The Skeptics

Is the Mexican Government Going Easy on the Sinaloa Drug Cartel?

The Skeptics

One curious feature has emerged in the Mexican government’s four-year-old offensive against the country’s murderous drug cartels. Some trafficking organizations seem to be in the crosshairs of the authorities more than others. One gang in particular appears to have suffered far less damage than any of its competitors. David Shirk, the director of the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute, notes that the Mexican government has delivered significant blows over the past few years to seven of the country’s eight most prominent cartels. Shirk speculates that the eighth, largely unscathed group, the Sinaloa cartel, might now become utterly dominant, especially in western and northwestern Mexico. If that occurs, he believes that it might actually prove beneficial by reducing the bloody power struggles that have so convulsed the country.

Since the beginning of 2009, the Beltrán-Leyva cartel seems to be the government’s primary target–by a wide margin. But we’ve seen that pattern of focusing on a single gang or a small number of gangs before. In the late 1990s and the early 2000s, federal authorities directed most of their efforts against the Arellano-Félix organization in Tijuana and weakened that once-powerful organization badly. The interesting question is why officials seem to zero-in on one gang of traffickers, while devoting less attention—sometimes much less attention—to certain competitors. In the late 1990s, the reason for that disparity was simple: Mexico’s drug czar was on the payroll of a competing cartel.

It is uncertain whether similar corrupt motives are in play on this occasion. But whatever the reason, the damage to other cartels, and especially the recent devastation of the Beltrán-Leyva faction, has worked to the definite advantage of the Sinaloa cartel. That also was true of the earlier offensive against the Tijuana organization.

A May 2010 National Public Radio report highlights the extent to which the Sinaloa group has benefited from the disparate treatment. And the apparent reasons certainly should create a great deal of uneasiness. An investigative team headed by veteran correspondent John Burnett found “strong evidence of collusion between elements of the Mexican army and the Sinaloa cartel,” especially in Juárez, a major trafficking portal and the epicenter of the drug-related violence. That conclusion was based on dozens of interviews with current and former law enforcement officials, elected representatives, victims of violence, and outside experts.

Arrest statistics that NPR compiled reinforce suspicions about a government bias in favor of Sinaloa leader El Chapo Guzmán and his organization. Since December 2006, authorities have arrested several thousand mid-and high-level cartel members. The greatest percentage (44 percent) of those arrested come from the Gulf-Zeta operation, both when those factions were united and after their split in 2009. La Familia comes in second with 15 percent, followed by the Beltrán-Leyva group with 13 percent. The Sinaloa and Tijuana cartels follow with 12 percent each, and the damaged and fading Juárez cartel brings up the rear with a mere five percent.

The Sinaloa total stands out as strikingly low. Virtually every credible expert considers the Gulf and Sinaloa organizations the most powerful trafficking operations. Yet, the number of arrests of Sinaloa operatives is just a little more than one-fourth of Gulf-Zeta total. More members of the smaller Beltrán-Leyva gang have been arrested, and the now much smaller and weaker Tijuana remnant is in a virtual tie with the Sinaloa cartel. The disparity involving the Beltrán-Leyva cartel has undoubtedly grown since the NPR report, given the number of high-profile arrests of that group’s leaders in recent months. It is also a little unsettling that the Beltrán-Leyva faction had split off from the Sinaloa cartel, and that defection and resulting competition was especially threatening to Guzmán and his henchmen. Whether intentionally or not, the Mexican government’s near obsession with taking down the Beltrán-Leyva gang is benefiting the Sinaloa leadership and the cartel’s overall position in the drug trade.

Statistics involving arrests in Chihuahua, a key front-line state in the drug war, given the massive violence in Ciudad Juárez, produce an even greater cloud of suspicion. NPR studied police and military press releases announcing the apprehension of drug gang members between March 2008 and May 2010. Since the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels have been the primary combatants in the war to control the lucrative drug trade through Juárez, it would be reasonable to expect a similar number of arrests involving each faction. Yet nothing of the sort has occurred. Eighty-eight Juárez cartel members were taken into custody. The Sinaloa cartel? A paltry 16. That massive disparity reeks of government favoritism.

The government of President Felipe Calderón of course vehemently denies any softness toward the Sinaloa cartel. The administration is not about to admit that Guzmán may be more skillful than his rivals in bribing federal police and military officials. But the most benign interpretation of the huge disparity, both nationally and in Chihuahua, is that Calderón and his advisers have decided to go after either the most violent or the most vulnerable organizations, and that the Sinaloa cartel does not stand out in either category. The Zetas and La Familia are more appealing targets, given the first standard. The Tijuana, Juárez, and Beltrán-Leyva groups might be better targets based on the second standard. A less benign interpretation is that the Sinaloa cartel has the authorities in its pocket, just as some of its predecessors did in the 1980s and 1990s with previous administrations in Mexico City.

At a minimum, the Mexican government owes both its own people and Washington (which is funding much of the anti-drug campaign) an explanation about why such a disparity of treatment that benefits the Sinaloa cartel continues.

Image (c) Bokske on Wikimedia Commons

TopicsSecurity RegionsMexico

Explaining America and Pakistan’s Troubling Mutual Dependence (and Hostility)

The Skeptics

As Americans begin to question the efficacy of interfering politically (via aid) in Egypt, recent unrest in Pakistan highlights other troublesome dynamics that emerge with the dispersal of U.S. foreign aid.

Last month, U.S. citizen and government employee Raymond Davis shot and killed two armed Pakistani men whom he thought were trying to rob him. U.S. officials claim that Davis is a diplomatic employee (despite not having a diplomatic visa) and that his detention violates the Geneva Convention. Pakistan disagrees. It certainly does not help matters when the U.S. Consulate vehicle summoned to the scene by Davis drove the wrong way down a one way street, killing a motorcyclist and then speeding away. Even worse, The Express Tribune (with the International Herald Tribune) reported that Pakistani prosecutors recommended that Davis be charged with espionage after police retrieved photographs of sensitive areas and defense installations from his camera. Adding to existing outrage is news that the widow of one of Davis’s victims recently committed suicide.

The diplomatic chasm that has opened between Islamabad and Washington might grow even larger. A senior delegation of U.S. lawmakers flew to Pakistan demanding the release of Davis, threatening that $1.5 billion of annual assistance for Pakistan may be at risk as well as a $7.5 billion, five-year civilian aid package. When asked if aid would be at risk if Davis stayed in custody, U.S. Representative Buck McKeon (R-CA), who heads the House Armed Services Committee, said: “It very well could be.” And U.S. Representative John Kline (R-MN) said it was imperative that Pakistan release Davis and that there may be repercussions otherwise.

Pakistani authorities are terrified of what will happen if they cave to American pressures. They fear, justifiably so, that not detaining Davis will spark a public backlash. Imagine for a moment if the situation were reversed: rather than in Lahore, this incident happened in New York, and rather than an American shooting two Pakistanis it was a Pakistani who shot and killed two Americans in broad daylight. The zeitgeist would put last year’s “Ground Zero mosque” debate to shame. A 24-hour cable news media firestorm would erupt; U.S. officials would consider it an act of domestic terrorism; New York and other major American cities would be on lock down; and American Muslims would be subject to even more popular criticism then they are now.

All of this is not to say that Mr. Davis is in the wrong. Innocent until proven guilty is the motto America lives by, even though it is not always the principle it champions. However, we also must consider how we would react if the situation were flipped: would U.S. officials not also feel public pressure to detain a Pakistani who killed two American citizens, regardless of diplomatic immunity? Would Washington bend to Islamabad’s will? What if Pakistan threatened to stop assisting America’s war in neighboring Afghanistan?

As I have written before, America’s dependence on Pakistan constrains the usefulness of its support. Islamabad and Washington’s troubling mutual dependence makes it so that each country must rely on the other whether or not their long-term interests are best served by the partnership. It’s a hostile coexistence that underscores one of the many—and there are a lot of them—problems with U.S. foreign aid.

The United States is Pakistan’s largest provider of military and economic assistance. Though this gives leaders in Washington some degree of leverage over Islamabad, aid is in no way harmless. Aside from ignoring the role of traditional elites—in that foreign aid keeps established political institutions not only in power but also unaccountable—foreign countries receiving U.S. foreign aid become sensitive to the possibility that that aid could be used as a punitive weapon to impose implicit and explicit pressures. After all, when times are good, U.S. officials crow about the altruism of aid, but when times are bad, they threaten to take aid away.

Naturally, injured dignities breed a palpable sense of resentment toward the United States. But U.S. policymakers have yet to internalize what dumping mounds of cash into a country does to Washington’s relationship with the country (or vassal) in question. Perhaps even worse, U.S. policymakers have yet to internalize what it does to the relationship between foreign leaders and their citizens who, thanks to foreign aid, inevitably devolve into subjects.

TopicsForeign AidSecurity RegionsEgyptPakistan

Mubarak and Egypt: Latest Chapter of a Flawed U.S. Policy

The Skeptics

Demonstrators packed Tahrir Sqaure in Cairo again Tuesday, with several thousand marching on the Egyptian Parliament. The common narrative in the media is that the rapidly evolving situation has left the Obama administration struggling to put forth a coherent and consistent message. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times reports that the administration is now taking its foot off the gas pedal, calling for gradual reform rather than a swift implementation of democracy.

Yet when Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman stated he did not think the country was ready for democracy or that lifting the emergency law was a smart move, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was quick to fire back:

…the notion that Egypt isn’t ready for democracy I think runs quite counter to what we see happening in Tahrir Square and on the streets in cities throughout the country of Egypt.


It’s clear that statements like that are not going to be met with any agreement by the people of Egypt because they don’t address the very legitimate grievances that we’ve seen expressed as a result of these protests.

The current policy crisis facing the Obama administration stems in many ways from Washington’s support for Mubarak’s autocratic rule over the past 30 years. The United States has long counted him as our staunchest ally in the Arab world. But as history has shown, U.S. support for authoritarian rulers in client states often does not turn out in our favor. Today in Politico, I have an op-ed that explores this history and warns of the possible repercussions from the current crisis in Egypt for the United States:

U.S. policymakers over the decades have been far too promiscuous about the need for relationships with such leaders. The downside of the cynical strategy is that when long-suffering populations finally cast off their oppressive rulers, they may direct their anger at the United States for having sponsored those regimes.

We have been lucky that hostile responses have not occurred in every nation where a dictatorial U.S. client has been overthrown. And so far in both Egypt and Tunisia, anti-Americanism has not been a prominent feature of the demonstrations.

One hopes that our luck holds. But the latest turbulence should be a reminder to U.S. policymakers to hold even supposedly friendly tyrants at arm’s length rather than enthusiastically embracing them.

Click here to read the full op-ed.

TopicsAutocracyDemocracyGrand StrategySecurity RegionsEgypt

Fear and Exhilaration in America

The Skeptics

Chaos in Cairo’s streets has wrecked Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. The collapse of any dictatorship should please Americans. One of the world’s most durable dictators is being tossed into history’s dustbin. However, the process in Egypt has only started. The most difficult question always is how any so-called revolution ends. Tragically, revolts against repressive regimes often lead to even greater tyranny: consider the French, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian revolutions. The American experience to the contrary is almost unique in history.

Moreover, Mubarak long has been a key Washington ally. U.S. policymakers used to “doing business” with his regime fear that any government arising from the street will be more hostile to America, as well as Israel, which seems to matter almost as much to many U.S. policy-makers. For instance, potential GOP presidential candidate Michael Huckabee lamented that the Obama administration had done too little to support Egypt’s dictator. Yet Uncle Sam today is little more than an interested bystander in Egypt. The Obama administration has stumbled along, first standing by Mubarak, then issuing platitudes about reform, and finally pressing for a peaceful “transition.” But Washington’s opinion simply doesn’t matter much. Observed Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “neither the protestors nor the government are relying on signals from the United States.”

The Egyptian crowds seeking to oust Mubarak have no interest in what the U.S. desires. Indeed, many were angered by the administration’s original refusal, highlighted by Vice President Joe Biden’s reluctance to call Mubarak a dictator, to stand by the Egyptian people. Washington’s popular reputation, already low, fell even further. Alterman warned: “I don’t think there’s anything the U.S. can say or do that would change” the perception of U.S. backing for the Mubarak government.

Regime elites, including top commanders in the army, may care more about Washington’s opinion, but survival is their first priority. Gamal Mubarak, Hosni’s son and one-time presumed heir, is not the only member of the ruling establishment reported to flee overseas. Indeed, for members of the regime to stay in Cairo is to risk life as well as any ill-gotten gains. Unfortunately, the U.S. has no good options. Washington has been attempting to influence events in Egypt for decades. Once an ally of the Soviet Union, Cairo shifted to America’s side and made peace with Israel. Mubarak promoted U.S. foreign policy objectives in return for American acquiescence in his oppressive policies at home as well as bribes thinly disguised as aid, about $60 billion worth over the past three decades.

Long identified with Mubarak, Washington needs to try to separate itself from his regime and demonstrate that it cares more for the hopes of Egypt’s people than the power of Egypt’s elite. Even the Bush administration never pushed its celebrated support for democracy very hard, preferring perceived stability to opening a possible Islamic Pandora’s Box. The Obama administration has only been slowly edging in the democratic direction, worrying about future of authoritarian allies in Jordan, Yemen, and elsewhere. However, going further and attempting to promote particular individuals or factions is likely to be counterproductive. Having chosen wrong for so long, Washington is unlikely to choose right this time. U.S. policymakers have never demonstrated the necessary knowledge, foresight, and wisdom. More important, the U.S. government has no credibility even if anyone in Cairo was inclined to listen to those who previously embraced Mubarak so tightly. In Lebanon Druze leader Walid Jumblatt recently joined with Hezbollah to oust the government backed by Washington. He observed: “Why should we follow American advice in the name of democracy? They have nothing to teach us when they have supported dictators.” In Egypt today U.S. backing would be more likely to discredit than advantage friendly politicians. Thus, the Obama administration has little choice but to watch from Egypt’s sidelines, while preparing to deal with whatever replaces the Mubarak regime. Much ink has been spilled on Egypt’s alleged geopolitical importance. However that country matters far less today than during the Cold War.

Having an allied government in Cairo is helpful, not vital. A new government might reduce or end anti-terrorism cooperation, though even a government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood would be unlikely to support attacks on the U.S. If a radical regime closed the Suez Canal it would risk dooming itself by cutting foreign revenue needed to pacify an angry population.

Some Americans worry about Israel, placing concern for its security on par or even above that of America. For instance, Michael Huckabee, in Israel to celebrate construction of another illegal settlement on Palestinian territory, cited “real shock and surprise down to the average, on-the-street Israeli citizen at how quickly the Obama administration abandoned a 30-year-ally.” But if a new Egyptian government was foolish enough to attack Israel Cairo likely would become another occupied territory—and perhaps home to its own Israeli settlements, also to be promoted by Huckabee.

Thus, while adapting current policies towards fast-moving events in Egypt, the Obama administration should begin a longer-term transformation. The U.S. government should back away from attempting to micro-manage politics in Egypt or other foreign nations. Americans should support democracy and a liberal society in the best sense of the word. But U.S. officials should not be in the business of attempting to bolster or oust even authoritarian governments.

Washington has a long history of supporting foreign thugs to advance perceived geopolitical interests. Sometimes horrible choices must be made, such as allying with Joseph Stalin against Adolf Hitler. In most cases, however, the interests being advanced are not worth the moral price of underwriting brutal repression.

For instance, former Reagan official Daniel Oliver declared: “however great the interest of the Egyptian people in their own freedom and human rights, it is eclipsed, even if they don’t realize it, by the national security interest of the United States.” It is hard to imagine what cause short of national survival could warrant Americans keeping the Egyptian people in chains for the benefit of America.

And such a policy would ensure enduring hostility, since the Egyptian people would be unlikely to view their “freedom and human rights” as mere incidentals to be tossed aside at Washington’s behest. Thus, even when the U.S. government is successful in buying authoritarian friends, it inevitably makes enemies, many of whom have long memories.

When such regimes ultimately collapse, as in Iran, the results are not pretty. Tehran now is perhaps Washington’s global enemy number one, a predictable outgrowth of Washington’s quarter century of support for the Shah’s despotic rule. The U.S. faces a similar threat in Egypt.

Attempting to forcibly reform, or even overthrow, repressive regimes is more satisfying morally. But the outcome is not necessarily more positive. It is far easier to blow up a society than put it back together. Look at Iraq, 200,000 civilian deaths after America’s ill-considered invasion. The Mubarak government long has used the threat of Islamic radicalism in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood to win U.S. support. That possibility seems exaggerated, but it illustrates a real dilemma: democracy often yields regimes hostile to Washington. The U.S. government pressed for elections in the Palestinian territories, which propelled Hamas to power in the Gaza Strip in 2006. Washington then refused to recognize the result, adding hypocrisy to stupidity. U.S. policy in Lebanon has similarly run aground on the shoal of Hezbollah’s popularity.

And abrupt changes of regime are more likely to result in violence and repression. While Washington should not oppose democratic movements even if they seem less likely to promote U.S. geopolitical interests, the U.S. government should not actively spur revolution. American policymakers lack the wisdom, as well as practical control over events once set in motion, necessary for any attempt at social engineering in other societies. Washington simply doesn’t know how to get there or even where “there” is. That certainly is the case in Egypt, where possible outcomes include direct military rule, domination by Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a reformulated authoritarian regime, or real democracy. The fact that most Americans presumably would prefer the latter does not mean the U.S. government can make it happen.

Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, said the U.S. “must do a better job of encouraging democracy” in the Middle East. But how? There is much discussion about what “we” should do. But this assumes an illusory world in which Washington can simply tell everyone else what to do.

Even in pushing for the liberal ideal American officials risk doing more harm than good. Washington likely will be blamed for whatever results. Notes Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group: “Every time we open our mouths, it runs a risk of hurting the objective we’re pursuing.” Better for the U.S. government to disengage, leaving Egypt’s course in the hands of Egyptians. Advocate respect for human rights and democracy, and then shut up. The less said by Washington about what the U.S. government desires, the better. 

The Egyptian people deserve liberation. Unfortunately, history suggests that it will take more than street demonstrations to create a free society. Rather than attempt to dictate outcomes in foreign nations, Washington should recognize the limitations on its ability to influence events, and even more important, to influence events positively. Americans outside of government can do more to promote the principles of liberty and the national culture in which those principles are most likely to ultimately flourish. We all would benefit if the U.S. adopted the sort of “humble” foreign policy that President George W. Bush originally advocated.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon)

TopicsAutocracyDemocracySecurity RegionsEgypt

The GOP’s Military Spending “Cuts” That Aren’t

The Skeptics

On Thursday, House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced spending levels for the remainder of the 2011 Fiscal Year. Under the plan, discretionary spending would be cut by $74 billion, and security spending—defense, homeland security, and other related agencies—would be cut by $16 billion.

At first glance, this seems like a minor victory for deficit hawks. While the amount of security spending cut is still not close to the reductions Christopher Preble, Benjamin Friedman, and others propose, or anywhere near the $100 billion in discretionary spending cuts the GOP proposed in its “Pledge to America,” it is a start. But let’s be clear: the Federal deficit is projected to be $1.5 trillion this year. In no way does $74 billion dollars in cuts address this problem.

And in fact, it’s not even $74 billion. As multiple outlets have correctly reported—reports Ryan’s office continue to deny—the amount of discretionary spending cuts, based on current spending levels, is only $32 billion and security spending will receive an $8 billion increase, not including funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This discrepancy is due to the GOP proposal counting savings against Obama’s FY 2011 budget, which was never enacted, and thus is not the current spending level. The current spending levels are in place via a continuing resolution that sustains the FY 2010 budget, plus inflation, until March 4. And so, the GOP’s numbers are based on a bit of trickery. Although Republicans promised to bring spending back to FY 2008 levels, they miss the mark by $123 billion in discretionary spending, while their plan for funding security-related functions is $81 billion higher than FY 2008.

As Benjamin Friedman explained a few weeks ago, Rep. Ryan, as Budget Committee Chairman, has the power to single-handedly set the top-line mark for the federal budget. But the levels he proposes for departments and agencies are little more than recommendations; they are not binding. The appropriations committees actually distribute the money. Because of this, it is difficult to say where actual cuts may come from and who the winners and losers will be. And the $8 billion increase for security is not yet set in stone.

Fiscal conservatives will likely have the chance to offer amendments to Ryan’s proposal when the next continuing resolution comes to the House floor—necessary before March 4 to avoid a government shutdown. The amendments could have a substantial impact on the top-line, possibly aiming for the promised amount of $100 billion, if members of the Republican Study Committee, which includes about two-thirds of the House, get their way.

So, there is still hope that the GOP will realize that it can’t keep military spending off the table when searching for budget cuts. They should heed the calls of the many conservative heavyweights that have come out in favor of cutting military spending, including the president of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist. In a Cato Hill Briefing on January 19, Grover, along with Christopher Preble and Benjamin Friedman of the Cato Institute discussed the need for the 112th Congress to get serious about reigning in the deficit and stop providing a free pass to the Pentagon.  The remarks have just been posted online and you can find them here.

TopicsCongressDefensePolitics RegionsUnited States

Washington and the Political Opposition in Egypt

The Skeptics

 The Wall Street Journal (subscription may be required) reports that “a spectrum of opposition figures banded together to plan an alternative vision” to Mubarak’s regime well before the protests erupted last week. This advanced planning, which included “dozens of meetings lasting more than 100 hours” enabled the opposition to present a unified front. The shadow legislature’s 10-person steering committee quickly coalesced behind a single individual – Mohamed ElBaradei – to be the point person in negotiations with government. But the true power in Egypt is reflected in the parties and interest groups represented on that steering committee.

The Journal published the names and affiliations of the committee’s members in a helpful side bar:

  1. Mohamed ElBaradei: Former head of International Atomic Energy Agency, leader of Egypt's National Association for Change
  2. Mohammad Baltagi: Head of Muslim Brotherhood bloc of lawmakers from 2005 to 2010
  3. Hamdeen Sabahy: Head of the Karama Party, a secular, left-wing Arab Nationalist party
  4. Abdel Galil Mustafa: The coordinator for the National Association for Change, Mr. ElBaradei's group
  5. Mahmoud Al-Khudairi: Former vice president of Egypt's appeals court
  6. George Ishaq: Former head of the Kefaya protest movement, which led the protest against President Mubarak in 2005
  7. Abdel Ezz Hariri: Formerly of Tegammu, a secular leftist party
  8. Ayman Nour: Head of the liberal secular Ghad party. Ran against Mubarak in 2005 elections
  9. Magdy Ahmed Hussein: Head of the pro-Islamist Labor Party
  10. Osama Ghazali Harb: A former member of Mubarak's ruling NDP and Mubarak family confidant; left the party and founded the secular and liberal National Democratic Front. Editor in chief of Siyasat Dowlia, an Egyptian journal on international affairs


(The steering committee also included several youth groups, each of which was asked to send 3-5 members to the committee.)

It would be logical for readers to ask: Who among this list of names would we most like to see emerge as the next leader in Egypt? And what, if anything, can and should Washington do to make that happen?

I have a different question: Might it be better to avoid micromanaging Egyptians politics altogether?

Whenever a crisis ensues, in any country in the world, there will always be a hue and cry for the president to do something. This ignores the fact that many of these crises have nothing to do with the United States, and therefore that the United States has no obvious role in resolving them. Such cries for intervention also ignore the possibility that heavy-handed U.S. government involvement in the internal politics of foreign states often makes bad situations worse.

In this particular case, it is not true that Washington has no role to play in Egyptian politics. The U.S. government’s three-decade long support of the Egyptian government, especially the provision of tens of billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer-funded aid, implicates Washington in all that that government does. Even when U.S. officials complain about a lack of political opportunity, the corruption that stifles economic development, or gross violations of basic human rights, such criticisms will inevitably fall short for those who are on the receiving end of these injustices.

But Washington’s “do something” impulse seems to be overpowering common sense. Having backed the wrong person for too long, there is now a countervailing urge to correct our past error by backing the “right” person this time around.

I have a different idea. We should step back and consider that our close relationship with Mubarak over the years created a vicious cycle, one that inclined us to cling tighter and tighter to him as opposition to him grew. And as the relationship deepened, U.S. policy seems to have become nearly paralyzed by the fear that the building anger at Mubarak’s regime would inevitably be directed at us.

We can’t undo our past policies of cozying up to foreign autocrats (the problem extends well beyond Egypt) over the years. And we won’t make things right by simply shifting --or doubling or tripling -- U.S. foreign aid to a new leader. We should instead be open to the idea that an arms-length relationship might be the best one of all.


Image (c) Carlos Latuff

TopicsSecurity RegionsEgypt

The Inanity of “Butting Out” of Egypt

The Skeptics

Some commentators have argued that the United States should abstain from taking sides in Egypt’s unfolding political crisis. What a curious and ill-informed line of thinking.

Since 1979, the United States has provided Egypt with an annual average of $2 billion in economic and military foreign assistance—that totals more than $60 billion over the last 30 years. Newsflash: the United States is already involved. From NBC’s Richard Engel:

Most Egyptians see the United States as having stood solidly by President Mubarak while the government here grew more and more corrupt. And they see the Americans as complicit in it. And just today, for example, when we were out on streets this is what a lot of people were showing us about American involvement. If you can see in my hands this is one of the tear gas canisters and very clearly written in English on it, it says "Made in the USA by Combined Tactical Systems from Jamestown, Pennsylvania.” And they say this is the kind of support that the United States has been giving to the Egyptian government and bears some responsibility, although today it is trying to say that it never backed Mubarak so much, it has been calling for reforms for a long time, Egyptians don't see it that way.

TopicsDemocracyForeign AidSecurity RegionsEgypt

Walt's Ideas on Bad Ideas

The Skeptics

Steve Walt has a good essay in Foreign Policy on the success of bad foreign policy ideas in the United States. I agree with his conclusion that “vigorous, unfettered” debate increases societal wisdom. But Walt doesn’t fully appreciate the central role salesmanship and BS play in a pluralist democracy like ours. He clings to the notion that bad ideas cause bad policy. In reality, it’s more the other way.

Walt deftly summarizes structural realism’s take on the marketplace of the ideas. John Stuart Mill gave us that concept. He thought that liberalism’s protection of free speech would allow the best ideas to outperform the worst, meaning that liberal democracies would produce more truth than non-democracies, learn faster from mistakes, and ultimately have smarter policies. The dean of structural realism, Ken Waltz, long ago pointed out that this habit of self-evaluation should make liberal democracies more attuned to the requirements of success in international policies than other states. That insight provoked a program of quantitative research, which argued that democracies win a higher percentage of their wars than non-democracies. One explanation for this (not uncontroversial) finding is that debate and dissent make democracies liable to choose wars that they can win. To many structural realists, folly in liberal states’ foreign policy comes not from the intrusion of domestic politics into foreign policy making but from the pathologies that impede domestic debates about foreign policy.

Walt mentions several such impediments. Taboos and national ideologies dissuade people from criticizing some policies. The wealth and safety enjoyed by powerful states, like the United States, limit the consequences of bad foreign policies, preventing the state from learning from its errors. Secrecy and the dominant role executives play in providing information about security matters prevent real debate about many issues. Domestic interest groups hijack foreign policy, dominating debate and shrouding their parochial interests in the nation’s.

The last explanation for bad ideas shows the article’s trouble. Walt writes that “this problem with self-interested individuals and groups interfering in the policy process appears to be getting worse.” That sentence carries the quixotic and undemocratic assumption that there once existed another kind of policy-making process, one free of self-interested actors, where all participants honestly argued in service of the national interest, and that those halcyon days can be restored. But a marketplace of ideas without self-interested groups and actors would be one robbed of the lion’s share of intellectual capital. Self-interest is the engine of policy-making in democracy, not its enemy.

Walt thinks that either the public or the politicians that serve them are like judges, weighing contending views to arrive at wise policy; or like academics, studying ideas to arrive at preferences, which they simply enact. A more accurate description of policy-making comes from pluralism (pluralist scholars include David Truman, Edward Banfield, Charles Lindblom, James Q. Wilson, and Robert Dahl), which imagines a more intense, but less efficient, marketplace of ideas. The American government, pluralists tell us, is an arena for the competition of interest groups (ideological or economic), manifested in pressure groups and governmental agencies. Collective action theory explains that only these concentrated interests will be reliably motivated to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Those interests’ contention is our politics; its current outcome is policy. Presidents preside over this fray, but their control is far less than we generally imagine. They accept the status quo far more than they change it, and having accepted it, they sell that compromise as their own policy, using ideas to match it to the national interest.

Bad ideas then persist because they are useful weapons in policy-fights. Policy-makers are more like lawyers than judges, using arguments about how their preferred policies serve the national interest to win adherents. Walt cites the resurrection of domino theory to illustrate his argument, arguing as if its intellectual defeat would prevent the policies it justifies. Instead, if no one believed in the domino theory, hawks would simply employ another argument about why we should fight in Afghanistan, or wherever we are next.

Because elites are avatars of competing preferences largely talking past each other, their debate produces noise and passion but little progress toward agreed truth, as Trevor Thrall taught me. The media conveys self-interested claims with little evaluation. The public either fails to pay attention or is aroused by its side and believes it. Its schisms mirror elites’. Because interests check each other by marshalling support, their conflict causes stasis, not wisdom. Where sides fail to contend, little debate will occur, and no segment of the public will resist the dominant interest’s goals. Restraint will come only from the limits of its desires.

This is not to say that bad ideas have no effect on policy or that they can never die in democracy. The point is that their effect is generally overrated, and they typically change along with policies that cause them. Policies change where interests change, often because the policies cause trouble for some existing interest group or awaken a new one. Walt’s argument about wealth and safety allowing folly is consistent with this point. For example, the U.S. occupation of Europe continues, along with the ideas that justify it, because it has no economic or security consequences sufficient to concentrate an interest powerful enough to change it. To change bad ideas, you need to change the incentive structure that produces them.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsPolitical Theory RegionsUnited States

Washington's Egyptian Conundrum

The Skeptics

The Obama administration appears to have been caught a bit flat-footed with the events in Egypt over the past week. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s prediction last Tuesday that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was stable, and Vice President Biden’s claim that Mubarak is not a dictator, are unlikely to be celebrated in the annals of American diplomacy alongside Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall.”

But predicting the future is always a dangerous business. On the question of what the U.S. government should do right now, a consensus is building in support of the Obama administration’s decision to suspend aid, and calls to resume that aid only when a new government is in place in Egypt, one that is committed to principles of liberal democracy. That last part might prove the most difficult, in a country that has no democratic tradition. Some worry that the leading opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, will emerge as the dominant power in the country (despite it playing a small role in the protests, and despite its profession of support for the secular leader of the opposition Mohamed ElBaradei).

The Obama administration is stuck with a policy not entirely of its own making – decades of U.S. taxpayer support for the Mubarak regime – but it also seems trapped by the dominant worldview in Washington that is preoccupied with finding a solution to every problem in the world. This global view flows from deeply flawed assumptions about the likelihood of a worst-case scenario transpiring in every case, and then exaggerating the impact of that worst-case on U.S. security. In many instances, the impact is presumed to be nearly catastrophic. In actuality, they almost never are.

Might Egypt be an exception? It is an important country in its own right, traditionally a center of the Arab world. Its population of 80 million people is larger than that of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon combined. Egypt is the second leading recipient of U.S. foreign aid, behind only Israel, and it straddles one of the most important choke points in the world, the Suez Canal. Given its size, influence and location, there is the possibility that this spreads elsewhere. Protests have also broken out in Yemen, Algeria, and Sudan. The Saudis and Jordanians are nervous.

So how should the U.S. respond? In the short-term, the U.S. government needs to strike a balance, and not be seen as pushing too hard for Mubarak’s ouster; but Washington should not anoint a would-be successor, either. The message should be: this is for the Egyptian people to decide.

Because Washington has been such a long-time supporter of Mubarak's regime, it is likely that many in the pro-democracy movement harbor anti-American sentiments. This was certainly the case in Iran following the overthrow of the Shah. But again, that is a worse-case scenario. If Mubarak is removed from power, it could pose problems for core U.S. objectives in the region. But we shouldn’t assume that what comes after will be much worse.

As a general rule, U.S. policy should not support undemocratic regimes on the erroneous assumption that we need them more than they need us. Washington should stop behaving as though the nation's survival depends upon a particular regime holding power in Egypt or Yemen or Pakistan, or anywhere else, for that matter. If our negotiations with various governments started from that very different presumption, I think we would be in a lot better shape today.

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Phantom Forces II

The Skeptics

On Tuesday, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters he endorses a proposal to expand the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the Afghan National Army (ANA) beyond their standing targets, 134,000 officers and 171,000 soldiers respectively. But apparently someone forgot that with increased end-strength comes the need to build more countrywide logistical infrastructure.

The NATO-led training mission (NTM-A/CSTC-A)* will devote $11.4 billion through FY 2012 for the construction of nearly 900 Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) facilities, including training centers, air corps installations, supply depots, et cetera. Presumably, to ensure the most efficient use of funding, CSTC-A would want to formulate a plan detailing what facilities are needed, how resources are prioritized, and where potential waste can be minimized. But, lo and behold, no such plan exists.

A recent audit by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that without a construction and maintenance plan, CSTC-A risks building ANSF facilities that are “inadequate or do not meet ANSF strategic and operational needs.” Of course, “inadequate” and “do not meet…needs” are euphemisms for the fraud and waste endemic to foreign-led stabilization and reconstruction. But none of this is new. In fact, previous audits of construction contracting have shown that “CSTC-A was not able to document the U.S. plans and justification for the number and types of ANA facilities, including documents delineating the size, location, or use of the garrisons.” [Emphasis added.]

Several problems are worth mentioning.

The first is that much of the conflict is in reaction to the very Afghan government that the United States seeks to expand. For example, in Helmand province, President Hamid Karzai has rewarded sub-tribes within his dominant Durrani Pashtun confederation (including Alokozai, Popalzai, and Barakzai) with district governor positions, police chief posts, appointments in the intelligence service, and other critical government departments. Meanwhile, in neighboring Kandahar, many fighters also come from communities and tribes systematically excluded from the Karzai-appointed local government. In this respect, increasing Afghan recruitment numbers will do nothing to address the problem of group disempowerment—much less tackle the complex blend of other intangible motives that spur many people to fight.

A second and closely related problem is that too few Afghans trust law enforcement, especially in rural subsistence areas. When Afghans want to resolve an inter-communal dispute, many of them turn not to corrupt government courts, which demand exorbitant bribes, but instead they go to a local mullah, who may or may not moonlight for the Taliban, but who nevertheless delivers swift justice. Despite what U.S. officials would have us believe, Afghan security forces will be useless without effective rule of law, and any strategy that ignores this is doomed to fail.

The third and perhaps most critical problem for which troop training fails to account is that the Government of Afghanistan lacks the financial capacity to pay for the massive security apparatus the coalition is foisting upon it. On average, police officers and soldiers now make $165 a month; forces serving in more dangerous areas get an additional $75. Even a low-end cost projection would bring security funding to $39.6 billion, and that’s just to pay for salaries. Keep in mind that Afghanistan’s GDP is roughly $14 billion. The Afghan government already spends almost half of its yearly $1 billion revenue on security; thus, it is conceivable that the United States will be forced to pay the lion’s share of a financial burden that may continue through 2025.

In Washington, war proponents insist that the international community can and should train Afghans to protect their own country, but rarely do these proponents recognize the role of prolonged foreign patronage in undermining that outcome.

* NTM-A/CSTC-A = NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan/Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan

TopicsCounterinsurgencyMilitary StrategySecurity RegionsAfghanistan