James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Friday File: Libya, Syria, and the Responsibility to Protect

by James M. Lindsay
October 7, 2011

A session of the United Nations Security Council in New York. (Shannon Stapleton/courtesy Reuters)

A session of the United Nations Security Council in New York. (Shannon Stapleton/courtesy Reuters)

Above the Fold. The UN Security Council witnessed a rare double veto on Tuesday. Both Russia and China voted against a toothless resolution condemning Syria for suppressing anti-government protests. Earlier this year, of course, Moscow and Beijing abstained on the vote to impose a no-fly zone on Libya. Syria is a different matter, however. Damascus has long been a Russian customer and ally—the Russians maintain a naval base at Tartus, Syria—and China worries that ousting yet another Arab dictator might give its citizens similar ideas. Although events in Libya have little connection with Moscow’s policy in Syria, Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin nonetheless invoked them to cloak his country’s veto in virtue, ominously warning of how back in the spring “the demand for a rapid cease-fire turned into a full-fledged civil war.” It will be worth watching whether Churkin’s bait-and-switch accusation gains broader currency. Supporters of the idea of a “responsibility to protect” have to be troubled that Brazil, India, and South Africa all abstained on the Syria vote even though it had been watered down almost to nothingness. (Brazil and India abstained on the Libya vote, which did contain teeth.) So any full evaluation of the wisdom of the Libyan intervention will have to confront the question of whether it has complicated future efforts to get countries to uphold the norm of a responsibility to protect.

CFR Event of the Week. The famine in East Africa has left more than 13 million people in the Horn of Africa in need of immediate assistance; an estimated 750,000 people may die in the next four months. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the famine is that it might have been prevented if Somalia had a stable government. CFR’s Jendayi Frazer and E.J. Hogendoorn of the International Crisis Group sat down with All Africa’s Reed Kramer to discuss the famine and the security and stability issues surrounding it. Their conversation sheds light on the pressing need to stabilize Somalia—and the serious challenges to doing so. You can download the audio of the talk, or watch the video below.

Read of the Week. One of the subthemes running through the GOP presidential debates is whether the United States should be more or less active overseas. That is hardly a new tension in American politics, as a wonderful new book by Christopher McKnight Nichols called Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age makes clear. Nichols traces the debates between internationalists and isolationists from the 1890s through the 1920s as they fought over America’s role in the world. Along the way he introduces a fascinating cast of characters, including Randolph Bourne, Eugene Debs, Henry Cabot Lodge, and one of my all-time favorites, William Borah of Idaho. He was known as “the great opposer” because he so frequently argued against rather than for things.

Blog Post of the Week. In the midst of what seems to be an unrelenting stream of gloomy and pessimistic news on the global economy, Walter Russell Mead goes against the grain to argue that the future is getting better all the time. Where others see the death agonies of a cherished world, he sees the birth pangs of a new, extraordinary one. In all, Walter’s post brings to mind Joseph Schumpeter’s famous remark about capitalism unleashing a “perennial gale of creative destruction.” But gales are never fun to experience, they can last a long time, and you and your belongings may not survive them.

Poll Question of the Week. What does the abbreviation “GOP” stand for? 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair asked Americans this question in a poll released this week. It turns out that fewer than half (45 percent) of them know the answer—Grand Old Party. Not surprisingly, more Republicans (51 percent) than Democrats (38 percent) got it right. The second most popular answer was “Government of the People” (35 percent), followed by “Don’t Know” (9 percent), “Grumpy Old People” (7 percent), “God’s Own Party” (3 percent), and “Gauntlet of Power” (1 percent). (Yes, some of the respondents clearly had fun with the question.) The fact that most Americans do not know what “GOP” stands for does not surprise the Wall Street Journal. It decided back in 2009 to stop referring to the Republican Party as the GOP because many of its readers did not know what the letters meant. The broader lesson to keep in mind is that many of the political terms that politicians, pundits, and bloggers throw around—“entitlements,” “discretionary spending,” and “Ponzi scheme” come readily to mind—don’t mean anything to many Americans.

Chart of the Week. Excessive government debt constitutes a big part of our current global economic woes. So how does the United States stack up against other advanced industrialized countries when it comes to total debt and the percentage owed to foreigners? Well, when measured against the size of our economy, we are worse off than some countries and in better shape than others. The most interesting point in the chart below may be that Japan’s gross government debt dwarfs everyone else’s, but hardly anyone outside of Japan is talking about it. That points to the fact that what matters more than the amount of debt—whether absolute or relative—a country holds is whether investors believe that debt will be repaid. That’s why Greece is in trouble, and if European leaders don’t get ahead of the debt crisis soon, why some other eurozone members could soon join it.

Chart source: The Economist.

Too Good Not to Note. Steven Cook and the team at CFR.org cut a new video, complete with a great soundtrack, on Egypt’s democratic quest. Micah Zenko surveys the changing norms in the U.S. government on so-called targeted killings. Scott Snyder notes that the visit of South Korea president Lee Myung-bak next week has helped convince the White House to submit the Korea-U.S. Free-Trade Agreement to Congress for approval. Joe Nye writes about the decline and fall of America’s decline and fall. Noah Shachtman reports on the U.S. Air Force’s plans to launch “Blue Devil Block 2,” a very large surveillance blimp set for duty in Afghanistan.

Perils of Prediction. “N.Y. Yankees over Detroit,” Five of six baseball reporters for USA Today, September 29, 2011. Sorry. (Not really.) Despite having the highest payroll in baseball—it was nearly twice Detroit’s—and playing at home in front of 50,960 fans, the Yankees lost to the unheralded Tigers last night in the deciding Game 5. Yankee players can now join their Red Sox colleagues on the golf course. The powerful Yankees batting order, which features at least two surefire hall-of-famers, went two-for-nine with runners in scoring position and left eleven runners on base. Yankee fans cannot be happy.

Quote to Ponder. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

A Reason to Smile. Walking through an orchard in autumn and eating a freshly picked apple.

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