Voice

When the acronym exceeds the threat....

Over at the Foreign Policy Association's website, Sean Goforth has ginned up a handy new acronym to describe the latest constellation of threats to U.S. national interests: 

Ever since "axis of evil," broad characterizations of geopolitical threats have been considered impolitic, if not ignorant....   The hesitation to label a global threat as such is now sacrificing substance for political correctness. Venezuela, Iran, and Russia constitute a VIRUS of instability that threatens the United States and Western order. This recognition is needed, but the US should learn from past mistakes and avoid a hard-line path similar to the one that resulted from branding "axis of evil."

Clearly, there's some rhetorical tension in that paragraph.  One the one hand, VIRUS is just an awesome acronym, and Goforth deserves some props for coming up with it.  Seriously, it's catchy, it effectively captures the relationship between the salient actors, and it sounds quite menacing.   I can already picture the cable news teasers and one-liners:

"After the break:  can the Obama administration combat the VIRUS?"

"When we come back:  is the VIRUS running rampant across Latin America?"

"Coming up:  forget Tiger Woods, Sean Penn is in danger of spreading the VIRUS!"

The thing is, Goforth concludes with his recommended policy responses to the VIRUS coalition.  And they appear to be.... pretty much what's being done right now: 

[T]he VIRUS alliance is playing a sophisticated game of brinksmanship. Venezuelan government documents suggest that Chavez hopes to get the US to perceive an immediate threat and overreact, igniting a series of events that will eventually collapse "the empire." More realistically, if Colombia or Israel, key American allies, were to misstep and launch a limited-scale attack against Venezuela or Iran it would further boost anti-Americanism and add weight to claims of imperialism. A final objective appears to be presenting a dilemma that will drive a fissure between the US and Israel, a prospect that Iran's nuclear program may well realize.

Responding to the VIRUS needn't require one bold policy. Talk of regime change should be scuttled for sure-it only justifies more arms purchases and feeds anti-American rhetoric. And focusing just on Iran is feckless. Iran is embedded in an alliance that cobbles Russia's diplomatic protection with a network that spreads "business" investments across three continents to serve strategic purposes.

Instead of antagonizing the VIRUS the United States should seek inoculation through savvy diplomacy that breaks the bonds between its constituent members, which is a realistic objective because Venezuela, Russia, and Iran don't share deep-seeded cultural or economic ties. Luckily for Western security, the VIRUS' venom is being diluted by economic realities on the ground: unemployment is extremely high in all three nations, and Iran and Venezuela have the world's highest rates of inflation. If oil trades at moderate prices, Chavez and his "brother" Ahmadinejad will be left to account for their failure to bring development, though Putin's popularity seems assured no matter how badly the Russian economy sours.

So, according to Goforth, the proper U.S. response to VIRUS appears to be: 

A)  Don't overreact or overreach;

B) Try to split the constituent members of the VIRUS  through assiduous diplomacy; and

C)  Be patient and let these economies collapse under their own weight.

Is there anything different betwqeen these policy recommendations and what the Obama administration is currently doing?  The only new thing here is the idea of letting oil prices stay relatively low to prevent new infusions of cash into the coffers of these regimes -- although, truth be told, this isn't really that new an idea

I suspect, however, that Goforth's policy recommendations will not garner much attention.  I expect the VIRUS acronym, on the other hand, to spread across the foreign policy community like... well, you know

Daniel W. Drezner

The dumb sanctions that toppled Kyrgyzstan's regime

The Washington Post's Philip P. Pan had an excellent story today on the ways in which Russia used economic coercion to aid and abet regime change in Kyrgyzstan last week.  This part stands out in particular:

After the opposition announced plans for nationwide protests, Putin provided a final spark by signing a decree March 29 eliminating subsidies on gasoline exports to Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet republics that had not joined a new customs union.

When the tariffs kicked in April 1, Russian fuel shipments to Kyrgyzstan were suspended, said Bazarbai Mambetov, president of a Kyrgyz oil traders association. Within days, gas prices in Bishkek began to climb, enraging residents already angry about sharp increases in utility fees.

As the Kremlin leaned on Bakiyev, it also consulted the opposition, hosting its leaders on visits to Moscow, including in the days before the protests. On the eve of the demonstrations, the Kyrgyz prime minister accused one, Temir Sariev, of telling police that he had met with Putin and had won his support for efforts to overthrow Bakiyev.

What's interesting about this is that Russia didn't rely on "smart sanctions" that would only hurt the ruling elite.  They clearly imposed sanctions designed to roust the mass public into action. 

Sometimes, dumb sanctions aren't actually all that dumb. 

[So you're saying that similar sanctions should be imposed against Iran?--ed.  No.  Iran is not Kyrgyzstan, and the United States is not Russia.  There are too many differences between the two cases to make that facile comparison.  I'm just  pointing out that there is more than one way for sanctions to change a targeted state's behavior.]