Cleaning off my desk

I’m clearing off my desk today and working on the opening lecture for my graduate IR theory course, so I’m not going to try to write a detailed commentary. Instead, let me take this opportunity to pass on a few pieces that caught my eye, on a wide array of subjects. 1. From the S ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
581681_090827_waltbyelfondd2.jpg
581681_090827_waltbyelfondd2.jpg

I’m clearing off my desk today and working on the opening lecture for my graduate IR theory course, so I’m not going to try to write a detailed commentary. Instead, let me take this opportunity to pass on a few pieces that caught my eye, on a wide array of subjects.

1. From the S Rajaratnam School in Singapore comes an optimistic assessment on the status of the Pakistani Taliban. According to Khuram Iqbal, the Pakistani Taliban have failed to gain popular support, and show no signs of becoming an effective mass movement (akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon). Instead, they are increasingly seen as a narrower terrorist group, reinforced their unpopularity. While they remain a problem to be dealt with, fears that the Pakistani state was on the verge of collapse or that the entire country might be “Talibanized” seem to have been greatly overblown. (Juan Cole: take a bow).

2. There is a fascinating article by Richard Oliver Collin in the latest issue of International Studies Perspectives, entitled “Words of War: Iraq’s Tower of Babel.” It is a careful analysis of the extraordinary degree of linguistic diversity and fragmentation in Iraq, and it underscores how ill-prepared the United States was to try to occupy and govern the place. Money quote from Collin’s conclusion:

It cannot be argued that enhanced language proficiency in Arabic and Kurdish would assure military victory for the United States in its conflict with the various Iraqi insurgent groups.  Language capability is a necessary but not sufficient condition for triumph in war and diplomacy. The evidence does strongly suggest, however, that American inability to create a basic communications capability has contributed importantly to the failure of the United States thus far to resolve its Middle Eastern problems at some minimally acceptable level … Can this historical trend be changed? There is no reason to believe that the present spate of Middle Eastern difficulties is going to be the last chapter in America’s involvement in the Middle East ….

The United States historically has attempted to pursue a policy of intense involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, sometimes diplomatic and sometimes military, but without a concomitant commitment to understanding the region’s culture, religion, and particularly its languages. Since American foreign policy in the Middle East policy has never been more than sporadically successful, an argument can be made that Washington needs to match its military investment with a serious commitment to language and area studies. Language lessons are cheaper than tanks, and if America’s linguists were good enough, the United States might not need quite so many tanks.”

Note: he says linguistic competence is “necessary but not sufficient,” so please don’t assume that training some more linguists would suddenly give us a magical capability to reorder other countries at low cost.

3. If you’re just now trying to catch up on the situation in Afghanistan (and why haven’t you been reading the AfPak Channel here at FP?), a good short introduction is Thomas Billetteri, “Afghanistan Dilemma,” CQ Researcher, available here. (Full disclosure: I’m quoted a couple of times, but so are lots of other people with varying views.) Billetteri takes no position on the policy choices facing us, but the piece is an excellent introduction to the issues.

4. I’ve also just finished a fascinating paper by two economists from the Universidad de los Andes, analyzing the effect of Plan Colombia on the production and distribution of drugs (e.g., cocaine). The analysis is fairly technical and some of the math is beyond me, but it’s clearly a serious attempt to determine the impact of different policies and how the different actors involved (the U.S. and Colombian governments, the drug growers, the drug smugglers, etc.) interact in a strategic fashion. Among other things, the authors (Daniel Mejia and Pascual Restrepo) show that although Plan Colombia’s drug eradication efforts have reduced the amount of acreage under cultivation by nearly 50 percent, actual cocaine production has decreased by only 11 percent and the prices of coca leaf, coca paste, and actual cocaine have remained fairly stable. Why? Because growers responded to eradication efforts by adopting more productive cultivation techniques, thereby producing nearly the same amount of cocaine from smaller amounts of land. 

They also demonstrate that the Colombian and U.S. governments have conflicting interests in pursuing the “war on drugs.” Specifically, the Colombian government benefits far more from every dollar spent on eradication efforts (i.e., against drug production) because that takes money away from the growers (and thus the insurgency). By contrast, the United States gets a larger “bang from the buck” from drug interdiction (i.e., against drug trafficking) because the main U.S. interest is in trying to keep cocaine out of the United States. Here’s a summary of their main findings:

We find, among many other things, that a three-fold increase in the U.S. budget allocated to Plan Colombia would decrease the amount of cocaine reaching consumer countries by about 19.5% (about 60,000 kg). We also estimate that the elasticity of the cocaine reaching consumer countries with respect to changes in the amount of resources invested in the war against illegal drug production is about 0.007%, whereas the elasticity with respect to changes in the amount of resources invested in the war against illegal drug trafficking is about 0.296%. In other words, if the main objective is to reduce the amount of drugs reaching consumer countries, targeting illegal drug trafficking is much more cost effective than targeting illegal drug production activities.  However, if the objective is to reduce the cost of conflict in Colombia, targeting drug production activities is more cost effective …. Furthermore, we find that the optimal allocation of resources from the point of view of the U.S., whose objective is to minimize the amount of cocaine reaching its borders, implies that all the U.S. assistance to Plan Colombia should be for the war against drug trafficking.  From the point of view of Colombia, whose objective is to minimize the total cost of internal conflict, the optimal allocation would imply that all the U.S. assistance for Plan Colombia should go to finance the war against drug production.”

I’m sure one can raise questions about their analysis, but this is the sort of work that really ought to be informing the debate over whether Plan Colombia is working and how U.S. assistance should be allocated. 

Happy reading!

elfon/flickr

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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