Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Crisis in Iraq

The New York Times has published a series of in-depth articles on the crisis in Iraq in recent days. One provides a look back at the U.S. decision to withdraw without leaving a residual force. Another examines the virtual disintegration of the Iraqi military. And a third explores the financial and material resources that fuel ISIS

All of this makes for depressing reading. Polls show little enthusiasm among Americans for renewed US military engagement in Iraq, even if limited to air strikes. Yet the stakes are so high that the US cannot afford to stand on the sidelines. 

ISIS is more than a terrorist group. It has evolved into a skilled and well funded armed force that has shown, in both Syria and Iraq, that it is capable of defeating conventional military forces and of taking and holding territory. ISIS has successfully targeted not only government forces in Syria but also the moderate rebel groups supported by the West. After recent gains, it now controls vast swathes of Northwestern Iraq, including Mosul, the country’s second largest city. By imposing taxes in areas it controls and emptying banks, it has amassed as much as $2 billion. Key oil installations are under its control in both Syria and Iraq. Since ISIS is largely self-financing, even successful efforts to cut off funds from sympathetic sources in the Persian Gulf would have little impact. By taking Mosul, ISIS also captured the second largest arms depot in Iraq.

ISIS commands a force of ten thousand fighters. While many are drawn from Jihadi networks across and beyond the Arab world, the group is reportedly picking up support and new recruits from among Sunni populations that have fallen under its control within Iraq. ISIS is also collaborating with former military officers from the Saddam era who were purged following the US invasion in 2003.

ISIS seeks to impose a brutal and extreme form of Shariah rule on the areas of Syria and Iraq that it controls. It welcomes a full-scale communal conflict that will force Iraqi Sunnis – who previously banded together to kick out al Qaeda – to flock to the side of ISIS in a war against Iraq’s Shiite majority. 

We are witnessing the emergence of a region-wide sectarian war that pits Sunni against Shia. The immediate threat is the collapse of the Iraq military, which has performed abysmally against ISIS and whose morale has plummeted. Many units have been decimated by defections and the government has resorted to mobilizing Shia militias that are mostly themselves poorly trained. These militias have in the past engaged in communal violence against Sunni populations and once reactivated, they will defy the control of any government in Baghdad. 

What can the US do? The reinsertion of US combat troops is unthinkable and would serve no good purpose. The key US objectives should be to halt the further advance of ISIS, prevent the wholesale disintegration of the Iraqi army and support new leadership in Baghdad that is at least minimally committed to building an inclusive governing coalition. These are daunting tasks and may be beyond US power to achieve. 

The first step must be to shore up what is left of Iraq’s army and gain the leverage needed to influence the key political factions. This will require that the US provide air support in coordination with Iraqi forces. Given the nature of the threat, air power is unlikely to be decisive from a military standpoint, but it may serve to slow the ISIS advance and remedy one of the key weaknesses in Iraq’s military capabilities (the Iraqi air force consists of three small Cesnas, one of which has already been disabled). More importantly, however, US intervention with air power will help raise morale and stiffen the spine of those Iraqi army units that are still intact – especially if air power is coordinated with Iraqi forces rather than used in isolation. Most significantly, air power would serve as a concrete signal of US intent to prevent the collapse of the Iraqi state. Only such a commitment will give the US the leverage necessary to encourage key factions to make the compromises that are essential to crafting a post-Malicki coalition that can command support from Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. The other effect of US intervention would be to balance the already significant Iranian influence within Iraq. 

The use of air power will require US spotters on the ground, beefed up intelligence collection and the insertion of US military advisers to insure coordination with the Iraqi military (Obama has already committed 300 military advisers). The US will need to provide Iraq with arms to replace what has been lost and on-the-ground training for a restructured Iraqi army once the immediate crisis has eased.

These steps only address the immediate crisis and are designed to avoid the worst near-term outcomes. The longer term goals of preventing the fragmentation of Iraq and the further spread of a region-wide communal war will require extensive US engagement and deft diplomacy, including serious dialogue with Iran. 

The instinct to oppose any renewed US military engagement in Iraq is understandable, especially among those like myself who opposed the Iraq invasion in the first place. There have been many occasions when US intervention has been based upon trumped up threats and has only exacerbated rather than resolved conflicts on the ground. But this time really is different. The conditions for region-wide war stretching from Beirut to Basra are already in place. The US has little choice but to attempt to avert such an outcomes.


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Rethinking the Inevitability Thesis about Tiananmen Square

In reflecting upon the brutal crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protests in China’s Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, Henry Kissinger declared that: “No government in the world would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks by tens of thousands of demonstrators.” This cold-hearted observation supports a narrative suggesting that the repression of June 4, 1989 was, if not justified (though Kissinger himself clearly thinks it was), then at least inevitable. The corollary is that the young students who led the pro-democracy movement were little more than a collection of Don Quixotes, tilting naively at the windmills of an all-powerful Chinese state.

There is a natural human tendency, after the fact, to imbue critical historical events with an aura of fate. More often, however, outcomes that appear inevitable in retrospect were close things in the moment, with contingency and agency playing decisive roles. Such is the case with the demise of the China spring. We can best support this conclusion by debunking three persistent myths that have arisen surrounding the events of April through early June, 1989.

Myth 1: Then, as now, China was unprepared for democracy; a system of governance unsuited for China’s unique history and culture.

Ironically for this claim, Chinese people during this very period were busy with a quite successful democratic transition – only in Taiwan, rather than on the mainland. Like mainland China, Taiwan had, since 1949 been ruled by a one party state founded on Leninist organizational principles (the Kuomintang party). The same arguments used to dismiss the suitability of China for democracy were long made by defenders of the KMT’s authoritarian rule. Yet neither culture nor recent history prevented Taiwanese from adopting the kind of democratic political system that has gradually spread over recent decades to characterize countries of quite varied cultures representing a solid majority of the world’s population (South Korea provided another relevant example of democratization by a neighboring country during the period leading up to the events of 1989).

China itself has historical precedents that support democratic aspirations, including the early Republican period and the democracy movement of May 4, 1919. The latter event in many ways served as a model for the young people of 1989. Moreover, China of the 1980s differed from today’s China, which is relatively closed to debate over political alternatives. Within intellectual circles, the assumption that market reforms and democratic reform went together was commonplace. The political climate was more open and liberal ideas had penetrated even the Communist Party itself. Indeed, the demonstrations of 1989 began in commemoration of recently deceased Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who had dealt relatively gently with the student protests of 1986 and who spoke often about the need for freer speech and political reform during his time in office. Although removed by Deng Xiaoping precisely because Hu was considered too liberal, his views were largely shared by his successor as General Secretary, Zhao Ziyang. Indeed, one reason that the protests were allowed to continue for two months is that the students – many of whom were sons and daughters of the elite – enjoyed a degree of sympathy from well placed figures in the regime.

Even moreso, the student protests hit upon chords popular with broad segments of the public. At their peak, the protests in Beijing swelled to an estimated one million people. Less well known is that significant demonstrations broke out in no less than 250 Chinese cities. Not all of this discontent took the form of demands for democracy. Grievances focused upon inflation, corruption, growing inequality and the lack of worker’s rights. Still, all who participated wanted a more responsive and inclusive political order.

Over a period of several weeks in May when political controls over the press were removed, the media responded with an outpouring of sympathetic coverage of the protests and spotlighted many shortcomings of Communist Party rule. And when the crackdown did arrive, ordinary Beijingers took to the streets and many sacrificed their lives to block the progress of army units toward the Square.

Finally, the pro-democracy movement was inspired in part by similar movements in Eastern Europe – especially Solidarity in Poland – and by the liberalizing initiatives of Mikhail Gorbachev. Indeed, Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing during the protests themselves helped to underline the fundamental political changes that were even then sweeping through the communist world. That such changes might come to China itself was not a foolish idea.

To be sure, the students of Tiananmen and elsewhere in China lacked political experience. They lacked political organization and leadership. Their demands were somewhat abstract and differences over strategy and tactics eventually weakened the movement itself. But they were not mere dreamers. Instead, they represented a moment of possibility in China’s historical drama.

Myth 2: The crackdown itself was a foregone conclusion, given the stakes for the Communist Party and its leadership.

As already mentioned, even the Politburo Standing Committee was divided over how to respond to the protests. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang interpreted the protests as spurred by specific and often legitimate complaints that could be addressed through dialogue, cooptation and reform. Premier Li Peng, by contrast, thought that the ruling legitimacy and power of the Communist Party were under challenge. He also believed that foreign conspirators must be involved in stirring up trouble.

A crucial turning point came when, on April 26, the People’s Daily published an editorial reflecting the view of hardliners. The demonstrators were called unpatriotic and counter-revolutionary “black hands” out to foment civil war. Crucially, the editorial was printed at a moment when Zhao himself was visiting South Korea and thus unavailable to intervene. The editorial provoked outrage among students and strengthened the hand of the more militant factions. The hunger strikes that began in mid-May were in part aimed at forcing the Communist Party to retract the April 26 verdict expressed through the official People’s Daily. This escalation complicated Zhao’s efforts to calm the protests and initiate a dialogue.

Some observers give little weight to the efforts of Zhao and other more liberal elements of the leadership on the assumption that hardliners had an inevitable advantage, even if the leadership struggle took time to resolve. In fact, however, the Politburo Standing Committee never did come to a consensus prior to early June. For instance, although martial law was declared on May 20, the army units initially sent to Beijing on that date were withdrawn four days later out of concern that the loyalty of soldiers might be undermined by the appeals targeted to them by pro-democracy crowds. In general, the actions of the authorities remained vacillating up until days prior to June 4.

What proved decisive was the intervention of supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, who ultimately deposed Zhao Ziyang and other liberals from power and ordered Li Peng to supervise the crackdown. Yet even Deng’s attitude remains somewhat of a mystery. It is clear that Deng, all along, took a rather dark view of the protests and that he leaned in the direction of the hardliners within the leadership.

Yet Deng waited two months to act. Moreover, Zhao and other liberals believed, until near the end, that they enjoyed Deng’s confidence. Nor does Deng’s own history mark his reaction to the protest with the stamp of inevitability. After Zhou Enlai’s death, for instance, Mao refused to attend the funeral and forbade public displays of mourning. Such was Zhou’s popularity, however, that up to two million people defied the authorities by visiting Tiananmen Square on April 4, 1976 to lay wreaths in honor of Zhou. When crowds the next morning discovered that the wreaths had been removed, angry disturbances led to clashes with police involving up to 100,00 people, leading to many arrests. Deng himself, closely identified with Zhou, was purged (again) two days later. The Tiananmen incident of April 4, 1976 helped set the stage for the arrest of the Gang of Four following Mao’s death the next year. In 1980, Deng rendered his own verdict upon this example of popular mass action by reversing the convictions of many of those arrested at the time. In that case, it was Deng who sided with those in the street who expressed support for political change. While the circumstances of 1989 led Deng to a different conclusion, this was not foreordained.

In any case, historical inevitability cannot rest upon the views and inclinations of a single individual, no matter how significant his power.

Myth 3: There was no alternative to a violent crackdown in order to avoid civil war.

If anything, the crackdown itself raised the risks of growing disorder. By June 4, the crowds in the Square had dwindled from several hundred thousand to a few thousand. Many had melted away out of exhaustion and due to the deteriorating conditions of life in the Square. More moderate factions left the Square with the aim of continuing with less confrontational modes of organizing their campuses and communities, leaving the more militant segments of the movement behind. The passage of time itself served to reduce the immediate threat to the regime.

It is sometimes claimed that authorities were hampered by the PLA’s lack of crowd-control equipment and experience in controlling mass demonstrations. This is a misreading of events. Once he made up his mind, Deng firmly sought to deliver a sharp lesson to the protesters and to deter future challenges through bloodshed. The brutality was not incidental to Deng’s purpose but essential to it.

In choosing this path, Deng ran great risks. Seven retired generals petitioned against using the PLA to suppress the demonstrations and several active duty generals registered their objections. Although rumors at the time suggesting the possibility that whole units might side with the protesters, leading to clashes within the PLA itself, proved exaggerated, this was not an entirely implausible scenario.

Moreover, even though the protests had proven entirely peaceful prior to the crackdown, Deng could not rule out the possibility that the use of force might produce violent rebellion. Indeed, virtually all of the deaths and injuries on June 4 were the result of clashes between PLA units and ordinary Beijingers who erected blockades in an attempt to prevent soldiers from reaching the Square. Similar violence was witnessed in Chengdu and elsewhere. Deng gambled upon the restraint and forbearance of the Chinese people. The fact that he won does not erase the risks that he ran in doing so. By contrast, there is no compelling evidence that a peaceful end to the standoff in the Square (or elsewhere) would have produced the chaos and violent disorder that the Communist Party claims to have averted (as opposed to continuing popular pressures for political reform, to which the Party could have acceded over time).

The myth of inevitability about the fate of the pro-democracy movement of 1989 serves the purpose of denying the possibility of progressive political change in China today. But myths ultimately die and the story of Tiananmen will one day be rewritten.




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