Archive for the ‘Sudan’ Category

Kristof on Costa Rica

January 8, 2010

Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in which he discusses the relative “happiness” of countries around the world, focusing primarily on Costa Rica, which ranks number one according to various indeces.  The World Happiness Index ranks the US 20th, with Togo and Tanzania coming in last; another study ranks America 19th and puts Zimbabwe at the bottom of the list.

Mr. Kristof argues that the main reason that Costa Ricans are so happy is that they have low levels of military spending (the country has no armed forces) and they invest a relatively large amount in education per capita, which in turn has led to political stability.  He also credits the nation’s environmental conservation efforts as a contributor to public contentment.  Based on this assumption, he argues that the US should spend less on defense (including foreign military assistance) and more on social programs like education.  He also suggests that America should do more to protect the environment.

I respect Mr. Kristof for his efforts to highlight humanitarian disasters and violations of human rights, particularly in Darfur, but his latest article is highly flawed.  Comparing the US with Costa Rica when it comes to military expenditures is nonsensical.  Costa Rica faces no serious internal or external threats, whereas America is responsible for underwriting international security and protecting the world’s oil supply, on which the global economy is dependent.  Partly as a consequence of America’s foreign policy commitments and interventions, terrorists and insurgents are determined to attack the US and its interests overseas, and policymakers have found it necessary to provide materiel and financial assistance to governments battling anti-American militants in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.  Withholding such aid could have disastrous consequences, and reducing the size and capability of the American military would undermine the liberal international order that Mr. Kristof claims to support.

Another weak point in his argument is his assertion that “happiness” is based on social spending.  He mentions that Mexico and Colombia rank higher than the US on happiness indeces, but both nations spend less on education and medical care than America, and they are also plagued by higher levels of drug-related violence.  He himself acknowledges that a “cultural emphasis on family and friends” might be responsible for the disparity in contentment; although such things are difficult to measure and his claim that Latin Americans value family and friends more than Americans is certainly disputable.  One thing that Mr. Kristof fails to note is that Latin Americans generally work fewer hours per week than Americans do (as do Europeans, who are reportedly “happier” than people in the US), which could be an important factor when it comes to reported personal satisfaction.

I am not suggesting that education and other forms of social spending are not important, or that federal and state governments in the US should not spend more in these areas (I believe they should).  I am merely saying that Mr. Kristof’s prescriptions for increasing “happiness” in America may not have the intended results  in light of geopolitical and social conditions. 

On a separate note, Mr. Kristof’s insistense that the US reduce military spending reinforces public perceptions that liberals are weak on national defense, which inhibits the electoral success of liberal candidates and inhibits their ability to promote the political causes that Mr. Kristof supports.

Obama’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

December 11, 2009

Yesterday, President Obama visited Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.  Many people reasonably believe that the president does not deserve the award after serving less than a year in office and not having achieved many tangible goals when it comes to foreign policy.  But regardless of whether or not he earned the prestigious prize, his acceptance speech was excellent.  It was very Niebuhrian, and it revealed that the president holds a view of the world and human nature that can be described as “Christian realism,” although he did not identify it in sectarian terms  He believes that man is flawed and frequenty behaves in unethical ways, but he also maintains that the human condition can be improved through acts of goodwill motivated by moral principles.  Having just escalated the war in Afghanistan, he argued that war is sometimes justified and necessary, but he balanced his adherence to just war theory by stressing the need to achieve a just peace that serves humanitarian aims.

In addition to promoting humanitarian realism, he advocated what international relations scholars refer to as “institutionalism” and “constructivism.”  Institutionalists believe that peace and progress can best be achieved by nations acting in concert through international institutions like the United Nations and World Trade Organization, and constructivists believe that changes in norms such as notions of sovereignty and human rights can improve global society.  In his speech, President Obama said that international alliances like NATO are needed to keep the peace, and he argued that the US and other countries should embrace humanitarian concepts out of enlightened self interest.

For information about Rienhold Niebuhr, who President Obama has cited as a major influence on his thinking, and Christian realism click on this link.  For another perspective on the international relations theory aspects of the president’s speech, read Daniel Drezner’s recent blog post on

Rape as a Weapon of War

August 12, 2009

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo where she spoke out against the systematic rape of Congolese civilians by rebel groups and government forces.  The eastern Congo has recently been referred to as the “rape capital of the world.”  So far this year, an estimated 3,500 Congolese women and girls have been raped, and in the past decade approximately 100,000 have suffered the same fate (five million Congolese have been killed during the same period).  In the last few months, men have become targets for those committing sexual assault.

Mass rape in war zones is not unique to the Congo.  During the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, an estimated 500,000 females were victims of sexual violence at the hands of militants.  In the time period surrounding the end of World War Two, nearly a million women in East Germany were raped by Russian soldiers.  In the ongoing conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, women and girls are being subjected to the same treatment.

Rape cases in the Congo and other unstable areas are often more heinous than typical cases of sexual assault in the West, which are undoubtedly horrible.  Militants frequently force husbands, fathers, siblings and children to watch their wives, daughters, sisters and mothers get raped; thus, relatives of the assault victims also suffer major trauma from witnessing the terrible event.  The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Africa adds to the suffering in that many assault victims are infected with the horrible disease.

It is obvious why killing (and often murdering) is an inherent part of war.  But some may wonder why and how rape would serve the political-military goals of warring factions.  Could it be that fighting men simply want sexual gratification after spending time apart from their wives and girlfriends, and that they are committing rape in a lawless environment simply to satisfy their personal desires rather than for political ends?  On some level that may be true, but given the systematic nature of the attacks it is clear that there is a strategic purpose underlying them. 

There are several reasons why combatants might adopt sexual assault as a method of waging war.  One is to terrorize civilians and thereby compel them to support the attackers and/or refrain from supporting their enemies; i.e., it is similar to classical terrorism except that sex is substituted for bombs and bullets. 

Another is to emasculate and demoralize potential enemies by making men powerless to protect their female relatives, or by raping the targeted men directly, and thereby traumatize them enough to make them unable to fight.  In places where homosexuality is a major taboo, such as the Congo, male rape victims become social outcasts, which adds to their humiliation (the alleged rape of imprisoned dissidents by Iranian officials would be another example of this tactic if the allegations are true).

An additional purpose is to degrade and to a certain extent dehumanize victims, thereby making it psychologically easier to use them as slave labor to facilitate military operations.  In the Congo, women are often abducted and, in addition to being forced to have sex with their captors, made to carry things like food, water and war materiel for fighters.

Satisfying their subordinates’ desire for revenge against enemies, real or perceived, is a reason why some commanders might encourage, or at least allow, their soldiers to rape women associated with their foes.  In this context, rape would be a perverse way of keeping up morale.

It was worthwhile for the Obama administration to draw attention to the atrocities occuring in the Congo.  However, it is unlikely that well-intentioned rhetoric will significantly affect the situation.  It is even less likely that the international community will commit enough soldiers and peacekeepers to bring an end to the raping and killing.  Hopefully the conflict in central Africa will be resolved by regional powers relatively soon, but given the complex nature of the war it will be difficult for them to do so.