Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mukhtar Mai and Pakistani Realities

The story of Mukhtar Mai, who was gang-raped in a punishment sanctioned by a tribal court in revenge for her teenage brother being seen alone with a girl from another clan is horrifying in every dimension. The fact that the Pakistani justice system acquitted most of the fourteen men accused is only worse. Mukhtar Mai has received international attention but her story is sadly not unique.

The Indian movie, The Bandit Queen tells a similar story based on the life of Phoolan Devi. There are a few differences, first that it is set in India, second that Phoolan turns to Muslim criminals for support against the Hindu higher castes, and that Mukhtar Mai has become an activist rather then a criminal. In the last point there is a small glimmer of hope. That a similar story is set among the Hindus of rural India highlights that this is not about Islam so much about tribalism.

The Washington Post article on the acquittal of Mai's rapists has a pair of revealing paragraphs that shed light on the nuts and bolts of Pakistani society:
…Pakistani women’s advocates said they feared the ruling will reinforce some of the cruelest traditions relating to women in rural society, where justice is meted out by semi-literate village leaders and the dominant land-owning clans wield more power than the police.

…In the interview, Mai said she feared violence from the freed defendants and noted that their clan has powerful local patrons in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party. But she said she was determined to keep helping girls in her community study, gain confidence and demand their rights.
The first paragraph cited highlights the general lack of rule of law in the face of clan affiliation. The second paragraph notes that the ruling Pakistan People’s Party – which is full of Westernized-leaders and includes figures who have been assassinated for standing against Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws - is also a product of the clan structure.

Pakistan (and all of south Asia) is a complicated place.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Re-assessing Failed States and International Security

In The Washington Post today CFR’s Stewart Patrick argues that failed states are exactly the geopolitical bogeyman that policy-makers often state. In particular he mentions that al-Qaeda found it very difficult to function in anarchic Somalia as an example. Having done an extensive study (which I have not read) he argues that:
The findings are startlingly clear. Only a handful of the world’s failed states pose security concerns to the United States. Far greater dangers emerge from stronger developing countries that may suffer from corruption and lack of government accountability but come nowhere near qualifying as failed states.
The key dangers are terrorism, WMD, and trans-national crime. Bad actors prefer weak but functional states where there are sufficient links and contacts to the world to get things done by the state’s control over its territory and institutions is limited so that the bad guys have room to play. Pandemics also come from functional but weak states, not truly failed ones because the failed states are too isolated from global trade networks for diseases to spread.

He also grants that there are sound humanitarian reasons to intervene, but we should be clear about our intent and purpose and that our real focus should be on strengthening institutions in weak but developing states.

These are sound arguments.

Although it must be pointed out that strengthening institutions is not easy – it is the philosopher’s stone of international development. But it is unfair to pick on this aspect of the paper, the discussion of institutional development is not the author's focus.

One question is whether or not Afghanistan of Taliban era was a failed state or just a very weak one. Granted that a failed Somalia is a limited threat to international security. But, what if a particularly nasty group emerges from the wreckage and re-establishes order. That can be a threat and Yemen (for example) would seem particularly ripe. The cynical policy response would be to keep the place in anarchy, but that is profoundly immoral.

The second question is not spillover effects of failed states globally but in their region. Would a collapsing Yemen have an effect on Saudi Arabia? This would be a very big deal. Trouble in Saudi Arabia leads to nervous energy markets, which drives up the prices for everything. The spikes in food prices seem to be a component in the disorders rocking the Middle East. If you want to see angry mobs in the street everywhere in the world, trouble in Saudi Arabia is the way to do it. Libya is a much smaller player in world energy markets, but still disorder there doesn’t help. Failed states tend to generate refugees, which are difficult to manage and cause problems of their own. A disintegrating Pakistan, for example, would probably send tens of millions of refugees into the Gulf and neighboring India. Besides humanitarian problems, these could also overwhelm local governments and trigger further instability.

In that situation failed states should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Some would simply not rise to the level of geopolitical concern – others would. Nonetheless, better tools for intervention and prevention should be developed for those cases where a state failure crosses the intervention threshold and - wherever feasible - to prevent grief and suffering.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Trouble with Czars

In The Wall Street Journal today former Secretary of State, Treasury, Labor (and OMB chief) George Shultz decries the growth of White House staff at the expense of the cabinet.
The practice of appointing White House "czars" to rule over various issues or regions is not a new invention. But centralized management by the White House staff has been greatly increased in recent years.

Beyond constitutional questions, such White House advisers, counselors, staffers and czars are not accountable. They cannot be called to testify under oath, and when Congress asks them to come, they typically plead executive privilege.

The consequences, apart from the matter of legitimate governance, are all too often bad for the formation and execution of policy. The departments, not the White House, have the capacity to carry out policies and they are full of people, whether political appointees or career governmental employees, who have vast experience and much to contribute to the making of ­policy. When White House staffers try to formulate or execute policy, they can easily get off track in a way that would not happen in a regular department.

As secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, I experienced this with great pain when White House people developed and ran an off-the-books program of arms sales to Iran. It erupted in the Iran-Contra scandal involving the unconstitutional transfer of funds not appropriated by Congress to the Contras, and with close to devastating consequences for the president.

Iran-Contra is a dramatic example, but the more general problem is the inability to take full advantage of available skills and expertise in policy making, and the difficulty in carrying out the functions of government nationally and internationally.
Shultz sees the impossible confirmation process as a primary culprit in this emphasis on White House-based decision-making. The inability to fill critical sub-cabinet ranks quickly makes it impossible for the president to get a firm rein on the bureaucracy. My advisor, Mac Destler, in his Presidents, Bureaucracies, and Foreign Policy discusses the President's need to create centers of strength at various levels throughout the bureaucracy. It is also fair to say that the record of White House czars is not a strong one.

There is other literature that suggests that there are regular patterns to Presidential centralization and dispersion of power. On key issues, the President puts the issue under the White House rubric until he has built the bureaucratic network he needs to further the issue. There is also the issue of scale. Presidents now appoint thousands when they take office. It isn't that these appointees are disloyal, but they probably don't know what the President wants and thus are liable to capture.

None of this is to say that Shultz's argument for easing the appointment process is not a good one - it is! His own record of success as a bureaucratic infighter is impressive (I hope he'll let me interview him when I get to that stage...)

One interesting note to the VP obsessed is that back in the mid-80s when the Reagan Administration couldn't figure out how to manage international terrorism Shultz apparently proposed VP Bush to head a Terrorism Task Force (I wrote a paper on it). Terrorism is THE inter-agency problem and a White House coordination effort was the only way to manage the process. But of course the VP is not a staffer, he (and one day she) is very much a public figure that is ultimately accountable.

Friday, April 8, 2011

To Wonk is not to Know

Years ago at a party with a bunch of other foreign policy wonks I noticed a guest sitting quietly and not saying anything. I found this unusual because wonks like to talk a lot and show everyone around how clever they are so I introduced myself and asked what he did. He was a colleague of the host's wife and worked as a microbiologist. We talked about the general conversation and he observed, "You guys go somewhere and talk to some people and think you know something. That's just not what I do. I do experiments, under careful conditions I need to eliminate guesswork and assumptions."

There is a great deal happening across the greater Middle East and the TerrorWonk honestly can't keep up. But my interlocutor had a profound point. I'm not sure how much anyone knows about anything. We hear a great deal of conventional wisdom bandied about on everything - the Muslim Brotherhood, Gaddhafi, Assad and Syrian politics - you name it.

Unfortunately, the ability to collect the kind of knowledge that “counts” to a hard scientist is very difficult. But, whenever some part of the world erupts, we seem to know very little about it. We don’t know how much al-Qaeda is in the Libyan rebellion. I doubt we know much about the internal dynamics of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and if Syria falls apart we won’t have a clue who is running the show.

I work on models and recognize the difficulty of predicting a true “Black Swan,” that is a game-changing event. The countries of the Middle East are all ripe for revolution, but it didn’t happen for decades so why now? This is probably not an answer that can be given definitively.

But what can policy-makers do to caught a bit less flat-footed, when it occurs?

(Also, do you have any idea how hard it is to find a picture online of an actual black swan and not Natalie Portman.)

Escaping the Inbox
Most of our government is run by the mail – that is people try to answer whatever is in their inbox. This is how it has to be, but it leaves little time for deep thinking. At the same time, our government consists of vast organizations that develop organizational cultures, huge bodies of pre-conceptions, SOPs, and worldviews. While most agencies have planning boards of some sort, they are usually staffed by people who have served in other capacities so they are still very much part of that culture so that their thinking is shaped by the inbox.

The NSC was initially established to “staff” the president but over time has become an operational body. It is very hard not to get sucked into operations – ie answering the mail.

The intelligence community is extremely skilled at meeting the needs of its customers – the President, the armed services etc. But its ability to think deeply on non-pressing problems is limited. They do establish very capable specialized teams to take on high-priority issues.

Could a new intelligence agency be established specifically to research and prepare for outliers? Sort a classified university? (I have to grant some interest in this issue since I’d love to work at such a place.) Academia does a pretty good job of this sort of thing, but they have limited access to classified information. But what if such a group could fuse the academic research on the Muslim Brotherhood with whatever the IC has collected (which is certain to be extensive) and issue monographs, in-depth articles, and policy briefs. These researchers could also have a license to talk to agency experts on their issues. This way, if needed there is a ready source of expertise and a library on the Muslim Brotherhood that could be accessed to at least provide policy-makers reliable information. If Egypt doesn’t go under there would be another report sitting on a shelf somewhere.

There are budget constraints (there always are) but intelligence analysis is actually cheap compared to launching satellites and the other sophisticated collection mechanisms that US possesses. The IC’s budget is tens of billions of dollars, a modest sum ($20 million) could support 100 researchers easily.

The real challenge would be to keep such a group from becoming operational. Soon enough an IC executive or a politician would see these capable researchers and set them onto a pressing need. At the same time, these capable researchers might get tired of generating reports that no one reads and try to get positions n the IC proper. Various mechanisms could be adopted. Projects could be assigned and approved by a board of outside academics and maybe a term-limit on careers (ten years say and then move on) could keep the institution from getting stale or the researchers from getting bored.

A built-in red team/Black Swan organization could be extremely useful when disaster strikes. There are a number of relatively unlikely possibilities that someone should be thinking deeply about such as a state collapse in Pakistan (or hell – China – is that truly inconceivable)? What if Saudi Arabia goes under or even if oil production there peaks?

Most of these outliers wouldn’t come to pass. And even the terrible things that did happen, probably wouldn’t take the shape of this unit’s reports. But, as the military says, “Plans are nothing, planning is everything.” We need the institutions for deep planning.

Back to Business
This blog has gotten philosophical lately, in part because to write intelligently one needs to take in a great deal of information and then have something worth saying about it. There is too much information, and I kinda have job that occasionally requires my attention.

But, I shall attempt to again provide grounded analysis and perspective on the, while trying to shed light, not heat on the discussion. I'll start next week.