Shadow Government

Vietnam's muddled economy and 'meddlesome priest'

Two news items emanating from Vietnam in the past few days show the considerable challenges this promising nation still faces. The stories at first glance would seem to have little in common. The first, from the Washington Post, relates an appalling incident in which Vietnamese security thugs attacked a U.S. diplomat attempting to visit the dissident and Catholic priest, Father Nguyen Van Ly, under house arrest. The second, from the New York Times, describes the economic turbulence besetting Vietnam as its state-run industries and unstable currency face the harsh reality checks of international finance and market forces. Undergirding both stories is a common theme: the liability of one-party rule by Vietnam's Communist Party and its decrepit authoritarianism.

Much of the prevailing debate about the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism (and its Russian cousin) overshadows the fact that other nations, such as Vietnam, are trying to follow a similar path. It is a mixed record. Since Vietnam's Politburo inaugurated the "Doi Moi" economic liberalization reforms in 1986, the country has experienced substantial growth averaging around 7 percent per year. Behind these impressive numbers are the countless Vietnamese citizens whose lives and livelihoods have been considerably improved over the past two decades.

Yet as the late economist Herb Stein declared in his eponymous law: "if something cannot go on forever, it will stop." Such is the case with the hopes for enduring growth in a brittle system such as Vietnam's, where the Communist Party still plans much of the economic activity and vainly tries to insulate its state-owned enterprises from market discipline. The Times story includes a statistic that dramatizes the inefficiency of Vietnam's government-owned companies: they absorb 40 percent of the capital invested in the country but produce only 25 percent of its gross domestic product. Such capital misallocations are having deleterious consequences, such as inflation, credit rating downgrades, rising interest rates, and a stagnant stock market.

Father Ly's case puts a more vivid face than economic figures on the maladies of Vietnam's one-party rule. Along with the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do (who has been confined to pagoda arrest -- yes, pagoda arrest -- for years), Father Ly is one of the country's most prominent religious dissidents and human rights activists. The plucky cleric has been imprisoned and released (usually on account of international pressure) numerous times over the years, and his brash criticisms of the government continually provoke the Communist Party into foolish displays of its most unsavory traits. Such as this most recent appalling episode, where Vietnamese security agents attacked U.S. Embassy officer Christian Marchant simply for attempting to visit Father Ly in his home. Were the brutish police responding to the fulminations of a Politburo member invoking Henry II and bemoaning "who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" Or were these the actions of, as the boilerplate excuse would put it, "overzealous local officials?" Either way, this assault on an American diplomat is a damning indictment of the Vietnamese Government.

Somewhat ironically, these two setbacks for both human rights and economic growth come in the midst of an otherwise growing strategic convergence between the United States and Vietnam. These improving ties, begun under the Clinton administration and furthered under the Bush and Obama administrations, are a welcome trend and should continue as part of U.S. grand strategy in Asia. But a wise geopolitics encompasses all aspects of a relationship. As the Bush administration in particular demonstrated, it is both possible and prudent to press Vietnam strongly for human rights improvements while still strengthening overall bilateral ties. Even more so, over time a Vietnam that respects the economic, political, and religious freedoms of its people will make a more reliable partner for the United States and perhaps even become another successful chapter in Asia's freedom story.

The Times article closes with the optimistic observation that Vietnam will weather these latest economic challenges because of the resilience, dynamism, and dedication of its citizens. As anyone who has visited or lived in Vietnam in recent years will attest, the Vietnamese people are indeed a marvel: personable, hard-working, optimistic. Which is why Vietnam will never reach its full potential under an unaccountable government that tries to silence its most creative, courageous citizens, such as Father Ly.


Shadow Government

Karzai is not insane -- just irrelevant

There is a major cottage industry among Washington analysts in Karzaiology. Karzaiologists spend weeks and months pouring over the tea leaves of the Afghan president's latest outburst or rash decision and periodically emerge to pronounce upon the United States' prospects for success in Afghanistan. I was a practiced hand in Karzaiology for years. According to the Washington Post, "There is near-universal agreement among top U.S. officials involved in Afghanistan that Karzai's behavior and leadership have a direct bearing on the outcome of the multinational counterinsurgency mission."

What worries the Karzaiologists most is that Hamid Karzai appears quite insane. He is rumored to erupt in periodic emotional outbursts. He threatens to join the Taliban. He tried to ban security barriers in Kabul in 2006 and private security firms nationwide in 2010. He exhibits paranoia about Britain, the United States, and, especially, Pakistan.

There is a variant of this view, held by the likes of journalist and activist Sarah Chayes and others, that says that Karzai's government is neither weak nor crazy: it is in fact highly capable, just at the wrong things. It is highly capable of graft, corruption, extortion, and tribal nepotism. Karzai is the head of a well-oiled tribal kleptocracy, in this view.

Regardless, all members of the School of Karzaiology agree: Karzai is massively important and hugely dangerous.

This view is at least vastly overstated, if not outright wrong. It commits two basic errors. First, it underestimates Karzai's rationality. Second, it overstates his actual importance.

Karzai is a much shrewder political operator than U.S. analysts give him credit for. Western analysts have a tendency to fall prey to a perspective bias. They expect that Karzai views himself and his situation the same way we do; since his actions make no sense to us, they can't possibly make much sense to the man himself. Therefore, Karzai is "emotional," "unstable," "paranoid," and "irrational."

But Karzai is acting fairly rationally given the constraints and pressures he faces. He is head of a government that for most intents and purposes does not function, no matter what he decides. He faces an insurgency that seems to have staying power and an international force that does not. He faces a parliament that is unwieldy at best, openly hostile at worst. He "appoints" governors who likely still have their own private armies (which he lacks), who often wield more effective power than he does, and who only recently took sides in a ruinous civil war -- the renewal of which is always a tacit threat hanging like a Damocles Sword over Karzai's head. Karzai faces an impossible balancing act.

But in response, Karzai does not have many options. His "decisions" don't actually change reality so much as they express intent or exhibit symbols. In the face of his many challenges, almost the only tools he has are words. If he wants to protest air strikes or home raids, he makes dramatic statements about a "foreign occupation." If he feels threatened by conservatives and warlords, he starts to burnish his Islamic credentials and sound populist rhetoric. If he believes the Taliban are winning and the international community is withdrawing, he threatens to switch sides. None of these words stem from real beliefs so much as they simply reflect whichever pressure Karzai feels most urgently at the moment.

In response to Chayes and others (whose views and work I greatly respect), who argue that Karzai does in fact head a highly capable network, I respond that capacity is not fungible. Even if it is true that Karzai heads a highly effective organized crime ring (and I think the thesis is overstated), the Karzai network's capacity for extracting illicit resources cannot simply be rerouted to productive ends, like building roads and schools, if Karzai had a sudden change of heart, or a sudden heart-attack. Governance requires fundamentally different skills than corruption. A change at the top does not change the skills, abilities, and inclinations of a whole network. The Afghan government and the Karzai network are equally incapable of governing, regardless of their skill at criminal enterprises.

Karzai's "decisions," then, are not public policy: they are rhetoric. The Afghan government is incapable of having, much less implementing, a public policy. The fight to persuade Karzai to make the "right decision" on any given policy issue is really an effort to make his government appear more attractive to Afghan moderates. The effort to make him a more effective "manager" is about renewing his appeal to western donors. Policy towards Karzai is mostly an effort to improve Kabul's image, not capacity.

That is important, but it is far less important than most Karzaiologists will tell you. The counterinsurgency campaign will ultimate succeed or fail based on a thousand other factors, not Karzai's rhetoric. The war will be won or lost by how well our soldiers fare against the Taliban; how sustainable the internationally-sponsored economic reconstruction effort is, and how well local government officials -- not Karzai -- meet the needs of Afghans on the ground.