The Moral Hazard of Helping, Part 1

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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.

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Iran as a normal country.

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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.

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

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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.

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Russia Vetoes Srebrenica Resolution at Security Council

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Russia Vetoes Srebrenica Resolution at Security Council

Russia today vetoed a resolution that would have described Srebrenica as genocide. Never mind stopping genocides, the Council can't even name ones that have already happened. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, well, you can sorta guess how she reacted:

You may wonder why Moscow chose this, of all hills, to die on. In its own words, here's why:

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin on Wednesday called the UK-drafted text “not constructive, confrontational and politically-motivated,” arguing that it unfairly singled out Bosnian Serbs for war crimes.

”The draft that we have in front of us will not help peace in the Balkans but rather doom this region to tension,” Churkin told the council meeting that began with a minute of silence to remember the victims

But here's another question: why was the Security Council considering this resolution at all? Srebrenica was a dark moment for the U.N., but commemorating historical crimes and tragedies is generally the job of monuments, museums, and the General Assembly. It's highly unusual for the Council to formally call something a genocide—they usually, at most, authorize a commission to do such things—and could also have had legal consequences. Per the BBC:

A UN tribunal at The Hague has already convicted numerous people of genocide in relation to the Srebrenica killings, but a formal recognition by the UN could compel individual states to pursue prosecutions.

In the end, we are left with the eternal justice-or-peace question. Srebrenica today, like much of Bosnia, is divided and still tense. Whether or not this resolution would have helped or hurt, as usual, depends on who you ask.

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Actually, partition is a less terrible idea for fixing Iraq than all the others.

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Actually, partition is a less terrible idea for fixing Iraq than all the others.

Max Fisher wrote recently on Vox that partitioning countries is seldom pleasant. He also reluctantly posited that in Iraq today, it may be the least bad option.

Why the reluctance? Partitioning countries along ethnic or sectarian lines is, historically, the way most viable nation-states have been made. To see why, consider two outcomes from the last time a country broke apart into several: Yugoslavia.

 

Serbia and Croatia

The Balkan Wars effectively tipped off when Croatia tried to secede, and a majority-Serb region of Croatia -- the Krajina -- counter-seceded. The central question of the ensuing war was: "Will there be a Croatia, and if so, what will its borders be?"

The Croats settled this question by winning. In 1995, they conquered the Krajina and evicted nearly everyone in it. It wasn't pretty, but it was decisive and everyone knew it. Two decades on, the countries live peacefully side by side, with Croatia in the EU and Serbia angling to join. Compare that with this:

 

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia was the most polyglot of Yugoslavia's seven states, and the site of its most infamous massacre during the war. Today's it's an internationally-midwifed, multi-ethnic society... but it's also divided and unworkable. Its citizens mostly live in different regions, threaten to secede often, vote along ethnic lines, and have parallel administrative structures. Their government is among the world's most complicated and least productive. A senior Balkan diplomat once told me that "Bosnia was only put on the U.N. Security Council [in 2010-11] to keep it from splitting up."

Bosnia now depends on indefinite international stewardship. That can work for a small country of 3.8 million in a stable neighborhood, but for a sprawling nation of 33 million in the heart of the Middle East, it cannot.

 

The results of Iraq's December 2005 elections just happen to line up neatly with what its future borders might look like.

So what does this mean for Iraq?

At this point, a united Iraq would, at best, work like Bosnia does. In other words, it wouldn't. A partitioned Iraq, properly configured, would work like Croatia and Serbia do -- unpleasantly created, but viable and peaceful in the long term. More importantly, nearly all the concerns Fisher raises about partition will be worse if Iraq stays together than if it doesn't.


Partition won't internationalize the conflict

It's not true, as is commonly said, that partitions internationalize a conflict: unfinished partitions do. Pakistan-India, Israel-Palestine, and Sudan-South Sudan never agreed on borders, meaning that unresolved intrastate problems became interstate problems. In Iraq today, "Should there be an Kurdistan?" is therefore less of a threat to peace than "Who gets Kirkuk?"

Croatia demonstrated the most effective way around this problem: create indisputable facts on the ground. This is done by conquering territory and expelling unwanted minorities, and like it or not, the parties are already doing this in Iraq. The longer the outside world waits, the more ruthlessly effective this process will be.


Partition won't worsen life for minorities

In the short term, minorities suffer hugely in partitions, often being forcibly displaced in large numbers. But this is already true in a united Iraq: UNHCR estimates more than 3.5 million Iraqis are internally displaced. Long term, a clear partition removes the existential fear of other groups, encouraging moderation. Five years after the committing the largest act of European ethnic cleansing since World War II, Croatia, now secure in its own borders, invited all displaced Serbs home. (Half returned.) Serbia, meanwhile, overthrew its strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who died in the Hague.


Partition will require less, not more, of America

A united Iraq appears to require a permanent (and unwanted) American presence, but a divided one would not. Washington would need only the capability to repulse an overt attack by one state against another, something it's pretty good at doing.


Partition will discourage Saudi-Iranian power jockeying

A united but weak Iraq almost forces Iran and Saudi Arabia to compete for influence, with ruinous results. By contrast, a clearly defined partition, particularly between the Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab regions, would also yield clearly defined spheres of influence, leaving the regional heavyweights with nothing to fight over.


Partition is happening anyway

With the Kurds increasingly making a play for national liberationSunni conquerors breaking on the rocks of Shiite regions and vice versa, an Iraqi (and possibly Syrian) breakup looks more likely by the day. Letting the parties get there on their own is better, both morally and strategically, than helping one side crush the others to save an arbitrarily-created state that has never shown it can be governed well.

The history of partitions is fraught, but an Iraqi future modeled on Croatia and Serbia is viable. A future modeled on Bosnia and Herzegovina is not. Partition is the least bad option. It may be the only good option.

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Sovereign Outcomes

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Sovereign Outcomes

Sovereign outcomes is a theory of international affairs and conflict management. It posits that to end conflicts, one must, in one way or another, definitively define and defend who controls what, thus removing any reason for fighting. This theory can predict, among other things, when and how conflicts may end, and whether foreign interventions in conflicts will work.

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