Mexico: Fire on our doorstep

Though the U.S. and Latin American authorities make the occasional high-profile arrest, like the recent arrest of Mexico's Public Enemy #1 Joaquín

Though the U.S. and Latin American authorities make the occasional high-profile arrest, like the recent arrest of Mexico’s Public Enemy #1 Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, there is little reason to believe the drug war has any end in sight.

–Peter Kouretsos– No group seems to be more threatening to U.S. interests and national security than the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). ISIS has certainly been an attention-grabber; beheadings, mass executions, and public displays of their victims are just a few tactics in their toolkit. Their rampage and trail of carnage has been dubbed by many as not only medieval, but unique, an uncommon sight in the 21st century. However, while ISIS continues to dominate headlines through their atrocities in faraway lands, many are oblivious to the far more immediate and gruesome atrocities committed by Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs), commonly known as the “drug cartels” just south of our border, and the threat they pose to the United States and the Western Hemisphere.

A recent report read that in 2014, only Iraq and Syria had more deaths than Mexico. Estimates put conflict-related civilian death tolls in Iraq last year at roughly 18,000, and Syria 70,000, with thousands more wounded. Mexico? 15,000. That’s down from last year’s Mexican government estimates of 16,000, and another 60,000 since 2006. Judging from the Mexican government’s record of deflating these figures, the true numbers are likely far worse. Beheadings, dismemberments and acid baths are among the many tools they use to terrorize the public. ISIS routinely makes the headlines for killing journalists, but it is not uncommon to see a journalist’s or a local politician’s hanging corpse on public display in Mexican local plazas, with signs that read “This is my punishment for talking.” In fact, more than 60 journalists have been silenced for covering the drug war.

The immediate concern is Mexico, but the TCOs have plagued many countries. Out of the world’s 50 most violent cities, 34 are in Latin America. To be sure, this is not all of the violence is directly attributed to drug violence. Systemic corruption, political instability and poverty are all core issues, but the TCOs thrive in these environments and perpetuate the cycle. In many areas, the authority of the Mexican state appears to be extremely weak or nonexistent. A clear example of the extent to which the authority of the Mexican state is being challenged happened earlier this month, when a Mexican military helicopter was shot down by members of the up and coming Jalisco New Generation Cartel. In another incident in September 2014, TCOs kidnapped and murdered 43 students connected to drug-war protests at a college in Guerrero . It was later revealed this was made possible with the help of local politicians and the police. It is clear that the Mexican state has trouble protecting its own citizens, but it is even more troubling and embarrassing when it cannot protect the citizens of other countries. Since 2002, more than 600 Americans have been killed in Mexico by TCOs.

Further, once merely just a part of the narcotics supply chain, Mexican TCOs have begun taking control of the whole thing, interfacing directly with raw-product suppliers in South America at the top, and consolidating their control of retail distribution at the bottom. The biggest retail market of course is the U.S. It would be understandable for our public and the media to play down the TCO threat if the violence was restricted to south of the border; but since 2006, nearly as many Americans died in the U.S. from TCO-related violence (some 6,000) than American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. They are covered as U.S. based “gang-wars,” but make no mistake, the TCO connection is there. Just last week the DEA seized 50kg of heroin in New York, the largest bust in New York state history; the drug ring which was busted had been receiving similar sized shipments each month, all from suppliers in Mexico. Over the last decade, Mexican TCOs have infiltrated thousands of U.S. cities and municipalities on a level that groups like ISIS can only dream about.

As in Mexico and Central and South America, once the TCOs have consolidated their control of major distribution networks here from local gangs, they will fight each other and anyone else who stands in the way, for market share. U.S. intelligence officials have publicly asserted that the ISIS poses no specific or credible threat to the U.S. homeland. However, can the same be said of the Mexican TCOs? The Middle East may be burning with no end in sight, but there’s a fire on our doorstep.

Advertisements

Arming Ukraine: Breaking it down

Should we arm the Ukrainian government forces?

Since the conflict began last year, the U.S. and Europe have been limiting military support for Ukraine to non-lethal equipment; things that enable the individual soldier like body armor, medical supplies, and night-vision goggles. Late last year, President Obama signed a bill that authorized the provision of more lethal weaponry to Ukraine’s military but left it up to the White House to decide whether to follow through on that move. So technically speaking, the decision has already been pre-approved. The question is, should POTUS follow through, or leave it as an option down the road for him or for the Clinton Administration next administration?

Looming over the Minsk negotiations currently underway is the prospect of deeper sanctions on Russia, an economic collapse in Ukraine, and the risk that the conflict descends into an all out war. I would use the phrase “descend into proxy war” as a piece in Bloomberg did, but is it a proxy war if one of the supposed sponsors of said “proxy war” has been openly engaging in the war since last year? A technicality I suppose.  But I digress.

So far, sanctions have failed in their aim of pressuring the Kremlin to reverse course in Ukraine. That’s not to say sanctions haven’t hurt the Russians, but it looks like they are willing to tolerate much more pain than the West is likely to give. And the increase in violence has brought back a question that the Europeans and NATO would rather not ask again: what is the next step if the Russians do not stop?

Below is a collection of most of the arguments for and against the U.S. providing the Ukrainians with lethal defensive weaponry. I read a lot, and I tend to get lost in my own thoughts, so a lot of times I jot things down like this. Welcome to my brain:

Do it:

Perhaps the most cited case for arming Ukraine is a joint report from the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Among the authors are former Supreme Allied Commander for NATO Admiral James Stavridis, former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer. If you want to have an opinion on this issue, you should definitely read the report, but for the purposes of this blog post, here are some of the key points:

  • The U.S. should give Ukraine “lethal defensive arms.” This includes more capable counter-battery systems, UAV’s for reconnaissance, electronic countermeasure systems, light-armored vehicles, and anti-armor missiles. Providing them with things such as these will raise the costs for a new Russian offensive.
  • Giving Ukraine weapons will help bring the conflict to a stalemate. Moscow will get the message: the cost of further military action will be too high. From there, a political solution can be seriously discussed.
  • If the U.S. and NATO don’t support Ukraine in a concrete, military-oriented way, the Kremlin will see this inaction as a redux of Georgia in 2008, and turn its attention to destabilizing the Baltics in a similar fashion.
  • The aid won’t allow Ukraine to defeat a new full-scale attack by the Russian military. But it would allow Kiev to inflict significant costs on Moscow if they chose to attack.
  • Deterrence is the main takeaway here. Providing these lethal arms to Ukraine will deter further escalation by Putin. Providing these arms reduces the likelihood that Russia will escalate the crisis.

Pretty straightforward.  Another decent summary is in an Op-Ed written by some of the above-mentioned authors of the report.

Don’t do it:

There has been equal, if not more, push-back by a number of scholars and subject-matter experts of similar stature to the authors of the joint reports. But it’s more scattered.

One piece that stood out was from Eugene Rumer, a Russia and Eurasia expert formerly at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, and Thomas Graham, a former senior director for Russia at the National Security Council. They have made a compelling case against sending lethal arms to Ukraine. Major points of their case, along with a some others:

  • Giving lethal arms will not sway the Kremlin to back down in Ukraine. And it could bring the West one step closer to a direct military confrontation with Russia.
  • We cannot be certain that these arms won’t go to the Ukrainian volunteer armies and private militia groups, which lack adequate training and discipline.
  • It will take many years to reform and bolster the Ukrainian military and security service, which is undertrained, underfunded, scowering for recruits, and crawling with Russian spies, making it unlikely that a delivery of such lethal arms would make a meaningful difference when going toe to toe with the Russians and the separatists.
  • What happens if Russia decides to escalate? Is the U.S. and NATO willing to enter a direct military confrontation with Russia?
  • Short of sending in the 82ndAirborne, it’s extremely doubtful that the U.S. and NATO won’t gain any significant comparative advantage over Russia in Ukraine.
  • If the Kremlin wants to destabilize Ukraine and ensure it does not successfully pivot Westward towards Europe, it will not stop until that happens.
  • Giving lethal arms and aid to Ukraine reinforces the narrative that the Kremlin tells the Russian people: Ukraine is now a puppet of the West, and the next stop for the West after Ukraine is regime-change in Moscow.

If the U.S. provides lethal arms to Ukraine, what next?  Would doing this really change the Kremlin’s calculus? Similar lines of thought are presented herehere, and here.

Since last year’s escapades, each set of talks and ceasefire agreements has only moved towards deeper conflict. The violence in eastern Ukraine has created a humanitarian crisis – aside from the thousands killed and wounded, some one million have also been displaced – and a geopolitical crisis, between a European community that has hoped to put armed aggression in its past, and an insecure petro-state in decline determined to relive its imperial past and stick it to the West through armed aggression.

It seems that both sides agree that the Kremlin sees no reason to stop. It is also likely that Putin will try to solidify his gains in eastern Ukraine before the delivery of any more supplies or weaponry to Kiev can make a difference on the battlefield. Long-term, I see a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and I think this is something Putin would not mind having in his hand. I think it is also pretty clear to all parties involved that Ukraine matters much more to the Kremlin than it does to Washington, Brussels, Berlin, and the rest of Europe. What to do about that reality is the million dollar question (or if you’re in Russia, the 6,5109,500 ruble question.)

From “¡Viva la Revolución!” to “¡Viva la Normalización!”?

mandela-obama-castroOn January 3, 1961 the United States withdrew diplomatic recognition of the Cuban government and closed its embassy in Havana. But on December 17, 2014, after more than five decades of hostility and isolation, the two countries took a major step towards normalization. –Peter Kouretsos– Calm down and light yourself a cigar. Preferably a Cuban one. There are plenty of reasons to worry about President Obama’s announcement that the United States will begin to normalize relations with Cuba. But overall, it’s still the right thing to do.

Normalize: (verb); (pronounced “\ˈnȯr-mə-ˌlīz\”); to establish or resume (relations) in a normal manner, as between countries.

What exactly are we actually talking about here? Truthfully, we don’t know what will become of this development, other than “normalization of relations.” What does that mean? It means the U.S. and Cuba now have the ability to begin talks on how to establish official embassies, have diplomatic relations, and negotiate over trade with one another. But while the President has the power push to re-establish these diplomatic relations that were severed over five decades ago, the Senate still has a lot to say about what this all means going forward. For example, when the President nominates his ambassador to Cuba, the Republican-controlled Senate must confirm that nomination. And if at some point down the road, the President announces his intention to lift the U.S. embargo of the island-nation, the Republican-controlled Senate must sign off on that too. The elephant in the room is, of course, the embargo. Probably the most important sentence of the President’s address yesterday was “I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest debate on lifting this embargo.”   Taken to its logical conclusion, this is where normalization could eventually lead.

This is not to say that severing relations with the Cubans and implementing the embargo didn’t always work. Our Cuba policy had its place in the context of the Cold War; it forced enormous costs on the Soviet Union, both politically and economically. But even back then, there were efforts to begin what ultimately happened yesterday, from several administrations. But for now, the Obama administration’s decision to begin warming U.S. – Cuban diplomatic ties will not result in a surge of imports and exports between the two nations. Further, restoring full relations with the United States will not solve all of Havana’s problems either; its restrictive policies have and will continue to make it difficult for companies to do business in Cuba. Their poor economy is not so much a result of the American isolation and embargo as it is the result of long-term structural problems; problems that will take considerable time and political will to reverse.

So what happens now? It’s important to keep in mind that this is just the initial start of negotiations between the two, which can cover a whole host of issues and take many years. If, as some critics fear, this initial warming of Cuban – American relations does not erode Cuban oppression, then the Congress surely won’t even think about eliminating the embargo, and President Obama or a future president can reverse these policy changes should they find the regime in Cuba to be uncooperative.  But who knows? Maybe Hyman Roth can finally get that casino deal he was looking for all those years ago.

Hyman_Roth_GF2Let’s get one thing straight though: the Cubans are no angels. But the folks who make the argument that Cuba is too evil to have any sort of relationship with the United States quickly forget that we normalized relations with China, Vietnam and even Myanmar. Our foreign policy is littered with other examples of relationships with “immoral” nations. It’s a hard pill to swallow for some, but a strictly Wilsonian-based foreign policy only gets you so far. The world is complicated. We could do better to reserve our more coercive diplomatic and economic tools for other situations: like for the Islamic Republic of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program; for Russia’s recent escapades in eastern Europe; and for North Korea doing what North Korea does best.

There are many reasons to cry for a trial and public hanging for the Castros, but when the Castro brothers die, is the last building we want to have the most influence 90 miles from Jimmy Buffett’s house in Key West to be the Chinese embassy? We could either be part of the making of a potentially free Cuba in the future, or be bystanders. Because one thing is clear, Cuba is not going to collapse with the current status quo. And a pivot to the Asia-Pacific is nice, but the most important long-term commitment the U.S. can make is improving relations within our own hemisphere. It starts with things like this, and it can end with a reshaping of Latin American geopolitics. (More on that later.)

Food for thought: Currently, Senator Rand Paul is the only Republican-hopeful in the 2016 Presidential race to comment favorably on the President’s move on Cuba. And it turns out, this breakthrough in relations with Cuba was a lot of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s doing.

What can the new Taylor Swift music video teach us about the Iraq crisis?

Absolutely nothing, but you clicked on this, so it worked. Keep reading.

It’s amazing what can happen in 2 weeks when you’re on vacation. Ongoing conflict in the Levant (a fancy word for Syria, Lebanon Israel and Jordan), what looks like the beginning of a Third Iraq War, failing states in the Middle East, war between Russia and Ukraine, the usual tensions in East Asia, and an Ebola epidemic that just puts this all over the top.  I’m probably missing some things, but you get the idea. Not exactly a good year for geopolitical stability. I suppose it could have been worse.

But then the week I get back, and American photojournalist James Foley gets beheaded by ISIS barbarians and the video is posted on YouTube for the world to see.  I never knew him, but like me, I know that James was a History major from Marquette, a Jesuit University in the Midwest. He was a teacher who wanted to tell the world’s most difficult stories and make a difference, much like the Jesuits that educated him and myself.  His grizzly murder, however, cannot be separated from the seriousness of the threat that radical Islam (the Salafi jihad movement in particular) poses to the world, and the Iraq crisis we are reading about on the cover of every major newspaper.

Which brings us to the Islamic State (also known as the ISIS/ISIL).  Dealing with the Iraq crisis and the ISIS threat is a rough subject.  There are a ton of folks that got the ISIS wrong, possibly even President Obama.  The President’s take on this jihadist enemy has never inspired confidence in the counterterrorism community, and many have argued that his reaction over time to the rise of the ISIS does not reflect the seriousness of the threat we now face. In many ways, I understand it. President Obama sees other foreign policy objectives as more important in the long-run, and the Middle East crises are just one big distraction. The big one, of course, is the “pivot/re-balance to the Asia-Pacific.” In the wake of James Foley’s beheading by the ISIS, General Dempsey started his part of last week’s DOD press conference, not by speaking about the ISIS, but by discussing his recent trip to Vietnam, the first by a Joint Chiefs chairman in decades. The administration has faced setbacks to their Asia policy, but this, when paired with things you probably haven’t read about like this, this and this, is a sign that this “pivot” which pundits have criticized as “hollow” is more than just words. It’s for real and it’s strategic priority #1 for the Administration. We’re doing it the Chinese way: slowly, patiently and subtlety. And Obama wants people to understand that.

You can find a lot online about the Executive Branch’s remarks about the ISIS. For one, the President has called them a “cancer” that must be rooted out; Secretary Kerry tweeted that “ISIL must be destroyed/will be crushed,” and Secretary Hagel remarked that ISIS is a threat unlike anything we’ve seen before. So what must be done?

In the long run, President Obama’s remarks about the ISIS hold some truth; this group, and the wave of Salafi jihadism will burn itself out, that “People like this fail…because the future is always won by those who build, not destroy.”  But we would be naive to expect it to recede anytime soon. It is possible that the ISIS can be crushed in what time remains of President Obama’s second term, while defeating Salafi jihadism itself is far more ambitious. But refusing to use the time between now and January 2017 to fight the ISIS will not only give them time to grow, it would also be irresponsible.

Paul Pillar’s piece this week rightly points out that the keys to the ISIS’s destruction lie within its own unique methods and objectives.  For example, one thing that distinguishes the ISIS from other organizations is this “caliphate” they established, their conquered territory, which spans from Syria to Northwestern Iraq. It is essential to keep in mind that this “caliphate” exists in a desert region which offers few places to hide and where clear skies permit constant, pitiless bombing. What will be challenging is when they wise up and take refuge among regional towns and cities.

Airpower is only useful when forces move through open terrain. Bombing more populated areas is fine and everything, but it just so happens to be frowned up by 21st Century standards. Kurdish militias like the Peshmerga and a few battle-hardened Shia militia and Iraqi Military brigades have been able to fight back with some help from U.S. airstrikes, but their ability to seek out and defeat the group is still a big unknown.

Success against the Islamic State is going to require renewed help from the people of Iraq and Syria a la 2003 to provide human, local, on the ground, intelligence; this is known as HUMINT, or “human intelligence.” HUMINT can’t be gathered from a drone (that’s IMINT and in some cases SIGINT), nor can it be gathered from the business end of a cruise missile (that’s BOOMINT. Just kidding I made that one up).  You get the point; the lynchpin for any measurable success against a group like the ISIS requires firing up our old intelligence networks in Iraq or building new ones. It is going to require these guys, and there are rumors circulating that the band is getting back together again. If that’s true, the ISIS had better watch out.

So in short, Western airpower and Special Forces which empowers and aids locals, can set the stage for the strategic defeat of the ISIS. But a permanent solution to the problem would require local actors to step up. And not just the government in Baghdad and regional leaders in Iraq; putting pressure on regional partners and allies to help is equally crucial. Many radicalized westerners have been attending SCIS (Summer Camp In Syria) via Turkey to join the ISIS.

If I didn't know any better, I'd say Syria's border with Turkey seems like a safe place for these guys to operate, arm and organize.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Syria’s border with Turkey seems like a safe place for these guys to operate, arm and organize.

We must find ways to compel the Turkish government to make good on their NATO membership and secure their border. The Gulf States are also a key set of regional partners that must understand that their lackluster attitude towards money-laundering schemes and terrorist funding is unacceptable, and the ISIS, and groups like them, are awash in cash because of it; they must crack down on their citizens funneling money through Kuwait that support Salafi jihad.

Bomb ISIS, Help Assad

Another key factor to decisively defeating the ISIS is defeating them in Syria. General Dempsey, Chairman of the JCS admits this, and earlier this week, President Obama reportedly ordered surveillance flights over eastern Syria this week to give the U.S. some better sense of what’s happening on the ground. These could lay the groundwork for airstrikes in Syria similar to what American planes have dropped on Iraq. The timing of all this couldn’t be more ironic: Exactly a year ago this week we were waiting to see if the U.S. would bomb Syria (Assad), but this week in August 2014 we’re waiting to see if the U.S. will bomb Syria (ISIS).

The West may have to live with, and possibly even work with, a  Syrian and an Iranian regime they have for years sought to remove. In international relations, it's sometimes like family: you don't get to pick them.

The West may have to at least entertain the thought of living with, and possibly even working with, a Syrian and an Iranian regime they have for years sought to remove. In international relations, it’s sometimes like family: you don’t get to pick them.

If we bomb Syria, who are our allies on the ground that would fill the void and retake the territory?  The moderate groups in Free Syrian Army?  I’m still waiting for someone to tell me what that actually means.  Al Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate?  Or is it Assad?  If we attack the ISIS in Syria it looks like that means we’d be helping Assad.  And if we’re helping Assad, what kind of message does that send, when our administration repeatedly calls for regime change? That if you’re a homicidal autocrat and you yell “terrorist!” loud enough, the U.S. won’t just work with you, it’ll work for you. Are we prepared to step back from our policy of “Assad must go“?

We have to try and also think not just about who we’d be fighting against, in this case the ISIS, but also about who we’d be fighting for as a consequence, in this case Assad. We have to tread carefully.  Any notion that we’d be working with Assad, a Shia dictator, would be a propaganda goldmine for Sunnis worldwide.  We would also indirectly be empowering Hezbollah, a Shia terrorist group and Iranian proxy.  Moreover, there are reports circulating that Assad’s strategy from the get-go was detente with the ISIS; he leaves them alone while they kill off the other rebel groups fighting against him. In short, it looks like Assad has allowed these radicals to thrive in order to demonstrate his own value to the U.S.  Not bad for an ophthalmologist who never wanted to be president of Syria in the first place.

Aside from the above-mentioned concerns, I think an analogy can be made here. Consider FDR’s allying with the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin, a homicidal maniac, was used to defeat what was perceived as a mutual, shared threat. There was an implicit understanding that we wouldn’t be buddy buddies after the war, but eliminating Nazi Germany was in both of our national interests.  We did business with Joseph Stalin, but we never trusted Joseph Stalin. Which brings me to my next analogy. Observe below. Skip to 01:55 and stop it at 02:23

Michael Corleone: C’mon Frankie… my father did business with Hyman Roth, he respected Hyman Roth.

Frank Pentangeli: Your father did business with Hyman Roth, he respected Hyman Roth… but he never *trusted* Hyman Roth!

Point is, we’ve played this game before. A lot.  If an understanding is made with Assad, it doesn’t have to be advertised.  In fact, the White House repeatedly denies that it will work with Assad in rooting out the ISIS in Syria.  We don’t have to trust them, but we may have to work with them.  Or work alongside them, however the Obama Administration wants to phrase it.

The other elephant in the room is Iran.  We cannot talk about dealing with the ISIS without Iran in the equation. In fact, there is a slow, gradual process of detente between the U.S. and Iran that some analysts see as inevitableThey can help, but what will it cost?  Here’s what I think they want in return: no more sanctions and a wink and nod to stop hampering their nuclear programme. It may sound ridiculous, but even if we end up not budging on those things, the thought exercise lends itself to an important lesson: no situation being dealt with can be handled in a vacuum. Things you perceive as unrelated could be the deal breaker for the other guy. We have to be careful when we compartmentalize issues. This not only applies internationally but domestically too.

To an outside observer like myself, the bright idea factory looks like it’s putting out a lot of smoke, but no one is offering policy and strategy options.  Let’s ease back on the rhetoric and think this one through, even if it means not talking about the ISIS for a while. These guys couldn’t imagine, nor afford, the western media PR campaign that is currently covering them.  They aren’t the world’s first militant organization, and they certainly won’t be the last.

Mexico & The United States: Challenges, Opportunities and Threats

With summer right around the corner and folks taking some vacation, Mexico is a popular spot. Matter of fact, my mother just went to a wedding at Los Cabos in Baja, California and my sister is going to Cancun for her honeymoon in a few weeks.  Mexico, and Latin America for that matter, was my “first [academic] love,” the first region that I delved into while studying International Relations. And surprisingly, I haven’t talked about Mexico at ALL.  This post then, is long overdue.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto met at Los Pinos Presidential Residence in Mexico City on May 21, 2014

Secretary of State John Kerry has visited 48 countries and traveled almost 500,000 miles. But until he arrived in Mexico last Wednesday, he had not visited the United States’ closest neighbors, Mexico.

At first glance, Mexico has nothing going for it.  It has few navigable rivers and few good natural ports (Verazcruz is perhaps the best one).  To make matters worse, it has many disassociated territories, along with lots of highland jungle and deserts.  This in of itself may lead you to believe that it will never be a strong state.  It probably should be a failed state,  but thankfully, it’s nearest neighbor is the global superpower.  It has access to income and access to markets that it wouldn’t have had otherwise had it not been for their proximity to the United States.  More importantly for the purposes of this blog post, it has access to a drug consuming population that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.  Mexico has gone from an economic footnote, to perhaps the next big thing.  And by mid-century, the country will be stronger than ever.  Mexico is on track to becoming the next China.

Mexico’s Geographical Challenge:

Mexico has some of the worst types of terrain in which you can develop a successful economy and culture with.  Here, there are few areas where you don’t need irrigation, and unlike our chunks of arable land in the U.S., Mexico’s is much more dispersed.  None of these arable chunks of land in Mexico are connected.  That means any piece of infrastructure you build has to be built everywhere else, making it difficult to get any leverage.  The climate also make transport issues difficult.  As a result Mexico will always be capital poor with substandard infrastructure.

Land Use in Mexico Most of Mexico is highland or mountainous and less than 15% of the land is arable; about 25% of the country is forested. Dark Purple: Land suitable for intensive farming, has irrigation infrastructure. Light Purple: Farm with limited infrastructure for temporary/light farming. Gray: Limited farming, no irrigation infrastructure. Brown: Farm livestock, limited infrastructure. Light gray: Suitable for farm livestock or limited irrigation project. Yellow: With or without livestock limited infrastructure for livestock. Not suitable for farming. Green: Forest with limited or no infrastructure. Not suitable for farming.

The Good News (What does Mexico have going for it?):

Despite all of this, Mexico will be the fastest growing economy for the next three decades. Mexico is already the world’s 15th largest economy; in the next 20 years it’ll probably be in the top ten.  And that’s WITHOUT the drug war ending and WITHOUT having a corrupt government.  There are certain things that are just hardwired into the system.  Right now, monkeys can run Mexico and it will probably end up the same way.

The United States has tripled its natural gas exports to Mexico in the last decade, and we’re going to triple that again in the next four years.  There are 9 trunk-lines under construction right now with an target completion date of 2017.  Texas won’t just be feeding Juarez with energy; pretty soon it will be powering Mexico City and Veracruz. Thank you, shale. And this is all without the recent reforms that Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto signed into law that changes the constitution to allow foreign companies to drill for oil and gas.

Mexico also has favorable demographics, with lots of young workers and a large consumption base, largely propelled by Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).  And as horrible and violent as the drug war has been, it has pushed down Mexican labor costs; they are now cheaper than China’s.  Anywhere else in the world this wouldn’t work very well, but because they are so close to the U.S. this labor differential works in their favor.  The bigger that differential is, the more investors look at Mexico and see it as an attractive market to leverage its labor capacities to service the American market.  So I know this sounds crazy, but the worse the drug war gets in Mexico, the better it is for FDI. Foreigners can come in, metabolize the cheap labor, and sell things to the U.S. because of it.  This is the second largest bilateral economic relationship in human history.  By 2020 I expect it to be the largest.  As of right now the Mexican-American border is already the most crossed border in human history; last year it had 350 million legal border crossings.  It’s not that the Americans haven’t decided if we want to integrate with Mexico, it’s that we don’t know what to do about it yet.

The blue areas are the largest concentrations of Hispanic populations. While this map is telling, not in this map are the %increases of Hispanics which are over 50% almost all across the United States.

The Bad News (You Can’t Spell “Mexico” Without “Drug war”):

The Mexicans are the only people in the world who can WALK to the United States. In every country you have cultures that can physically transport themselves and set up ghettos en masse.  Here, we only have Mexicans and Central Americans; all of our ghetto populations are Hispanic.  That complicates things a little, since drug runners started entering the United States through Mexico after we effectively cut off their transit routes to Miami via the Caribbean.  The problem is when the ghetto issue and the drug transport issues coalesce.

Mexico’s land border with the US is 2,000 miles long. Even if the US put all of its troops on the border right now, that’s only 1 for every 50 feet.

We are seeing signs of this coalescence, as well as the TCOs’ diversification and expansion. Just last week, New York City officials seized over 50 pounds of heroin that dealers were attempting to move from New England.  Yes, New York City.  The flood of heroin coming in and out of New York City has surged to its highest levels since 1991, alarming law enforcement who say that bigger players – like Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations (“TCOs)– are now entering the market.

You know them as “drug cartels” but I call them TCOs because they have diversified; they are not just drug-running cartels anymore.  They’ve gone UP the supply chain to South America and contracted directly with the cocoa producers.  And now they’re coming DOWN the supply chain to the United States.  They can move anything now: drugs, money, guns, people, even oil.  See, these “cartel wars” are not necessarily about drugs; they’re about transport routes and networks. It’s about geography.  The logical conclusion is that this “drug war” will spill over into the United States as they fight each other for these networks.  And in many ways it already has.  Mexican TCOs are now the dominant organized crime group in 1,000 municipalities and operate in more than 230 American cities, from San Diego to Boston.

And because we don’t have an immigration policy to integrate these ghetto populations, we’ve provided the cartels with exactly what they need to spread.  And they are kicking the American gangs’ asses.  In ten years time the current U.S. gangs – the Bloods and the Crips just won’t exist anymore, because the TCOs will have killed them all.  They will take over retail drug distribution.  And then they will begin fighting each other, just as they have been in Mexico.

We are worried about Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan, but are we prepared for Mexican TCOs infiltrating the Spanish speaking ghettos in every major city and bringing the North American drug war here?  This is something I don’t think we can fuhgettabout.

The Forgotten Games During the “Forgotten War”: The 1952 Pyuktong Inter Camp Olympics

We all know the North Koreans have a thing for the theatrics.  Heated rhetoric comes from them all the time.  In fact, just the other day, North Korean state media referred to Obama as a “monkey” and the South Korean President as an “old prostitute.”  This rhetoric, coupled with the long history of escapades, like the satellite launch in 2012, firing rockets into the sea and thereby restarting Caligula’s ancient war with Poseidon, and constant threats of nuclear testing, has long been used by the North Korean leaders to bolster their regime internally. Defying the great enemy that is the West, despite decades of international isolation and hardship is a North Korean pastime.  But this is nothing new; North Korea and even their northern neighbors, the People’s Republic of China (China/PRC) have a long history of capitalizing on issues and events to use as propaganda to bolster their governments.

The camp teams battled it out in track-and-field events, soccer, boxing, and wrestling, as well as American football, and softball.

During the Cold War, both North Korea and China made great efforts to convey that they were great countries to live in, perhaps even a paradise.  During the Korean War in particular, they tried to deflect accusations from the international community that their U.N. prisoners were being mistreated.  Most people remember that the first Olympic Games held on the Korean peninsula were in Seoul, in the summer of 1988, but they are mistaken. After the official 1952 Summer Olympics were held in Helsinki, Finland in July, North Korea and the PRC created an alternative Olympic Games at a North Korean POW camp in Pyuktong.  Prison camps near the Yalu River in North Korea competed in teams made up of men from the United States, Britain, South Korea, Turkey, France, the Philippines, and the Netherlands. The camp teams battled it out in track-and-field events, soccer, boxing, and wrestling, as well as American football, and softball, all during the harsh North Korean winter. It would have many names, but it would be known as the Inter Camp Olympics. The Korean War has been dubbed the “Forgotten War,” but even those that remember it are not aware of this bizarre event.  This is an obscure, yet fascinating event during the Korean War with which there is so little information.

Many studies of POWs during the Korean War include the infamous Clarence Adams, an African American POW from Memphis, Tennessee.  He was one of the twenty-one Americans who decided to start a new life and live in the PRC, refusing repatriation after the armistice (yes, we’re still technically at war with North Korea).(1)  His motives and experiences in China are often the most cited, but no one to my knowledge has ever cited his participation in the POW Olympics.  He was in Camp 5, one of the several camps that participated in the games.  We are aware of the death marches, the torture, and the poor treatment of POWs committed by the North Koreans in the early years of the war; Adams recalled how he weighed roughly 100 pounds.  However, he observed that treatment improved after the Chinese took over their camp:

The Chinese took over Camp 5 in the spring of 1951 and introduced what they called their “lenient policy.” They lined us all up and told us that although they were not bound by the Geneva Convention, they had their own policy of leniency that would greatly improve our lives in the camp…and gradually it did. (2)

Adams cited the racial discrimination he and fellow African Americans faced as a major reason for staying on in a new socialist country. He ended up returning to the U.S., fleeing China during the Cultural Revolution.

The treatment of POWs in the North somewhat improved when the peace talks at Panmunjom started, when the Chinese adopted their “lenient policy.” From his account we learn that the Chinese were fairly reasonable in providing POWs with some level of comfort and normalcy, but it is unclear as to whether this is genuine, given that their new policy started right around the peace talks. Adams records that the Chinese:

…agreed to everything I asked for.  After a couple of months, they brought in bats and baseballs, footballs, books, boxing gloves, parallel bars…We set up cooking and sanitation committees. We exercised every day. And the guys began to get stronger.  We even got some medicine that we gave to the prisoners who were medics to administer… (3)

Along with beginning to see conditions improving in the camp, Adams is the only American POW that I found that definitively recorded the Inter Camp Olympics in a printed memoir:

A welcome interlude occurred in our daily lives with the Inter Camp P.O.W. Olympics, held in November 15-27, 1952, in Pyuktong, just outside of Camp 5. This was a time of heated negotiations, and the Chinese obviously hoped to gain positive worldwide publicity for hosting these games.  Some prisoners refused to participate, but others…welcomed this diversion from the tedium of their daily lives, as well as the chance to talk to their buddies from other camps. (4)

Adams observed that several hundred POWs participated and competed in many sports, including “football, baseball, softball, basketball, volleyball, track and field, soccer, gymnastics, and of course boxing, where I fought as a lightweight.”  We learn earlier in his memoir that he was an avid boxer. He must have been thrilled to be able to box competitively again, perhaps a reason why he never viewed the event in a negative light.  From his recollection we learn that the Chinese put on quite a show, and tried to make it as grandiose and organized as possible: “We had our own photographers, announcers, and even reporters who put out a newspaper called the “Olympic Roundup” after each day’s events…It was great fun and made us forget about where we were for at least a few days.” (5)

Adams mentioned a newspaper called “Olympic Roundup” that was printed at the camp during the games, which brought me to a treasure of a website that I intend to continue analyzing in the future.   Its contents include a brochure/pamphlet that was produced, courtesy of the People’s Republic of China, shortly after the Inter Camp Olympics; the extent to which it was distributed is unknown, but its contents were scanned and copied onto this website, courtesy of a group of British Korean War veterans.(6) The pamphlet includes a wealth of information, ranging from pictures of the sporting events and ceremonies, and every piece of information is straight from “Olympic Roundup,” which was written by the POWs covering the games.  In the records of participants it lists Clarence Adams as one of the 22 competitors (with their serial numbers) in the boxing tournament. Pictures from the newspaper are also shown, and some the clippings described the significance of the event:

…I can say that in all the history of prisoner-of-war life, this sort of thing never happened before…it was the most colorful and gala event to come about during our stay here in Korea under the guidance of our captors…I am certain that no one in his sane mind will ever say that prisoners of war here are not the best cared for in the whole world today.  May the peoples all the world over be informed of that First Inter-Camp Olympics Meet, 1952…

Another one goes further: “…It’s a pity, that the same atmosphere doesn’t prevail over all the world, because if so then how pleasant and peaceful life would be for us all.”  The purpose of this pamphlet, like any pamphlet, was for distribution.  However, discerning the audience is difficult; Since this is one of the only surviving records of such a piece, it is possible that it was distributed as a souvenir for POWs to take back home. It is also not clear if it was distributed in China, or if they were flown and dropped over U.N. territory to convince Western troops how much fun their POW friends were having while they were freezing in a foxhole.

The irony in all of this of course is that everyone who participated in this event, from those you see smiling and competing with each other in sports uniforms (see pictures at the end), to those that wrote and recorded the event in the newspaper, were captives. The writing in the newspapers that were meant for distribution is full of praise, to convince participants that maybe the Communist governments were not so bad after all.(7)  The general consensus is that the event was used as a propaganda ploy, and participants had to have been well aware of this.  In a paper written to describe life in POW camps for Marines during the War, Colonel James Angus MacDonald mentions the Games in a few pages (out of several hundred). In it he quotes an Air Force pilot who described a Major Thomas D. Harrison, who I was able to cross-reference with the pamphlet website and confirm that he played basketball as a participant in the Olympics:

…he attended  an athletic meet in Pyoktong. While there, his skill as an athlete helped restore the prestige of the officers torn down by the enemy’s propaganda.  In addition he defied the guards by circulating among the enlisted men and pointing out lies contained in the enemy propaganda designed to slander this country…at the same time he collected the names of many prisoners held in isolated places whom it was suspected that the enemy might attempt to hold after the end of the war. (8)

It’s no surprise that we learned about the considerable efforts made by the Chinese to indoctrinate younger enlisted men.(9)  After fielding several interviews with which he provides no transcript, Colonel MacDonald also described the discernment process that other POW Camps went through before finally deciding to participate in these Olympics.  He concluded that normally they would have withdrew their participation, due to the potential the event had for being used as propaganda, but “…in the end, the possibility for making contact with other camps and exchanging vital information proved the deciding factor.”(10)  This corroborates with Clarence Adam’s testimony earlier when he mentioned that it was a way for prisoners at other camps to see their buddies.

In November 1952, in the region of Pyoktong in North Korea, hundreds of United Nations prisoners captured during two years of fighting were brought together to compete in the “Inter Camp Olympics.”  But who could blame prisoners for participating in such an event? Regardless if the whole thing was used for propaganda, in a way, everyone got what they wanted.  Furthermore, it wouldn’t exactly be untrue if a majority of the captives enjoyed it. The fact that they were able to compete in physically strenuous events suggests that they were indeed treated at least with some level of nourishment.  The extent to which the Communists were able to convert prisoners to their cause was only limited to the likes of Clarence Adams, who were halfway there since they had their grievances about their home country prior to serving as an Allied combatant.  The Chinese and North Koreans could say that they were treating the captives well, and the POWs got a chance to see their comrades and live in better conditions for 2 weeks. For the POWs, this was a valuable diversion to the morale-draining prisoner life.  In short, it was a fantasy for both parties involved.

Two years ago was not only the year of the 2012 Summer Olympics at London; that November also marked the 60th anniversary of these Inter Camp Olympics. And although the Korean War is a dim memory in much of the world today, perhaps a detailed account of  a Communist propaganda exercise, their answer to the real Olympics Games and indeed, one of the strangest events ever to have occurred during wartime, will spark a renewed interest in the conflict whose consequences reverberate on the Peninsula and beyond to this day.

—————————————————————————————–

Pictures obtained from various pages of <http://www.kmike.com/POW_Olympics/pow/index.htm&gt;

(1)  Clarence Adams. An American Dream: The Life of an African American Soldier and POW Who Spent Twelve Years in Communist China. Ed. Della Adams and Lewis H. Carlson. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2007. Print.

Their defection was regarded as a major public relations victory for the Communists, but Adams never considered himself a turncoat. We can sympathize with him in the sense that he knew that there would be no life for him back in the States; he was a poor black man who would inevitably return to the 1950s South. Eventually he abandoned his life in China and returned to the U.S.

(2)  Ibid., 51.

(3) Ibid., 56. We must take Adams words here with some level of suspicion.  We learn in his memoir that the found Chinese re-education classes given at his camp compelling, and he was a regular contributor to their propaganda newspaper. As a representative of the camp, perhaps the Chinese thought that if they worked with Adams and gave him some authority he would be swayed to come to their side.  Although he never says this outright, his defection points to this being a possibility.

(4)  Ibid., 62.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Michael White. “Index to 1952 POW Olympics.” Index to 1952 POW Olympics. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://www.kmike.com/POW_Olympics/pow/index.htm&gt;

(7) Culturally, although they abandoned some of their old ways in favor of Communism, the Confucian ideology stresses to never express your true intentions and emotions outright, and if you must, to do it ever so subtly.

(8) James A.MacDonald, Jr. The Problems of U.S. Marine Corps Prisoners of War in Korea. Thesis. History And Museum Division Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps Washington, D.C., 1962, 195. <http://www.koreanwar2.org/kwp2/usmckorea/reference/usmcpowkorea.pdf&gt;

(9) Historical records show that these subversive activities were not only done by the Chinese themselves, but by Western prisoners like Clarence Adams who were labeled as “Progressives” and were sympathetic to the criticisms of their own country.

(10) MacDonald, 195.

 

Misunderestimating Thucydides: Why Crime[a] and Punishment for Russia will only get the West so far

Whenever I’m perplexed after reading something in the news, I typically turn to a much older set of papers for some context and sometimes, for some inspiration. As told by Thucydides:

The good faith, Lacedaemonians, which characterizes your political conduct and private intercourse towards each other, makes you the less disposed to hearken to what may be said to the prejudice of others; and from this, indeed, you derive a sober-minded moderation, but you labour always under a great misconception of the affairs of other States.

Thucydides was recounting the Corinthians’ address to the Spartan Senate, where they were comparing the Spartans with the Athenians. To the Corinthians, Sparta assumes that since they have a working constitution and a way of life that suits them well, they do not have to change their ways to confront this new issue: the growth of Athenian power. While this attitude is seen as being “moderate,” the Corinthians point out that this shows a kind of ignorance when it comes to foreign affairs.

Whether this account of the Corinthians addressing the Spartan Senate is 100% accurate or not is inconsequential. What it reveals though, is a recurring pattern in History: States and their leaders, try as they may, often misunderstand or do not consider the goals, actions and intentions of other States and their leaders. What does this have to do with Russia?

The idea that allowing the Russians to hold onto the Crimea suggests some huge decline in American power is strange, considering that in 1989, the United States’ power only reached as far as Bavaria; and if you look at the map below this one, you'll see that it now surrounds Russia on almost all sides.

The idea that allowing the Russians to hold onto the Crimea suggests some huge decline in American power is strange, considering that in 1989, the United States’ power only reached as far as Bavaria; and if you look at the map below this one, you’ll see that it now surrounds Russia on almost all sides.

Post Cold War

Voice: “Knock knock”
Putin: “Who’s there?”
Voice: “NATO”

We’ve treated the Russians as a potential threat since the 90s. We’ve expanded NATO to its doorstep, and we’re working on building missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, all to their protest.  And then comes Ukraine, where the U.S. and a coalition of Western governments backed and encouraged protesters that led to the overthrow of a sitting president that kept close ties with Russia, which was soon replaced by an interim government hostile to Russia.  What did Putin think about all of that?  Could this happen to his own government; was Kyiv a dress rehearsal for Moscow?  I suppose you’ll have to ask Putin himself, but it’s likely that he at least entertained the thought.

You’d expect American policymakers to at least try to understand Russian concerns about Ukraine joining an alliance with traditionally adversarial powers (i.e. greater cooperation with the E.U. and NATO). Obama pundits have made the argument that the President invited this crisis in Ukraine because he didn’t take a firmer stance on Syria and chose to pull out of Iraq.  This is absolutely ridiculous.  Even if Obama had bombed Syria, he still would be faced with this situation in Ukraine, and he would have been holding the same cards.  Perhaps pundits forget that the last President’s “firm stance,” a rapid expansion of the National Security state and invading two countries, did not stop Putin from invading Georgia.   Russia’s move in Georgia in ’08 and Crimea today is understandable if you accept that most powers do not like hostile governments on their borders and that most powers are always looking to maintain or grow their sphere of influence.  After all, the United States is deeply committed to the Monroe Doctrine, which warns other great powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere, or else.  Like how Canada and Mexico are to us, Georgia and Ukraine aren’t just any states close to Russia’s neighborhood; they’re on its doorstep.  Over here, we live in a country with the Atlantic to our West, the Pacific to our East, Mexico at the bottom and Canada at the top.  That’s geography, and it’s not changing.  We have it pretty good over here.  If you’re Russia though, with Germany and NATO on one side, China on the other, and Japan breathing down your neck, it’s a different story altogether.

So the polls are in and we moved to another stage of this Crimean crisis: the Crimean Parliament declared independence from Ukraine, 97% of Crimean voters favored joining Russia, the Parliament formally asked Russia to join the Russian Federation, and the Kremlin signed legislation sealing the deal. Crimea is gone.  Whatever comes next, we have few options to “punish” Russia, at least in the short term, and Putin knows it.

For one, the Europeans aren’t super excited about “crippling” sanctions; London and Cyrpus really like all of that Russian money in its banking system, and from what I’ve gathered, major arteries that feed Europe’s natural gas supply flow through Ukraine, from Russia.  And all of the Western governments are trying to pass legislation to secure a bailout for Ukraine, but when has our Congress ever agreed on anything, especially when right now we’re looking for things to cut, not add to, the deficit?   And if the history of sanctions has taught us anything, it’s that regimes are willing to endure a tremendous amount of pain to secure what they see as their vital interests.

Germany relies on Russia for three-quarters of its oil and gas imports.  Sanctions on Russia could be painful for everyone.

Germany relies on Russia for three-quarters of its oil and gas imports. Sanctions on Russia could be painful for everyone.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t implement the tools that we have and are willing to use.  But it seems to me there’s little we can do about Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  Economic sanctions?  Installing missile defense systems in Eastern Europe?  Seizing assets of Putin’s friends?  Giving the Ukrainians foreign aid [and who aren’t exactly innocent in this affair, and are only united by their hatred for Yanukovych and Putin]?  Go for it.  But the reality is we’re not going to war over Crimea, and Obama has publicly stated that we will not go to war over Ukraine.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Russia is “back.”  Mitt Romney’s comment on Russia being America’s “number one geopolitical foe” falls short (but Obama was also wrong to snub him the way that he did).   This is not to say that Russia doesn’t matter, but let’s not give them too much credit: Russia may be playing geopolitical chess, but he’s playing defense.  This move in Crimea was a move made from weakness.   Ukraine has slowly been moving away from Russia, and inching toward the West.   The West hasn’t lost Ukraine.  Europe hasn’t lost Ukraine.  The United States hasn’t lost Ukraine.  Putin lost Ukraine, and he knows it.   So to save face he took a short term gain (Crimea, and saber rattling towards Eastern Ukraine) but a long term loss, and Russian influence over the rest of Europe will suffer.

Formal Ukrainian elections are going to be held in May, and it’s unlikely that any new government will be a Yanukovych; but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be respectful to its [Russian] minorities and nudge Russia on with provocative gestures.   The reality is that the stability of Ukraine cannot be guaranteed with at least some level of cooperation with Russia.   After all, Ukraine is “the borderland.”  Point is, we can talk about punishing Russia all we want, but decent relations with Moscow are imperative.  We need their help with Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and soon, maybe even China. Anyone who thinks this is just about Ukraine has to stop thinking like a lawyer and more like a strategist.  Thucydides would’ve understood that.

Sidenote: Though the current crisis in Ukraine is complex, we should remember that everything can always be worse.   As per an agreement signed in Budapest in 1994, Ukraine has gotten rid of all their nuclear weapons, and just two years ago eliminated all of their weapons-grade materiel.  A document signed 20 years ago prevented this from becoming a nuclear crisis. And now that’s one less thing we have to think about.