Trump’s big North Korea deal is already turning out to be a sham

(This article originally appeared in The Washington Post on 2 July 2018)

Do they give out Nobel Peace Prizes for praising and appeasing brutal dictators who threaten nuclear war — without getting anything in return?

President Trump claimed he would use his world-class dealmaking skills to convince North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, to surrender his nuclear weapons. Instead, Trump got played. Kim, who pledged in wishy-washy language to “denuclearize,” is now accelerating his nuclear program. The nuclear threat from North Korea — and the risk of a preemptive war launched by Trump — are both growing. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is heading to North Korea this week hoping to contain the fallout.

Twenty days ago, Trump shook hands with Kim in Singapore. At the summit, Trump played the role of apologist in chief for Kim’s human rights abuses while praising Kim as a “very talented” person because he can “run it tough.” In North Korea, “running it tough” means executing dissidents, torturing political prisoners in gulags and threatening to wipe a few U.S. cities off the map with a nuclear blast.

The White House and Trump’s surrogates insisted that the unsavory handshake would be vindicated. They claimed we were witnessing a history-making deal from a history-making dealmaker. Former presidents, guided by experts who understood every intricacy of North Korean politics, had failed. All it would take from Trump, they claimed, was a one-on-one handshake, a photo-op and some touting of North Korea’s prospects for developing beachfront resorts. Hit by that sophisticated diplomatic approach, Kim would trade missiles for condos. Then, the president’s cheerleaders argued, Trump could accept his well-deserved invitation to Oslo.

It was risible then. Now it is being revealed as fatally naive.

Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported that North Korea is rapidly completing a major expansion of a key manufacturing facility for missiles — missiles that can strike American allies, American military bases in those allied countries and, yes, the mainland United States.

North Korea watchers also used recent satellite images to conclude that “improvements to the infrastructure at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center are continuing at a rapid pace.”

NBC News and The Post also reported this weekend that “U.S. intelligence agencies believe that North Korea has increased its production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months.”

To anyone with even a basic understanding of North Korea, this comes as no surprise. “The [North Koreans’] insistence on vague language in the Singapore declaration was almost certainly so that they could continue accelerated development of nuclear facilities,” Robert E. Kelly, professor of political science at Pusan National University, told me on Monday. “It is a mark of how poorly President Trump prepared for Singapore that he did not anticipate this and demand sharper language and a timeline in exchange for the valuable concession of a presidential summit.”

It is becoming alarmingly clear that Trump’s “win” was a major loss for international security. But it is also a major loss for those who believe in using diplomacy rather than war to neutralize the North Korean nuclear threat.

Perhaps that’s by design. John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, has long argued (before his current stint in the White House) that the United States should preemptively attack North Korea. In February, he wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed, providing the legal justification for preemptive strikes to topple Kim’s regime and take out their nuclear program — a strategy that most analysts agree could lead to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of deaths.

In March, Bolton argued on Fox News that a Trump-Kim summit would be a positive development because it would “foreshorten the amount of time that we’re going to waste on negotiations.” In Bolton’s view, meeting with Kim would expose the North Korean regime as untrustworthy scoundrels who could not be swayed by diplomatic olive branches. Once president-to-chairman diplomacy inevitably failed, it would pave the way for Bolton’s favored choice: deadly force.

Trump hired Bolton as his new national security adviser exactly one month after that interview.

Bolton may soon be proved right that the time on negotiations was “wasted” — not because diplomacy is doomed to fail, but because the amateur and childishly naive approach that Trump took was always doomed to fail.

As Kim marches closer to his dynasty’s long-standing dream of having an arsenal of nuclear weapons that can reliably hit U.S. cities within an hour, Trump looks like a gullible fool. And while he decides how to respond to being duped, Trump will have a mustachioed warmonger whispering in his ear, a man who has already told the world that he wants diplomacy to fail because it will lead to war.

There is still the possibility that real progress can be made if Trump stays out of the spotlight and lets the real diplomatic work get done behind the scenes. But if you believe Trump’s tweet that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” or that there is “no longer” the risk of war with North Korea,  then you, I’m sorry to say, are also a gullible fool.

The Four Futures of Trump (and Democracy)

Brian Klaas is a fellow at the London School of Economics and author of “The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy.”

After a year in office, President Trump hasn’t become a despot — but he clearly wants to be one. Every day, it seems, he smashes through democratic norms, the soft guardrails of American democracy. As he does so, the echoes of authoritarianism in the United States are growing louder.

Trump demonizes the press. He issues calls to “lock up” his political rival and brazenly deploys divide-and-rule tactics, whipping up nationalist anger against Muslims and migrants. He surrounds himself with family members and cronies, riding roughshod over long-accepted ethical standards. And he belittles our democratic allies while bizarrely cheerleading for brutal despots across the globe.

If this is the scorecard after 10 months, what will American democracy look like after four years of Trump? Will it be recognizable? As I see it, there are four plausible scenarios, ranging from the hopeful to the catastrophic.

1. The Trump Vaccine

A vaccine is a weakened form of a virus injected into the body to allow the immune system to recognize its own vulnerabilities and patch them up before a more virulent and dangerous strain invades. Trump embodies a relatively diluted strain of demagoguery, more impulsive than ideological, more simpleton than scheming strategist. In this sense, he could serve as a kind of vaccine for American democracy.

One could argue that Trump has done us all an important service by exposing how much our system of government is based on pliant norms rather than hard laws. But we must go beyond the mere acknowledgment of the lesson and take corresponding action. We must require presidential candidates to release tax returns. We should make it illegal for a president to fire an FBI director or special counsel who is investigating the White House. We should require top officials to divest themselves of entangling business interests. We should pass laws ensuring automatic voter registration to defeat voter suppression. And, above all, we must work to build a new political culture that treats democracy like something more than a reality television show or a spectator sport only requiring citizen action every few years at the ballot box.

2. Democratic Decay

Democracy is a bit like a sand castle. It takes a long time to build but can quickly be swept away. The Trump wave likely won’t sweep away democracy in the United States, but it is steadily eroding it.

We’ve already grown dangerously accustomed to many of Trump’s unacceptably authoritarian habits. We now barely blink when he issues tweets calling for the investigation of his political opponents or the closure of critical media outlets. Such behavior poisons the minds of many voters, who applaud his strongman tactics and even falsely believe that the nonpartisan congressional legislative scorekeeper is “little more than fake news.” Many in Trump’s base now trust crackpot InfoWars conspiracy theories more than accurate, well-sourced reporting. And the Republican Party’s willingness to mainstream populist bigots like Roy Moore exposes how much Trump has corroded previously bipartisan American values.

3. The Forerunner

What if a smarter, savvier and more disciplined Donald Trump 2.0 comes along? Trump has paved the way for such a figure. Imagine an authoritarian populist who borrows from the Trump playbook while avoiding its more obviously divisive and self-defeating qualities. Imagine someone with Ronald Reagan’s charisma and Barack Obama’s polished rhetoric peddling ideological Trumpism. The Trump presidency could serve as the rehearsal for someone far more dangerous.

4. American Authoritarianism

This is, thankfully, the least likely option. But if a catastrophic mass casualty terrorist attack or other national security nightmare takes place on Trump’s watch, all bets are off. He has shown us his authoritarian instincts, his willingness to defy democratic constraints and his disdain for constitutional checks and balances. During the campaign, Trump proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States and floated the idea of registering Muslims in a government database. It would not be a shock if he were to magnify these troubling traits in destructive ways in the wake of a security crisis.

Whichever of these scenarios comes to pass, the bottom line remains: U.S. democracy is under threat. The framers, thankfully, anticipated a Trump-like demagogue and designed a system of government that could withstand attacks on its institutions. But the Constitution is not written on magical parchment. We can preserve and protect our democracy only through our own actions.

Reagan said that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” He was right. Our generation is now being tested by Trump’s authoritarian impulses. We must rise beyond partisan and policy squabbles so that we may protect and save democracy.

After Trump, we will find ourselves hard-pressed to fix the damage, raising the possibility that the era of democratic decay he has ushered in will linger and endure. This is the most likely scenario: American democracy will survive, but in profoundly weakened form.

Trump is a Threat to Democracy

Originally from the Washington Post:

In just 100 days, President Trump has damaged American democracy while simultaneously accelerating democracy’s global decline.

No, Trump is not a dictator or a fascist, as some wrongly claimed. But he certainly has authoritarian tendencies and a baffling admiration for despots. He has a penchant for attacking democratic institutions and appears willing to sacrifice them in a heartbeat on the altar of his ego. And he has spouted several dangerous lies that a sizable portion of his political base unfortunately believes to be true. As a result, he has already managed to do major damage to democracy at home and abroad in five important ways.

  • First, he has undercut the integrity of U.S. elections. Trump falsely claimed that millions of people voted illegally last year. That’s not true. Every serious study into voter fraud has concluded that it is a minuscule problem. North Carolina conducted a vote audit for 2016 and found one case of in-person voter impersonation — out of millions of ballots cast. And yet tens of millions of Americans now wrongly believe that millions voted illegally. That is a serious challenge to public faith in the bedrock of American democracy.

Trump also actively solicited and took advantage of Russian meddling in U.S. elections. He invited Russia to hack and publish Hillary Clinton’s emails. He mentioned WikiLeaks 164 times in the final month of the campaign (Trump’s CIA director subsequently labeled WikiLeaks a “hostile intelligence service”). The hacking of the Democratic National Committee was a brazen cyberattack on U.S. democracy and yet Trump has consistently been an apologist who plays down the hack rather than working to ensure it never happens again. (By the way, there is still an active FBI investigation into whether he or his campaign colluded with Russia in that attack).

  • Second, he has attacked democratic institutions such as the free press and the independent judiciary. He has repeatedly dismissed credible, corroborated, truthful reporting as “fake news.” But Trump has also maligned judges in highly personal and reckless ways simply because they ruled against his administration. His White House claimed that some judges (who were simply doing their jobs) provided a “gift to the criminal gang and cartel element in our country.” He has called others “so-called judges” and claimed that it would be the fault of the courts if a terrorist attack occurred during his presidency. This incendiary language is unacceptable and erodes public trust in checks and balances that are at the core of the U.S. democratic system.
  • Third, he has brazenly violated basic standards of transparency and government ethics. Democracy requires transparency. If citizens are not informed about the workings of their government, they cannot hold it accountable.

Just take his continuing refusal to release his tax returns — something that has been done by every presidential candidate since the 1970s. At first he used the extraordinarily flimsy excuse of an audit, but now he has even abandoned that fig leaf. Till Trump issues his tax returns, we don’t know whether he is governing for American interests or his bank account.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has announced that it won’t release White House visitor logs — so nobody can see who is coming and going to meet the president. Is there an endless stream of lobbyists? Or perhaps some high-profile foreign agents, like the ones he previously hired for his campaign? We have no clue, because Trump reversed an Obama-era policy to tell the American people who is coming to the taxpayer-funded White House.

This lack of transparency also bleeds into ethics violations and conflicts of interest that have gone unpunished — from using taxpayer dollars to promote Trump businesses to currying favor with foreign leaders apparently to receive lucrative trademarks abroad.

  • Fourth, Trump has hurt democracy abroad by leaving pro-democracy reformers out in the cold. When protesters took to the streets in Belarus and Russia demanding democratic reforms, Trump said nothing. That was a strategic mistake. These were protests in favor of democracy and against regimes that oppose the United States, so it should have been a no-brainer. Instead, Trump stayed silent as protesters were beaten in the streets. It was a missed opportunity and a gift to the forces that seek to undermine democratic reform abroad.
  • Fifth, Trump has endorsed and applauded dictators and despots, giving awful rulers a free pass to destroy democracy and violate human rights. He uncritically embraced President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi of Egypt, a military dictator who routinely tortures dissidents. He called to congratulate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on winning a rigged referendum that dismantled democracy in a NATO member state. Those signals have certainly not been lost on authoritarian rulers around the world who recognize that Trump does not care about democracy or human rights abroad. As a result, a decade of decline for democracy around the world will almost certainly accelerate.

Donald Trump is a unique threat to democracy in a way that we haven’t experienced before. Initial fears may have been overblown, but it’s clear that he already is slowly but meaningfully eroding democracy at home and abroad. We must be vigilant. There are 1,354 days left.

Trump's business ties explain a lot of his dictator worship (USA Today)

This article was originally featured in the May 31 edition of USA Today.

President Trump makes more money when he embraces regimes that violate human rights. From the Philippines to China and Turkey to Saudi Arabia, the president’s adoration for authoritarian abusers is bad for those being oppressed but good for his wallet.

Staggering conflicts of interest that directly link Trump’s bank account to despots around the world are already transforming U.S. foreign policy. Trump is selling America’s moral authority to make more money by slapping TRUMP on shimmering new buildings.

Last week, a transcript leaked of a call between Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Trump praised Duterte for the “unbelievable job” on dealing with “the drug problem.” He was referring to a state-sponsored murder campaign dressed up as an anti-drug initiative. Duterte’s goverment uses death squads to kill people in cold blood in the streets. An estimated 7,000 people have already been slaughtered. Most victims are poor. There is substantial evidence that the police often kill first, plant drugson the victim second, and then falsely claim self-defense third.

Trump explicitly endorsed this barbarism. Then, as icing on the cake, he invited Duterte to the White House — even though he’s a bloodthirsty despot who bragged about personally killing people and likened himself to Hitler.

Of course, Trump has long viewed murderous strongmen the same way that kids look up to sports stars. But if you look at Trump’s business ties, his praise for despots like Duterte who abuse their own people makes perfect, self-serving sense.

Trump Tower Manila opens this year. That gives Duterte lucrative leverage over Trump. But it’s worse than that. As Duterte’s crackdown intensifies, his regime is touting dubious stats showing an urban crime reduction — intended to boost investor confidence. If it succeeds, property values in Manila are likely to increase. In other words, Trump is not just hostage to a government that could easily cost him a huge sum of money if it pulled the plug on his branding deal; Trump also stands to profit more from extrajudicial killings as he uses the power of the presidency to endorse them.

To make matters even shadier, Duterte appointed Trump’s business partner as an official envoy to the United States. Jose Antonio, who broke ground on Trump Tower Manila smiling alongside Trump’s two sons, is now an official representative of the Philippine government to Washington. Trump’s sons are still working with Antonio on the project, while Antonio works with their dad’s administration on U.S. foreign policy toward the Philippines.

As if it couldn’t be any more of an ethical quagmire, according to the New York Daily News, there are patents pending in he Philippines for the clothing line of Ivanka Trump Marks LLC and others for Trump Marks LLC.

Profiting from regimes that abuse human rights has become a familiar pattern. Just last week, the Trump Organization had another lucrative trademark approved in China. Coincidentally, several applications have been rapidly processed since Trump won. President Trump has since backed off his fiery campaign rhetoric toward China and reversed course on his pledge to label China a currency manipulator. He has also ended the longstanding bipartisan consensus of chastising Beijing for its poor human rights record.

In Turkey, President Trump was the first foreign head of state to call and congratulate the autocrat of Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on rigging a referendum that demolished democracy. That vote came after months of authoritarian purges, jailing journalists and abusing human rights. But of course, Trump’s embrace of Erdogan couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with what Trump previously called “a little conflict of interest,” embedded in the steel and concrete of not one but two Trump buildings in Istanbul.

Finally, Trump’s first foreign visit as president was to Saudi Arabia, one of the worst regimes for human rights on the planet. While there, White House officials held a news conference without U.S. reporters after doing a sword dance in a country that has no free press and beheads dissidents with swords.

Again, it makes sense. In 2015, Trump registered eight companies that are each possibly linked to a development project in the second largest Saudi city, Jeddah. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud bailed Trump out twice in the past, including buying one of Trump’s yachts when his Atlantic City casinos were going bust. Even if Trump doesn’t ink any new deals during his presidency, praising the Saudis as president will pay off when Trump leaves the White House and cashes in on that goodwill. Conversely, if he does the right thing and publicly criticizes them for beheading dissidents or treating women as second-class citizens, future business deals would be jeopardized.

Past presidents have been guilty of colossal human rights failures. At least we didn’t have to wonder whether Bill Clinton failed to intervene in the Rwandan genocide because he was worried about Clinton Tower Kigali, or whether Barack Obama failed to stand up to the Assad regime in Syria because Malia had a clothing line pending in Damascus.

Trump, to his credit, took limited action in Syria, where he has no business interests. But when he must choose between his wallet and a just foreign policy that advances America’s interests, his choices are already clear for all to see.

Trump Cheerleads for the Torturers (USA Today)

In studying authoritarianism around the world, I’ve grown used to a now familiar pause in conversation — the sound of a torture victim’s voice breaking as he struggles to recount the horrors he endured at the hand of a despot. Some were hung naked from a metal rod for days. Others were beaten until they entered a coma.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of pro-democracy reformers from Belarus to Thailand. Most plead with me to persuade my government — the government of the United States — to provide them with just a bit more support, a bit of hope against an authoritarian tyrant.

They want freedom. They want basic human rights. They want democracy.

The president of the United States is not on their side.

Instead, he consistently sides with the torturers and the oppressors over the tortured and the oppressed. That appalling decision will not only make the world a darker place, it will also damage America’s strategic interests.

President Trump has repeatedly said that “torture works.” He praised Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and said he wished his brutal regime was still in power. Since becoming president, he has praised Russia's Vladimir Putin, an authoritarian despot who murders journalists and dissidents. Trump congratulated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for rigging a referendum that effectively dismantled democracy in Turkey. He invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, even though he has boasted about personally murdering people and is using death squads to kill thousands.  Trump embraced Egypt’s military dictator, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, at the White House in April, though Sisi killed at least 900 people in a single day and routinely tortures his opponents.

This week, he praised North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “smart cookie” whom he would “be honored” to meet. Trump even went so far as to suggest that Kim’s ability to consolidate power in the dynastic dictatorship was “incredible,” even though Kim did so by assassinating relatives and murdering political opponents with flamethrowers and anti-aircraft guns.

This leaves us with a series of uncomfortable truths about the lack of moral values in the White House:

The president of the United States has had harsher words for Meryl Streep and Nordstrom than he has for Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Sisi and Kim.

Trump attacks our free press as “the enemy of the people” but defends dictators who kill, jail or torture journalists.

He has tweeted about “human rights” only once — to mock them. In comparison, he has tweeted about crowds 248 times and called someone a “dummy” on Twitter 77 times.

And in fabricating his bogus claim that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower (he didn’t), Trump claimed his predecessor was a “bad (or sick) guy!” Mr. President, have you considered that perhaps such language would be better suited for someone who literally burns political opponents to death with a flamethrower for his own pleasure?

There are many issues that divide Americans. Even so, we should be able to agree that ruthless tyrants who brutalize their people are bad (and sick!) and unworthy of the admiration of us or our government.

That’s why we certainly should be outraged that our president lacks a moral compass. But we should also be worried. Trump’s unabashed adoration for dictators and strongmen across the world will accelerate the global decline of democracy, undercutting U.S. interests simultaneously.

As I’ve argued in my book, the United States has often had a two-faced approach in dealing with unsavory regimes around the globe. From Nixon to Reagan to Obama, U.S. presidents have promoted the lofty ideals of freedom and democracy, while simultaneously getting into bed with a few ruthless regimes, such as Saudi Arabia. That’s a shameful approach — and one that stains the moral leadership of the United States and the soft diplomatic power that comes with it. Despite that occasional hypocrisy, the U.S. government has been a genuine beacon to oppressed people worldwide for decades.

Trump is something new and much more sinister. He’s disturbingly consistent. Gone is the lofty rhetoric about freedom or democracy. Instead, he repeatedly sides with despots and dictators over democrats. He doesn’t hold his nose and try to work with disgusting regimes for strategic reasons; he simply admires their “strength” or their “incredible” ability to crush dissent from the ranks of societies they terrorize.

That signal matters. American soft power is crucial to achieving diplomatic goals without war. Trump’s public adoration for the worst of the worst is taking a buzz saw to our soft power — undercutting U.S. interests in the process.

It gets worse. Across the globe, brutal regimes look to Washington to figure out what they can get away with. Tough talk and condemnation deter the most egregious abuses; praise from the White House ensures them. Unfortunately, Trump has shown he isn’t interested in being a referee in defense of democracy — he’s cheerleading from the sidelines on behalf of the despots.

Unless he begins to condemn rather than celebrate tyranny, democracy will decline even faster worldwide, authoritarianism will continue to surge, and America will have sacrificed its soft power and moral leadership for nothing.

Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science and author of The Despot's Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @brianklaas.

Trump to Erdogan: Congrats on Dismantling Democracy! (Washington Post)

Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and author of “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding & Abetting the Decline of Democracy.”

On Sunday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used a rigged vote to take a wrecking ball to the remaining ruins of Turkish liberal democracy. On Monday, President Trump called Erdogan, a long-standing NATO ally, and congratulated him for entrenching and formalizing his role as an authoritarian despot.

A shockingly misguided move, the call sent precisely the wrong signal to leaders around the world. Every leader from Caracas to Moscow will see Trump’s seemingly unfettered enthusiasm for the death of a democracy. And they’ll take note of a key lesson: Trump is happy to cheerlead for despots across the globe who abuse their people, so long as they work with him on counterterrorism and avoid weapons of mass destruction.

Everything else, from barrel bombs to beating protesters, seems to be fair game.

Since a failed coup attempt last July, Erdogan has purged more than 100,000 Turkish civil servants, judges, teachers, soldiers and police officers. In addition, Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country. Erdogan has been using a near-permanent “state of emergency” to rule with an iron fist. Democracy has been dying a slow death in Turkey for years.

Erdogan pulled out all the stops in his campaign to ensure the referendum’s success. He used all the resources at the disposal of the state to push Turks to vote “yes” to his demand for vastly expanded powers. Those who publicly campaigned for a “no” vote in the referendum faced harsh reprisals. The referendum could never have been free and fair in such an environment. And yet there is considerable evidence that Erdogan’s supporters also engaged in substantial vote-rigging just to be on the safe side.

Unsurprisingly, Erdogan got the “right” result. Now he can effectively rule as a one-man state, without pesky checks and balances to stop him. The constitutional changes approved in the referendum also allow Erdogan to seek two further five-year terms, giving him the chance to stay in power until 2029 — a total of 26 years in charge of Turkey. (Of course, given his penchant for changing the rules when they don’t suit him, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll give up power even then.)

The White House readout of Trump’s call with Erdogan mentions nothing about human rights. It fails to mention that independent observers said the election was manipulated in the regime’s favor. It doesn’t chastise Erdogan for jailing journalists or harassing the opposition. It is silent on mass purges of civil society. Instead, the White House summary of the call amounts to “Congratulations! Looking forward to working with you on terrorism.”


The State Department issued a weak statement that lightly chided the vote’s irregularities, but that message was immediately and severely undercut by Trump’s congratulatory phone call.

American presidents have always had to balance hard-nosed foreign policy interests with respect for democracy and human rights. Yet Trump, in a stark break with the past, has shown utter contempt for the second part of that equation. His dealings with despots in the first 90 days of his presidency have been marked by the absence of any references to democracy in his statements on foreign policy.

This is in keeping with Trump’s long-standing adoration for strongmen. At various times, he has praised Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Moammar Gaddafi, Kim Jong Un and the anti-democracy leaders of China for their strength. In recent state visits to Washington, he showed more affection for Egyptian military dictator Abdel Fatah al-Sissi than for democratic NATO allies Theresa May or Angela Merkel.


This month, Trump seemingly diverged from the norm by launching missiles at Assad and finding harsh words for Kim. Crucially, however, Trump faults both leaders for their fixation on weapons of mass destruction — not their long-standing abuse, torture and killings of their own citizens with conventional weapons. In reading Trump’s public statements, it’s clear that he views dictators and despots as strongmen to be admired — until they cross the line and use chemical weapons or nukes.

The media will almost certainly pay little attention to Trump’s ill-advised call to the Turkish leader. It won’t get the same wall-to-wall media attention as the airstrike in Syria, the carrier battle group deployed to the Korean Peninsula or the MOAB dropped on Afghanistan. But the world is home to 7.5 billion people and about 7.4 billion of them live outside those three countries. The signals Trump sends affect the calculations of presidents and prime ministers everywhere.

It’s unclear whether Trump’s phone call arose because he genuinely believes that strongman rule is worth embracing, or because he is acting to promote the regime that protects Trump Towers Istanbul. But either way, power-hungry aspiring despots around the world got the message: They can let the champagne flow in their palaces as they roll back democracy. The American president doesn’t really care.


Gerrymandering is the biggest obstacle to genuine democracy in the United States. So why is no one protesting?

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post:

There is an enormous paradox at the heart of American democracy. Congress is deeply and stubbornly unpopular. On average, between 10 and 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress — on a par with public support for traffic jams and cockroaches. And yet, in the 2016 election, only eight incumbents — eight out of a body of 435 representatives — were defeated at the polls.

If there is one silver bullet that could fix American democracy, it’s getting rid of gerrymandering — the now commonplace practice of drawing electoral districts in a distorted way for partisan gain. It’s also one of a dwindling number of issues that principled citizens — Democrat and Republican — should be able to agree on. Indeed, polls confirm that an overwhelming majority of Americans of all stripes oppose gerrymandering.

In the 2016 elections for the House of Representatives, the average electoral margin of victory was 37.1 percent. That’s a figure you’d expect from North Korea, Russia or Zimbabwe — not the United States. But the shocking reality is that the typical race ended with a Democrat or a Republican winning nearly 70 percent of the vote, while their challenger won just 30 percent.

Last year, only 17 seats out of 435 races were decided by a margin of 5 percent or less. Just 33 seats in total were decided by a margin of 10 percent or less. In other words, more than nine out of 10 House races were landslides where the campaign was a foregone conclusion before ballots were even cast. In 2016, there were no truly competitive Congressional races in 42 of the 50 states. That is not healthy for a system of government that, at its core, is defined by political competition.

Gerrymandering, in a word, is why American democracy is broken.

The word “gerrymander” comes from an 1812 political cartoon drawn to parody Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry’s re-drawn Senate districts. The cartoon depicts one of the bizarrely shaped districts in the contorted form of a fork-tongued salamander. Since 1812, gerrymandering has been increasingly used as a tool to divide and distort the electorate. More often than not, state legislatures are tasked with drawing district maps, allowing the electoral foxes to draw and defend their henhouse districts.

While no party is innocent when it comes to gerrymandering, a Washington Post analysis in 2014 found that eight of the 10 most gerrymandered districts in the United States were drawn by Republicans.

As a result, districts from the Illinois 4th to the North Carolina 12th often look like spilled inkblots rather than coherent voting blocs. They are anything but accidental. The Illinois 4th, for example, is nicknamed “the Latin Earmuffs,” because it connects two predominantly Latino areas by a thin line that is effectively just one road. In so doing, it packs Democrats into a contorted district, ensuring that those voters cast ballots in a safely Democratic preserve. The net result is a weakening of the power of Latino votes and more Republican districts than the electoral math should reasonably yield. Because Democrats are packed together as tightly as possible in one district, Republicans have a chance to win surrounding districts even though they are vastly outnumbered geographically.

These uncompetitive districts have a seriously corrosive effect on the integrity of democracy. If you’re elected to represent a district that is 80 percent Republican or 80 percent Democratic, there is absolutely no incentive to compromise. Ever. In fact, there is a strong disincentive to collaboration, because working across the aisle almost certainly means the risk of a primary challenge from the far right or far left of the party. For the overwhelming majority of congressional representatives, there is no real risk to losing a general election — but there is a very real threat of losing a fiercely contested primary election. Over time, this causes sane people to pursue insane pandering and extreme positions. It is a key, but often overlooked, source of contemporary gridlock and endless bickering.

Moreover, gerrymandering also disempowers and distorts citizen votes — which leads to decreased turnout and a sense of powerlessness. In 2010, droves of Tea Party activists eager to have their voices heard quickly realized that their own representative was either a solidly liberal Democrat in an overwhelmingly blue district or a solidly conservative Republican in an overwhelmingly red district. Those representatives would not listen because the electoral map meant that they didn’t need to.

Those who now oppose President Donald Trump are quickly learning the same lesson about the electoral calculations made by their representatives as they make calls or write letters to congressional representatives who seem about as likely to be swayed as granite. This helps to explain why 2014 turnout sagged to just 36.4 percent, the lowest turnout rate since World War II. Why bother showing up when the result already seems preordained?

There are two pieces of good news. First, several court rulings in state and federal courts have dealt a blow to gerrymandered districts. Several court rulings objected to districts that clearly were drawn along racial lines. Perhaps the most important is a Wisconsin case (Whitford vs. Gill) that ruled that districts could not be drawn for deliberate partisan gain. The Supreme Court will rule on partisan gerrymandering in 2017, and it’s a case that could transform — and reinvigorate — American democracy at a time when a positive shock is sorely needed. (This may hold true even if Neil Gorsuch is confirmed to the Supreme Court, as Justices Anthony Kennedy and John Roberts could side with the liberal minority).

Second, fixing gerrymandering is getting easier. Given the right parameters, computer models can fairly apportion citizens into districts that are diverse, competitive and geographically sensible — ensuring that minorities are not used as pawns in a national political game. These efforts can be bolstered by stripping district drawing powers from partisan legislators and putting them into the hands of citizen-led commissions that are comprised by an equal number of Democratic- and Republican-leaning voters. Partisan politics is to be exercised within the districts, not during their formation. But gerrymandering intensifies every decade regardless, because it’s not a politically “sexy” issue. When’s the last time you saw a march against skewed districting?

Even if the marches do come someday, the last stubborn barrier to getting reform right is human nature. Many people prefer to be surrounded by like-minded citizens, rather than feeling like a lonely red oasis in a sea of blue or vice versa. Rooting out gerrymandering won’t make San Francisco or rural Texas districts more competitive no matter the computer model used. And, as the urban/rural divide in American politics intensifies, competitive districts will be harder and harder to draw. The more we cluster, the less we find common ground and compromise.

Ultimately, though, we must remember that what truly differentiates democracy from despotism is political competition. The longer we allow our districts to be hijacked by partisans, blue or red, the further we gravitate away from the founding ideals of our republic and the closer we inch toward the death of American democracy.

Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and author of The Despot's Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy.

Trump's unhinged press conference proved he is the most unfit person ever to be US president

This originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph:

Dr. Brian Klaas is a fellow at the LSE, a former US campaign adviser, and author of The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding & Abetting the Decline of Democracy.

When a Fox News anchor calls a Republican president “crazy,” you know something has really gone off the rails in American politics. And yet, it was fair, hard-earned criticism. For an hour and seventeen minutes yesterday, the President of the United States debased his office and demonstrated that he is the singularly most unfit person to ever hold its illustrious powers.

How did we get here?

In the span of a week, President Trump stewed in the White House as he saw all the wrong headlines flash across his West Wing television screen.

There were the embarrassing photos from the open-air missile launch situation room at Mar-a-Lago; the fastest resignation of a National Security Adviser in American history for lying to the Vice President about communications with Russia; intelligence leaks alleging that Trump's campaign was in regular contact with Russian intelligence operatives; a ruling that White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway had violated government ethics rules; his signature immigration ban struck down by a Federal court; more debunked voter fraud claims being debunked, and the withdrawal of Trump's nominee for Labor Secretary amidst allegations that he had beaten his wife and failed to pay taxes after hiring illegal immigrants. 

Those were only some of the stories, and that was just one week. Approval ratings plummeted. Disapproval ratings soared. The narrative was quickly cementing: he was the incompetent chaos president who watched cable news for hours a day and then tweeted about it. Donald Trump wanted to make sure that the world knew the other side of the story – that these stories were actually indicative of a White House that was functioning like a “fine-tuned machine.”

In order to showcase that well-oiled machine and rescue his embattled early presidency, Donald Trump turned to the one man he admires most: himself.

Yesterday's press conference was a remarkable moment in American history. It showcased something new: the White House of One. Trump made a series of false claims, berated the press for doing their jobs, and returned to the boisterous and combative back-and-forth that delighted his base on the campaign trail. He amped up his labeling of legitimate media outlets from “fake news” to “very fake news.” He trumpeted his electoral victory. And all along, the only thing that seemed to matter to him was Donald Trump. There was no talk of policy solutions to help a single Mom raising three kids on two jobs. There was no talk of the downtrodden middle class, robbed of their American Dream by festering inequality. Instead, Trump’s overriding theme was that he was a winner, unfairly victimized by the losers in the press.

This arena -- jousting with the press -- is Trump’s comfort zone. Unfortunately, his return to his comfort zone pushed everyone else -- Republicans, Democrats, foreign leaders -- out of theirs. Republicans are panicking behind closed doors. World leaders are panicking in the open. President Trump looked way out of his league for the hardest job on Earth.

And the deep irony of it is that Trump’s outlandish and combative style is burying the good news while amplifying the bad. If a mainstream Republican like Marco Rubio had been in the Oval Office this week, his seasoned team would be touting a surging stock market, three high profile state visits with key allies Japan, Israel, and Canada, and the nomination of a Labor Secretary who actually “drained the swamp” by prosecuting the corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Instead, Trump spent more time bashing CNN reporter Jim Acosta than praising his new Labor Secretary nominee, Alexander Acosta.

One exchange was particularly illuminating. Earlier in the week, Trump answered a question about rising anti-Semitism by, in part, boasting about his 306 electoral college votes. In the press conference, he repeated that boast, claiming that it was the largest electoral college victory since Reagan. Yet as an NBC News reporter pointed out, this was far from true: in five of the last seven presidential elections (including 2012 and 2008), the victor received a higher number of electoral votes than Trump. Trump backtracked, saying he had been given that information, but the damage was done as the reporter followed-up with an searing but appropriate question:

“Why should Americans trust you when you accuse the information they receive of being fake, when you provide information that’s not accurate?”

Of course, partisanship is a hell of a drug. Trump’s combative authoritarian approach to attacking the press will play exceedingly well in Rust Belt Ohio and Deep South Alabama. There is no question that his hardcore supporters will cheer the attacks on the mainstream media as long overdue. But the problem for Trump, and the world, is that economies don’t thrive, national security isn’t achieved, and justice is not served based on galvanizing a political base.

The campaign is over. He won. And yet yesterday’s press conference showed that Trump is not yet ready to govern. For anyone who understands the complexity of running the most powerful government on the planet, it was a 77 minute advertisement of Trump’s woeful unpreparedness. But as Trump sets off to Florida today for a campaign-style rally on Saturday, he will trade a tough crowd in the press room for an adoring one outside Washington. And the crowd noise he is sure to encounter, the chants, the noise – those are the lifeblood that sustains the White House of One.

Dictators around the world will delight in Trump's victory

Originally published in The Guardian.

Every year for the past decade, democracy has declined around the world. At the same time authoritarian rule is on the march. In all regions of the world democratic reformers are losing a global battle against savvy despots and counterfeit democrats – the wolves in sheep’s clothing who pretend to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, but are really none of the above. We might have already surpassed “peak democracy”, the high-water mark of political freedom around the world.

Donald Trump’s rise to the White House will now accelerate the decline of democracy, perhaps irreversibly. While his election is correctly seen as a unique threat to American democracy, the much more lasting victims of America’s vote will be those fighting around the world for a meaningful voice in their politics – from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Belarus, from Uzbekistan to Thailand. With Trump in the Oval Office, ordinary citizens living under despotism will find their already weak voices muted, their plight ignored.

We don’t know exactly what Trump’s foreign policy will entail. But we do know four crucial facts. First, the past 18 months in America represent an extremely effective advertisement to the world against democracy. Few people in other nations looked at that endless campaign and thought: “I wish we had that here!”

Second, Trump’s signature foreign policy line of his campaign was that he would put “America First”, a slogan that has its roots in American Nazi sympathiserswho favoured isolationism before Pearl Harbor.

Third, we know Trump isn’t that bothered by authoritarian rulers and their practices.

And finally, we know the west is splintered, more than ever since the cold war, on how it handles Russia.

The combination of these facts is very bad news for those who relentlessly believe in, and tirelessly fight for, democracy in their respective societies. For democracy to spread, leaders and their citizens must believe it is worth adopting. At the end of the cold war, there was a surging belief that we were approaching “the end of history”, a moment when all countries would gravitate toward liberal democratic rule. Today that idea seems almost laughable. As a result of that lost faith in democracy as a concept, authoritarian regimes are now hiding behind the broken shards of western democracy as a pretext to justify their iron-fisted rule. In May, for example, a general in Thailand’s military junta told me: if Donald Trump is what democracy looks like, don’t sign us up for it. Too many people will buy into this line of thinking, and democracy’s retreat will accelerate accordingly.

Worse, though, the west’s already checkered support for democracy is now likely to be replaced by a drastically pared-down diplomatic approach. Trump sees diplomacy as an economic deal; winners are those with trade surpluses, and losers are those with deficits. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of foreign policy, a misunderstanding that sees a long-term commitment to promoting democracy as a mere waste of money. As western funds to support democracy begin to decline, the rug will be pulled out from underneath those brave pro-democracy reformers who are counting on us in the dark authoritarian realms of the world.

Not only that, Trump is sending a clear authoritarian signal to the rest of the world. Last December he said of the worst chemical attack by a state on civiliansin modern history, which left up to 10,000 Kurds dead: “Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy. ‘Oh he’s using gas!’” When Trump normalises state atrocities or suggests that Putin is a normatively good leader simply because he is strong, that signal is not lost on the 100-plus countries that are stalled somewhere between dictatorship and democracy. Those leaders take their cue for what is acceptable – and what will elicit diplomatic consequences – from the White House. If they have been listening to Trump, despotic leaders will begin to believe that they can get away with quite a bit more brutality.

Moreover, some African despots – like Joseph Kabila of the DRC – have hinted that they just needed to cling to power long enough to see President Obama replaced by Trump. In Kabila’s view, Trump won’t care too much if an African leader violates term limits and overstays his time in power. Sadly, Kabila probably is right.

Others, like President Duterte of the Philippines, are already crowing publicly about the new illiberal order in the United States. Duterte has been referred to as a Filipino Trump for his populism, but his regime has already committed roughly 3,000 extrajudicial killings under the pretext of a crackdown on drugs. Duterte was one of the first to congratulate Trump on his “well-deserved victory”. When Duterte was asked whether the two men would get along, he simply replied that he thought they would because “he [Trump] has not meddled in the human rights”.

And even if none of these dire predictions comes to pass, it is clear that there are sharp differences between Washington and Europe, and cracks between London and Brussels. That alone is good news for Vladimir Putin. And Syria’s President Assad hailed Trump’s victory as “promising” and called him a “natural ally”. He is right to celebrate, because it is obvious that working closely with Russia requires selling out the principles of liberal democracy and human rights.

And that, unfortunately, is where Trump’s Art of the Deal diplomacy may be most perilous. When push comes to shove, democracy is a bargaining chip that Trump is all too willing to sacrifice. The darkest decade for global democracy since the end of the cold war is about to get a lot darker.


Another Bipartisan Tenet of US Foreign Policy Bites the Dust

Originally published in Foreign Policy.

Freedom is falling out of fashion, and the autocrats are on the move. Ever since 2006, human rights watchdog Freedom House has recorded a drop in democracy and a rise of authoritarianism around the world.

It gets worse. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, neither major presidential candidate in a U.S. election has offered a full-throated defense of the principle that America should continue supporting democracy around the world. 

If freedom is already on the decline, what’s happening in the 2016 campaign will only accelerate that trend.

Ever since Woodrow Wilson called on the United States and its allies to “make the world safe for democracy” in 1917, it has been American foreign policy to loudly extoll the virtues of liberal governance. As I’ve written in my book, The Despot’s Accomplice, the United States’ track record of actually making the world more democratic is checkered, to put it charitably. But the rhetorical commitment alone has been an important consideration for governments around the world. That signal has been particularly vital since the end of the Cold War, acting as a crucial deterrent that has kept despots in check.

Until now. The biggest loser in the three presidential debates of the 2016 campaign wasn’t Donald Trump. It was the reformers around the world who are fighting to bring at least a breath of freedom to their societies. Even in the most entrenched autocracies like Belarus — often described as the “last dictatorship of Europe” — the influence of the West is an important restraint on a ruthless despot. “Without the influence of the West, we would be in the Middle Ages,” Nika Wegosky, a Belarusian democracy activist, recently told me. “We need more support, not less, but the limited support we have now is crucial.”

Activists like Wegosky have long relied on the knowledge that making the world more democratic is a bedrock principle of American foreign policy. Without that commitment, dictators and fake democrats in all corners of the world start to feel bolder in cracking down on their opponents.

The word “democracy” was spoken just three times over the course of four and a half hours of posturing in this year’s presidential debates (and in each case the reference made was to the United States). There was no talk of supporting fragile new democracies like Tunisia; no commitment to supporting the opening underway in Burma; no condemnation of backsliding in once-democratic countries like Turkey; and not even any generic commitments to making the world more free.

There was nothing. 

The debates are, admittedly, only one snapshot of the campaign. But they are the highest-profile occasions for presidential candidates to make their priorities clear to the American public and the world. Anyone watching for cues that either of the United States’ two future leaders cares about democracy abroad heard only deafening silence.

This is a stark departure from past presidential races, particularly since the end of the Cold War. In the 1992 debates, George H.W. Bush boasted that 44 countries had “gone democratic” during his time in office. His opponent, Bill Clinton, could do nothing more than agree, arguing that the United States “needs to be a force for freedom and democracy” and to back democratic reformers “wherever the seeds of freedom are sprouting.” Clinton doubled down on that rhetoric in 1996 against Bob Dole.

Four years later, Al Gore called for a future in which the United States was “promoting the values of democracy and human rights and freedom all around the world.” Though at the time portraying himself as an opponent of “nation building,” his opponent, George W. Bush, concurred, expressing the hope that world powers would “encourage democracy to take hold.” That rhetoric continued into his reelection in 2004, by which time President Bush had made the so-called “Freedom Agenda” a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Most recently, in the 2012 debates, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama chided dictators and despots while offering promises of a more democratic world.

In other words, Republicans and Democrats used to agree on at least one thing: A more democratic world would be not just a moral good, but also in the United States’ best interests. How to achieve that goal was a contentious partisan issue (as the Iraq War made clear), but the goal itself was never seriously questioned.

Today that bipartisan consensus appears to be extinct. Trump’s admiration of strongman leaders is well known. In October, he offered himself as apologist-in-chief for the butcher of Baghdad, who killed thousands of civilians in a 1988 gas attack: “Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy, ‘oh he’s using gas!’”

Such language also has an effect on Hillary Clinton’s campaign: It gives her a pass to ignore democracy as a serious consideration in American foreign policy. On the debate stage, she missed a major opportunity not only to articulate why Trump’s adoration for despots is dangerous, but also to contrast it with a foreign policy vision that would put democracy center stage. By failing to capitalize on the opening Trump provided, Clinton sent a signal that pro-democracy reformers may not have an ally in the White House during her presidency.

Instead of agreeing with the goal of promoting political freedom and arguing over who would be better at it, the Trump/Clinton debates showcased two candidates who didn’t seem to care too much about democracy abroad one way or the other.

This gives mainstream currency to a viewpoint that was unthinkable even just a few years ago.

Trump’s rhetoric represents something new. It’s true that past U.S. leaders have made unsavory friends. After all, Saudi Arabia, which only banned legal slavery in 1962 and still doesn’t let women drive, is one of the United States’ closest allies. President Obama has done smiling photo ops with the likes of Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang, who has ruled since 1979, repeatedly proclaiming himself “the country’s God” with “all power over men and things,” and using this power to torture and kill his opponents. Clinton had to maintain those unsavory relationships as Secretary of State.

But such alliances result from a perceived strategic self-interest that occurs even as the State Department documents human rights abuses in those same countries and calls for democratic reform. The photo ops are usually accompanied by behind-the-scenes pressure for change. And, in general, American diplomacy is genuinely committed to democracy promotion, even if it isn’t always as effective as it could be. This doesn’t excuse standing arm-in-arm with despots, but at least it tempers the damage.

What Donald Trump has said in his campaign matters enormously — even if he doesn’t become president. That’s because he has succeeded in lowering the standards of what is acceptable in U.S. foreign policy. When Hillary Clinton (as appears probable) enters the Oval Office, she will do so in a world where it is no longer a mainstream view that the United States should concern itself with promoting democracy abroad.

That is particularly worrying because the shift is occurring at a moment when more people than ever, both overseas and at home, are questioning the virtues of democratic government. As Trump peddles the myth that American elections are stolen by a “rigged” system that involves droves of dead people voting (it does not), Americans are losing faith in their democratic institutions. In a recent poll of U.S. voters, 41 percent of respondents said that they worry the election could be “stolen,” and 64 percent of Trump supporters said that they would not accept a Clinton presidency as legitimate. Only a third of millenials now say that they find it “essential” to live in a democracy, down from nearly three-quarters of those in older generations.

As faith in democracy erodes at home, it becomes far more difficult for a president to promote it abroad. Just this May, a general in Thailand’s junta told me: “If Donald Trump is what democracy is all about, don’t sign us up for it.

Now, more than ever, we need a president who will be an outspoken advocate of meaningful democratic reform from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Instead, both presidential candidates appear to be shying away from the greatest challenge of our generation: ensuring that billions of people receive the basic human right to have a say in how their lives are governed. This failure, if it stands, means that we will not only have abandoned brave democratic reformers around the globe; we will also have abandoned our most sacred ideals.

The Isolationist Catastrophe of "Brexit"

Originally published in the Los Angeles Times

On Thursday British voters willfully walked off a cliff when they decided to leave the European Union. The “Brexit” victory is a defeat for Britain, Europe and the global economy.

Tens of millions of Britons voted for isolation — to go it alone — rather than for cooperation. The European Union just lost a sixth of its economy, roughly akin to Florida and California seceding from the United States. The impact on the British economy could be catastrophic. Europe’s unified stance against a reemerging and aggressive Russia will be splintered.

Moreover, the vote doesn’t mean that debates over Britain’s relationship with Europe, or its place in the wider world, are suddenly resolved. It does mean that politicians — and not just those on the banks of the Thames in Westminster — need to wake up. On both sides of the Atlantic, governments and politics are not working.

We find ourselves in a moment of global fear. The democratic identities of Britain and the United States are under threat — not from immigrants or even changing values, but from nationalists and xenophobes exploiting citizens' darkest worries with populist projects, including Donald Trump’s campaign for the U.S. presidency and Brexit. To many voters, the world is a scary place. Terrorists seem to lurk everywhere. Uncertainty surrounds us. Change is rapid and some aren't keeping up. Unsurprisingly, politicians of many stripes are capitalizing on our fears to rally voters against trade, immigration and international cooperation.

The costs will be substantial. Economists, business leaders and scholars almost universally agree that Britain's retreat from the EU is a self-inflicted economic blunder. Recessions are contagious, and given London’s place as a global financial hub, Brexit will give Britain a particularly virulent cough. The pound’s value will likely tumble. The British treasury estimates that the nation’s households each stand to lose an average of £4,300, or about $7,000. And yet, tens of millions of voters were willing to take that hit.

The quintessential anti-EU voter, an aging unemployed white working-class citizen in northern England, might feel a certain solidarity with a similar Trump voter in rural America. Both have reason to feel victimized by a global economy that has left them behind. Both have concluded that the culprits are out-of-control immigration and an unresponsive government far away, in Washington or Brussels. And both have decided the answer is disengagement, solving problems alone at home rather than preventing them through cooperation abroad.

This is the glaring contradiction in the muscular nationalism of right-wing populism, blended with isolationism, that seeks to withdraw from international unions: It cannot shape a better world by shutting the world out. The same people who cheer when Trump laments the decline of American leadership want to ignore key global issues and put “America First.” The people who voted for Brexit, attempting to create a border between Britain and challenges such as the refugee crisis, seem to think Britain can solve such problems without consulting Germany or France or, worst of all to them, Brussels.

The world doesn’t work that way, and it hasn’t for decades. Ever-increasing globalization has created an unprecedented surge in prosperity, but it has also ushered in jarring changes. The rough edges of those changes can only be overcome with more aggressive cooperation and engagement, not less. Whether it’s the risks of terrorism, the tragic flow of refugees, or economic shocks, Britain cannot solve problems alone and neither can the United States.

The solution, then, is a politics and a foreign policy that acknowledge the potency and importance of national identity while aiming to lead the world rather than leave it aside. Xenophobia will eventually fade if genuine policy reforms provide new opportunities to the victims of globalization. We need leaders on both sides of the Atlantic who heed the legitimate fears of their citizens and at the same time explain that solutions will come from standing together with other nations rather than standing alone.

Brexit voters and Trump supporters sporting “Make America Great Again” hats believe they have lost too much for too long. Their complaint is understandable. But turning inward will only make their problems worse and the world more dangerous. Britain narrowly succumbed to isolationist populism Thursday. Let’s hope Americans don’t make the same mistake by voting for a Trump presidency come November.

Dr. Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Marcel Dirsus is a lecturer in politics at the University of Kiel in Germany.

How Fake Democracies Damage Real Ones

Originally published by Foreign Policy, 21 June 2016

 1991, Madagascar — a large island off the coast of southeast Africa known more for its lovable lemurs than the fate of its 27 million deeply impoverished people — held its first multi-party elections. The way it came to do so was somewhat unusual: a brash general effectively kidnapped the country’s leading politicians, locked them in the Panorama Hotel, and proclaimed that they could leave only after they agreed to allow political competition. Two days later, the Panorama Convention was signed. 

The elections took place as planned — and what’s more, the incumbent lost and left power. It seemed like a new dawn for a country that had suffered for decades under the rule of a failed military strongman.

Shortly thereafter, Madagascar was duly declared a full-fledged democracy — receiving the same score as France — in an index that many political scientists consider to be the most accurate yardstick of regimes. Politicians, diplomats, and scholars all welcomed the country into the democratic world. In 2006, the American ambassador to the island declared that Washington believed that “Madagascar deserves its position among the community of democracies in the world.” Indeed, even in 2014 and 2015, in the wake of seriously flawed elections, the U.S. State Department continued to herald Madagascar’s alleged “return to democracy” after a coup d’état.

There’s just one problem: Madagascar is not and has never been a democracy. Regular elections are held, but they are manipulated and riddled by vote-buying. A national assembly exists, but it is deeply corrupt and unresponsive to the people. A democratic constitution is on the books, but those with informal power routinely ignore it. As in so other many places around the globe, real power in Madagascar belongs to a small cadre of elites that rely on informal personal networks to wield it.

There is more to democracy than elections. True democracy requires the rule of law, a free press, and accountability for elected officials, no matter how powerful they may be. Madagascar has none of the above. But far too often, we allow counterfeit democracies like it to pass as the real thing.

That’s because the international community treats democracy like a light switch: a regime is either elected democratically (on), or it is “elected” in a blatantly undemocratic sham contest (off). Elections themselves are also frequently judged in a binary way — they’re either completely free and fair or they are not. The problem is that most regimes in the world, like Madagascar, lie somewhere in between. Many may emit some democratic light — particularly during elections — but remain depressingly dim for the thousands of days in-between. The current system gives them little incentive to get brighter because the West calls them “democracies” too easily. That, in turn, degrades the value of democracy itself.

There are two dynamics at play here. First, the inevitably low bar created by the on/off mentality creates an effect that I’ve previously called “the curse of low expectations.” When undemocratic rulers get a diplomatic high-five just for holding a passable election, it creates a strong incentive to continue doing only the bare minimum. The European Union calledMadagascar’s 2013 election “free, fair, and democratic,” even though millions were left off the voter rolls, illicit campaign funding was used, and vote buying was rampant (a finding that the European Union even acknowledged openly in its final report). After the election observers packed up and left, the international community took far less of an interest in the island. So long as the West sets an absurdly low bar for what constitutes democratic elections and views those as the endpoint of establishing democracy rather than its beginning, the light of democracy around the globe will continue to flicker.

Second, when a country’s citizens live in a “democracy” that holds elections but doesn’t really give them a voice, the result is governance that doesn’t deliver. 

Even the best election doesn’t put food on the table, provide security, or ensure basic health care. If elections are all people have, but genuine democracy doesn’t take root, they soon begin to resent the concept of democracy itself.

Perhaps for that reason, even the counterfeit democracy introduced in Madagascar in the early 1990s didn’t prove especially durable. In 2009, in one of the more bizarre episodes in modern international politics, the country’s sitting president Marc Ravalomanana — a rags-to-riches yogurt kingpin — was overthrown in a coup d’état by Andry Rajoelina, a 34-year-old former radio disc jockey. The toppling of an elected leader was, finally, enough for the diplomatic community to flip the switch and acknowledge that the country had lost its status as a democracy. International aid dried up. Madagascar became an international pariah.

But it didn’t take much to turn the switch back on. Four years later, Madagascar held elections again. The country was quickly reinstated in a preferential U.S. trade program, a decision prompted by “the nation’s return to democratic rule.” Crucial foreign aid flowed back in. But day-to-day international interest in the country plummeted. Madagascar had done the bare minimum to be seen as a “democratically elected” government, and that seemed to be good enough.

The elected government does not actually rule democratically, but its violations of democratic principles are not considered “bad enough” to elicit international consequences. As a result, elites in Madagascar and countries like it can have their cake and eat it too — ensuring that their informal power networks remain king while basking in international praise for a post-election “return to democracy.”

In April, Madagascar’s president announced that the prime minister had resigned, only for the startled prime minister to inform the press that he had done no such thing. His unconstitutional and unwilling departure ushered in the island’s third prime minister in as many years. At the same time, credible allegations arose that several ministers had paid bribes to secure their spots in the president’s cabinet. In May, the Minister of Public Service and Government Reform was discovered with 1,000 kilograms of drugs in his personal vehicle — rather a lot for recreational use. He has not been arrested, nor has he resigned.

These repeated embarrassments have prompted the general who originally ushered in multi-party elections 25 years ago to speak out. General Desiré-Philippe Ramakavélo, a distinguished elder statesman who has taken up writing political poetry in his retirement, laments that the country’s elites tend to act like royalty once attaining office, rather than as public servants constrained by democratic rules. During my last meeting with him at his home in Antananarivo, he shared his latest stanzas with me. The title of the poem he read, La loi, c’est moi (“The law, it’s me”) is a reference to the quip L’état, c’est moi (“the state, it’s me”) famously attributed to the French King Louis XIV, who embodied absolutist rule. In the poem, Ramakavelo bemoans the degree to which his country has impersonated Versailles by allowing powerful kingpins and kingmakers to rule without regard for the formal trappings of democracy.

Before I left, the general asked me to send him anything I wrote about him. In a vivid demonstration of the continued dominance of personality as power in Madagascar, the mailing address he provided to me read in full: “General Desiré-Philippe Ramakavélo, Madagascar.”

The problem with informal rule is simple: it allows bad governance. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world not least because its corrupt — albeit elected — politicians serve themselves rather than their people. Though it has tremendous mineral wealth and one the most tourist-enticing landscapes on the planet, its GDP per capita is stuck below $500. A third of the population is illiterate. And it’s the only place on earth where outbreaks of the bubonic plague are a regular occurrence. It is, unquestionably, one of the worst tickets you can be dealt in the global lottery of birth.

Labeling such a country a “democracy” is not just ridiculous — it’s downright dangerous. Lowering the bar for what deserves to be called a democracy degrades public support for the concept. After all, if Madagascar really represented what a democracy looks like, nobody would want to live in one. Over time, this only makes the false prophets of authoritarian strongmen or military rule more appealing.

Madagascar may be an island, but it is not alone in this risk. When tens of thousands of Africans living in similarly sham democracies were askedwhether they were satisfied with democracy in their country, only 965 out of more than 50,000 respondents replied that their countries were not, in fact, democracies. Most accepted the premise that they lived in a democratic country, but lamented that fact: Four in ten said that they were “not at all satisfied” or “not very satisfied” with this form of governance.

This erosion of support for democracy has a knock-on effect. Calling countries like Madagascar democratic provides powerful rhetorical ammunition to despots in other countries, helping them make their case for continuing to resist reform. After all, if coups and corruption and drug-running ministers are the hallmarks of so-called democracies, maybe authoritarianism isn’t so bad.

In other words, mislabeling countries as democratic can cause people to lose faith in the concept while amplifying the voice of unresponsive leaders eager to spread an undemocratic gospel. This one-two punch may help explain why the world has become modestly, but steadily, less democratic since 2006.

The solution is not simply to condemn Madagascar and countries like it as pariah states. Madagascar’s president is no dictator, and some minor and modest progress toward democracy has been made since the 2013 elections.

Instead, there needs to be a higher bar for what warrants the label of democracy. For countries like Madagascar that do not deserve the label, aid and international acceptance should be tied to steady progress towards genuine democratic governance rather than being conditioned on holding passable elections every few years. If no progress is made, it should not take something so drastic as a coup d’état to hammer home the lesson that undemocratic governance between elections has diplomatic consequences.

Today, Madagascar’s people are mired in poverty and political dysfunction two and a half years after the last elections, and with two and a half years to go until the next ones. Amid the country’s economic and political stagnation, there are persistent whispers of nefarious attempts to instigate a constitutional crisis in order to force an early vote. Earlier this month, Senator Rene de Roland Lylison — a colonel who previously headed a paramilitary group — was arrested amid rumors that he was plotting another coup d’état. Unfortunately, because Madagascar’s people have been told that they have democracy but believe it has failed them, some would welcome a military takeover. That is the peril and the price of a system that conflates the act of voting with genuine democracy.

Playing Politics with Migrants on Both Sides of the Mediterranean

Originally published in the Financial Times on 8 June 2015.

Playing Politics with Migrants on both sides of the Mediterranean

Over the last eighteen months, hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants have paid smugglers to set sail from Libya on barely seaworthy boats headed northward towards Europe.

Fleeing war-torn and misgoverned hellholes across the globe, these poor souls are treated worse than contraband.  Drugs need to arrive intact for the smugglers to earn a profit; the weary migrants are lucrative whether they live or die, since they pay in advance.  Unsurprisingly, more than 2,000 migrants have already drowned this year in the Mediterranean.

Prospective migrants are able to arrive in and set sail from Libya because it lacks functioning state structures and is completely unable to police its borders. Two rival governments in Tobruk and Tripoli duel for legitimacy. Neither has effective control of any territory. Libya has become an ungoverned space.

Consequently, Libya’s 1500 mile coast line is a sieve. Migrants — and anything else (jihadists and drugs come to mind) — will continue leaking toward Europe until Libya becomes at least a semi-functioning state again. 

In the eyes of much of the world, the repeated drowning of migrants hoping to build a better life across the Mediterranean— and risking everything to do so — is a needless tragedy and a blight on our collective consciousness.  


But for politicians—in Libya and in Europe— migrants are as politically lucrative as they are profitable for smugglers.  Policymakers in Brussels, Tripoli, and Tobruk are all playing politics with these avoidable deaths, turning preventable tragedies into a political football in the most cynical way imaginable. And as a result of this shameless political opportunism, their  ‘solutions’ will only empower extremist groups in both Libya and Europe. 

When a particularly grisly drowning happened in April, Europe was finally compelled to act. Ministers called a summit. Unfortunately, their proposals have mistaken the symptom for the disease. Libya’s collapse is the disease; the migrants are just a symptom.

Their plans aim to stop the flow of migrant boats by targeting the boats and boosting military patrols in the sea.  It is doomed to fail. If one smuggler’s boat were successfully attacked in a Libyan harbor, all smugglers would soon chain helpless migrants to their boats to serve as human shields and prevent further sinkings. Furthermore, a Western military intervention against Libya will play into the hands of ISIS and add fuel to the ongoing civil war.

This misguided, polarizing policy will however achieve the only goal it was created for: appeasing the extremist xenophobic right-wing groups in each EU member state by making a muscular, militaristic showing of strength against some of the weakest people on the planet.  Some extremist members of UKIP in Britain or the Front Nationale in France may be heartened by images of guns drawn on starving, malnourished women and children cowering in rickety migrant boats. But such efforts will make Europe look morally weak while ensuring strategic blowback and being a boon for jihadi and neo-fascist recruitment. Yet, the cynical mainstream politicians will have achieved their aim: avoiding looking weak on immigration and hence losing votes to rightwing populists.

Europeans are not the only ones who are playing politics with the steady flow of migrants. In Libya, the UN is trying to mediate a multipolar civil war by negotiating a political solution between the Tripoli and Tobruk administrations.  The Tobruk faction is internationally recognized, owing to its victory in flawed elections in June 2014. Moreover, given the Tripoli faction’s Islamist leanings — and the West’s ongoing (but misguided) policy of blindly backing the anti-Islamist horse while meddling in the internal affairs of many Arab nations —   most European politicians have a staunch bias toward the Tobruk-based administration.  Politicians in Libya are mirroring the behavior of their European counterparts, using the deaths and misery in the Mediterranean to further their own positions.  In so doing, they are perversely taking a page from the playbook of Muammar Qaddafi, who let migrants sail in order to extort concessions from Europe. When he got what he wanted, the flow of migrants miraculously seemed to dry up.

The Tobruk faction recently signaled a similar strategy to Europe, in diplomatic communications that have not yet been reported in the Western press.  In discussing the issue of migrants, Nuri Beit al-Mal, the Tobruk prime minister’s personal adviser for foreign affairs, recently announced: “I have sent a proposal to the European Union to meet and discuss what part the Libyan Government can play in support of any plans and look forward to a positive engagement.”  This is a signal that the Tobruk faction would be willing to stem the flow of migrants — in exchange for the ‘right’ diplomatic concessions from Europe, especially the lifting of the UN-backed arms embargo. Rather than diplomatic sticks, the European response has been carrots: high-level meetings and a scheme of coastguard training could be in the offing.

Similarly, on the Tripoli side – the one from which the majority of the migrants attempt to transit — the political and militia leaders turn a blind eye to smuggling, hoping that European politicians will grant them precious international recognition in exchange for cracking down on the smugglers.

But unlike Qaddafi, the dueling administrations in Tobruk and Tripoli cannot deliver on what they are promising; they cannot stop the flow of migrants because they don’t actually control their territories.  Instead, each faction is bound to over-promise and under-deliver as they hope to receive arms, training packages, and diplomatic support in the ultimate battle over which faction will dominate the eventual national unity government when the ongoing crisis finally ends.

Cynical as this Libyan wrangling is, it is little different from political jockeying in Europe.  The migrant issue is simply so eye-catching in the media and so emotional with electorates that it lends itself to being manipulated by politicians who attempt to frame the narrative to their advantage.

During this political showdown, smugglers — including groups that are closely linked to ISIS — are cashing in on the unintended consequences of their gamesmanship.  Two weeks ago, it was revealed that one of the terrorists involved in masterminding the deadly Bardo attack on Western tourists in Tunisia had arrived in Italy by way of a migrant boat.  Just last week, ISIS took the most strategically important airfield outside of Sirte. So while Europe is distracted by the migrants, ISIS is literally on the march in Libya. Only a functioning national unity government can stop their progress.

The steady stream of migrants from the anarchic Libyan coast toward European shores will not stop until the European Union works with the United Nations, the United States, and regional powers -- Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt -- to cobble together a new, credible, unified diplomatic front that puts pressure on both Tobruk and Tripoli to forge consensus, and sign and implement a power-sharing agreement. 

Existing efforts have been fruitless because they appeal to the Western-favored Tobruk faction but are squarely rejected by the Tripoli faction.  Neither side should be given the imprimateur of international legitimacy until they have proven that they can compromise and govern by consensus rather than with divisive politics fueled and funded by warlords, jihadists, and smugglers.  The loss of legitimacy — and all the perks that come with it in economic, diplomatic, and political terms —should be sufficiently costly to be a catalyst for peace.

Hard-hitting, serious diplomacy is the way to rebuild a sovereign, functional Libya. Until that happens, all the torching of boats and military patrols in the world won’t secure Europe’s borders, stop migrants from drowning, or allow Libya to exorcise its demons of ISIS, smugglers, and warlords. 

Groucho Marx famously quipped that “politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.”  He would be proud that politicians in Brussels, Tobruk, and Tripoli are applying his definition as they profit politically from a strategic, moral, and humanitarian quagmire in the Mediterranean.

Brian Klaas is a Clarendon Scholar and researcher at the University of Oxford, focusing on democratic transitions and political violence. 

Jason Pack is a Researcher of Middle Eastern History at Cambridge University and President of He specialises in the Libyan ports sector in his capacity as an affiliated North Africa Analyst at Risk Intelligence.

Today, Tunisia is Tested

Originally published as the cover page article of Foreign Policy magazine; 18 March 2015

day, gunmen stormed the National Bardo Museum of Tunis, killing 21 and briefly taking several hostages. The death toll may still rise. Two of the attackers were eventually killed, but others may be at large. While their motivations and ties are not yet clear, the impact of this event could be substantial for Tunisia’s political transition as a fragile post-Arab Spring democracy.

This is a new frontier for Tunisia. The small country sandwiched between Libya and Algeria is the Arab Spring’s lone success story of political compromise and hard-fought consensus. The country’s citizens have not seen, until today, any serious terrorist attacks against civilians (though there have been assassinations and attacks on soldiers and military officials). Tunisians have forged a functioning democracy.

This is in sharp contrast to their eastern neighbors. Libya has devolvedinto unending chaos, violence, and dysfunction. After a brief flirtation with democracy, Egypt returned to a thinly veiled military dictatorship. Today’s attack in Tunisia presents an important test for the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. If politicians respond the wrong way to this tragic event and let old divisions creep into the country’s fragile new political dynamic, Tunisia could fall into the same traps that derailed the Libyan and Egyptian transitions.

In 2013, two assassinations of prominent politicians threatened to derailthe country’s impressive political progress toward national reconciliation. For months, the legislature was shut down, its doors closed to debate and discussion. In that instance, it seemed, the terrorists had achieved their goal. Then, with strong leadership from both sides — moderate Islamists and pragmatic secularists from the “old” Tunisia — the stalemate ended. The doors of the parliament reopened, debate ensued, and compromise was reached. As a result, Tunisia successfully held peaceful democratic elections in late 2014, resulting in a smooth transition of power (a rare event in the turbulent and divided Middle East). The lone Arab Spring success story had yet again succeeded.

Today’s attack jeopardizes this success. For the most part, extremists have thus far been sidelined — but extreme elements, among both the Islamists and the old-guard secularists, will now be tempted to view this tragic event as a political gift, allowing them to grandstand, accuse their opponents, and employ divisive politics to jump-start their agendas.

Elements within the party of newly elected president Beji Caid Essebsi will certainly call for a robust authoritarian crackdown. Moreover, members of his movement who believe that Islamists — writ large — are to blame for Tunisia’s turmoil and violence will speak with a louder voice after today, possibly gaining some influence. It is worth bearing in mind that Essebsi gave in to this kind of pressure during the recent electoral campaign and mistakenly equated his rival Islamist candidate with jihadis — an unfair and extremely inflammatory accusation.

It is crucial that President Essebsi be the president of all Tunisians by ignoring these divisive voices. Instead, he must stay the course of working with moderate Islamists while ensuring a robust security presence based on strong intelligence-gathering — but without sacrificing either the political progress that has been so painfully achieved or Tunisians’ fundamental rights.

On the opposite side of the political divide, Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Ennahda, must continue to work in good faith with the government and avoid provocative rhetoric that paints this attack as the fault of any political party or figure.

Undeniably, resisting such methods will be difficult for both sides. But resist they must. 

It is precisely in such moments, when it’s easier to do the wrong thing than the right thing, that leadership is really tested. Tunisia’s leaders — unlike those of Libya and Egypt — have, so far, passed such tests almost without exception. Today, the test gets harder. If they falter now, they could put their country’s transition in grave danger.

The location of the attack, the National Bardo Museum, offers an important historic parable for today’s political elites. More than two millennia ago, Carthage — an ancient civilization situated just a few miles to the north of modern Tunis — fell to the Romans in the Third Punic War, precisely because the Carthaginian political elite had squabbled rather than focusing on a common national cause. Divided, Carthage was conquered and destroyed.

The National Bardo Museum houses the treasures of ancient Carthage and is located directly next to Tunisia’s modern national parliament building. Tunisia’s politicians — many of whom were evacuated from the parliament building during the attack — may miss the symbolic significance, but they certainly cannot afford to miss the lesson.

In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Habib Essid invoked just this point: “All Tunisians should be united after this attack which was aimed at destroying the Tunisian economy.” He was alluding to the target of the assault: The Bardo Museum is one of the top tourist attractions in Tunis. Most of those killed today were foreign visitors, including two from the United Kingdom, and at least one each from Italy, Spain, and France. This attack will do no favors for Tunisia’s crucial tourism industry, which has only just started to surge back from the enormous downturn it faced after the Arab Spring uprising. Today’s attack may prod prospective visitors to consider Morocco instead — with important negative implications for Tunisia’s already fragile economy. In that sense, this attack may create larger ramifications for the political transition by crippling the country’s painfully slow economic recovery.

This attack will likely not be the last. Tunisia is in a bad neighborhood. To the east lies the Libyan quagmire. To the west lie cells of terrorists, hiding in the Chaambi mountains on the Algerian border. Moreover, Tunisia has been the largest source of foreign jihadis traveling to fight in Syria and Iraq. Those extremists who have been fighting abroad may yet return home and seek to destabilize Tunisia with a tragic dose of chaos from the Levant.

In just two days, Tunisia will celebrate its national independence day. On Friday, President Essebsi should invite the leaders of Ennahda and other political movements to the presidential palace in order to speak with one united voice, on the same stage, with one unifying mission: a stable, peaceful, democratic Tunisia that will not deviate from its course, turn to extremism, or be tempted by authoritarianism when terrorists attack. This is an opportunity for the Tunisian political elite to show clearly and resolutely that their Arab Spring will not wither in the face of cowardly violence.

The Tunisia Model

This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs.

Nearly four years ago, Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled for his life when the first of the Arab Spring uprisings forced him from power. Most of his ministers were close on his heels, scurrying to save themselves in exile. Many of those who did not flee went into hiding or jail.

Several months later, Tunisia held its first competitive multi-party elections. In that vote, however, Tunisians did not have complete freedom of choice; all the top-level figures associated with Ben Ali’s toppled regime were banned from running—a short-term measure that was designed to protect the fragile new democracy from slipping back toward dictatorship.

On October 26, Tunisians will finally have a real and unrestricted choice at the polls. Several of the remnants of the Ben Ali system—former officials who were not imprisoned and have now come out of hiding—are on the ballot in the parliamentary election. And three former top-level Ben Ali­-era ministers will compete in presidential elections in late-November: Kemal Morjane, Mondher Znaidi, and Abderrahim Zouari. The sitting government gave them permission to run in the spirit of national reconciliation and inclusivity.

That decision might seem surprising. After all, in addition to keeping the state running, new democratic politicians must decide how to cope with the cobwebs of authoritarianism. They are inevitably eager to ensure not only that the dictator is removed, but also that members of the dictator’s regime are purged. But more often than not, purges are a serious mistake. As John Stuart Mill argued a century and a half ago, a free marketplace of ideas is necessary to allow citizens to separate good ideas from bad ones. As counterintuitive as it may seem, then, the inclusion in the upcoming election of Ben Ali­-era politicians—men who actively supported a ruthless dictatorship—is one of the most promising steps that Tunisia has taken to preserve its democracy so far.

Tunisia has designed its transition to build consensus rather than exploit divisions, on constructive dialogue rather than protracted standoffs, and on inclusion rather than exclusion.

If Ben Ali’s former ministers had been banned, they could have become a source of volatility—as symbols of political martyrdom to their followers. Banned candidates may also launch coups and civil wars, taking power with bullets after being excluded from the ballot box. (Côte d’Ivoire is a tragic and clear example.) By contrast, in Tunisia, three former Ben Ali ministers are going to freely stand as candidates—and lose, partly because they will split the vote and partly because most Tunisians do not want someone so closely affiliated with Ben Ali to return to power. And that will be a much more effective (and less destabilizing) way to cope with the old guard.

Purges that go too far are a grave risk to fragile democracies. Tunisians do not need to look far to see why. Just to Tunisia’s east, militants are tearing apart Libya in a series of feuds that were intensified by Libya’s Political Isolation Law, an attempt to rid the country of officials stained by their affiliation with deposed dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. The problem, it turns out, is that any Libyan who worked in government in any capacity since 1969 is tainted by an affiliation with Gaddafi. As a result, purging those affiliated with his rule meant getting rid of nearly everyone who knew how to run the country.

Libya made enormous mistakes with its transitional purge, but those mistakes are nothing compared to the United States’ de-Baathification debacle in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The American-led authority in Iraq barred an estimated 100,000 members of Saddam’s party—including teachers, doctors, and professors—from participation in the country’s political life, simply because they were once employed by the authoritarian government. And so a generation of institutional know-how was wiped out with the stroke of L. Paul Bremer’s pen. That policy—combined with the decision to disband Iraq’s military and send men with guns home without a paycheck—goes a long way toward explaining why Iraq spiraled out of control.

With few exceptions, Tunisia has avoided similar mistakes. Instead, the country has designed its transition to build consensus rather than exploit divisions, on constructive dialogue rather than protracted standoffs, and on inclusion rather than exclusion. For one, none of the major institutional organs of Ben Ali’s state—including the military—was excised or disbanded. Instead, each was reformed and molded to respond to Tunisia’s new and democratically elected government.

That same restraint stopped Tunisia from making the mistake of blindly purging politicians and bureaucrats with considerable expertise. In 2011, a commission led by the respected jurist Yadh Ben Achour ruled that ministerial-level politicians under Ben Ali’s regime should be disqualified from the country’s first democratic elections, but not from future participation in public life or politics. This decision coincided with the disbanding of Ben Ali’s ruling RCD party, but did not prohibit former members of the party from contesting future elections.

The commission went too far in only one respect, namely, its ruling to disqualify the so-called Mounachidines, a list of people who had publicly signed a letter prior to the outbreak of the Arab Spring that called for Ben Ali to run for reelection. Some of the people on the list were genuine supporters of the dictatorship; others simply signed their names because they feared the consequences of being absent from it. If, for example, a university president did not demonstrate his or her support for the regime publicly, he or she could reasonably expect to be replaced (or worse). The difference between genuine support and support out of fear is a critical one, and successful transitions must recognize it. In 2011, this overzealousness had limited effects because the Revolution had just occurred and public opinion overwhelming backed the decision; repeating the mistake this year, however, could have been disastrous.

In short, there have been bumps along the way—and there are several serious potential political roadblocks that lurk ahead—but, so far, Tunisia is paving a much smoother road to democracy than its collapsing Arab Spring counterparts. And it deserves all the more credit for its response, given that this was the first time the country had ever thrown off the shackles of a longstanding and brutal dictatorship in order to build a fledgling democracy.

This month’s elections are thus both a celebration of Tunisia’s success and a crucial test. Throughout 2013, hardline Islamists (including conservative members of Tunisia’s big-tent Islamist party, Ennahda, and their further-right counterparts, the Wafa Movement) proposed to renew the directive that disqualified the Mounachidine and banned from standing for election anyone who had served in Ben Ali’s government. When it came to a vote in May, though, the legislation was rejected—even with the Mounachidine provision stripped from the final proposal.

Polls suggest that the Islamist coalition, Ennahda, is most likely to win the parliamentary vote, but that the presidency will most likely be captured by the secular 87-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, a former minister of foreign affairs for Ben Ali’s predecessor who also served as the interim prime minister of Tunisia after Ben Ali fled the country in early 2011. Essebsi does have some ties to Ben Ali (he served as the president of the Chamber of Deputies for a year in the early 1990s), but he is not considered a close ally of the deposed strongman. His age may prove to be an issue, but he is a competent leader who is neither a staunch defender of Ben Ali nor a zealous secularist unwilling to compromise with the country’s moderate Islamists. It would have been a shame, in other words, to disqualify him.

Tunisia still faces tremendous challenges, including spillover violence from Libya, terrorism from Ansar al-Sharia, and the threat of destabilizing post-election disputes. And, for the first time since 2011, more than half of all Tunisians said in a recent poll that they would prefer a stable, prosperous, authoritarian government over an unstable, insecure democracy, reflecting concerns regarding the country’s ongoing economic woes. But Tunisia is nonetheless the last Arab Spring democracy still standing. Other transitioning regimes in the Middle East and the world should take note: Democracy is not about exclusion, but about giving people a genuine choice—even, or especially, when it’s an uncomfortable one.

Penguins offer U.S. a lesson in addressing climate change

This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Times.

It may seem unlikely, but penguins offer a crucial lesson for the United States' national security. On the western Antarctic Peninsula, climate change is wreaking havoc on stocks of krill, tiny crustaceans that penguins eat. Adelie penguins are in decline in the region because they have not changed their survival strategy and found something else to eat. Gentoo penguins have; they have been able to turn a threat into a comparative advantage.

The lesson, however, is not about penguins. It's about us — humans — and how climate change could destabilize nations, spark wars and fuel terrorism — unless we change our strategy. This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its fifth "synthesis report," an overview of the latest climate-related research and its policy implications. The report's findings, unlike the planet, are chilling. Among other devastating effects, the IPCC sees a near certainty that climate change will create unprecedented flooding, extreme droughts and catastrophic storms.

These pressures will increase political conflicts, skirmishes and wars. Fragile governments may collapse. The ensuing power vacuum will be a gift to terrorism. Admirably, some in Congress are trying to be like the generalist Gentoos, preparing for the coming storm. But an alarming number — including the majority of Republicans in the House and Senate — are following the self-defeating Adelies, refusing to accept that climate change is happening and therefore refusing to shift strategy in the face of risk.

Sometimes, members of Congress mimic penguin levels of intelligence when it comes to climate change. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) once actually touted the advantages of climate shifts, claiming: "Thousands of people die every year of cold, so if we had global warming it would save lives." He could not be more wrong.

Adapting to and preparing for the effects of climate change must be a cornerstone of the United States' national security policy, effective immediately. The Pentagon agrees. This year, three military reports (the "Quadrennial Defense Review," "Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap" and "National Intelligence Strategy") all conclude that climate change is a crucial new frontier of military preparedness. This may be the first time that a U.S. military report has a picture of baby sea turtles on the cover, but the issue should not be taken lightly. No single factor — including climate change — will cause wars or terrorism. But some factors make both more likely; other factors reduce the threat.

Climate change is a "threat multiplier." Water offers a clear example. Water is already becoming scarce in arid regions, such as the Sahel belt in Africa, northern India and Pakistan, and in the Middle East — particularly Syria and Iraq. Scarcity probably will intensify as the climate changes.

Battles are already being fought over water. This spring, Iraq's Shiite holy cities, Karbala and Najaf, experienced historic droughts. With abnormally low water replenishment from rain, the Euphrates River was the only backup. In January, Islamic State fighters captured the Fallouja Dam. Three months later, they shut off downstream water flow to 1.5 million people in Karbala and Najaf, and flooded other areas to disrupt the advance of Iraqi forces. Iraq's forces eventually retook the dam. It would have been catastrophic for those cities had they not. In August, Islamic State captured Mosul's main dam and threatened to blow it up. That would have crippled Iraqi agriculture and energy production and possibly flooded Baghdad. The dam was retaken — another close call.

The value of water as a weapon will only increase because of climate change. Turkey is already using it, manipulating water flows as a way to put further pressure on Syria's regime (which inevitably affected downstream flows to Iraq). And water scarcity — or other climate effects — may fuel insurgencies in the first place. If a government cannot feed its people, provide clean water, or adequately respond to a massive natural disaster (each made more difficult by climate change), radical leaders will have an easier time finding recruits. Mali and Somalia have learned this lesson the hard way. The Department of Defense acknowledges this danger, saying that climate change will exacerbate "conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence."

We must adapt. In the short term, the military must prepare to tackle the new threats posed by climate change. In the long term, Congress must work to mitigate avoidable future threats by reducing carbon emissions with a renewed emphasis on the green economy. That two-pronged approach will bolster American national security, turning a threat into a comparative advantage. We can follow in the waddling footsteps of the adaptable Gentoo penguins and thrive. If we don't, we will be just as intelligent as the declining Adelies, flapping our useless wings against the surging winds of climate change.

Bridging the Two Tunisias

This appeared originally in Foreign Policy on September 19, 2014.

This fall, Tunisia will vote in national parliamentary and presidential elections -- marking the second and third vote since former dictator Ben Ali was driven from power during the first Arab Spring uprising. When voters cast their ballots, they will have to choose between two competing visions for the future of their divided society. One vision is devoutly religious, conservative, and more rural, turning its gaze east toward Tunisia's co-religionists in the Middle East. The other sees a secular, liberal, and urban Tunisia, yearning to emulate Europe rather than far away desert kingdoms.

Luckily, the two big-tent parties that dominate Tunisian politics seem to be putting the country before ideological divides, hoping to build a Tunisia that has as much room for the sacrosanctity of the Quran as it does for democracy, human rights, and individual liberties. On the right is Ennahda, a moderate Islamist coalition that was created in 1989 and was outlawed and persecuted heavily under Ben Ali's reign. On the left is Nidaa Tounes, or "Call for Tunisia," a hodgepodge of secular leftists, progressive liberals, and moderate pragmatists that were previously affiliated with Ben Ali's former Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party.

Rather than doing what politicians do best -- exploiting national divides for personal and political gain -- both sides have made a conscious choice to seek consensus.

Rather than doing what politicians do best -- exploiting national divides for personal and political gain -- both sides have made a conscious choice to seek consensus.Last week, for example, Ennahda announced that it would not field a presidential candidate in the upcoming November election, because its leaders do not want to expand its considerable power over the state. Such profound symbols of pragmatic reconciliation are a bold attempt to build a bridge between the two Tunisias.

That being said, these admirable efforts haven't gone over well with everyone. Groups like Ansar al-Sharia have made clear that they intend to destroy anything but a firmly conservative country, turning to violence rather than reconciliation and putting ideology before national prosperity. Tunisians that flocked to Islamic State (IS) bases in Iraq and Syria may attempt to returnfor the vote, an explosive risk to Tunisia's fragile democracy. Spillover violence from Libya's low-level civil war is also a grave risk.

But even if terrorists don't derail the elections, internal political rivalries could. After a generation of brutal dictatorship, the country is divided over whether former members of Ben Ali's regime should be allowed to stand as candidates in the upcoming vote. That debate is a political minefield, especially for Ennahda. Many of its current members were dedicated to the Islamist cause from the early days, only to end up rotting and tortured in jails during Ben Ali's dictatorship. In 1991 alone, Ben Ali jailed as many as 25,000 Ennahdha members. Put simply, they want revenge. Other members were able to flee before the crackdown, escaping to exile in Europe. When Ben Ali was deposed, they returned.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Islamists with both experiences found themselves in the same party once more. Unsurprisingly, the formerly jailed members resented those who had been strolling the streets of Paris and London. The former exiles also tend to be more moderate, talking the talk of a sort of "Islamism-lite" that European diplomats could support. In other words, even within the Islamist party, the divide of two Tunisias is apparent.

Ultimately, the internal battle played out as conservative members of Ennahda (partnering with hardliners from the Wafa Movement) backed a full purge of anyone who had previously been a member of Ben Ali's regime. Moderates backed inclusion in the spirit of putting the past behind Tunisia. The moderates won the debate; in June, the Tunisian Assembly rejected the conservative push to put exclusion and vengeance over inclusion and reconciliation.

As a result, the upcoming elections will be inclusive, and to put the icing on this consensus-building cake, moderate members of Ennahda are now suggesting a grand bargain with Nidaa Tounes -- a party led by a man that would have been excluded under the political exclusion law. Even Kemal Morjane, a former defense minister and minister of foreign affairs under Ben Ali, announced last Saturday that he would be a candidate in the elections.

Another stumbling block is the furious debate over the role of women in politics, which has driven a wedge between moderates and conservatives particularly within Ennahdha, with the conservatives far more hesitant to support female politicians. Again, the moderates won that debate. In the 2011 elections, 50 percent of candidates were women. Even though women won only 31 percent of the seats in 2011, that is still an impressive proportion -- after all, women comprise only 18.5 percent of the United States Congress. Perhaps more surprisingly, of the 67 seats won by women in 2011, 42 came from the Islamist Ennahdha party. Ennahdha only accounted for 39 percent of the overall vote share in the 2011 election, but delivered 63 percent of the elected female politicians.

This was due in part to the triumph of the party's moderates, who have managed to be both inclusive toward the old guard and toward women. This is good for Tunisia's long-term politics, but poses a short-term threat to peace and stability. Extremists sidelined from Ennahda's decision-making are now going underground, trying to derail the democratic process with violence. Last year, two high-profile assassinations of prominent secular politicians and two failed suicide bombings caused the shutdown of parliament and a near collapse of the government. There have been frequent ongoing attacks targeting soldiers, launched from the Chaambi Mountains, near the Algerian border. (The photo above shows the Tunisian military band performing at a funeral for soliders killed near Mount Chaambi.) Less than three weeks ago, terrorists attacked a secular liberal member of parliament at his house. He fled, leaping from his roof, and barely escaped with his life.

If the birthplace of the Arab Spring is to bridge its internal divides and create one stable, peaceful Tunisia, the October and November elections must go smoothly. 

Elections are not a panacea, but clean and peaceful elections will offer a rebuke to Islamist extremists. They must not be marred by violence and terrorist attacks.

The West can and should help. In late August, the United States announced that it would send $60 million in new military aid to Tunisia to help it fight its terror threat. In mid-August, Tunisia's government announced that it would be calling up reservists, attempting to field a ragtag group of 30,000 soldiers -- many of them reservists -- so that those on active duty can continue hunting terror cells. These are excellent first steps.

But the United States and other international partners can still do more to help shore up security before, during, and after Tunisia's elections. The fragile Tunisian government could use more military advisers and logistical support. Drone surveillance should be used to help stem the threat of cross-border terrorism from Libya.

In addition to these military sticks, donors should offer carrots in the form of increased financial aid. They should hinge future aid on the condition that the country's leaders form an inclusive elected government and that all parties abide by election results. Italy should help by converting some of Tunisia's debt into a special fund used for internal development projects -- a step that the Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki, requested last week.

If these elections proceed peacefully, Tunisia could serve as a beacon of hope for the Middle East, exemplifying a successful transition from ruthless dictatorship to hybrid Islamist democracy -- all while maintaining multi-party elections, human rights, and a thoughtful, consensus-driven political dialogue. 

If they do not, and Tunisia's extremists are able to hijack the elections by creating chaos, then Tunisia's budding democracy will collapse under the weight of two competing visions. Yet another Arab Spring country will wither, wilt, and collapse, following in the bloody footsteps of Libya and Syria.


The Cannibal Emperor of Bangui and Africa's Forgotten Conflict

This article originally appeared in VICE on 19 September 2014.

Tomorrow marks the 35th anniversary of the French-organized military coup that ousted the cannibalistic self-proclaimed Emperor of the Central African Republic, Jean-Bédel Bokassa.

Today, Bokassa’s former ‘empire’ is still a hotbed of unspeakable cruelty and war, mired in a sectarian conflict that teeters on the edge of genocide but has not (yet) fallen into that abyss. After a Muslim rebel group—known as the Séléka—toppled President François Bozizé in March 2013, the country has been stuck in a vicious cycle of violence.  One thousand civilians were killed over just a two-day period in December 2013 and thousands more have been killed since. Attacks by Muslim militias are met with reprisal attacks from Christian militias; attacks from Christian militias are met with reprisal attacks from Muslims militias. The conflict is relentlessly brutal.

War crimes have gone largely unnoticed in the international press. Countless children have been hacked to death with machetes in the streets. Women have been gang raped. Others suffer both: being kidnapped and raped if the demanded ransom goes unpaid.

These horrors are obscured by the towering shadows of other conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. But even out of the spotlight, these preventable tragedies are unfolding relentlessly—in this obscure country almost the size of Texas, with a population a little larger than Los Angeles, but a national economy that is 1/100th the size of decaying Detroit. 

The echoes of history ring loudly today in the Central African Republic, as the conflict’s current brutality is strongly reminiscent of Bokassa’s earlier ‘empire.’

Jean-Bedel Bokassa took power in a military coup in 1966, and then proclaimed himself Emperor of the Central Africa ten years later. The ceremony nearly bankrupted the impoverished country (his diamond-encrusted crown itself cost nearly $5 million). Bokassa even used state funds to fly his horse guard to France for special training. And when he crowned himself, he wore a 20-foot long velvet and ermine cloak.

Bokassa was also a monster. His reign was repulsively savage, even on a continent notorious for brutal dictators. Bokassa ordered that thieves be beaten, usually with hammers and chains while he watched. He also relished feeding accused criminals to his personal crocodiles and lions at his lavish Villa Kolongo. Worst of all, Bokassa was allegedly a cannibal, keeping human flesh in his kitchen that he supposedly served to unsuspecting guests. During the coronation ceremony, the newly crowned emperor turned to a French minister in attendance and whispered, “You never noticed, but you ate human flesh.”  

In spite of these horrors, the French government called Bokassa “a friend and family member.” Bokassa exploited that friendship for weapons and foreign aid, the nectar of corruption for his kleptocracy. In return, the French president at the time, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, gallivanted around Central Africa killing elephants on hunting trips with the emperor and eagerly bought uranium from the Central Africa Republic to fuel France’s nuclear industry.

This friendship, combined with the “empire’s” penchant for exporting diamonds and Bokassa’s particular taste for poaching elephants for their ivory, kept the emperor in power for thirteen years. 

Yet, when news broke in France that Bokassa had personally beaten as many as one hundred children to death with canes and stones because they had resisted wearing his government-produced school uniforms, it was too much for even his French allies. On September 20, 1979, French special forces overthrew Bokassa in a carefully executed military coup d’état, ending the emperor’s brutal reign.

Unfortunately for the Central African Republic, the adage that history repeats itself is being proven yet again throughout the bloodstained country. 


Image via Wikimedia Commons  

Just as diamonds and ivory kept Bokassa in power, the same resources are being used to fuel today’s militias. Just as children were brutally murdered by Bokassa and his henchmen, militias are following in those bloody footsteps. In January, journalist Giovanna Cipriana was at Complex Pédiatrique, a children’s hospital in the capital, Bangui, when ten badly mutilated children arrived covered in blood. All of them had been made to watch while the fighters hacked their parents to death with machetes. The men then sliced the children physically with their blades to match the inevitable emotional scars that they will never be free from.

Even cannibalism is rearing its ugly head again in Bangui. A video recently emerged of a man who calls himself “Mad Dog” channeling Bokassa’s legacy. After hacking a Muslim man to death, cooking his flesh in the street, and eating his limbs, he boasted to a BBC reporter: “I ate his leg, right down to the white bone.”

How many future Bokassa-style monsters are being forged today on the anvil of war crimes and horrific, widespread suffering in Africa’s forgotten war?

This is a critical point for the conflict, as a ceasefire signed in late July was recently broken and fighting has resumed. France currently has 2,000 peacekeepers in the country, attempting to stop its former colony and ally from tearing itself apart at the seams. Last month, the United Nations announced an expanded deployment of peacekeepers, bringing the multi-national coalition to 12,000 boots on the ground. Yet the current political leadership is shaky at best; both sides mistrust the interim president. There is a strong risk that another explosion of violence could occur.

As the Central African Republic finds itself at this critical tipping point, the lessons learned from the unspeakable terror wrought by the cannibalistic Emperor of Bangui 35 years ago provide an important foundation for hope and coordinated international action today. 

Three and a half decades ago, the French government had sat by and allowed Bokassa to prey on his citizens with savagery. But then, they began to redeem themselves by forcing his animalistic regime from power.

The same could happen today if the international community did the right thing to cage today’s animalistic fighting in the Central African Republic.  

We have turned a blind eye for too long. While the deployment of additional peacekeepers is a promising first step to stop the bleeding, it will not create a stable, enduring peace. 

First, financial support for the rebels—coming from exported diamonds and illegally poached elephant ivory—needs to be cutoff. A Kimberley Process certification scheme to review the sourcing of diamonds in the world’s trading centers (particularly Dubai) would help stop the sale of the Central African Republic’s blood diamonds. A limited presence of basic drone surveillance would help immensely in stopping poachers in their tracks.

For the long-term, sustained financial support is needed to provide critical humanitarian aid to the estimated one million internal refugees fleeing the perils of war. A lasting power-sharing agreement needs to be signed—with the direct involvement of the Muslim Séléka and the Christian anti-Balaka militias—so that a transitional government can organize credible elections. 

The elected regime will need to put in place a new constitution that guarantees protection and secures political representation for both communities. Any government that deliberately continues to stoke the flames of conflict in the CAR—Chad is most guilty currently—should be chastised by the international community with biting economic and political isolation and sanctions. 

There is no threat of terrorism, no abducted western journalists, no great power politics between Putin and Obama here. There is just suffering, for innocent people, on a horrific scale. While political reconciliation is always tricky, the bloodshed could be stopped much more easily and at much lower cost than the crises in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, or Iraq.

Without these steps, the peacekeeping force will serve as nothing more than a bandage on a machete wound, slowing the bleeding but not saving the patient.

If the world continues to ignore the conflict—this open but agonizingly ignored sore on the world’s conscience—then the Central African Republic will continue to embrace the legacy of Bokassa’s empire: a bottomless abyss of horrific violence and unfathomable suffering. 

Brian Klaas is a Clarendon Scholar and researcher at the University of Oxford, focusing on international political violence and democratic peace building. Follow him on Twitter.

Captain Phillips' Misplaced Storyline

Originally published in USA Today, 1 March 2014

Sunday night, Barkhad Abdi, the actor who portrays the pirate leader in Captain Phillips, will exit a limousine onto the red carpet hoping for an Oscar. Two years ago, he was driving limousines in Minneapolis, scratching together a living like more than 100,000 other Somalis in America.

Abdi's story — on screen and off — symbolizes two trends. Neither is in tonight's spotlight. First, Somali-Americans like Abdi are building a 21st century American dream despite unimaginable adversity. Second, there's one small problem with the Hollywood spotlight on Somali piracy: there were no hijackings off the coast of Somalia in 2013. None.

Abdi's dramatization of Somali piracy in Captain Phillips is electrifying, but it draws attention to the fading story of piracy while obscuring the central plot line: Somalia is a failed state, a forgotten poster-child of human suffering and a geopolitical security risk. We cannot afford to ignore it.

Since 1988, Somalia has suffered a fierce civil war that ruptured into anarchy after Siad Barre's regime was overthrown in 1991. The 1993 Black Hawk Down incident eliminated the appetite for international intervention. Since, there have been various efforts to strengthen government authority. Despite some progress, the government is weak. Clan-based strongmen still profit from instability.

As Somalia festers, hundreds of thousands of civilians have died from war, famine, and disease. Millions more languish in insecurity and poverty. No surprise, then, that more than 100,000 Somalis have relocated to the United States, with more than 30,000 in Minnesota. They fled war but are creating hope. Blighted areas of Minneapolis have become booming Somali small business hubs. Last November, Abdi Warsame, a Somali-born refugee, was elected to the Minneapolis city council — a historic first.

Captain Phillips is a magnificent film, but it does not tell these stories. Instead, it showcases a symptom of the lawlessness, desperation, and poverty created by Somalia's decades-long war: piracy.

However, Somalia pirates are a dying breed. The scourge is now largely eradicated from the Horn of Africa, thanks to a multilateral fleet. Protecting ships is easy. Protecting Somalis from anarchy — and protecting the world from the deadly byproducts of that anarchy — is hard. Multilateral engagement, featuring the cooperation and resolve that made anti-piracy measures successful, would be a start.

Last month, the United Nations warned that 850,000 Somalis are on the brink of starvation. Around Mogadishu, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Somalis live in camps where rape and abuse are common. Beyond humanitarian imperatives, a stable Somalia serves American interests.

In February, al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group, attacked Mogadishu's presidential palace and airport, killing dozens. Last October, al-Shabaab violence spilled outside Somalia, into a Nairobi mall, killing 61 civilians.

The risk of spillover from Somalia is real. There have been no successful attempts by Al-Shabaab to strike in the U.S. but they have recruited Americans — including at least 23 from Minnesota. The first American citizen suicide bomber was recruited in Minneapolis and blew himself up in Somalia in 2008.

Somalia is a textbook example of the security challenges that define the 21st century. Terrorism thrives in lawlessness. Chaos in Somalia threatens us. The White House agrees. In January, President Obama ordered a missile strike targeting a senior al-Shabaab militant, a "surgical" attempt to neutralize the threat with minimal risk to Americans.

But Somalia needs more than missiles and drones, and it needs more than a red carpet Oscars spotlight. The international community should take three critical steps.

First, do no harm. The Somali diaspora, in places like Minneapolis, provides roughly $1.3 billion in aid to friends and family in Somalia. Aggressive money laundering investigations have forced some banks to threaten to sever ties with Somali money transfer organizations. This would be a disaster, either severing a money pipeline that prevents Somalia's total collapse or forcing financial flows into the untraceable darkness of the black market.

Second, authorize larger numbers of peacekeeping troops with a stronger mandate and push the alphabet soup of existing deployments to coordinate more effectively.

Third, Minnesota has half as many people as Somalia but 180 times the government budget. Foreign assistance — with technical expertise, military logistical support, and stable financing — could produce a tipping point.

Sunday night, the spotlight will shine briefly toward Somalia. American foreign policy should hijack that spotlight and use it for a renewed push to shore up American national security by stabilizing Somalia. They should look to the Somali-American diaspora — including success stories like Abdi — for a lesson on how to create a better life from the ashes of war.

Brian Klaas is a Clarendon Scholar and researcher focusing on African politics at the University of Oxford. Jamal Abdulahi is a policy fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Somali-Minnesotans Wield Clout from Minneapolis to Mogadishu

Originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, 28 January 2014

When Somali-Minnesotans receive media attention, it’s often due to controversy, from homegrown suicide bombers to teetotaling cabdrivers refusing to transport alcohol. Last October, when unfounded rumors circulated that Somali perpetrators of the Kenya mall massacre were from Minnesota, national media descended on the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis like locusts. When the rumors were dispersed by the truth, they swarmed away just as quickly.

When it comes to Somali-Minnesotans, these controversies are a sideshow. The real story is how a poor immigrant community has become a major political force locally and abroad, from Minneapolis to Mogadishu.

As policy director for Mark Dayton’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, I saw firsthand that Somali voters were being aggressively courted. I am confident that gubernatorial campaigns outside of Minnesota are not asked to take a position on the Ogaden border dispute between Ethiopia and Somalia.

Such outreach foreshadowed a rising political force.

In November, Abdi Warsame became one of the two highest elected Somali-American officials in the country when he was elected to the Minneapolis City Council. He didn’t just win; he won in a record-breaking landslide. His opponent, incumbent Robert Lilligren, actually received 500 more votes than he had during his victorious 2009 campaign, but lost to Warsame by 1,500 votes nonetheless — a testament to the turnout machine assembled by Warsame’s campaign. Half of Warsame’s votes came from early ballots, smashing the number that President Obama’s 2012 campaign was able to elicit in the Sixth Ward dozens of times over. Few people elected to the City Council from that ward have ever received as many votes as Warsame.

Those in the Somali community made it emphatically clear: They have political muscle, and they know how to flex it.

As Warsame recently explained to me, “We wanted my success to reflect the growing clout of the Somali community … but I represent all the people of Ward Six and everyone in Minneapolis.”

Warsame’s inclusive rhetoric is indicative of a trend: Somali-Minnesotans are becoming more integrated into the fabric of Minnesota politics. Many of those who fled from bloody fighting in their homeland are now fighting for better snow removal, job training and better education for their kids in Minnesota’s world-class schools.

Not everyone shares this enthusiasm for Minnesota politics. Some Somali-Minnesotans still look back to their homeland, a distant but nagging identity anchor that is hard to detach.

Since Somalia’s civil war started in 1991, the country has become a horrifying place. The best estimates suggest that the average citizen of Somalia earns between $1 and $3 per day. Eighty-five percent of children never attend even elementary school. Life expectancy is just 51; in Somalia, a numerical midlife crisis would affect 26-year-olds. This is no Lake Wobegon.

Such tragedies are hard to ignore, particularly when friends and family members are still suffering. Even Warsame, the symbol of Somali integration, admits, “I’m a proud Somali — and what is happening in Somalia affects me, too.”

Unlike Warsame, some Somali-Minnesotans made the wrong choice, further destabilizing an already horrific nightmare. America’s first suicide bomber came from the Minnesota Somali community. Two Rochester women were convicted of funding Al-Shabab, a terrorist organization, and 25 others are believed to have left Minnesota to join its ranks.

Equally destructive, Mohamed “Tiiceey” Aden, formerly of Burnsville, returned to Somalia and became implicated in piracy as governor of a province in central Somalia. He was recently apprehended in a “reverse Argo” sting, wherein Belgian authorities tricked him and another pirate kingpin into traveling to Belgium to be advisers for a fake “Captain Phillips”-style film; they were arrested when they landed.

Some Somali-Minnesotans clearly have made a bad situation in Somalia worse. They are the minority. The tales of a rotten few apples have obscured the triumphs of the bunch — contributions to peace, stability and humanitarian relief in Somalia, 8,000 miles away.

Somali-Americans contribute $215 million in annual payments to friends and family in Somalia. Most comes from Minnesota. These remittances affect as many as 80 percent of Somali households, and surveys suggest that most families use the remittances to buy fundamentals: food and medicine. This funding is a key reason why Somalia has been able to slowly get back on track, successfully forming a federal government in 2012. Without this pipeline of Minnesota money, Somalia’s already dire straits would worsen.

Moreover, some Minnesotans have returned to Somalia to help rebuild the country as members of the government. Their Minnesota educations may save countless lives as they attempt to secure a fragile peace.

Most, however, have stayed in Minnesota — forging a vibrant community, transforming the so-called “Crack Stacks” (the Riverside Plaza apartment towers) into a small-business hub and propelling one of their own to elected office.

This, then, is the real story of Minnesota Somalis. The early arrivals came from a fiery conflict to our frozen lakeshores — tired, poor, huddled masses. Now, they are a political force to be reckoned with, from Lake Calhoun to the Indian Ocean.

Brian Klaas is a Clarendon Scholar and researcher at the University of Oxford, focusing on African politics. He grew up in Golden Valley.