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August 21, 2011

OMG, Hillary Said Other Nations' Views Can Be More Influential Than Ours [UPDATED]
Posted by David Shorr

600_new4_600_1 Will our conservative friends ever realize it's not always about us, or will they keep freaking out any time someone suggests that American positions and declarations might not be the key to every situation around the world. The other day Heather flagged the following quote from Secreatary of State Clinton: 
"the US stands for our values, our interests, our security, but others have to be prepared to take the same steps in support of universal values and interests... this is exactly the kind of world I want to see, where everyone else isn't standing on the sidelines while americans lay down our lives.  Part of leading is making sure you get other people on the field, and that is what I think we're doing."
And right on cue, Kori Schake over at Shadow Government jumped all over Clinton for hanging back rather than standing tall:
The secretary of State unreflectively made the statement that it mattered more what Turkey and Saudi Arabia said about Syrian repression than the United States. "If other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it," was Clinton's justification for doing so little. That's quite a breathtaking world view for the chief diplomat of the world's most powerful country. We are unimportant in the global debate about freedom and governance, but Saudi Arabia and Turkey have standing. On one issue Secretary Clinton was unmistakeably correct: "it's not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go."
See, the thing about news is that it's new, i.e. different from what everyone expects. For example, it would be news if New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed Rep. Michele Bachmann for president -- an endorsement from Rep. Steve King, on the other hand, not so newsworthy. In this way politics, domestic and international alike, is just like the news media. Unexpected stances by political actors make a bigger impact than predictable ones, which are often discounted if not ignored.

So yes, it makes perfect sense for the responses of Turkey and Saudi Arabia to be watched more carefully and carry more weight than America's. (Besides, maybe behind the scenes the US is urging them to abandon Assad.) And no, we don't need to have conniption fits whenever the United States steps back and lets the spotlight fall on others. I published a Democracy Arsenal post on this very issue four years ago in connection with humanitarian intervention / the Responsibility to Protect. Robert Kagan and Ivo Daalder had written a chapter for a book I co-edited, saying that undemocratic governments had no legitimacy or standing to validate intervention. I argued that, on the contrary, if lesser oppressors joined in condemning the more savage forms of atrocities, it only heightens the pariah's isolation.

One strange thing about Kori's post is that she acknowledges that "Clinton is right that the United States has allowed responsibilities to accrue to us that many states benefit from, and that a more evenly distributed burden sharing arrangement would be preferable." Well, the only way that's going to happen is if the United States defers to others in just the ways that prompt cries of "weakness!" or "declinist!" from our conservative friends.

A last couple thoughts about the administration's posture on Syria. Despite Kori's worries, just last month US Amabassador Robert Ford was given a hero's welcome by resistance forces in Hama. And if you're wondering about sources of caution in calculating how far US policy should go, you really should read Eric Martin's brilliant six-step playbook for how conservatives always demand that more be done. Talk about predictable, I sure wish we could reach a point when that broken clock could be deemed un-newsworthy.

UPDATE: When I wrote this post, the signs of Gaddafi's downfall were just starting to emerge. Not only was the Libya operation an example of the exact approach Clinton was articulating, Kori's post included a critique of "shoving the work off onto others" constituted a failure of leadership and betrayal of the hopes and expectations of those carrying out struggles for their freedom. The apparent success in driving Gaddafi out of power -- with Libyans as the primary authors, in contrast to Iraq -- would seem to undercut the notion of Obama shirking and dooming the effort to liberate Libya. None of his critics will say it; so I thought I should.

August 20, 2011

International Cooperation On CT Cases
Posted by James Lamond

With so much going on this week, one piece of terrorism news went largely under the radar. Mahamud Said Omar, a suspect on charges of material support for terrorism was extradited from the Netherlands to the U.S. after being indicted by a U.S. federal court in 2009 and arrested in the Netherlands later that year. The FBI press release has more details here

What makes this case so interesting is what Robert Chesney points out over at Lawfare:

“the first important thing to note about the Omar case is that there almost certainly was no alternative to charging him in civilian court.  He was arrested in the Netherlands, after all, and as we saw previously with the Delaema case, the Dutch are not likely to extradite if we plan to hold someone in military detention or use a military commission.  This alone ought to be enough to stop Congress from passing legislation that would categorically bar civilian prosecution in all cases where military detention or a commission proceeding might also be a possibility." 

The importance of international cooperation in combatting and prosecuting terrorists is an often overlooked part of the discussion about terrorism prosecution and detention.  David Kris, who served as assistant attorney general for national security until earlier this year outlined in a recent paper: 

“the criminal justice system may help us obtain important cooperation from other countries. That cooperation may be necessary if we want to detain suspected terrorists  or otherwise accomplish our national security objectives.  Our federal courts are well-respected internationally. There are well-established, formal legal mechanisms that allow the transfer of terrorism suspects to the United States  for  trial  in  federal  court,  and  for the provision of information to assist  in  law  enforcement  investigations  – i.e., extradition and mutual legal assistance treaties (MLATs).  Our allies around the world are comfortable with these mechanisms, as well as with more informal procedures that are often used to provide assistance to the United States in law enforcement matters, whether relating to terrorism or other types of cases.  Such cooperation  can be critical to the success of a prosecution, and in some cases can be the only way in which we will gain custody of a suspected terrorist who has broken our laws. 

 

Continue reading "International Cooperation On CT Cases" »

August 18, 2011

Before the Fall: Planning for Post-Qaddafi Libya
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Libyan Rebels A while back on this blog there was a debate about how and when to measure whether the war in Libya was worth it. Eric Martin made the observation that:

Despite these harbingers of future unrest, there has been a dearth of planning for the postwar transition period. Which organizations/nations will be overseeing that period and acting as peacekeepers? Under whose auspices? On whose dime? For how long? Backed by what political will? What if peacekeeping forces come under attack?

As the TNC rebels continue to advance towards Tripoli and slowly choke off the city, it’s time to start trying to find answers to these questions. Daniel Serwer and CFR have released a report that looks at the both the challenges that a post-Qaddafi Libya will pose and suggests some ways of dealing with those challenges. The whole thing is worth reading; Serwer also wrote an op-ed length version.

First off comes the question of how much of Qaddafi’s apparatus to wipe away. Serwer explains the central paradox: “In general, both the opportunities and risks diminish with the increasing role allowed to the Qaddafi regime: decapitation could open the door to widespread disorder or civil war, but it could also increase the longer-term possibilities for democratic evolution.”

The Australian reports that the TNC’s official planning assumes a significant amount of the apparatus will remain in hopes of avoiding an Iraq-like destabilization:

Western governments have helped prepare a blueprint for a post-Gaddafi Libya that would retain much of the regime's security infrastructure to avoid an Iraq-style collapse into anarchy.

The 70-page plan, obtained by London's The Times, charts the first months after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. The document was drawn up by the National Transition Council in Benghazi with Western help.

Officials say the blueprint draws on lessons from the disastrous regime change in Iraq in 2003 and the rebel takeover in eastern Libya in March. 

The plans are highly reliant on the defection of parts of the Gaddafi security apparatus to the rebels after his overthrow. This is likely to prove not only risky, but controversial, with many rebel fighters determined to sweep away all vestiges of the regime.

Seems like the TNC has the right idea here. Assuming you're able to keep most of that Qaddafi infrastructure in place once he's gone, it's worth erring on the side of keeping people on in government instead of cutting them loose to start trouble in the streets. Inclusivity is key here.

Serwer’s report also makes a good point about defining success in post-Qaddafi Libya:

There are many possible gradations of success. Libya could achieve a measure of unity and stability without being fully democratic or open. Even a successful transition could lead to release from prison of extremists and trafficking in MANPADS, chemical weapons, or other arms, thus representing an indirect threat to U.S. interests. 

A failed transition leading to chaos, breakup of the Libyan state that sets an unwelcome precedent elsewhere, or restoration of a dictatorship would all damage American and allied credibility and likely also cause major problems for the United States’ European allies, including shortfalls in energy supplies, loss of major investments, and a continuing refugee flow. Refugees could also cause problems in Tunisia, Egypt, and the rest of the Mediterranean. Failure could thus have indirect but unwelcome effects on the United States. Failure could also produce a state prepared to harbor international terrorists, as Qaddafi himself once did, but there is little indication thus far that those supporting the rebellion would be inclined in that direction.

To prevent such an outcome, Serwer suggests a number of options, with the preferable being an EU/UN peacekeeping force. If such a configuration isn’t possible though, Serwer suggests:

If a UN/EU effort fails to ensure stability in Libya, the United States should be prepared to mobilize and support a NATO-led effort, including if necessary the deployment for a limited duration of U.S. ground forces. Only NATO has the military capacity required. Unilateral U.S. intervention would entail risks without commensurate gains to vital national security interests.

This seems like a bridge too far. If the United Nations, working in concert with the EU, cannot put together a legitimate force, I’m not sure NATO has the collective will or capacity to mount such an operation, which could quickly dissolve into more-or-less an American effort with token participation from other NATO members. The U.S. should be willing to aid a UN effort, but should refrain from boots on the ground.

If the TNC doesn't prove as reliable as we hope, there's really no good solution here—which makes planning ahead of time to get the transition right all the more important.

Photo: Flickr

August 17, 2011

What to Leave Behind in Iraq
Posted by Jacob Stokes

I have a new piece up at Real Clear World looking at what to leave behind in Iraq. The obvious problem here from the point of view of U.S. policymakers is the justifiably bad political dynamics, both in Iraq and domestically.

Getting the Iraqis to make such a request remains a long-shot, however. It would be tough to get through the Iraqi parliament, where a significant portion of the ruling bloc answers to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He has called on his followers to attack American troops staying past the December end date. In addition, the Iraqi legislative process itself is dysfunctional; last year the country took eight months to form a government following elections.

Another detail worth noting is that Vice President Joe Biden has reportedly promised members of the U.S. Congress that all American troops would leave Iraq by the deadline.

There are a couple options that can take those tough dynamics into account while still looking after enduring American interests in the country, namely using troops, not contractors, to protect our vast diplomatic apparatus in the country and giving non-combat military training and assistance to the still-fledgling Iraqi army.

The piece argues that there should be strict limits on American assistance though and that those limits should be decided based upon a simple principle. The bottom line:

In order to avoid "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," it's important not only to avoid making an abrupt disengagement from Iraq, but also to create the conditions so that in the future Iraq really can stand on its own.

Read the whole thing here.

August 16, 2011

Rick Perry: Tea Party Governor, Neocon Candidate
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Perry ConfusedWith his announcement on Sunday, Rick Perry rode into the 2012 presidential race. Relatively little is known about his foreign policy stances—a few first cracks have been taken by Josh Keating, Josh Rogin, and James Lindsay. Eli Lake also devoted a bit to Perry is his recent piece on the 2012 GOP field.

What are the takeaways? Seems to me that, broadly, while Perry was the archetypal Tea Party governor, his writings and advisors on foreign policy will place him squarely in the neocon camp when it comes to his positions as a candidate for president.

The fault lines in those two positions become manifest in this quote from Perry: “I'll work every day to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.” For domestic policy, that works for all stripes of conservative (at least rhetorically). For foreign policy, it creates a fissure as big as… well, Texas. As former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweets, “When @GovernorPerry says he wants #Washington to be ‘inconsequential,’ does he understand the global reach of the job he is now pursuing?” This is especially true for neocons, who have no interest in Washington becoming inconsequential in the world. 

Tea Party governor

First, Perry’s foreign policy actions as governor. The thing that demonstrates most clearly how Perry’s tendencies as governor reject neoconservative thinking are his actions to win business from Venezuela and China. Neocons would isolate those regimes, especially if the nature of said business carries national security concerns, as oil from Venezuela and communications technologies from China do. As Eli Lake notes (excuse the lengthy block quote; the piece is behind the wall):

On these issues, there is the intriguing possibility that Texas Governor Rick Perry, should he get into the race, could introduce yet another worldview into the already-complex GOP foreign policy mix. As governor of Texas, Perry has been identified with a sort of business-first approach to foreign affairs. This philosophy, too, could in its own way represent a new challenge to the neocon establishment. 

In 2004, Perry enticed Citgo—owned by the Venezuelan government, no friend of the United States—to expand refineries in Corpus Christi and move its corporate headquarters to Houston by putting together a grant and low-interest loan package worth $35 million. Perry also sought to persuade the Chinese telecom giant Huawei to expand its North American headquarters in Texas. Last year, the intelligence community quietly pressed Sprint not to use Huawei components in building a national 4G network, fearing the company’s close ties to the People’s Liberation Army would effectively give the Chinese government a listening post in every cell tower of the new wireless network. On August 18, eight Republican senators sent a letter to Obama administration officials warning that the deal could undermine national security. Sprint eventually complied. But, on October 1 of last year, Perry attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the company’s new headquarters in Plano, Texas. “Huawei has a strong, worldwide reputation as an innovator of quality telecommunications technology, with facilities spread across the globe,” Perry proclaimed. 

More on that story from the Washington Post this weekend here

Continue reading "Rick Perry: Tea Party Governor, Neocon Candidate" »

Clinton Lays Out Core of Admin National Security Strategy
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

In response to a question about whether we're signalling in Libya and Syria that we don't have what it takes to lead [this is a very rough transcription]:  "the US stands for our values, our interests, our security, but others have to be prepared to take the same steps in support of universal values and interests... this is exactly the kind of world I want to see, where everyone else isn't standing on the sidelines while americans lay down our lives.  Part of leading is making sure you get other people on the field, and that is what I think we're doing... on behalf of the values/institutions we've been building for 235 years."

A new dynamic duo: can they match the ratings?
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

It'll be well worth checking out the language and body language over at CNN's forum with Secretaries of State and Defense Clinton and Panetta this morning, streaming shortly at www.state.gov and www.defense.gov.  The reaction to this likely-to-be-underreported event in the August doldrums, post-debt ceiling stupor that is Washington will give tea leaves on several important things for the fall:

State of the State-Defense Partnership:  in a world where challenges of economy and state craft are second to none, but our political system gives priority to military hardware, this partnership is critical -- for Democratic administrations averse to charges of weakness in particular -- to getting resources and oomph to get anything done, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to peacekeeping in Congo to treaties on Law of the Sea and violence against women.  Clinton and Gates worked together near-seamlessly.  Gates being far, far too masterful to be Charlie Sheen, can Panetta nonetheless be Ashton Kutcher?  Is he the latter-day Darren on Bewitched?  Or, in fact, does the Pentagon play that show's lead character and just wrinkle its nose, even in these parlous times?

Super-Posturing for the Super-Committee:  The Obama Administration's right-minded effort to portray the seamless reality of "security" spending encompassing military and civilian activities has resulted in much of clinton's writ being thrown into the same budget pt as (and dwarfed by) Panetta's.  With pressure for more cuts to avoid mandatory sequestration by the super-Congress, foreign asisstance, UN dues and even basic diplomatic operations overseas are perceived to be under severe threat -- on top of the shellacking they took in the House version of the 2012 budget.  Clinton kept Gates very close, and Gates was more than willingto speak strongly on behalf of civilian spending -- will Panetta follow suit, and what can he deliver, given the pressure he is under in his own shop?  What case can the Administration use to push back on a Congress calling for unrivaled american primacy even as it slashes the infrastructure and dismisses the institutions where US leadership is exercised?

Making News:  While Washington was whipping itself into a frenzy of foolishness, a lot has gone on in the world:  Eurozone debt, UK riots, progress by Libyan rebels, Iraq violence, Afghanistan violence, Pakistan violence, allegations that Pakistan let Chinese military officers look at the remains of a "stealth" US helicopter, North Korean threats to test, Chinese trash-talking the US economy.  Will the dynamic duo make news on any of the above, and which will they choose?

Panetta Live:  There have been, let's say, quite a few spontaneous moments so far.  How does this live appearance in front of a friendly hometown crowd go?

August 12, 2011

The Real Legacy of David Petraeus
Posted by Michael Cohen

Petraeus In a few weeks from now David Petraeus will leave the US military to take on his new responsibilities as Director of Central Intelligence. I look forward to this happening because then hopefully I will no longer have to read valentines to Petraeus like the one Joe Klein just published in Time magazine titled "David Petraeus Brilliant Career." I like Joe and we've broken bread a few times, but I enjoyed this piece better when David Ignatius first wrote it.

Klein relies on the tired notion that Petraeus revolutionized the armed forces:

In truth, the general's most important legacy may lie in the role he has played in transforming the Army from a blunt instrument, designed to fight tank battles on the plains of Europe, into a "learning institution" that trains its troops for the flexibility and creativity necessary to fight guerrilla wars in the information age.

Really? Do people really believe that until David Petraeus showed up the Army had not evolved much since it was preparing for tank battles in the Fulda Gap? My friend Gian Gentile has long, and correctly, disputed the narrative that Petraeus dramatically shifted US tactics in Iraq when he became theater commander in 2007. (Of course, the very idea that it was US tactics that led to increased stability in Iraq is, and should be, a greatly discredited notion).

Indeed, what is perhaps most striking about what happened under Petraeus command is the extent to which he relied on traditional methods of war-fighting. (Ironically, it was the period in 2009 to mid-2010 when Petraeus wasn't in charge in Afghanistan that the US military more assiduously adopted creative and flexible, though ultimately failed, tactics in line like restricted rules of engagement to prevent civilian casualties.) Petraeus's methods, on the other hand, relied on a very different set of operational tools. In Iraq for example, while there was a nominal nod to "hearts and minds" what was far more decisive was the ramping up the use of airstrikes and support for Sunni militias that didn't necessarily adhere to all the precepts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

There is a similar pattern visible in Afghanistan where, as Noah Schactman has well-documented at Danger Room, after taking command Petraeus greatly increased the use of air power (and has also relied on dubious local militias). As in Iraq, civilian casualties in Afghanistan have increased at the same time. The notion put forward by counter-insurgency advocates that COIN fights are somehow more humane and protective of civilians is belied by basic data.  Quite simply, there is nothing kinder or gentler about the methods used by Petraeus to fight America's wars - that's merely the spin pushed to gullible reporters and promoted by COIN acolytes. It's just war as its always been known.

In reality, Petraeus's greatest legacy is not that he ended America's wars, but rather extended them. It was the positive and self-serving spin put out by Petraeus and his merry band of COINdinistas that convinced policy-makers what had supposedly worked in Iraq could work in Afghanistan. If not for the surge narrative, loyally fostered here by Klein, would Obama have ever agreed to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in December 2009? I seriously doubt it.

Petraeus certainly deserves credit for taking advantage of changes taking place in Iraqi society in 2007 and 2008 (although it must be fairly noted that the preponderance of responsibility for these advances belongs with Iraqis themselves). This is clearly an important part of his legacy. However, there is also a fairly pungent criticism of Petraeus's legacy - namely that he advocated for escalation in Afghanistan, under the rubric of counter-insurgency, and it has met few of its goals since then and instead mired the US more deeply in the conflict.

Civilian casualties have increased, relations with Pakistan have grown worse, the Afghan government has not stood up, there is precious little indication that the Afghan people has swung in support of US objectives, and - as has been documented repeatedly -- Petraeus's confident assurance to President Obama that within 18 months of increasing troop levels in Afghanistan the US would be able to turn over security to the Afghan security forces did not happen. Moreover, it is very difficult to argue that the United States is any closer to a peaceful resolution of the war in Afghanistan than it was in 2009 or, for that matter, has significantly furthered its national interests there.

David Petraeus deserves enormous praise for his service to the country - and I salute it. But his legacy as a general, and its impact on US national security, merits an honest appraisal of his actions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. 

August 11, 2011

On Afghanistan, Should Obama Have Deferred to the Generals?
Posted by Jacob Stokes

AfghanistanA narrative is brewing among the GOP candidates that the president made a mistake in announcing a modest drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan last June. Herman Cain has the latest version of it. His electoral chances are slim, but his comments are likely be echoed throughout the campaign. Over the weekend Cain told an Iowa TV station, “The surge was working. Why not let it continue to work?  The president didn't listen to his experts, his generals.  That would be the difference between a Herman Cain and a President Obama, is that I will listen to my experts.”

First, let’s be clear about what the military leadership said about the policy. The two leaders whose advice Obama didn’t follow to the letter were Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen and then-ISAF Commander David Petraeus. The words of those two men are where this criticism stems from.

Mullens words were, "The president's decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept.” Fair enough, but if one reads the next in the story, it’s clear Mullen’s objections aren’t deep-seated. The Reuters story on the testimony continued, “Pressed by lawmakers, Mullen later added that he had concluded that the risks were manageable.” (My emphasis.)

The story went on to note the Joint Chiefs Chairman’s recognition that political incentives for Afghan leadership matter in a counterinsurgency campaign: “Mullen said bringing home troops offered some benefits, including reinforcing the goal of putting Afghans in control of their own security by the end of 2014. ‘The truth is, we would have run other kinds of risks by keeping more forces in Afghanistan longer. We would have made it easier for the Karzai administration to increase their dependency on us,’ Mullen said.”

Petraeus, for his part, expressed his view that the decision was “aggressive,” but not enough to warrant any real protest:  "It is again a more aggressive approach than (top commanders) and I would have indeed certainly put forward, but this is not something I think where one hangs up the uniform in protest, or something like that.” Petraeus is duty-bound to resign if he believes a decision made by the president is reckless or puts troops in extreme and unnecessary danger. He didn’t.

In short, while the military might have been hesitant about Obama’s plan, it’s neither reckless nor strategically misguided. Even if the military held that view though, there are three reasons why, ultimately, the president has to have final say on decisions like this. 

1. The President, as commander-in-chief, must see the whole strategic picture. As Rob Farley put it yesterday, the war has created its own constituency which has a great stake in seeing a “victory.” Military leaders who have advocated for the “surge” and counterinsurgency are deeply invested in the success of their efforts. Farley writes, “the overriding institutional interest of the U.S. military -- again, particularly the Army and Marine Corps -- relatively simple: Avoid defeat.” On the whole, that’s good—we want militaries who will do what it takes to win—as long as we have civilian and political control over the military. The president, in this sense, is the chief strategic integrator of policy. He has to look at all the parts, and therefore his call should carry the day.

2. As for Cain’s contention that we should look to the experts, there are scores of experts who have argued that huge U.S. military effort, and the resource demands that come with that effort, aren’t proportional to the threat emanating from Afghanistan—especially given the degradation of al Qaeda that America and its allies have achieved in recent years. If you don’t know who these people are, here’s a list.

3. Finally, the surge won military gains, but failed in governance and politics. From a military perspective, yes, ISAF occupied/cleared terrority and we were holding it, but it takes political will from Afghans to “build.” That requires a durable political settlement and accountable government. Those don’t currently exist in Afghanistan, and a huge, indefinite military presence wasn’t and isn’t going to fix those problems. As Steve Coll put it in his seminal article reporting talks with the Taliban, “It is past time for the United States to shift some of its capacity for risk-taking in the war off the battlefield and into diplomacy aimed at reinforcing Afghan political unity, neutrality, civil rights, and social cohesion.”

Next time someone running for president says they’d listen to their generals blindly, the question on everyone’s mind should be: Are they really ready to lead?

Photo: U.S. Army via Flickr

August 10, 2011

China’s Wary Communists
Posted by Jacob Stokes

China Rail Crash The Atlantic’s James Fallows has a piece out in this month examining whether the Chinese public is less happy with the Communist Party and more combustible than it seems. Not much of the content is groundbreaking for anyone who follows China, but it’s interesting to note a series of questions Fallows raises. After listing all the usual reasons used to explain why China’s authoritarian government hasn’t suffered the same fate as many in the Arab world – economic growth, regular transfers of power within the party, relatively few young people in need of work – Fallows notes the Party’s strong response to the “Jasmine” protests and asks:

Why, then, has the government reacted as if the country were on the brink of revolt? Do the Chinese authorities know something about their country’s realities that groups like Pew have missed, and therefore understand that they are hanging by a thread? Or, out of reflex and paranoia, are they responding far more harshly than circumstances really require, in ways that could backfire in the long run?

The piece is notable because it clearly went to press before last month’s high-speed rail crash. That accident seems to have justified the Party’s response to the Jasmine Protest (not in humanitarian terms of course, but rather in their estimation that much discontent lurks under the surface). David Pilling explains that Beijing’s leaders are worried because they see cracks in the so-called Beijing Consensus. Those cracks have widened significantly in the wake of the rail disaster, especially with the middle class, which the Party has done much to co-opt in recent years. 

China’s high-speed rail network, built in less than a decade, is the world’s longest. Its trains were supposed to travel at speeds that would put Japanese technology to shame. Instead, the crash has exposed hubris, incompetence and corruption in a single, tragic crunching of metal. Perhaps not since Tiananmen Square more than 20 years ago has the Communist party looked so naked in the face of public contempt….

A middle class revolt is particularly dangerous for the Chinese leadership. It undermines a recent truism of Chinese analysis, sometimes referred to as the Beijing consensus. This contends, among other things, that people don’t worry too much about democracy, freedom of expression and free markets so long as they have a technocratic leadership capable of delivering economic progress… China’s middle class wants a leadership that can contain corruption, ensure safety and not put pride above engineering principles. It wants, in the arresting words of a commentary in the People’s Daily – of all places – economic growth that is not “smeared in blood”.

As we look at Chinese power moving forward, it’s important to understand the fragility of the political system the power rests on.

Photo: Fox News

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