Friday, September 11, 2015

Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine

Haven't done a foreign policy post in a while, so here's three in one:

1. The list above shows messed-countries and messed-up outcomes, so that part's consistent, but what's inconsistent is the level of effort by the US to change the outcome. Whether the US did relatively little like in Syria or a lot like in Libya, things didn't go well.

For Egypt in particular, the US has done everything right AFAICT since the beginning of the Arab Spring and it made no difference to the final outcome. It might have helped save Egyptian students from a massacre in 2011, and that's not nothing, but it's not permanent change either.

Overall I think the lack of results counsels in favor of less interference. I'd also say it might support defensive support over aggressive support. Stopping Qaddaffi from massacring people in Benghazi is good, as is stopping ISIS aggression in Syria. OTOH, helping what appears to be Shiite militias in Iraq with little government control attempt to take over a major Sunni city sounds like a situation to stay away from, at least until government control and Sunni support become real and not fig leafs.

2. One thing Obama did that has turned out fantastically well is in making his Syria red line comment. Before the comment, Syria had lots of chemical weapons, and now they're gone. I'm still incredulous that people call it a loss for the US, including in the current issue of The Economist.

A good thought experiment is to imagine what an honest answer from Assad would be, as to whether the hundreds of millions of dollars Syria spent over the decades on chemical weapons turned out to be money well spent. Or imagine whether some tinpot dictator in some other country thinking about establishing a chemical weapons program to be deployed on his own or neighboring people would be encouraged or discouraged by what happened with chemical weapons in Syria. Yet many people who think they're qualified to discuss foreign policy would prefer that Obama had ignored any chance to consult Congress and blow up a few air bases in Syria, and count that a better outcome.

I could see an argument that the US was lucky in how it turned out, but there's no question that the world's in a much better shape with how it happened.

3. An accountability moment for myself - in early 2012, when things were going really well in Libya, I offered a bet over Libya's long-term future:
So, Freedom House gave Libya the worst possible ratings in 2010 on a scale of 1 to 7, with a 7 for political rights and 7 for civil rights.  I predict at the end of 2013 there will be at least three grades of improvement, e.g. political rights could improve to at least 5 and civil to at least 6, but it could be in other combinations.  My guess is that it'll be more like four or five (and one has already happened), but I think three grades clearly represent a benefit to the country.
No one took the offer. Somewhat strangely, I would've won. Things weren't that bad in 2013 but got much worse starting in 2014 - although Freedom House still gives Libya slightly better ratings than under Qadaffi. I don't think a technical victory from my perspective is much of a vindication. 

FWIW, I think Libya still has a shot at a much better future than the past it had under Qadaffi or the pretty-rotten present.