Archive for the ‘foreign policy’ Category

Dreaming Castro

Peggy Noonan has a wonderful piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. It concludes with a dream:

A closing note: I always thought, life often being unfair, that Fidel Castro would die the death of a happy monster, old, in bed, a cigar jutting out from the pillows, a brandy on the bedside table. My dream the past few years was that this tranquil end would be disturbed by this scene: American tourists jumping up and down outside his window, snapping pictures on their smartphones. American tourists flooding the island, befriending his people, doing business with them, showing in their attitude and through a million conversations which system is, actually, preferable. Castro sees them through the window. He grits his teeth so hard the cigar snaps off. Money and sentiment defeat his life’s work. He leaves the world knowing that in history’s great game, he lost.

Open the doors, let America flood the zone and snap those pictures. “Fidel! Look this way!” Snap. Flash. Gone.

It is hard to imagine that so many find this dream to be a nightmare.

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Thoughts on Cuba

The Obama administration’s decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba has generated much praise and criticism. You can read the lead editorials in the New York Times and the Washington Post to get a flavor for the arguments, pro and con. On the right, the divisions between conservatives and libertarians have found a predictable expression. The editors of National Review are not happy. They conclude: “We fear that yesterday was a good day for the Castros and a bad day for the Cuban people, and for American foreign policy.” In contrast, Juan Carlos Hidalgo (Cato) strikes a much different tone: “The president’s move should be uncontroversial. U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a blatant failure. It has not brought about democracy to the island and instead provided Havana with an excuse to portray itself as the victim of U.S. aggression. It has also served as the scapegoat for the dilapidated state of Cuba’s economy.”

There is little to praise in Cuba.   It remains a dictatorship. On the World Freedom Index, it ranks 170. But China ranks 175 and is a far greater concern with respect to national security. Last year our exports to China were $121.7 billion and our imports from China were $440.5 billion. While progress has been slower in China than many would have hoped, there is much evidence that trade has positive implications with respect to property rights and political liberalization. Perhaps this will be the case in Cuba.

Even if one assumes for the sake of argument that the US policy toward Cuba made sense in the early 1960s, it is difficult to see precisely what justification one can find decades after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Beyond the antiquated assumptions upon which the policy rests, there is little to suggest that our approach has been effective and much to suggest that it has been both counterproductive and costly.

Of course, in this there is little to separate our Cuba policy from so many other policies that remain firmly in place (e.g., agricultural subsidies, corporate welfare, the punitive war on drugs). Alas, there remains much work to be done.

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A Failed Policy

“The US government’s failure to ensure basic transparency and accountability in its torture policies, to provide necessary details about its enhanced interrogation program, or adequately to set out the legal factors involved in decisions to torture hinders necessary democratic debate about a key aspect of US foreign and national security policy. US practices may also facilitate recourse to lethal force around the globe by establishing dangerous precedents for other governments.” *

A failed policy! Consider its key features:

  • Congress and the President approved of the policy based on claims that it could keep the country safe
  • The bureaucrats—praised for their professionalism—adopted brutal techniques, with little regard for civil liberties or basic human rights.
  • Yet, there was little evidence of its effectiveness, despite claims of its supporters
  • Even when the facts were widely understood, no one was held accountable for the violence done to the victims

The details of the CIA’s use of torture are disturbing, without question. But the basic features—as presented above—could be used to describe so much of what the government does. It seems like a good description of our current drone policy and our decades long war on drugs.

I am pleased that President Obama has taken a strong stance against the use of torture. But let us not lose sight of the larger fact that he has also embraced the extensive use of drones, killing thousands, including civilians. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 2004 and 2014, there were 405 drone strikes in Pakistan alone, 354 of which were ordered by President Obama. The estimated body count: 2,400-3,888. The estimated civilian body count: 416-959. The estimated number of children killed: 168-204. By way of comparison, according to the Senate Select Committee report,  the CIA detained 119 individuals, 26 of whom were wrongfully detained.

Be rightfully horrified by the details of the CIA’s use of torture. The details are mind numbing. But we should be equally horrified by our drone policy that has killed and maimed thousands.

Read the Senate Select Committee report.

Read the Stanford/NYU report, Living Under Drones.

*By the way, the above quote was taken from the Stanford/NYU report, p. viii. Mentions of drone strikes were replaced with the words “torture” and “enhanced interrogation” The correct quote is:

“The US government’s failure to ensure basic transparency and accountability in its targeted killing policies, to provide necessary details about its targeted killing program, or adequately to set out the legal factors involved in decisions to strike hinders necessary democratic debate about a key aspect of US foreign and national security policy. US practices may also facilitate recourse to lethal force around the globe by establishing dangerous precedents for other governments.”

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So the U.S. Senate report on CIA interrogation methods is out, and now we know that the CIA tortured detainees, including the use of violent rectal assault:
cia anal torture

Some of the detainees were terrorists; some were probably innocent. We’ll never know because they were never tried in a court of law:

innocent detainees tortured

Some neoconservative torture apologists oppose the release of the CIA report:

Others respond that the release of the report is essential to making sure the U.S. government never tortures again:

But here’s the thing: it will happen again. No one was ever punished for torturing detainees or giving orders to torture detainees. If you remove all penalties for murder, you don’t think the murder rate will go up? Simply exposing that “murder happens” isn’t going to change behavior in the long run.

If the U.S. government really wanted to keep itself from torturing innocent people again, it would expose and prosecute the individuals responsible.

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That is Aaron Blake’s advice for the White House (Washington Post): “For the first time since January, President Obama is polling a 50 percent approval rating on an issue: his handling of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”

The newest WaPo-ABC poll shows 50 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the Islamic State, as compared to 44 percent who disapprove. That’s an improvement from August, when the question referenced only Iraq and not Syria, and 42 percent of Americans gave Obama a vote of confidence.

I might be alone in this, but I was more attracted to the “degrade ISIL to a manageable problem” version of Obama.

Let us grant that ISIL is comprised of some rather evil creatures and they have been quite proud to reveal their propensity to torture and kill innocent people, often in large numbers and on video. One still must make the argument that ISIL constitutes a genuine threat to our national interest that is so significant as to justify the recent (and ongoing escalation). I have yet to hear anyone make that argument to my satisfaction.

Political scientist Stephen Walt (PBS Newshour) seems to have it right:

we have to recognize this is not the Third Reich. This is not an incredibly powerful movement. It has maybe 20,000 fighters, no air force, no navy, basically lightly armed infantry that has been able to expand in stateless area, areas that are stateless in part because we destroyed the states that were governing there.

The advice:

There are lots of groups around the world who would like to be able to go after the United States. Most of them fail. And, in fact, the way to deal with it is primarily with intelligence and counterterrorism here at home.

Gary Brecher (War Nerd) arrives at a similar conclusion, albeit with a bit more swag, when he describes ISIL as “the most overrated, over-hyped bunch of hams this side of WWE… a mid-size Sunni militia with a knack for child-rape and no skills against anyone who doesn’t fall for their death-metal hype.”

If Walt is correct, why is ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State generating such a muscular response? Perhaps because

  1. It feeds into the “Obama’s failed foreign policy” meme. Remember, he is the guy who called them “JV,” before skipping out on his daily briefings to hit the links;
  2. It comes with some striking visuals that took the media by storm in the months usually reserved for shark attacks;
  3. It provides a window of opportunity for the neocons to return from exile and relitigate the Global War on Terror;
  4. Our elected officials are incapable of engaging in serious, sober, well-reasoned debates under normal circumstances, and never when an election is a few months away.

Now that our expanded attack on ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State is delivering the goods in the public opinion polls, one suspects that the current course will be sustained at least until November or the Champaign runs out and Americans rediscover that war produces casualties.

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Number 7

Glenn Greenwald notes that the bombing targets in Syria marks something of a new record:

Syria becomes the 7th predominantly Muslim country bombed by the 2009 Nobel Peace Laureate – after Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Iraq.

The utter lack of interest in what possible legal authority Obama has to bomb Syria is telling indeed: empires bomb who they want, when they want, for whatever reason (indeed, recall that Obama bombed Libya even after Congress explicitly voted against authorization to use force, and very few people seemed to mind that abject act of lawlessness; constitutional constraints are not for warriors and emperors).

President Obama gave a stirring speech when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He proclaimed:

I believe that all nations—strong and weak alike—must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.  I—like any head of state—reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don’t.


America—in fact, no nation—can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.  For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.

For those who do not recall President Obama’s remarks at the acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, you can read them in their entirety here.

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Barack Obama announced his new strategy for ISIL on 9/10:

“So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultation with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat.” —

The coalition partners are important because our efforts

“will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. The counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL, wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partners on the ground. This strategy…is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

Leaving aside the reference to Yemen and Somalia, let’s consider the coalition of our “partners on the ground.” On September 11, a number of Arab nations joined to sign an agreement to assist in the campaign against ISIL, that included providing humanitarian aid and “as appropriate, joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign.” The “as appropriate” clause might give one pause. As the New York Times explains:

While Arab nations allied with the United States vowed on Thursday to “do their share” to fight ISIS and issued a joint communiqué supporting a broad strategy, the underlying tone was one of reluctance. The government perhaps most eager to join a coalition against ISIS was that of Syria, which Mr. Obama had already ruled out as a partner for what he described as terrorizing its citizens.


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