“Just cruisin’?” Or “Of guided missiles and misguided policy-makers”

Given the latest developments in and around Syria, it’s only fitting that I should bring the blog back from retirement.

As of 2 minutes ago, the latest news reports from major sources (I have no inside track on this) suggest that the United States might soon start to intervene in Syria. Personally, I don’t think that there is a good way to go about doing this even if we accept the moral case for intervention. As Jon Western put it earlier at the Duck of Minerva, Not All Interventions are the Same. Of many bad options, it bothers me that US officials are going for a particularly bad one. Let’s break it down.

1 – Obama and his team are inclined to fire cruise missiles at Syrian bases.
2 – They explicitly say they don’t want to do enough damage to make a “tactical difference” and definitely not with the goal of regime change (directly or indirectly).
3 – They are NOT going to target airstrips that serve as entry points for Iranian and Russian supplies (because that would contradict point 2 above).
4 – They are also NOT targeting the chemical weapons themselves, only their means of delivery.
5 – They acknowledge that there might be civilian casualties from the attacks and that it might provoke further escalation from the Syrian regime or their regional supporters.

So this is either: a) an entirely futile exercise in face saving and point making that might risk more lives than it can possibly save or b) they are hoping that the blowback will be enough to justify further and more forceful intervention (which some, but not many, in the Administration seem to prefer). If the answer is (a), the damage to  Syrian military capabilities will be minimal and the effects on the result of the conflict likely inconsequential (by design). The message sent will be “feel free to kill as many people as you want, and I don’t care who wins out, as long as you don’t use chemical weapons”. Not exactly a strong moral position to begin with, and one weakened by every life lost or endangered in the process.

If the answer is (b) and the Administration is being deceitful or disingenuous, trying to manipulate the Syrian response to further break through Russian intransigence in the UNSC and justify more direct intervention, than we should be thinking ahead and asking, what will that intervention look like and what will its goal be?

From talking to people who know a lot more about this than I do, I get the impression that US intelligence agencies and think tanks don’t seem any closer to figuring out who are their “good guys and bad guys” in Syria than they were a couple of months ago (and definitely less confident in the distinction than they were a year and a half ago). This, by the way, makes me think that officials are being honest when they say that regime change really isn’t the goal and that the answer really is (a).

I tend to be cynical when it comes to these things and every ounce in my political scientist body tells me to never take official statements of intent at face value, but it’s always good to keep in mind Bernard Brodie’s exhortation in his masterful War and Politics: though we might be inclined to attribute others’ behavior to things like greed (and duplicity) we can identify within ourselves, stupidity is just as common as greed and just as likely to be behind policy, if not more. For the US government to pull of the strategic manipulation that (b) implies, it would require a certain degree of forethought and certainty of and coordination around a desired endgame amongst the key decision-makers. Stupidity, or misguidedness if we wish to be less blunt, and a natural desire for political preservation are probably the drivers here.

What am I missing?

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The 2012 Coup in Guinea-Bissau: CPLP, Portugal, Angola, Brasil and…wait…Guinea!

“This is the last chance for Guinea-Bissau. If stability in the country is not restored, there may be no more hope (…)” – Shola Omoregie, head of the U.N. mission in the West African country said at a meeting in the Senegalese capital Dakar. – quoted in UNPAN in 2007.

Here in Portugal, the Acordo Ortográfico (something like a “Spelling Agreement”, the AO) is famous for all the wrong reasons. Instead of bolstering the lusophone identity by creating a single spelling system for all Portuguese speaking countries, it actually backfired and is hated by most Portuguese, who see it as a instrument to subvert what they believe to be their language. I tend to argue that the many points raised against the AO are underlined by a essentially nationalistic thrust. Anyway, that’s a topic for another post. The political goal of the AO was to finally carve a way to the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP – Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa), this fifteen year old organization that brings together eight countries (Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal, São Tomé e Príncipe and East Timor) and three observers (Equatorial Guinea, Mauritius and Senegal) has a brand new headquarters in Lisbon and some missions and events, but still fails to find it’s own space as an active international organization.

It seems the AO hasn’t cut it, but the CPLP has apparently found its golden goose: Guinea-Bissau. What the CPLP and its member states can offer Guinea-Bissau in the wake of the coup and what this crisis offers to CPLP, is the topic of a next post, but is a question to keep in mind while reading this one.

Map of Guinea-Bissau (from Nations Online Project)

Guinea-Bissau recently suffered an attempted-turned-real coup d’etat that pit its military against the acting government that was ruling the country between the death of former president Malam Bacai Sanhá, from the PAIGC party, and new elections. As the NY Times put it:

“In April 2012, former prime minister Carlos Gomes Jr. appeared poised to win the presidency in a runoff election. But shortly before the vote, explosions blasted through the capital, Bissau, and the military sealed off the city’s downtown area and lobbed grenades at Mr. Gomes’s home, according to a diplomat and witnesses. The diplomat said the shooting started after the state radio station signal inexplicably went dead. He said that the whereabouts of the interim president, Raimundo Pereira, were unknown. It was unclear whether Mr. Gomes was inside the house.”

I will skip the details of the chronology of events in the country, but if you haven’t followed the situation, I recommend taking a brief look at the news, here (also in Portuguese and in French) and especially here. As I write this post, the negotiations, discussions and bureaucratic sprockets of the bilateral and multilateral diplomacy are accelerating to bring an UN-sanctioned mission to the ground in Guinea-Bissau, and you can find more about that in the links above.

I basically want to briefly address two questions here: 1) The problem of statehood in Guinea-Bissau; and 2) What are the prospects for an international intervention in Guinea-Bissau.

So let’s tackle the first point, starting with an anecdote: last year I attended a Conference on African Security here in Lisbon, at a military institution. At one of the sessions, a brilliant portuguese scholar, Prof. Dr. Teresa Cravo, presented her work on Guinea-Bissau. At the end, debate time was granted by the chair and the confusion started: first some patronizing questions on Guinea-Bissau being a narco-state, then some nationals of Guinea replied minimizing this issue. No one talked about nor seemed to have understood the presentation, but started to digladiate over the issue. Finally, two of the people engaging the debate decided to use the ID trump card: one was a former military in Guinea-Bissau and the other a former Minister of Justice. The first one started his own statement by telling us how he was personally responsible for two of the several past coups d’Etats in the country, and the Minister told the audience that all that had been said was a lie, and there was no narcotics problem nor “abnormal” political problems in the country. We had already exhausted the time for that session by a long margin, and one of the organizers forcefully declared the session finished, but most of the audience was in shock.

Most scholarly accounts pin Guinea-Bissau as a failed-state, being more and more dominated by the dynamics of drug trafficking, and therefore, a narco-state. I would accept those two definitions, and would add a pinch of “completely private conflict”, not in the most widely used sense (that it is the one that it is waged by PMCs – Private Military Corporations), but in the sense that the driving forces for conflict in Guinea-Bissau are not popular in nature (anti-colonial struggle), or even identity-based (ethnic/religious/national conflict or secessionism). What drives the conflict there are mostly the interests of single individuals or rather small groups of people with power, that mobilize violence resources for their own benefit. In Guinea-Bissau, there’s no one looking to seize power in the name of a shared identity; instead, they are privatizing state power/structures, for themselves and their cronies.

Apparently, the 2012 coup fits this assessment: the military (mainly the Army), led by General Antonio Indjai, seized the country on a Thursday night, deposing the government-in-exercise (and seemingly favourite candidate in the elections’ second round) and disarming the police. Gen. Indjai and his entourage mobilized the whole military apparatus against the government. It seems that Gen. Indjai is a close friend to strongman retired Rear Admiral Bubo Na Tchuto, a former Chief of the Navy who has been involved in previous coup d’Etat attempts. Na Tchuto is also known to be the drug boss in Guinea-Bissau nowadays. There’s a clear pattern of interest articulation, with the national military being used to ensure the interest of the drug industry, through a tangled (but not that complex) web of contacts and associations. The interest of crime organizations is shaping the country’s politics, security sector and people’s lives.

For most people life continues unchanged in Guinea-Bissau, but that’s exactly the point: the state is so unimportant to the Bissau-Guineans that, except for private interests (and to international eyes), the absence of rule of Law and constitutional order doesn’t make the news. This coup is mostly regarded as another sad event in the history of the country so far, but nothing really tragic. If we compare the level of violence in Guinea-Bissau to other conflicts in Africa, it’s actually quite moderate. The absence of the state translates much more into poverty and degraded living conditions than to open traditional violence directed at the population.

Moving to the second issue. It is now known that Portuguese and Brazilian notes verbales are already circling around key embassies and that both Foreign Ministers are directly engaged in advocacy and pressure for international engagement in Guinea-Bissau. Both of them personally contacted US Secretary of State Clinton and Portuguese Minister Paulo Portas is in NYC for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting on the situation in Guinea-Bissau. The Portuguese newspaper Expresso published that the Brazilian Ambassador to the United Nations, Amb. Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti declared that it could take less than a week to deploy a UN mission to the African country (a record!), to protect civilians and sustain the restoration of the democratically elected government, and should come coupled with sanctions on the military leaders and a strong international community condemnation on the attempt to take power through military force. She also adds that the UNSC will consider a recommendation for a mandated joint CPLP-CEDEAO mission.

But what will a UN-mandated mission do in Guinea-Bissau? Who will they be fighting? Or monitoring? Or interposing? These are the actual questions that should be asked. The military led by Indjai already assumes the situation as the new status quo, and by closing naval, aerial and terrestrial boundaries (following Portugal’s announcement that it was sending a task-force composed by a frigate, a corvette, a re-supply ship and a maritime reconnaissance aircraft to the theatre, to support any need to evacuate portuguese citizens from Guinea-Bissau) they’re signalling that they are not at all open to a international armed mission. In fact, the ruling military junta already stated that any mission will be seen as an invading force, “because Guinea-Bissau is not at war”. Even considering that their discourse is deeply flawed, it’s hard to contradict the guy holding the gun – unless the UN gives a mandate (and SOFA, and MoA, etc.) and money to concretize an actual occupation force in the country, to expel another military force illegally occupying the territory (even though it is their own military), something like Kuwait in the 90s (and they should be bringing the US too). But will CPLP wage war against one of their own? CPLP is not exactly the UN.

Neither the UN, nor the CPLP or CEDEAO, nor Brazil or Portugal seem to know what a mission in Guinea-Bissau would need to accomplish. But they know that the country needs a mission, something! But they’ll need to do better than that. What are the actual challenges of Guinea-Bissau and how can a mission engage them? This is the question that the UN should be asking, and answering, all together with the parties involved in taking action. I would risk a brief shot saying that Guinea-Bissau needs minimal peacekeeping/peace enforcement and a major peacebuilding effort. More than that, that country needs countries actually willing to engage the issue on the long term, but also needs more interest by the Bissau-Guineans themselves and their diaspora. The know-how coming from East Timor (which mainly involved many similar actors and interests) should play an important part in paving the way for any attempt to “stabilize” Guinea-Bissau. Crucially, the attitude that characterizes the quote I chose to open this piece SHOULDN’T be the guiding principle of ANY proposed mission in the country, as it has in the past.

Funny thing: in Libya, the UN mandated a NATO mission to overthrow a government, now, in Guinea-Bissau, the UN is going to mandate a CPLP-CEDEAO mission to restore a government. Either for leaving or for coming back, the UN is willing to lend a hand!

* I thank the contribution of Cláudia Teles to the ideas present in this piece.