From Abu Ghraib to Haditha

by Brian Vogt | May 30th, 2006 | |Subscribe

The repercussions from the Abu Ghraib scandal will be felt by our military and our citizens for the foreseeable future.  When that scandal broke, I felt that it would take many years and possibly decades for our military to regain the international respect that it lost from that incident.  Yes, horrible things happen in wartime and atrocities are committed by all sides.  That is a fact of war.  I had mistakenly assumed, however, that what made America different was how we dealt with these actions when they do happen.  A Democratic country that is governed by the rule of law holds the perpetrators of such atrocities accountable.  And, it holds those in command accountable for the actions of their subordinates.  While we prosecuted the perpetrators, those in command at the highest level of government faced few repercussions. 

Nearly two years after the exposure of the Abu Ghraib scandal we are once again faced with reports of atrocities that are even worse – the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians by American Marines.  The story of what happened at Haditha is truly horrific.  According to some reports, after the tragic death of an American Marine by an IED, a group of Marines went into several houses and killed as many as 24 civilians in cold blood.  Four of these were children.  The youngest was 1 year old.  An unverified account of the event was posted in a recent Washington Post article

As we hear more about these types of incidents, they seem less like the isolated aberrations that the President proclaims them to be.  In fact, on Sunday Nir Rosen wrote another account of an execution of a Sunni man that happened at the hands of Americans soldiers.  If this account is true, it is another damning revelation of the type of justice being carried out in the name of our country. 

The reaction of Iraqis to the recent revelations of the Haditha massacre is disturbing in that it seems dismissive and jaded towards such reports.  This in itself is frightening because it gives the impression that such actions by America forces have become the expected norm for Iraqi citizens.  If that is the case, I fear that we have already lost.  (more…)

A PMC Caucus: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

by David Isenberg | May 22nd, 2006 | |Subscribe

Part of the problem in restoring bipartisanship to discussions of national security and foreign policy is that so many issues have been fought over for decades and thus Republicans and Democrats have well defined, if not always well thought out, positions on them. Military budgets, nuclear weapons, NSA wiretapping, preventive wars, arms control; you are either for or against. And woe betides the brave senator and representative who dares to against the party grain and actually tries to think thoughtfully.

But once in a very great while there does appear a new issue on the international security horizon which cries out for both serious sustained debate and action. I suggest that such an issue is now here; namely, the role of private military and security contractors (PMC).

As one who has followed the evolving role of such contractors since the early nineties one thing (see, for example this past paper) is very clear to me; the use of such contractors, whether in a logistical support role for regular military forces as Kellog Brown and Root does for the U.S. Army, or acting as private security guards in Afghanistan and Iraq and numerous other countries, or actually acting miniature military for hire to fight against rebel groups in civil wars, which is rare but not unheard of, as the examples of the old South African based Executive Outcomes in Angola and Sierra Leone in the 19990s showed, they are not going away.

My own somewhat pessimistic view of the world is such that the international order will continue to be roiled and disrupted for some time to come. The ability of states to intervene and defeat various warlords, brigands, and various criminal groups, whether due to lack of will, or actually lack of capacity, will continue to diminish. Thus, there will be a void in international politics. And just like nature abhorring a vacuum, private contractors will step in to fill it. (more…)

A Failure to Understand

by Seth Green | May 20th, 2006 | |Subscribe

Two developments took place this week that did not get connected by popular media, but arguably should have been. First, we learned that the Pentagon is probing into whether the death of Iraqi civilians in Haditha at the hands of U.S. Marines took place “in cold blood.” Second, a U.N. Panel announced that U.S. practices at Guantanamo violated the 1984 Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. ratified.

The reason these stories connect is that both the stories themselves, and especially the way the administration and conservative thought leaders reacted to them, present the wrong picture to the world about American objectives in the war on terror and the war in Iraq. The stories themselves suggest that America may not be living up to its principles in being a benevolent and fair superpower. But, worse, the reactions to the stories suggest that some leaders do not even care.

Instead of taking the probe in Haditha seriously, the Washington Times decided to focus its editorial on criticizing Murtha for even raising the issue, calling his actions “an egregious violation of ethical conduct.” The Bush administration’s response to the U.N. panel similarly attacked the messenger rather than taking the message seriously. Without going into depth, the administration called the U.N. report riddled with errors and said it had improved its treatment. “We acknowledge that there were serious incidents of abuse. We’ve all seen Abu Ghraib,” the State Department’s top lawyer, John B. Bellinger III, told reporters. But “clearly our record has improved over the last few years,” he said.


Sad Cuban “Engagement” for a Sanctions Opponent

by Eugene Gholz | May 18th, 2006 | |Subscribe

I’ve been teaching about economic sanctions for years in my graduate courses on economic foreign policy. One of the main messages that I try to get across is that economic statecraft is usually a weak reed: interfering with the market (whether using sanctions, aid, or other government policies) has real economic costs, and we rarely know enough about how the target economy works or how to manipulate the political incentives of the target government to achieve our goals. I don’t usually single out sanctions on Cuba as an example in class (other examples like South Africa and South Korea seem catchier), but my general view is that the anti-Castro sanctions are a good example of the ineffectiveness of the policy tool.

Sanctions probably have hurt the Cuban economy to some extent over the years, but it is hard to tell, because poor economic policy choices by the Cuban government have hurt the economy there, too. A friend of mine remarked about the opening shot of the Buena Vista Social Club that his first thought was that the dilapidated buildings showed the damage from the embargo; his second thought was that the tracking shot showed the destructiveness of a communist government; and his third thought was that Cuba didn’t look all that much different from other developing countries.

So last week, when I went to Mexico City for a conference on “E-Engagement” among the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba, I thought that one of the advantages of using the Internet for electronic exchange of research and analysis might be an opportunity for analysts to tease out what the real effect of the sanctions has been. (more…)

Iran: Choosing the best of bad options

by Brian Vogt | May 17th, 2006 | |Subscribe


Many have asked me, “So, what is the bipartisan solution to the standoff with Iran?”  Unfortunately, I’ve not had a good answer.  We currently find ourselves in an exceedingly dangerous and tense situation with few good options to resolve it.  Yes, frighteningly similar to our Iraq policy. 

So, without any good policy options we are forced to choose the best of several undesirable alternatives.  Greg Djerijan points out in a a blog post today that the a whole slew of well known Republicans have called for direct talks with Iran.  These include Henry Kissinger, Richard Armitage, Richard Haas, Chuck Hagel, and Dick Lugar.  Several well known Democrats have come out in support of this option including Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Sen. Chris Dodd.  Considering the names behind this proposal on both sides of this aisle, I think that this idea should be able to gain broader bipartisan support. 

I think that it’s important that we put this proposal in context.  It’s not a “good” solution and it has many potentially negative consequences.  However, it’s still better than the other “bad” solutions available. 

First, it is true that the North Koreans were able to use similar negotiations to buy time to further strengthen their weapons development program.  However, I would hope that our negotiations this time could learn from that experience and implement safeguards that would lessen such loopholes.  Secondly, it also true that such talks do provide a certain sense of legitimacy to a regime that has supported terrorists and has also threatened to destroy Israel.  However, the fact is that the world is not following the U.S. lead here and many countries already have significant ties with Iran and its oil resources will continue to strengthen those links.  (more…)

Playing politics sabotages America’s future

by Jamie Metzl | May 17th, 2006 | |Subscribe

Two recent articles in the New York Times have highlighted how bad the partisan divide has become in the United States. On Sunday, the Times reported that some Democrats were wondering if it would be better for them to not gain control of either house of Congress so that the Republicans would inherit the mess they have created over these past five years. On Monday, the Times reported that some Republicans were wondering if it might be better for the Democrats to gain control of at least one house so that the Democrats might be partially blamed for all of our problems (war, deficit, loss of purpose, etc.). How sad that we’re in a situation where all of our public officials are not thinking about what we need to do to get our country back on track, but how we can sabotage the country (from two different perspectives of the prognosis) to achieve political gain. The country is certainly ripe for leaders who consistently do the right thing because it is right, and build their own political momentum as a result of their commitment, sincerity, and vision.

Darfur: Good News But We’re Not Done

by Victoria Holt | May 11th, 2006 | |Subscribe

There is strong bipartisan support for stopping the bloodshed in Darfur, Sudan. Many rightfully cheered the peace agreement reached in Abuja last week, including PSA’s Brian Vogt.

The 150-page plus agreement is good news – and calls for disarming the Janjaweed militias by October and the rebel groups after that. The ambitious accord (summary or whole agreement here) also directs the creation of buffer zones around the camps of internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Sudan and providing for humanitarian access corridors where rebel forces and Sudanese Armed Forces cannot go. 

Ok, that’s really easy. 

To get a feeling of the scale of the problem, look at the humbling maps constructed by the State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit, showing the vast areas of IDP camps — the places needing protection. Then look at their map demonstrating the wide areas of attacks during 2005, to understand how big a task it is likely to be.

Whose job will this be? Certainly the parties to the agreement are expected to live by it – including the Government of Sudan, the Janjaweed and rebel groups. But an expanded role is also being directed for the African Union (AU) mission in Sudan, now comprised of roughly 7,000 personnel. (FYI: The AU’s first peacekeeping operation was in Burundi, in 2003. Darfur is the second operation.) In March, the members of the Security Council directed the UN headquarters staff to prepare plans for the AU mission to transition to a United Nations operation. While Khartoum has opposed the UN deploying to Darfur, the AU commander recently called for the UN to provide support, as has the United States.

With the Darfur agreement in hand, planning for a stronger peace operation there can really take hold. The United Nations, however, is strapped, leading 15 other peace operations with over 80,000 military and civilian personnel in the field. A new mission in Darfur – the size of Texas – will need nations to provide more than lip service to the UN and offer capable and sizable forces, equipment and financing at a minimum. Congress is on the verge of approving $130 million in the fiscal year 2006 appropriations supplemental for peacekeeping in Darfur. This funding is badly needed, especially at a time when the US budget for UN peace operations is already short by hundreds of millions and the Bush Administration has not yet asked Congress for what it really needs for 2007, including for Darfur.  

Biden Channels Mencken

by David Isenberg | May 10th, 2006 | |Subscribe

Hmmm, news flash. Sen. Joe Biden apparently believes in reincarnation, which would make him the Shirley MacLaine of the Senate. It seems that in a previous life he must have been H.L. Mencken, the sage from Baltimore. How else to explain his recent policy prescription for Iraq, to partition it? It is proof of what Mencken famously said, “For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

I guess that if we needed any further proof that Biden is planning to run for president in 2008 this is it. All candidates must, by definition, be able to claim credit for at least one really boneheaded proposal, and this certainly qualifies.

Of course, Biden didn’t dream this up all by himself. He is merely providing a vehicle for Leslie Gelb, formerly an assistant secretary in Jimmy Carter’s State Department and currently president emeritus of the Council for Foreign Relations, who has been peddling this idea for years. He first proposed this idea, less than seven months after President Bush proclaimed “mission accomplished.” Gelb was advocating partition even before all the present troubles emerged and before there had been a single Iraqi election.

(Note to Council: you might want to rethink that whole “nonpartisan center for scholars dedicated to producing and disseminating ideas so that individual and corporate members, as well as policymakers, journalists, students, and interested citizens in the United States and other countries, can better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other governments.”).

Biden spelled out his ideas in article with Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a New York Times op-ed “Unity Through Autonomy in Iraq” May 1 and in a speech before the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. Although Biden says his plan is not a call for partition it is hard to see what else it could be.

Though, in fairness, Gelb and Biden, aren’t the only ones who support partition. There are others who think it inevitable. See, for example, this article by Gareth Stanfield of the University of Exeter in the British Prospect magazine.

What’s wrong with it? Let me count the ways. Here is what some of the regional and country experts say. (more…)

Undermining Our Security with Dumb Speech

by Seth Green | May 8th, 2006 | |Subscribe

We give university chapters of our organization discretion in planning their events on campus, hoping they’ll use that freedom wisely to promote a responsible vision for U.S. leadership in the world. Unfortunately, one of our chapters at the University of Chicago recently used that freedom to make our country less safe. The event, entitled “Free Speech and the Danish Cartoons,” displayed the Danish cartoons that sparked controversy worldwide and then had a cadre of free speech advocates explain why the media should have broadcast these images more widely.

In my last blog entry, I wrote about how the media and politicians were basking in our differences, while Americans across the country were taking our similarities seriously. My hope was that the common sense of Americans might trickle up to the Washington divisionaries. But this event at U Chicago is definitely a set back to my thesis that our citizens are more mature than our leaders. On the Danish cartoons issue, it’s been our leaders in Washington who appear to understand the national security imperative of tolerance and understanding.

And its the students at this recent event at the University of Chicago who do not get it. They believe the decision by our government and media leaders not to show the cartoons was mistake. According to them, “our inaction leads to bigger responses from radical Islamists” and so we need to broadcast these cartoons as far as possible so “they” know we’re not cowards. We need to speak freely no matter the consequences.

I think this is the dead wrong way to understand the cartoon issue. (more…)

Finally Good News on Darfur

by Brian Vogt | May 5th, 2006 | |Subscribe


These days it seems that good news is hard to come by.  When I open the paper in the morning I usually brace myself for another onslaught of destruction and desperation – whether that be Iraq, Iran, or the many conflicts in Africa.  However, today I was greeted by the good news that it seems that the largest rebel group operating in Darfur has been convinced to sign onto a peace agreement.  I’ve written previously that this horrible genocide deserves immediate action by both Democrats and Republicans and I feel somewhat encouraged by events in the past week that this actually happened. 

On Sunday I attended the Save Darfur rally on the national mall.  I’ve been to my share of political rallies before.  Most of the ones that I’ve attended draw a similar cadre of people – usually those who would consider themselves on the political left.  This rally, however, was certainly a much more diverse group.  There were the expected internationalist do gooders, but also substantial representation from fundamentalist Christians.  There also were a large number of Jewish groups in attendance.  The speakers at the rally also were an interesting mix that included both Democrats (Nancy Pelosi, Barak Obama, Jon Corzine) and Republicans (Frank Wolf, Michael Steele).  While the speakers overall tended Democratic, I was encouraged by the Republican representation. 

On Sunday night it seemed that the peace talks had broken down because the rebel groups had rejected the proposed agreement.  Granted, it seems that the Sudanese government supported the agreement only after it was clear that it wouldn’t pass due to rebel opposition.  Nevertheless, the Bush administration made a last ditch effort to salvage this agreement.  Robert Zoellick, who has been very personally invested in the issue, was sent over to help renegotiate this seemingly doomed deal.  After several extended deadlines, Zoellick’s participation along with that of Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo seemed to provide the final push necessary to save the deal.  (more…)

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All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.