America's 'Crusader' Media

The Buzz

All major American newspapers have adopted Wilsonianism to a greater or lesser degree, Robert Kaplan, a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said at an event hosted by the Center for the National Interest on Thursday.

The event featured a panel discussion on national security in the changing media landscape. In addition to Kaplan, Henry Farrell, a professor at George Washington University and Monkey Cage contributor, and the National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn, sat on the panel. The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons moderated.

Kaplan began the discussion by noting that in tackling national security, the editorial boards of U.S. legacy media outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, “mostly discuss values.” All three editorial boards adopt the Wilsonian view that if the United States doesn’t actively spread democracy across the globe, “we are not living up to our values.”

The major difference between the editorial pages of the three newspapers, Kaplan contended, is the Wall Street Journal’s editorials are more militant Wilsonian (though the most interesting to read), whereas the New York Times’ editorials are more moderate Wilsonian. The Washington Post editorial page falls somewhere in between, according to Kaplan, although it has veered to the more militant Wilsonian end of the spectrum in recent years.

Still, except for a brief period around 2006 and 2007 when the Iraq War was at its low, the editorial pages of the newspapers have largely eschewed realism in favor of Wilsonian foreign policies. Kaplan argued that this is because “quasimilitant Wilsonianism” has become deeply embedded in the American political tradition, which—unlike the rest of the world—has rarely had to worry about more fundamental matters like how to maintain order. As a result, the only time realism is popular among the media elite is in the brief moments after the start of something “demonstrably wrong,” like the Iraq War, Kaplan observed.

The other panelists largely agreed with this assessment, but noted other factors that could be at work. For example, as alluded to in the recent National Interest cover story he co-authored with Carden, Heilbrunn pointed out that many of the media elite put great faith in the Yeltsin era in Russia and were deeply disillusioned when it didn’t usher in the liberal democracy in Moscow for which they had hoped. These media elite seem to be constantly refighting that battle, he said, not only in their editorials on Russia, but with most other countries as well.

Clemons believed some of the blame fell on the realists themselves, who he argued had become complacent in recent decades. Clemons noted that realists didn’t have the deep networks and institutional infrastructure to connect them to the media in the same way that the neoconservatives and liberal hawks do. He also pointed to other factors, such as the fact that value-ridden and activist arguments tend to gain better traction on social-media sites than nuanced realist viewpoints.

Farrell disagreed. He argued that while highly charged and partisan arguments do well with cable-news audiences, social and online media has introduced more pluralism into political debates. Instead, Farrell felt the bigger threat to objective and informative news sources was the “buzzfeedication” of online media.

The Irish-born Farrell also expressed alarm at how “incapable” U.S. newspapers are of understanding the viewpoints of people in other countries. In a similar vein, Kaplan mourned the decline of the traditional foreign correspondent; that is, highly educated Western journalists that speak three or four languages and spend a number of years reporting from the countries they cover. While expensive for newspapers to maintain, Kaplan praised these reporters for their ability to be objective about the countries they covered, because they did not have any personal interests vested in the outcomes. By contrast, Kaplan pointed to the “super stringers” that have replaced these reporters. According to him, these are usually local cosmopolitan elites who have been educated at the best Western universities, but then return to their home countries to report for major American newspapers. Unlike the foreign correspondent, they can have stakes in the outcomes of the events they are covering, negatively impacting their ability to report on them.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of the National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikipedia/Daniel X. O'Neil​

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Somalia: The Next Oil Superpower?

The Buzz

Last month, Soma Oil and Gas, a London based energy company, searching for hydrocarbon deposits off the coast of Somalia, announced that it had completed a seismic survey to ascertain the potential for recoverable oil and gas deposits. Although further details have yet to be released, chief executive Rob Sheppard announced that the results were encouraging. However, Somalia, and potential investors, should proceed with caution when considering entering this frontier market.

East African oil exploration, and in Somalia specifically, is not a secret. Energy firms like Royal Dutch Shell and Exxonmobil operated in Somalia before the government collapsed in 1991. But recent gains against the insurgent group al Shabaab in the south and the decrease in piracy off the coast have sparked a regeneration of the industry. The Somali president, riding these positive evolutions, recently stated that the country is “open for business.”

Although recent security developments are encouraging, substantial hurdles still exist. The Heritage Institute recently released “Oil in Somalia: Adding Fuel to the Fire?,” by Dominik Balthasar. The paper discusses how the oil industry in Somalia could have a promising future, but it also explores the risks facing Somalia if the development of its petroleum resources is not carefully managed. Balthasar rightly asks, “is Somalia ready for oil?”

The historic challenges that have limited business opportunities in Somalia, domestic insurgency and piracy, have diminished for now, but these threats have not disappeared. Al Shabaab has been largely pushed out of southern Somalia by multinational forces, but has recently proven that it is still able to operate in the north of Kenya. As Kenya flexes to counter al Shabaab in its own country, it could provide an opportunity for al Shabaab to return to its previous strongholds in Somalia. And even as piracy has largely stopped, it is conceivable that al Shabaab or others could see oil tankers as opportunities to resurrect that practice as well.

Beyond these security challenges there may be political disadvantages to developing the hydrocarbon sector in Somalia. Balthasar notes, among other things, that oil will likely exacerbate existing rifts and political tensions. In the context of the recent political turmoil and contentious federalism process, it is clear that any foreign oil companies would face a high degree of political instability and uncertainty. Balthasar also points out that the legal and constitutional conditions in Somalia are ambiguous in determining who can enter or negotiate contracts with oil companies. Without a well-defined regulatory environment for oil and gas resources, federal states, semi-autonomous regions, and the central government could all separately negotiate and enter into conflicting extraction agreements with private companies. The opaque regulatory nature of these resources has already proven problematic in the semi-autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland. Even with updated agreements on how to negotiate for and claim oil fields, Puntland and Somaliland have already leveraged their autonomy and granted their own licenses without the central government’s blessing. This is all likely to lead to further turmoil and maybe even conflict over profitable fields and the distribution of revenues.

Somalia is probably not ready for oil development. With excellent access to shipping lanes and supposedly massive untapped wealth (perhaps as much as 110 billion barrels) it is no surprise that multinational oil companies are intrigued, but responsible investors would be wise to think twice. The underlying political instability and security challenges of Somalia will likely inhibit the long term feasibility and profitability of these projects. It could also cause backsliding for the hard fought improvements in Somalia’s government.

This piece appears courtesy of CFR's Africa in Transition blog

Image: Wikicommons.

TopicsEnergy RegionsSomalia

America's Massive Military Dilemma in Asia: Visibility vs. Vulnerability

The Buzz

In this last quarter of the Obama administration, U.S. leaders have a critical opportunity to make progress on a host of policies vital to strengthening the U.S. position in Asia. While the Trans-Pacific Partnership will rightfully dominate the domestic debate in early 2015, an equally important debate is occurring in the halls of the Pentagon and Capitol Hill one between visibility and vulnerability.

This tradeoff is critical because the value of visibility and the danger of vulnerability differ in peacetime and wartime. In peacetime, U.S. forces are most useful when they are most visible. Visible forces reassure allies and partners while deterring potential adversaries. Yet, visibility comes at a cost – increased vulnerability. Publicly sailing a carrier strike group into a disputed area can be a strong signal of resolve, but in wartime such actions open these forces to attack. Therefore, while U.S. leaders seek to maximize visibility in peacetime, they often attempt to minimize vulnerability is wartime.

The capabilities that maximize visibility and those that minimize vulnerability are quite different; sequestration is forcing U.S. leaders to choose between them. How should leaders in Washington decide in which capabilities to invest? One way is to examine the range of possible conflict scenarios and assess the advantages and disadvantages of visibility and vulnerability in each. Three types of potential Asian conflict scenarios—arrayed on a spectrum from peacetime to wartime—are particularly instructive: low-level coercion, short war, and protracted war.

Low-level coercion, such as China’s ongoing efforts in the East and South China Seas, sit between peacetime and wartime. Because low-level coercion does not fit cleanly into the black and white categories of war and peace, some experts refer to these conflicts as “grey zones.” In the grey zones, visibility is valued because U.S. allies want Washington to demonstrate its resolve both to their publics and their adversaries.

Short wars require a different set of capabilities. In short wars, striking first and striking hard is vital, so forces must be resident in the region. In such conflicts, visibility can be a danger, opening forces to attack. Yet, visible strength can also deescalate conflict. Furthermore, although vulnerability is a risk in these situations, some degree of vulnerability is required as surging forces into a conflict zone puts U.S. forces at risk. Thus, in short wars a balance between visibility and vulnerability is necessary.

Protracted wars, on the other hand, typically advantage the least vulnerable forces. As the World Wars demonstrated, protracted wars often turn into economic contests. During such conflicts, units that can be seen can typically be struck, making visibility dangerous. Such conflicts therefore necessitate platforms that are hard for opponents to find.

How do these different types of conflicts and capabilities shape the 2015 debate? Briefly examining trends in military investments in the two most likely contestants in instructive, particularly because the United States and China have been headed in opposite directions.

The United States has long relied on highly visible forces to demonstrate resolve. Visible forces have reassured allies and deterred adversaries by committing the United States to involvement if a conflict were to occur. Increasingly, however, anti-access/area denial capabilities (A2/AD) have exacerbated the vulnerability of visible forces, such as forward deployed bases and platforms. Therefore, the Pentagon has increasingly invested in minimizing vulnerability, such as submarines and stealth.

China, on the other hand, has long sought less vulnerable forces. Chinese A2/AD systems, such as its missiles forces and submarines, limit China’s vulnerability to a U.S. strike. Recently, however, Beijing has sought to acquire more visible power projection forces such as aircraft carriers. These visible platforms are intended to coerce Chinese neighbors, even if they risk increased vulnerability.

These opposing trends in U.S. and Chinese military investment have important implications for potential contingencies in East Asia. The decrease in the vulnerability of U.S. forces is helping Washington to prepare for a protracted conflict. Beijing, on the other hand, is building more visible forces ideal for grey zone conflicts. As a result of these investment trends and policy choices in both countries, China has been successfully pressuring its neighbors on maritime disputes. U.S. leaders, therefore, are starting to ask how the United States can better address grey zone coercion.

What are the implications of this visibility-vulnerability dilemma for the Pentagon? For the Navy the question is whether to retain more visible aircraft carriers or less vulnerable submarines. For the Air Force the issue is purchasing more visible fighter aircraft or less vulnerable long-range strike bombers. For the Army and Marine Corps the tension is between highly visible forward deployed forces or less vulnerable units surged from afar. Each service is being forced to risk decreased visibility in peacetime or increased vulnerability in wartime.

The leadership at the Pentagon is well equipped to deal with this dilemma, but these leaders cannot avoid the choice between a more visible force and a more vulnerable one. Worse still, sequestration has tied the Pentagon’s hands and forced the United States to accept increased risk across the entire conflict spectrum. Moreover, requirements for deterring a resurgent Russia and combating Middle Eastern insurgents will compel the United States to invest with other regions in mind.

As the U.S. debate on Asia heats up in early 2015, regional leaders will be watching closely. Allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines are looking for a more visible U.S. presence. Meanwhile, many U.S. defense experts focused on the military threat from China are pushing for a less vulnerable force. This presents a challenge for leaders in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. The next six months are a critical window during which bipartisan cooperation on defense capabilities is possible, but a coherent U.S. strategy for Asia must include a strategy to harvest the benefits of visibility while mitigating the dangers of vulnerability across the full conflict spectrum.

Zack Cooper is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a doctoral candidate at Princeton University. He focuses on Asian security issues and previously served on staff at the National Security Council and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

This appears thanks to CSIS. This piece first appeared on the new CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative website here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Watch Out! North Korea Just Threatened Another Nuke Test

The Buzz

All signs suggest that North Korea is getting ready to conduct a major provocation, which is likely to include testing nuclear weapons for a fourth time.

Although U.S. officials like to claim North Korea is “dangerously unpredictable,” its provocations tend to follow a well-established pattern. As I’ve explained in the past, the provocation cycle begins with North Korea mounting a highly visible charm offensive towards South Korea, which creates the impression that Pyongyang is seeking to dial down tensions. Amid this persistent charm offensive, North Korea makes a seemingly innocent demand of South Korea and/or the United States, usually that they halt military drills. In the thick of North Korea’s charm offensive, this demand seems to outsiders like an inconsequential afterthought. However, the demand always has two characteristics: it is very specific and it is something that Pyongyang knows full well won’t be obliged. Pyongyang then seizes upon South Korea and America’s failure to comply to justify the provocation it undertakes. Often, this takes the form of a medium or long-range ballistic missile test, which is sometimes followed by a nuclear test (which is justified as a response to the the international community’s “hostility” over the initial ballistic missile test).

North Korea’s behavior over the past few weeks follows this pattern to a t. On the surface, all signs suggest that North Korea is ramping up its efforts to engage South Korea and the United States. For instance, in his New Year’s speech this year— which is always the most important annual speech in the DPRK— Kim Jong-un largely focused on domestic issues. Near the end, however, he made an overture to Seoul, stating: “We think that it is possible to resume the suspended high-level contacts and hold sectoral talks if the South Korean authorities are sincere in their stand towards improving inter-Korean relations through dialogue.”

Having already referenced past major Inter-Korean agreements, Kim held out the tantalizing possibility that he wants to hold a leadership summit with South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye. “And there is no reason why we should not hold a summit meeting if the atmosphere and environment for it are created,” Kim said.

The charm offensive continued in official DPRK media in the days that followed. For example, a Rodong Sinmun editorial last Friday stated: “If the north and the south open their hearts with each other and approach with an open mind the issue of the nation and reunification... it is possible for them to remove differences and record a new history of the inter-Korean relations [sic].”

The same editorial added: “It is possible to resume the suspended high-level contacts and hold inter-sector talks if the South Korean authorities are sincere in their stand towards improving inter-Korean relations through dialogue.”

Naturally enough, these calls for dialogue contained “suggestions” that South Korean authorities drop their “confrontational” stance against North Korea. Some were more specific in demanding that South Korea abandon its anti-DPRK human rights activities and halt all provocative war drills.

North Korea then turned its charm towards the United States— and upped the ante. Specifically, on Saturday the Korean Central News Agency reported that North Korea had sent a message proposing that the U.S. “contribute to easing tension on the Korean peninsula by temporarily suspending joint military exercises in South Korea and its vicinity this year.” In return, North Korea promised that it “is ready to take such responsive step as temporarily suspending the nuclear test over which the U.S. is concerned.”

President Park had already rejected North Korea’s calls to halt its joint military drills with the U.S., which are scheduled to begin in late February. Instead, she urged North Korea to resume talks without preconditions, something that Pyongyang itself has proposed repeatedly. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. backed its ally in Seoul. As Reuters reported, the State Department rejected Pyongyang’s proposal and “called the offer by North Korea a veiled threat that inappropriately linked nuclear tests and the joint military exercises that have been carried out for decades.”

On Tuesday, North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador responded to the rejection by proposing a joint dialogue with the United States. “The government of the DPRK (North Korea) is ready to explain its intention behind this proposal directly to the United States. We're ready for that if the United States wants additional explanation about our proposal," North Korea's Deputy UN Ambassador An Myong Hun said at a New York press conference. He added that "many things will be possible this year on the Korean Peninsula” if the proposal is accepted.

In other words, North Korea has perfectly laid the groundwork for another nuclear test. On the surface, it has presented itself as a reasonable party genuinely interested in dialogue and compromise. But, as the State Department recognized, the seemingly overture by the North was in reality a “veiled threat” that linked the U.S. and South Korea’s joint military exercise to North Korea’s nuclear tests. This creates the pretense that a North Korean nuclear test is justifiable if the joint military exercises proceed as they do each and every year. Thus, once the military drills begin, watch for North Korea to respond with a major provocation, which could very well take the form of a fourth nuclear test.

Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @Zachary Keck

Image: Wikipedia

TopicsDiplomacySecurity RegionsAsia-Pacific

5 Things Wrong with the Reaction to the Paris Attacks

Paul Pillar

The responses, outside as well as inside France, to the recent attacks in Paris have become a bigger phenomenon, at least as worthy of analysis and explanation, as the attacks themselves. This pattern is hardly unprecedented regarding reactions, or overreactions, to terrorist incidents, but what has been going on over the past week exhibits several twists and dimensions that are especially misleading or misdirected.

1. Scale of the attacks vs. scale of the reaction. Seventeen people, not counting the perpetrators, died in the Paris incidents. With the usual caveat that the death of even a single innocent as a result of malevolently applied violence is a tragedy and an outrage, the response has been far out of proportion to the stimulus. The magnitude of what the Paris attackers did was modest by the standards even of international terrorism, let alone by the standards of all malevolently applied violence or of political violence in general. By way of comparison, about the same time as the Paris attacks the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram conducted a massacre in a town in which probably several hundred, and possibly as many as 2,000, died. The international attention to this incident was minuscule compared to the Paris story.

Of course anything disturbing that happens in a major Western capital is bound to get more attention than an even bloodier happening in a remote part of an African country. Probably another reason why press coverage of the Paris story was enormous from the beginning was that the target of the first attack was part of the media, and that ipso facto makes the story of greater interest to the press itself.

But much of what we have been seeing over the past week is an example of how public and political attention to something, regardless of what that something is, tends to feed on itself. Once a certain level of salience is reached and enough people are talking and writing about a subject or an event, then for that very reason other people start talking and writing about it too. As the attention snowballs, political leaders feel obligated to weigh in and to appear responsive, regardless of their private assessment of whatever started the crescendo of public attention. Thus in the current instance even the White House feels obligated to answer for the president or vice president of the United States not having flown off to join a crowd in Paris.

2. Consistency vs. inconsistency in upholding free speech. With the initial attack being against the staff of a magazine, the whole story quickly became couched as one of upholding the right of free speech and freedom of the press (a particular reason for the interest of the press itself and thus the extensive coverage the press devoted to the story). Lost sight of amid the swell of street-marching champions of such civil liberties is the inconsistency in getting so worked up about this one affront to free speech but not to others. Surely we ought to be worked up as much about other, comparable limitations on free expression, especially when the power of the state is used to enforce those limitations. In France itself the state enforces a variety of such limitations—some of which might be offensive to those who were offended by what the magazine published, and some of which are apt to be offensive to other groups—often with criminal penalties attached. Of course, glaring examples become even easier to find outside Western liberal democracies. One thinks, for example, of the outrageous blasphemy laws in Pakistan. And last Friday Saudi Arabia administered the first 50 of 1,000 lashes as part of the punishment of a human rights advocate accused of “insulting Islam” because he established an online forum for discussing matters of faith. Some international protest was heard in response, but nothing remotely comparable to the outpouring in Paris.

3. Right to free speech vs. responsibility in exercising that right. The exerciser of free speech in question in Paris was a satirical magazine that seems to specialize in cartoons that are bound to offend a lot of people. It is fair to say that in the centuries of struggles for civil liberties, this is probably not one of the nobler vehicles for the cause. We are not talking Thomas Paine here. What is that “je suis Charlie” stuff supposed to mean? That we are all dedicated to putting down religious prophets? With most rights also go responsibilities, and prudence in the exercise of those rights, with an honest effort to bear in mind the consequences of what one does or says. Responsible, prudent exercise of a right does nothing to diminish or compromise that right.

We in the United States should have had occasion to think hard about such matters recently with the episode involving a comedic Hollywood movie that offended the North Koreans—and ordinary North Koreans, not only the regime, were offended. If North Korea conducts computer sabotage against an American company, we certainly should strongly object to that. But we also might imagine how we would react if a North Korean film company, or any other film company for that matter, were to produce a movie with a plot centered around assassinating the president of the United States. We would understandably object, and it is unlikely that we would be discussing the issue primarily in terms of artistic freedom or a right of free speech.

4. Unity vs. disunity among world leaders. That image of foreign leaders locking arms with President Hollande and each other suggests that they are of one mind about whatever they were marching down the avenue about. Don't believe it. It was a phony show of unity. Each one of those leaders had his or her own reasons for being there, involving politics back home as well as international politics, and not just to show solidarity and good will toward the French. This may have been most apparent with the graceless Benjamin Netanyahu, who rebuffed the French government's request for him to stay away rather than inserting his own agenda, but he was not unique in having an agenda. (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas initially acceded to a similar French request for him to stay away, before Netanyahu's decision to crash the event made it politically necessary for him to come as well.) If President Obama had attended, it mainly would have been to avoid subsequent political criticism at home for not having attended. That is a bad basis for deciding how to apportion the president's time.

5. Debate about Islam. The Paris events have rekindled an old debate about whether the seeds of violent Islamist extremism can be found in the content of Islam itself. That debate had a surge a couple of decades ago when Samuel Huntington was writing about a clash of civilizations and about how Islam has “bloody borders.” The debate gets a renewed surge whenever, say, Congressman Peter King says something on the subject or events such as those in Paris transpire. The debate will never be resolved.

The debate as commonly framed is not very useful because even if those who argue that the content of Islam explains the motivations of those who commit violent acts in its name were right—and they are more wrong than right—that would not take us very far toward any implied policy recommendations. There still would be the fact that the great majority of adherents to the same religion are not violent and are not terrorists. There still would be nonviolent Islamist parties, movements, and regimes to deal with, and there still would be large Muslim populations whose emotions and preferences would have to be taken into account.

President al-Sisi of Egypt spoke the other day about the need for a reformation of Islam. Maybe he's right, but it certainly would not be up to Western governments to accomplish, push, or otherwise influence any such reformation. There probably isn't much else al-Sisi himself could do to accomplish it.

One of the essential policy-relevant points that Western governments do need to understand is that Islam provides a vocabulary for expressing a wide variety of ideologies (a fringe subset of which is used to justify violence). Another essential point is that notwithstanding the very wide array of ideologies and objectives found under the banner of Islam, there is a widespread sense of a single Muslim community or umma; what happens to one part of that community can become a grievance or inspiration for actions of another part, including a violent part.    

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsFrance terrorism RegionsWestern Europe