Friday, January 14, 2011

Let Freedom Reign!

...or not. Whatev.

That seems to be the official U.S. position on the "soft coup" that occurred today in Tunisia. For the record, after several weeks of increasingly large protests the government of Ben Ali has fallen, with a "caretaker" PM in place and elections promised shortly. This was after Ben Ali's move to fire his entire government and end media censorship (the Tunisian government has been furious with Al Jazeera for publicizing the protests) didn't cool the frustration and anger against his rule.

Mark Lynch goes on to point out that "..(d)espite being one of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the region, Tunisia has generally been seen as a model of economic development and secularism. Its promotion of women's rights and crushing of Islamist opposition has taken priority in the West over its near-complete censorship of the media and blanket domination of political society. Indeed, the United States has cared so little about Tunisia's absolute rejection of democracy and world-class censorship that it chose it for the regional office of MEPI, the Bush administration's signature democracy promotion initiative." Now the government has fallen. This may not be a problem for the U.S....or it might, depending on who rises to power.

But, again, the U.S. never seems to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity in this wretched region. Both Bush and Obama made feeble rhetorical gestures towards the notion that the U.S. wanted "freedom" and "democracy" in the Muslim lands. But when it came down to nut-cutting time, what mattered was what had always mattered and, apparently, what still matters; "stability", and the ability of an Arab government to repress the Islamists, regardless of the means and methods it uses.

The White House presser is the expected bland statement of the Administration's hopes for democracy, human rights, and, presumably, magical ponies for everyone. The President states that "The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard." without a peep about how the U.S. was perfectly willing to let the Tunisian policemen break the heads of the brave and determined strugglers if those strugglers were struggling for an Islamic state.One of the things that has frustrated me about the U.S. Middle East policies for some time is our apparent inability to see that we can't keep our Arab proxies' foot on the manhole forever; the Islamic steam will just build up until, as it did here, it will explode. Repression works, for a time. But we keep running into the limits of repression again and again. Why don't we learn from this?

Well, it's too late now; we'll hove to see whether the dysfunction of Tunisian politics is reparable, or whether Tunisia stands to go the way of Lebanon.It seems like my country is always willing to spend millions for defense. Would it be too much to ask for a couple of cents for some tribute to some foreign policy nimbleness? A little geopolitical creativity?


  1. Lebanon is completely different because it's so utterly divided in ethnicity and even more so in faith.

    The two most important opposition leaders in Tunisia seem to be one leftist and one nationalist, there's no Islamist leader in waiting apparently.

  2. SO: I suspect that the Islamists were part of the protesting groups, however. We'll just have to see who emerges from the ruck.

    And Lebanon was once touted as the "Switzerland of the Middle East" until its factionalism was irritated by a combination of internal dysfunction and external pressure; between us, the Syrians, couldn't catch a break. But all I meant to imply was the possibility that instead of a leftist or a nationalist what will emerge is a confusing mess of factions that can't work out a modus vivendi.

    It's so irritating to see the U.S. talking one game and playing another. We should really either decide that we're just another Great Power and use these countries as proxies without shame, or that we really are a "city on the hill" and live up to our democratic rhetoric. Trying to do both instead ends us with in the worst of both worlds, where people believe what we say...until we prove by our actions we don't mean it...

  3. Shouldn't even be our concern.

  4. Chief,

    "Would it be too much to ask for a couple of cents for some tribute to some foreign policy nimbleness?"

    How about $Billions.

    No shortage in non defense spending going out there, although when you look at the top 10, it does seem like most of those countries are probably using that aid for defense. What is also crazy is that I've worked in nearly half of those countries over these two years (which implies we give money, but perhaps with the purpose of getting access for some form of military ops). I bet Yemen moves into the top 10 this year, but Mexico is making a quick comeback, that place is a disaster and not a Muslim to be found anywhere, how is that possible?

    Also interesting, 8 of the top 10 countries have "muslim" problems. At the very least, you can give our government the credit for clearly defining and following their priorities for foreign aid. When you look at this chart, it could almost be mistaken for a coherent, consistent strategy. Almost.

  5. A few comments on bg's interesting link:

    1) The annual foreign aid spending in Afghanistan (this year's top recipient) would cover about two week's of the DoD's spending for military ops in the country. Not exactly what COIN recommends.

    Afghanistan has become another game of whack-a-muslim-insurgent and we never win those games in the long run. They are kind of like Tetris that way.

    2) The foreign aid to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Columbia are all about US internal politics and should never be mistaken for strategic foreign policy thinking.

    3) Pakistan, Kenya, and Ethiopia are in support of ongoing anti-insurgent operations so really shouldn't be counted towards a foreign policy strategy. Hopefully some of the money sent to Kenya will find its way to helping out the large number of refugees from Somalia. That would be money well-spent.

    4) That boils down our true foreign policy to Nigeria (oil and a nasty low-level Christian insurgency against a Muslim government) and South Africa (arguably the only half-way sane country in Africa south of the Sahara).

    It appears that our billions of foreign aid are consistently about US internal politics or spending in support of the DoD rather than a coherent foreign policy that will provide long-term benefits.

  6. Anon: Perhaps not. But we have made it ours. Our choice now is to either shut up (about all that "freedom" stuff) or put up.

    bg: I was going to note something but Pluto got there fustest with the mostest. I can only note that of those top ten, almost all that cash goes to "internal security" (i.e. troops and secret police) in Pakistan, Kenya, Ethiopia (which is a mess along Tunisian lines, I might add...), Egypt (another Islamic country with huge internal legitimacy and antidemocratic problems...), Jordan, and Columbia.

    Afghanistan we know.

    Nigeria is perhaps the worst, an ugly mess that has never really healed its internal divisions and has a corruption problem on a Tikriti scale.

    Israel is a special case, and probably deserves a post in and of itself. Our aid to Israel is one of the biggest "rhetoric vs. reality" boulders that we roll onto the Muslim world. It prevents us from ever being perceived as an honest broker there.

    So South Africa is perhaps the only non-divisive recipient of our foreign aid.

    And that, in itself, is kind of sad.

    As Prince Hal (I think) says; "A ha'penny's worth of bread to such an intolerable deal of sack!"

  7. yep, agreed with everything you guys said. The "coherent, consistent" foreign policy like strategy I was referring to is that we are consistent in prioritizing our support of foreign aid to help military missions (directly or indirectly), and to help counter real and perceived Islamic threats. That is what I found interesting.

    Right or wrong, it is consistent and does represent a strategy for the use of foreign aid. While I doubt anyone has said out loud, "we will use the majority of our foreign aid funds to restrict the expansion of Islamic extremists and supplement other government's internal defense," that is exactly what these numbers are telling me.

  8. What happened to my post? It was up yesterday, and now it is gone?

    For those that didn't read it, I guess I can sum it up to say that the numbers in that link (foreign aid over past 2 years) clearly shows a strategy by the US government, like it or not, it is a strategy. And although it has never been verbalized as so, it is very clear based on these top 10 countries that Foreign aid is primarily used to gain access for military operations or to aid/influence counties to control their Islamic extremists (likely through military means).

    When the only tool in your bag is a hammer....

  9. ok, ok, before I get lit up, replace strategy with "a plan". There is a plan for how foreign aid is spend, and it is clearly being used as a supporting effort to military action.

  10. All-

    A lot of the missing posts seem to be in our spam file under comments. No idea how they ended up there . . . I've released bg's here and a couple from Andy and fasteddiez on my last thread . . .

  11. Great post. Chief, i would suggest we unmake it ours. That we shut up for theirs & put up for ours. Freedom, that is.

  12. That picture makes me wince every time I see it. At least he got the g in there.

  13. we will use the majority of our foreign aid funds to restrict the expansion of Islamic extremists and supplement other government's internal defense"

    But teh frustrating thing about THAT, bg, is that we often end up with the exact opposite results.

    Look at Turkey. We made a dig deal when a soft Islamist party got into power there. But the result has been pretty much a nothing. Turkey continues much as before.

    Contrast this with Egypt. We're bankrolling Mubarak, everybody and their cat knows that, and that's good so far as it goes as long as Mubarak can stay alive and in power.

    But it doesn't change the other realities in Egypt, and a lot of the money that might be going to making Egyptians less radical and more Westernized now goes into the pockets of Mubarak and his cronies. And the pressures are still down there. So if Mubarak ever teeters...well...the result is less likely to be a Turkey and more likely to be a Lebanon (chaos) or Iran (an Islamist takeover try).

    We seem to think that we can keep a lid on these countries' internal problems forever, and yet then we act all surprised and angry when the lid flies off and everyone gets hurt.


  14. Chief,

    "We seem to think that we can keep a lid on these countries' internal problems forever...we act all surprised and angry when the lid flies off "

    From my experience working DoD and in embassies of many of these nations, here is my take. No one thinks that the current amount of funding or resource allocation will keep a lid on anything forever. All anyone is trying to do is keep things from boiling over over the next 12 months (until the next funding stream).

    My current job, I am a Squadron XO. I often compare my job to landscaping. Everyday I have weeds to pull and grass to cut, just to keep the place in some semblance of order. I am not fixing anything, adding any new water features, drainage ditches or retaining walls, I am not getting to any of the projects that I really want to do (or need to do for long term health of the organization) due to a lack of resources. I spend 90% of my time just doing day to day maintenance. Our missions are too scattered, my time (the most valuable resource), and organizational change is too slow to affect any real change in my time in the position.

    I've seen foreign missions (embassies) in the same way. With the ridiculous number of problems and commitments our government is engaged in, shared resources are never enough for the Chief of Mission to truly accomplish that new landscaping project, or new drainage system, all they usually do is the bare minimum to keep things under control for one more year, but never fix the real issues that affect our national interests.

    And what are our national interests? I think you will find that many Chief of Missions have different ideas of how our national interests are impacted by their mission. But one thing is for sure in today's environment. If you can't compete for counter terrorism dollars, you won't get the money you need to finish your landscaping project. Again, look at the chart. 8 of 10 have Muslim problems. Two more are fighting internal economic insurgencies that impacts the US directly through drug trafficking.

    What does all this add up to? Just another example of how the GWOT/PWOT is adversely impacting our ability to interact with the world and protect our national interests abroad.

    Note about South Africa: I was racking my brain trying to figure out why South Africa was getting so much aid, then it hit me. The World Cup. There were some significant threat streams for attacks in South Africa during the World Cup, and I know for a fact that some human resources were pushed that way during 2010. I bet the Chief of Mission successfully convinced enough people that he needed some serious money/resources to help ensure a safe soccer tournament (the first World Cup ever in Africa). I am interested to see if the funds dried up in 2011.

  15. The only way you win these games is by not playing.