Testing the New President

by David Isenberg | October 30th, 2008 | |Subscribe

This is the last post I will write before the presidential election. I do not pretend to know what the outcome will be but if the polls are right it appears that Senator Obama will be the next U.S. president. If so, it is likely that it won’t be long before, as his running mate Sen. Joe Biden said, that he will be tested. The same thing could be said even if Sen. McCain wins.

The truth is that in respect to many different foreign policy and military issues the United States has been acting like a not very proficient juggler, tossing balls into the air in an effort to keep them from falling to the ground.

The truth is that the time that some dubbed the “unipolar moment” which all the neoconservatives were crowing about years ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and U.S. victory in Operation Desert Storm, is long gone.

Just consider what the next president of the United States will confront. In respect to Iraq there might not be an accepted Status of Forces Agreement, meaning U.S. troops will lack legal authority to remain there. U.S. officials say they would have to cease operations and confine troops to bases unless some other arrangement, such as an extension of the U.N. mandate, could be worked out.

In respect to Iran, aside from its nuclear program, a new president will have to deal with what seems to be an ongoing program of U.S. sponsored covert violence to bring about regime change. A new paper by the Century Foundation detailing this program concludes that:

We can expect more incidents, and we can expect the risk of retaliatory incidents to increase. As that happens, the point resurfaces. When does Iran reach its tipping point and begin to fight back, not with words, but with expanded terrorist acts?


Better Days Ahead for the US-Russia Relationship

by Matthew Rojansky | October 24th, 2008 | |Subscribe

In a recent talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center, SAIS professor Michael Mandelbaum described the US-Russia relationship in gloomy terms: “We are in a bad place. Relations are worse, and more dangerous, than at any time since the beginning of the 1980s. Each side regards the other with suspicion and growing hostility.” Mandelbaum attributes the current dismal state of US-Russia relations to a number of factors, including the
perception on the part of many Russians that US-backed “shock therapy” in the 1990’s destroyed Russia’s economy, society and influence in the world. NATO expansion to Russia’s borders over the past two decades, plus plans to base missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, combined with US indifference to Russian opinion on Kosovo and Iraq, have made things even worse. It has come to the point, says Mandelbaum, that Russian policy smacks of a “reflexive opposition to any initiative sponsored by the United States, and of a general policy of trying to weaken the American position in the world however and whenever possible.”

But all is not lost. I have been consistently reassured by those involved that robust US-Russia cooperation continues in many important arenas, including nuclear non-proliferation and counter-terrorism. So while the rhetoric is certainly grim, it is not clear that the core of the US-Russia relationship has suffered. Here are just a few examples of ongoing engagement between Moscow and Washington, which seem to reveal both sides’ recognition that close cooperation is still a win-win scenario:

1. High-level Security Dialogue: Earlier this week, Adm. Michael Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to Helsinki for a meeting with his Russian counterpart, General Makarov, at the Russian’s request. While Mullen was clear that full NATO-Russia cooperation remained limited after the Georgia invasion, he said, “It wasn’t a meeting about disagreements (so much) as it was a dialogue and a commitment to continue the dialogue – in particular between him and me.” On the agenda, according to a senior US official, was the Iranian nuclear program.

2. Crisis Management: The ongoing standoff between the pirate-held ship Faina and an international naval flotilla has become the setting for another ray of light in the US-Russia relationship. In the same week that the US imposed sanctions on Russia’s state arms export concern, Rosoboronexport, for selling weapons to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the US, Russia, and Ukraine have been coordinating closely on efforts to end the standoff, and free the Belize-flagged ship’s Russian, Ukrainian and Latvian crew. Ironically, the ship is carrying Soviet-designed military hardware possibly intended for illegal sale in African war zones.

3. Securing Loose Nuclear Material: Since 2005, the US and Russia have cooperated to recover US and Russian-origin nuclear material from countries around the world. The program hasn’t been even close to derailed by the latest tensions between Moscow and Washington. In fact, the National Nuclear Security Administration reported this week that a joint US-Russian team completed a two-year effort to remove 341 pounds of spent fuel from a nuclear reactor in Hungary and ship it to Russia for reprocessing.

These are but a few examples of how US-Russia cooperation persists in the face of what Professor Mandelbaum rightly calls dangerous and hostile rhetoric. And they are indeed hopeful. Yet it would be foolish to presume that fulsome US-Russia cooperation can long survive a further chill in the high-level political relationship between the two countries, or that either side will seize on new opportunities to work together, if our societies return to Cold War style postures of mutual suspicion and distrust.

Now is the time for the US to offer an olive branch. With weakening oil prices and a global economic crisis hitting the Russian market even harder than Wall Street, Moscow can longer fortify itself behind walls of cold, hard cash. Meanwhile, a new US administration will enjoy a window of opportunity to redefine its relationships with Russia, and focus on areas of mutual interest and benefit. At the top of the agenda must be preventing nuclear proliferation (with a special focus on Iran), restoring confidence in global markets, and negotiating a long-term security arrangement for all of Europe that neither alienates Russia nor abandons the former Soviet republics to Moscow’s “sphere of influence.” We can’t undo what has already passed, but we can chart a course for better days ahead.

Of Persons and Borders

by Edwina Chin and John Eden | October 24th, 2008 | |Subscribe

There is a temptation these days to treat humanitarian intervention as a suspect category within the lexicon of international justice. This is hardly a surprise, since the Iraq war was undeniably commenced on pretextual grounds and then terribly bungled. This temptation is exacerbated by the assumption, held by many international lawyers, that humanitarian intervention is only appropriate where the U.N. Charter says so. The tendency to see humanitarian intervention solely through the prism of international law renders invisible the deeper moral principle at play, that is, a concern for the well-being and flourishing of all human beings, no matter where they happen to live.

There are a number of reasons to cast a skeptical eye upon the way the U.N. Charter regulates humanitarian intervention. To begin with, one may question whether the body charged with regulating humanitarian intervention, the U.N. Security Council, is an institution up to the task. The Security Council was established in the wake of the Second World War with the specific purpose of regulating threats to international peace and security – in other words, to minimize large scale military conflict. Under the Charter, the use of force is permissible only in self defense or where the Council authorizes the use of force as a collective response to the use or the threat of force. Genocide or state-sponsored violence appear nowhere as acceptable grounds for intervention in the affairs of another country. It is no surprise, then, that the structure and decision-making powers of the Council provide a relatively blunt and ill-adapted instrument with which to address the complex, and fundamentally moral, question of humanitarian intervention. Further, although the precondition of a Security Council resolution may give the impression of international consensus and adherence to the principles of international law, the essentially undemocratic nature of the Security Council (in particular, the veto power of the Permanent Five members) and the often unspoken political motivations behind the voting patterns of Member States frequently render this impression a mere illusion.


Pigeons and Paranoia

by Michael Landweber | October 22nd, 2008 | |Subscribe

According to news reports, Iran has captured “spy pigeons” that were nosing around its nuclear facilities. Apparently the pigeons were outfitted with metal rings and invisible strings. This comes just over a year after the Iranians detained 14 squirrels at the border on charges of spying. Based on these incidents, it appears that Iran is under a full-scale zoological assault.

These stories can be easily dismissed as nothing more than another entry for the News of the Weird. But there are a couple of things that are bothering me.

First of all, despite all my better instincts, a little part of my brain wonders if the Iranians are right. Could our intelligence capabilities and resources on Iran be so pathetic that we are strapping GPS devices onto birds and rodents and hoping that they find us nukes in Natanz rather than nuts? Of course not. But the fact that the thought even crosses my mind worries me.

However, more important than whether I believe the story is whether the Iranians do. The Bush Administration and both campaigns have kept up a pretty steady drumbeat about the Iranian threat. Despite differences on dialogue with Iran, there is clear bilateral agreement on the need to talk tough for the cameras. Have the Iranians internalized this message so completely that they are seeing spies around every corner? Can accusing a pigeon of espionage be considered anything less than delusional paranoia?

For me, this is just another reminder that our rhetoric has a real-world effect on the psyche of other countries. We shouldn’t be surprised that when the world’s only superpower describes a country as a threat that country feels threatened. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not overly concerned about the emotional well-being of the Iranian government. But we do need to remember that our actions can lead to irrational reactions from other countries. Such as arresting squirrels for spying. Or believing that the only road to security is through a rogue nuclear weapons program.

But, at the end of the day, the real question is: Do any of these squirrels or pigeons speak Farsi? We could really use the help with doing some translation.

A Profile in Courage

by David Ginsberg | October 21st, 2008 | |Subscribe

Last week, I attended a small gathering of DC based bloggers for a discussion with Egyptian activist and blogger Nora Younis, sponsored by the Project on Middle East Democracy. Nora was there to discuss the efforts of activists in Egypt to reform the government in the face of very sharp pressures, and to explain how new media (blogs, text messaging, Facebook etc.) are aiding in their efforts.

Nora first rose to prominence as one of the female activists who were sexually assaulted during a Kefaya protest in 2005, as police stood by and did nothing. Using her camera, she captured the incident, posted her photos, and later mobilized a movement against sexual harassment. Later that year, she spent a night taking notes and shooting photos as Egyptian soldiers kicked Sudanese refugees out of a Cairo public square with water cannons and nightsticks. For months, the refugees had been protesting the poor welcome they had received in Egypt. Posting her photos and observations on her blog in an entry she titled, “Disgraced to be Egyptian: A Testimony,” Younis called attention to a topic largely ignored by the mainstream press.

Nora explained to us how activists in Egypt have taken advantage of new media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and text messaging to expose corruption and force government to address gross human rights violations that otherwise were swept under the rug. She particularly bemoaned Twitter closing its Egypt operations. She did make a point of mentioning that the company made the decision to close for financial reasons, and not because of government pressures.

Despite the advances made by the blogger community in Egypt, they still face incredible pressures from the government to shut down. It is not uncommon for activists to be snatched off the street, blindfolded, taken to police stations or other remote locations and be beaten, tortured, and coerced to cease their work. Mainstream media faces similar pressures, with journalists being heavily fined or jailed for criticizing the government, and newspapers and TV studios being forced to close.

Nora thought that United States could be doing more to promote human and civil rights in Egypt, instead of simply just promoting the Mubarak regime as a “moderate” ruler. The next administration will have to actively engage the Egyptian government, not just simply promote the (relatively) “moderate” regime, but to hold them accountable for human rights violations, and create stable and democratic institutions. As part of the Secure America Challenge, PSA has been calling for bipartisan action to help promote human rights around the world. The work being done by Nora and other activists like her, at great personal risk no less, should inspire America to work with Egypt, and other countries around the world to create free and open societies.

Afghanistan: Our future front page headline

by David Isenberg | October 17th, 2008 | |Subscribe

Let’s return to Afghanistan. We might as well, because no matter who wins the election we are going to be hearing lots more about events there.

There has not been a lot to cheer about lately. Consider that on Wednesday Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the mission to stabilize Afghanistan had shown significant gaps in the ability of the United States and NATO to integrate their civilian and military efforts, and he warned that it “remains to be seen” whether the allies could better coordinate their work.

“These efforts today – however well intentioned and even heroic – add up to less than the sum of the parts,” he said.

In a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Gates said the security of the American people will depend increasingly on an ability to head off the next insurgency or stop the collapse of another failing state. He focused specifically on Afghanistan.

Meanwhile Superman, known to us mere Earthlings as Gen. David Petraeus, now head of the U.S. Central Command, has warned that the lack of development and the spiraling violence in Afghanistan will likely make it “the longest campaign of the long war.”

Thus next month he is launching a 100-day assessment of U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and the surrounding region. Reportedly he will focus on government-led reconciliation of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the leveraging of diplomatic and economic initiatives with nearby countries that are influential in the war.

It does make you wonder, should Sen. MCain win election, if Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai or Gen. Petraeus can expect to be rebuked by President McCain for talking to the enemy without preconditions. (more…)

Obama Seeks a Landslide, But Needs a Mandate

by Matthew Rojansky | October 15th, 2008 | |Subscribe

In a piece for this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Times political reporter Matt Bai evaluates Obama’s effort to reach white male, gun-toting, church-going (and traditionally conservative) voters.  He highlights Obama’s dogged pursuit of a “50-state” strategy, which includes dozens of campaign offices in places like Southwestern Virginia, South Dakota, and North Carolina.  Bai suggests that despite being the first ever Democratic nominee who is not a white male, Obama might have a good shot of bringing white males into the Democratic camp.  This speaks to the question of whether Obama can win a commanding majority that includes both traditional Democratic voters and new converts from rural, white, working class communities.  But Bai touches only briefly on the much more important question of why Obama would want to win such a majority.  He writes:

From the start, Obama has aspired not simply to win but also to stand as a kind of generational break from the polarized era of the boomers, to become the first president in at least 20 years to claim anything more than the most fragile mandate for his agenda. Absent that, even if he wins, Obama could wake up on Nov. 5 as yet another president-elect of half the people, perched uncomfortably on the edge of an impassable cultural divide.

From a purely tactical standpoint, winning by a wide margin would clearly be preferable to winning by a narrow margin.  After all, extra electoral votes to push the winner over the top are an insurance policy against potential close calls like Florida in 2000, and a commanding win certainly bodes better both for popularity polls during the winner’s first term, and for his chances of winning a second term in 2012.


Restraint needed in describing Iranian threat

by Brian Vogt | October 14th, 2008 | |Subscribe

In the past two presidential debates there has been much talk about Iran.  Unfortunately, the focus of the debate has been on whether or not we should talk directly with Iran.  It’s time for McCain and Obama to get over the minutia of who’s actually doing the talking.  The fact is that we need to negotiate with Iran, and pretty much all mainstream thinkers in the foreign policy community agree on this. 

What has concerned me about this debate over Iran is the apocalyptic terms with which both candidates seem to describe the threat and what that means for the likelihood of employing the military option to deal with Iran.  McCain said in the first debate, “Now we cannot a second Holocaust. Let’s just make that very clear. ”  In the same debate, Obama said uneqivocally, “we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran. It would be a game changer.” 

I agree that a nuclear armed Iran would be a grave threat.  However, when we associate a nuclear armed Iran with the possiblity of a second Holocaust, this naturally leads one to conclude that we should do anything to prevent a nuclear Iran because a nuclear Iran would clearly lead to a second holocaust.  Similarly, when Obama says that a nuclear Iran cannot be tolerated, he conveys the sense that we will use whatever means necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. 

It is right for our leaders to show their resolve in dealing with this issue.  It is indeed very serious.  However, by presenting the threat is such grave terms, I fear that we open the door wider to possible military action – a course of action that I fear, based on our recent in experience in Iraq, could be more dangerous than the threat posed by a nuclear armed Iran.   (more…)

On Indefinite Detention

by John Eden | October 10th, 2008 | |Subscribe

Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri is a Qatari national and resident of the United States who has been held in solitary confinement, without access to legal representation, since June of 2003.  Al-Marri is the only individual seized on U.S. soil who has been held indefinitely on the grounds that he represents “a continuing, present, and grave danger to the national security of the United States.”  The Fourth Circuit recently decided that while the President may indefinitely detain suspected al Qaeda members captured in the U.S., procedural safeguards must be adopted so that individuals can challenge the basis on which they have been detained.  Frustrated with this decision, Al-Marri’s lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to address a critical question:  Does the President of the United States possesses the authority to detain individuals indefinitely where Congress has not explicitly granted such authority?

The answer to this question is already obvious, at least by the petitioner’s lights.  The Authorization to Use Military Force (“AUMF”) does not specifically give the President the authority to detain U.S. citizens or residents, nor would such a prerogative – if set out in the AUMF – survive serious constitutional scrutiny.  Thus, to rectify the deep flaws in the Fourth Circuit’s analysis, the Supreme Court must intervene to clarify and protect the critical civil liberties at stake.

What should the Supreme Court say?  From the perspective of positive law, there is much to recommend the petitioner’s view.  First, the AUMF, passed a week after the 9/11 attacks, nowhere gives the President the right to detain unarmed U.S. citizens or residents “captured” on U.S. soil (as opposed to those captured on the battlefield).  Second, the Patriot Act, which was enacted several weeks after the AUMF, denies the President the power to detain individuals indefinitely without charge.  And third, if allowed to stand, the Fourth Circuit’s decision would blur the lines between civilians and enemy combatants, ushering in a dark future in which civilians may be, under color of law, indiscriminately deprived of their civil liberties. (more…)

U.S. Military Spending: Too Much Bipartisanship

by David Isenberg | October 6th, 2008 | |Subscribe

One might think that the current crisis roiling the American economy might be an opportunity for Senators Obama and McCain to spell out their differences on one important issue; U.S. military spending.

Consider the fact that on September 24th, during the fight over the Wall Street bail out, the House of Representatives passed, bill passed by a vote of 392-39, a $612 billion defense authorization bill for 2009 without any public protest or meaningful press comment. This show there is unlikely to be any significant pressure to cut military or related national security spending.

Instead, Senators Obama and McCain seem to be reading off the same page. That is the kind of bipartisanship we do no need. The time is long past for someone to stand up and say the obvious; that both military and associated “national security” spending is out of control and continually getting more outrageous.

The latter category includes nuclear weapons spending at the Energy department, plus the State department, as well as Veterans Affairs, and the intelligence agencies. All together that totals exceeds a trillion dollars annually.

Let’s stipulate that there are multiple factors which impact U.S. military spending. And yes, while the financial crisis will increase pressure to reduce military spending, other countervailing political factors will ensure that there likely will be no significant reduction.

Why is this? The primary reason is that the United States is at war, even if is an undeclared one and one which the country is largely disengaged and removed from. And no politician dares cutting military spending for fear of being accused being ‘soft on defense” or not “supporting the troops.”

Unlike the situation at the end of the 1980s and early 19980s there is nothing comparable to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which drove significant reduction in U.S. military spending.

Today the situation is reversed. The United States is fighting the “long war” (formerly known at the global war on terror) and politically both the incumbent administration and the opposition party are reluctant to cut military spending at such a time.

Sadly, there is nothing in the campaign platforms of either Sen. John McCain or Barrack Obama to suggest that they would significantly reduce military spending.

In fact McCain says the United States must enlarge the size of its armed forces. That alone will guarantee that operation and support costs, traditionally one of the highest categories of U.S. military spending will stay high.

Likewise Sen. Obama supports plans to increase the size of the Army by 65,000 soldiers and the Marines by 27,000 troops.


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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.