Obama's Light Touch and a Heavy Hand

The president's proposed counterterrorism plan might appear underwhelming, but doing more -- or doing less -- is not an option.

This column will not be about President Barack Obama's foreign policy address at West Point. This columnist does not want to contribute to the perverse dynamic in which critics scorn the president as irresolute and his policy as incoherent; wherein an increasingly thin-skinned Obama insists that he is, in fact, very resolute and coherent; and the critics, certain in advance of the president's response that he will merely reformulate the old formulations, line up their spitballs in a row. Maybe it's true that Obama has nothing new to say; in that case, me neither.

I do, however, think it is worth asking what recent experience tells us about Obama's announced plan, which strikes me as the heart of his speech, to build a "network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel" in order to stem the rising tide of Islamic terrorism in the region. If it is true, as a number of Obama's detractors have written, that the foreign troops the United States hopes to train are bound to be feckless or corrupt or both, and that whatever counterterror operations the United States conducts are bound to make more terrorists than they wipe out, then the United States should save its money for "nation-building at home," to use Obama's own phrase. 

The United States has learned a great deal over the past decade about the limits of what it can do in places beset by terrorism. Iraq did not have a terrorism problem when the United States invaded in 2003; now it does. The much more limited form of military intervention in Pakistan and Yemen -- that is, drones -- has made many people in both countries furious at, rather than grateful to, America. Billions of dollars of development assistance in Pakistan has had zero effect on public opinion in that country, and done little observable good. Some of the soldiers the United States trained in Mali helped overthrow the elected government; others deserted their post under attack by insurgents. 

So what's the point? Why spend $5 billion on a counterterrorism partnership fund if the partners in question are so hapless, and so despised by their own people, that they simply pull their benefactor down into the mire? The New York Times editorial board thinks that Obama should be fostering good governance rather than killing people in these vulnerable places. But wasn't that the plan in Afghanistan? 

I think there are answers to these questions. Obama even supplied a few examples of successful partnerships -- supporting U.N. peacekeepers in Somalia and French forces in Mali. Despite serious setbacks, training and equipping armies in fragile states is not, in fact, a fool's errand. The very mixed experience of AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Command, in training West African armies and coast guards to interdict criminal and terrorist networks provides evidence that the venture is hard but not hopeless (Sierra Leone okay, Guinea not). The cost of training the Afghan military now runs into the tens of billions, which is insane as well as insupportable; but the Afghan army is now at least a match for the Taliban, which it certainly wasn't a few years ago. The job could have been done faster and cheaper.

The question the administration needs to pose, especially now that it's asking Congress for $5 billion, is what kinds of partnerships actually strengthen the host country without doing the United States serious collateral harm. It's easy enough to rule out the fully kinetic end of the spectrum (military intervention, land wars) and to pick the benevolent end of the spectrum (humanitarian assistance, emergency relief). The hard questions are the ones in between.

For example, the United States has already forged a comprehensive partnership with Yemen, which includes military training, support for political dialogue, economic assistance -- and drones. Last year, a group of American experts on the region wrote an open letter to Obama praising aspects of the administration's effort but arguing for more development and fewer drone strikes, which were undermining the political goals of the effort. That sounds right -- for Yemen. But you can't have the same mix in Somalia, where the government is fighting even to hang on to the capital city of Mogadishu. Last year, a Navy SEAL team raided a house on the Somali coast hoping to kill or capture a jihadist leader. (They failed and retreated.) Perhaps in Somalia the political costs of direct, if small-scale, U.S. military intervention are worth incurring.

Another way of thinking about this question is: What is the counterinsurgency effort of the future? The Afghanistan model, with over 100,000 troops and tens of billions of dollars of assistance, is already a relic of another era. But the United States is fighting insurgencies with micro-scale versions of Afghanistan in places like the Philippines, and you don't hear much complaint about either American arrogance or naiveté. Sarah Sewall, the COIN theorist who now serves as an undersecretary of state, has called these missions "counterinsurgency-lite," and they may well serve as a model for Obama's proposed network of partnerships.

It's probably true that in some places the United States and other Western actors can do very little besides watch with bated breath. In Libya, American military trainers can take soldiers to some neighboring country for training, but American diplomats -- or for that matter, U.N. diplomats -- can do very little to persuade warring militias to accept the authority of the government in Tripoli, or to actually get that government to take some action to win the loyalty of citizens. Outsiders can help fortify governance in places that already have some, and can move along the process of reconciliation among factions prepared to talk to one another. Right now, that puts Yemen on the plus side, and Libya on the minus. Niger, good; Mali, bad.

Even in Libya, the situation might be less dire today if the administration had delivered a package of assistance in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi. But Obama hesitated because the Libyans themselves were ambivalent about further American assistance in the aftermath of the NATO bombing campaign that deposed Qaddafi, and perhaps because he was himself ambivalent about plunging America deeper into a Middle East morass. Of course, Congress treated Libya as a toxic site after U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was murdered there in September 2012. This combination of presidential diffidence and congressional intransigence has undermined American involvement across the region, very much including in Syria.

So, yes, the proposed counterterror partnership may wind up embarrassing Obama either because the partners misbehave or because Congress refuses to comply. It's a risk. But it's a small one compared to the risk of pulling back to "the homeland," or despairing of the whole enterprise of building capacity in fragile states. Jihadists with al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, in Yemen, have already tried on several occasions to target the United States. Eventually those in Iraq or Libya, or Afghanistan or Pakistan, will try to do the same. The American people will punish a president who has failed to do whatever he can to suppress those extremists, even though it is Americans' apathy and their surly suspicion of the world beyond our borders that makes the president want to do all his nation-building at home.

OK, I, too, wish President Obama had found the language, and the passion, to demonstrate that the world offers the United States opportunities to be seized as well as calamities to be mitigated. He does seem to have lost that knack, or perhaps even that faith. I am, however, prepared to judge him by his actions. 



Did the Arab Spring Really Spark a Wave of Global Protests?

The world may look like it's roiling now, but the 1980s were far worse.

As the remnants of the Arab Spring's wave of uprisings continue to wrack the Middle East, as Thailand and Venezuela convulse, and as Ukraine spirals into possible civil war, a question heard ever more frequently in the halls of Washington is whether the world is coming apart at the seams. That may well be hyperbole, but more analytical minds that I've spoken to recently still wonder whether the Arab Spring was the catalyst that tipped populations across the world to rise up against their governments. While political pundits and subject matter experts have responded with a myriad of thought pieces, there has been a lack of quantitative data placing the recent protests into historical context.

Turning to the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT Project), the timeline below is perhaps the first global chronology ever created of protests worldwide over the past 30 years, compiled from print, broadcast, and web news media from over 100 languages in nearly every country. In all, more than 2.4 million protest records from January 1979 to April 2014 are cataloged in its archive. The number of protests each month is divided by the total number of all events recorded in GDELT that month to create a "protest intensity" score that tracks just how prevalent worldwide protest activity has been month-by-month over the last quarter-century (this corrects for the exponential rise in media coverage over the last 30 years and the imperfect nature of computer processing of the news). To make it easier to spot the macro-level patterns, a black 12-month moving average trend line is drawn on top of the graph to help clarify the major temporal shifts.

Figure 1 - Intensity of protest activity worldwide 1979-April 2014 (black line is 12-month moving average)

One of the most striking features of this timeline is the sharp rise in global protest activity beginning in January 2011 as the Arab Spring washed over the Middle East, followed by a steady state of elevated protest activity over the following three years. In short, the Arab Spring indeed appears to have kicked off a 25 percent increase in protest activity around the world. This elevated level of protests appears to be stabilizing after a period of slight decrease, suggesting a future in which citizen protests play a larger role in global politics. However, it is important to put the current protests in historical context: The uprisings of recent years are still less prevalent than they were through most of the 1980s. In fact, the elevated protest activity of the last three years is only noticeable because it comes on the heels of two decades of relatively reduced protest action.

Looking at the spikes in the graph above, a number of major world events are instantly recognizable. One of the largest peaks in the trend line is the international boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games, in which more than 60 nations withdrew from the games in protest of Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. The May 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and global anti-war movement after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 are also both clearly visible. But the single most intense moment in global dissent over the last 30 years, as measured by GDELT, was the February 2006 Danish cartoon controversy, which triggered violent protests across the globe and left more than 250 dead, over 800 wounded, and several Western embassies damaged. While this event may not have had the long-lasting impact of other events, its global nature, with a physical footprint in so many countries, appears to have led to its heightened intensity. In third place is February 2011 -- when the Arab Spring was in full swing, with protesters from Tahrir Square to Manama's Pearl Roundabout, a period that also saw the beginning of the Libyan Civil War, the toppling of Tunisia's tyrant, and turmoil from Algeria to Yemen. Roughly a year and a half later, we can see a spike again -- denoting the reaction to the "Innocence of Muslims" video in September 2012 that fueled protests in over 60 countries. Compared against this baseline, the current outbreaks of violence in Ukraine, Thailand, and Venezuela, while captivating the American news media, are far more localized in their impact.

Turning to Ukraine as a country-level case study, there is relatively little recorded protest activity until the middle of 1989, when the fall of communism in Eastern Europe began. The next spike -- a burst of anti-Ukrainian protests in Crimea in October 1995, after Kiev abolished Crimea's constitution and dissolved its presidency -- foreshadows recent events. The next spike marks the "Ukraine without Kuchma" protests of March 2001, while the uptick in September 2002 saw opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko's "Rise Up, Ukraine!" movement take hold. The Orange Revolution in November 2004 capped off this period of elevated unrest in Ukraine, leading to a lull in widespread protests from 2007 through 2010, at which point the country began to become agitated once again, culminating in the Euromaidan protests of November 2013 to present -- the biggest spike to date.

Figure 2 - Intensity of Ukraine protest activity 1979-April 2014 (black line is 12-month moving average)

Never before have we been able to answer a policy question like "did the Arab Spring catalyze a surge in protests around the world." But by making a timeline of worldwide protests spanning 30 years, we can now see, with some perspective, the effect of the cause. Looking across the news media of every country, we can see beyond the attention biases of any one country or culture to get a far more holistic view of global protest activity. This ability to use big data to scan increasingly high-resolution records of our human society is providing the first glimpse of what the future of data-driven diplomacy may look like, moving from anecdote to actuality.