Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The July 11 attacks by the Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab killed more than 70 people watching the finals of the World Cup in Kampala, Uganda's lakeside capital city. The tragic bombings, and the response, have brought up an interesting issue in the field of international security - why countries react in different ways to terrorist attacks.

On one end of the spectrum is Spain's reaction to the March 11, 2004 attacks by "homegrown" Al-Qaeda members on the Madrid subway (Ed. note - why do so many terrorist attacks happen on the 11th day of the month?). The attacks occurred shortly before the 2004 parliamentary elections, and led to Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's party, known by its Spanish acronym PSOE, taking power from the Conservative Jose Maria Aznar. In the aftermath of the election, tinged by Aznar's contention that the bombings were caused by the Basque separatist group ETA, Zapatero's government withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq.

On the other end of the spectrum is the U.S. reaction to the September 11 attacks in 2001, with a death toll of over 3,000. Within a month, after the Taliban refused to turn over Osama Bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda members, U.S. and allied forces had entered the country. On October 7, 2001, airstrikes began in Kabul. U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan today, 105 months after the initial invasion. 9/11, far from deterring future action, led directly to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

In reacting to the 7/11 attacks, Uganda's government has remained uncowed, despite being singled out for attack by Al-Shabaab because of the presence of Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia. President Yoweri Museveni was defiant, stating that "we shall go for them wherever they are coming from. We will look for them and get them as we always do." Although this rhetoric is not likely to be backed by immediate military action, Museveni's words are no retreat. In fact, he has already hinted at changing the mandate of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia to one of "peace enforcement." Such a shift in the rules of engagement would allow for a more proactive military effort against Al-Shabaab.

Leaving aside the (important) question of why Al-Shabaab would attack Uganda or what their broader agenda may be, why did Uganda react in this way, and why do countries react so differently when responding to terrorism?

Monday, July 19, 2010

While we've been distracted by the ever-changing world around us and lost interest in Iran after sanctions were passed by Congress, life has rolled on in Tehran.  But it has not rolled smoothly.  Yesterday marked a crucial turning point in domestic relations, as merchants in the capital ended a 12-day strike

Now why is this important?  No, it's not the result of U.S. sanctions and is certainly no reason to declare a victory.  And no, these strikes really are not similar to the mass protests and strikes of 1979 that brought down the Shah - the government is in no immediate danger of collapsing.  But this strike is crucially important as an indicator that economic conditions in Iran continue to deteriorate and that the general populace has thus far been unswayed by the "Blame America" rhetoric from the regime.

Under the mismanagement of President Ahmadinejad, the Iranian economy has cratered.  He spun profits from record-high oil prices into vast subsidy programs to bulwark domestic support, but when oil prices dropped those programs became massive government expenditures with no revenue backing.  Not only did he miss an opportunity to expand and diversify Iran's economy, Ahmadinejad's fiscal cluelessness has now burdened the state with more debt than it can handle.  The solution: higher taxes, which led directly to the recent strike.

Again, the regime is not in imminent danger.  But these strikes illustrate the cost of financial imprudence, and without an economic turnaround even blatant vote-stealing won't keep the current government afloat.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


The 2010 mid-term election is developing into a referendum on the economy, with foreign policy playing little to no role. A recent Gallup poll asks Americans what they think is "the most important problem facing this country today" and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan tie with 3%. No foreign policy issue garners more than 7% (immigration) and the aggregate of the all the foreign policy-related issues is 17%. Americans are most daunted by the economy; 53% mention either the economy or unemployment/jobs as the most important problem.

This is occurring in an atmosphere where the public sees the President as competent in foreign affairs, but increasingly inept at handling the national economy. In a recent TIME poll, Obama retains a 52% approval rate on foreign policy (41% disapprove) and a 47/44 approval/disapproval rate on Afghanistan, but has only a 44% approval rate on the economy (53% disapprove). The President has been seen as more competent on foreign policy than on the economy since March 2009.

Finally, a majority of Americans both approve of the President's timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan and approve of his decision to both remove General McChrystal and appoint General Petraeus, the latter by incredible margins.

There are two important implications of this polling data. First, foreign policy will be a non-issue for most of the 2010 campaign. With voters' attention disproportionately fixed on the economy, campaigns will be about jobs, jobs, and jobs. Of course the occasional congressional race will hinge on a foreign policy issue. Districts with large military bases or ethnic populations with specific foreign policy interests feature intense foreign policy debates, but they are not the norm across the country. However, even when foreign policy and national security are emphasized, it will likely occur in the context of, you guessed it, jobs.

Second, congressional support for President Obama's foreign policy won't flag, even with a Republican takeover of (one or both houses of) Congress. On the major foreign policy issues facing the United States, namely Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama is supported heavily by the Republican minority. In fact, in the recent debate over supplemental funding for the war in Afghanistan, the main opposition was from liberal Democrats.

Democrats running for Congress this fall will be in a race against the economy, hoping it improves enough by October to argue that things are getting better. If the unemployment rate starts creeping down over the end of the summer, and September and October see big job gains, then Democrats can feel (somewhat) secure in the fact that they will only lose a few seats. If however, unemployment stays around 9.5%, or increases, watch for Democrats to suffer major losses in November.

Of course, all of this analysis exists in a place that assumes the absence of an "October surprise" - an event that would shock the electorate in a way so as to call into question their core electoral assumptions. I've stated previously that I thought the August 31st U.S. military draw-down in Iraq would have a similar effect, causing the electorate to focus on Iraq and the Middle East. I still think that will happen, but not anywhere near the amount required to make the mid-terms anything but a referendum on the economy. Even at the height of the CNN-led frenzy over the Gulf Coast oil spill, only 18% of voters listed the spill as the most important issue facing the U.S.

Gallup's "Bottom Line" sums up the issue nicely:

Although the precise percentage of Americans mentioning economic concerns varies from month to month, these issues have dominated the public's consciousness for well over two years. This fact should serve as a sharp reminder to politicians and challengers involved in House and Senate races this fall; failure to address economic issues will be at the candidate's own peril.

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