Thinking Aloud: Learning the Right Lessons from Gambia

Feb. 1, 2017 by Darius 

Two weeks ago, Yahya Jammeh, the man who had ruled the small West African nation of Gambia with an iron fist for the last 22 years, boarded a plane and flew into exile.  Jammeh’s departure and the inauguration of Adama Barrow, the opposition figure who defeated Jammeh in an unexpectedly democratic election, constitute very good news indeed.  However, as is often the case, the relevance of Jammeh’s overthrow outside Gambia depends not so much on what actually happened but on peoples’ perceptions of what happened.  The battle for the narrative of Jammeh’s fall is, unfortunately, being lost.

Ever since Jammeh’s departure, most of the media attention and “lessons learned” (for example, this AlJazeera piece: have focused on the bloodless nature of Jammeh’s exit and the role regional leaders, especially those in ECOWAS, an economic community of West African countries, played in mediating Jammeh’s exit.  It makes for a nice narrative: a club of (mostly) democratic countries (looking at you, Mauritania) come together to demand that their neighbor mend its ways, and, in the face of united regional opposition, the autocrat gives way.  Unfortunately, that’s not what happened in Gambia.

The crucial ingredient in Gambia was not the united international condemnation of Jammeh’s attempt to remain in power or even Jammeh being offered generous terms for a retirement outside Gambia (although those were nice.)  Instead, it was, simply, overwhelming military force.  Soon after Jammeh attempted to annul the results of the election in which he was defeated, ECOWAS pledged to intervene militarily, if necessary, to ensure Jammeh left power according to Gambian law.  Somewhat surprisingly, ECOWAS was serious: as the last day of Jammeh’s term neared, Senegalese and Nigerian troops, under the banners of ECOWAS, massed on Gambia’s borders and, as Barrow was inaugurated in the Gambian embassy in Senegal, entered Gambia.

Given the small size of Gambia’s military, the ECOWAS force was overwhelming, and the head of Gambia’s military announced he would not order his troops to fight ECOWAS.  It was only after ECOWAS troops were in Gambia that regional leaders arrived in the capital for the negotiations that ultimately resulted in Jammeh going peacefully into exile.  In short, Jammeh had a very real choice: accept a nice retirement package somewhere far away or have his door kicked down by Senegalese soldiers.  The only reason diplomacy succeeded was because for Jammeh, the alternative was both far worse and extremely imminent.

Why does getting the narrative right matter?  Because Jammeh is, obviously, far from the only dictator.  And the next time the international community is faced with a situation similar to the one we saw in Gambia, it’s vital that we don’t assume that regional mediation will succeed in easing a dictator out of power “because it worked in Gambia.”  It won’t.  And this isn’t just idle speculation on my part.  In the last few years, we’ve seen time and again that recalcitrant dictators are willing to absorb regional diplomatic pressure and cling to power regardless through violence.  For example, between March and September 2011, the prime minister and foreign minister of Turkey made no fewer than 24 official visits to Syria, first to convince Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to enact reforms and then to convince him to leave power.  Assad rebuffed them, and Turkey had no immediate alternative.  Nearly six years later, Assad is still in power, half a million people are dead, and 11 million more have fled their homes.

The case of Burundi is even more relevant in comparison to Gambia.  In 2015, Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for a constitutionally prohibited third term.  Protests erupted against his rule and were violently repressed, sending refugees fleeing into neighboring countries.  Ministers from countries in the East African Community, the regional equivalent of ECOWAS, arrived in Burundi’s capital to negotiate Nkurunziza out of power, and the African Union even approved a military intervention if the crisis did not end.  But it was a bluff, and Nkurunziza called it: the troops never materialized.  The diplomats eventually went home, and Nkurunziza remains in power—at the cost of hundreds of dead Burundians.

It’s definitely nice that no shots were fired in Jammeh’s removal.  But, ironically, it was only the threat of a whole lot of shots being fired (at Jammeh) that led him to accept a deal to leave power and go into exile.

The most important lesson we should learn from Gambia’s experience is simple: diplomatic efforts make the international community feel better about itself, but diplomatic efforts backed up by genuine coercive force achieve real results.

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News You Really Need To See: “How to Build an Autocracy”

“How to Build an Autocracy”

The Atlantic, March 2017

No society, not even one as rich and fortunate as the United States has been, is guaranteed a successful future.  When early Americans wrote things like ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,’ they did not do so to provide bromides for future bumper stickers.  They lived in a world in which authoritarian rule was the norm, in which rulers habitually claimed the powers and assets of the state as their own personal property. … What is spreading today is repressive kleptocracy, led by rulers motivated by greed rather than by the deranged idealism of Hitler or Stalin or Mao. Such rulers rely less on terror and more on rule-twisting, the manipulation of information, and the co-optation of elites.  The United States is of course a very robust democracy.  Yet no human contrivance is tamper-proof, a constitutional democracy least of all.  Some features of the American system hugely inhibit the abuse of office: the separation of powers within the federal government; the division of responsibilities between the federal government and the states.  Federal agencies pride themselves on their independence; the court system is huge, complex, and resistant to improper influence.  Yet the American system is also perforated by vulnerabilities no less dangerous for being so familiar.  Supreme among those vulnerabilities is reliance on the personal qualities of the man or woman who wields the awesome powers of the presidency.  A British prime minister can lose power in minutes if he or she forfeits the confidence of the majority in Parliament.  The president of the United States, on the other hand, is restrained first and foremost by his own ethics and public spirit.  What happens if somebody comes to the high office lacking those qualities? … Donald Trump, however, represents something much more radical. A president who plausibly owes his office at least in part to a clandestine intervention by a hostile foreign intelligence service?  Who uses the bully pulpit to target individual critics?  Who creates blind trusts that are not blind, invites his children to commingle private and public business, and somehow gets the unhappy members of his own political party either to endorse his choices or shrug them off?  If this were happening in Honduras, we’d know what to call it.  It’s happening here instead, and so we are baffled.”

Quickie analysis:   A long, well-written, and scary examination of the ways in which in the American system of government is vulnerable to an executive like Donald Trump.

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Thinking Aloud: Fool Me Once, Shame on You…

April 27, 2016 by Darius 

President Obama recently wrapped up a trip to Saudi Arabia.  In a piece written just prior to Obama’s trip, Bruce Riedel of Brookings made the case for why the US must continue to invest in its relationship with Saudi Arabia despite the many problems.  Riedel cites economic deals, a shared interest in fighting ISIS, and a few other areas of US-Saudi cooperation.  One of his reasons, though, caught my eye: according to Riedel, the US and Saudis “should enhance cooperation to combat al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has grown dramatically during the war in Yemen.”

In a nutshell, with this sentence, Riedel perhaps unknowingly encapsulates much of what’s been wrong with US policy in the Middle East for the last 60 years.  Why?  Because while Saudi Arabia did not create al-Qaeda in Yemen, its invasion was and is almost entirely responsible for AQAP’s dramatic growth.  It’s been the standard modus operandi of Middle Eastern regimes for more than half a century: create or exacerbate a problem, then convince the US the problem can’t be solved without supporting the regime.  The US falls for it every time.

Examples abound, ranging from the minute to the large.  In Iran, for instance, during the early 1950s, the Shah’s repression and economic cronyism led to the growth of the Communist Party in Iran, known as Tudeh.  Fear of a Tudeh takeover led the CIA to sponsor a coup against Iran’s last democratically elected leader (who, by the way, was in no way, shape, or form a Communist) in favor of helping the Shah gain near-absolute power.  Tudeh was crushed, but 25 more years of the Shah’s repression and economic cronyism led directly to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

In Egypt, current leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the country’s democratically elected (if rather unlikable) government in a coup, launched a massive crackdown that resulted in, at last count, at least 30,000 political prisoners, and turned Sinai into a free-fire zone to battle a supposed insurgency.  Sisi now justifies his value to the US because, not surprisingly, the insurgency in Sinai has spread to other areas of the country, fueled by massive discontent with his regime.  The US bit hook, line, and sinker and continues to indulge Sisi to the tune of several billion dollars each year.

In Yemen, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh at the very least turned a blind eye to jihadist groups (and probably funded them) in order to claim the threat of jihad as a justification for his regime.  US support for Saleh only became untenable after 25 years in power.

Even the centerpiece of the US’s Middle East policy, Israel, is no exception.  Israel is a valuable “security ally” and “partner in the War on Terror” because it goes after terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.  Would these groups exist if it hadn’t been for decades of Israel’s bad behavior?  Doubtfully.

And now the Saudis: create a problem with a resurgent al-Qaeda in Yemen, then present yourself as the only solution to that problem.  It’s a time-honored tactic, and one that seems to work again and again.  (Curious how political opponents used to be “Communists” and now they’re all “terrorists,” isn’t it?)

I’m not saying the US should immediately axe all its Middle Eastern relationships.  That would be like having police officers no longer carry guns: far too late to be a good idea.  But there needs to be a greater degree of accountability, and the US needs to be at least aware that most of its “allies” are helping it with one hand and setting up the next problem with the other.  The US really can’t afford to continue business as usual: in addition to leading to massive human rights violations, each of the examples I listed above has resulted in terrible outcomes for the US and for US interests.  And that just keeps the cycle going.

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News You Really Need To See: “Where Jobs Are Squeezed by Chinese Trade, Voters Seek Extremes”

“Where Jobs Are Squeezed by Chinese Trade, Voters Seek Extremes”

The New York Times, April 25, 2016

“Disenchantment with the political mainstream is no surprise.  But research to be unveiled this week by four leading academic economists suggests that the damage to [US] manufacturing jobs from a sharp acceleration in globalization since the turn of the century has contributed heavily to the nation’s bitter political divide. … Cross-referencing congressional voting records and district-by-district patterns of job losses and other economic trends between 2002 and 2010, the researchers found that areas hardest hit by trade shocks were much more likely to move to the far right or the far left politically. … While whites hit hard by trade tend to move right, nonwhite voters move left, eroding support for moderates in both parties, the study concluded. … The new paper underscores a broader rethinking among economists of the costs and benefits of policies aimed at encouraging industrial competition across borders. … Until the Nafta agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1994, and especially the entry of China into the W.T.O., trade deals were mostly multilateral and the rise in manufacturing imports to the United States came primarily from other advanced industrial nations like Germany and Japan. … The authors found that voters in congressional districts hardest hit by Chinese imports tended to choose more ideologically extreme lawmakers.  Between 2002 and 2010, districts in the top 5th percentile of trade exposure, on average, experienced a 19 percent greater drop in manufacturing employment relative to districts at the other end of the spectrum.  Those hard-hit districts became, on average, far more conservative: the ideological equivalent of moving from Marco Rubio to Ted Cruz.”

Quickie analysis:   An interesting study that sheds light on how economic disenfranchisement fuels political extremism.  Although the study focuses on the US, the dynamics in Europe are likely similar.

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Thinking Aloud: “America’s Invisible Wars,” Part III

April 21, 2016 by Darius 

[I recently saw a panel discussion at the CATO Institute on “America’s Invisible Wars.”  The discussion focused on some of America’s lesser-known interventions: Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  The panelists who presented on each of these three countries were all excellent.  I already blogged about Moeed Yusuf of the US Institute of Peace, who discussed US involvement in Pakistan, and  Charles Schmitz of the Middle East Institute, who discussed Yemen.  Today, I’ll share the comments of Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council, who spoke about Somalia.]

Bruton began with a description of Somalia as it stood on September 10, 2001.  According to Bruton, by 2001, the chaos of the 1990s was over, and throughout Somalia, violence was at a low level.  Critically, there was no significant radical Islamist activity, despite the fact that al-Qaeda had made a deliberate effort to base itself in Somalia during the 1990s.  Al-Qaeda found it impossible to work in Somalia thanks to the clan politics, warlords, and climate, and was effectively forced to retreat from Somalia in defeat.

However, Bruton said that after 9/11, the US decided it could no longer afford to leave Somalia alone.  This decision was based on two perceptions: first, that most Somalis hated Americans (which stemmed from the Black Hawk Down incident of the 1990s), and second, that a security vacuum would inevitably lead to terrorism taking root in Somalia, despite al-Qaeda’s attempt and failure.  The US marshaled Somalia’s neighbors to create a government for Somalia.  This provoked an immediate backlash of Somali public opinion, and individual members of the Somali “government” set up in Nairobi became targets for assassination.

According to Bruton, at this point, the CIA decided more intervention in Somalia was needed.  The CIA chose to recruit warlords to do its dirty work.  The corruption, violence, and generally heavy-handed tactics of these CIA-backed warlords provoked a massive public uprising that forced the warlords out of the capital, Mogadishu.  The only institution remotely capable of governing was a council made up of religious authorities called the Union of Islamic Courts.  Although Bruton said the UIC was in retrospect extremely moderate, the Bush administration thought the UIC was a front for al-Qaeda.  On the basis of this false assumption, in 2006, the US gave a green light to an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.

The Ethiopian invasion quickly took Mogadishu, destroyed the UIC, and installed the supposed government in exile.  However, given Ethiopia’s status as Somalia’s traditional enemy, the Ethiopian occupation provoked massive discontent.  Within a year, a new group arose to oppose the Ethiopian occupation: al-Shabaab.

Ethiopian casualties quickly mounted, and Ethiopia was forced to end its unilateral occupation.  With US backing, the Ethiopian troops were replaced by an African Union peacekeeping force whose mandate was to protect the Somali “government,” which, according to Bruton, would not last for a day without foreign troops to prop it up.  Bruton said that for the next three years, due to its tendency to deploy enormous, indiscriminate firepower in civilian areas, the AU force was responsible for 95% of civilian casualties in Somalia.

In 2010, al-Shabaab unilaterally withdrew from Mogadishu, though not in defeat.  In 2011, though, a famine in Somalia was largely blamed on al-Shabaab, leading to a major erosion of its political support.  The AU peacekeeping force reformed its practices of engagement and managed to win a large amount of territory back from al-Shabaab.

In 2011, though, Kenya decided to invade Somalia.  The US decided to add Kenya to the AU peacekeeping force, instantly undoing all the goodwill the AU force had attained in the previous year.  The Kenyan invasion did little other than make Kenya a major target for Shabaab terrorist attacks.

Today, there are approximately 20,000 African Union troops in Somalia.  It is not nearly enough to stabilize the country.  The ostensible Somali government remains far too weak to survive on its own.  Al-Shabaab is active throughout East Africa and retains enough power in Somalia itself to serve as an effective spoiler of anything the government or anyone else tries to accomplish.

Bruton blasted US policy in the harshest terms.  She felt the US turned a country that was largely peaceful into a country that is aggressively exporting terrorism and has destabilized the entire region.  She noted, however, that the US’s failure is not due to bad intentions or excessive intervention.  In fact, the US has kept its role to a minimum and is the only player involved with a genuine concern for the Somali people and for Somali civilian casualties.  Instead, as Bruton said, the US has irreparably harmed Somalia by providing political cover for Ethiopia and Kenya to run amok in Somalia.  She felt direct US action in Somalia would have been far better.

Troublingly, according to Bruton, the US has persistently refused to learn from its mistakes in Somalia.  In fact, the US does not see Somalia as a mistake at all: first President Bush and then President Obama have held up the US’s strategy in Somalia as a success that can be replicated elsewhere in Africa rather than acknowledging that US strategy there has been a catastrophic failure.

Bruton said the US could not have designed a worse outcome for Somalia.  She felt that given al-Qaeda’s failure to enter Somalia during the 1990s, it is likely that without US intervention, al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab would still not be in Somalia.  She summed up what US policy has done to Somalia: “The US took its worst nightmare and turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

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News You Really Need To See: “China and Africa: A Despot’s Guide to Foreign Aid”

“China and Africa: A Despot’s Guide to Foreign Aid”

The Economist, April 16-22, 2016

“Pity the UN ambassador of a small African country each time a vote is called in the General Assembly. Many of the resolutions will be ones that their president and most of their compatriots neither know nor care about. … But what of more contentious resolutions, such as one condemning North Korea for abuses of human rights?  Deciding whether to vote yea or nay ought to be easy: North Korea has one of the worst records on earth.  Yet 19 countries voted against the resolution, among them Zimbabwe, Burundi and Algeria.  Another 48 abstained, among them Kenya, Mozambique and Ethiopia.  One reason, perhaps, is that China (which dislikes criticism of its pals in Pyongyang) smiles on nations that agree with it.  AidData, a project based at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, keeps a huge database on official aid flows.  Its number-crunching shows how much China appears to reward African countries that vote with it.  The relationship is not a simple one …, according to Brad Parks, a director of the organisation.  China gives proportionally more money to poorer countries, for instance.  But by and large countries that support China do better.  AidData reckons that if African countries voted with China an extra 10% of the time, they would get an 86% bump in official aid on average.  If Rwanda, for instance, were to cast its ballot alongside China 93% of the time (instead of its current 67%), its aid from China could jump by 289%. … Even so, cash-strapped African leaders should probably hire a data scientist or two to optimise the yield on their votes, or at the very least make sure their ambassadors turn up.  Burundi, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo missed almost half of the votes that America considers key.  Swaziland missed two-thirds of its opportunities to cosy up to America or China. Surely in the business of vote-buying the principle of ‘no vote, no pay’ applies.”

Quickie analysis:   Interesting statistical support for the anecdotal evidence that China, which now has the world’s largest economy, is increasingly throwing its economic weight around to ensure diplomatic support.

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Thinking Aloud: “America’s Invisible Wars,” Part II

April 18, 2016 by Darius 

[I recently saw a panel discussion at the CATO Institute on “America’s Invisible Wars.”  The discussion focused on some of America’s lesser-known interventions: Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  The panelists who presented on each of these three countries were all excellent.  I already blogged about Moeed Yusuf of the US Institute of Peace, who discussed US involvement in Pakistan.  Today, I’ll share the remarks of Charles Schmitz of the Middle East Institute, who discussed Yemen.]

Schmitz said the US is actually conducting two “secret wars” in Yemen right now.  The first is a long-standing campaign of drone strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while the second consists of quiet US support for the Saudi coalition intervening in Yemen’s civil war.

According to Schmitz, the Yemeni civil war started because the transitional government, led by President Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, proved itself utterly incapable of actually governing, especially in the face of a rising economic crisis.  Because of the economic situation and lack of governance, the so-called political transition process was completely divorced from the experiences of Yemenis.

At the same time, an internal power struggle within the Zaydi Shia Houthi movement led to the party’s military wing winning out.  The military wing launched a fast campaign from the movement’s northern strongholds and took Yemen’s capital, Sana’a.  For the Saudis, who don’t even consider Yemen to be a foreign country, this was unacceptable.  Schmitz described the Saudis as paranoid about even a US presence in Yemen.  The war quickly escalated.

However, when it came to the US’s campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Houthi takeover was not a bad thing.  In fact, the Houthis did aggressively go after al-Qaeda in Yemen, including in areas where the Yemeni government had been unable to.  According to Schmitz, the US did not initially have a problem with the (dubious) links between the Houthis and Iran.  However, according to Schmitz, the US allowed the Saudi intervention because (1) the US feared the further rise of ungoverned spaces and (2) the US and Iran had just agreed to a major nuclear deal which left the Saudis feeling marginalized.  Schmitz also said that when it comes to Saudi policy more broadly, personalities in the US administration shine through.  President Obama was ambivalent at best towards Saudi Arabia and felt that the US should pursue a more even-handed policy towards the region, but Secretary of State John Kerry is very pro-Saudi.

Schmitz said that as a result of the civil war and Saudi intervention in it, the fabric of Yemeni society has been absolutely ripped apart.  He said the country has been set back at least 25 or 30 years.

Looking to the future, Schmitz felt the war is heading towards a political settlement.  The Saudis have realized that not only is there no military solution to be had in Yemen but that “their” Yemenis are incapable of governing even the areas they control, much less the whole country.

For its part, al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the war to expand.  They initially positioned themselves as the defenders of Sunnis against the Houthis, then took the southern port city of Mukalla in the chaos.  The Saudis made a conscious decision not to go after al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is anti-Houthi.  However, Schmitz said al-Qaeda has made a great deal of money from oil sales and is definitively stronger than before the war.

The US drone campaign against al-Qaeda has continued since the start of the civil war.  According to Schmitz, the campaign has been even more successful than before at taking out top al-Qaeda leaders because the capture of Mukalla apparently led some AQAP leaders to assume they were safe.  (They weren’t.)  However, the US drone campaign has failed in one important aspect: despite killing top leaders, it has not effectively degraded al-Qaeda’s capabilities in Yemen, including in the areas of money, organizing, and recruiting.  In fact, al-Qaeda is finding it easier to recruit than ever because the civil war has rendered Yemen so poor that the promise of a salary is all AQAP needs to attract recruits.

Schmitz criticized the US campaign against al-Qaeda in Yemen more generally.  He felt that although AQAP is often portrayed as the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda, it has actually done very little and met with even less success.  In his view, the danger is overblown.  He also criticized the political need to be seen to be going after al-Qaeda.  He said that what is needed for Yemen instead is a long-term (25- to 30-year), locally nuanced strategy, and that one cannot hope to solve the complex problems that lead to the emergence of ungoverned spaces through small tactical operations and by throwing money at the problem.

Schmitz was not optimistic about Yemen’s political future.  He felt that for governance to improve, there must be a certain minimum political base.  Yemen’s Saudi-backed “government” lacks even that base.

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