Monday, February 20, 2012

Commentary On USSOUTHCOM Commander's MMA Lecture, January 2012

I've gotta hand it to the Marines Memorial Club.  They bring in the heavy hitters all the time.  Gen. Douglas Fraser, USAF, commander of U.S. Southern Command, lectured there on January 24, 2012 and I attended to hear firsthand about what Uncle Sam is doing south of the border.  My subjective observations are in italics below.

The general's slides weren't working but to military types that's no big deal.  Military leaders march on, with or without PowerPoint.  You can get the rundown of the command's area on the site.  One factoid that jumped out at me was that the U.S. is the world's second largest Spanish-speaking country.  Ay carumba!  Unchecked illegal immigration will eventually force the U.S. into an identity crisis.  Citizens need to know the facts about how current immigration policy is unlike anything in American history.  

The general's overview of Central and South American economics sounded like a textbook description of fourth-generation warfare reaching maturity, except there is no textbook for this subject.  Latin America's healthy commodity trade with China helped it weather the global economic downturn.  Ah ha, the U.S. national security state is noticing Chinese strategic penetration in the Western Hemisphere.  That's why it's imperative for the U.S. to conclude free trade agreements with our southern partners, to ring-fence their markets from further Chinese influence.  We really need to re-energize the FTAA.  The general mentioned that a large, informal economy flourishes with rampant poverty and unemployment, and than criminal organizations operate with impunity thanks to weak governance.  Such weakness now apparently includes U.S. institutions, with Mexican drug cartels penetrating U.S. cities.  This is a perfect description of System D, with an amoral edge.  Note what I said about unchecked immigration above.  Failure to enforce existing immigration laws breeds contempt for legal systems in general.  This breakdown in governance in Latin America is not inevitable in the U.S but the hour is getting late for a counter-effort. 

Gen. Fraser's understanding of how drug cartels operate is more nuanced than the Hollywood portrayals of huge, monolithic crime families.  The cartels rely on microenterprises in "networks of networks" that enable innovations.  This sounds like entrepreneurs operating hackerspaces, an innovation we can expect from a System D economy.  I wonder if microfinance would be useful as a way to either grow non-drug alternative economic structures, or to track small/medium enterprises that freelance in support of the narcotic trade.  What does their supply chain look like?

The general took questions from the audience.  A very politely phrased question on whether legalization of drugs would be a viable policy drew an equally polite answer from the general.  He endorsed a healthy political debate over legalization's merits but cautioned us to consider secondary effects.  Criminal networks will still resort to extortion and kidnapping if they lose drug revenue.  We should also consider the public health effects of spending more money on addiction treatment and the hidden costs of absenteeism if we remove drug use from law enforcement's purview.  The U.S. abandoned its prohibition of alcohol, but cocaine and methamphetamine are not the same things as booze.  If we must start somewhere with an experiment, perhaps marijuana is the best candidate.  Some variants of the hemp plant have multiple commercial uses, as the U.S. Government knew quite well in World War II.  

Iran is gaining influence in the Americas with diplomatic outreach and funding for Shiite centers.  Their strategic aim is to circumvent sanctions.  This is not a strategic breakout until Iran has control of some kind of living system in the Western Hemisphere, like a logistics source (i.e., a port where it can resupply warships).  Iran will have a hard time avoiding sanctions if its currency is unacceptable as payment.  The financial squeeze the U.S. is putting on Iran now bites hard.  Hezbollah has penetrated Latin America.  This terrorist network is implicated in the drug trade.  The Lebanese expatriate community in Latin America, particularly Mexico, merits monitoring.  

China's role is growing beyond seeking dependable commodity supplies.  Its sales of military aircraft, radar, and personal protective equipment to Latin countries is dramatically rising.  There's a wealth of information - no pun intended - on China's deals in Latin America.  National security studies of this influence are old news and often buried in archives.  We need to know a lot more about the viability of the living system China is building in our hemisphere.  The Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia is a network of influence and intelligence reporting that has always been loyal to its motherland.  Identifying and monitoring a similar Chinese diaspora in Latin America should be a valid intelligence mission for the U.S.  The oddity of Latin America and China specialists collaborating ought to become less odd.  The U.S. has never repudiated the Monroe Doctrine.  It is a policy precedent we can use under the right circumstances.  

Gen. Fraser was most concerned about Haiti due to its urgent needs and said the U.S. drawdown will free up military units for USSOUTHCOM missions.  That is optimistic given the Pentagon's announced force cuts for the next five years.  U.S. missions in Latin America will be limited by budgets.  Concern over Haiti's recovery is valid because the U.S. drawdown may not leave enough force structure for a return mission there.  The general closed with references to local development of water and other resources that can build community capacity.  Economic development with stronger governance will IMHO just enable more fertile growth of those narcotic microenterprises he mentioned earlier.  Perhaps the U.S. should seed System D with agents and entities it controls if we can't field conventional forces down there.  That would be an open-source COIN technique worth mastering.  

I'm now a little smarter (and a lot more curious) about Latin America thanks to Gen. Fraser.  I look forward to hearing from his successor at the Marines Memorial Club.  The hits just keep on coming.  

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Iraq Potential Unity Diminished But Not Destroyed

Strategy Page is raising an alarm about the Iraqi political system careening off its democratic rails.  I am not so alarmed.  Violence is normal in the Arab world and the use of terror attacks, extralegal threats, and intimidation should not surprise Western observers.  Iraq will never clone a Western political process no matter how much advice the United States provides.  Iraqi self-governance will retain facets of brutality that are ingrained in Arab political culture.  

In December 2009, I estimated Iraq's chances for "success" as a unitary state at 60%. I stand by that estimate. Suicide bombings have not yet returned to the epidemic levels at the height of the war. Iraq's generational dynamics are such that a full Sunni-Shiite civil war is unlikely because many survivors of the last Sunni-Shiite conflict, the Iran-Iraq War, are still alive and remember the horror. Only the intervention of Sunni Arab neighbors would upset the balance and they don't trust each other enough to work together (GCC Shield Force notwithstanding).  That Shield Force was able to stabilize Bahrain, a small country, with a short-duration deployment.  It is too small to pose an existential threat to the Iraqi military establishment.  Arab military coalitions are ineffective because Arabs don't trust each other.  Only those Arab forces that acted in concert with a Western sponsor (as in the first Persian Gulf War under US leadership) can operate at even a minimal level of effectiveness.  This means that other Sunni Arab states have little hope of influencing Iraqi politics with a threat of land invasion.  Iraqi Shiites have little appetite for mass expulsions or worse directed against its Sunni minority because they value integration with the world economy after decades of deprivation under UN sanctions.  They will continue to find ways to make life uncomfortable for Sunnis but they value their new investment links with the outside world too much to risk anything more harsh.  

We shouldn't use Anglo-Western standards of normalcy to judge Arab internal stability. There will be more bombings. That does not mean Iraqi self-governance will fail.