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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Odilon Redon, "The Cyclops," 1898. Via .

Odilon Redon, “The Cyclops,” 1898. Via Wikimedia.

Last Sunday the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies overwhelmingly voted to impeach president Dilma Rousseff. Buzzfeed Brasil rounded up dramatic photos of the impeachment vote and protests for and against Rousseff.

As a helpful graphic from the BBC illustrates, the Senate will now decide via a majority vote whether to open an impeachment trial. If so, Rousseff will be suspended for up to 180 days, leaving executive power in the hands of Vice President Michel Temer, whose party recently abandoned the embattled president and Rousseff has accused of orchestrating the “coup” against her. A Senate trial requiring a two-thirds majority will then decide Rousseff’s fate.

But is the attempt to impeach Rousseff a coup? Laura Carvalho says yes (via FP Interrupted). Amy Erica Smith (via Suparna Chaudhry) concludes that it is not a coup — which is of course a loaded term, especially in a country where the military overthrew a civilian government as recently as 1964 – but that the impeachment process is “a misuse of democratic procedure.” Colin M. Snider is “somewhat sympathetic to the nuanced idea that this might be a ‘legal coup’” but argues that nevertheless Rousseff’s removal would be very damaging to Brazil’s political institutions and culture. “Yesterday’s vote reveals another crack” in Brazil’s fragile presidential parliamentary system, Snider writes, “as a majority of people can effectively vote in a president, only to have Congress attempt to remove that president.” It is hard to square this de facto parliamentary no confidence vote with the spirit of a directly-elected presidency.

More systematically, Uri Friedman looks at how the Brazilian political system encourages unwieldy coalitions of many fragmented parties motivated by rent-seeking rather than ideology, which in turn feeds Brazil’s culture of political corruption. As political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan write, cited by Friedman, the Brazilian electoral system gives “extensive and very tangible incentives for ‘rent-seeking’ behavior by political entrepreneurs who create parties to use as tradeable assets or as a way of avoiding party discipline.”

Temer’s PMDB, undoubtably the king of rent-seeking behavior, hopes form “a government of national salvation” following Rousseff’s ouster, in PMDB Congressman Darcísio Perondi’s words. Catherine Osborn looks at the corruption-ridden party’s plans.

With a somewhat sympathetic view of Rousseff’s center-left Workers’ Party, Perry Anderson examines how Brazilian politics reached the breaking point (via Bernardo Jurema). For additional background, last May Bloomberg reviewed the massive corruption scandal centered around the state-controlled Brazilian oil firm Petrobras, which has contributed to Brazil’s political crisis.

For Spanish-readers, in the Colombian weekly Semana Marta Ruiz reports on leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels awaiting peace (via Juan Forero). Particularly noteworthy is many FARC members’ confidence – or at least professed confidence – that after signing a peace deal with the government they will be accepted by Colombia’s ‘polarized’ society.

Why does Greenland have the highest known suicide rate in the world? Rebecca Hersher reports on the roots – which include rapid cultural changes and Danish colonialism – of the epidemic. (Via Kim Ghattas and Scott Peterson.)

Bloomberg interviews Saudi deputy crown prince Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Noting the single mention of Saudi Arabia’s disastrous US-aided war in Yemen, Tom Gara comments “imagine a 2005 profile of George Bush that doesn’t mention Iraq or Afghanistan.”

In a predominantly-Latino Los Angeles neighborhood, activists test the limits of anti-gentrification tactics (via Mehreen Kasana).

Note: Updated for clarity.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

John Bauer, "The Princess and the Trolls," 1913. Via Wikimedia.

John Bauer, “The Princess and the Trolls,” 1913. Via Wikimedia.

Stories I appreciated this week:

Alex Cuadros reports on how the Zika virus, which is spread by mosquitos that are repelled by air conditioning, exposes Brazil’s stark class divide.

Adam Isacson runs down the prospects for further US aid for the Colombian peace process, assuming the government is able to reach a deal with the FARC rebel group. Colombian president Santos recently said that there would be no extension of the peace talks beyond the self-imposed late March deadline.

Mark Galeotti looks at Russian military modernization, concluding that “today, Russian military might as we know it is halfway between a fact and a psychological warfare operation.”

Hugh Eakin on how Denmark is grappling with the refugee crisis, the challenge of assimilating immigrants, and its own latent prejudice (via Angela Chen). As others have noted, it is easy to liken the European nationalist right – “what made the Danish People’s Party particularly potent,” Eakin writes of a Danish populist party opposed to immigration,  “was its robust defense of wealth redistribution and advanced welfare benefits for all Danes” – to Donald Trump.

Sanders’ Past Isn’t All Radical

By Taylor Marvin

Bernie Sanders, 2015. Photo by Michael Vadon, via Wikimedia.

Bernie Sanders, 2015. Photo by Michael Vadon, via Wikimedia.

Earlier this week Michael Crowley reported in Politico that Bernie Sanders, in his days as a younger left-wing activist, urged that the CIA should be abolished. In 1974 Sanders, who as Crowley notes has often denounced the CIA-backed 1953 coup that restored the Iranian shah’s authority, deemed it “a dangerous institution that has got to go.”

Sanders’ past stance briefly became the controversy of the day. Crowley quotes Clinton campaign advisor and former chief of staff to CIA director Leon Panetta Jeremy Bash, who views Sanders’ views as naive and argues “abolishing the CIA in the 1970s would have unilaterally disarmed America during the height of the Cold War and at a time when terrorist networks across the Middle East were gaining strength.” At Slate Michelle Goldberg admits that Sanders’ opposition to covert action overreach was justified but sees his past radicalism as a liability in the general election, and the Intercept’s Jon Schwarz views the Politico story as simply Clinton campaign opposition research published as journalism.

On Twitter Jeet Heer – who later wrote a brief piece at the New Republic – and Robert Farley pushed back against accusations of Sanders’ naivety with an insightful series of points. (Unfortunately Farley’s tweets are not nestled, but are numbered: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11.) Farley, who has written a book whose title calls for abolishing the US Air Force and transferring USAF aircraft to the Army and Navy, argues that Sanders’ word choice obscures a more nuanced position.

As Farley and others note, from today’s perspective it is easy to paint the young Sanders as a wild-eyed idealist unaware of the cold realities of Cold War geopolitics. But by the 1970s it was widely acknowledged that CIA covert action had become at least counterproductive, if not outright immoral. Today few Americans defend the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the 1953 coup against Iran’s Mossadeq, CIA orchestration of the 1954 coup against democratically-elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz, or the United States’ role in the 1973 coup that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende. As Jason Catlin ‏replied this somewhat confuses the CIA itself with national policy – the US campaign against Salvador Allende was directed from the Oval Office – but staking out a left flank, in my words, in the debate over the CIA’s role in covert action was not unreasonable at the time. In fact, leaving the ‘abolishing’ word choice aside Washington came around to Sanders’ views, as Crowley himself admits. While the opacity of the Obama administration’s drone campaign remains controversial (via Danny Hirschel-Burns) today there is a broad consensus that overthrowing democratic if ideologically unpalatable governments is wrong, and that covert action during the Cold War was counterproductive and shameful.

As I wrote on Twitter, another aspect of Sanders’ youthful defense policy activism has become, in a way, the conventional wisdom. As Crowley writes about Sanders’ 1974 statements:

At the time, the 33-year-old socialist was running for U.S. Senate on the ticket of the Liberty Union Party, an anti-war group that likened the draft to “a modern form of slavery” and called for reducing the U.S. military in favor of local militias and the Coast Guard.

Conscription is not chattel slavery, and this terminology is offensive – though conservative economist Milton Friedman once called the draft “inconsistent with a free society,” language not entirely removed from the Liberty Union’s words. (Crowley leaves it unclear if Sanders personally shared this view, though it seems likely.) When discussion Sanders’ radicalism, however, it is worth remembering that American society has largely come around to this view. Sanders represented the Liberty Union Party in 1974, after the 1969 Gates Commission recommendation that the US establish a volunteer military and the end of the draft in January 1973. At the time returning to the draft was not unthinkable. Today it almost certainly is.

While the Selective Service maintains the infrastructure to quickly draft large numbers of American young men renewed conscription is vanishingly unlikely. Despite the recent furor over the prospect of requiring women to register with the Selective Service reinstating the draft is unthinkable for anything short of a major war. Indeed, this prospect is made even less likely by the not unreasonable chance that a war serious enough to justified renewed conscription would also be serious enough to quickly go nuclear, perhaps negating the question all together.

To be sure, the rhetoric and philosophical justification for modern opposition to the draft differs from the Liberty Union Party’s radicalism – and especially its “cannon fodder” for US imperialism line. An all volunteer military, many argue, is more skilled and motivated than a conscripted force. However, despite these arguments returning to conscription would be fraught in and of itself. The Vietnam War was a larger commitment than any war the US has fought in the All-Volunteer Force era. But most Americans today would see renewed conscription for any war short of a full-blown national emergency – that is, a war much more pressing than Vietnam – as unjust.

As Michelle Goldberg notes, the Liberty Union Party’s call to abolish the standing US military in favor of “a return to the system of local citizen militias and Coast Guard” is radical, and is certainly not a mainstream position today. But like Farley remarks, it’s important to not let extreme rhetoric obscure how American society has changed in the last four decades. While today few would use the same words the Liberty Union Party’s stance has become, broadly speaking, mainstream.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

1915 British recruiting poster, printed by Spottiswoode & Co. Ltd. London E.C. Via Wikimedia.

1915 British recruiting poster, printed by Spottiswoode & Co. Ltd. London E.C. Via Wikimedia.

Stories I enjoyed this week:

In a story profiling the scions of China’s wealthy building lives in Vancouver, Jiayang Fan mentions how corruption and the government’s periodic purges drive the wealthy abroad:

“But, for affluent Chinese, the most basic reason to move abroad is that fortunes in China are precarious. The concerns go deeper than anxiety about the country’s slowing growth and turbulent stock market; it is very difficult to progress above a certain level in business without cultivating, and sometimes buying, the support of government officials, who are often ousted in anti-corruption sweeps instigated by rivals.”

This seems like a serious institutional barrier to future Chinese growth. (Via Andrew Erickson.)

Rio de Janeiro sold the Olympics as an impetus to transform the city. One problem: Rio isn’t meeting many of the Olympic commitments that would improve the lives of its citizens, including sanitation (via Mark Healey). Given the state’s history of failed promises, many residents are understandably wary of new sanitation initiatives.

Max Fisher recounts how neoconservative ideology let America into deluding itself into the invasion of Iraq.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter has urged the UK to retain its nuclear forces, arguing that Britain’s Trident has “”continue to play that outsized role on the global stage that it does because of its moral standing and its historical standing”. (Story initially via Reuters.) Interestingly this contradicts a 2013 report that the US quietly supported more British spending on conventional forces, rather than its nuclear deterrent. Jarrod Hayes discussed this at the time.

Janell Ross on what Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz’ brief debate clash over the latter’s Spanish skills reveals about the two Republican candidates’ upbringing, and Spanish’s place in American public life (via Damien Cave and EM Simpson).

Yelena Akopian has photos from a summer in Georgia.

Discussing why much of the coffee served in Colombia is subpar, Mark Wetzler mentions my favorite Bogotá coffee shop.

Perverse Incentives and Killings By Security Forces

By Taylor Marvin

Extrajudicial killings by security forces are not unique to the Americas, but have repeatedly dominated the region’s headlines. While these killings stem from many causes, occasionally they are encouraged by almost deliberately perverse incentives.

As Juliana Barbassa recounts in her excellent Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink, by the late 1980s Rio de Janeiro’s police forces found themselves increasingly outgunned by drug traffickers. “That imbalance lasted until 1994,” Barbassa writes, “when Rio elected a new tough-on-crime governor, Marcello Alencar.” In addition to up-gunning Rio’s Polícia Militar with more semiautomatic weapons, Alencar also “instituted raises for police who demonstrated bravery on the job—bravery as measured in the number of bodies left on the ground. This became known as the Wild West bonus: shoot, then collect.” Again according to Barbassa, the new policy doubled the number of suspects police reported killing in gunfights, many who the police are suspected of instead executing. Although Rio de Janeiro police’s harsh tactics predate the bonus policy – which was revoked in 1998 – “taking the Wild West bonus off the books did not change the culture it had reinforced within police departments” and today on-duty police commit 16 percent of Rio’s homicides.

This calls to mind Colombia’s so-called “false positive” scandal, which was first widely reported in 2008 (this Human Rights Watch report comes via Boz). Lured by a 2005 directive which rewarded combat kills in the war against leftist rebels with leave and cash bonuses, Colombian soldiers murdered thousands of civilians – usually poor men – before dressing them in fatigues and reporting them as rebels. These murders were systemic: citing Colombia ReportsJoel Gillin notes that when false positive killings peaked in 2007 “at least 40 percent of combat kills were in fact civilians.” As Tom Feiling writes in his book Short Walks from Bogotá: Journeys in the New Colombia, false positive killing spread throughout the Colombian Army. Similarly to Rio’s police, while the bonus policy was revoked in 2006 “body count syndrome” had already infected the Colombian military. Despite public outcry, investigations, and the forced resignations of some senior officers, “once the peripatetic gaze of the camera had passed,” Feiling writes, “the armed forces returned to time-honored tactics.” Both the military and the governments of Presidents Álvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos balked at imposing real consequences, and the Colombian military’s human rights record remains poor.

What is particularly striking about both of these cases is how predictable the consequences of “body count syndrome” policies should have been. Beyond a myopic focus on body counts as a metric for judging counterinsurgency and policing, directly rewarding soldiers and police for killing the ‘enemy’ creates an obvious incentive for soldiers to murder civilians, or in police’s case for extrajudicial killings and disproportionate use of force. Indeed, this is not a case of Latin American institutions inadvertently allowing human rights abuses, but rather directly fostering them.

While Colombia’s insurgency is largely unique today, extreme insecurity continues to challenge many Latin American governments. Under public and international pressure to impose order these governments are tempted to reward soldiers and police who ‘get the job done,’ measure security though body counts, and impress the public with this progress: a 1997 diplomatic cable cited by Colombia Reports argues that the incentives created by institutional body count syndrome tended “to fuel human rights abuses by well-meaning soldiers trying to get their quota to impress superiors.” This is a mistake.

Recognizing the perverse incentives that rewarding security forces for combat kills create is vital for avoiding human rights abuses, but alone is not enough. Extrajudicial killings and coverups are not only prompted by personal rewards: InSight Crime has noted body count syndrome elsewhere and Boz police coverups in Mexico and Venezuela. American police forces and local governments also frequently conceal police murders, often of people of color. Just as in the US, Latin America’s false positive killings – and the Americas’ high homicide rate more broadly – are linked the region’s extreme inequality and racism. The victims of the Colombian Army’s false positive murders are mainly the poor, and according to a recent Amnesty International report the majority of those killed by Rio de Janeiro’s police are young black men. (Not coincidently, as Rio on Watch writes Rio de Janeiro’s Military Police is descended from a force tasked with keeping slaves down.)

The consequences of policies that reward individual soldiers and police for killing are predictable. Despite their very real security challenges it is difficult to imagine Latin American governments rewarding body counts if they valued the bodies of these policies’ victims.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

August Macke, "Portrait of the artist's wife with a hat," 1909. Via Wikimedia.

August Macke, “Portrait of the artist’s wife with a hat,” 1909. Via Wikimedia.

Stories I enjoyed this week:

James Simpson recounts how a 29 year old Soviet fighter pilot defected by flying his MiG-25 interceptor to Japan, revealing the feared aircraft’s capabilities. Japanese authorities returned the MiG to the USSR in pieces, and “cheekily, the Japanese included a bill for $4o,000 to cover the shipping costs and damage” caused by the pilot’s wild landing.

David E. Hoffman discusses the 1983 “Able Archer” NATO exercise, which a paranoid Soviet leadership nearly interpreted as preparations for an unprovoked nuclear strike (via Erik Loomis).

Somewhat relatedly, Dave Majumdar questions the wisdom of Russia’s ambitious efforts to acquire and develop a diverse mix of different combat aircraft.

Médecins Sans Frontières has released their initial report on the early October US attack on a Afghanistan hospital that killed dozens of patients and MSF staff.

In an interview with the Washington PostColombian president Juan Manuel Santos praises the US’ Colombia policy: “I can say without the slightest doubt it has been the United States’ most successful bipartisan foreign policy of the past several decades. The peace process is just the cherry on the cake.” Flagging the interview, Boz writes that the US “should be as willing (or more willing) to provide economic and development aid to consolidate peace as we were to provide military and security assistance when Colombia’s conflict threatened the country’s stability.”

The continuing tragedy of the Middle East’s minority communities: more and more Christians flee Iraq, increasingly intending never to return. “Even if the situation in Iraq gets better, no matter how safe it is, there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again,” says one refugee.

After the death of Ahmed Chalabi this week, many are reflecting on his responsibility for the Iraq war. Despite George W. Bush’s ignorance and warmongering enthusiasm, Martin Longman writes, he “would not have found it so easy to lead our foreign policy establishment and our nation into war if Ahmed Chalabi hadn’t been going around Washington DC for years telling everyone how simple it would be to get rid of Saddam” (via Ed Kilgore). In response to a piece by Aram Roston, on Twitter Matt Duss remarks that “there’s been a very troubling amount of ‘blame the wily foreigner’ in the coverage of Chalabi’s death.” Hannah Allam remembers Chalabi in Iraq during the occupation (via Kelsey D. Atherton).

Despite reaching the nuclear deal this summer, hardliners within the Iranian state are cracking down – often targeting Iranian-Americans – in what appears to be a backlash against President Rouhani’s successes. It’s worth remembering that the risk of these spoiling tactics was anticipated by Rouhani himself (via John Allen Gay), and he has not done much to reduce oppression within Iran (via Melissa Etehad). Barbara Slavin also reports on rights abuses and potential means of pressuring Iran.

Beth Alvarado on groundwater poisoning in Tucson, caused by the chemicals used to clean airplanes:

“Clear patterns didn’t emerge, but sometimes several people in one family would die. Finally, the city tested the water. Some estimates showed TCE contamination at 1,000 times the federal health standards. They closed wells. There were court cases. Red lines were drawn around the housing developments, housing developments where 75 percent of the residents were Hispanic and low-income; once the developments were red-lined, it was impossible to sell those houses, so people stayed where they were.”

This is also via Erik Loomis, who comments “that most of the people suffering in this Tucson neighborhood are Latino should be expected as the correlation between pollution exposure and race is well-documented and is a classic example of environmental racism.”

Argentina’s Elections and the Falklands Dispute

President Kirchner votes. presidencia.gov.ar photo, via Wikimedia.

President Kirchner votes. presidencia.gov.ar photo, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

On November 22nd Argentines will go to the polls to elect a new president. This presidential runoff, which follows an inconclusive first round held on October 25th, marks the end of an era for Argentina. Since 2003 Argentina has been led by the husband and wife duo of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, with Cristina elected in 2007 and again in 2011. (Widely thought to aspire to return to the presidency, Néstor suffered an untimely death in 2010.) With Kirchner constitutionally barred from a third term, many hope the election of a new Argentine president is also an opportunity to wind down Kirchner’s aggressive rhetoric about the disputed Falkland Islands.

Argentina has long claimed the Falkland Islands or Islas Malvinas and officially views British sovereignty as “a blatant exercise of 19th-Century colonialism,” in Kirchner’s words. Despite earlier tentative steps towards a negotiated solution to the dispute, in 1982 the Argentine military seized the Islands. In the midst of economic stagnation and its murderous “Dirty War” the ruling military junta hoped that a quick victory would boost the regime’s domestic popularity, but seriously misjudged UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s willingness to fight. As Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins write in their history The Battle for the Falklands, while the UK came far closer to military disaster than is often realized, British forces eventually retook the Falklands. The war left 225 British servicemen, three Falkland civilians, and around 650 Argentines dead, as well as thousands of soldiers scarred mentally and physically by the brutal conflict.

Throughout her tenure Cristina Kirchner has stressed the Falklands issue, arguing that the UK illegally took possession of the Islands in 1833. Kirchner has repeatedly called for dialogue over the Islands’ status in her UN addresses (though not this year), and tied the issue to UN Security Council reform (though Argentina opposes fellow Mercosur member Brazil’s bid for a permanent UNSC seat). In 2012 Kirchner “ambushed” British PM David Cameron at the UN with a letter about the issue, and two years later Kirchner commemorated the 32nd anniversary of Argentina’s invasion by introducing a new banknote featuring a map of the Falklands. The recent discovery of oil off the Falklands also gave new impetus to Argentina’s push, and Argentina has threatened to sue British oil companies involved in exploration off the Islands – despite the fact that low oil prices are challenging the offshore oil’s commercial viability.

Map by the CIA World Factbook.

Map by the CIA World Factbook.

The ongoing presidential election has centered around economic issues and the legacy of Kirchnerismo, as Kevin Lees chronicles, and despite leaving office Kirchner is expected to remain politically powerful, as Simon Romero and Jonathan Gilbert write. (Indeed, Kirchner is thought to hope to return to the presidency in 2019). But as the Week reports, both of the candidates competing in the runoff election have taken comparatively moderate stances on the Falklands. While insisting that the Islands are rightly Argentina’s, opposition center-right candidate and current Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri wants to improve relations with the UK and “has also signalled that he would abolish the government role of Falklands Secretary, or Malvinas Secretary, created by Kirchner in 2013.” Similarly, the Independent’s David Usborne reports that Kirchner’s preferred successor and Buenos Aires province governor Daniel Scioli, who narrowly won the first round, is also expected to “seek to adopt a fresh and less belligerent tone in the hope of bringing Britain to the table.” Despite the wide enthusiasm for the Malvinas cause in Argentina, some see Kirchner’s combativeness as counterproductive, as Usborne’s excellent story notes. “Everyone has the sensation that Argentina gets into these quarrels for no reason … and that’s true with the Malvinas,” says Marcos Novaro, an Argentine think tank director quoted by Usborne. Others disagree, and acknowledge that there little room for mutual reconciliation between Argentina and the UK regardless of Kirchner’s rhetoric.

Whatever their reasons, Macri and Scioli’s apparent moderation is a recognition of reality. After the Falkland Islanders overwhelmingly approved continued British sovereignty in a 2013 referendum it is difficult to see any hope for a diplomatic agreement that meaningfully cedes sovereignty to Argentina — though it was the invasion more than anything else that hardened the British position. For its part, Argentina views the “imported” Islanders’ self-determination as irrelevant.

But beyond diplomatic considerations, Argentina’s lack of diplomatic leverage is compounded by its limited ability to militarily threaten the Islands today. Decades of financial crises have left Argentine military forces decrepit: its aircraft are “barely serviceable” and as of at least 2012 the Navy’s submarines rarely went to sea, falling far short of their required training time. Argentina has vague plans to refurbish its decaying Air Force with new jet fighters but the government’s financial challenges mean that any purchase is likely a way off,* and the UK has the ability to veto most Western fighter sales. These financial challenges are compounded by the low priority Argentina’s civilian leaders assign the military. As a 2014 report by Rowan Allport notes, Kirchner’s “nationalistic tone should not be interpreted as a pro-military stance,” and “the Nestor/Cristina Kirchner era has seen the military fall to near the bottom of Argentina’s spending priorities list.”

However, budget cuts have curtailed Britain’s military capabilities as well, and raised fears that the UK could not longer retake the Falklands. The number of British combat-ready aircraft is falling, and today the UK does not operate an aircraft carrier able to embark fixed-wing aircraft, which would be critical in any renewed conflict over the Falklands. This absence “creates a window of opportunity for Argentina,” in Defense Industry Daily’s words, but “one that will slam shut decisively around 2020” when the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers enter service, though when the ships’ advanced F-35B fighter aircraft will actually be reliably combat-ready is uncertain. However, the UK’s nuclear fast attack submarines would already complicate any Argentine effort to take and hold the Falklands, and would quickly isolate any Argentine invasion force. Indeed, during the Falklands War after a British submarine sank the cruiser ARA General Belgrano Argentina kept its single carrier, the ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, in port, forcing land-based Argentine fighter aircraft to fight at the very limit of their range. The RAF also bases a handful of advanced fighter aircraft on the Falklands, another major barrier to a successful invasion.

Despite Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s unstable style of governance she did not choose to resume hostilities, which now seem even more unlikely through 2019. In addition to Argentina’s military weaknesses, recently events have also dramatically illustrated the downsides of even nearly bloodless territorial annexation. From a military standpoint Russia’s seizure of Crimea was a complete success, but drew widespread condemnation and economic sanctions that have severely damaged the Russian economy. While the two cases are not directly comparable – many of Argentina’s major trading partners would not impose retaliatory sanctions – an invasion’s best possible outcome could still bring diplomatic and economic costs not worth the gain. Pressing the Islas Malvinas issue may be a useful political tool – and a sincere grievance for many Argentines – but its use rests far more on the personality and priorities of Argentina’s president than the actual chances of realizing Argentina’s claim.

*Update (11/10/2015): UK Defense Journal (via Jeremiah Cushman) and Flight Global are reporting that Argentina will soon sign a contract to purchase 14 Kfir fighters from Israel.

Update (11/18/2015): Or maybe not – according to MercoPress (originally via Defesa Aérea & Naval) Clarin reports that the Kfir deal has been frozen, and that there is disagreement among senior Argentine Air Force officers over the aircraft, most of which reportedly are not equipped with radar.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

A. Kurkin ,Tale of the Golden Cockerel, Alexander Pushkin tale illustration, 1968. Via Soviet Postcards.

A. Kurkin, Tale of the Golden Cockerel, Alexander Pushkin tale illustration, 1968. Via Soviet Postcards.

Stories I enjoyed this week:

Bernardo Aparicio García reflects on Netflix’s new series Narcos and growing up in Colombia during the violence-racked 1980s and early 1990s.

At Americas Quarterly, Matias Spektor reviews how diplomacy and personal trust amongst national leaders helped shutter Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear weapons programs.

Economic challenges and frustrated electorates are ending an era where Latin American leaders and their anointed successors were reelected again and again, Brian Winter argues.

Miriam Berger reports from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where government-funded American students travel to learn Persian. The Tajik language is similar to Persian – “except after 60 years under Russian rule, Tajiks pepper their talk with Russian and write using Cyrillic letters instead of Arabic” – but the city offers students few opportunities to interact with Iranians. However, studying in Iran is off limits for many students: ““At some point I’m going to have to get a security clearance, so going to Iran wasn’t still too much of an option,” says one.

From a security standpoint these concerns may be justified, but are also a barrier to building deep regional expertise within US agencies. “Organizations like the Foreign Service and the Central Intelligence Agency have a deep institutional prejudice against their employees ‘going native,’ rotating officers every two or three years to avoid someone’s becoming too identified with local interests and cultures,” CIA veteran Philip Giraldi wrote in a 2013 American Conservative piece. This bias against deep regional knowledge is compounded by an institutional wariness of potential recruits “who possess the language skills and cultural awareness that would enable them to operate in areas where most CIA case officers dare not tread, which means they are mostly first- and second-generation Muslim Americans.”

Relatedly, Berger looks at the food scene among the Afghan diaspora in Dushanbe.

Hilary Matfess challenges a recent Bloomberg feature on the “ungoverned world” (via Kevin Baron). This framing, Matfess writes, “ignores the extant order–however perverse it may be–that communities under rebel control are subjected to. These spaces are not ‘ungoverned,’ they are ‘alternatively governed.'” José C. Contreras has a similar critique.

Marc Parry profiles economists Dani Rodrik and Pinar Dogan’s investigation into an aborted coup the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan alleges was planned by Turkey’s military elite. Given Turkey’s history of military coups many Turkish liberals refused to accept the possibility that the plot, and subsequent high-profile trials and convictions of leading officers, was a fraud – an allegation that Erdoğan’s increasingly blatant authoritarianism makes difficult to ignore. (Via Yelena Nana.)

Relatedly, Borzou Daragahi reports on People’s Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtaş, days before key elections in Turkey.

Lant Pritchett discusses how the UN’s Millennium Development Goals don’t, in Rachel Strohm’s words, ” match the policy priorities of people from low income countries.”

From June, Owen Hatherley visits Moscow’s industrial housing – “where homes would become mass-produced commodities like cars, fridges and TVs” – which offers a fascinating history of Soviet urban planning. Opulent construction ordered by Stalin was totally insufficient to meet the USSR’s housing crisis, and later industrial housing project ranged from a flagship “instant prefabricated community” to mass-produced “sleeping districts.”

An older Tyler Rogoway piece examines the Soviet Union’s ambitious Alfa-class fast attack submarine, and a 1993 report by Gerhardt Thamm sheds light on how American intelligence analysts investigated puzzling reports of the highly advanced, unorthodox Soviet submarine. In particular, the Alfa’s crew escape pod challenged Western assumptions that the Soviets had a low regard for human life.

Thomas F. Schaller examines the structural factors in the American political system that favor Republicans, including the overrepresentation of small states in Congress, the geographic concentration of Democratic voters, and certain procedural rules, as well as how majority of state and local elections are scheduled off the presidential election cycle (via Ed Kilgore).

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian collects Chinese citizens’ reactions to the move to end the country’s brutal one-child policy (latter via Garance Franke-Ruta).

Why Does Brazil Want a Nuclear-Powered Attack Submarine?

By Taylor Marvin

Dilma Rousseff speaking in 2014. Agência Brasil photo by Tânia Rêgo.

Dilma Rousseff speaking in 2014. Agência Brasil photo by Tânia Rêgo.

In August, the Brazilian site DefesaNet reported that despite recent budget cuts developing a nuclear-powered attack submarine remains a priority for Brazil’s navy. Amid a stumbling economy the Brazilian Navy’s budget was reduced from R$ 5.2 to R$3.9 billion, or roughly $1.3 and $1 billion in US dollars. “The first step is establishing clear priorities, which are the nuclear and submarine construction program, besides maintaining our operational squadron,” Navy commander Admiral* Eduardo Bacellar said during a senate commission event. “For the Navy commander, any threat to Brazilian sovereignty would necessarily come from the sea,” DefesaNet’s report continues, and the Navy’s stated goal of “keeping the South Atlantic free of conflicts” includes defending Brazil’s offshore petroleum resources. [My translation.]

Under current plans Brazil will build four diesel-electric attack submarines and a single much larger nuclear-powered submarine (Submarino com Propulsão Nuclear, or SN-BR); the first conventionally-powered submarine is expected to be completed in 2017. (It is important to distinguish between nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines, the latter of which are often powered by nuclear reactors. Brazil does not possess nuclear weapons.) These submarines are being developed with French assistance and are based on the French Scorpène class, though France is not sharing nuclear technology (see a comparison of the conventional and nuclear-powered submarines at Think Defense). As Defense Industry Daily reports, French technical cooperation will allow Brazilian firms to grow their own advanced manufacturing capabilities. This industrial development is a key goal of the program, as is job creation. While Brazil could have easily purchased the conventional submarines from established suppliers abroad, building the submarines in Brazil is an important aim of the project. The nuclear submarine is slated to begin construction in 2016 and to enter operational service 2025. (This date is now unlikely; see update below.)Though details are uncertain, later on Brazil hopes to build additional nuclear-powered subs.

By far the most complex aspect of the submarine project – which abbreviated as PROSUB – is Brazil’s effort to develop submarine nuclear propulsion. Many navies operate conventional attack submarines, and while building these boats is difficult enough developing the compact nuclear reactor required to power a nuclear submarine is a formidable undertaking. Brazil has operated a civil nuclear power station since the 1980s and covertly pursued nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s, but the country is not a leading expert in the nuclear power sector. Combined with a relative paucity of funding, this technical inexperience has contributed to the nuclear propulsion effort’s long history: in tandem with its stumbling efforts to develop nuclear weapons Brazil first embarked on the development of a maritime nuclear reactor in 1979, while funding the nuclear submarine’s construction was first announced by President Luíz Inácio da Silva in 2007.

Developing a nuclear-powered submarine is an enormously difficult and uncertain enterprise with no assurances of success: only China, France, India, Russia, the UK, and US have done so. Given these barriers, why is the Brazilian Navy so focused on building one? As a 2009 Proceedings article by Paul D. Taylor explains (via Defense Industry Daily) “the answer is apparently more related to political and economic factors associated with grand strategy than to requirements of naval strategy.” Brazil is developing a nuclear submarine because it aspires to join – and importantly be recognized among – the ranks of the global leaders that can field a particularly formidable, expensive, and prestigious class of military technology.

Brazil aspires to be a world power, an aspiration justified in Brazilian eyes by the country’s large population, continental size, maturing democracy, cultural soft power, and regional leadership. Naval power, specifically extending Brazilian influence across the South Atlantic, is a key path towards realizing Brazil’s global aspirations. As Nathan Thompson and Robert Muggah recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Brazil has coupled soft-power initiatives with a dramatic boost in military cooperation with Africa, conducting joint naval exercises, providing military training and arms transfers, and establishing outposts in ports across the continent’s western coast.” Oliver Stuenkel also notes the importance of the South Atlantic in Brazilian strategic thought, which is expressed in the phrase Amazônia Azul or “Blue Amazon.” “Analogous to Brazil’s growing role on the [African] continent,” Stuenkel wrote in 2013, Brazil “is bound to play a larger role in the South Atlantic … and it has resisted attempts made by Europe and the United States … to create one single Atlantic Space.”

The Brazilian Navy sees the SN-BR as a vital component of the country’s overall maritime strategy. An attack submarine’s core mission is destroying enemy warships and shipping and hunting other submarines (and, to a lesser extent, launching land attack cruise missiles). While the advent of advanced air-independent propulsion schemes have eroded nuclear-powered submarines’ advantages over their conventional peers, nuclear-powered attack submarines are able sustain much higher speeds when submerged and patrol longer distances, a key advantage given Brazil’s 7,000 kilometers of coastline.

But as Taylor notes, none of the then-stated strategic rationales for a Brazilian nuclear submarine – protecting offshore oil platforms and patrolling Brazil’s Exclusive Economic Zone – seem justifiable: the SN-BR’s costs make little sense given that Brazil has no external enemies. Clearly, other aims are at work.

Brazilian officials justify PROSUB by citing the need to deter potential aggressors and protect Brazil’s offshore resources. This maritime patrimony or “Blue Amazon” is even referenced in the name of the government-owned consortium responsible for the nuclear sub project, Amazul. As Taylor notes, the “Blue Amazon” metaphor is a deliberate public relations strategy. Throughout their history Brazilians have often described the vast Amazon as the resource that makes their country exceptional, but also one that is threatened by outside forces. “The Brazilian elite, especially the military, had long worried that their country might lose the Amazon valley for want of settling it,” Thomas E. Skidmore writes in The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-85, discussing the military dictatorship’s ill-advised attempt to open the Amazon basin to agriculture. “Generations of Brazilian army cadets had been taught the Amazon’s geopolitical significance; now as officers they feared possible Peruvian or Venezuelan incursions into Brazil’s vasty but thinly held territory upriver. This worry deepened as the Amazon’s extraordinary mineral wealth – especially iron ore – became known.” Importantly, exactly who threatens the Amazon is unimportant: earlier generations feared America’s tentacles reaching south into the Amazon, rumors that improbably persist into the 21st century. By invoking these fears the Brazilian Navy’s use of the phrase Amazônia Azul suggests – and, importantly, advocates – both the importance of Brazil’s maritime resources and their vulnerability. While it is difficult to say who threatens Brazil’s offshore resources, the Amazônia Azul metaphor creates a narrative where someone does.

In this narrative submarines are required to defend Brazil’s maritime patrimony, and the immediate impracticality of a modern submarine force is irrelevant. As Stuenkel dryly notes “specialists are unsure how nuclear submarines are useful” in the context of defending offshore resources, but despite the rhetoric that justifies their development are in service of a larger goal. “Rather, the development of nuclear submarines can be seen as a long-term project to eventually gain the capacity to control the South Atlantic strategically.” Extended across the Atlantic, Amazônia Azul’s defensive rhetoric becomes, implicitly, an offensive sea denial strategy, at least in theory.

Beyond their role in war and deterrence value, the existence – or more importantly, development – of submarines plays a pivotal role in Brazil’s ambitions. Advanced submarines, and particularly nuclear-powered submarines, are an important source of national prestige. Brazil’s aspirations to global influence and long-standing desire for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council make it keenly aware how possessing prestige symbols can further these goals. Nuclear submarines are restricted to a select club which includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, a fact President Rousseff explicitly referenced in her December 2014 inauguration of the facility where the submarine’s reactor will be installed. (Rousseff skirted around India’s ongoing development of a nuclear submarine, which is both convenient – India also seeks a permanent UNSC seat – and inconvenient for this narrative.) Additionally, and again as Taylor writes, fielding a nuclear submarine “would add an argument to the case that [Brazil] so far exceeds the strength of its regional neighbors that it is a natural choice” for an expanded Security Council, though as Stuenkel notes “Brazil has rarely used its dominant role in South America as the basis for its claim to global leadership.” Even so, this dynamic is not that different from aircraft carriers – and today Brazil is the only Latin American country to operate (in theory, given its uncertain reliability) an aircraft carrier of its own, though Brazil’s naval fighter aircraft are ancient.

A Scorpène-class submarine. Photo by Wikimedia user Outisnn.

A Scorpène-class submarine. Photo by Wikimedia user Outisnn.

Brazil has also pursued nuclear technology for decades, demonstrating a deep desire to be seen belonging to the elite club of states proficient in nuclear energy. Brazil sought to develop nuclear weapons before voluntarily giving up its nuclear ambitions through a series of diplomatic accords. The country generates a small portion of its electricity from nuclear power, though not without setbacks; the country’s unreliable civil nuclear power plant was nicknamed the “firefly” in the 1980s for its flickering output. With developing nuclear weapons now both undesirable and politically unavailable, in national prestige terms militarized nuclear energy – maritime reactors – is the next best thing. “The domination of nuclear technology is seen as a national symbol of pride and proof that Brazil is no longer a developing country,” Stuenkel writes of a nuclear submarine. While a nuclear reactor could power a future aircraft carrier or amphibious assault ship (or any other large surface ship, if cost-effectiveness isn’t considered) in modern US service only submarines and supercarriers steam under nuclear power. (Brazil’s São Paulo carrier, formerly the French Foch, is conventionally powered.) If Brazil prizes nuclear status and an attack submarine is the most plausible rational for achieving this distinction then the SN-BR program is the justification for developing and fielding militarized nuclear energy, not the other way around.

Beyond its immediate military justifications and wider role as a status symbol, questions about the SN-BR’s value remain. Every real spent on the nuclear submarine is funding that cannot be spent elsewhere. Is the expensive effort to develop the SN-BR the best means of expanding Brazil power across the South Atlantic?

After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine prompted France to cancel the planned sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia, Robert Farley speculated that these ships – which are capable of launching dozens of helicopters and landing marines onshore – could be purchased by Brazil to supplement the country’s aging aircraft carrier. While this sale was never likely and the Mistrals were recently bought by a Gulf-backed Egypt, the Mistrals arguably fit far better into Brazil’s South Atlantic-spanning strategy aspirations than an expensive homegrown nuclear-powered submarine.

While Brazil’s global aspirations have stalled under the inward-facing and distracted Rousseff administration, the South Atlantic and Africa is likely to remain an important focus of Brazil’s long-term strategic vision. Amphibious assault ships are relevant to this vision – which, importantly, given Brazil’s lack of peer rivals is more a peaceful one of security assistance rather than outright sea denial – in a way submarines are not. Versatile flattops can project airpower, contribute to disaster relief and amphibious operations, and provide a highly visible symbol of Brazilian power. While not directly referencing Brazil’s South Atlantic priorities, Farley emphasizes this point: unlike the aging São Paulo carrier, amphibious assault ships “can increase Brazil’s regional influence not merely by existing, but also by doing things on a daily basis.” They have the same advantage over submarines.

In some ways the submarine project, and especially Brazil’s efforts to develop nuclear propulsion, is a holdover from a more hopeful era: it is difficult to imagine the beleaguered Rousseff administration embarking the program today. Similarly, the decision to tie Brazil’s prestige and global ambitions to advanced submarines rather acquiring amphibious assault ships or other markers of national power rests on decisions taken decades ago, when the Brazil first embarked on its nuclear weapons and energy programs. And of course, the chance to purchase the Mistrals was an unpredictable one-off opportunity that would have been difficult to manage even if Brazil was interested.

Actually building the nuclear-powered submarine will be difficult and is likely to face technical problems and funding shortages, particularly given Brazil’s current economic slump. But despite these strategic questions and practical challenges Brazil has committed itself to realizing PROSUB’s ambitions. Whether the program will bring Brazil the influence and prestige it seeks remains to be seen.

*Naval ranks translated into US equivalents with the help of Wikipedia.

Update (11/30/2015): As O Globo reported on November 11th (via Poder Naval), budget cuts have now delayed the expected nuclear submarine schedule by three to four years. I have not updated the 2025 service entry date included in the original text, both as a reference and since in Brazil’s economic climate this new target remains uncertain.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Illustration from Stanley Lane-Poole's "Picturesque Palestine, Sinai and Egypt," 1883. Based on work by Harry Fenn. Via Wikimedia.

Illustration from Stanley Lane-Poole’s “Picturesque Palestine, Sinai and Egypt,” 1883. Based on work by Harry Fenn. Via Wikimedia.

Stories I enjoyed this week:

Karla Zabludovsky reports from a small town in the Mexican state of Michoacán where self-defense militias, many dressed in camouflage uniforms bearing the flag of their indigenous community, disarmed police and chased away illegal loggers. But the town’s new governance isn’t universally popular, and barred voting in statewide elections in the town.

Jason Margolis on Bogotá’s stop-gap transit solution – buses in dedicated lanes, all while awaiting a hoped-for but expensive subway.

Charlie Jane Anders profiles the history of the international, and luckily fading, movement doubting the link between HIV and AIDS. Tragically, when scientists discovered the link between the virus and disease the LGBTQ community’s justifiable distrust of abusive state and institutional figures had lethal consequences. “We weren’t denialists,” Anders quotes one activist, speaking about the 1980s. “We just didn’t fucking trust anybody.”

On Twitter, Kelsey D. Atherton praised an April piece by Gregory D. Johnsen on CIA Director John Brennan’s close relationship with Barack Obama and the path towards “endless drone war.”

In Germany, activists opposed to the arms trade are attempting to draw a link between weapons exports and Europe’s refugee crisis. While of course directly attributing Middle Eastern conflicts to Germany’s arms business is wrong, the message may catch on among the public: “Germany delivered nearly 13 million euros in weapons to Syria between 2002 and 2013 – mainly tanks, chemical agents and small arms.”

Timothy Hoyt attempts to explain Obama’s Middle East strategy while rejecting accusations that Obama is unable to take sensible advice to abandon the region. Instead, Obama’s apparent mix of attention and neglect can instead be seen as a prudent response to the real limitations of both US interests and leverage. “The objective of strategy, after all, is to calibrate available resources to achieve political aims; and if those aims are overly ambitious, like fixing a broken Syria or ending Sunni–Shi’a conflict, or are ill-suited to our available means or public support, we may find ourselves bankrupt when threats to more significant interests arise.”

At Reuters, Ned Parker investigates the Iraqi state’s waning power compared to overtly sectarian paramilitaries. “Most young Shi’ite Iraqi men now prefer to join the paramilitary groups, which are seen as braver and less corrupt” than the regular military, Parker writes.

Also at Reuters, Maria Tsvetkova, Christian Lowe, and Olga Dzyubenko speak with veterans of the USSR’s shadowy history in the Middle East.

The Iranian government’s intelligence thugs harass and imprison the American-Iranian journalists who attempt to explain Iran to the world because, writes Azadeh Moaveni from experience, they “have an ideological vision of Iran’s future that requires continued isolation” (via Scott Peterson and Azadeh Moaveni).

Ryan McMahon on Justin Trudeau’s victory and Indigenous rights in Canada (via Mannfred Nyttingnes).

I’ve been working my way through the archives at Roads & Kingdomsand Nick Ashdown’s 2014 story on Istanbul’s last, dying Greek paper is very affecting.

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