Friday, February 12, 2016

Plan Colombia: Success & Ambiguity in Foreign Affairs

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos was in DC recently, to discuss how U.S. aid to his country will shift as the government negotiates with the FARC and Plan Colombia winds down. It should studied carefully, because it is that seemingly rare thing, U.S. foreign policy success on a security issue. When Plan Colombia started under President Clinton, the terrorist FARC was an existential threat to the state, as well as one of the world's largest drug trafficking organizations. Colombia faced a real risk of becoming a failed state.

Now, a decade and a half later the FARC has been dramatically reduced having suffered innumerable reverses, from the dramatic rescue of its most famous hostage to the violent deaths of many of its top leaders. All of these failures reflect massive penetration into FARC's communications and decision-making networks. They are engaged in peace negotiations and it appears likely that the conflict is finally, thankfully, winding down.

Unfortunately Colombia has not been transformed into a developed first world country. Nor has it stopped exporting drugs on a massive scale, with the attendant violence and corruption. Colombia, despite strong economic growth, continues to be mired in poverty, the justice system is imperfect, the security forces undoubtedly did terrible things - directly or by proxy - in the process of fighting the insurgency. Colombia will be wrestling with massive internal refugee crises for a long time to come.

Still, defeating the FARC was well worth doing. A vicious ideological group undermining a state is worse than huge criminal cartels. Their ability and willingness to extend disorder is greater.

The United States provided extensive financial and technical support to the Colombian government. The full spectrum of U.S. policy options were used. A full alphabet soup of intelligence and law enforcement agencies were engaged. The U.S. military provided training and operated closely - but was not supposed to be engaged in combat. The U.S. did engage in institution-building, helping Colombian courts develop the capacity to manage complex cases. There was even an economic component, in the ultimately established Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. But the reality of the success was due to the election of a highly capable president who was able to rally the nation. Whether the Colombian government could have prevailed without U.S support is an open question. Perhaps it was U.S. assistance that put them over the top. But most of the heavy lifting was done by the Colombians themselves.

In short, when there is a country in a dangerous place, but still with the resources to rally, the U.S. can help and contribute to a success. But if the country can't rally, there is little the U.S. can do. Despite conspiracy theories, the United States is not the Almighty, but in foreign policy the U.S. and those seeking its aid should adapt and adopt the old adage: the U.S. helps those who help themselves.

At the same time, we need realistic expectation of what is possible and what is necessary. Colombia is a more peaceful and prosperous country. Hopefully, with open civil war ended, it can continue to grow and develop. But rapid transformations do not happen and, specifically in the case of Colombia, drugs will continue to play an outsized role in their economy as long as there is a market for them in the developed world.

Still, a win is a win and should be studied carefully.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Phaedrus & Presentism Perspective

The first book I read when I started at St. John's College was Plato's Phaedrus. It is a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus in which - among many, many other things - Phaedrus is deeply concerned about this new things the kids are doing - reading books. Would people remember things if they could just write it down? Would people really understand ideas if they couldn't query the speaker? Written stuff seemed only fit to translate lightweight stuff, amusements.

There is nothing new under the sun.

It is an argument that has replayed itself so many times since, particularly in our own time. I remember a film in which the same argument was made regarding films vs. television. But in the Victorian era some worried about the deleterious effect of novels. Now some version of the Phaedrus is replayed almost weekly about some new technology or social media tool. I had my own little bout of it with GPS.

What we are afraid of is that somehow we are losing our essence, that we will stop being human. I grant that, superficially, being human seems to be under threat by modernity. But we are a bit more robust than that, we have something ineffable (literally that which cannot be f'd.)

Presentism & Policy
I may toy with philosophy, but politics and public policy are my bread and butter. I see the same phenomenon in politics as presentism. Some of this is journalists looking for a story, some version of "this changes everything." Howard Dean's online fundraising has fundamentally changed how politics works and indicates massive coming realignments. Sure, maybe. It is mostly choosing a choice detail, making some massive assumptions and extrapolating wildly. It is chasing the shadows on the walls of the cave (another fine Platonic dialogue.)

Presentism: In the midst of a dip, it can seem like the world is coming to an end
Wages for unskilled labor have collapsed in the past few decades. This is bad and is making lots of people miserable. Multi-pronged efforts are needed to address this. But it does not mean our system has failed. 150 years ago these unskilled workers would probably have been doing backbreaking labor at subsistence agriculture. While there were virtues to that life, let's not romanticize it. Around that time, these laborers were moving into factory work - hard, dirty, impoverishing. Over the next several decades factory work improved, but at first it was derided, scorned as lesser compared to the honest decent life of farming. The gains in productivity and living standards in the past century have been nothing short of astounding. The fact that we are in a dip (and that dip feels pretty huge) doesn't mean our system is broken.

On another, completely different front, the same issue applies to political polarization. We often hear how Washington is broken and things are more partisan than they've ever been. But, compared to what? Our political history has featured some pretty nasty rhetoric, periods of remarkable divisiveness and gridlock - oh, and a huge continent-spanning civil war. Maybe our perspective is skewed because of the post-World War II period was one of relative comity.

This phenomenon applies to many, many issues. In foreign policy when I hear how dangerous the world is, I smirk - not compared to the height of the Cold War - to say nothing of WWII.

Limits of Presentism
Presentism is useful, it helps put things in perspective. It has its limits. First, sometimes there is a big change. It becomes all too easy to miss when there is a vast trend, a major shift. Generally, the safe bet is the t+1 will look a whole lot like t, which looked like t-1...

But that isn't the biggest problem.

Saying that progress in living standards over the past 150 years has been tremendous is small comfort to the laid-off worker with few prospects. For Syrians the world IS a more dangerous place than it was in World War II or during the Cold War. Telling African-Americans that the civil rights situation has improved dramatically in the last several decades is no comfort (and appears false) in the wake of seeming police impunity.

The way someone feels about their situation and the world cannot be argued away. It has to be acknowledged. That sounds easy. But it isn't.