India’s Defence Production Optimisation Problem

The Caravan has an excellent in-depth story on the Rafale controversy. Beyond the specifics of the current controversy, the investigation throws light on the problems in defence production that continue to haunt India’s strategic ambitions.

On the face of it, defence production suffers from an acute case of what I had referred to earlier as hyper multi-objective optimisation. My argument was that the reason some government policies in India fail is because they try to optimise several objectives simultaneously, ultimately creating a solution that meets none of the objectives.

Now defence procurement is essentially an oligopsony i.e. it is a market where only a few buyers exists — only a few nation-states in the world have the financial muscle to buy 10 submarines or 100 multirole aircraft for example. My argument is that this oligopsony makes the optimisation problem even worse. The government believes that because it has more weight in the market, it has the luxury of optimising many more objectives in the process.

Let us look at what the government is optimising when it sets out to purchase defence equipment today.

  1. defence preparedness: primarily determined by the end users i.e. the armed forces
  2. costs: both explicit and opportunity costs
  3. strategic value: every defence purchase from foreign players raises the question that should we buy from existing trade partners or not
  4. creating an indigenous defence-industrial complex: this is further divided into two sub-goals. One is sustaining the ailing government-owned public sector companies. The second one is spurring investment from private Indian entities.

Now, even without any prior background, optimising all these objectives appears to be a herculean task. But even while India’s procurement processes were notoriously lethargic, new objectives were being added. The fourth objective was explicitly added  through an offset policy in 2005 and more recently through a strategic partnership model in 2016. And quite naturally, it is this fourth objective that has become the main sticking point in the Rafale controversy.

So with the government’s flagship reform failing, we are back to the starting point: what should be the mechanism to address India’s defence requirements? What principles should govern procurement and purchase?

One of the ways to resolve hyper multi-objective dilemmas is withdrawal. The government could let go of the aim to indigenise when it is looking to make a specific defence purchase. Get rid of the offsets policy altogether for a few years. The indigenisation problem should then be targeted at a later point of time. This is just one method. There could be other variations of choosing objectives that can work better but what is clear is that the current method needs a complete and urgent shakeup.

 

 

The Opportunity Cost of Counter-terrorism

Today marks seventeen years since 9/11 happened. If terrorism is theatre, all its shows have been running full house since that fateful day in September 2001.

India has of course been dealing with the threat posed by terrorism long before 9/11. But that attack made the rest of the world take notice of the dangers posed by terrorism. In the US for example, new strategies were made, new intelligence organisations were setup, and armed forces were retrained for counter-terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11.

Similarly, India underwent a change to add teeth to its counter-terrorism strategy and the question that I want to focus on in this blog post is: at what cost have we achieved counter-terrorism effectiveness? Let me explain.

The cost of terrorism is a subject that’s been discussed in great detail. But lest we forget, a cost is incurred for countering terrorism as well. By cost here, I mean the economic cost and not merely the explicit accounting cost. Economic cost is the sum of accounting cos and opportunity cost. And the opportunity cost of a choice is the value of the opportunities lost (Cowen and Tabarrok). So, is the value of the opportunities lost by India in choosing to focus on counter-terrorism significant enough that we should lose our sleep on it?

To be sure, counter-terrorism requires spending money and deploying resources. At a macro-level, every resource spent by the government on counter-terrorism could’ve instead been used on something else. But because the threat of terrorism is so potent, it probably makes sense to incur the cost of letting other opportunities slip by. But is there any component of this opportunity cost that needs a relook?

I believe there is one component that needs some rethinking – the opportunity cost of getting R&AW involved in counter-terrorism. Because we probably will never have solid data to understand the resources diverted from R&AW to focus on counter-terrorism, my claim is only based on statements made by intelligence officers.

One such statement I came across was in a recently televised interview of two highly respected retired intelligence officers Tilak Devasher and Vikram Sood. At 10:25, Mr Devasher paraphrases from Mr Sood’s book The Unending Game, saying:

The focus is on terrorism and immediate actionable intelligence. What everybody is looking for is an instant coffee book report. So nobody is looking at the longer-term picture. What happens six months or six years down the road, where is that country headed, what are the vulnerabilities of that country which will affect us, those capabilities have been diminished.

Assuming this is how R&AW has actually transformed itself for countering terrorism, the opportunity cost is not at all trivial. This is because R&AW is a small organisation with limited resources at its disposal.  On the other hand its mandate is huge – it is perhaps the only Indian organisation that is tasked with collecting intelligence and conducting operations in other countries. If such an important organisation is disproportionately focused on counter-terrorism, it means that there is diminished focus on extremely critical questions such as: what will happen in China over the next six months? What should India’s stance be with respect to persecution in Xinjiang? How should India influence political events in Afghanistan? What will be the security implications of a water crisis in Pakistan?

This is a huge opportunity lost. Particularly so because terrorism is not just the only threat facing India. The conventional threats of an arrogant China and an irreconcilable Pakistani military-jihadi complex are just two others in a larger list of long-term threat vectors that India needs to be worried about. The US can afford to focus on counter-terrorism disproportionately because probably it really is the largest threat, given its geography and relative power. But India’s threat matrix looks very different and hence an assessment of opportunity costs of counter-terrorism is necessary.

PS: I suppose the same case of high opportunity cost applies to the Indian army. With its focus on countering terrorism in J&K, one needs to ask, what is the value of other opportunities being lost.

 

 

Ambedkar on Equality

These lines from BR Ambedkar from Annihilation of Caste on the concept of Equality, are an absolute must-read.

First, he classifies equality along three dimensions:

Equality may be a fiction but nonetheless one must accept it as the governing principle. A man’s power is dependent upon (1) physical heredity, (2) social inheritance or endowment in the form of parental care, education, accumulation of scientific knowledge, everything which enables him to be more efficient than the savage, and finally, (3) on his own efforts. In all these three respects men are undoubtedly unequal. But the question is, shall we treat them as unequal because they are unequal ? This is a question which the opponents of equality must answer. From the standpoint of the individualist it may be just to treat men unequally so far as their efforts are unequal. It may be desirable to give as much incentive as possible to the full development of every one’s powers. But what would happen if men were treated unequally as they are, in the first two respects ? It is obvious that those individuals also in whose favour there is birth, education, family name, business connections and inherited wealth would be selected in the race. But selection under such circumstances would not be a selection of the able. It would be the selection of the privileged. The reason therefore, which forces that in the third respect we should treat men unequally demands that in the first two respects we should treat men as equally as possible.

Assuming this three-fold classification of (in)equality, one can deduce what Ambedkar would have said about the contemporary demands for reservation. He would have opposed them as the groups seeking affirmative action are not disadvantaged in the first two respects. If anything, some of these groups have been the most dominant political communities in the states.

Ambedkar then gives a utilitarian reason for why we need to uphold the principle of equality.

On the other hand it can be urged that if it is good for the social body to get the most out of its members, it can get most out of them only by making them equal as far as possible at the very start of the race. That is one reason why we cannot escape equality. But there is another reason why we must accept equality. A Statesman is concerned with vast numbers of people. He has neither the time nor the knowledge to draw fine distinctions and to treat each equitably i.e. according to need or according to capacity. However desirable or reasonable an equitable treatment of men may be, humanity is not capable of assortment and classification. The statesman, therefore, must follow some rough and ready rule and that rough and ready rule is to treat all men alike not because they are alike but because classification and assortment is impossible. The doctrine of equality is glaringly fallacious but taking all in all it is the only way a statesman can proceed in politics which is a severely practical affair and which demands a severely practical test.

Australia and the Logic of Strategy

Edward Luttwak wrote presciently in 2012 that:

Other things being equal, when a state of China’s magnitude pursues rapid military growth, unless the resulting shift in the power balance passes the culminating point of resistance inducing the acceptance of some form of subjection, it causes a general realignment of forces against it, as former allies retreat into a watchful neutrality, former neutrals become adversaries, and adversaries old and new coalesce in formal or informal alliances against the excessively risen power.

Perhaps, this logic of strategy is most apparent in Australia’s recent foreign policy conduct. The setting up of a highly classified inquiry on Beijing’s clandestine influence over Australian politics by PM Malcom Turnbull in 2016 was the first sign that Australia is realigning its forces against China. This eventually resulted in a legislation in June 2018 that raises the costs for Australians found to be guilty of batting for foreign powers.

The second visible sign was Australia’s changed perception over the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Under Kevin Rudd’s leadership, Australia had withdrawn from discussions in 2008. In 2017, they were strongly back.

Signs three and four are specific to Australia’s engagement with India. Over the past couple of years, Australian federal and state governments have infused new vigour in their India connections. This multi-pronged approach has meant that Australia has even managed to create favourable stakeholders outside the Old New Delhi region. The frequency of visits by Australian state government legislators and policy experts to other cities in India has certainly increased. For example, Bengaluru alone is home to trade offices of Victoria and Queensland. New South Wales and Western Australia have trade offices in Mumbai. And the federal government’s Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) has its presence in 10 Indian cities.

The fourth and the latest sign is an India Economic Strategy 2035 document that was released by the Australian government earlier this month. Commissioned by the Turnbull government, the document identifies 90 specific recommendations for increasing Australian presence in India. Not only does it identify the priority sectors, it also identifies the ten states in India that Australian federal and state governments must focus on. The document illustrates both:  foresight of the Australian foreign policy establishment and Luttwak’s logic of strategy.

 

Anticipating the Unintended Consequences of Regulating Cinema Halls

Movie-watching in Indian cinema halls has become a highly politicised commodity. First, a few state governments capped movie price tickets. An unintended yet easily anticipated consequence followed. The prices of complementary goods —  popcorns, soft-drinks, and snacks — rose.

And now, the Maharashtra government has gone one-step ahead. IT also wants to tackle the rise in prices of these complementary goods. The Food and Civil Supplies Minister said this on the floor of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly:

There is no ban on patrons carrying outside food to multiplexes and if the multiplex authorities prohibit it, they could face action.

Not to be outdone, the Karnataka government has said that it will soon follow suit.

I’ll leave the discussion on entitlement and endowment effects for another post. For now, let’s anticipate the unintended consequence of this latest move.

  1. The movie-watching experience can be expected to be less than satisfactory. Movie halls will be littered with homemade food. There will be fights over dietary habits. If the governments go further and cap food and beverages prices as well, theatres will have even lesser avenues to run profitably.
  2. Demand for substitute goods will increase. At the margin, people will decide to choose something else over watching movies at cinema halls. This works well for the likes of Netflix, video pirates, and theatre plays.
  3. Prices of other complementary goods will rise. One can expect an increase in the parking charges at movie theatres or a charge (instead of a refundable return) for the 3D glasses.

In short, I’m not going near a cinema hall anytime soon.

 

 

There’s a New Great Game in Afghanistan. It’s Called Cricket.

— By Retd Lt Gen Namaloom Afraad

There’s a new Great Game in Afghanistan and it is hurting Pakistan badly. This week saw Afghanistan’s entry into test cricket. While we welcome the move, we strongly protest the way in which this was done. India, after surreptitiously granting a ‘home ground’ for the Afghanistan cricket team in Dehradun, is trying to pose itself as a state genuinely interested in Afghanistan’s well-being. What is being forgotten is that the team would have not taken shape at all but for Pakistan graciously allowing Afghan youngsters to play cricket in refugee camps.

The world is well aware of Pakistan’s commitment to peace and stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan has sacrificed many lives to ensure that a true Afghan-led solution can be brought about. That’s the only reason why we are supporting the Afghan Taliban even though it incurs a huge cost to the Pakistani state and society. But while we were busy doing that, India is sabotaging Pakistan’s national interests by providing cricket training to the people of Afghanistan.

We are always asked for proofs of Indian interference in Afghanistan. We don’t need to provide them any longer because India’s role is out in the open. But let me provide a few pieces of evidence in any case.

One, the Afghanistan cricket team couldn’t have been trained without the extensive support provided by R&AW. Grounds and stadia in Afghanistan have been constructed by India. This bolsters the case we have argued for long — India’s four consulates in Afghanistan are actively undermining Pakistani interests in the region.

Two, India is spreading false propaganda in American newspapers on the rise of Afghanistan’s cricket team while whitewashing the role played by Pakistan in the team’s rise.

Three, reliable sources have informed us that Afghanistan T-20 jerseys were being freely sold in India during the match. India even got many Afghanistan supporters into the spectator stands and made them carry flags and banners symbolising India-Afghanistan friendship. The BCCI (not our BCCI, that’s long dead) twitter handle also posted provocative videos like the one below where they got Afghan players to pose with the trophy. All these instances are deliberate acts of provocation on India’s part to destabilise Pakistan’s own efforts in bringing peace to Afghanistan.

Pakistan has always shown active interest in finding a settlement of the Afghan issue. In the recent past, we proposed a string of formations including the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG). In the QCG, Pakistan even took the initiative of inviting the cricketing teams of US and China so that Afghanistan and Pakistan could be in the finals. But the plan failed because India scuttled it and offered cricketing facilities to Afghanistan in India.

We must launch a strong protest against Indian role in Afghanistan cricket and raise the issue in the next UN General Assembly meeting. After all, what are we waiting for? Will we now have to put up with the ignominy of playing a test match against Afghanistan in India? It’s time that Pakistan stood up for its interests and exposed India’s commencement of the new Great Game in Afghanistan.

I watched the Afghanistan cricket team’s test match live from the spectator stands in Bengaluru’s Chinnaswamy Stadium. As Ratan Malli mentioned on Twitter, someone from Pakistan will soon write about how this new engagement is reflective of “India’s meddling in Afghanistan” and “how India is using Afghanistan to foment unrest against Pakistan”. This article has been written to help elements from the Pakistani military-jihadi complex in their endeavours. They can freely copy-paste from here. No citation needed. Only use #satire.

 

Another Shot at Negotiations with the Taliban

Afghanistan’s President, Ashraf Ghani, has announced an unconditional ceasefire with the Taliban until June 20. At the outset, this looks like a last throw of the dice by Ashraf Ghani at peace before the elections. His tenure as President has seen a worsening security situation and a strengthened Taliban. The latest SIGAR Quarterly report (April 2018) noted that:

The winter months saw an unusual surge of violence in Kabul, reflecting the insurgency’s shift to launching successive attacks on civilians in the capital in response to increased ANDSF pressure in the provinces.

Neither has this ceasefire announcement come out of the blue. Earlier in February, Ghani offered to negotiate with the Taliban without preconditions if they would halt their ties with terrorism and respect the Afghanistan constitution. President Ghani had also raised the idea of the Taliban becoming a political party. That didn’t bear any fruit. The Taliban has only increased attacks in Kabul and has spurned all talks about talks with the Afghan government.

So here we are. The unconditional ceasefire is unlikely to nudge the Taliban into talks. They are negotiating from a position of strength with respect to the Afghan government now. Moreover, the current Taliban leadership is under the direct control of Pakistan and has no autonomy whatsoever. This is what we wrote last year:

The current leader of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhunzada, is little known and has been foisted by Pakistan to deny autonomy to the group. Together, the Taliban and the Haqqani network – both beholden to Pakistan – have made it clear that their endgame is not talks but conquest. Even though the National Unity Government (NUG) has tried several processes from Istanbul to Murree to Kabul, and has opened up the terms of the dialogue to include a number of wide-ranging issues, Pakistan has made it clear that this military lever will not be transitioned into a political one.

Perhaps the best outcome that the Afghan government can hope to achieve from this unconditional ceasefire is to break the Taliban into credible factions that can become negotiators in the next round of talks.

PS: All this churn favours Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose return to Afghanistan in 2017 was engineered by Pakistan and is being repositioned by the Pakistan as a mainstream political leader.

India Needs an Aggressive China Insurance Policy

What should India’s conduct with China look like? This question is on the minds of a lot of people in India’s foreign policy circles. I currently have a two-part answer to this question:

Part 1: Assuming that yogakshema for all Indians is defined as the national interest, India’s asks from China would be: peace on the borders and investments in the Indian economy. From a Chinese perspective, these asks are extremely beneficial too. Peace on the Indian border allows them to concentrate their efforts towards challenging the US in the South China Sea. And India is perhaps the only market with the scale and the stability to promise returns on Chinese capital currently flowing to weaker economies.

Part 2: Part 1 is insufficient because China’s recent movements – in Maldives, Nepal, and Doklam – are indicative of its tendency to eschew a mutually beneficial path and pick an openly hostile front instead. To prevent this switch, India needs to invest in I call an Aggressive China Insurance Policy. The motive of this policy is simple: should Xi Jinping’s China get aggressive with India, India should have readily available capacity to inflict significant pain to China in return. The insurance “premium” for this policy includes a variety of measures:

  1. Establish contacts with the key members of World Uyghur Congress and other such organisations.
  2. Shift the focus of “Act East/Look East” to one country — Vietnam.
  3. Offer Trump deals that can deepen the US-India engagement.
  4. Sponsor studies that puncture the “Chinese Leaders Do No Wrong” narrative.

This two-part policy can help India modulate its relationship with China.

Why Did the FATA-KP Merger Happen Now?

Yesterday, the Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain signed a legislation that merged FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. At least notionally, the people of FATA now have the same rights as all other Pakistanis do. In a sense, the decolonisation of FATA began yesterday.

This is a landmark moment for Pakistan and the wider region. But the aspect of this decision that interests me most is: why now? What caused the Overton Window to shift now, making this policy change became feasible?

The FATA region has been critical to the Pakistani military-jihadi complex’s Afghanistan policy. The Haqqani Network and other assorted groups have used this region as a launchpad for their operations inside Afghanistan. And given that the military-jihadi complex (MJC) is at the helm of affairs in Pakistan, the FATA-KP merger indicates a change — tactical or strategic — in the MJC’s policy.

A strategic policy change implies that the MJC is seriously reconsidering its approach of using terrorism to achieve strategic gains. It further means that reeling under self-inflicted losses, the MJC is now thinking of reversing its policy stance towards Afghanistan and perhaps India. Though this sounds like great news, it is also just too good to be true. An indicator that supports this sceptical assessment is this: the MJC has merely replaced the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) with an Interim Regulation Order — old wine in a new bottle. ANP leader Afrasiab Khattak had this to say regarding the merger:

It is more likely that the merger is a tactical response that the MJC was forced to concede. If so, what were the forces that enabled this concession? The success of the snowballing Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) certainly seems to be the immediate trigger. Abolition of FCR was one of the major planks of this movement and the Pakistani Army has at least temporarily taken the wind out of PTM’s sails by agreeing to the FATA-KP merger. This is what a Pakistani analyst had to say regarding the PTM’s role in the merger:

the pressure created by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) cannot be ignored. The PTM has criticized the military for its heavy-handed approach in terms of dealing with ethnic Pashtuns living in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The movement has attracted strong support internationally and successfully built a narrative that accuses the military’s heavy presence as a reason for the region’s ill-treatment. While the military may have been planning to ensure FATA’s regulation, the pressure generated by PTM has only expedited the process.

But then again, if you have followed Pakistani politics long enough, you know that backing down is not the MJC’s style. If PTM were the only factor, they would have been managed through disappearances and even assassinations by the garden variety of namaloom afraads at the disposal of the MJC. So clearly, there’s some other factor at play here.

My speculation is that pressure by the US government had some role to play here. In fact, an allegation to this effect was made by Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman. There might be some grain of truth in this. A test for this hypothesis could be the economic gains Pakistan receives from the US (and IMF) in return for this ‘historic’ step. In recent months, Pakistan’s external debt situation has only worsened and the MJC seems primed to take a detour in its foreign policy in order to meet urgent economic needs.

What do you think made the MJC change its FATA policy?

 

Kowtowing to Chinese Maritime Power Is Not a Good Strategy

I came across an essay titled China is Not Alone in Adding to the Indian Ocean Woes in the Economic & Political Weekly’s 28th April edition.

The article makes three points regarding maritime power in the Indian Ocean region. Each of the three points deserve closer scrutiny and hence this post.

The first point is that maritime power rests not just on managing the maximum number of ships and submarines but also on the control over maritime finance and particularly on maritime services. In the author’s words:

War vessels and merchantmen are the two most visible elements of power at sea. However, the marine service industry, the most important arm of maritime power generally remains obscured. The marine service sector regulates and organises the diverse maritime cluster. This silent force operates in the realm of marine manufacturing, marine legal services, engineering, and technology, and supports the charter, insurance, sale, and purchase of maritime assets. It also determines freight and cargo rates. It is this sector that helped Britain sustain its empire for another 75 years, after the US had become the centre of international manufacturing by the 1870s.

This is a point well made. Given that India’s current approach does not factor in the significance of maritime service industry, effectiveness of India’s exercise of maritime power will continue to be limited in the short-term.

The second point is that India should not solely be focused on China’s maritime expansion in the Indian Ocean:

We are afraid of the Chinese empire-in-the-making while being oblivious to the dangers that the existing American empire poses to the Indian Ocean region. We are so bothered about the Chinese developing a base in Djibouti, but have been oblivious of the fact that France and the US already have a base over there… We do not know how Chinese hegemony will work in the future, but we know the exploitative and heinous character of the French and the British Empires. The question is, why are we not as afraid of the West as we are of the Chinese?

From a realist perspective, this argument makes sense. Increase in power of the other states affects India’s ability to achieve its own objectives. The law of the jungle is indeed the nature of international relations but even so — and this is what the article misses — a bigger animal eats the smaller animal only when it is hungry. And as things stand, there’s only one state with the hunger for expansion in Indian Ocean. So, India must swing on this issue with the US and other powers to restrict the most imminent threat. This collaboration is also necessary to address the first point — building a maritime ecosystem (including a maritime services industry) of its own.

The third point the article makes is:

We cannot move ahead on the presumption that the Chinese empire will be bad. Who knows, it may be a little better and more peaceful than the wretched, iniquitous world that Anglo-American capital has created. The Indian navalists must be a little more judicious and not allow the Indian Navy to be used as a projectile to counter China.

Now this argument is far removed from reality. There is enough evidence to suggest that a Sinocentric world order will not align with India’s quest for yogakshema — peace and prosperity for all Indians. For a start, look at the way China has alienated — simultaneously and purposively — a new generation of peoples in all of its neighbouring countries. Then look at how the Chinese Communist Party has imposed one language on a diverse set of its own peoples. And finally, just glance at its social credit system to see the Chinese vision for the future.

Of course, the US conduct on the liberal international order that it carried forward from Europe has hardly been untainted. But the failings of the US cannot not be used to give a free pass to China.The reason is that irrespective of what the US does, India is fundamentally aligned with the norm of a liberal international order, for its own national interests. We must question the US when it deviates from this norm. But in a Sinocentric world, this norm itself will cease to exist.

This is what I wrote in Pragati a few days ago:

Legitimacy for the Chinese way of reordering the world is constrained by an essentially hierarchical Chinese worldview — one that divides the world between ‘civilisation’ and ‘non-civilisation’ depending on the extent of sinicisation a region has gone through. This makes the idea of a Pax Sinica a repulsive proposition to most states, let alone illegitimate. So, even if China were to become the most powerful state in the world, it is unlikely that it will become the most authoritative actor.

 

 

Why has the US Policy Orthodoxy on Iran Sustained for Four Decades?

On 8th May, the US President announced that the US was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. The US would also be reimposing the sanctions on Iran that were in place prior to the deal. Essentially, we are back to a hostile Iran-US relationship after a short break where a change seemed likely. Now, this hostile policy orthodoxy in the US vis-a-vis Iran has sustained itself for nearly 4 decades. And one of the foreign policy mysteries for me has been: why is that the case?

After all, Iran is one of the most “normal” states in West Asia. It is also a regional power and now there is even some alignment between US and Iranian interests in Afghanistan and over ISIS. And yet, the foreign policy of the US towards Iran hasn’t change for nearly forty years. What are the possible reasons? I asked this question to my colleagues. I’m summarising some of their responses and my own views on them.

The oft-repeated reason given is the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. It is argued that this highly televised, 444-day imbroglio is the reason behind the perception of Iran as a ‘rogue state’ in the US. I doubt if that is the case. Even though this crisis might well be the reason that set the current policy orthodoxy in motion, it does not sufficiently explain why the orthodoxy would continue for four decades. In fact, in the same year the US embassy in Islamabad was burnt. Two Americans died as a result. And yet, there was no break in the US-Pakistan relationship. So, it doesn’t seem logical that another contemporary incident of a similar nature, one in which no American hostage was killed, can create and sustain a policy orthodoxy for four decades. 

The second reason given is that the hatred towards Iran is sustained by Iran’s own acts of hostility towards the US. Indeed, Iran has often taken up the gauntlet on various occasions. But again, this reason doesn’t sufficiently explain why the policy orthodoxy did not change even after Iran demonstrated its willingness to change as part of the P5+1 negotiations. The North Korean example shows that the US that a change in relationship terms is possible even with a state belonging to the ‘axis of evil’.

The third reason given is Trump. That’s an easy one to contest though. Long before Trump came into the picture, this policy orthodoxy was still going strong.

The fourth reason give is “follow the money”. The argument is that pro-Israel and pro-Saudi lobbies in the US ensure that there is no foreign policy change in the US on the Iran issue. There is some weight in this argument and it could help explain the longevity of the policy orthodoxy. If that is case, the emergent hypothesis is that the policy change is incumbent on the Iran-Saudi Arabia-Israel triangle. Unless Iran can patch up with at least one of these two West Asian powers, the US will keep the heat on. 

In any case, this question needs methodical research. I think it’s just one of those questions in foreign policy which is not raised enough. Someone should do a study of the kind Nicolas Blarel has done to explain the orthodoxy and change in the India-Israel relationship. Or perhaps, I have been ignorant. If you know of a study that tackles this question systematically, please point me to it!

 

 

Light-touch Regulation for Social Media

There’s suddenly a lot of talk about how governments need to regulate social media. From a public policy perspective, the immediate cause underlying this policy change is an egregious case of misuse of social media. Policy changes that arise out of crises can often go overboard in the policy instrument deployed.

Using the simple threefold classification of carrots, sticks, and sermons, it means that governments are more likely to use sticks rather than carrots or sermons in such cases. Under the garb of user protection, governments will use the ‘need for regulating the conniving social media‘ narrative to suppress dissent. So, assuming that at least a few governments will choose to intervene, which instrument should be used?

I would advocate for a sermons approach: the government can instruct social media companies to carry a user login banner which explicitly states that

the opinions on your timeline are not be verified and may not be reflective of the truth. User discretion is advised.

Think of the banner that appeared in the beginning of the World Wrestling Entertainment telecasts:

fights are performed by professionals solely for the purpose of entertainment. Any attempt by our fans to emulate our Superstars physicality is extremely dangerous and irresponsible.

The result was that there was no ambiguity in the minds of the viewer that WWE was an entertainment show and not a gladiator fight. Perhaps, a regulation of this kind has some lessons that are relevant now.