Abbreviated Pundit Roundup: Foreign Affairs

We begin today with Max Boot of The Washington Post urging “the Beltway cognoscenti” to stop the pile-on of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin because of his secrecy about his health.

Amid all this “Sturm und Drang,” it’s easy to lose sight of the key issue: Was there a breakdown in national command authorities? The defense secretary is in the chain of command for the use of military force. It runs from the president to the secretary to the commanders in the field (except in the case of nuclear weapons where the chain of command runs from the president straight to the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon). So was there a period of time while Austin was in the hospital, where, if an emergency had occurred necessitating the use of force, there was no one available to give the command?

The Pentagon press secretary, Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, assured me on Wednesday that this was not the case: “At no time was there a gap in chain of command of Department of Defense command and control,” he said. “There was never any risk to national security.” According to Ryder, both times when Austin went into the hospital — first on Dec. 22 for his prostate cancer surgery and then again on Jan. 1 to deal with complications resulting from that surgery — “operational authorities” were duly transferred to the deputy defense secretary, Kathleen Hicks. If the United States or its forces had been attacked at that time, she could have given the order to respond, even from her Puerto Rico vacation. (Austin is still in the hospital, but on Jan. 5, he resumed operational command.) […]

Austin has restored a sense of calmness to the armed forces with his understated command presence. He has made clear that the military will uphold the Constitution, and he has sought to root out extremists in the military’s ranks, thereby earning himself the ire of the “Jan. 6 Party.” He hasn’t gotten everything right, but the biggest screw up on his watch — the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 — was not his fault. He warned President Biden against the pullout. But when Biden gave the order anyway, Austin executed it without leaking his disagreement to news organizations.

However, Renée Graham of The Boston Globe says that it’s as if Secretary Austin had gone AWOL.

It’s difficult to imagine that Austin, who served 41 years in the US Army and led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan before retiring as a four-star general, would have tolerated any of his soldiers going AWOL. But that’s essentially what Austin did.

Prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer in American men, especially Black men. That some procedures are deemed so embarrassing or subject to judgment that patients resist talking about them may speak to our own immaturity about body functions and dysfunctions.

But the reason behind Austin’s surgery doesn’t justify his decision that his absence was no one’s business but his own. Now Republicans are jutting their chins into any available TV camera and pretending that they care about truth and transparency. They certainly weren’t concerned about such things when former president Donald Trump slipped off to Walter Reed for an undisclosed visit in 2019 for what was reported years later as a colonoscopy. […]

With two raging foreign wars in which this nation is deeply involved, Austin’s actions were unconscionable. This shouldn’t cost him his job, but he must answer fully and without reservation for his decision. Yes, much of the Republican chest-thumping is self-serving, Trump-pleasing guff. But there’s no downplaying the fact that Austin has created an unwanted and noisy distraction for Biden at a time when the president — and a reelection campaign still grasping to find its rhythm — can ill-afford it.

I am trying to look at Secretary Austin’s actions from the imperfect standpoint of someone who has worked in Human Resources.

When you are sick to the point where surgery is required and then you have follow-up complications, you really need to tell your boss as much as possible. Let the boss handle the media and/or Congress asking questions; it’s what he (or she) is there for.

I agree with Mr. Boot that Secretary Austin has done one helluva job but no one is indispensable. There are people already designated to step into the role of Defense Secretary for a time. I’m inclined to grant Ms. Graham her overall point.

As Mr. Boot points out, though, Secretary Austin has been an exemplary Defense Secretary. In cases like this, you cut exemplary employees a little more slack than you would, say, a mediocre employee.

The Biden Administration seems to be doing exactly that.

The rest of this APR will be almost entirely devoted to foreign affairs.

Jan-Werner Müller writes for Foreign Policy that the moral panic over the relationship between social media and populism is a little overblown.

Every media revolution in history has caused a moral panic: The printing press was said to have prompted wars of religion; radio gave the world Adolf Hitler; TV enabled McCarthyism. None of these points, still repeated by sophisticated observers today, is completely wrong. But in every case, the technological determinism proved mistaken, as did the assumption that new media would empower irrational masses, always ready to be seduced by demagogues.

At first, social media was greeted with great optimism. In what now feels like a different era, promoters of democracy looked to Twitter (now known as X) and Facebook as tools to help uprisings against autocrats everywhere. But just as the Arab Spring turned to Arab Winter, enthusiasm morphed into pessimism. Panic ensued in 2016, after the double shock of Brexit and Trump’s election. Liberal commentators were quick to identify what they saw as a major culprit of the world’s twin populist disasters: social media and, in particular, echo chambers. Not only did liberals veer from cheering to jeering. They also indulged in nostalgia for a supposedly golden age of responsible gatekeeping by journalists. The wild swings in opinion and the idealization of the past were signs that we have yet to find our bearings when making sense of new media. […]

As with influencers, a politician’s online presence requires constant curation, so it is not entirely costless. Trump might have written his own tweets, spelling mistakes and all, but others need to pay tech-savvy teams. Social media might work best for those who already treat parties as instruments for marketing a personality rather than developing policy. Take former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose public relations specialists created the Forza Italia party for him in the 1990s and organized it like a fusion of soccer fan club and business enterprise. It is not an accident that Berlusconi joined TikTok before the most recent Italian elections in 2022 (even if the ragazzi he tried to appeal to might have found his performance, as young adults would say, cringe).

With the possible exception of the 10-year period between 1965 and 1975, when has a “golden age of journalism” existed? 

The Atlantic’s Beijing correspondent Michael Schuman writes that the very prospect of democratic elections this coming weekend in Taiwan will be perceived as a threat on the mainland.

A struggle between autocracy and democracy is playing out over the 100-mile strait that separates Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. And at the moment, a peaceful resolution appears improbable, perhaps even impossible. On one side is a Communist regime determined to assert its power on the world stage as its difficulties mount at home; on the other is a vibrant democratic society that has grown secure in its identity and desperate to preserve its freedom. The scope for agreement between the two is narrowing, and that has made their relations precarious and consequential.

Taiwan has become ever more important to American policy makers as they contend with a Beijing government intent on pushing U.S. influence from the region. The island is a vital link in both the network of partnerships that solidify U.S. power in Asia and the global technology supply chains that serve the U.S. economy. The more Xi turns up the pressure on Taiwan, the likelier that Washington will have to make a fateful decision as to whether it will defend Taiwan against a potential or imminent Chinese military assault.

This weekend’s election is unlikely to improve the outlook. The vote has become something of a referendum on what Taiwan’s relationship with China ought to be. Lai Ching-te, the current vice president of Taiwan and the presidential candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party, has defined the election as a choice between “allowing Taiwan to continue to move forward on the road of democracy” or “walking into the embrace of China.” Beijing has framed Taiwan’s choice in even starker terms, as one between “peace and war, prosperity and decline.”

Yang Kuang-shun of The Diplomat notes that narratives in the United States about Taiwan’s democratic elections have always featured the tropes of “troublemaker” and “pawn.”
Since Taiwan’s first presidential election in 1996, narratives like the “troublemaker” and the “pawn” have been commonplace during campaigns. The troublemaker narrative typically characterizes Taiwanese politicians or political parties as provoking regional instability due to their advocacy for Taiwan’s formal independence. It can be traced back to Chinese propaganda against Lee Teng-hui, the first elected president of the Kuomintang (KMT).  […]
The troublemaker narrative may gain credibility whenever U.S. officials reiterate their longstanding policy of not supporting Taiwan independence or push back Taiwan’s attempts to achieve this goal. For example, there were rumors that former U.S. President George W. Bush called his Taiwanese counterpart, DPP’s Chen Shui-bian, a troublemaker when meeting then-CCP leader Hu Jintao. Ma Ying-jeou, Chen’s successor from the KMT, vowed that he and his party would not be “troublemakers” and would not alter the cross-strait status quo to reassure the international community. […]

“Lai skepticism,” a variant of the troublemaker narrative, implies that William Lai, Taiwan’s vice president and the DPP’s presidential candidate, lacks Washington’s trust due to his support for Taiwan independence. This narrative was reinforced by two Financial Times reports in January and July, in which scholars and anonymous U.S. officials expressed concerns about Lai’s potential for provoking Beijing.

Bruce Stokes of POLITICO Europe has some suggestions for “Trump-proofing” Europe.

Europe has agency in transatlantic relations, and in the year ahead, it needs to be the adult in the room. Trump-proofing U.S.–EU relations must be a high priority for 2024.  

Issue number one is, of course, Ukraine, which is currently in desperate need of support. This is partly due to the EU’s failure — thanks to Hungary’s obstructionism — to agree on a €50 billion five-year financial aid package in mid-December. And this was then compounded by the U.S. Congress’ inability to approve $61 billion in American support for Kyiv. […]

Faced with an unpredictable Washington and its own shortcomings, Brussels is now looking to fund Ukrainian assistance from outside the EU budget, either through national contributions or debt guarantees from member countries. But this piecemeal approach is destined to come up months late and euros short.  

Therefore, if the bloc is to succeed in helping Ukraine and safeguarding against U.S. unreliability in the future, it should embrace Washington’s new proposal to seize Russian assets.

Julian Borger of the Guardian provides analysis of South Africa’s case against Israel before the International Court of Justice along with the precedent for South Africa’s action.

South Africa has brought a case to the ICJ accusing Israel of committing genocide in its military response to the 7 October Hamas attack that killed hundreds of Israeli civilians. The South African case includes references to the Israeli use of blanket bombing and the cutting of food, water and medicine supplies to Gaza.

“The acts are all attributable to Israel, which has failed to prevent genocide and is committing genocide in manifest violation of the genocide convention,” the case states.

Israel has signalled its determination to rebuff the charges, which Tel Aviv and Washington have rejected as baseless. It could take the court years to make a ruling, but it could also issue “provisional measures” requiring actions, like a ceasefire, to mitigate the risk of genocide. […]

In 2021 the court imposed provisional measures on Myanmar, requiring the junta to direct its forces not to commit genocide, and to preserve all relevant evidence. The next year, the ICJ panel of judges decided by 15 votes to one (the Chinese judge was the lone dissenter) that the Gambia had the right to bring the case under an erga omnes obligation laid down by the genocide convention, meaning that it is the duty of an individual state towards the international community as a whole.
Nathan Kohlenberg of Just Security looks at some of the geopolitical reasons for the apparently tepid U.S. response toward India in spite of India’s apparent attempted assassination of a Sikh leader on U.S. soil.

If U.S. policymakers fail to respond forcefully to these alleged provocations, in some misguided belief that giving India a pass on such basic questions of democracy and human rights would strengthen America’s geopolitical influence, they would be sadly – and perhaps dangerously – mistaken. Instead, it would send a message of impunity to both openly authoritarian States and to any backsliding or supposed democracies, the number of which only continue to grow.

No democracy is perfect, and India’s faces a constellation of daunting structural challenges that arguably exceed those of any other democracy, including an enormous population(estimated to be 1.4 billion, 3 ½ times that of the United States) that is very poor (per capita income of around $2,500 a year) and extremely linguistically and religiously diverse. Historically, Indian democracy has managed these challenges through a mostly decentralizedapproach to governance: coalition governments in New Delhi relied heavily on the political apparatuses of each state to carry out policy. The once-dominant Indian National Congress party (known simply as the “Congress Party” or just “Congress”) sought to avoid encouraging ethnic and religious nationalism. In the last several decades, though, the trend has been towards both greater centralization and more explicitly identitarian politics. That culminated in the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which in 2014 became the first non-Congress party to win an outright majority of seats in parliament. […]

Unfortunately, if the allegations are proven, India’s brazenness may be somewhat explained by geostrategic realities. India is the largest counterweight to China in the region. It is also a key trading partner of Russia, one on which the latter has relied as it tries to survive a punishing sanctions regime imposed by the United States and its European allies. At a time when the international community is increasingly characterized by pro-democracy and anti-democracy camps, New Delhi may be gambling that the United States will be unwilling to risk a rift with the world’s largest democracy over the human rights of a stateless people with little organized political power in Washington.

I’m just going to assume that in last sentence, Mr. Kohlenberg is referring to the American-based Sikh community. Just noting that this is out there too.

Annie Correal and Genevieve Glatsky of The New York Times write that there is unease and even fear in Ecuador over President Daniel Noboa’s declaration of a state of emergency and military crackdown because of drug gang violence.

Around the country, many were divided over what the government’s move might mean, with some expressing support and calling it a much-needed step to crack down on gang violence, and others viewing it as a slippery slope to a militarized state that targets innocent civilians.

“The declaration of internal conflict worries me enormously,” said Katherine Casanova, a 28-year-old social worker who said her family had recently been attacked by armed men near Guayaquil. “Although in the midst of pain I want to cling to something that makes me feel a modicum of security, I fear the repercussions of declaring an internal conflict, of militarizing. It will probably be my people who, once more, are among the dead.”

Mr. Noboa’s declaration came on the heels of a proposed referendum that would lengthen sentences for crimes like murder and arms trafficking, target money launderers and create a special court system to protect judges.

Many have compared Mr. Noboa’s proposed referendum and enhanced security moves to President Nayib Bukele’s autocratic campaign in El Salvador against drug gangs — a comparison Mr. Noboa has made himself.

An editorial at Le Monde in English says that the appointment of new French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal by President Emmanuel Macron is risky.

Coming from the ranks of the Parti Socialiste, the new prime minister however in no way represents the revenge of the left wing of the majority on the right wing, following the turmoil caused by the adoption of the immigration law (when Macron’s camp was forced to make concessions to the far right to get the legislation through). Attal, the now former education minister, was chosen because the popularity he built up in less than six months in that role is fully in line with the roadmap laid out by Macron: banning the abaya, overhauling curricula and promising to raise student standards and restore teachers’ authority. Attal responded to Macron’s demands with a rapid and steady stream of powerful announcements. In doing so, he proved that pushing the president’s policies, if well sold, was not synonymous with chronic unpopularity. For the president, it’s a lesson to be learned.

A lot will be asked of the new prime minister over the next few months: getting the country out of the doldrums, connecting with the French, playing his part in the European election campaign, leading the majority, overcoming the jealousy of the older members of the party and taming the Assemblée Nationale, which has made life hard for Borne. Having been government spokesman for almost two years, Attal is certainly familiar with the challenges. But for him, the change in responsibilities is so rapid that the question cannot be avoided: Is he up to the task? Moreover, it will be hard to forgive him for abandoning education as quickly as he took it over, without having taken the time to put his promises into practice. If the handover is not perfectly mastered at the Ministry of Education, the change that has just taken place risks looking like a worrying whirlwind.

Finally today, Sergio C. Fanjul of El País in English sorts through the disarray of his library.

They say that to truly understand someone, you should take a peek at their library. Although rifling through their trash might also shed some light, I can assure you that’s not the case for me. However, the other day, upon returning home, I was greeted by a sight of utter chaos in my once orderly sanctuary of books. The familiar rhythm of colors and shapes had been disrupted, leaving me feeling disoriented and lost. The disarray had transformed my cherished collection into something unrecognizable, almost as if I was a stranger to myself.

The painters had been working all week. The 2,000 books in the built-in bookshelf along the hallway had been temporarily moved to paint it. But then they put the books back somewhat haphazardly, and it looked like a tornado had blown through the house. Liliana (was she still Liliana?) seemed pleased with the new look of the apartment. But I wasn’t sure whose home it was or who I was. And whose books were they anyway?

Every book collection reflects its owner’s personality. A unique mix of gothic novels, engineering manuals, romantic poetry and cookbooks are like strands of DNA. Just as people change, book collections also evolve. The books in my messy teenage bedroom were different from the ones in the shared apartment of my adventurous youth and the ones in my cozy home as a new father. Letting go of the old and welcoming in the new is a skill you must master if you want to collect books without turning into a hoarder. A book collection evolves, just like we do.

FTR, I agree with John Waters (and the article headline) 100%.

Everyone try to have the best possible day.