One blogger’s personal bridge to nowhere

Why is that everyone makes a big hubbub…

…when two American journalists imprisoned in North Korea return to the United States after a visit from a high-profile politician, but no one seems to make a fuss when a bona fide American wacko is released by the Burmese after swimming, inspired by a vision, to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house?  Can’t Jim Webb get any props?


August 20, 2009 Posted by | U.S. Foreign policy | , | Leave a comment

Iran more impotant to Saddam than the U.S.

Brian Fung of FP Passport uncovers some fascinating tidbits from U.S. interrogations of Saddam Hussein. I found the following extremely interesting.

saddamhusseinHussein continued the dialogue on the issues relating to the significant threat to Iraq from Iran. Even though Hussein claimed iraq did not have WMD, the threat from Iran was the major factor as to why he did not allow the return of the UN inspectors. Hussein stated he was more concerned about Iran discovering Iraq’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities than the repercussions o the United States for his refusal to allow UN inspectors back into Iraq. In his opinion, the UN inspectors would have directly identified to the Iranians where to inflict maximum damage to Iarq. [sic, and emphasis mine]

What’s most shocking is how completely U.S. policymakers seem to have missed this angle. So obsessed were they in Hussein’s “terrorist” threat — or, more accurately, in selling the fear of this threat to their political constituencies back home — that they entirely misunderstood motives that, with any serious study of the reason, would have been eminently clear.

Combined with something else I read recently (I think it was this) about the corresponding futility of trying to understand the Iranian nuclear program without reference, first and foremost, to the Iraq-Iran war, this information proves to me the preeminence of regional dynamics over the big “anti-American” confrontation that American politicians always seem to assume is the driving force of everything. This is hubris, certainly, but it is also just supremely short-sighted. And it’s the kind of thing that torture definitely won’t help you uncover.

(image from flickr user iDip under a Creative Commons license)

July 6, 2009 Posted by | Iran, Iraq, U.S. Foreign policy, U.S. politics | , , | 1 Comment

Arguably, historical memory is important

Robert McFarlane, a National Security Advisor under Reagan, explains the war in Iraq:

In 2003, it was arguably democracy promotion, rather than the threat of weapons of mass destruction, which triggered the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Nice. Since, in the year 2003, the invasion or Iraq was in fact predicated on the threat of weapons of mass destruction — there are no ifs, ands, or buts around this justification, I’m afraid — McFarlane just adds the word “arguably” to fit the long-reigning ex post facto casus belli of “democracy promotion” into a context into which it simply does not belong. Justifying the war on pro-democracy grounds was a rationale that gained in strength with each discovery of a hiding place in which WMD were not hidden. This is not something that’s controversial; it was prevailing conventional wisdom.  Trying to change it through canny means is just an attempt to reclaim historical memory.

June 26, 2009 Posted by | Conservatives, Iraq, U.S. Foreign policy | , , | Leave a comment

Scooby Doo as counter-terrorism model

(cross-posted at Dispatch, with reacts here and here)

Esteemed foreign policy commentators like Dan Drezner, Stephen Walt, Fred Kaplan, and Michael Tomasky have already plied their film knowledge in listing the top international relations movies.  I’ll try to pick up what Matt started earlier today and start an internet meme about the cartoons with the most interesting implications for foreign policy and geopolitics.

I’m tempted to draw a lesson about hubris, paranoia, the place of cold and calculating intelligence in world politics, and the futility of global domination from — where else? — “Pinky and the Brain.”  But I don’t think neoconservatism needs any further rebukes.  Instead I’d nominate Scooby Doo.

Consider the Scooby Doo villains as rudimentary terrorists.  They dress up as scary monsters, terrify the local population, and chase Shaggy and Scooby through endless halls and mismatched doorways.  That they wear masks, and often are after financial gain, may make them seem to resemble old-school bank robbers, but the crux of their power is the terror they invoke in residents.

The mysteries are inevitably solved by the members of the team — Fred, Daphne, and Velma — who remain relatively calm and treat the monsters as criminals — not, say, “enemy combatants” of the beleaguered town.  This is despite the fact that they are impersonating what is, in terms of fear-inducing presence, essentially a child’s equivalent of a bomb-laden terrorist.

But no lockdowns are conducted, there is no torture for information on the monster’s identity, and no pre-emptive strikes.  (The only “operations” are limited to Rube Goldberg-esque traps that are conducted only once the team has accumulated enough evidence to identify the villain, who, naturally, “would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for you lousy kids!”)  The culprit is then arrested by the local police, and, instead of bundling him in the Mystery Machine and sending him/her to Guantanamo, s/he is presumably headed for a normal civilian jail.

June 4, 2009 Posted by | U.S. Foreign policy | , | 1 Comment

Nuclear threat not that bad….but watch nukes blow everything up!

TIME magazine tries — it really tries — to publish a an article that rationally and soberly assesses the world’s current nuclear situation, without resorting to hysterical and salacious fear-mongering.  But…it just can’t help itself, pricelessly juxtaposing this analysis with a prominent link hawking the world’s top 10 worst nuclear disasters.

Don't look, but it's a nuclear disaster!

Don't look, but it's a nuclear disaster!

If he’s serious about even approaching zero, Obama will have to impose a strategic doctrine on the military that moves away from such Cold War paranoia and mistrust. As one former high-ranking U.S. State Department official who was part of the original START negotiations told TIME, “Worst-case war planners should not dictate to the President a force structure which exceeds all plausible needs.” (See the world’s top 10 worst nuclear disasters.)

Good thing the editors at TIME magazine are not the ones advising the President, I suppose.

(image of Three Mile Island, from flickr user mattechi under a Creative Commons license)

April 10, 2009 Posted by | media, U.S. Foreign policy | , , | Leave a comment

Obama’s detention policies the same as Bush’s, except for that whole torture thing

Eli Lake, reporter for the always reputable Washington Times and frequent contributor to Marty Peretz’s New Republic, has a baffling piece in the latest issue of the latter. Writing on the contrast between Bush’s and Obama’s detention policies, Lake seems to be trying to bend over backwards to show that liberal Obama supporters are disappointed with their man’s inability to utterly repudiate every single aspect of Bush policy. But conceding that he has renounced the minor policy of torture is a fairly weak way to make this case.

As for rendition, the controversial practice of kidnapping terrorist suspects on foreign soil and frequently sending them to other countries, Obama shut down permanent CIA secret prisons known as black sites, where Al Qaeda leaders were often held after being captured…[Incoming CIA director Leon] Panetta said that terrorist suspects would not be picked up off the streets at random and sent to foreign dungeons for the purpose of being tortured…


Indeed, a senior White House legal adviser tells me, “There have been no changes to rendition policy, except to the extent that renditions would render people to places where they would be treated humanely”…Of course, doing more to ensure that rendered suspects are not tortured in those countries would represent a small measure of progress as far as human rights advocates are concerned. But it’s hardly the sweeping change many were hoping for.

A minor policy adjustment

A minor policy adjustment

So Obama is not changing rendition policies except for shutting down CIA black sites, not picking suspects off the streets without due process, ensuring that they are treated humanely, and not freaking torturing them. If that is a “small measure of progress,” I don’t really know what Lake is expecting of the radical “human rights advocates” whose attitudes he claims to depict.

The problem, it seems to me, is that Lake — like many who so eagerly picked up on Obama’s “false [] choice between our safety and our ideals” comment in his inauguration speech — is operating exactly according to the very false dichotomy between “safety” and “ideals” that Obama rejects. Human rights defenders are not simply blinkered partisans for “liberty,” mere weights on the “ideals” side of this phony scale. No serious human rights proponent does not also not only acknowledge the needs of national security and the existence of bad guy terrorists, but also strongly embrace the concept of justice that has been supplanted by the tough-guy, torture-the-terrorists mentality of the Bush years.

So just to clarify, yes, it is a big step that the Obama Administration is not going to engage in sending detainees off to rights abusing countries to be tortured. Will suspects be arrested? Yes. Will some of them still be sent to their home countries to be tried? Yes. That seems a long way from locking up liberty in a foreign dungeon, though.

(image from flickr user KCIvey under a Creative Commons license)

February 24, 2009 Posted by | U.S. Foreign policy, U.S. politics | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Obama rebinds the 9/11-Gitmo ties

I am annoyed that meeting with the families of 9/11 victims was probably a political necessity for Obama during his first few weeks in office. Among other reasons, the expectation that he do so renders the whole thing a cheap political stunt, almost akin to meeting with the winning Superbowl team.

guantanamoI am even more annoyed, however, that Obama was evidently meeting with these families “about resolving the issues involved with closing Guantanamo Bay — while keeping the safety and security of the American people as his top priority.” By framing the meeting in this manner, Obama has essentially lowered himself to a level at which he feels he needs to justify the decision to close Guantanamo to those who suffered most directly from the actions of criminals who may or may not be held at the prison. This, in my eyes, almost seems like an apology to these folks, with a reassurance amounting to something like, “don’t worry, we’ll still get these terrorists.”

What this attitude misses, though, is that closing Guantanamo will be a more effective anti-terrorist strategy than allowing it to limp on as a damaging symbol to the rest of the world ever was. With no offense to those who bore the worst of the tragedy on September 11, they are not legal experts, they are not counter-terrorism experts, and they share with every other American the stigma that Guantanamo has become. They have greater personal stakes in the trials of those accused of helping to plot the attacks, of course, but the entire point of closing Guantanamo is so that those held there can actually be tried for the crimes they are accused of. By giving the impression that he is seeking moral approval for an astute policy decision he has already made, Obama is engaging in pure emotional pandering that, while it may be politically necessary, is unbecoming to the policy.

(image from flickr user Paul Keller under a Creative Commons license)

February 6, 2009 Posted by | U.S. Foreign policy, U.S. politics | , , , | 2 Comments

Live-blogging Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearings!

Over at UN Dispatch.  Live-blogging is fun.  Secretary of State is an important job.  Clinton is a major figure.  And live-blogging is fun.  Go read it.

January 13, 2009 Posted by | U.S. Foreign policy | , | Leave a comment

When to bomb Khartoum…

Nick Kristof proposes a series of seriously tough measures that President Obama can take vis-à-vis the recalcitrant and stubbornly unrepentent survivalists running the Sudanese government.

The United States could target Sudanese military aircraft that defy a United Nations ban on offensive military flights in Darfur. The first step would be to destroy a helicopter gunship on the ground at night. A tougher approach would be to warn Sudan that unless it complies with international demands (by handing over suspects indicted by the International Criminal Court, for example), it will lose its air force — and then if it does not comply, to destroy all its military aircraft on the ground.

Thumbs up to bombing

Thumbs up to bombing

I’ve tended to agree with these relatively low-hanging aggressive actions, such as openly planning a mission to bomb Khartoum with enough seriousness to give Omar al-Bashir the willies, as was suggested, I believe, by Susan Rice, Tony Lake, and Don Payne in a Time article about two and a half years ago.  The problem is, what would be the immediate impetus for such an aggressive response?  To destroy a country’s air force for failing to reign in the chaos of a genocide that it unleashed nearly six years ago is hardly the most clear-cut or reflexively legitimate course of action.  This isn’t to say it isn’t warranted — just that such decisive action would have proved a lot more effective years ago (or, say, had Iraq not happened).

The situation now requires announcing some sort of ultimatum for the Sudanese authorities; and this is not nearly as neat a deal as it may seem on its face.  The génocidaires in Khartoum have survived this long not only because of the international community’s inability to commit to such game-changing steps, but also precisely because of their ability to fudge their way out of agreements and to baldly proclaim they are making concessions when they are in fact doing no such thing.  The tricky part for the Obama administration will be both to call this bluff, and, perhaps more importantly, to identify it at the appropriate time as a bluff.

(image of U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Rich Williamson from flickr user talkradionews under a Creative Commons license)

December 28, 2008 Posted by | Darfur, Sudan, U.S. Foreign policy | , , , | Leave a comment

Return of the declinists

The spectre of “declinism” is back.  Robert Kagan Kaplan proves that he is very much a top-down, old-school, great-power political scientist, comparing the United States to…wait for it, because I’m sure you haven’t heard it before…the British Empire.  But Kaplan’s twist is that the accurate object of comparison for today’s Iraq war and ever-threatening “rise of Asia” is actually the 1857-58 Indian Mutiny.

Yes, that’s right, a global hegemon getting stuck in a war of choice is akin to colonial subjects rebelling against their imperialistic overlord.  Iraq’s — and Asia’s, for that matter — blatant revolt against American hegemony will surely cause the United States to restructure its empire global economic and military dominance…or we will squash them just like the Brits did with those uppity Indians for another 90 years or so.

December 17, 2008 Posted by | U.S. Foreign policy | , | Leave a comment

How Much for Your Nukes?

(cross-posted at On Day One)

Here’s an interesting nuclear nonproliferation idea. Buy out countries’ nukes. Specifically, Pakistan’s, the benefit of which, in the words of a Pakistani nuclear physicist, has been limited to the ability to “destroy India and be destroyed in its response.”

Here’s Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens’ proposal:

How much?

How much for all of them?

This is the deal I have in mind. The government of Pakistan would verifiably eliminate its entire nuclear stockpile and the industrial base that sustains it. In exchange, the U.S. and other Western donors would agree to a $100 billion economic package, administered by an independent authority and disbursed over 10 years, on condition that Pakistan remain a democratic and secular state (no military rulers; no Sharia law). It would supplement that package with military aid similar to what the U.S. provides Israel: F-35 fighters, M-1 tanks, Apache helicopters. The U.S. would also extend its nuclear umbrella to Pakistan, just as Hillary Clinton now proposes to do for Israel.

A pipe dream? Not necessarily. People forget that the world has subtracted more nuclear powers over the past two decades than it has added: Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine and South Africa all voluntarily relinquished their stockpiles in the 1990s. Libya did away with its program in 2003 when Moammar Gadhafi concluded that a bomb would be a net liability, and that he had more to gain by coming to terms with the West.

So in addition to the $700 billion economic stimulus package, taxpayers can embrace a $100 billion nuclear bailout bill? My guess is that this will be a tough sell. Further, Stephens’ imagined impositions sound a bit like aggressive nation-shaping under another name. And the key to the successes that Stephens cites is that they were voluntary abdications of the countries’ nuclear programs, not enticements to gain additional military assistance.

(image from flickr user OpenThreads under a Creative Commons license)

December 16, 2008 Posted by | India/Pakistan, U.S. Foreign policy | , , | 2 Comments

Women’s rights are no more than “stirring words”

In an otherwise mostly reasonable essay, Michael Crowley makes the rather repugnant insinuation that those who argue in favor of the war in Afghanistan from the standpoint of defending women’s rights against the horrific abuses of the Taliban just don’t understand the man’s world of realpolitik.

women-afghanistanShortly after the fall of the Taliban, in November 2001, Hillary Clinton, soon to be Obama’s woman at Foggy Bottom and a key voice in the Afghanistan debate, penned a Time essay arguing against the notion that imposing Western values there amounted to “cultural imperialism.” “Women’s rights are human rights,” Clinton wrote. “They are not simply American, or western customs.”

Stirring words, to be sure. But the day may come when cutting deals in Afghanistan means consigning some women, if not to the brutal life of the high Taliban era, to strict Islamic rules sure to offend the likes of Hillary Clinton. It may well be, in other words, that America’s moral and strategic interests are beginning to diverge in Afghanistan in a way that supporters of the “good war” may not yet appreciate. [emphasis mine]

What makes Crowley’s dismissal of “the likes of Hillary Clinton” so disturbing is that he cites, in the same article, the disgusting incident of two Taliban supporters spraying acid in three teenage girls faces as simply a harbinger of what other rank transgressions might ensue under the Taliban.  To make a grudging calculation that, once all factors are considered, a compromise with the Taliban is advisable, even if it may to some extent curtail Afghani women’s difficultly reclaimed rights, is one thing.  To minimize the legitimacy of defending women’s rights qua rationale for war as mere “stirring words,” and to imply, essentially, that feminist activists like Clinton may just not “get it,” is quite another.

(image of Afghani women from flickr user Feinstein International Center under a Creative Commons license)

December 16, 2008 Posted by | Afghanistan, Feminism, U.S. Foreign policy | , , | Leave a comment

An important job for NASA

Cartography, here we come.

Cartography, here we come.

If NASA and Barack Obama’s team could stop their apparent sniping, maybe they could get to work constructing some sort of multimillion-dollar craft to go deep into space and construct…maps.

If Africa’s conflicts were mapped from outer space, those conflict zones would look like three holes into which entire regions are tumbling.

I think the State Deparment already has some pretty good maps identifying where Somalia, Darfur, and DR Congo are located (Africa!).  Granted, they probably don’t have cool 3-d effects to depict these areas “tumbling” into holes, but I’m not sure how much that would help resolve the conflicts anyway.

Sending satellites to track pirates, on the other hand, seems like a great idea.

(image from flick user D’Amico Rodrigo under a Creative Commons license)

December 15, 2008 Posted by | Africa, Darfur, DR Congo, Humor, Somalia, U.S. Foreign policy | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Bush Was No Unilateralist”…except for that whole Iraq war thing

It is astounding the extent to which partisan hacks Wall Street Journal columnists will bend over backwards to inflate their man’s President Bush’s legacy in these waning days.  The latest?  He was never a “unilateralist,” after all.  That whole “with us or against us” bluster?  Just talk.  “Go it alone?”  More like “go it with everyone!”

Well, at least on certain issues, and with a distinctly Bushian slant.  Kimberly Strassel talks with Paula Dobriansky, the State Department’s undersecretary for democracy and global affairs — responsible for important issues ranging from climate change to pandemic disease to “oceans” [that last one is particularly, um, expansive] — and concludes that, where it really counted the most, the Bush administration was the paragon of cooperation, but that dirty liberals just preferred to see otherwise.

One reason why [Ms. Dobriansky’s department’s] efforts haven’t been as noticed is that most aren’t the subject of “hard” foreign policy debates. When critics level their unilateralism charge against the Bush administration, they tend to focus on its tougher actions — the invasion of Iraq, or the refusal to directly engage with rogue leaders.

George W. Bush...the whole world's friend

George W. Bush...the whole world's friend

It’s not that the issues on which Ms. Dobriansky worked were not important; on the contrary, they are vitally important, and suffered all the more from a closed-minded, my-way-or-the-highway Bush approach.  On climate change, the refusal to submit Kyoto for ratification was not indicative, as Strassel outrageously suggests, of a “dramatically different view” that prioritized “medium and long term” efforts over the silly “short term” approach of signing a piece of paper…that committed countries to specific actions over the medium and long term.

Even Bush’s legitimately laudable AIDS work in Africa came with the crippling caveat that it be undertaken on his the religious right’s terms.  By supporting the global gag rule, by forcing abstinence down the throats of AIDS-inflicted societies, and by refusing to make condoms a central component of his policy, President Bush undermined his treatment efforts to the point that more people are getting infected with HIV/AIDS than his efforts are able to treat.

And with “oceans” — how can an administration that refused to sign the Law of the Sea Treaty, an accord that practically everyone in the world has agreed to; that enjoys widespread support on the left and the right, from oil companies and environmentalists, activists and politicians; and that would actually further U.S. interests, claim that it acted multilaterally?

The most serious critique of Strassel’s argument, though, deals with her mind-bogglingly bold air-brushing of this administration’s greatest accomplishments failure: the war in Iraq.  For a war that even conservatives acknowledge — and often praise — as the defining aspect of Bush’s years in the White House to be gruffly shunted to the side in favor of things like oceans management policy is plainly ludicrous.  And even if Bush’s presidency were a complete international love-fest multilateral (er, besides that little war in Iraq), that statement becomes practically meaningless as long as you exclude that little war in Iraq.

(image from flickr user Image Editor under a Creative Commons license)

December 13, 2008 Posted by | Conservatives, U.S. Foreign policy | , , , | 1 Comment

Insert “they” and “us” here

In a WaPo op-ed, Patrick French makes the tired claim that terrorists “they” hate the United States India “us” for our freedoms.  And, naturally, anyone who points to any other possible reasons for the terrorist attacks in Mumbai is an apologist, a sympathizer, and/or morally barren.

The terrorists themselves offered little explanation, and made no clear demands. Yet even as the siege continued, commentators were making chilling deductions on their behalf: their actions were because of American foreign policy, or Afghanistan, or the harassment of Indian Muslims. Personal moral responsibility was removed from the players in the atrocity.

mumbaiI do not have any insight into the Mumbai militants terrorists’ (lest I come under the wrath of right-wing semanticians who contend that anything less than using the t-word is also a moral abdication) motivations; perhaps French is right in dismissing the reasons provided by his unnamed “commentators.”  Yet, even if not applicable in this case, the suggestions that French cites are not “chilling deductions,” and it is offensive and irresponsible to impugn this analysis as made “on [terrorists’] behalf.”

That terrorists may be exercised by ramifications of American foreign policy, or the fallout of regional conflicts, are as sensible — and in fact, probably more so — initial hypotheses as the throwaway assumption that the actors in question “hate freedom.”  Moreover, the two motivational tacks — the “rational” and the irrational — are not mutually exclusive (a Pakistani terrorist can be angered by India’s Kashmir policy and espouse an intolerant and hateful outlook toward India’s democratic values), and nor does the former type of impetus at all excuse the heinous means by which terrorists opt to lodge their protest (see Bill Ayers, persistently complete lack of understanding thereof).

The title of French’s op-ed, “They Hate Us — and Indian Is Us,” is staggering in the extent that it repeats — and transposes to another continent — the off-the-mark, self-exculpatory, analytically hollow, and utterly unhelpful trope of “freedom-hating.”  Similar, too, is the strategy that allows him to brand anyone who ventures a more nuanced explanation as an apologist who essentially is working for terrorists.

Patrick French may insists that “India Is Us,” but, some of “us” — and presumably some of India, as well as some of the other side of this unproductive dichotomy, the otherized “they” — respectfully disagree.  But then, that probably just puts “us” right in the pockets of terrorists.

(image from flickr user stuti ~ under a Creative Commons license)

December 8, 2008 Posted by | Asia, Conservatives, India/Pakistan, media, U.S. Foreign policy | , | 2 Comments