Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Saif al-Islam Qaddafi has always been His Father's Son

It was reported some time ago how interesting it was that Saif al-Islam Qaddafi's (SAQ's) wrote his dissertation on the role that civil society could play in making the institutions of global governance more democratic. Now it's being reported that, following his "civil war" speech of the other night, LSE is trying to distance itself from Qaddafi's son. This is not at all surprising. What's more surprising is that SAQ ever achieved "Media Golden Child" status on account of his liberal, reform oriented dissertation.

SAQ's dissertation appears to neatly sidestep the question of creating more democratic domestic political institutions, as if international institutions were the ones doing all the oppression. That issue alone should have at least sounded a few alarm bells back when the world discovered the "reformer" that was Saif al-Islam Qaddafi. Not that he wasn't a reformer, but he certainly isn't now, and his dissertation--at least, the title, abstract, and descriptions offered--appear to sidestep this issue all too cleanly.

In his dissertation, SAQ says "I shall be primarily concerned with what I argue is the central failing of the current system of global governance in the new global environment: that it is highly undemocratic."

A broader summary:
This dissertation analyses the problem of how to create more just and democratic global governing institutions, exploring the approach of a more formal system of collective decision-making by the three main actors in global society: governments, civil society and the business sector....
The thesis explains and adopts three philosophical foundations in support of the argument. The first is liberal individualism; the thesis argues that there are strong motivations for free individuals to seek fair terms of cooperation within the necessary constraints of being members of a global society. Drawing on the works of David Hume, John Rawls and Ned McClennen, it elaborates significant self-interested and moral motives that prompt individuals to seek cooperation on fair terms if they expect others to do so. Secondly, it supports a theory of global justice, rejecting the limits of Rawls’s view of international justice based on what he calls ‘peoples’ rather than persons. Thirdly, the thesis adopts and applies David Held’s eight cosmopolitan principles to support the concept and specific structures of ‘Collective Management’. (hat tip to Alex Tabarrok).
 As an approach to international organizations, SAQ neglects the fact that international bureaucracies--the form that nearly all international organizations take--are inherently undemocratic. Bureaucracy, as an organizational form, is necessarily non-majoritarian. That is, bureaucracy isn't inherently democratic. That's why both democratic and authoritarian states use it so frequently. This isn't a problem because we need these institutions to implement policy, and we like the Weberian rationality that embodies their decision-making (although autocrats don't always take advantage of this aspect of bureaucracy). Any "democratic-ness" that a bureaucracy inherits comes from the nature of the institutions (in this case, the states) giving the bureaucracy its marching orders. There is no "democratic deficit" in international institutions (I'm borrowing somewhat from this Andrew Moravcsik article).

This suggests, then, that if we can call international organizations "undemocratic," we can only do so because many of the governments who participate governing these institutions are themselves undemocratic. While I don't think most of the people who are sympathetic to SAQ's argument are themselves autocracy boosters, in SAQ's case, neglecting this point reveals that he has always been his father's son.

Could Journalists Spend Five Minutes on Game Theory, Please?

A recent New York Times article, headlined as "Egypt's Leader's Signal Commitment to Civilian Rule" tells me little about what the Egyptian government has done to "signal" its "commitment." The UK's David Cameron visited, the country's top prosecutor wants to request that the Foreign Ministry freeze the assets of Mubarak, his family and his cronies, the military has appointed an opposition member to a ministerial position--as the Minister of Tourism, and the military has refused (so far) to reappoint a Minister of Information.

In none of these case has the government "signaled" anything or demonstrated that its commitments are "credible." That is, these actions are easy to do and easy to undo. In fact, few of them represent "actions" by the government at all. An important foreign dignitary visited and a prosecutor wants to do something to the Mubaraks. And appointing an opposition party member as the Minister of Tourism hardly seems earth shattering. I fail to see how this will entail any costs to the military should they choose to move in a less-than-democratic direction.

Also, Cameron refused to meet with the Muslim Brotherhood, saying "that the Egyptian uprising was 'not about extremists on the streets.'" This, perhaps, sends the clearest message of all those presented in the article. Namely, that the West still vitally misunderstands the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. The sooner the West stops associating the organization with extremism, the better. Indeed, such a move might even bolster the moderate elements of the organization.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Obama Doesn't Deserve Any Credit for Egypt

With Mubarak gone, we (rightly) want to assess Obama's handling of an entirely unexpected crisis. Niall Ferguson criticizes Obama's team for not appropriately gaming such a difficult to image scenario. Sure, this would have been advisable, but at some point your foreign policy team has to decide which in conceivable threats to deal with, and which are, well, simply inconceivable (This makes some sense, whether or not revolutions are inherently unpredictable (as Scott Wolford argues) or if a group of Egypt experts had, in fact, predicted Mubarak’s weakness (as Dan Drezner claims)). Slate’s John Dickerson weighs in in Obama’s favor, arguing that when events move quickly, doing little isn’t such a bad option. Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell argues similarly that Obama, while spending too much time trying to "thread the needle," came down in favor of the protests, but in a way that avoided making the protesters look like foreign stooges.

All of these arguments miss an important point about what Obama did. Under pressure from Middle Eastern allies, the Obama administration responded carefully, finally deciding to "support" the protestors in their calls for reform, but by maintaining calls for stability. Mubarak and his government could stay in power, handle the transition, and work toward September elections. Some commenters (like Stephen Walt and Blake Hounshell) claim that this represents Obama’s ultimate support for the protesters.

I don't see it that way. Unless Obama and his team are much more naive than I give them credit for, they, like any other politician, know the value of political promises. Without strict incentives to follow up, political promises aren't credible. And any promise by Mubarak to work towards "transition" wasn't credible. The Egyptian protesters knew this: that's why they stayed on the streets. If they had gone home, Mubarak could simply have loaded up Facebook and started hunting down the organizers, one by one. By September, any new protests that could have been generated by the new elections could have been shut down by arresting the organizers and putting security forces out in force to quell new protests. End result: Mubarak stays in power, with Obama's support for reform giving him the out he needed. 

Good thing the Egyptians didn't fall for it.

Here's the real rub, though. The US can pretty much afford to piss off Arab dictators--Mubarak and the rest, since, as far as foreign policy goes, their interests are our interests. Saudis don't want high oil prices, but not because they're worried about the US. Mubarak's Egypt will always play along on combating terrorism and maintaining the treaty with Israel. They can't afford not to. Both because of the outrageous levels of development and military aid we give Egypt, but also because it's in their interests to do so.
If Mubarak hadn't fallen, angering him wouldn't have mattered so much, because our interests are aligned. If he did, then it's critical that we played the right game during the protests. And that game was to unambiguously side with the protesters. We weren't, and I'm certain that if the next government is a non-military one, they'll remember who got them there and who didn't.