Thoughts on Bin Laden’s Death: Can/Should We Wrap the ‘GWoT’?


Amid the flood of commentary, I would recommend this and this.

It’s hard not to be thrilled at this moment. I am not especially nationalistic, but Osama bin Laden (OBL) was doubtless an enemy of liberal democracy, a homicide, and virulently anti-American. Like Obama said, the world is a better place without him, and certainly America, the West, and liberals everywhere are safer. If there is a liberal democratic ‘end of history,’ this was a step on that path. So here a few thoughts:

1. Did we assassinate him? Did we intend to kill him, or just capture him? When I  first saw the CNN story, a by-line in the scroll at the bottom of the screen quoted an unnamed spokesmen saying the goal was to kill him, not capture him. If he really was unarmed, was this then an execution, a murder (!)? What if he had put his hands up? Would the US government or Obama be liable (!)? Honestly, these are just academic question though. No one really wants to ask them, Arabs and Muslims included, and probably not even the Pakistanis. Everyone, Middle Easterners included, is just glad he’s gone. As Walt notes (last link), the rules of engagement on the raid were probably pretty loose, because no one really wanted him captured. Ideally, that would have been best and most humane, but his capture would open up so many problems, that practically, killing him was the most attractive option. If we had him, what would we do with him? Send him to Guantanamo? Torture him? (Imagine how the pro-waterboarding crowd would have responded.) Do we send him to NYC for a trial, or a military tribunal? If he did get a trial, imagine the OJ-style feeding frenzy and his use of it as a platform to capture global attention once again. Given how much trouble we have had structuring a legal architecture for the global war on terror (GWoT), even after 10 years of conflict, the legal issues would have bedeviled the country for years. In fact, if we would have tortured him the way we tortured Khalid Sheik Mohammed (waterboarded 183 times in one month), and then executed him (like Timothy McVeigh), it may in fact have been more humane to kill him during the raid.

2. If we did assassinate him, then can/should we do the same to Gadaffi? I find it ironic that at the same time we killed OBL in a targeted strike, NATO argued that it was not purposefully targeting Gaddafi. It seems very likely that Gaddaffi’s death would end the Libyan war at a stroke, saving countless lives. Assassinations however are a violation of US law.

3. Is it right/wrong to be ‘happy’ that OBL is dead? It feels terribly macabre to wish for someone else’ death, and notably, both Obama and Secretary used the oblique ‘brought him to justice’ in order to avoid saying something like ‘we are glad we shot him in the head.’ (Go here for that ‘Rot in Hell!’ headline.) But OBL is one of those figures like Hitler or Pol Pot who have such a history of unrepentant and continuing awfulness that the moral calculus likely changes. If OBL were the prodigal son and legitimately changed his ways, perhaps we should feel differently. But even after 9/11, he didn’t stop. At some point, even the most Christian/Buddhist/pacifist/Amish/liberal whatever could agree that ethics would be served by his death. Because he so obviously planned to keep on killing on a huge scale, killing him undoubtedly saves lives. This alters the moral discussion, I think. My Korean students and friends seemed a little unnerved that I was pleased. But I mentioned the obvious parallel of Kim Jong Il. He too is one of the figures with such an awful and continuing record that just about everyone believes Korea will be a better place without him. And indeed, SK has flirted in the past with trying to kill his (equally awful) father. When unification comes, if there is war or large-scale violence, it is hard to imagine the SK government wouldn’t also be thinking it would just be easier if Kim and his top cronies die in a firefight. (More likely though is a Mussolini/Ceausescu-style ending where is he is lynched by enrage locals.)

4. Was Pakistan sheltering OBL? Did we connive with western-leaning elements of Pakistan against islamist-leaning ISI elements? No one wants to say this, but it seems increasingly unlikely that OBL survived in a reasonably comfortable home (not in the cave we all thought) in the middle of the country without substantial informal tolerance. Others know far better than me on this point, but this is yet another marker that we should probably be slowly getting out of South Asia.

5. How important is this? W famously said he doesn’t worry to much about OBL anymore. That was probably the right attitude actually, although W was pilloried by the Democrats for saying so. OBL was isolated – the house in Pakistan had no phones or internet to prevent tracking, and his communication with the world went through just a few couriers. So he really was not in operational command of anything anymore. Has the jihad and GWoT moved on? Probably, as Bush said. So yes, OBL’s death was a necessary conclusion to the long post-9/11 story. But it doesn’t actually change too much in the larger GWoT; if anything, maybe we can take it as an opportunity to declare victory and get out of South Asia (see below).

6. Congrats to the US intel services for a job well-done. I haven’t always been too congratulatory of the US conduct of the GWoT, but this was clearly a big breakthrough that richly deserves praise, as does Obama. The headlines about US power are that we are in decline, and that is true, relatively. We are wildly overstretched and need to start coming home. But this is an important marker that we can still be effectively, coherent and focused, in contradistinction to our image from Iraq. This was clearly planned and efforted for many months with lots of details thought out in advance. After the mess we made in Iraq and Afghanistan, this was a good demonstration of the way we can struggle against terrorism without a GWoT. Success doesn’t require massive invasions and the inevitable blunt tactics that come with them. I hope this stands as a future model of US force, along with our moderate efforts in Libya, and not more Iraqs and Afghanistans.

7. What is the Muslim world’s view? I saw Feisal Abdul Rauf (the guy who wants to build the World Trade Center mosque) on CNN. I was disappointed that he couldn’t seem to admit on TV that OBL was bad for solely killing Americans or non-Muslims. He had to say ‘we’ (Muslims) also suffered at his hands. This is true and makes it political easier to ‘sell’ in the Middle East. But he still should have said that OBL deserved justice solely for 9/11 on its own terms. Given that he has proclaimed the WTC mosque to serve ‘inter-faith outreach’ and all that, his automatic tribal instincts at such an important moment disappoint.

8. Will this finally push apart the Taliban and al Qaeda? Can this help us get out of South Asia? Yglesias suggests we can ‘declare victory in the GWoT’ and start to wind down? I am mixed on this. We really need to, but it is not yet clear how much this will set back al Qaeda. Is Zawahiri, who is just as homicidal and fanatical, going to step in keep al Q rolling along? But it does make sense to pivot from a war-fighting to a management strategy at some point. (By management, I mean seeing terrorism like a ‘regular’ social problem akin to crime, piracy, or drugs – limiting the massive use of resources and force, because ‘victory’ is impossible without doing more harm than good.) We will never kill all terrorists globally. That would be far too difficult, would turn into US global imperialism for decades, will bankrupt the country, and destroy our liberal values. As Lithwick notes, the unending GWoT is perverting our sense of justice and liberal values (torture, warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detentions, and so so). As the Framers and republicans everywhere since Cicero have noted, unending war is terrible for democracy and liberalism. So maybe this is the long-needed juncture so that we can finally move on.

American Dual Containment in Asia


Last month I published an article in Geopolitics entitled “American Dual Containment in Asia.” In brief, I argued that a double containment of both Islamic fundamentalism and of China is the likely US strategy in Asia in the coming decades. The containment of salafism in the Middle East is bound to be hard and violent (as it already is), because Al Qaeda and associated movements are so genuinely revolutionary and dangerous. The containment of China is likely to be soft until the Chinese decide just how much they wish to challenge the reigning liberal democratic order. In the last year, many seem to fear that China is ramping up in this direction. Hence my prediction that India will be a pivot in this containment line. It is a unique ally for the US, because it is worried about both China and Islamic fundamentalism, and because it is democratic. In this way, it is unique among American alliance choices. Here is abstract:

“US grand strategy after 9/11 turned from post-containment drift to preemption. But the costs are high – suspicion of American power, hedging by traditional allies, expensive, go-it-alone ventures like Iraq. Tried-and-true containment better reflects American values. While forward in the world, containment is also defensive. It reassures skittish partners and reflects liberal, anti-imperial US preferences. In Asia, containment would deter the primary contemporary challengers of US power – radical Islam and Chinese nationalism – without encouraging a Bush-style global backlash. In a reductive analysis of US alliance choices, this article predicts a medium-term Indo-American alliance. India uniquely shares both US liberal democratic values and the same two challengers; it is the likely pivot in a US-backed neo-containment architecture in Asia.”

Here are the relevant graphs that, I hope, make the argument clearer:

Graph 1. Contemporary Revisionists to the ‘American System’













Islamist-Jihadist Networks,

Iran ?



China ?

Rogues (Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela)



The good news above is that just about everyone accepts the international status quo – roughly, the liberal international political economy led by the US (what Ikenberry calls “the American system”). While al Qaeda is clearly a scary revisionist – i.e., the they want to dramatically rewrite the international order by refounding the caliphate, e.g. – they are also pretty weak. The only powerful revisionist is China, and no one knows yet just how much she seeks to change things. This is good for the US, insofar as it backstops the international order, and it is also good for the many states in Asia and Europe that function within that order. Although the internal challenges to the liberal order are growing (i.e, the Great Recession), there is currently no powerful and revolutionary external challenger like the Nazis or USSR were.


 Graph 2. Contemporary US Alliance Picks










Great Britain/NATO








Japan/East Asia




Israel/Arab clients









This graph tries to reductively explain the appeal of India as an alliance partner. It uniquely shares the both the geopolitical interests of the US in Asia; that is, it is worried about both Islamism and China. And it shares our liberal democratic values. Russia is an obvious point on shared interests – the ultimate driver of alliances of course – but it is so erratic and semi-dictatorial, that is still distasteful despite the ‘reset.’

The most controversial part of this analysis is certainly my open claim that China will be a target of US soft containment, and maybe hard in the future. I should say here that I do not want this. I am very aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy problem; i.e., if we openly come out and say China is an enemy or threat, then by doing so, we make it into one. And certainly articles like mine are exactly what the Chinese declaim – a not-so-secret effort by US analysts to keep China down and such. And see Barnett on why I am completely wrong, if not dangerous, about China. But as an empirical prediction, I do think it holds. China’s growth and current values (populist nationalism, deep historical grievance, residual communism) are just too rapidly destabilizing, and I think Barnett doesn’t give nearly the necessary attention to the security dilemma problems China creates on its periphery. (IMO, Barnett overfocuses on China and G-2 coziness, while missing the nervousness in places like Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Indonesia.)   For my own writing on why I think the ‘China threat’ school is likely to win this debate, try here.

Finally, I should say in fairness that my own perception of China-as-threat has declined somewhat, in part because I visited the place. This strikes me as natural; closeness and exposure frequently breed understanding, and I like to think that all the nice Chinese scholars and hospitality I experience were in fact real. But the liberal values of academics exposed to new ideas and travel as a professional requirement hardly apply to populations and elites, especially those as nationalist as China and the US. The misperception likelihood is huge here; remember the Bush 2 administration came in ready to take on China until 9/11 happened. This will likely reassert itself as American dependence on Chinese financing grows and as the GWoT (hopefully) winds down. (Another problem here is the peer-review process. Articles take years to between the first inspired write-up and the end-point of publication. Reviewers send you back to the drawing board, and the pipeline effect means that even after final acceptance you may wait a year or more to see it in print.)

That South Korean Commando Raid against the Somali Pirates

I couldn’t find any actual video of the assault so here is a decent news vid about it


Here is a Korean news blurb about the anti-pirate raid, and here is some quick analysis. As you might imagine, the Korean media has trumpeted this, and the Korean President Myung-Bak Lee, who ordered the assault, took a lot of deserved credit. At the risk of sounding like a shill, I must say I continue to be very impressed by Lee’s presidency. He is a good example of the kind of conservative I want to vote for but simply cannot find in the US anymore (where its all Christianity and tea party paranoia). Lee is tough, professional, fiscally balanced, not terribly ideological, business-focused, comfortable with science, tolerant of Korea’s growing diversity, but still on the right side of most of the big foreign policy issues like China, NK, Afghanistan, etc. Yes, he is prone to autocratic outbursts, but no more so than W’s constitution-bending. In any case, he is vast improvement over the accommodationist SK left which seems to think the US is a greater threat to SK than NK or China (no, that is not a joke). So hear, hear, President Lee, for giving the pirates the shellacking they deserve.

Here are a few more thoughts on the raid.

1. In a way, the raid helps justify the on-going, much maligned, dismal, I-want-it-to-go-away-as-much-as-you-do war on terror. No, the pirates are not terrorists, nor are they islamists as far as we can tell. But they do demonstrate the fundamental international political problem behind the GWoT – state failure. To be more specific, failed/failing states create wild west zones on the planet (Somalia, central Africa, parts of central and southeast Asia and Caribbean basin) that open room for all sorts of nasties to set up shop. All sorts of asymmetric threats are enabled by the absence of law in state-less spaces, and they morph in unexpected ways that pull in players one wouldn’t expect (the US goes to Afghanistan, and SK goes to the Gulf of Aden). If the Middle East were governed better, it is unlikely 9/11 would have happened. Indeed, many of the problems we associate with the GWoT – piracy, trafficking, mass human rights violations, drug cartels, generalized social chaos (like in Children of Men) – are broadly attributable to the lack of robust, functioning, reasonably legitimate states in central Eurasia and Africa. This is really what Iraq and Afghanistan are all about – trying to fashion somewhat modern states that can locally control/contain/enervate violent, frequently atavistic, non-state actors like al Qaeda or the Lord’s Resistance Army. And state-less spaces create threats we don’t really anticipate or think about much. IR theory and security studies is mostly about states. Irregular forces like militias, terrorists, pirates don’t have the cachet that worrying about the Chinese navy does. But clearly we do need some general global strategy for cleaning up what Thomas Barnett calls the ‘Gap.’

2. I was quite impressed by the SK military’s prowess, and this may be the biggest unanticipated story. Usually the security discussion of East Asia revolves around the big guys – China, Japan, India. When Korea gets mentioned, the usual line is NK-as-psycho, with SK as a hapless victim. SK is somewhat responsible for this. The SK electorate is quite pacifist (certainly compared to the US), and SK’s extreme exposure to NK means they can’t respond the way Israel does when it is provoked. But far from peninsular restrictions, the SK military was able to show its stuff and they did a super job. I don’t think people realize just how large, professionalized, and modern the SK military actually is (600k conscripts and a $30 billion annual budget). Given the sort of budgetary pressures Europe’s decaying great powers are facing, and the likely post-Yeonpyeong defense build-up in SK, SK is now almost certainly in the top 10 of the world’s most efficacious militaries, as bizarre as that may seem, and it is giving Japan a run for its money. Japan is bigger of course and has a great deal of latent military power, but its defense budget  has been just 1% of GDP/year for decades, its debt burden is crushing, and it hasn’t fought on any combat missions at all since WWII. Yet here is tiny Korea projecting coherent, efficacious force all the way into the Gulf of Aden. Not bad…

3. The larger story must be the growing depth and reach of Asian economies. Indian Ocean sea-lines of communication (SLOC) are pretty important for Asia’s economies, and the piracy fight tells us two things.

a. Asia’s economies are now so big and prosperous that pirates can make a living off of them. Can you imagine anyone preying on Indian Ocean shipping as a profession 40 years ago? Indian Ocean SLOCs, connecting East Asia with the Middle East and Europe, now clearly rival those focused on the US in the Atlantic and Pacific – yet another mark of the gravity shift from West and East.

b. East Asia’s economies are now rich and confident enough to project power pretty far from their shores. Of course the US Navy is dominant, but East Asia has the money now to buy bigger and better ships, while US military cuts are almost a certainty, and the US navy is an obvious budget-cutting target as the costs of the GWoT have fallen mostly on the Army and Marines. So here is yet another example of that more equal world in which the US will move in the future. If East Asian economic interests and the military force to protect them now extend all the way to Africa, that pretty clearly pushes the US back in the Indian Ocean and raises the obvious question of when the US will move back in the Pacific too.

US Embassy Security – Yikes!


There has been a lot of discussion of the ramp-up of US embassy security since 9/11. Generally, the fear is that US embassies increasingly look like bunkers. They are being moved far away from downtowns. They are surrounded by loads of police, military, and barbed wire.

The Seoul one was quite an experience. I needed more passport pages, so off I went. It was frightening. There were multiple layers of security, blast doors, and US and Korean military and police with automatic weapons and body armor all over the place, including the SWAT tanks in my picture above. To boot, cell phones were confiscated, and there were the ubiquitous cameras. I imagine if I wrote more about it, they would be miffed over this post.

It was a depressing experience. I am with Thomas Friedman on this issue of US openness post-9/11. I think this stuff just sends a terrible image to the world about an open society gone loopy. 9/11 abetted the worst instincts of the national security state, and I fear we are moving down an Israeli path toward a barracks democracy with gates and locks all over the place. But this is not what open societies look like. Nor is it what we should want. Who wants barbed wire and cops with rifles at the mall? This is Bin Laden’s real victory – the installation of paranoia in the US. And I fear it will take decades to undo. The 1990s seems like such a paradise by comparison.

And I am not sure all this is necessary. The US has not in fact been targeted that much since 9/11. As John Mueller noted years ago, a lot of this has been overblown. I recall reading somewhere that you are more likely to be hit by lightning – twice – that killed in a terrorist incident. And what terrorism there has been has not been Bin Laden-style plots, but wacky rogues like the underwear bomber or the Fort Hood shooter. It is unlikely that all these walls could have stopped them.

Visiting our embassy was a genuine shock. It certainly didn’t look like America. It reminded me of those execrable gate-communities that fill California and subdivide people against themselves. This doesn’t look like homeland security. It looks like Israel, Pakistan or South Korea in the cold war – democracies under siege and paranoid. This is exactly the sort of freedom-reducing militarization the Founding Fathers warned about in instances of long wars and huge standing armies. This needs to be unwound sometime soon for the health of our democracy.

‘Responsible’ Sovereignty vs the Responsibility to Protect


The ramp up in drones and special operations in the GWoT has me thinking we are stumbling into a future of unspoken limitations on sovereignty.

Limits on sovereignty is an old story, and one of the classic points of disagreement in IR. Usually, it pits realists against liberals – the general lines being that states won’t really cede any authority to a higher institution, while liberals scramble to find examples from the UN system to suggest that sovereignty is slowing leeching away. The ‘institutional’ debate is wrapped up in globalization too. Globalization supposedly makes the world more interdependent. More interdependence means more rules are needed, so states will slowly give up some prerogatives in order to get the benefits of the global economy. Earlier generations of IR talked about ‘spillover,’ as states slowly slid into more rule-bound orders, almost unconsciously.

But now we are seeing something different. Now, we see the US (usually) telling countries that if they can’t get their act together internally, we will take action. The issue is the responsible use of your sovereignty (RS). If you turn your country over  to drug lords, proliferators, pirates, terrorists, etc, then you are gambling with your sovereign inviolability (Afghanistan, northern Pakistan). Or even if you don’t agree to turn over your state to such non-state and if it happens against your will, others will still feel it ok to intrude (Somalia, Congo).

This most definitely does not fit the traditional liberal IR image of sovereignty cession. It is a product of state-weakness (Somalia) or nastiness (Taliban Afghanistan), not democratic decision-making or spill-over (the EU).

If intruding on sovereignty used ‘irresponsibly’ sounds like another neo-con excuse for democratic imperialism (it is), one can always try the liberal internationalist version of this – ‘the responsibility to protect’ (R2P). R2P puts a lefty spin on this by saying that the government has a responsibility to protect its own people; i.e., governments can’t prey on their own people as in Sudan. Governments that continue to do so will ultimately face international sanction and an agreement by the great powers, ideally through the UN Security Council, to step into your affairs to protect your own people from you. Obviously, this only happens in extreme circumstances (Kosovo, Rwanda), and the Chinese, with their regular opposition to any ‘intervention in internal affairs,’ will oppose it. But nevertheless, R2P thinking clearly suggests that human rights sensibilities are now so advanced, that there are extreme limits to sovereignty, and that is almost certainly a good thing. Governments can do a lot, but they can’t do anything anymore.

If this sounds kind of benign, focused on human rights and the domestic population’s well-being, ‘responsible sovereignty’ is a little scarier, because it is focused on outsiders’ well-being (defined by them of course), and it explicitly embraces the use of force by outsiders to protect themselves from you and your carelessness. So if Sudan is a good example of the R2P logic – a nasty state tearing up its own people which should get whacked a bit by the international community for doing that – then Somalia is a good example of RS – failed state so out of any domestic control, and thereby becoming so dangerous to the rest of us, that it has essentially forfeited its right to manage itself and foreigners will do (some of) it for them. Is this neocolonialism?

Finally, the US has already flirted with RS before the declaration of preemption by the Bush administration. A century ago, in the Roosevelt and Wilson Corollaries to the Monroe Doctrine, the US reserved the right to intervene in Latin America should its governments become too ‘disorderly.’ The neo-con update of this idea is to expand it worldwide, which I can’t help wondering if the US can really afford now, with a $1.5 trillion deficit. Sounds like overstretch all over again…

Illiberal Zionism Update: Beinart Nails It



Peter Beinart is exactly the sort of liberal necessary to win the GWoT. He correctly realized that the American right is not credible in its claims to defend Western liberalism against salafi illiberalism, because too much of the GOP base is too illiberal now and sees the GWoT exactly as Bin Laden does – a theological clash of civilizations – only they are on the other side. The increasingly Christianized and fundamentalist (Protestant mostly) GOP wants to ‘win’ the GWoT as a triumph of Christianity and/or American power. They are, as Walter Russell Mead correctly notes, ‘Jacksonian Zionist,’ not liberal. No Muslim, correctly, will believe US power to be neutral, serving universalist liberalism, when Bush needed to be told that the GWoT had biblical justification and Sarah Palin insists that Israel be allowed to do whatever it wants in the Occupied Territories.

In the same vein, he makes a good case here for the growing illiberalism of Zionism and the increasing inability of liberal countries to support its religio-nationalist, rather than liberal, opposition to Islamism and Arab authoritarianism. I made exactly the same point a year ago. (It is always nice to be confirmed in one’s prejudices I suppose, but Beinart does a better job of it than I did.) Sullivan adds his usually biting and gloomy commentary.

All sides seem to be sliding toward a clash of civilizations paradigm. All the more reason for the US to focus on the battle of ideas against salafism and get out of the Middle East in the medium-term

Sharia Orwellianism Update, or Why the GWoT Rolls on and on…

Yet another attack on a Mohammed cartoonist in Europe, complete with violent, alienated, unintegrated Muslim youth screaming ‘Allah akhbar’ at bewildered Europeans…


The relevant context is here and here.

This sorta stuff just makes my blood boil, because it lays so bare the splits between western liberalism and Middle Eastern salafism. This pretty much tells you why the war on terrorism continues, as does the West’s concern about Islam, despite Obama’s election. And it should make pretty clear why it is important to fight the GWoT and win it.

If you haven’t seen the original Mohammed cartoons, here they are. If you are ‘offended,’ then I am elated. Liberalism is good for you. I am proud to re-post them. Go surf someplace else…


Stand with “South Park” vs Sharia Orwellianism


By now you know that not even “South Park” is immune from salafism’s insistence on terrifying and alieanting the rest of the world. You may love or hate the show, but the defense of free-speech is a central values breakpoint between liberal modernity and reaction, between the best traditions of the West and the worst of Gulf Islam. This is an important part of the battle of ideas in the GWoT, as is defending the Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the Mohammed cartoonists in Denmark. Ali, herself a terrible victim of this paranoia, has a nice summary of the explicit free-speech threat of Muslims exporting sharia onto non-Muslims.

Everyone with a blog should do as Jon Stewart did on April 22 and explicitly defend the right of free speech, especially the right to ridicule and mock religion. Religions as a body of thought deserve as much scrutiny as any another paradigm, intellectual system, or philosophy. And religion certainly needs this criticism if it is not just to be superstition and received ascientific silliness, repackaged as ‘time-honored tradition,’ and codified by some book written a long time, then repackaged as ‘divine revelation.’  Even the faithful know this in their heart of hearts. Consider this counterfactual: if your friend told you that snakes could talk, that people came back from the dead, or that bushes burned without disintegrating, wouldn’t you be pretty incredulous – unless you heard it at Sunday school? I never had a teacher in my Catholic grade school who could answer that one, which was a pretty big let down.

If you don’t know the story of Augustine’s conversion to Christianity, it is an object lesson in this healthy interchange between religion and criticism. Read the Confessions for the whole story, but the short version is that the young Augustine found Christianity ridiculously primitive, intellectually soft, and superstitious. Trained in Greek philosophy and the high Latin of the great Roman authors, he found the writing of the New Testament poor and unconvincing. The story of how Augustine still came to Christianity and helped drag Christianity into a meaningful interaction with Greek philosophy is intellectual gripping, spiritually provocative, and more likely to convince you of Christianity’s veracity than any of the Palin-esque, family values TV preachers who masquerade today as authorities on Christianity. (If you want a 20th century version of this back-and-forth, read about CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein’s lengthy discussions of Christianity.)

The point is that religions, most especially today Gulf Islam (and American evangelical Christianity), desperate need their Nietzsches, South Parks, Hirsi Alis, and Christoper Hitchens to force them to stay up to par. Defending “South Park” is not just about free speech. It’s also about the larger point made by the New Atheists in the last 10 years: that religion must find a way to live in a the modern, plural, ‘impure’ multicultural, scientific, democratic world. If it can’t, if it simply lashes out to demonize (Benedict XVI) or butcher (salafism) its opponents, then trained people will never take it seriously. And that is the greatest ‘disrespect’ the faithful should really fear – when even the mildly educated think you’re like the Raelians or something – simply ridiculous and unworthy of meaningful consideration.

Addendum: It should be noted that the Islamic prohibition against imagery of Muhammad is far less totalist than the Gulf Sunni salafists would have you think. Shi’ites don’t care a whit, and Southeast Asian Sunnism was pretty lenient on this too until Saudi oil money and clerics start bringing the ‘pure’ (i.e., ‘arid-as-the-Gulf-desert’) version of Islam in the last generation. ISLAM DOES NOT HAVE BE MONOPOLIZED BY THE JIHADIS.

Just How Hard Will Afghanistan Be?: ‘We Issue Pens to Afghan Soldiers’


Robert Kaplan has a nice new piece on Afghanistan over at the Atlantic. As usual, it is worth your time. Kaplan travels to places most of us in IR could only dream of visiting, so his work’s got a verite feel that our modeling and endless quotations of one another never do. (This is why people read him, not us.) Unfortunately Kaplan repeats the same motifs again and again, so its not clear if we are reading about Afghanistan, or just Kaplan’s expansive Americanist ideology again. In this way, he is becoming like the Kagans. You already know his answer: geography is a huge constraint on international action; America’s NCOs and infantrymen are kick-a—; we should win the GWoT at even huge expense; and US empire is probably good for the world, even if others resent it.

This time around, Kaplan lays the groundwork for Stanley McChrystal’s presidential bid. What is it with conservatives and the lionization of generals? Just read Kaplan’s purple prose. No one doubts Petraeus or McChrystal’s military talents, but I am pretty sure the US right’s cult of personality tendency for military machismo is unhealthy for the democratic process. Also, is it really admirable that McChrystal only sleeps four hours a day? How many of us could make good decisions living that way regularly? That told me less that McChrystal is super-committed, and more that he is overworked, under-resourced, and under-staffed. That sounds like the Bush-era GWoT all right…

But the money quote from Kaplan’s piece has go to be this from a NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) interviewee:

The recruits may not know how to read, but they are incredibly street-smart. They’re survivalists. Basic soldiering here does not require literacy. We give them a course in how to read and issue them pens afterwards. They take tremendous pride in that. In Afghanistan, a pen in a shirt pocket is a sign of literacy.

Note the use of the military verb ‘issue.’ Yes, the $.50 plastic pen you forgot in the coffee room yesterday is a formally issued piece of military hardware that signals prestige in the wider Afghan society. WOW.

Consider all the information that short anecdote conveys to you about education, poverty, and governance in Afghanistan:

1. Afghans are so poor, they can’t afford pens. ISAF has to issue them, and only qualified soldiers get them.

2. Afghans are so illiterate, no one really needs them.

3. Widespread illiteracy and poverty means the Afghan state, even down into the local level, cannot meaningfully connect to the citizenry.

If illiteracy is so widespread that pens are a mark of social prestige, then Afghanistan can hardly be expected to have complex institutions or national centralization. If you can’t write bills or receipts, what kind of markets will you have? If you can’t read laws from Kabul, much less correspond with state organs, how do you know what the rules are, where to pay taxes, etc? If education is that non-existent, how can you build an army, infrastructure, courts, etc?

None of this means the US and other wealthy states should not help Afghanistan. Indeed, your heart should break when you read that Afghans are issued pens. Nor is this a verdict on the utility of ISAF; maybe we should still go, despite the huge hurdles this very revealing anecdote makes clear.

But this anecdote told me more about how hard the Afghan operation really will be, than Obama’s surge speech last year, or any of the other fearless, ‘we-can-do-it’ prose of Kaplan’s piece. This is way beyond Iraq. Afghanistan doesn’t just need counter-terrorism/insurgency, it needs nation-building on an order that took the US two centuries to achieve.

Obama didn’t include anecdotes this revealing in his Afghan surge address last year. Did he white lie by not showing us just how high the slope is? It kinda seems like it…

Why Korea is going (back) to Afghanistan, or how Middle Powers get Muscled by their Patrons


So Korea will head back to Afghanistan this summer. I spoke on this today in my radio slot on Busan’s English language station. The transcript is below.

The obvious question is why. The provincial reconstruction team Korea will send is pretty small. They won’t be able to do much. They won’t be in a particularly dangerous part of the country. And the Korean public is awfully skeptical.

So why go? The short answer is because the US wants Korea to go; they are part of the ally round-up of the Obama administration to reach McChrystal’s 40,000 soldier figure for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Korea’s geopolitics are awful. It is surrounded by 3 larger powers with whom it has terrible relations, plus bizarro North Korea. So SK is terribly dependent on the US to help it maintain its autonomy in such a bad neighborhood. And the US has repeatedly (ab)used this asymmetric dependence to push Korea into things it doesn’t want to do.

It’s also a nice way for Korea to strut its stuff as an emerging global player – something Koreans desperately want to be.

But I don’t think Koreans are ready for the blowback that comes with participation in the GWoT. As Greenwald and Walt have both noted repeatedly, it is ridiculous to assume that if you kill Muslims in the ‘war,’ they won’t hit back – e.g., in the Christmas bombing attempt. Koreans have already been targeted in the GWoT. The more Korea gets sucked into this thing, the more they will be targeted.

Further, Korea is an increasingly Christian society. Islamic radicals have traditionally avoided Asian religions. They worry about ‘backward’ monotheisms (Christians and Jews haven’t ‘updated’ to Mohammed, the last and definitive prophet of the God of Abraham) and polytheistic irreligion (i.e., Hinduism). But the more metaphysical/non-theistic faiths of East Asia don’t really activate them. Look at Malaysia, whose large minority of Buddhists have never been targeted. But as Korea christianizes (due to heavy proselytization here), expect the al Qaeda types to start eyeing it, especially if its soldiers use force in Muslim countries.





January 11, 2010


So in the last few weeks, the government has agreed to redeploy Korean forces to Afghanistan, but not very many. So why is this important?


You’re right that the numbers are small – less than 500 people – in what we call a provincial reconstruction team. But it is important for Korea for at least three big reasons – beyond the obvious costs and risks to personnel.


And those reasons are what?


First, Korea has almost no record of overseas force deployments. The Republic did send a few peacekeepers to East Timor and Iraq, but these were very controversial. Under the left-leaning Kim and Roh administrations, the Korean government disagreed badly with the US over Middle East policy, and one way to show that displeasure was avoid overseas deployments


So why is Korea going to Afghanistan now then?


The conservative Lee administration wants a more mature, or ‘global,’ profile for Korea. President Lee wants Koreans to become accustomed to thinking of themselves globally, and peacekeeping is a part of that role. If Korea is to cut a larger role on the global stage – a deeply held Korean political goal – then it must also carry more of the burden. For the same reason, Korea is expanding its foreign aid programming.


Ok. So what are the other reasons Korea is going?


Sure. The second big reason is because the US is asking Korea to go. Before President Lee, the Korean government was distancing itself from the US. President Roh particularly liked to use his flirtation with China to tweak the Bush administration. President Bush was deeply unpopular in Korea, as was the Iraq war.


So President Lee is trying to mend fences with America by sending us to Afghanistan?


Basically, yes. President Lee is staunchly pro-American in a way his predecessors were not. Unlike South Korea’s drift toward China earlier in the decade, President Lee is strongly committed to returning the US alliance to centrality in Korean foreign policy…


And going to Afghanistan is way to show that.




You said there was a third big issue stemming from this deployment.


Yes, as Korea’s global profile and global intervention accelerate, it will eventually become a target of those forces that resent globalization, global governance, and the United States.


I don’t understand.


Sorry. If Korea joins world politics more explicitly, if it moves beyond simply East Asia – its regional home for decades – then eventually it will encounter the turbulence of big international relations issues, such as terrorism or piracy.


That’s right. I have heard before about Korean aid workers killed in the Middle East.


And Koreans have been increasingly pulled into the problem of Somali piracy.


So what does this mean for Korean foreign policy?


Well, on the one hand, it means that Korean is increasingly becoming a mature global player. Its foreign policy is no longer dominated solely by North Korea. This is a deep desire of the current Lee administration – to pull South Korea out of the local ‘ghetto’ of peninsular politics, where everything in Korean foreign policy is dominated by erratic Pyongyang. President Lee and most Koreans want Korea accepted globally – as a wealthy, prestigious, functional, responsible democracy.


And going to Afghanistan shows that. I get it. But you sound like you see a downside.


Yes, there is. The more Korea gets pulled into the US-led war on terror, the more likely Koreans are to become targets too.


That’s unfortunate. Why?


Well, for two reasons. One, Korea is a US ally. And al Qaeda and similar groups target not only Americans but close allies, like Great Britain, too. Second, Korea has a growing Christian population.


Why is that important?


Because for al Qaeda, the war on terror is really a clash of civilizations or a religious conflict. Islamic radicals are, in their mind, defending the faith against aggressive, imperialistic Christians, Jews, and to a lesser extent Hindus.


But Korea’s heritage is mostly Buddhist and Confucian.


That’s right. Which is why East Asia has generally been spared the effects of 9/11. Islamic radicalism is just not as worried about Asian religions. But as Korea’s Christian population expands, and as its role in the war on terror expands also, al Qaeda attacks on Koreans are more likely.


Those are the costs of global profile for Korea?




Do you think it’s worth it?


I don’t know, and I worry sometimes that Koreans don’t know either. Koreans are so concerned to achieve global status, that they haven’t really thought too much about its costs. You know, it’s not so bad to be the Austrias or the Canadas of the world.


Is that what Korea is in East Aisa?


Kind of. And it could be if you wanted it that way. I even wrote a paper once saying that Korea might consider trying to be like Finland, instead of Japan – small, rich, and neutral – with lots of good skiing.


But that’s not really what Koreans want right now, is it? So off we go to Afghanistan.


Basically, yes. You have decided to be an American ally, and so you get pulled into stuff like this.