Friday, September 30, 2011

The Libyan Revolution Paddles into Crisis

One of my favorite actors, Michael Caine (Zulu, The Italian Job, Man Who Would Be King, The Ipcress File, The Quiet American) said, "Be like a duck.  Calm  on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath." 
That quote comes to mind when I consider the West’s efforts to keep a lid on things in Libya.
To me, the lesson for Libya (and, for that matter, Syria) is: If a force is too weak to seize power in a country by itself, it’s probably too weak to run the country by itself.
So the West and the Gulf Co-operation Council nations are heroically suppressing their anxiety as the Transitional National Council struggles to stamp out opposition, capture Gaddafi, reconcile its factions, and form a cabinet.
As the new government flails in Tripoli, a certain amount of misdirection is needed to distract attention from the desperate paddling and convey an air of in-control serenity.
You’ve claimed that Gaddafi forces killed 50,000 during the revolution, but there’s an awkward shortage of mass graves and corpses?  Publicize the exhumation of remains of victims of the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre.
Is vigorous tactical support of the overmatched rebels something of an embarrassment as Sirte and other Gaddafi hold-outs (and their civilians, ostensibly the subject of NATO solicitude) are subjected to a general assault?
Point out that Gaddafi representatives had discussions with Chinese weapons suppliers.
Most importantly: Is the West is extremely nervous about dispensing Gaddafi/Libyan state billions to a new government that might crumble overnight or become a creature of battle-hardened Islamists before it follows through on its pledge to honor existing contracts?
Better to divert attention from the West’s anxious stinginess by highlighting identical Chinese reluctance.
And if the rest of the world had legitimate concerns about the Libyan operation, don’t be afraid to look like an arrogant racist by pouring scorn on its concerns.
That’s the theme of a piece I wrote for Asia Times on September 17.  The links for the citations can be found by clicking through to the Asia Times archive for the piece.
China: the West's bogeyman in Libya
On the matter of Libya, the West appears on its way to a Pyrrhic victory. Success in Libya gives the West a chance to say it got regime change right after its disaster in Iraq - and reassert its global moral relevance after it bungled the world economy into recession.

The rising BRIC countries, on the other hand, find their mistrust of Western self-delusion, enabled by military force and insistence on a rule-based world in which only the Western democracies have the right to break the rules, confirmed.

In an era in which the United States is still the only power capable of projecting military force across the globe, the unique combination of anxiety, arrogance and oblique post-colonial racism that marks the Libyan intervention will probably not signal the twilight of Western influence.

But the West will probably find its ability to project its power beyond the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Gulf Co-operation Council significantly and actively constrained.

Last week, China finally rolled up its sleeves and became involved in that exercise in imperial sausage-making that is New Libya. Per the announcement of the People's Republic of China's (PRC) Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
On September 12, China notified the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) of China's decision to recognize it. China stated that the Chinese side respects the choice of the Libyan people, values the important status and role of the NTC, and has maintained close contact with it. China recognizes the NTC as the ruling authority of Libya and the representative of the Libyan people and would like to work with it to push for the smooth transition and development of China-Libya relations. China hopes that the previously signed treaties and agreements between the two sides will remain valid and be earnestly implemented.
The NTC said that the Libyan people and the NTC are happy at China's recognition and has long been looking forward to it. Attaching great importance to China's status and role, the NTC will honor faithfully all treaties and agreements signed between the two sides, stick to the one China policy, welcome China's participation in Libya's reconstruction and jointly advance with China the stable and sustained development of bilateral relations.

This concession by the Chinese was treated with a certain amount of glee in Western capitals and media, as if recognition of the rebel forces that had occupied the capital and virtually all of Libya's urban areas represented a retreat from China's policy of non-interference.

Certainly, the collapse of a fellow authoritarian regime confronted by popular unrest caused Beijing's mandarins considerable heartache and unease. However, it appears more important that the services of the Chinese bogeyman are urgently needed to provide a more flattering contrast to the shaky and dubious Western adventure in Libya.

The Guardian turned to Dr Steven Tsang of Nottingham University to deliver judgement on Beijing's move: 

"They have taken their time in recognizing the rebels," said Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at Nottingham University. ... "You will have quite a lot of people concluding China is much more interested in protecting its own national interests than performing its duties as a leading power in the international scene. As [one of the] P5 [permanent members of the UN national security council] there are certain expectations and moral responsibilities … The way the post-Gaddafi situation has been handled, [people] have not been giving China a particularly high mark," he said.

As to the "people" who are not giving China particularly high marks, one might assume that they are the kind of people Dr Tsang associates with.

The Guardian might have rendered its readers a useful service by revealing that Dr Tsang was previously director of the Pluscarden Center for the Study of Global Terrorism and Intelligence at St Antony's College at Oxford. St Antony's is the pet benefaction of conservative Arab governments seeking to burnish their non-terrorist credentials in the West.

According to a study by the Centre for Social Cohesion, a conservative think-tank eager to alert the world to penetration into the West by the Islamic menace, at least two thirds of the endowment of its Middle East Centre - including a donation of 1 million pounds (US$1.54 million) representing 30% of the MEC's endowment raised in the last 15 years, from Saudi Arabia's King Abdul Aziz Foundation - comes from governments or individuals from the conservative Arab monarchies. [1]

The most conspicuous "get" for the Pluscarden Center's speaker program this year: "His Royal Highness Prince Turki al Faisal, Chairman, King Faisal Centre for Research & Islamic Studies and former Director General of Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency Al Mukhabarat Al A'amah." [2]

The conservative Sunni states forming the Gulf Co-operation Council were Gaddafi's most implacable enemies and the driving force behind the Arab League / United Nations / North Atlantic Treaty Organization campaign for regime change in Libya. [3]

As a matter of fact and public record, the primary enthusiasts for the Libyan operation were the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, and NATO. The rest of the world's reaction to NATO's decision to use a UN resolution as a fig leaf to intervene in Libya on behalf of anti-Gaddafi rebels ranged from quiet disgust - India and Brazil - to vocal opposition from China, Russia, South Africa, and the African Union (AU).

With remarkable arrogance, Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN, gave her opinion of "those people": 

The US has not been encouraged by the performance of India, Brazil and South Africa during their temporary tenure on the UN Security Council ... "It's been a very interesting opportunity to see how they respond to the issues of the day, how they relate to us and others, how they do or don't act consistent with their own democratic institutions and stated values," Rice said at a briefing with reporters. "Let me just say, we've learned a lot and, frankly, not all of it encouraging." [4]
With attitudes like this, it is not surprising that the UN is deadlocked on Syria.

When Gaddafi did fall, it appears that his end did not come at the hands of the inept and bickering Benghazi-based TNC (which opened August, its month of victory, with the unsolved torture and murder of its main military commander, Abdel Fateh Younes). Instead, the regime collapsed as the result of a drive on the capital by the Tripoli Brigade of Islamist fighters under Abdelkarim Belhadj, and the opportune (and perhaps liberally financed) defection of a key Gaddafi brigade.

Back in June, an al-Jazeera video essay filmed at the Tripoli Brigade's training camp revealed to all who cared to pay attention that Belhaj's faction was due to receive arms from Qatar and the UAE, in apparent violation of the UN resolutions. [5]

When Belhaj reached Tripoli, the US and the UK had to deal with the awkward fact that Belhaj's questionable credentials went beyond his Islamist militancy (since renounced) and his reputed links to al-Qaeda (vociferously denied). Belhaj revealed he had been rendered and tortured by the UK and the US in 2004 and delivered to Gaddafi's Libya for more torture and six years of incarceration, calling into question his enthusiasm for the West and its program in Libya.

In fact, Belhaj looks more like an effective, heavily backed Gulf asset promoting the Saudi ideal of conservative, stable Sunni regimes than a sympathetic ally of the West, making his relationship with the pro-Western TNC bureaucrats out of Benghazi appear rather problematic.

When, after two long and embarrassing weeks, the ostensible architect of the August victory, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, cautiously made his way to Tripoli to deliver his maiden speech in Martyr's Square, the Western media obligingly provided pictures of adoring crowds waving new black, red, and green flags and English language T-shirts and mylar balloons to celebrate the new regime beneath a fireworks display.

It is difficult to determine whether the scene in the square was a demonstration of the remarkable resilience of Tripoli's flag, T-shirt, and balloon manufacturers and fireworks distributors after months of bombings and supply dislocations, or just another sign of the West's persistent spackling of the TNC's public relations facade.

However, Jalil's performance probably caused a fair amount of anxiety for his Western and Gulf patrons. Occasionally clutching the twin microphones like an anxious rider gripping the ears of an untrustworthy donkey, Jalil flatly murmured a speech about reconciliation to a crowd of, as the Guardian revealed, "approximately 10,000". [6]

Even during the darkest days of his regime, in July 2011, Gaddafi was apparently able to muster a bigger, albeit relatively unenthusiastic, crowd of listeners in the square. It will presumably take more than one night of festivities for the residents of Tripoli to forget five months of bombing and sanctions delivered courtesy of the TNC's NATO air arm, or to forgive the capital's new masters at the ballot box.

It will also take concerted perception management by the Western and Gulf powers - not to mention the application of billions of frozen Libyan assets - to provide the pro-Western elements of the TNC with a necessary veneer of authority and effectiveness and co-opt the militant Islamists entrenching themselves in post-Gaddafi Tripoli.

And it will also require a fair amount of China-bashing to draw attention away from the West's continued manipulation of Libyan sovereignty through the medium of the TNC. 

The most amusing instance occurred when Canada's Globe and Mail obtained documents detailing contacts between Gaddafi's regime and three of China's leading arms exporters in refuse piled in an upscale Libyan neighborhood.

There was no documentation that contracts had been concluded, let alone that arms had been delivered. The Chinese government issued an explicit denial.

Without providing any evidence, the TNC darkly hinted that these dealings had resulted in the introduction of Chinese arms into Gaddafi's arsenal in violation of UN sanctions. [7]

One purpose of the charge against China seems to have been to shift the focus away from the NATO/GCC serial violation of the UN Security Council resolution 1973 - not only with 8,000 NATO combat sorties on behalf of the rebels (to date, with more ongoing), but also the covert provision of arms and training to the rebels by the French, British, and US and the Gulf States - by alleging malfeasance by a disliked authoritarian regime on Gaddafi's behalf.

Another reason was probably an attempt to put China on the defensive on the matter of unfreezing Libyan assets by tarnishing its credentials as a nation that honored the letter of the UN resolutions on Libya.

The Chinese government has been conspicuously unenthusiastic about approving the unfreezing of Libyan assets through the UN Libyan Sanctions Committee (of which it is a member thanks to its UNSC seat). This is taken as churlishness toward the TNC.

Certainly, Chinese lack of enthusiasm toward the TNC is a given. However, China does not go out of its way to increase its isolation by casual displays of diplomatic vindictiveness. Money and face are probably more compelling explanations for Beijing's behavior.

China had sizable exposure to Libya, not in the areas of oil and gas exports that obsess Europe, but in about 50 infrastructure and industrial projects. When the rebellion heated up, China pulled out 35,000 of its nationals in a massive evacuation effort that left behind half-finished projects, large amounts of material and equipment, and a pile of invoices that the Libyan government had yet to pay.

The biggest single item was a half-finished project to construct 20,000 residential units, which apparently left the China State Construction Engineering Corporation out of pocket by over $2 billion. Counting evacuation costs, China may be looking at a potential loss of around $3 billion.

Potential, that is, because it looks like Beijing, as a matter of commerce and national prestige, hopes to get the money back.

On March 4, Global Times reported:

Media reports suggested that, before the evacuation, many Chinese companies ordered their personnel to back up important files and make detail lists of equipment for future compensation claims. [8]
That provides the necessary context to the September 12 Ministry of Foreign Affairs announcement that "the NTC will honor faithfully all treaties and agreements signed between the two sides".

As yet, no formal matching statement by the TNC has appeared. Given the nascent character of the TNC bureaucracy, that is understandable. But there is the question of who will be making or breaking or delivering on the TNC's promises in the coming weeks as the various factions sort things out.

China's not the only country that's worried. At an August 25 State Department press briefing, a correspondent made an interesting point: 

Question: One is you said at the beginning that the TNC has promised that it will meet all of its international commitments. Does it - has the TNC actually made or been in a position to make any binding commitments? I mean, it hasn't. You're just talking about promises that they've made to -
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland: We're talking about -
Question: There's nothing in writing here. They haven't signed any treaties that - they aren't a UN member, so these are just the assurances that they've given to you?
VN: These are assurances they've given to us. These are assurances they've given to the members of the international community. These are also assurances that they have made publicly over the past weeks and that, in fact, Prime Minister Jibril made again yesterday. He spoke in his own press conference - I think you saw it, probably - about creating transparent judicial systems, building new institutions including a national congress that's going to be elected. He called for the humane treatment of all Libyans by other Libyans, protection of prisoners.
Question: Right -
VN: He also said that Libya intends to honor the oil contracts that were signed during the Qadhafi era -
Question: Which is -
VN: - another important international commitment.
Question: Which is all fine, except that there is no constitution. I mean, he could say anything he wants.
VN: Obviously, we have to -
Question: But you -
VN: - we're at the beginning stages here.
Question: But - right, but the commitments that you're talking about are all stuff that he has just said or promised or that they have assured. There isn't anything binding about them. In other words, you have no recourse if all of the sudden tomorrow he says something different.
VN: We have always said that there is a long road ahead. What we are saying today is that we're heartened by the commitment to international institutions, international standards, openness, transparency, nonviolence, a unitary -
Question: Right.
VN: - Libya. But obviously, they have to - as they can assume power, as they can begin to establish security and control throughout Libya, we will all be looking for them to walk the walk even as they talk the talk. [9]
As the transcript of the concurrent August 25 background briefing by the State Department reveals, the United States could release the $30 billion in Libyan funds that it froze any time it wants to.

Instead, it chooses to hide behind the UN Libyan Sanctions Committee on the issue of unfreezing assets ... until it's sure that the "walking" matches the "talking".

We can thank Joe Lauria of the Wall Street Journal for asking the right question at the briefing:

Question: Yes, thank you. Hadn't the US already unilaterally frozen these funds from Libya before the Security Council passed its sanctions? And if so, why didn't the U.S. unilaterally unfreeze them the way Italy apparently did today, the $500 million?
Senior administration official one: It's not clear that the money that the Italians unfroze was actually covered by UN Security Council 1970. There are various pots of money. Yes, we did unilaterally freeze assets before we got the Security Council resolution. Once we had the Security Council resolution, we wanted to work within the UN sanctions regime in order to unfreeze it if we possibly could. ...
Question: Oh, so this was a matter of choice, then, not a legal obligation?
Senior administration official one: Correct ... [It] was our preference for maintaining the integrity of the UN system, but we were prepared to act on our own if we couldn't make that happen. [10]
The inference can easily be drawn that the US is keeping the TNC on a short leash (and dangling inducements just beyond the reach of the Islamist Tripoli Brigade, which seems to hold the key to power in western Libya) until it is sure that the new government is displaying the necessary combination of effectiveness and obedience, and walk the walk in addition to talking the talk about those oil contracts and the democratic and free market reforms dear to the hearts of the West.

If the US, a key patron of the TNC, wants to keep its hand on its (actually Libya's) wallet, it is understandable that China has exactly the same attitude about its dealings with the TNC.

If it doesn't get its $3 billion back, if the TNC decides it's going to punish China for its at best lukewarm attitude toward the new regime by shutting it out on new contracts, then China is going to make things as difficult as necessary in the matter of the release of frozen funds.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Jiang Yu declared that China had "no difficulty in principle" with the release of Libyan assets. Practice is, perhaps, another matter.

Per China Daily, Chinese experts offered plenty of reasons for slow-walking the release of funds, at least for a few months: 

Gong Shaopeng, a professor of international relations at China Foreign Affairs University, said unfreezing Libya's frozen assets should be a gradual process, as agreed upon during an international conference on Libya's reconstruction in Paris last week.

He said that the assets already unfrozen, worth $15 billion, are enough for the NTC to operate for eight months before a general election is held.

He Wenping, an expert on African studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said a supervision mechanism is vital for the assets to be used in a proper way.

"It will be irresponsible if the assets are released without supervision. That may open the door for corruption," she said.

To be fair, Western attitudes on Libya do not appear to be solely a matter of hypocritical maneuvering in order to preserve the facade of a triumph of democratic values over a rebellion that succeeded to a significant extent through the efforts of Islamist militants funded by Gulf autocracies. Genuine Atlantic-centric obtuseness seems to play a role as well.

In a remarkable op-ed, the chief of Reuters' South Africa bureau, Marius Bosch, pressed South Africa to forget about its loyalty to Gaddafi - who, ostracized by most of the Arab community, pursued an Africa-centric foreign policy and lavished support on the African Union - and get with the Western program in Libya. Otherwise, he warned darkly, South Africa might find it getting its lunch eaten - by Nigeria, which recognized the TNC in late August.

South Africa's refusal to recognize Libya's new rebel rulers has again exposed the excessive bureaucracy that often stymies decision-making in Pretoria and could have disastrous consequences for its standing and influence in Africa.

South Africa's snub of the interim ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) puts Africa's largest economy at odds with the West and African economic rival Nigeria.
Bosch quoted other commentators - who appear to be what one might delicately be term Africans of the Caucasian persuasion - who seemed eager to drive a stake in the heart of the African Union, in which South Africa carries heavy influence: 

Greg Mills, director of economic think-tank the Brenthurst Foundation, said in a blog post that South Africa's diplomacy has infuriated many diplomats. "They (diplomats) are angered by what is increasingly viewed by some as Pretoria's destructive stance. The term 'rogue democracy' is now on people's lips."

Savoring the delicious term "rogue democracy" and the implication that, once again, "those people" who represent the majority of South African voters are unsuitable stewards of the republic's foreign policy, and leaving aside the question of whether there is any genuine enthusiasm inside Africa for the NATO/GCC-imposed regime change in Libya, the hard fact remains that the Libyan rebellion has been marked by a brutal, racist backlash against the African migrants who provided much low-cost labor in Gaddafi's Libya.

Nigeria, the African state that Bosch claims will backfill in Libya at South Africa's expense, recently had something to say about the state of its relations with the new Libya.

The word "genocide", certainly a hot-button term in the continent that witnessed the Rwandan terror, came up in an article titled:  Nigeria Protests the Killing of Its Nationals in Libya.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Amb[assador] Olugbenga Ashiru abandoned a church service yesterday to take distress calls of Nigerians in Libya, including their co-ordinator, Mr Daramola Siji.

Nigerians are being attacked in Tripoli, Benghazi, Gath, Agadez and Sirte ...

A source said: "Unharmed Nigerians are being killed in tens for no just cause. In some instances, they rape Nigerian women before shooting them to death.

"Yet, this is the same TNC that the Federal Government is backing in Libya. The blacks are not involved in Libyan crisis; they do not deserve this massacre."

In one of the distress notes sent to the Presidency and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Siji, who is from Emure-Ekiti, said: "We cannot go out of our homes, my wife and children. We will certainly be shot. We don't have food and we lack everything.

"We can save lives. I am calling on AU to act and save African families boxed in troubled Libya and if anyone could reach out to the Nigerian government to stop the killing of Nigerians by the former rebels who are now the new leaders in Libya, it will be better."

In a telephone chat with our correspondent, Siji gave details of how Nigerians have become the targets of the rebels.

He added: "The truth is that when Gaddafi was in office, he had sympathy for black Africans and many have even settled in Libya ... But due to Gaddafi's sympathy for the blacks, the rebels assumed that the blacks will naturally do everything to protect Gaddafi. So, they decided to kill any black man on sight.

"Nigerians have been the butt of the attacks on the blacks because the rebels could hardly differentiate them from Ghanaians, Malians, Nigerians, Burkinabes, Senegalese and Gambians ..."

... A government source said: "Apart from talking to Siji directly, the Minister also reached out to the TNC, Britain and France on the need to stop the killing of black migrant workers, especially Nigerians. For about five hours yesterday, the Minister was talking to the TNC leaders, Britain and France on why the genocide must stop.

"The Federal Government has pleaded with Britain and France to prevail on the TNC leaders to ask their foot soldiers to end the massacre of blacks in Libya.

The Minister said Thursday: "The Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria wishes to note with concern reports of incessant abuse of helpless civilians in Libya ... Regrettably, these reports revealed outright killings, rape and extortion of money from these helpless Africans who have taken refuge in camps as well as those in detention and incarceration.

"This development is a deviation from the overall expressed desire of the TNC, the African Union and indeed the United Nations for the restoration of democracy and good governance in Libya.

"These extra-judicial killings certainly run contrary to Nigeria's call for the leadership of the TNC to be magnanimous in victory and can only stand in the way of peace building, early reconciliation and reconstruction in Libya." [13]
It remains to be seen whether the Western powers are as eager to exercise their responsibility to protect Nigerian and other African immigrants against an ongoing massacre in Libya as they were to protect their clients from the hypothetical threat of massacre in Benghazi.

However, it would appear that with the killing of black Africans and the burning of their homes and settlements, the new Libya is also burning its bridges to a convenient source of cheap labor.

Fortunately, there is one country that possesses the human and engineering resources to step in and do the necessary work that the oil-rich and labor-poor nation of Libya is unable or unwilling to perform itself. That country, of course, is China.

1. A degree of influence, Centre for Social Cohesion, 2009.
2. A Saudi National Security Doctrine for the New Decade, St Antony's College, University of Oxford, 2011.
3. China and the Libyan muddle, Asia Times Online, Mar 19, 2011.
4. U.S. ‘Not Encouraged' by India, South Africa, Brazil at UN, Bloomberg, Sep 13, 2011.
5. 'Tripoli Brigade' trains to take capital, YouTube, Jun 6, 2011.
6. Libyan rebel leader addresses crowds in Tripoli, Guardian, Sep 14, 2011.
7. China offered Gadhafi huge stockpiles of arms: Libyan memos, The Globe and Mail, Sep 3, 2011.
8. China counting financial losses in Libya,, Mar 4, 2011.
9. UN Sanctions Committee on Libya, US Department of State, Aug 25, 2011.
10. Ibid.
11. Beijing denies Gadhafi arms trade, China Daily, Sep 6, 2011.
12. S. Africa's out-of-sync Libya policy may cost it dearly, The Citizen, Sep 13, 2011.
13. Nigeria protests killing of its nationals in Libya, The Nation, Sep 5, 2011.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tinder Well-Stacked for Syrian Sectarian Bonfire

It is looking more and more like game over for Bashar al Assad in Syria.

Ironically, this is in spite of the fact that Bashar has apparently demonstrated that an authoritarian regime, left to its own devices, can often do a good job of crushing determined domestic dissent.

Especially if the insurgents lack a safe haven, either inside or outside the country.

That may be about to change.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey lead the array of regional powers that see a clear line to advantage and increased influence once Bashar’s Ba’athist regime is out of the picture.

Even though—because—the popular movement in Syria is against the ropes, we can expect an escalation of regional involvement in Syria designed to topple Bashar al Assad.

Turkey has announced it will allow the Syrian political opposition to open an office in Turkey, paving the way for eventual recognition.

However, military reality may outrun the political ambitions of the Syrian dissidents.

In a previous post, I wrote about the new doctrine of “preventive diplomacy” promoted at the Security Council by Ban Ki-moon with an enthusiastic assist from the United States.

It opens the door for abrogating sovereignty of an undesirable state even if/especially when an autocrat is getting the best of a democratic movement.

It’s tailor-made for Syria, of course.

In a way, it represents the failure of the strategy of the broad-based democratic movement, and close to the official uncorking of the sectarian genie.

The Syrian democratic movement staked its moral legitimacy on its unifying and non-violent character.  Sunnis and Alawites, country and city, MBs and secularists, lions and lambs, etc.

It drew obvious inspiration from the Egyptian revolution.

Unfortunately, I believe the Syrian democratic movement also suffered from a fatal mendacity.

To sustain its moral legitimacy, it called for dialogue.

But when the Syrian government offered dialogue, its offer was rejected: “not sincere”, “can’t be considered until political detainees released” etc.  And every week it seems there was a new outrage, a new martyr, a new reason why demands on the government had to escalate before people could leave the streets and begin dialogue.

No doubt participation in government-orchestrated “dialogue” would have delayed the fulfillment of Syrian aspirations.  It might have turned out to be a frustrating hand-job, along the lines of the“negotiations” Israel occasionally inflicts on the Palestinians when the tactical disadvantages and political costs of ignoring them become excessive.  

We didn’t get the chance to find out.

I think the democratic movement was banking on what I call the “ecstatic democratic dogpile” theory: the demonstrations would become bigger and bigger, bureaucrats and officers would defect from the regime, and the democratic movement could dictate terms instead of negotiating with the government.

That’s what the US, Saudi Arabia, and other powers hostile to Bashar al Assad also expected, I think.

As Helena Cobban pointed out , the United States could have endorsed “dialogue” in Syria, as we did when apartheid South Africa, a rather important client, was facing its democratic transition.

The response to the jaw-dropping spectacle of the United States saying, “Y’all just go home now.  Get off the streets before more blood is spilled.  C’mon, start dialogin’” would have been amusing to observe.

But it didn’t happen.  And the Syrian regime didn’t collapse.

Time for Plan B.

So now some Syrian dissidents are dropping Egypt (which has encountered its own difficulties) in favor of Libya as a revolutionary model: armed struggle supported as needed by explicit foreign military intervention.

It’s based on the well-founded assumption that the Syrian army, largely Sunni conscripts, already worn out by six months of confrontation with democracy protesters, will find its enthusiasm for defending the Alawite regime of Bashar al Assad flagging even more rapidly when it starts taking serious casualties.

This is a strategy that I believe has been a nascent within Syria since the beginning of the uprising for some of Bashar al Assad’s many enemies.  There have been credible reports of armed gangs ambushing military forces since early in the uprising, possibly carried out by supporters of exiled strongman and Saudi client (and billionaire!) Abdul Halim Khaddam.  

The Western media, wedded to the non-violent democracy movement narrative, did not take the incidents seriously at first; then explained them as “revenge attacks” provoked by the crackdown, as opposed to planned efforts to escalate the conflict and increase polarization between the majority Sunni and other confessions.

As the repression has dragged on and quick victory eluded the democracy movement, polarization also became an inevitable by-product of the peaceful movement itself, despite the sincere efforts of many pro-democracy leaders.  The most loyal security forces are Alawite while most of the protesters are Sunni, a fact that has become abundantly and irritatingly clear as the crackdown ground on over the months.

Now, if the West and GCC decide that the peaceful democratic movement can’t close the regime-change deal itself, then open support of the Syrian revolution is in the cards and the legitimacy of the Bashar al Assad regime will be officially revoked for the crime of defending its rule too brutally and successfully.

That opens the door to the whole R2P/no fly/covert military assistance megillah that we saw in Libya, whose primary purpose is to decapitate the command structure of senior regime loyalists and send the message to wavering  military units that their best hope is to abandon the regime.

In Syria’s case, the violence won’t be just between loyal senior commanders and rebellious junior officers and rank and file.

Syria’s military, below the Alawite command, is overwhelmingly Sunni.  So the violence is going to be Alawite on Sunni and vice versa.

Since the majority of Syria’s civilian population is also Sunni and dissatisfied with the regime, it is to the advantage of the regime’s more hardened opponents to escalate the violence and accelerate the polarization of Syria into Sunni and non-Sunni camps.

That’s a danger that the Bashar al Assad regime has incessantly if self-servingly invoked, even as it stoked the sectarian flames by sending its Alawite loyalists to shoot and stomp their way through dozens of Sunni cities and towns.

A military struggle is probably going to look a lot more like a Sunni rebellion and less like a democratic revolution that cuts across religious and economic lines.

Thanks to optimistic overreach by democracy activists, the  Bashar al Assad government’s iron-fisted crackdown, provocations by anti-regime militants, and post-Libya opportunism by the West, the GCC, and Turkey, the fuel for the sectarian bonfire has been stacked.

All that’s needed is for somebody to toss a match, maybe by encouraging/assisting Sunni dissidents to abandon non-violence and proactively (or, as the Security Council would have it, “preventively”) defend themselves.

I expect that Saudi Arabia might be happy to oblige.

That’s not especially good news for Alawites, Christians, or Syria’s pro-democracy dissidents.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Palestine, “Preventive Diplomacy”, and Bashar al-Assad’s Annoying Attempt to Climb Out of the Grave Pre-Dug for Him in Syria

I have a piece up at Asia Times today about the Palestinian application for full state recognition at the UN, Palestine: Mission Accomplished for China.

The affair is a big black eye for President Obama, who gets to look like Israel’s rent boy.

The Chinese government is rather happy, since the Palestinian bid has shifted the focus away from the US as an international champion of democracy and human rights.

My reference to the West Bank  access map issued by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs—which shows the extent of Israel’s physical encroachment on the territory—got mangled in the article.  I’m including it in this post.  It's a nice, big image full-size, and well worth the click.  However, it's still hard to read.  The biggest, bestest image is available at Wikipedia.

I make a couple of points in the article that I don’t see very often in coverage of the Middle East.

First, manufactured hysterics and an atmosphere of crisis are baked into Israel’s Middle East strategy.  The last thing the Netanyahu government wants is for Israel’s actions to be judged by the usual standards of national behavior, or allow the United States weigh its own interests in the scales against Israeli priorities.

Therefore, with a big assist from the right-wing megaphone in US politics, every issue is reduced to a litmus test: is the US with Israel, or against it?

PM Netanyahu could have boosted Israel’s image on the West Bank (thereby discomfiting Hamas) and allowed the United States to gain some sorely-needed cred with the Muslim world by not making a big deal out of what is actually a rather meaningless vote at the UN.

Instead, of course, the Israeli government apparently regarded Abbas’s bid as a heaven-sent opportunity to advance the narrative of Israel victimized at the UN and facing betrayal by its only ally.  Existential crisis!

The result is that relations between Israel and its adversaries are further polarized, forcing the US administration to side with Israel, followed by further polarization, forcing the US to side with Israel again...etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum.

Of course, humiliating and discrediting US President Barack Obama as a respected and effective interlocutor with the Muslim world was a delicious side-benefit.

The other point I make is that Palestine is pretty much a side issue.

The ghost at the UN banquet is Syria.

Almost everybody’s got the knives out for Bashar Assad, including the Gulf States, Turkey, the EU, the US...

I think it may be missing the point to regard dropping the hammer on Syria as a method to weaken Iran by depriving it of its only meaningful state ally in the region.

Assad is worthless as an ally from now on, and no good to anyone.  It seems unlikely that Assad can do anything effectively vis a vis Hezbollah and Hamas in the straits he’s in, or provide any other useful favors to Iran as ally or proxy.

Iran—at least President Achmadinejad—has already distanced itself from Assad’s regime.

It might be argued that the best way to deny Iran an effective Syrian ally is to let the totally isolated, sanctioned Assad regime remain in power. 

But everybody wants Assad out—because they want in.

Saudi Arabia sees a natural pickup in Syria: the installation of a friendly, anti-Iranian, conservative Sunni government.

Turkey sees an opportunity to assert its credentials as an emerging power in the eastern Mediterranean by midwifing regime change in Damascus.

The West, I have a feeling, hopes for the creation of a New Syria that is too broke, too reliant on the IMF, too infatuated with Western-style democracy, and too deregulated and penetrated by Western corporations to ever cause trouble with non-aligned fantasies or an independent foreign policy.

The irony is that, as the various powers dig Assad’s grave, it looks like he’s climbing out of it.

The mass anti-government demonstrations have apparently faltered, with protesters switching to smaller hit and run demonstrations as the government has detained most of the opposition leader.

From the Saudi/Western point of view, it looks like the Syrian project might need a bit of help.

The awkward fact that Assad’s oppressive tactics may be working found a rather interesting echo in a Security Council debate yesterday on “preventive diplomacy”.

“Preventive diplomacy” was raised by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a report for the SC.  Judging from the enthusiastic response, the report represents another milestone in Ban’s labors to fashion himself and the UN into the perfect, compliant tool of Western diplomacy.

Ambassador Susan Rice , the eager architect of the Libyan intervention, was there to put rhetorical meat on the bones.

I think an extended quote from Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin is in order here:

For the United States, preventive diplomacy means combining all the tools of international leverage -- including the use of force -- to prevent conflicts from breaking out or preventing hot conflicts from getting out of hand. It also means building sustainable economies and functioning democracies, with the goal of creating societies that can manage disputes on the national and regional levels.

"Peace, prosperity, and democracy cannot endure if imposed from the outside," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said at the session. She covered a lot of ground in her speech, not explicitly defending armed intervention but arguing for its use in some cases. "We should cease to make false distinctions between peacekeeping and prevention; they are in fact inextricably linked," she said.

She also argued that the use of sanctions under Chapter VII of the U.N. charter can be a tool of conflict prevention, a position council members such as China and Russian don't support.

Some other countries used the meeting to explicitly defend the U.N.-sanctioned international military intervention in Libya and called for harsher U.N. measures against the Syrian regime.

"When conflict looms, the world looks to the U.N. for a decisive response," said British Foreign Minister William Hague. "In Libya... our swift action prevented a human catastrophe and saved the lives of thousands of civilians."

Hague went on to say that the British government viewed U.N. Security Council action as "long overdue" on Syria. "The consequences of inaction would weigh heavily upon us if we turn a blind eye to murder and oppression," he said.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called on the Security Council to "send a strong message to the government in Damascus to stop the killing of its people."

So it’s no longer “responsibility to protect”; it’s “responsibility to prevent”.

If you’re thinking “pre-emption” in a new suit of clothes, with “struggling democratic movements” replacing “looming but non-imminent terrorist threats”, well, you’re thinking what I’m thinking.

The sound you hear is the Treaty of Westphalia—the principle that sovereign states get to do basically what they want as long as it stays inside their borders—getting another trip through the neo-colonial meat grinder.

The doctrine has an unnerving side, one that Ambassador Rice and other enthusiastic proponents will undoubtedly disregard.

It opens the door to armed intervention on behalf of unsuccessful democratic movements, not just successful ones.

It asserts the principle that local democratic movements can be nudged along by outside forces, even when they aren’t doing particularly well.

Which means it’s a blank check.

And, of course, it’s tailor-made for Syria.

And China.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Taiwan F-16s: Politics as Usual or Geopolitics as Usual?

The Obama administration is warily inching toward the expected announcement that it will provide Taiwan some upgrades for its current fleet of F-16s, instead of selling 66 new ones.

Expected, that is, if one had read a piece I wrote for Asia Times in July, which I reproduce below (for the links, please go the Asia Times site).

In a nutshell, 66 new F-16s would not have made a great deal of difference.  They would not have counterbalanced the PRC’s military buildup in the Taiwan Straits.  China has too many missiles and airfields; Taiwan too few. The strategic parity bird, let alone the strategic superiority bird, has flown.

There might be some things that deter the PRC from invading Taiwan—like the interposition of US forces and/or the US nuclear umbrella--but they are all on the US side, not the Taiwan “self defense” side.

The most useful thing that Taiwan might have gotten for its purchase of these planes was an implied sense of obligation by the United States, along the lines of “You spent $3 billion on US warplanes, so you should be entitled to some wartime support.”

That’s a commitment that the pro-independence DPP is ready to welcome, but not the current pro-PRC KMT administration.

And that’s not a place any US government, Democratic or Republican, is quite ready to go.

The argument that a Taiwan sale is needed to keep the F-16 line open has apparently been rebutted by Iraq’s decision to proceed with its purchase (after a one-year postponement to feed its people).

As a matter of even-handedness, I might remark that the Obama administration has also stooped to mendacity in promoting its position.

The possibility that Taiwan might leak modern F-16 secrets to the PRC has been cited as a reason for not making the sale.  However, it would seem to me that Iran would have a better chance of extracting F-16 secrets from its quasi-ally Iraq; and, of course, Iran would probably eventually share those secrets with its quasi-ally, China.

The Taiwan Relations Act is not robust enough (i.e. it is intentionally vague enough) to enable Congress to compel the executive branch to make any particular arms sale to Taiwan, despite the vaporings of the neoconservatives and whatever embarrassment the Pentagon's mandated report on Taiwan's air power situation might bring.

Despite the essential meaninglessness of the sale, the anti-PRC optics are irresistible, both to Democrats and Republicans.  And maybe the Obama administration is desperate enough for some jobs/national security/China bashing traction as it staggers into the election cycle to go ahead with the sale anyway.

Let's see!

Jul 12, 2011

F-16s: Don't ask, don't sell

There is a good reason for politicians to support United States arms sales to Taiwan. It's good politics. And that's true on both sides of the Pacific.

As Jens Kastner reported in Asia Times Online on June 22, President Ma Ying-jyeou has made his stated eagerness to purchase 66 F-16 fighters (and dispel concerns that he cares more about closer ties with the People's Republic of China (PRC) than the security of Taiwan) a cornerstone of his campaign for re-election in January 2012. [1]

In Washington, the potential F-16 sale has garnered support across a broad political spectrum in congress, from anti-communist conservatives to pro-democracy liberals. Beyond Taiwan-love, the movement draws some of its political heat from the desire to rebuke China for its unnerving growth and assertiveness, as well as for human rights and regional security transgressions.

However, good politics may not be good geopolitics.

The Barack Obama administration is clearly loath to pick a fight with China at this juncture over the always contentious issue of Taiwan arms sales, having just achieved a partial reset of relations with Beijing after a particularly difficult year.

The genuineness of Ma's enthusiasm for the F-16 deal is also open to question.

As a 2009 WikiLeaks cable revealed, Ma's US diplomacy is based on "no surprises". Presumably to contrast Kuomintang (KMT) sobriety and responsibility with the loose-cannon radicalism of his opponents in the independence-friendly (and confrontationally inclined) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Ma promised the United States:

    Taiwan would not ask for a certain kind of transit just to show that the US would grant it; Taiwan would not ask for certain weapons systems just to show the US would sell them; and Taiwan would not insist on certain names [ie descriptors used for Taiwan in international organizations] just for domestic political considerations. [2]

When the cable was released in June 2011, a DPP legislator, Peng Shao-chin, harrumphed:

    Could it be that the appeal for a US arms sale publicly made by Ma several times was just for show? I wonder if it was because of the US' reluctance or Taiwan's lack of interest that there has been no progress made in the arms deals." [3]

Legislator Peng may be unfair.

Ma has, by his calculation, called for the US to approve the sale of the F-16s "19 times". No formal Letter of Request (LoR) has been received by the United States from the ROC government ... because the US steadfastly refuses to accept the letter.

On June 27, Wendell Minick reported in Gannett's Defense News:

    Taiwan's June 24 petition to submit a letter of request (LoR) for new F-16 fighter jets was blocked by the U.S. State Department under orders from the U.S. National Security Council, sources in Taipei and Washington said.

    A U.S. defense industry source said that Taiwan's de facto embassy in Washington, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), was preparing to submit its fourth LoR for price-and-availability data for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters to the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). But it was told by AIT that the LoR would not be accepted. AIT declined to comment.

    "AIT is not opposed to the sale," the source said. "This is a State Department and National Security Council issue."

    The issue has become a Catch-22 for Taiwan, in which TECRO cannot submit an LoR to AIT because it is under State Department orders to deny it, and then TECRO is told by the State Department that the LoR cannot be processed because it was not received, he said. [4]

The Obama administration was not the first to refuse F-16 LoRs. The George W Bush administration refused three letters of request for the jets in 2006 and 2007.

It is not clear whose political interests this procedure is meant to advance.

Is Ma, under the "no surprises" rubric, declining to disrupt US-Taiwanese relations by submitting a request he knows the Obama administration dislikes? Or is the Obama administration providing political cover to Ma by giving him the opportunity to pander to the Taiwanese electorate by stating his desire for the planes ... while avoiding complication in his relations with Beijing by actually putting the request into the pipeline?

The United States is unlikely to be eager to do Ma political favors, despite an apparent preference for keeping the KMT's hand on the tiller and the security situation in the Taiwan Strait off the rocks.

Ma is widely understood to be the architect of Taiwan's gradual, calculated drift into the arms of Beijing, and his protestations of anti-PRC militancy do not carry a great deal of weight in Washington.

A refreshingly tart Congressional Research Service report on the history of Taiwan arms sales noted Ma's mainland-friendly shenanigans and his apparent reluctance to pour money and political capital into a buildup of Taiwan's military forces.

One visualizes the author's lips pursed with disapproval as she describes how US assistance to Taiwan in the aftermath of Typhoon Marakot in 2009 was treated:

    In his national day address on October 10, 2009, President Ma recognized mainland China for its aid that "exceeded those of all other nations," without mentioning the United States in his speech.

In the United States, considerable efforts are underway to build political momentum for a sale despite the apparent qualms of the Obama administration.

On May 26, a missive signed by 43 US senators urging Obama to accept the letter or request was made public. Many of the signers were the president's Republican adversaries, eager to raise him on a cleft stick on the politically difficult matter. However, Democratic senators such as Jay Rockefeller, a longtime supporter of Taiwan, Ohio's Sherrod Brown and outgoing Virginia senator Jim Webb also signed.

Terri Giles, executive director of the Formosa Foundation, a US-based non-profit advocating heightened awareness and support of Taiwan, told Asia Times Online that "the Taiwan issue is one that [congress] is very serious about".

She described efforts to decouple Taiwan arm sales - and Taiwan policy in general - from China policy, stating, "The more we can take China out of the equation the better."

She looks forward to a relationship with Taiwan in which issues like arms sales are regular, continuous and normalized - not occasional, fraught exercises that serve as the focus for aggressive Chinese lobbying and horse-trading.

What may doom a congressional united front on Taiwan, however, is overreach - the apparently irresistible temptation for ideological conservatives to turn every issue into an opportunity to challenge, discredit and confound the Obama administration and its agenda.

After the mid-term congressional elections and the accession of Republicans to control of the House of Representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a conservative congressperson from Florida, took over the House Foreign Relations Committee and convened a hearing on "Why Taiwan Matters".

Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, was unable to attend - apparently the president of Mongolia was in town - but the hearings went ahead anyway.

Clearly, in the eyes of pro-Taiwan conservative congresspeople, the F-16 issue is now politically in play.

The Wall Street Journal puckishly titled its coverage of the Ros-Lehtinen hearings, "Never Fear Taiwan - Congress is Here." It noted the general finger-in-the-eye-of-the-Obama-administration spirit, quoting Ros-Lehtinen's warning of a "new spirit of appeasement in the air", and Dan Burton's resentful insinuation that the non-appearance of Kurt Campbell and other administration officials demonstrated "an absence of concern that is remarkable ... I think they were afraid because they don't have the answers."

The committee also heard a case for the F-16 sale put forward by the US-Taiwan Business Council.

Commerce certainly has its place in these proceedings, since the 66 F-16s would represent more than US$3 billion in revenue for Lockheed Martin, much of it distributed in politically influential states like Texas.

Texas-style hardball, aka the forcible collision of political and economic interests, is already on open display in the F-16 matter, as the Washington Post reported:

    Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who represents a state where F-16s are assembled, has been the most outspoken on the issue and is holding up a full Senate vote on the confirmation of William J Burns as deputy secretary of state until Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton moves forward on the fighter jet issue.

    An amendment Cornyn introduced last year requires the State Department to produce a report that would assess whether Taiwan's air force needs the jets.

    In a speech last week at the Heritage Foundation, Cornyn said he is negotiating with Clinton to have that report released in exchange for the confirmation vote.

Burns may well join Mark Lippert cooling his heels waiting for his confirmation.

In April 2011, Taipei Times reported that "an unnamed senator" had put a hold on Lippert's appointment as US assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs because of the same Taiwan air-power report issue. [6]

In testimony before Ros-Lehtinen's committee, the council's president, Rupert Hammond-Chambers, carefully deployed the warning that, if the contract was not issued promptly, the F-16 production line (which now relies entirely on foreign sales) would be forced to close, taking with it not only the jobs but also the subcontractor arrangements that make a future restart possible.

Perhaps in an oversight, no mention was made of another potential F-16 contract, 18 units for Iraq, postponed for a year by the Iraqi government so that the $1 billion could be diverted from the deserving coffers of Lockheed Martin "toward improving food rations for the poor". [7]

However, the US-Taiwan Business Council appears to have more interest in geostrategic than commercial issues.

Its chairman of the board is none other than ex-assistant secretary of defense and notorious neo-conservative author of the Iraq imbroglio, Paul Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz met several times with Taiwanese defense officials during his stint at the Pentagon - a time when elements within the US Department of Defense were notoriously egging on then-president Chen Shui-bian to act on his preference for Taiwan independence.

Rupert Hammond-Chambers clearly exceeded any economic brief when he dabbled in the separation of powers issue by trying to generate some buzz for using the Taiwan Relations Act - presumably interpreted as aggressively and one-sidedly as possible by partisans in the congress - to hold the Obama administration's feet to the fire on arms sales:

    Said Hammond: "At what point do you ask whether the administration is violating the Taiwan Relations Act ... Only Congress can step in and do something about that."

The part of the act that interests conservatives (at least when they control the congress but not the White House) is Section 3: Implementation and its potential for congressional oversight.
It reads

    1. In furtherance of the policy set forth in section 2 of this Act, the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.
    2. The President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan, in accordance with procedures established by law. Such determination of Taiwan's defense needs shall include review by United States military authorities in connection with recommendations to the President and the Congress.

    3. The President is directed to inform the Congress promptly of any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom. The President and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger.

Unsurprisingly, perfecting the vague and open-to-interpretation TRA as a wedge to challenge the Obama administration's handling of the Taiwan/China brief is apparently also on the agenda: Ros-Lehtinen announced at the hearing that she would push for new legislation updating the Taiwan Relations Act. [8]

As the quest for political critical mass on the F-16 issue continues, a variety of stories has bubbled up, courtesy of promoters of the sale.

A senate staffer made the case to the Washington Times that Obama really wants to sell the F-16s to China, but wants congress to take the heat:

    The Washington Times reported that a senior Senate aide close to the issue believed there is a sense on Capitol Hill that the administration wants Congress to push the Pentagon to go ahead with the sale as a way of limiting fallout from China.[9]

It is unlikely that Obama feels that the secret to success in dealing with Beijing is giving the reins to the notoriously fractious and anti-PRC (and not quite pro-Obama) US Congress. This backgrounder - can we call it Don't Ask Just Sell? - can probably be chalked up to an effort to embolden congresspeople to be aggressive on the issue despite whatever opposing signals the White House is sending out.

Pro-Taiwan groups are also making the argument that the F-16 sale should be pushed through immediately, implying that it will be a political windfall for Ma that will ensure his re-election, and therefore be welcome to Beijing.

Unfortunately, the obverse is probably true. There is a genuine possibility that Ma will be voted out of office in January - the race is neck and neck - on the issue of the faltering economy, and gaudy arms deals may not be a decisive factor.

If the DPP wins in January, Beijing will have the worst of both worlds: a hostile administration backed by a renewed and escalated US commitment to arms sales.

Therefore, a furious PRC dragon, belching fire from every orifice, is likely to take US-Chinese diplomatic relations to the brink on the F-16 issue regardless of who submits the LoR, or when.

In the end, despite special pleading on behalf of the Taiwan Relations Act, it has been the familiar exercise of presidential discretion in foreign affairs that has governed US policy on arms sales to Taiwan.

President Ronald Reagan decided that an effort should be made to maintain Taiwan's superiority over the Chicoms in the area of fighter jets and approved the sale of F-5E fighters in 1982. He described his overarching principle as follows:

    It is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC. Both in quantitative and qualitative terms, Taiwan's defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained. [10]

Ten years later, perhaps yielding to the exigencies of his re-election campaign, George H W Bush approved the sale of 150 F-16 A/B jets to Taiwan on similar grounds.

However, by 2009, after the PRC's purchase of Russian jets and a massive domestic development program, the Pentagon advised congress that Taiwan no longer "enjoyed" dominance of the airspace over the Taiwan Strait.

Maintaining Taiwan's capability relative to the PRC (ie air superiority) as envisioned by Reagan is no longer possible, as China gallops ahead to become the world's largest economic power.

The Congressional Research Service report stated:

    [T]he [Defense] Secretary's report on PRC military power had told Congress in March 2009 that it was no longer the case that Taiwan's Air Force enjoyed dominance of the airspace over the strait. In assessing the shifting security situation, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Wallace Gregson stressed in September 2009 that Taiwan's military will never again have quantitative advantages over the PLA. [11]

In fact, the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) cannot even sustain parity with its own historical capacity, let alone keep up with the PRC. It appears to be characterized today by obsolescence, decrepitude and diminished capacity.

The ROCAF fighter jet component consists of the 150 aging F-16s purchased in 1982; 60 French Mirage 2000 jets whose expensive maintenance and low availability is a source of dismay and embarrassment; and Taiwan's own contribution to 21st century air warfare, its Indigenous Defense Fighter or IDF.

When the fighter plane pipeline from the United States dried up, Taiwan turned to a variety of US airframe, engine and electronics contractors for assistance in constructing its own fighter plane.

In a vivid illustration of the terrible hazards involved in combining Western conventions, Chinese commemorative impulses and the tricky Wade Giles romanization to generate military aircraft nomenclature, Taiwan decided to honor its revered ex-president, Chiang Chingkuo, by incorporating initials for his given name Chingkuo ("respecter of the nation") into the descriptor for its fighter.

The result was the F-CK-1 series of aircraft. Defense Industry News inevitably took the bait with its headline concerning upgrades to the IDF fighter, Taiwan Seeking a Better F-CK, With Possible Longer-Term Aspirations. [12]

On an operationally more significant note, the IDF program took place under the watchful eye of the US government, which allowed US contractors to participate in the project. However, US pressure apparently precluded the supply of high-thrust engines for the project, leaving the capability of the IDF in doubt. The IDF is apparently best suited as a lead-in trainer to the more muscular F-16s and Mirage 2000s.

Taiwanese media attacked the plane as a gold-plated boondoggle, jocularly suggesting that "IDF" stood for "I Don't Fly" or "I Don't Fight".

Nevertheless, 130 of the planes entered into service; some are now being upgraded.

On June 30, Ma Ying-jyeou attended the roll-out six newly upgraded IDF fighters, in order to demonstrate the government's commitment to air defense.

His praise of the upgraded IDF fighter was somewhat less than full-throated, indicating that the program is considered to be something of a stopgap until higher-performance aircraft can be obtained:

    "I hope the IDF jets will stand for 'I do fight' and 'I don't fail'," said President Ma Ying-jeou, who gave a thumbs-up as he sat in the cockpit of the improved warplane. [13]

Defense Industry News delivered a thumbs up on the upgrade,stating that the F-CK-1C/D would be a genuine addition to Taiwan's arsenal if and when it was actually deployed in significant numbers.

However, it is still considerably inferior to planes already rolled out on the other side of the strait:

    China continues to deploy advanced SU-30 family and J-10 4+ generation fighters on their side of the Taiwan Straits. The new "F-CK-1C/D Hsiung Ying" (Brave Hawk) would still be a generation behind China's most advanced machines.

Lockheed also hastened to advise the Taipei Times that the upgraded IDF was no substitute for new F-16s:

    While the upgrade points to advances in Taiwanese avionics and capabilities, defense experts and Lockheed, maker of the F-16, say the new IDF is insufficient to ensure parity with an increasingly modern People's Liberation Army Air Force. [14]

The Taiwanese government indicated that it would upgrade 71 of the IDF fighters over the next four years, which implies that four years from now almost half of the IDF fleet will be de facto obsolescent and the rest will have great difficulty going toe-to-toe with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) air force.

The issue for American presidents is whether or not restoring the ROCAF to basic relevance is possible, cost-effective or even prudent.

Writing on the blog of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Michael Mazza conflated the F-16 sale with forestalling World War III:

    A decision not to sell new fighters to Taiwan is, frankly, a decision that Taiwan doesn't need an air force. A Taiwan that can't control its skies is a Taiwan that can't defend itself. And a Taiwan that can't defend itself is a Taiwan that invites Chinese coercion, if not outright aggression. The outbreak of fighting in the Strait is not likely to be a conflict from which the United States can remain aloof. There will be no neutrality, no splendid isolation to enjoy when China starts loosing missiles on its neighbors. [15]

The impact of the potential F-16 sale may be somewhat less dramatic.

In 2009, RAND Corporation's David Shlapak co-authored a report on air superiority issues in the Taiwan Strait, titled A Question of Balance: Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute. [16]

The report concluded that, despite the superiority of US equipment and personnel and whatever Taiwan could throw at the PRC, Taiwanese and US forces could not achieve air superiority in the straits given China's quantitative advantage in planes and, especially, missiles.

China's key advantage is perhaps its ability to sustain its airbase infrastructure, and fuel and re-arm its planes for multiple sorties, while destroying Taiwanese airbases and giving their planes nowhere to land after their first sortie (assuming they make it off the ground in the first place).

Shlapak told Asia Times Online that US planners could find the risks entailed in a campaign to negate China's advantages in airfields to be unacceptable:

    The PRC has about 40 airbases within range of Taiwan. Taiwan has ten airbases. The US has one nearby base, plus its aircraft carriers. Now the PRC has surface-to-surface ballistic missile forces available to cut runways and destroy aircraft. Taiwan's network of highway landing strips - without infrastructure or protection - [does little to mitigate the problem].

    U.S. weapons are air-launched and require penetration of China's borders by US aircraft in order to engage. Taking out 40 airbases in the interior of China is a much bigger job than [the PRC's task of destroying] ten bases on Taiwan.

    There are limits to bombing China. There is danger of escalation. The general rule is, Never cross swords with another nuclear power.

Considering that the current F-16 purchase request would do little more than replace the Reagan-era F5Es, Shlapak commented:

    It is difficult to see how a changeout of fighter aircraft can dramatically improve the situation.

An F-16 purchase would make little difference in the all-out war scenario. It would be useful primarily as a demonstration of sustained American resolve to support Taiwan despite the disadvantageous shift of the balance of power in the strait; maintain the ROCAF as a force to be reckoned with; and perhaps play a significant role in a limited conflict - for instance, a scenario in which the PRC doesn't mount a full-scale attack, but tries to get Taiwan to fold through a blockade.

Cynics also commented that, by serving as targets on Taiwanese airfields, the additional F-16s could help by exhausting China's arsenal of surface-to-surface missiles. [17]

At present, the stars appear to be aligning in favor of a proposal that is much more piecemeal than the purchase of new F-16s.

On July 4, Agence France-Presse reported a statement by Lin Yu-fang, chair of the Legislative Yuan's Foreign and National Defense Committee, that there would be "a compromise deal" to execute a long-existing plan to add improvements to Taiwan's existing fleet of F-16s, instead of buying new ones.

As to timing, Lin observed sagely:

    The US is anticipated to make the decision within the next two to three months. The Obama administration certainly won't want to see the arms deal become an issue during his election campaign for the second term. [18]

Terri Giles warned that an F-16 A/B upgrade "may not cut the mustard" with US politicians pushing for an enhanced security and political profile for Taiwan inside the Washington Beltway.

However, if the conservative backers of the sale overplay their hand, Democratic supporters will very likely drift away out of loyalty to Obama, and from dark memories what happened to America during the first George W Bush administration, the last time they let doctrinaire conservatives dominate the foreign policy discourse and decision-making process.

An ex-director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Richard Bush, told an audience in Taipei on June 24 that the loss of military parity requires more than new airplanes; it requires new thinking:

    "I would say it is important to build a consensus on the island about what is truly important for the future of the people on this island," he said.[19]

1. Taiwan's Ma looks for F-16 boost, Asia Times Online, Jun 22, 2011.
2. Click here for the WikiLeaks cable.
3. ‘No surprises' approach outlined: WikiLeaks, Taipei Times, Jun 19, 2011.
4. U.S. Blocks Taiwan's F-16 Request Again, Defense News, Jun 27, 2011.
5. Pressure builds for F-16 sale to Taiwan, Washington Post, July 5, 2011.
6. US delaying F-16 upgrade, report says, Taipei Times, Apr 2, 2011.
7. Iraq postpones purchase of F-16s,, Feb 15, 2011.
8. Never Fear, Taiwan - Congress is Here, Wall Street Journal, Jun 17, 2011.
9. Pressure for F-16 sales mounts, Taipei Times, Jun 9, 2011.
10. Taiwan: Major U.S. Arms Sales Since 1990, Congressional Research Service, Jun 3, 2011.
11. Ibid.
12. Taiwan Seeking a Better F-CK, With Possible Longer-Term Aspirations, Defense Industry Daily, Jun 26, 2011.
13. Taiwan unveils upgraded fighter jets, AFP, Jun 30, 2011.
14. Air force receives first upgraded fighters, Taipei Times, Jul 1, 2011.
15. U.S. Taiwan Policy: Officially Absurd, The American, Jun 28, 2011.
16. A Question of Balance, Rand, 2009.
17. F-16 Sale to Taiwan, Would It Make A Difference?, Defense Tech, Mar 15, 2010.
18. US to upgrade F-16s, KMT lawmaker says, Crisis Boom, Jul 4, 2011.
19. Taiwan must decide what to defend: ex-AIT chair, China Post, Jun 24, 2011.