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Cold War and Political Fire: Speculation on the State of Sinology

Monday, June 8th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

China HandJohn Paton Davies 

Our newest ZP team member, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage blog has reposted two very thoughtful essays on the Chinese strategic tradition and its interpretation that can be found in modern Sinology. They are excellent and I encourage you to read them in full.
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In his second post, T. Greer raises many questions regarding the state of Sinology, as well as topics for future investigation yet unexplored that would represent in equivalent fields, the fundamentals. Given that China represents not just a nation-state and a potential near-peer competitor of the U.S. but thousands of years of a great civilization, it is remarkable that the professional community of Western Sinologists is so small. The number of USG employees with the highest level of conversational fluency in Chinese who are neither native speakers nor children of immigrants would probably not fill a greyhound bus.
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Why is the state of Sinology relatively parlous?

I think the poor state of Sinology is traceable primarily, albeit far from exclusively, to the Cold War for two reasons:

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First, Mao’s tumultuous, totalitarian rule cut off access to Chinese sources and China to Western scholars for roughly a generation and a half. This in itself, coming on the heels of almost forty years of revolution, warlordism, foreign invasion and civil war, was enough to cripple the field. Without access to in-country experience, archival sources and foreign counterparts, an academic field begins to die.  Furthermore, Mao’s tyrannical isolation of mainland China was  far more severe than the limited access for Western scholars of Russian history and journalists imposed by the Soviet Union. Josef Stalin, in contrast to Mao, was partially a great Russian chauvinist and the Soviet dictator demanded  certain aspects of Russian history, culture and the reigns of particular Tsars be celebrated alongside the Marxist pantheon . Mao’s feelings towards traditional Chinese culture were much more hostile and ideologically extreme.  Stalin’s worst abuses of Russian history in demolishing a historic Tsarist cathedral for a never-built, gigantic Soviet labyrinthe pale next to the mad vandalism of the Cultural Revolution .

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Secondly, the fate of “the China hands” like John Paton Davies and the “Who Lost China” debate during McCarthyism rendered Sinology politically radioactive in America. It is true that many of the China hands like Davies combined a realistic strategic assessment of Kuomintang/Chiang Kai-shek shortcomings with politically naive or wishful thinking about Mao and the Communists, but the field was dealt a blow from which it never recovered in American universities. Davies was not a Communist or even a leftist (though some China Hands were fellow travelers) but that nuance was lost on the public  in a period that saw in swift succession Alger Hiss, the Berlin blockade, the the Fall of China, the Soviet A-Bomb, Klaus Fuchs, the Rosenbergs and the Korean War. It seemed at the time that the Roosevelt administration had been infiltrated with Soviet spies and fellow travelers (largely because it had been) and in that atmosphere of Red-baiting, Davies was subsequently scapegoated, smeared and fired.  This McCarthyite political cloud over Sinology was curiously juxtaposed with the simultaneous robust funding of studies of the USSR, Russian culture and the training of Slavic linguists in the 1950’s to 1991 by the USG. For academics, going into Sinology could become a professional dead end and carried (at least in the early fifties) an odor of disloyalty.

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There are certainly other and more contemporary reasons for American  Sinology being more of an esoteric field than it deserves, to which someone else with expertise can address but all fields need to attract talent and funding and until Nixon’s “China opening”, American Sinologists struggled against the political current.

Binoculars on the Middle East

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — current assessments — Iran trumps Saudi, AQ beats IS ]
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SPEC who is winning

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Sources:

  • Cambanis in Foreign Policy, Iran Is Winning the War for Dominance of the Middle East
  • Gartenstein-Ross & Moreng in Politico, Al Qaeda Is Beating the Islamic State\

  • Both are worth reading.
  • A powerful, credible narrative?

    Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — how about a powerful, credible foreign policy? — maybe that’s asking too much ]
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    double

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    James P. Farwell‘s piece in the National Interest, Information Warfare: The Key to Destroying ISIS, claims:

    A coalition of Shia militias, Iraqi government forces and anti-ISIS Suncni tribesman are making progress towards ejecting ISIS from Tikrit. What’s needed now is to capitalize on those defeats and complement kinetic action with a cohesive information war campaign driven by a powerful, credible narrative that demoralizes, divides, confuses, and frustrates ISIS members in order to blunt their effectiveness as fighters, and undermine their expectations, destroy their momentum, and quash any hope of victory in creating a sustainable Islamic State or caliphate.

    A powerful, credible narrative?

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    Let’s look at two recent efforts. The first was just “published from above” by the US Government:

    PsyOps lealet

    Here’s some context and commentary, from Al Jazeera’s DC office:

    On March 16 an F-15E fighter jet dropped 60,000 copies of the above leaflet on Raqqa, the base of operations for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

    The image shows a “Daesh Employment Office” (Daesh is a pejorative nickname for ISIL in the Arab world).

    Two ISIL recruiters, one of whom appears more monster than man, feed young men into a meat grinder with “Daesh” written in blood on its side. A sign in the upper-right corner reads “Now Serving Number 6,001″.

    When asked about the intended message of the leaflet, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren, said “If you allow yourself to be recruited by Daesh, you will find yourself in a meat grinder.”

    Warren said the leaflet was created by the Army’s Military Information Support Operations, or MISO. Until 2010 that outfit was known as “PSY-OPS” (short for “Psychological Operations”).
    Experts have questioned the efficacy and tenor of the leaflet.

    Faysal Itani, a Fellow at the Atlantic Center in Washington who studies the various groups fighting in Syria’s civil war, said anyone in Raqqa thinking of joining ISIL is either ideologically committed or coerced.

    “Members of the first category are likely immune to leaflet propaganda, especially if distributed by an air force that has been bombing Raqqa,” Itani told DC Dispatches.

    Frankly, I think that’s the wrong way to appeal to the people of Raqqa, who see worse everyday, and either don’t want or don’t need to be reminded.

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    Next up is the effort of a consortium of British Imams — a magazine called Haqiqah, whose editor pitches it thus:

    We’re turning the tide – though we still have a way to go, we know that by taking efforts to support and mobilise the huge online Muslim population we will eventually drown out the violent voices

    Here’s a sample double-page spread:

    Haqiqah

    I would like to applaud the effort, but I’m afraid a 17-page magazine featuring text blocks in a typewriter face and the occasional poor color photograph is just no match for IS’ own magazine, Dabiq, whose first issue ran 50 pages, and which looked like this:

    Dabiq double page

    Ouch. Richard Barrett of the Soufan Group is gentle in the way he phrases his comment, but I’m afraid he’s also right on the mark:

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    Okay, let’s look at some of the possible theological “alt-narratives” I’ve seen proposed.

    First, there’s the idea that losing battles might “prove” that ISIS was not divinely approved and supported — but Qur’an 2:154-56 concerns those who fight fi sabil Allah, an suggests they will encounter “tests” up to and including “loss of lives” in the course of events:

    And do not say about those who are killed in the way of Allah, “They are dead.” Rather, they are alive, but you perceive [it] not. And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, Who, when disaster strikes them, say, “Indeed we belong to Allah , and indeed to Him we will return.”

    Furthermore, IS’ favorite eschatological hadith (I’ve quoted it before) specifies that many will be lost, both to glorious death and inglorious desertion:

    The Last Hour would not come until the Romans would land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them). When they will arrange themselves in ranks, the Romans would say: Do not stand between us and those (Muslims) who took prisoners from amongst us. Let us fight with them; and the Muslims would say: Nay, by Allah, we would never get aside from you and from our brethren that you may fight them. They will then fight and a third (part) of the army would run away, whom Allah will never forgive. A third (part of the army). which would be constituted of excellent martyrs in Allah’s eye, would be killed ani the third who would never be put to trial would win and they would be conquerors of Constantinople

    Losing ground? I think the third “alt-narrative” — the narrative brought into effect by IS losing significant ground they had previously captured, is the most powerful of those currently proffered — but it depends on perspective rather than capture or loss. Blows to IS such as the loss of Tikrit, or a fortiori the possible loss of Mosul, might seem persuasive to most western eyes, but in the eyes of potential recruits they may well be counterbalanced by new oaths of allegiance such as thos of Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab to the IS caliph.

    At least, though, we glimpse here that changes in military reality may impact thelogically-based beliefs.

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    Taking that a step further, I’d suggest that credible behavior on our own part, rather than the fatwas of ulema — even Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, let alone those who may seem obviously compromised by complicity in power — will comprise the most effective of counter-narratives.

    America supported Muslims in Afghanistan against the Russians, America supported Bosniac Muslims against the Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats — these are the kinds of action that most clearly refute the idea that the US is at war with Muslims — as it may appear to be in the cases Bacevich listed a few months back in a WaPo op-ed:

    As America’s efforts to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State militants extent into Syria, Iraq War III has seamlessly morphed into Greater Middle East Battlefield XIV. That is, Syria has become at least the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded or occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have killed or been killed. And that’s just since 1980.

    Let’s tick them off: Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria. Whew.

    That could be viewed as a pretty devastating list.

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    Actions — as a poet, I dread to utter these words, but they seem appropriate in this context — actions (in the form of foreign policy) just may speak louder that words .

    New Article: “Who Lost Russia?” at The Chicago Progressive

    Monday, March 30th, 2015

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

    I have a new piece up at The Chicago Progressive:

    Who Lost Russia?

    If you are old enough to remember the iconic moment when Boris Yeltsin climbed on a tank on CNN and defied leaders of a KGB coup and then watched seventy years of Soviet communism swiftly collapse, you are old enough to know that Russia did not ever need to become our enemy again. And Russia, whose siloviki regime of President Vladimir Putin is absurdly threatening Denmark with nuclear war, sponsoring insurgents in Ukraine and flirting with fascism at home, officially regards the United States as the main enemy. It did not have to be this way. A question that should be asked, not by historians but by American citizens of their leaders, a question that is not being asked by our media:

    “Who lost Russia?”

    There is plenty of blame to go around – and we should not be shy about admitting our share….

    and

    ….The Russian state, moreover, is hollow. Were Putin to die tomorrow or become seriously ill, there’s no assurance of an orderly transition of power to a legitimate successor. Or even that Russia would, in the medium term, not begin to disintegrate as did the Soviet Union before it. The world can ill-afford the emergence of a Weimar Russia, isolated, deeply hostile but politically unstable and bristling with the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons….

    Read the rest here, at The Chicago Progressive.

    It sure Ain’t: Elkus on Why Congress Isn’t Good at Foreign Policy

    Sunday, March 15th, 2015

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

    Adam Elkus had a nice post on the sound and fury over the open letter by 47 Republican senators to the government of Iran, asserting Congressional prerogatives regarding contractual relations with in foreign powers:

    “Congress Isn’t Good At Foreign Policy.”

    In the midst of the ongoing fracas over GOP congressional officials’ attempt to undermine Obama’s Iran policy initiatives, Max Fisher made the observation that maybe Congress just isn’t that good at foreign policy after all. Other analysts warned that legislators were “bullying” the US back into another Iraq war,  and others hyperbolically denounce the insistence of GOP hawks that they sign off on the war against the Islamic State. In particular, Foreign Policy‘s Micah Zenko, however, was far more puzzledthan upset about Congress’s apparent desire for an open-ended war in Iraq juxtaposed with its fury over Obama’s initiative to make peace with Tehran: 

    Funny when Congress weighs-in on FP:  Start open-ended airwar, no problem. Broker non-binding nonpro agreement, outrage.Zenko, however, is by no means alone. Other critics have similarly slammed Congress, arguing that it acts as if Obama is no longer the president, and ridiculing GOP insistences that Obama must include a ground war plan in his strategy to defeat the Islamic State. To hear some critics, the opposition-dominated legislature is reckless, irresponsible, even potentially traitors against the state. There was, however, something quite fishy about this. Hadn’t the roles reversed, as we had seen this kind of fight before but in the opposite direction

    The biggest problem with many of these criticisms, however, was their denigration of the legislature. The way it sounded, a disinterested observer might be forgiven for wondering if someone should be exercising, ahem, some oversight over that silly Congress before it really makes a mess of things! But it was not so long ago, however, that Zenko and many othershad a different opinion about the executive branch and its use of power vs. the legislative branch. That, namely, the latter needed to reign in the former. Oversight was the name of the game, and Congress and the Senate apparently really needed to exercise sorely lacking control, opposition, and critical questioning when it came to an President that was about to drone, Navy SEAL, and air-war America into “endless war.” [….]

    Read the rest here.

    My thoughts, in brief….

    The clerical-security regime in Tehran was probably a distant third as a messaging target for Republicans, coming behind activist conservative primary voters and the Obama administration itself. The letter is, in other words, a stupid, meaningless, P.R. stunt to play to domestic politics and indicates Republicans are not serious about stopping or improving any potential Iran deal or forcing the administration to submit any agreement to the Senate.

    Furthermore, the truth is that many Democrats in Congress are uneasy about Secretary Kerry giving away the store to Iran to secure anything he could call “a deal”, are smarting from six years of habitually high-handed treatment from the inept White House staff and the conveniently timed  indictment of Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is critical of Obama policies toward Iran and Cuba. If Senate Republicans were intent on peeling away unhappy Democrats into a veto-proof majority for an Iran related bill, the letter was an unneeded jab in the eye to their Democratic Senate colleagues who might otherwise be persuaded to register their discontent.

    That said, the ape-shit reaction of the Obamabot faction of the Left (which is neither the whole Left nor the entire Democratic Party) to the Republican Open Letter is illustrative of the creeping authoritarianism and increasingly illiberal nature of American politics. These people really think down deep that their guy is a kind of King and that Americans can be guilty of Lèsemajesté and that Lèse-majesté is “treason” and the politically treasonous or “mutinousshould be jailed. Essentially, a plurality of one of the major political parties really likes the idea of the US government behaving like a Hugo Chavez-style dictatorship. Really.

    Lastly, my confidence in the Obama administration to negotiate responsibly with Iran is effectively zero. How can an insular group that takes little outside advice and won’t negotiate (or even talk) with their own supporters in Congress (!), much less the majority Republican opposition, get the better of foreigners that they understand even less well?

    Immaturity vs. authoritarianism in service to incompetence. We are headed down a bad road.


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