Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Coup d'etat: the unguided missile from within

Mr. Bottom Billion, Paul Collier, published an insightful op-ed last week lamenting the current politically-correct mindset that sees powerful, rich nations only bullying weaker, poorer ones. Yet the planet's major disaster states are ruled by isolated autocrats who are omnipotent on their own turf: Mugabe in Zimbabwe, General Than Shwe in Burma. These leaders are far more powerful than any Western head of state; there is nothing weak about them.

Efforts to help the citizens of these countries are blocked by such leaders and their cronies, for whom their people are 'better dead than fed'. The only effective change agent in such situations are the national armies, with their capacity for a coup d'etat. Coups are historically common in such instances, but are like 'unguided missiles', Collier explains, because their outcomes are unpredictable. How then to help make coups 'smarter'?

His answer: "Rather than trying to freeze coups out of the international system, we should try to provide them with a guidance system. In contexts such as Zimbabwe and Burma, coups should be encouraged because they are likely to lead to improved governance. (It's hard to imagine things getting much worse.) The question then becomes how to provide encouragement for some potentially helpful coups while staying within the bounds of proper international conduct."

Read the whole piece here.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Carrots for the General

Pencils ready? Here's today’s five-second brain teaser: What incentives succeed in getting autocrats to relinquish power peacefully? The use of sticks and carrots to bring about reform is fertile fodder for political theory, yet in practice the tools of the trade are limited and primitive. Privation of goods or commerce is common in today’s climate; chest-thumping and bellicose posturing, another favorite, is practiced by the entire animal kingdom. Carrots, as opposed to sticks, work wonders with children but see little success between nations. Why is that?

In the case of Burma under General Than Shwe and his military junta, no carrots have been tried, to my knowledge. Sticks in many shapes and sizes have been brandished and swung, to little effect. Economic sanctions, asset freezes, arms embargos and travel bans are currently in effect by the US and EU. I posed the question to a Burmese dissident last week. He reflected a moment, then smiled and said, ‘A missile launch pad in Thailand, that’s all we need’. No sticks, no carrots, just elimination: everyman’s fantasy. Were regime change so easy!

Western policies designed to weaken the junta have been contradictory, perhaps even self-sabotaging. The State Department claims its trade sanctions have encouraged ASEAN countries to adopt a more critical stance on Burma; this is correlation, not causation. ASEAN countries continue their waffling course of ‘constructive engagement’, meaning: do business and look the other way. The US was alone in pursuing sanctions for over a decade until the ill-fated ‘Saffron Revolution’ last September, at which point the EU implemented similar measures.

Critics of these sanctions, embargoes and other disincentives highlight their feel-good, symbolic character—much like Bush’s declaration of genocide in Darfur being followed by cooperation with Khartoum on terrorist intelligence matters. As with Sudan, sanctions against Burma arguably strengthen the hand of ruling authorities by creating a scapegoat for their own internal policy failures and narrowing the opportunity for Burmese to expand their economic, social, and cultural contacts with reform-minded nations. The conservative CATO institute, for instance, makes a case for re-opening commercial relations with Burma, arguing that investment and trade brings technology, better working conditions, and increased exposure to democratic ideas.

Burmese pressure groups and international human rights agencies have lobbied the UN for Security Council action to target Burma’s gas and oil industries, the junta’s primary source of revenue. Such a vote was never tabled, as China and Russia would surely veto on the grounds of the principle of non-interference, their almighty sacred cow and miracle panacea for any vexing political crisis.

But for those nations who huff and puff and try to blow the junta house down--to what effect? Sanctions that fail to cut off all revenue streams to an offending party are ultimately a non sequitur. And wherever there is oil, there is always political wiggle-room. Extraction rights to Burma’s vast offshore oilfields were accorded to China in 2007, along with contracts to build an overland pipeline leading—where else?—to China.

Read the remainder of this piece I wrote for here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

'On the Rumba River '

On the Rumba River: a new French film on Congolese music and life on the world's second largest river, now a graveyard for abandoned barges and steamers.

Good review here. A snippet:

"The confrontation between environmental ugliness and sonic beauty is part of the point of Wendo's music, and eventually becomes a lynchpin of Sarasin's film as well. Immediately following the band's light, lively reunion show, Wendo - while dolefully gazing at a Congo river littered with decrepit, abandoned boats which symbolize the country's wholesale neglect - laments a country torn asunder by leaders and politicians more interested in enriching themselves than tending to their fellow citizens. It's a forceful juxtaposition of tight-knit community and unjust disregard, amplified by the absence of any superfluous or manipulative aesthetic embellishment. True, the director's refusal to provide basic details about some of his featured musicians, as well as the Congo's rocky past, can at times leave one wanting. But ultimately, On the Rumba River makes up for its lack of informational depth with stirring poignancy."

Monday, June 02, 2008

Ghost at the Humanitarian Banquet

David Rieff's weekend article in the NY Times Magazine, "Humanitarian Vanities," points out that the logical endpoint of much humanitarian advocacy--regarding the 'right to intervene' and more recently the 'responsibility to protect'--is ultimately nothing other than regime change. After all, if the famous 'root causes' are to be addressed, is that not through direct engagement with national authorities? Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe--who has not dreamt of an end to suffering in these places?

Lasting solutions lie with the venal political class, folks, not aid agencies. And they must go, by any means necessary. Yet most aid agencies are averse to this language, Rieff points out, even though it is the logical conclusion of their interventionist ethos.

"After the Iraqi debacle, it is hardly surprising that we are hesitant to undertake interventions that may well involve regime change. And regime change — its moral legitimacy and political practicality — is the ghost at the banquet of humanitarian intervention. Use any euphemism you wish, but in the end these interventions have to be about regime change if they are to have any chance of accomplishing their stated goal."

I'm glad to see Rieff writing on these issues again; I've always appreciated and learned from his contrarian views. Here's a link to a critique I wrote of his 2002 book, A Bed for the Night, in the Parisian journal Multitudes.