to Cote d'Ivoire to Syria to Rwanda have all featured mismatches between political/military power and demographic power. The results have ranged from suppression to genocide.

Whatever you think America stands for, or the West, or liberal democracy, just bear in mind that these things happen all around the world, and there is no reason why they cannot happen here. (After all, for African-Americans prior to the Civil Rights Movement, they really did happen here.) Consider America's institutions and ask yourself, under one-party control of all three branches of government, which among them would successfully prevent a sustained push towards such outcomes. With the end of the Voting Rights Act and a retrograde Supreme Court, active voter suppression can now join mass incarceration and gerrymandering to form a triumvirate of minority disenfranchisement. The President can also severely restrict migrationincluding from specific places, and, as we quietly saw with the Obama Administration, engage in mass deportations.

In fact, the sorts of leaders who do these things are globally ascendant. Illiberalism, authoritarianism, and nationalism, often marching hand in hand, have swept the world in a wave, from the Philippines to Turkey to Russia to Hungary and, now, to the United States. Each of these countries has its own unique characteristics, but they all have one thing in common: the consolidation of power behind an illiberal strongman advocating a nationalist platform.

The rise of European far-right parties is the next wave. It began with Brexit and it will not stop there. The Netherlands has an election next year, and current frontrunner Geert Wilders wants to ban the Quran and close mosques. France has an election next year, and Marine Le Pen's National Front is surging. Austria's forthcoming re-run of its invalidated May presidential poll, where far-right candidate Norbert Hofer nearly won, may yet produce the European Union's first far-right head of state.


Why is this happening?

There are two types of nationalism at play: ethnonationalism and economic nationalism, or, put bluntly, fear of immigrants and fear of trade.

Ethnonationalism can be expected to emerge any time there is large-scale demographic change in a country that threatens the identity of the power group. Far-right parties in Europe have been pretty open about this, whether it's Hungary's Viktor Orban referring to refugees as "poison" or the head of Austria's far-right party calling German Chancellor Angela Merkel "the most dangerous politician in Europe" due to her migration policy. For these folks, the immigrant is a fundamental threat to the identity of the nation. They are unapologetic in their desire to see more homogeneous countries.

Economic nationalism is more complicated. A combination of global factors have buffeted the working class in many countries for years, bleeding away job security while widening income inequality. An easy target is to blame foreigners, treaties, trade pacts, or international organizations such as the European Union, all of which are un-elected and therefore face a democracy deficit. Any capable populist demagogue can get extensive mileage from such tactics regardless of the facts.

All of this raises significant questions about future policymaking in the European Union and the United States. Perhaps trade deals will need to be abandoned, given the backlash they provoke. Perhaps migration will have to be forcibly halted, even for refugees, for if it isn't, right-wing parties will continue to seize power and ultimately dismantle the Union. (Le Pen and Wilders have promised Frexit and Nexit referendums for their own countries.) Perhaps this is even for the best: with the likes of Wilders and Le Pen in charge, refugees may not be safe in Europe anymore.


And for America?

My own country, a nation of immigrants, a nation that has from its inception been defined by those who journeyed to its shores to pursue their dreams, is now at a crossroads. Far more diverse than the typical European state, it must decide how widely to define the identity of "American." I have long hoped that America would continue to define the term outwards to encompass ever more groups, as it did in the past (including for my own ancestors). The identity politics at play in the 2016 Presidential election, however, suggest that it will not.

A lot can change in a quarter century, but let's be clear: white majority rule in America cannot be maintained by liberal means for much longer, and many of those who voted in this year's poll know it. The question is, did Trump win primarily due to ethnonationalism or economic nationalism? Or, put another way, how badly does America want to remain majority white?


The right tries to figure out a new foreign policy


The right tries to figure out a new foreign policy

Tuesday night's Republican debate was widely derided as a house of horrors more fit for the day after Halloween than the day after Hannukah. To wit:

But this was quite predictable. A more unexpected reading can be found in the morning after's Wall Street Journal op-ed page. There, James Taranto lamented the end of the "Bush doctrine," or the idea that democracy promotion should be foremost on America's agenda and that regime change is a primary means of achieving it.

Let's consider two statements by the men who are #1 and #2 in the polls right now. First, Donald Trump:

In my opinion, we’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly, if they were there and if we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems; our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off. I can tell you that right now.
We have done a tremendous disservice, not only to the Middle East, we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have been wiped away, and for what? It’s not like we had victory.
It’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized. A total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion. I wish it were spent right here in the United States, on our schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart.

Second, Ted Cruz, asked to clarify a comment that he wouldn't shed a tear for the end of the Assad regime:

Well, it’s more than not shedding a tear. It’s actively getting involved to topple a government. And we keep hearing from President Obama and Hillary Clinton and Washington Republicans that they’re searching for these mythical moderate rebels. It’s like a purple unicorn. They never exist. These moderate rebels end up being jihadists.
And I’ll tell you whose view on Assad is the same as mine. It’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said Israel doesn’t have a dog in that fight because Assad is a puppet of Iran, a Shia radical Islamic terrorist, but at the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t want to see Syria governed by ISIS. And we need to focus on American interests, not on global aspirations.

Whoa! Trump sounds like Dennis Kucinich, Cruz like a populist Henry Kissinger. (Purple unicorns!) How did these sentiments make it into a Republican debate?

Here's how: the war in Syria is where ideological rigidity goes to die. Foreign policy on the right generally falls into one of three camps: isolationism, neoconservatism, and realism. All are flummoxed by Syria.

  1. Confusingly, al Nusra is al Qaeda's affiliate, and fights not only the Assad government but other rebels, including Daesh.

  2. See Trump, Donald.

  3. Would that he'd felt this way in 2006: a partitioned Iraq would not have required the political reconciliation upon which the surge's ultimate strategy depended. Without that reconciliation, Iraq unsurprisingly lapsed back into violence the first chance it got.

If you're an isolationist, try explaining why it's okay to do nothing while a quarter of a million people die and a region is destabilized. If you're a neoconservative, try explaining how taking the fight directly to Daesh will do anything other than help the Assad government, and by extension Russia and Iran... or how taking the fight to Assad will do anything other than help extremist rebel factions, including Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra, who want control of Syria. And if you're a realist, you want to promote America's national interests... but in Syria, what are they? Stability? Democracy? Counterterrorism? Short-term geopolitical gain? Several of these have diametrically opposed policy prescriptions.

All of this has opened up a real chance for a conversation on the right for the first time since before 9/11. What are America's goals in the world? How best to achieve them? The party is grappling with the legacy of the Iraq War in a real way for the first time, and demonstrating that it's entirely possible to be patriotic, even chauvinistic, and still have a meaningful debate on tactics and outcomes.

So what does this leave? It leaves people skittering to outflank each other. Ted Cruz conflates liberal internationalism and neoconservatism, positioning himself as the "third way" between Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. John Bolton, George W. Bush's famously neoconservative former UN Ambassador (and not actually a Presidential candidate, but humor me here: he did form an exploratory committee), is now improbably the champion of partitioning Iraq and Syria. Jeb is his "own man," he says. Only Lindsey Graham, currently polling at 0.0%, offers a full-throated, unqualified defense of the Bush years.

For now, then, the Bush doctrine is repudiated, at least rhetorically, by the two leading candidates on the GOP side. Between fits of terror-mongering, the candidates on Tuesday night seemed to legitimately debate what will take its place. Leopards don't change their spots, but perhaps, in this case, they might change the way they hunt.



Schengen and the art of the possible

What if we can have European integration or refugee resettlement, but not both?

Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station, 4 September 2015. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov, uploaded to Wikipedia 4 September 2015.

Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station, 4 September 2015. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov, uploaded to Wikipedia 4 September 2015.

  1. And yes, this is a TV episode, not the movie of the same name.

  2. The Federation quietly lays the groundwork through embedded anthropological research and quiet diplomatic contacts before the big reveal. In the episode, it's explained that this has been done ever since the first contact with the Klingons went horribly wrong. Trekkies, the comment section below will let you correct everything I've said that's wrong.

First Contact,” a 1991 episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” , concerns the moment a previously isolated civilization is first contacted by the United Federation of Planets. In this episode, the race about to be contacted are the Malcorians, a suspiciously humanoid society of religious suburbanite dweebs with a fondness for Communist office buildings and John Lennon spectacles. They consider themselves the center of the universe.

Gene Roddenberry's famous television show, in its various incarnations, has always put humankind — and its fellow humanoid aliens with accented foreheads or ears — on a temporal spectrum of development, from primitive and tribal to federated and cosmopolitan. It has signposted the places we can go if we embrace the better angels of our nature. But it has never shied away from what happens when a species isn't ready to make the leap.

That may be where we are with the Schengen states today.

The Limits of Free Movement

The Schengen Zone

The Schengen Zone

  1. This overcomes the problem of what is called "homeland nationalism," the idea that a national state has power and influence over its ethnic compatriots even if they're citizens of other countries. Interwar Germany, post-Yugoslav Serbia, and modern day Russia all have made such claims to have influence, and ultimately territorial control, over people beyond their borders.

    There are two reasons homeland nationalism is so pernicious. One, it justifies international aggression, most infamously Hitler's seizure of lands with ethnic Germans in them outside Germany's interwar borders. And two, its ultimate logic is ethnic cleansing: after the Second World War, most of Germany's neighbors evicted their German populations to prevent such revisionism from ever happening again.

The beauty of Schengen is in the free and unfettered movement of people across borders within the zone. If you're German, you can travel to the Czech Republic, get a job there, live there, and get married there. But you're still German: you can't vote in the Czech Republic and there's no chance Germany will use your presence there to try to annex Czech territory. By allowing for movement that doesn't threaten the hard-won self-determination of peoples, Schengen accounts for, and accommodates, the persistence of national identity. Rather than confronting nationalism directly, Schengen steps around it. It's elegant.

Refugees turn this on its head. A refugee is in practice from outside the Schengen zone, and is by definition unable to return to his or her homeland for fear of persecution. Most are settled, often permanently, in countries that offer them asylum. Sometimes this includes the granting of citizenship. For the states of Europe, which often labored for centuries to construct a national polity, the prospect of such a massive demographic upheaval is inherently destabilizing. It's the opposite of Schengen, which protects national identity while allowing for a cosmopolitan, integrated continent.

Refugee flows and the arrival in large numbers of the "other" awakens the slumbering nationalist. As refugee flows increase, so too does support for the likes of Pegida, Golden Dawn, the National Front, the UK Independence Party, and others. And while the demonization of refugees is abhorrent, the long-term demographic implications are real: the number of displaced Syrians alone, counting internally displaced persons, exceeds the population of many smaller European nations. That's just Syrians, and just today. Consider the relative demographic trajectories of European states (with flat or declining populations), and compare them to the Middle East or sub-Saharan and Sahelian Africa (with populations that double every 20-25 years) and you begin to see the potential scale of the change.

Morally, our common humanity should render this irrelevant. Syrian refugees are suffering through no fault of their own, Europe has the physical capacity to take them in, and should do so. But what if the act of doing so spells electoral defeat for pro-European politicians, and leaves Europe in the hands of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage? What if the act of doing so ends Schengen and breaks up the EU?

All it took to hammer home the fear of the "other" was one fake Syrian passport — again, a fake passport — found on the body of one of the Paris attackers. This is the context behind Manuel Valls's comments this week that Europe "cannot take anymore refugees." This is not true in a factual sense: physically, of course Europe can. Nor is this comment reasonably based in the fear of refugees bringing terrorism: these refugees are overwhelmingly fleeing terrorism, and in any case all the Paris attackers appear to have been European. Rather, what Valls is saying is that the European body politic cannot take any more refugees without an anti-European nationalist backlash. Valls is practicing what he believes is the art of the possible.

Ready or Not?

  1. Spoiler alert! and I mean it, stop reading this unless you've seen the episode. It's a good one, except for yet another pointless and bizarre sexual excursion for Commander Riker.

In "First Contact", the Malcorian security chief is so opposed to interplanetary integration that he attempts to stage his own assassination and blame Riker for it. When the Malcorian President learns of this, he makes a heartbreaking decision: he decides his own people are not ready for first contact, and tells the Enterprise crew to come back in a few generations to try again.

It's a devastating ending: everyone involved knows that they will likely never see each other again, and an entire planet will be denied the benefits and wonders of the cosmos, possibly for generations or even centuries. The President's top scientific aid actually abandons her planet and runs off with the Enterprise rather than be consigned to a future of such terrestrial boredom. But it's arguably the right decision: the planet is almost ready for first contact, but not quite. First contact could embolden religious hardliners, "planetists" (if you will), and other reactionary elements to strike down much of what the society has, to that point, achieved.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously wrote in Letter From a Birmingham Jail that "[t]his 'wait' has almost always meant 'never'." But given the incremental but very real progress of European integration in the postwar era, what if Europe today is like the Malcorians ... almost ready for this moment, but not quite? What if we are faced with an awful choice: limit migration and leave huge numbers of refugees out in the cold, or put the decades of remarkable integration Europe has achieved so far at intolerable risk? Sometimes, we face a moral responsibility but are not up to the challenge. Is this one of those times?


The Four-State Solution


The Four-State Solution

  1. Otherwise known as ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, etc. This blog will henceforth use the term "Daesh," for two reasons: 1) It's the term most used by the folks actually fighting the group on the ground, and 2) the group dislikes it, as it apparently has a pejorative double meaning in Arabic. I'm not going to pretend the recent Paris attacks didn't affect this decision.

  1. Great, just what the region needs, a white guy trying to change the borders, right? That's why this post will not get into the specifics of where the new borders should be, or even whether any of the four states would subsequently subdivide further. These are questions for the parties themselves: they live there. The purpose here is to explore why partition would work.

The situation in Syria seems hopeless. A quarter of a million people have died, and millions are displaced. Daesh have internationalized the conflict by attacking Paris, Beirut, and a Russian passenger plane. In an almost absurdly retro announcement, Russia has allied with France and both countries have ramped up their involvement in the war, even as they fundamentally disagree on how it should end. And while the recent Vienna talks brought the welcome sight of Iran sitting at the table for the first time, the resulting joint statement reveals that the parties can, in essence, agree on only one thing: that Syria's "territorial integrity" should be respected — diplomatic-speak for "the borders shouldn't be changed."

But the combatants are ignoring this demand: for some time now they have all been practicing deliberate population displacement as a weapon of war. So effective is this that, by some accounts, more than half of all Syrians have had to flee their homes, the majority internally.

But in the very evil of this tactic lies, paradoxically, what could be the only viable solution to the conflict. Syria and Iraq now look less like two states and more like four: a Sunni Arab state in the center of both countries ringed by a Shiite Arab state to the east, a Kurdish state to the north, and an Alawite-led state (which would encompass other minority groups) to the west. If we recognize this, we could expedite the end of the conflict by changing the incentives of its combatants. If we fail to recognize it, the war will likely continue.

Partition brings about ugly memories: India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine, etc. It's true, velvet divorces are rare. But the self-destruction of troubled post-Ottoman political entities isn't exactly new, and it doesn't have to end badly. Let's consider, for a moment, the Balkans.

Why do people ethnically cleanse each other?

In 1991, Yugoslavia imploded. Nationalists swept to power in most of its republics, which then began to secede one by one, first from Belgrade, then from each other. As he beheld the unfolding multi-layered ethnic war, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker famously declared, "We got no dog in this fight."

James Baker

James Baker

This comment has been pilloried as amoral realism incarnate — not to mention grammatical apostasy — ever since, but we should not forget that Baker had good reasons for saying it. In 1991, the United States did not, in fact, have a vested interest in any specific outcome in Yugoslavia, and all sides were, in fact, committing atrocities. Today, the Serbs come in for the most opprobrium, but this is largely because they, in control of most of the former Yugoslav army, had the best weapons and the grandest ambitions. The Croats, by contrast, generally get a moral free pass for committing the largest act of ethnic cleansing in Europe since the end of the Second World War — their lightning cleansing of up to 300,000 Serbs from their ancestral homes in the Krajina in the summer of 1995. And the Kosovar Albanians — on whose behalf NATO intervened in 1999 — evicted or intimidated nearly all the ethnic Serbs out of Kosovo almost as soon as they could. Meanwhile, members of the Kosovo Liberation Army were accused (not without reason!) of trafficking organs of political prisoners.

Why did all these parties deliberately displace each other's civilians? Because in an ethnic turf battle, demography is a weapon. If Serbia claimed all lands where Serbs lived for "Greater Serbia," then Croats and Kosovars would remove those Serbs, and with them, the justification for that claim. In the breakup of Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing was not evil for its own sake. It was a deliberate tactic to encourage national formation.

And here's the seldom discussed part: it worked. When the United States finally intervened in 1995, it was largely to protect already-established identity-based territorial units from each other. While the brief US campaign was directed against the Bosnian Serbs, America's ultimate strategy was not to pick a dog in the fight so much as give each dog its own backyard. For this reason, it was successful. Decisive victories and timely intervention and effectively "solved" the Balkans and left no room for revisionism, bringing in unprecedented peace and good neighborliness between its major groups. No one seriously considered respecting Yugoslavia's territorial integrity in 1995. Instead, they came up with a solution that worked.

Let's call it the European solution.

The Nationalizing Moment in Europe

  1. In fact, the question of Kosovo bedeviled Serb nationalists for most of the 20th century. Kosovo is integral to Serb identity but by the time Serbia regained the territory in the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars, 90% of its inhabitants were Kosovar Albanians. Serb nationalists immediately began wrestling with ways to resolve this "problem," and Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown in the late 1990s was merely the latest and last attempt.

    For more, see p. 23 of Klejda Mulaj's “A Recurrent Tragedy: Ethnic Cleansing as a Tool of State Building in the Yugoslav Multinational Setting.” Published in: Nationalities Papers, Vol. 34, No. 1, March 2006.

  2. For more on this, please see Hobsbawm's "Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality," Second edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990, page 60.

  3. We need to take a brief break here to talk about how comically unworkable the Belgian government is. The country is split between Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloon populations, which makes forming a national government extremely difficult. Its governance crisis of 2007-08 was resolved by the selection of Herman Van Rompuy as Prime Minister, a man so unassuming he offended no one. It was said that he "only opens his mouth to breathe," a talent that so impressed Europeans that Van Rompuy was immediately plucked from his post to become the first President of the EU.

    Deprived of its compromise candidate, Belgium quickly fell into another political crisis, and for nearly two years was unable to form any government at all. On the day they broke post-Saddam Iraq's record for consecutive days with no government, Belgians threw a massive nationwide party.

  4. It is no coincidence that the biggest threat to the Schengen area of free movement in Europe has come not from tensions between its members but from an influx of refugees from abroad. This again shows the powerful relationship between demography and nationalism. Schengen populations can move freely but their citizenship is largely fixed. Refugees, many of whom will not be able to return home, are often given permanent residence or even citizenship, altering the long-term demographic stability of the countries that take them in.

    For the nationalist-minded, a Spaniard moving to Berlin for work isn't a demographic threat: a Syrian refugee fleeing to Berlin is.

    Now, is this an offensive position to hold in 2015? Of course. But that may not matter at the moment. The Westphalian order tamed the Pegidas of the world. Demographic upheaval unleashes them again. It is what it is.

The thing is, in the age of nationalism, this is generally how states have been made. We are appalled by the recentness, not the originality, of the collapse of Yugoslavia and Iraq-Syria. Earlier, this was standard nationalist procedure.

The 20th century in Europe is widely depicted as a titanic battle between liberal capitalism and totalitarian communism and fascism. But in many ways, it was truly about nationalism, about breaking down polyglot empires (Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the British and French Empires after 1945, the Soviet empire in 1991) into nationalized states. If the borders and people didn't line up, one or the other would be moved, peacefully if possible, violently if necessary. Millions were involuntarily swapped between Ukraine and Poland, and between Greece and Turkey. A Serb agreement in principle with Turkey to deport all the "Turks" (their term for Kosovar Albanians) of Kosovo to Turkey en masse was foiled only by the death of Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the outbreak of the Second World War. During the war, Eastern Europe was decimated to make room for Aryan expansion. After, millions of ethnic Germans were forcibly removed across Eastern and Central Europe. Hundreds of thousands, if not more, died migrating to a ruined and occupied Germany many of them had never lived in or even visited.

Where the state was not right-sized in the 20th century, it was homogenized by diktat in the 19th. Upon Italy's unification, Massimo d'Azeglio purportedly declared, "We have created Italy. Now we must create Italians." Indeed, from Perugia to Sicily to Lombardy, Italy was a patchwork of linguistic and cultural traditions. In some respects, it remains so. But in 1860, as Eric Hobsbawm wrote, "[t]he only basis for Italian unification was the Italian language"... which only 2.5% of the population used on an everyday basis. Similarly, in France, a country notable for its strenuous efforts to standardize and purify its national language, half of Frenchmen didn't even speak French at all at the time of the 1789 revolution, and only 12-13% spoke it "correctly." The use of public education and bureaucratic standardization allowed states to create a seemingly eternal, unified national heritage where none had previously existed: in Italy, in France, in Germany.

As a result of these two processes, by the end of the 20th century, nearly every European group that could reasonably claim a state had one — Scottish, Catalan, Basque, and Bosnian Serb aspirations notwithstanding — and nearly every state had been "right-sized" except for Belgium and, it would seem, Ukraine.

As states secured their sovereignty, they could begin to give it away. Postwar Europe, in fits and starts, was able to willingly confederate into a European project that needed no army to enforce itself on the continent, but was instead built on economic policy and free movement. As before, so now. Serbia and Croatia viciously fought each other over sovereignty in the 1990s. Two decades on, Croatia has ceded much of the sovereignty it gained to Brussels by joining the European Union. Serbia hopes to do the same.

What’s more, with their territory assured and the threat of the “other” removed, both countries democratized remarkably quickly, and their respect for minority rights improved rapidly. Serbia removed Milosevic. Croatia voted out Tudjman's nationalist party as soon as he died. Croatia invited back its displaced Serbs. (Most declined to return, but at least they were invited.) Serbia reached an understanding on, if not a recognition of, Kosovo. In other words, the acts of illiberal nationalist demagogues created the dynamics where liberal democracy became possible.

The Nationalizing Moment in the Middle East

Which brings us back to Iraq and Syria. Their experience today looks increasingly like that of the Balkans in the 1990s. (For starters, the United States once again "got no dog in this fight.") But herein lies hope: if partition could pacify the former Yugoslavia, why not Syria and Iraq?

Some of us have felt that Iraq was headed for a breakup for some time, but it would have been difficult to support this outcome in more polyglot Syria at the outset of this war. Quite simply, the humanitarian cost of ethnic and sectarian cleansing would have been far too great, and the risk of regional instability too dangerous. But now, both of those things have happened: half of Syria's population is displaced, and most of the region and several great powers are involved in one way or another. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan have taken more than three million refugees alone. The threat of internationalization increases daily. The costs of the four-state solution are sunk. The benefits have still to be grasped.

And let's be clear: all the major combatants are displacing people, just on different scales. Daesh, alone among the parties, gleefully broadcasts its atrocities on YouTube, and the Syrian government's barrel bombs garner most of the headlines and outrage. But with every town they take back from Daesh, Kurdish fighters are changing the facts on the ground to ensure that their region is indisputably Kurdish. Shiite militias in Iraq are doing the same. Huge swaths of the territory of both countries have been forcibly homogenized out of a multi-dimensional ethnic security dilemma.

It would be difficult to imagine any settlement where all of those who have left are able to return home. But as the Balkans have shown, a stable, peaceful, and even democratic and pluralistic outcome can take place even if they do not.

Why the Four-State Solution Would Work

  1. Note that there are multiple layers of identity here, ethnic and religious. Most Sunnis in Syria are Arab but many are not. Kurds are generally Sunni but are politically apart. Some Sunnis continue to fight for the government, and some minorities oppose it. The point is this: these identity-based division are not universal, but they are widespread and difficult to dislodge. And they must be accounted for in a political settlement.

To understand how to end the war, one must understand why the combatants are fighting it. Currently, the domestic parties, even and especially the most vicious among them, are mostly acting out of fear. (The video above, featuring a pro-regime militia commander explaining to FRONTLINE's Martin Smith why he fights for Assad, is revealing.) They either fear oppressive rule under minority dictatorship, or they fear political oblivion at the hands of a vengeful majoritarian democracy. These fears, in both Iraq and Syria, are well-founded. The four-state solution resolves them all.

Before 2003, both Iraq and Syria were ruled by ruthless Baathist regimes that were disproportionately controlled by a minority sect (Sunnis in Iraq, Alawites — who practice an offshoot of Shiism — in Syria). The U.S. invasion and imposition of elections effectively handed Iraq to its Shiite majority. The Sunnis, many of whom had been ejected from their government and army posts by de-Baathification, revolted, the insurgency began, and civil war followed. Today's Baghdad government is overwhelmingly majoritarian and Shiite-controlled. The Sunnis of Iraq will never win an election again, and they know it.

Minorities in Syria, including the Alawites (estimated to be about 12-13% of the population), Christians (perhaps 10%), Druze (3%) and others, now fear that the same will happen to them if the Assad government falls. For this reason, they will likely never accept the kind of political transition Western powers are demanding. (Nor will their backers.) Their cruelty towards civilians isn't surprising either: the decisive majority of Syria's population is Sunni and thus represents a demographic threat to the current power structure merely by existing.

The Kurds, meanwhile, are a regionally concentrated minority group in both Iraq and Syria (as well as Turkey and Iran, but that is another matter). Subject to poison gas attacks by Saddam Hussein and genocidal treatment by Daesh, the Kurds want independence. It's difficult to blame them.

All of these groups, in a united Iraq and Syria, have every incentive to continue their current behavior and trajectory. The four-state solution solves this dilemma: it formalizes the people-border alignment the parties have already created through population displacement, and thus removes demography as a weapon. Elections in the four-state solution will not be a means for one regional ethnic or religious group to demographically crush another. In other words, by acknowledging the consequences of deliberate displacement, the four-state solution removes the reason for such displacement, and indeed for the continuation of the war itself.

The four-state solution similarly resolves the seemingly intractable divisions between regional and great powers. The clear division of Sunni and Shiite spheres of influence ends the nasty proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia by giving them nothing to fight over. By preserving the current Syrian government in rump form in a new Alawite state, Russia keeps its regional and international influence, as well as what might be its only real ally. And Western powers see a return to stability and a security architecture more conducive to democracy than the current one ever could be. If no one truly wins, at least no one loses.

What about Daesh?

Actually, there is one loser: the self-described Islamic State. It has preyed on the sectarian security dilemma by appealing to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria for whom the governments of Baghdad and Damascus are anathema. But alone among the parties, Daesh cannot ideologically endure in a territorial nation-state: it demands an ever-expanding caliphate across much of the Muslim world. And alone among the parties, it has no major international or regional backing.

So why has the United States had such trouble building an anti-Daesh coalition? Because for most of the key players, the group is the second-highest priority. Turkey has no love for Daesh but is most concerned about the Kurds. Assad and his allies are focused on any rebels who could gain Western backing. The Saudis and Qataris are focused on removing Assad. The Kurds hate Daesh but are only interested in taking back their own territory from the group. Many Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis are horrified by Daesh but fear Damascus and Baghdad more.

Even after Daesh's heinous attacks against Lebanese, French, and Russian civilians, removing them should be the second step, not the first. By trying to take out Daesh first, America and its allies are asking the combatants to act against their interest and to shift their focus away from what they see as their primary foe. This cat-herding will likely produce modest results at best. It's one thing to get the Kurds to retake Sinjar, but another to get anyone to try to go to Raqqa.

Daesh's sadistic violence has been instrumental in creating the facts on the ground for the four-state solution, but the four-state solution would ironically prove its undoing. By resolving everyone else's main conflict, it would pave the way for a united anti-Daesh campaign that is impossible today.

Insisting on protecting Syria’s territorial integrity today makes no more sense than if the Dayton Accords had demanded Yugoslavia be put back together again.

How It Ends

This time, the people on the ground are drawing their own borders.

This time, the people on the ground are drawing their own borders.

  1. German satirical news site Der Postillon mocked the conference by claiming that the only Syrian in attendance was a refugee working as a waiter at the Imperial Hotel.

The Vienna talks, while laudable for finally getting Iran and Saudi Arabia in the same room, had one notable absence: Syrians themselves. This seems fitting, because while the Vienna statement reaffirmed Syria's territorial integrity, the actual parties on the ground are breaking it apart. Their tactics are drawing us increasingly near a four-state solution whether we like it or not, and whether the parties intend it or not. Insisting on protecting Syria's territorial integrity today makes no more sense than if the Dayton Accords had demanded Yugoslavia be put back together again.

No settlement will bring back the dead, undo the destruction, or erase communal distrust. No settlement can justify the tactic of deliberate population displacement. And four states will not immediately end the fighting: the Sunni state will have to liberate most of its territory from Daesh's clutches, for starters. But the four-state solution will lay the groundwork for a permanent and sustainable security architecture that has not previously existed in post-Ottoman times.

Best of all, it is a self-created, not imposed, solution. We, the self-described "international community," do not need to re-run Sykes-Picot and draw new borders for others. We must merely recognize the ones the parties are drawing right now through their violence. We don't need to Balkanize Syria and Iraq: Syria and Iraq are Balkanizing themselves.


This South Sudan peace deal is not going to work. Here's why.


This South Sudan peace deal is not going to work. Here's why.

The United States can force Salva Kiir to sign a peace deal, but can't make him like it.

The United States can force Salva Kiir to sign a peace deal, but can't make him like it.

Two days ago, after much wrangling, South Sudan President Salva Kiir — he's the one who famously wears that black cowboy hat President George W. Bush once gave him — finally signed a peace deal with his Vice President Riek Machar.

A bit of background: South Sudan is the world's newest nation and one of the poorest. Historically underdeveloped since British colonial times, it spent half a century fighting for independence from Sudan, and finally got it in 2011. In December 2013, a rivalry between Kiir and Machar spiraled into an ethnic civil war that's been going on ever since.

The conflict has been predictably awful for civilians, displacing 1.6 million of them. South Sudan's neighbors, Western donors, and the United Nations have been urging an end to hostilities since they began. Yesterday's deal isn't the first deal to end hostilities, it's at least the ninth. The previous eight fell apart within days, sometimes hours, and this one will almost certainly go the same way... possibly in the time it would take you to read the full text of it (72 pages) ... or even before I finish writing this.

So why aren't these peace deals working? Two reasons, both applicable to such agreements in general:


1. Outsiders can't want peace more than the parties do.

The South's neighbors have taken on hundreds of thousands of refugees. Americans and Europeans are fed up with funding the adventures of venal and narrow-minded leaders. The credibility of UN peacekeepers suffers every month this goes on. So everyone wants this war to end... except the parties, who have clearly been dragged kicking and screaming to peace

Signing the agreement Wednesday, Kiir said he felt the peace deal had been imposed on him and said it is flawed. Kiir said some aspects of the deal “are not in the interest of just and lasting peace. ... We had only one of the two options, the option of an imposed peace or the option of a continued war ... We are here talking about peace.”

Does that sounds like an enthusiastic statesman to you? Neither he, nor Machar, have held back on social media either.

When outside actors want peace more than the parties, the parties can exploit that desire to win concessions and commitments, but since the fundamental underlying issues between the parties have not been solved, they'll go back to war almost as soon as it suits them. This is not because they're inherently evil: they fight because they don't trust each other, think they can gain by fighting, and think they will lose by not doing so.

It's hard for international actors to provide the necessary guarantees to change that mindset. Neighbors, donors, and U.N. officials can play a useful role as mediators when the parties are exhausted by fighting but lack the trust to implement a deal themselves. But we're not there yet: both sides still clearly want to fight. In peacemaking, the old saying is arguably inverted: you can get the horse to drink only when it's made its way to the water on its own.


2. Spoilers.

Even if the parties wanted to agree, they're not united. Several generals for Machar have broken away and refused to accept the agreement. Their intransigence will likely give Kiir, who visibly dislikes the deal, reason to violate it. That will force Machar to react, and he's already rhetorically laying the groundwork for doing so:

While rebel and opposition leader Riek Machar is happy that Kiir signed the compromise agreement, the long list of reservations cited by Kiir signals “a lack of commitment,” said James Gatdet Dak, a spokesman for Machar. “(Machar) thinks these are unnecessary and he says these were discussed during the mediation ... so there is no need to bring them up again,” Dak told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Nairobi, Kenya.

Moreover, a bad peace deal can do more harm than good by giving the parties time to plot something even more sinister. The 1993 Arusha Accords in Rwanda were a classic example. Ill-conceived and indifferently enforced, they gave the political space, time, and incentive for Hutu Power to prepare the 1994 genocide. It would be tragic if something similar happened here.

When the parties don't want a deal, and can't unite enough to enforce it, a deal is unlikely to last. That doesn't mean international actors shouldn't try, but they should not seek an agreement purely for its own sake.


After the deal fails

The only reason this deal happened was because the parties were threatened with targeted sanctions and an arms embargo. Once the deal fails, those punishments will be back on the table at the United Nations Security Council.

  • Arms embargoes, especially on small arms and light weapons, are notoriously difficult to enforce, particularly in this region, but they still represent an annoyance and a stain on the credibility of a government that gets, and needs, a lot of foreign goodwill and aid.
  • Targeted bans, usually useless — does Omar al-Bashir really care that he can't visit the French Riviera? — may bother this particular crop of senior leaders more than most, since they've earned a reputation for being "slow talkers and hard drinkers" and for lavish spending in swank hotels.

Only when the conflict dynamics change, or when continued fighting does the political leadership more harm than good, will South Sudan have a stable peace.


The Moral Hazard of Helping, Part 1


The Moral Hazard of Helping, Part 1

Have you ever been playing the board game Risk, found that a competitor only has Iceland and Northern Europe, but has three risk cards coming next turn? What do you do? You wipe him off the map as quickly as possible, of course, before he has a chance to use them and become something more threatening.

Friday, we learned that the Nusra Front in Syria had attacked a U.S.-trained opposition group, known as Division 30. While U.S. officials seemed surprised by this development — "This wasn't supposed to happen like this," one former senior American official told the New York Times — they shouldn't have been. Nusra's motivations were clear, and they were pretty open about them. From the New York Times:

The Nusra Front said in a statement on Friday that its aim was to eliminate Division 30 before it could gain a deeper foothold in Syria. The Nusra Front did much the same last year when it smashed the main groups that had been trained and equipped in a different American effort, one run covertly by the C.I.A.

There are many reasons why supporting rebels in civil wars is deeply morally problematic, but one seldom-discussed reason is that doing so makes them targets. Division 30 might be small relative to other players, but its existence represents the interests of the most powerful nation on earth. Not surprisingly, the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra front would want to eliminate such a group as quickly as possible before it turns into something more threatening.


Iran as a normal country.


Iran as a normal country.

Now that the Iran nuclear deal appears -- finally -- to have come to fruition, let's consider the two main lines of criticism against it.

  1. Iran will still be able to pursue nuclear weapons covertly.
  2. Iran continues to sponsor malevolent actors in the region.

Others will tread every step of spare ground on the first question (though it's worth noting that it would be much more likely to happen anyway if there was no deal). So let's talk about the second.

Iran's litany of foreign policy transgressions is long, but in this millennium, it mostly consists of providing aid and materiel to various regional governments and militia groups that Iran is friendly with, usually Shia groups. (The current list is Iraq's government and militias, Syria's government, Lebanon's Hezbollah, and possibly Yemen's Houthis.)

Here's the problem with pillorying Iran for doing this: everybody in the region does this. And not just this region: supporting allies with shared values -- or at least shared enemies -- is what countries do in unstable regions. The Saudis do it. The Qataris do it. The Turks do it. The United States does it. In some cases, Washington and Tehran support the same people, or at least oppose the same people. Demanding that Iran not engage in this sort of behavior is effectively asking Iran to not behave like a country.

Power abhors a vacuum. Iraq, Syria, and Yemen have become vacuums since 2011. Most of the regional players have, in one way or another, been sucked in whether they wanted to be or not, and all of them have supported exactly who you'd expect. Saudi Arabia and Iran have predictably backed opposing sides in all three countries.

Iran is not fighting an ideological crusade for world domination, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have it. It wants regional influence just like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others do. Supporting proxies allows these players to project power without actually fighting each other directly. It's not pretty, but if that's "sponsoring terrorism," there's a lot of sponsoring terrorism in the world.

Yes, gradually lifting sanctions on Iran will give it more money to engage in its foreign policy. Iran will continue supporting the Assad government, Hezbollah's attempt to save the Assad government, and Iraq's battle against Islamic State. Any Iranian government, regardless of its ideology, would likely do these things: if it didn't, it would visibly cede regional influence to Ankara and Riyadh. Those who are against Iran supporting its allies aren't against Iran's nuclear program, they're against Iran as a country. As nuclear nonproliferation expert Aaron Stein told Max Fisher,

If you want it to focus on the problems with Iran running around in Iraq or Syria, this deal is not for you. If you are focused on the nuclear issue specifically, it’s a very good deal.

So when we consider whether this Iran deal is a good one or a bad one, let's judge it by what it says on the tin: will it prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon? If it does that, it's a good deal. If it doesn't, it's not a good deal. A nuclear weapons-free Iran pursuing its regional interests would be pretty much what everyone says they want Iran to be: a normal country.


There's a reason why the U.N. can't stop countries from falling apart. That's not what it's for.


There's a reason why the U.N. can't stop countries from falling apart. That's not what it's for.

David Rohde's new piece in The Atlantic begins:

Twenty years after the world body failed to stop two genocides, it’s still struggling with how to enforce its most basic mandate: protecting people.

But here's the thing about the United Nations: it's most basic mandate is not to protect people... at least not directly. Its most basic mandate is to "maintain international peace and security," or, put another way, to prevent war between states.

That's not surprising: when the U.N. was founded in 1945, international aggression was on everyone's minds. And though we often forget it, the system does what it's supposed to: direct, hot wars between states have become exceedingly rare. Instead, we have internal rebellions, proxy wars, and insurgencies. The U.N. isn't really built to deal with these, for three understandable reasons.

1) The U.N. respects the sovereignty of states. Because Russia and China trot out the word "sovereignty" so often to defend abusive regimes, the word itself has become befouled. It shouldn't be. Respect for sovereign borders undergirds the long peace we've enjoyed since the U.N.'s founding. Territorial conquest in the 21st century is so rare that we're shocked when it happens. Russia's seizure of Crimea was the first time a great power annexed territory by force in more than half a century.

The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council can veto anything. If any two disagree on, say, Syria, the Council is paralyzed.

The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council can veto anything. If any two disagree on, say, Syria, the Council is paralyzed.

2) The U.N. respects great powers. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the U.S., U.K., Russia, China, and France) can veto anything, so the U.N. is powerless to act if any two of them fundamentally disagree. But this isn't a bad thing either: the Council reflects geopolitical reality, so its weakness is also its strength. The very dynamic that makes the Security Council unable to act on Syria allows it to impose sanctions on Iran; secure a just electoral result in Cote d'Ivoire; mediate Kenya's post-election violence; and keep Cypriots from warring. If you can get all five permanent members to agree on something, it has power and legitimacy you can't get anywhere else. (Also, if there were no veto, Washington and Moscow, at minimum, would have walked away a long time ago, rendering the U.N. irrelevant.)

3. The U.N. doesn't like to take sides. This is a good thing as well, because impartiality is critical to the organization's legitimacy. U.N. peacekeeping is at its best when combatants are tired of war but don't trust each other enough to create peace. Blue helmets are pretty good at keeping a peace that couldn't exist without them... but very bad at making a peace by defeating one or more combatants. Sending U.N. or U.N.-authorized troops to be a proxy army in Somalia (see: AMISOM) or to help a dubious national army defeat equally dubious rebels (see: MONUSCO) sullies the U.N.'s impartiality and generally doesn't work, since U.N. troops are usually less well-armed and less motivated than in-country combatants. (It also means that, increasingly, U.N. forces are deliberately targeted. On many battlefields, they are now, often rightly, viewed as favoring one side over another.) U.N. troops are pointless when they're just another shark at a feeding frenzy.

It's not satisfying, as we mark the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica, to consider why the United Nations is still ill-prepared to stop another Srebrenica, but it's important. Because the U.N. is built first and foremost to keep the peace between states, it struggles when those states fall apart. But I'm not sure we'd want it any other way.