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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Ist. ital. d'arti grafiche, "Map of Italian possessions and zone of influence in Africa," 1896. Via Wikimedia.

Ist. ital. d’arti grafiche, “Map of Italian possessions and zone of influence in Africa,” 1896. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Nabeelah Jaffer has a thoughtful take on the debate over the acceptable limits of cultural appropriation.

In response to increased competition on routes to India — and perhaps indicative of the business-driven spread of Indian culture — Dubai’s Emirates Airlines ramps up Indian culinary offerings.

An extremely detailed reading list on Brazilian culture, protest, politics, and much more.

Could a BRICS bank, led by poorer countries and willing to pay less heed to humanitarian and environmental concerns, compete with the establishment World Bank?

Haleh Anvari on the outside world’s practice of using Iranian women’s clothes as their benchmark for superficial understanding of the country (via RezaAsadi).

And from Tuesday, a review of news and analysis focusing on ISIS’ advance in Iraq, at Political Violence at a Glance.

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Is Obama Signaling the Obvious to Terrorists?

By Taylor Marvin

A helicopter carrying then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates flies of Baghdad in 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby

A helicopter carrying then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates flies over Baghdad in 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby.

After the stunning advance through northern Iraq last week by the Sunni jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, and its allies, many are calling for US military action in support of the embattled Iraqi government and its security forces. American efforts would, most likely, consist of airstrikes targeting ISIS forces in Iraq, strikes the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has specifically requested. While the Obama administration has not ruled out airstrikes, many of President Obama’s Republican opponents in Congress have already begun to criticize the president’s inaction.

In particular, Senator Marco Rubio faulted the president for warning Friday that the United States would not send “U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”* (Limited numbers of military personnel have already been deployed to the country, reportedly to protect the US embassy in Baghdad.) As Politico reports:

“I don’t think it’s wise for the commander in chief to step forward and immediately begin to rule options out. Even if he never intends to send a single American soldier, he shouldn’t be signaling that to terrorists,” Rubio (R-Fla.) said in an interview. “You should not be going around announcing what you won’t do.”

Daniel Larison sees Rubio’s statement as at best “a useless criticism.” The prospect of large numbers of American troops returning to Iraq so soon after the 2011 withdrawal that ended the US occupation of the country would be so unpopular with voters that Rubio would probably immediately disavow it if someone accused Rubio of actually wanting “boots on the ground,” and it’s particularly hard to imagine Rubio faulting the president for not wanting troops in Iraq if Rubio’s party was in a position to set foreign policy. Of course, Rubio’s disapproval of Obama’s refusal to consider sending troops to Iraq is probably best viewed as another aspect of the knee-jerk Republican criticism of all aspects of Obama’s policy choices, rather than a specific critique of a specific policy.

But what’s more interesting here is Rubio’s comment that Obama should not broadcast his intentions to “terrorists,” Rubio’s term for the broad ISIS-lead coalition of Sunni insurgents. The problem with this analysis — which echoes the long-time criticism that Obama should not have publicly set a withdrawal date to accompany his 2009 decision to “surge” additional forces into Afghanistan; see Vali Nasr’s 2013 book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat for a more cognizant example of this argument — is that the various people Rubio accuses Obama of signaling to can make their own judgements.

We obviously cannot get inside the heads of ISIS commanders deciding whether to push towards Baghdad, Prime Minister al-Maliki judging how much help the US is prepared to give him, individual Iraqi soldiers deciding whether to fight or flee, or Iranian President Hassan Rouhani weighing his country’s options. But most of these people know that the US war in Iraq grew less and less popular with Americans as the conflict dragged on and more and more US soldiers came home dead or injured, all for little apparent gain. While many of these local actors may not be familiar with the realities of the United States’ democratic political system, it seems reasonable to suspect that the more astute of them realize that an American return to Iraq would be very unpopular within the US, and that President Obama — or any other president, for that matter — is unlikely to do so. If Prime Minister al-Maliki did not pursue meaningful reconciliation with Iraqi Sunnis because he assumed that the United States would bail him out with ground forces if his government faced a serious threat from his disgruntled countrymen then he made a serious error.

If American management of the current crisis relies on, as Rubio frames it, a credible threat of sending substantial US ground forces to Iraq then this management will fail, because this threat simply isn’t credible. Obama’s announcement that he will not pursue a policy that would be incredibly unpopular doesn’t tell the “terrorists” much that they likely didn’t already assume.

*[Correction: June 19, 2014] This line originally read “significant numbers of ground troops to Iraq,” which isn’t precise enough framing, rather than quoting the president. As I noted in my Tuesday review at PVG and a commenter at Larison’s post remarked, advisers and special forces often accompany air campaigns in support of allied ground forces, though Obama presumably excluded this option from his July 13th statement that “we will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.” On June 19th Obama announced that up to 300 special forces advisers will indeed be sent to Iraq.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Codex Mendoza, 16th century. Via Wikimedia.

Codex Mendoza, 16th century. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

The Chinese military’s role in the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali; interesting note on the PLA’s lack of French speakers, which presumably will become an increasing problem as China’s presence in Africa grows.

Apropos of King Juan Carlos announcement that he will abdicate, the declining popularity of the Spanish monarchy.

Colin M. Snider on the ethics of “favela tours” in Brazil and “poverty tourism” more generally. Somewhat relatedly, are Argentina’s poor falling farther behind despite Kirchnerismo’s “winning decade”?

Polling shows that Brazilians are less confident that their country is already a world power or soon will be than they were four years ago, and overwhelmingly say that Brazil deserves more international respect (via Brazilian Character Lab). Josh Busby is in Brazil, and talks a bit about the country’s development.

Speaking of polls, public opinion surveys among Arab countries suggest that US military intervention in Syria would be unpopular, despite support for US action among many Arab governments.

No one is even pretending that there’s money available to pay Afghanistan’s army after US funding dries up in 2018 (via Milena Rodban).

The increasingly open debate over Iran’s nuclear program within the country, and why negotiators should focus on verification, not the number of Iranian centrifuges.

Graduation advice for aspiring humanitarians: don’t try to save the world, develop local knowledge, and be aware of your limited perspective (via šīrīn ✺ šəfīʿ).

And, from earlier in the week, further linkage at Political Violence at a Glance.

Does Khamenei Believe Obama’s Threats?

By Taylor Marvin

Last week President Obama addressed West Point’s graduating class in what was widely acknowledged as the clearest explanation of his second term foreign policy yet. In a speech stressing that not every global problem requires American military action and celebrating the role of multilateral diplomacy, Obama’s comments on Iran were nothing new. While praising the coalition-building that has facilitated extremely harsh sanctions, Obama warned that despite ongoing negotiations “we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” While welcoming the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear crisis — “one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force” — Obama implicitly reminded that if the Iranian regime does not cooperate it risks an American effort to violently put a stop to its nuclear ambitions.

American observers alternatively characterized the speech as an example of foreign policy realism or not realism, suggested that it provided little guidance on Syria and Iran, and warned that Obama’s reluctance for war would embolden America’s enemies. Has it? Via Lobe LogIranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated Wednesday that the United States has indeed taken the threat of force off the table. As the New York Times reports:

Speaking from a stage decorated with a banner proclaiming “America cannot do a damn thing,” Iran’s supreme leader on Wednesday asserted that the Obama administration had taken the option of military intervention to resolve conflicts off the table.

“They realized that military attacks are as dangerous or even more dangerous for the assaulting country as they are for the country attacked,” the leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in an address to the country’s political and military establishment.

A “military attack is not a priority for Americans now,” he concluded. “They have renounced the idea of any military actions.”

While defiance and harsh statements by Khamenei is not new, his apparent dismissal of US threats appears to be:

Ayatollah Khamenei, who in the past has repeatedly said the United States was intent on attacking Iran, but incapable of doing so, has apparently now concluded — at least in public — that military action from the United States should not be expected.

Arash Karami has more.

Does Khamenei, who is ultimately the final voice for major decision within the Iranian government, actually believe that the principles outlined in the president’s West Point speech indicates that the United States will not risk strikes on Iranian nuclear infrastructure or, in a broader option, government and military targets?

There are three broad possibilities. The first is that Khamenei’s statement is simply posturing. The Supreme Leader has an incentive to increase his own standing among audiences within the regime, Iranian society, and the world by making Iran appear strong and the United States weak. The Iranian government and Supreme Leader especially defines itself in opposition to the West, and especially the United States. Talk is cheap, and stating that the risks of striking Iran are so high that the US government will not back up its threats is a means of demonstrating Iranian strength to both Iranians and sympathetic Muslims around the world, and strengthens Iran’s position in its competition with Saudi Arabia for a leading position in the Middle East.*

But even if Khamenei believes that Obama would not follow through on threats against the Islamic Republic, Obama will only be in office for another two and a half years. While authoritarian leaders often appear to have problems internalizing the significance of democratic countries’ constraints on executive power and elections, Khamenei should realize that many of the potential Republican presidential candidates would be far more likely to attack Iran, meaning that in the longer-term the American ‘realization’ of airstrikes’ risks is not set in stone. If this is the case, then Khamenei’s statement is just another variety of the unconvincing posturing — “even more dangerous” seems a stretch — that some elements of the Iranian government appear so weirdly prone to.

A second possibility is that Khamenei does believe that Obama would not order airstrikes if Iran appeared to be rushing towards a nuclear weapon or negotiations somehow catastrophically broke down, but that he is wrong. President Obama has repeatedly insisted that he would not accept an Iranian nuclear weapon. If Khamenei seeks to avoid US strikes, this threat is sincere, and Khamenei has somehow come to believe that it is not credible, then a serious and dangerous miscommunication has occurred. An Iran that interprets a perceived American reluctance to attack as a green light for a nuclear weapon could easily stumble into a war that it did not foresee.

If this is the case then Obama must seriously reconsider his rhetoric, avoid admissions by the US government that strikes would be risky (in effect, lie), or somehow demonstrate his resolve. Critics have often argued that the Obama administration’s failure to follow up on its anti-weapons of mass destruction red line in Syria has weakened his credibility everywhere. While is a mistake to judge credibility in one crisis based on another — governments have priorities, after all — its plausible that Khamenei sees US inaction in Syria as a precedent.

However, it is important to note that striking Syria could just further decrease the president’s credibility with Iran if a disgruntled American public decisively turned against the possibility of another Middle Eastern war. If the Iranian leadership sees an unsuccessful American air campaign against the Syrian Assad regime as constraining the United States it could interpret threats as even less credible than before.

The third possibility is that Khamenei believes Obama will not strike Iran, and that he is right. As analyst Matt Duss remarked in a February 2012 conversation with Jamie Fly, there’s reason to think that privately the Obama administration is just “not interested” in war with Iran, though whether Obama could escape his rhetorical hands-tying when it came down to it is an open question. While President Obama has downplayed hopes of a lasting diplomatic end to the crisis and emphasized that no option is off the table, the rest of his foreign policy does suggest a reluctance to stumble into unnecessary wars. Despite the problems of linking American resolve on Syria and Iran too closely, they are somewhat related: The Obama administration ultimately elected to not to use force to punish the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons despite a prior commitment to do so. And while rhetorical commitments and three decades of sometimes violent confrontation obviously make Iran a special case, commitments to block nuclear proliferation suffer from an inherent credibility problem when the United States did not use military action to prevent North Korean building a bomb.

Alternatively, Khamenei may be correct without Obama — or anyone else outside his inner circle, really — knowing it. Neoconservative urging aside, the Obama administration is unlikely to actually make the serious decision to attack Iran unless it feels that it has no other choice. If the Iranian regime would like to avoid strikes it may have made the conscious decision to pursue a nuclear program popular with ordinary Iranians while refraining from baiting American strikes. Of course this is a difficult balance to strike, but Iran has successfully done so for the last decade by simply not giving any concrete indication that it is rushing towards an actual bomb, rather than meandering towards nuclear capability. If this is the case then Khamenei might be saying that the Americans “have renounced the idea of any military actions” not because Obama’s threats are not credible but because he plans for Iran not to give Obama reason to follow through on them.

Which of these possibilities are the most likely? I have no idea, and you’ll have to ask a Persian-speaking Iran specialist.

*For an excellent, if dated, account of this competition see Vali Nasr’s 2006 book The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future.

What Is the Western Gaze?

By Taylor Marvin

Comics writer and critic Sean T. Collins and artist Colin Panetta have an eleven-panel comic based on Max Fisher’s May Vox explainer “9 questions about Nigeria you were too embarrassed to ask.”* Fisher’s piece was published in response to the mid-April Chibok mass kidnapping by the militant group referred to as Boko Haram (which rose to international prominence in May in part due to the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag) and attempts to answer basic questions about Nigeria and the Boko Haram insurrection.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 5.05.28 PM

Vox’s style of ‘explainer journalism,’ which was pioneered by both Vox founder Ezra Klein and its foreign affairs writer Max Fisher, is frequently criticized as simplistic or condescending. As a non-area specialist Fisher’s writing has been criticized by experts as misleading. Worse, Vox’s nominally non-ideological simplification of complex world events is often political, because simplification involves the politicized choice of what to leave out. A clear example of this problematic simplification is Yousef Munayyer’s convincing dissection of Fisher’s May post “40 Maps That Explain the Middle East,” which Munayyer writes presents a biased view of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War or, from Arab perspectives, catastrophic Nakba.

While I am not a comics critic or Nigeria expert, my read of Collins and Panetta’s comic suggests a similar critique. The comic focuses on the first entry in Fisher’s question-and-answer article, superimposing the question “What is Nigeria?” over a hashtagged placecard, Western news show, American currency, oil tanker, US Air Force drone, and bloody concrete room; notably, the images read as increasing in lethality. “What is Nigeria,” in Collins and Panetta’s artistic paraphrasing of Fisher, is a question answered through a Western lens, centered around Western concerns, and reduced to Western cultural, economic, and military power. The final panel — the question “I skipped to the bottom. What happens next?” — brings this view back to Vox and Fisher’s perspective, reducing Nigeria the country to the West’s impingement on its 170 million inhabitants.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 4.14.37 PM

Assuming that I am reading Collins and Panetta’s critique correctly, the comic calls to mind a February piece by Sarah Kendzior which characterized coverage of the then-ongoing Maidan protests in Ukraine by BuzzFeed and other outlets as “disaster porn.” Kendzior was writing about the Western view of Ukraine, but her comments are very applicable to the Nigeria coverage Collins and Panetta examine: “Violence never exists in a vacuum, it is only perceived that way—and when you are on the losing end of the perception, you are at risk, as anyone who lives in a place written off as ‘one of those places’ can tell you.”

While not mentioned in her piece, on Twitter Fisher sarcastically commented that Kendzior was demanding that audiences “pass a test” before caring about Ukraine. My response fell somewhere in between Kendzior and Fisher (who was then at the Washington Post). ‘Caring’ about foreign suffering is not a value-neutral act, because concerned voters can drive policy. But it is also true that the vast majority of foreign affairs watchers consume news as an entertainment good; the average BuzzFeed reader or cable news watcher consumes it even more casually. News outlets are expected to cater to this audience, and so does Fisher’s breezy, 101-level explainers produced for an audience only willing to learn as long as learning is centered around them and their morning coffee.

Even to a non-expert like myself there are many problems with Fisher’s Nigeria explainer: it is flattering to audiences who know nothing, is focused on conflict, reduces the country to a north-south religious divide that many experts deny, and tends to cite Western experts and journalists. But I’m not convinced it deserves the critique Collins and Panetta raise. Many of Vox’s readers cannot find Nigeria on a map, and it’s not wrong for Fisher and other explainer journalists to try and answer basic questions about the country when conflict make it relevant to Western readers. And far from reducing Nigeria to dollars, drones, and oil — not that these things are irrelevant; Nigerian government revenue is heavily dependent on oil and US military contributions to the hunt for the kidnapped schoolgirls has included ISR aircraft — Fisher does offer a reasonably broad look at Nigeria’s recent history, social conflicts, and the tangled roots of the Boko Haram insurrection.

All of this may be written through a Western lens for Western audiences, but that is overtly what Fisher aims to do. Fisher’s habit of featuring music from the countries he is profiling may be trivial and arguably a bit condescending, but it also pushes back against the tendency to reduce countries and peoples to only conflicts and hashtags, a tendency the comic appears to criticize.

If a mildly-interested reader wants to learn more about the country the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, and its arguable Western appropriation, thrust into the news cycle, I’m not sure what Collins and Panetta would prefer. Sure, if you actually want to seriously study Nigeria Vox is not the place to start, but there are many, many people who don’t want to invest hours or a career examining the country but still read the news. How this indifference affects US policy is another question, but I’m not sure Fisher’s writing is the best way to frame it.

*Fisher’s piece cites a piece by Will Moore at Political Violence at a Glancewhich I edit.

Update: Collins has a comment explaining his criticism of Fisher in greater detail, which focuses on Fisher’s tone, lack of empathy, and othering of Nigerians than the Western-centric simplification my piece addresses.