The clock is ticking

by Brian Vogt | December 31st, 2008 | |Subscribe

Last week the International Republican Institute released a particularly disheartening poll of attitudes and opinions held by the the Pakistani public.  This poll that took place during the second half of October shows an increasing pessimism amongst average Pakistanis.  Eighty Eight (88) percent of Pakistanis feel that the country is heading in the wrong direction and and 59 percent expect that their economic situation will get worse in the upcoming year.  Over the past year of polling in Pakistan the trend on both of these questions has been markedly upwards.  Not surprisingly, after a spate of serious bombings and killings that have occurred recently in the country, 78 percent of respondents did not feel any more secure this year than last.

Another particularly striking result was an open-ended question asking who was responsible for the September 20th suicide bombing at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.  Although 50 percent of respondents said that they didn’t know, the next highest response, was the United States (20 percent).  Thirteen (13) percent responded that the government of Pakistan was responsible.  Only 2 percent felt that terrorists were to blame.  Although many point out that conspiracy theories are a national past time in Pakistan, this statistic raises serious concerns about public opinion of the US in the current struggle.

What is equally concerning is the view of the current government, democratically elected last February.  In June, 41 percent approved of the job the government was doing.  In October, this fell to 21 percent.  Sixty seven (67) percent of respondents felt that things would not get better in Pakistan now that there is a democratically elected government.  This is particularly concerning because Pakistan has a troubled history of public acceptance of military intervention in the government, most recently with the 1999 coup by General Musharraf.   Considering that history, these poll results are an ominous warning sign.

Of course with all of the negative news about the recent violence in Pakistan and the increased tensions with India, one might be tempted to point to those factors when explaining this public pessimism.  This poll, however, paints a very different picture.  In Pakistan, just as in the US, the political maxim holds:  it’s the economy, stupid!  When asked what is the top problem facing the country, 58 percent said inflation, twelve percent said unemployment, and only 10 percent said suicide bombings. (more…)

Coming full circle

by David Isenberg | December 22nd, 2008 | |Subscribe

What was that sound you heard over the weekend? That was the sound of the other shoe dropping. Or put another way, we have come full circle, from Afghanistan to Iraq and now, back to Afghanistan.

It looks as if the military is wasting no time in fulfilling the pledges of Barack Obama. During his campaign he pledged to shift the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. Here’s hoping it doesn’t turn out to be a case of being careful what we wished for.

Obama and top U.S. commanders have vowed to increase U.S. troops in Afghanistan by 20,000, which could push the total U.S. military presence there above 50,000.

U.S. Joint Forces Command officials are working to help the Pentagon dispatch the last of four new brigades requested by commanders in Afghanistan by late spring or early summer.

The U.S. military will soon launch a pilot program to raise local militias, paid by the Pentagon, in an effort to improve security throughout Afghanistan.

Evidently this is supposed to be the Afghan version of the Iraqi Awakening movement. After initially being rejected by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the plan was developed this fall and approved just over two weeks ago.

Yet some officials warn that the forces must be carefully vetted to avoid repeating the mistakes of Afghanistan’s past, as in bolstering local warlords. They worry about launching a program modeled on the U.S.-financed militias of Iraq, given the considerable differences in the wars.

It would be a mistake to think that tactics and strategies that were successful in Iraq can just be transplanted into Afghanistan. Consider what Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on the Dec. 17 Charlie Rose show: (more…)

The simple economics of justice

by John Eden | December 22nd, 2008 | |Subscribe

Just about every American law graduate is familiar with the concept of optimal enforcement. An idea drawn from law and economics, enforcement is said to be optimal when the regulatory body or agency charged with enforcing a law does not spend more than it should to enforce that law. Put in more technical jargon, each resource unit devoted to enforcement of a law produces the best possible enforcement impact (however that impact is defined and measured). Another thing that most American law graduates understand, and understand quite intuitively, is that optimal enforcement is impossible unless the party responsible for illicit conduct faces penalties for breaching the law.

If law graduates comprehend this economic concept so readily, can the same be said for all of the Justices that sit on the highest court of the land? Unfortunately, no. In a recent argument before the Supreme Court, some of the Justices suggested that the parties most likely to be responsible for (alleged) illegal conduct might enjoy immunity from prosecution if they are too busy or if they engaged in the misconduct in the hopes of addressing pressing national security concerns.


Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse…

by David Ginsberg | December 19th, 2008 | |Subscribe

I hate to put a damper on anyone’s holiday cheer, but there is a side to the economic meltdown that has largely been ignored; the national security aspect.

As James Rickards, a financial adviser to the Director of National Intelligence explains, the financial crises is not simply threatening to bring the American or global economies to a grinding halt, but could also pose some grave existential threats to the United States. For example, an America facing rising unemployment and general sense of unease, would make a perfect target for a terrorist to deal a body blow to an already damaged American psyche and bring about a total collapse of the American economy.

Another potential vulnerability is the dollar itself. The dollar has been the dominant currency simply because of a lack of a true viable alternative to it. However, Rickards can envision a scenario where a global coalition banded together to create a gold-backed alternative to the dollar that would drive investors away from dollar backed securities, causing high unemployment, deflation, and skyrocketing interest rates.

These scenarios, while all outside the mainstream, are still not completely beyond the realm of possibility and adds an additional layer of urgency to the current economic crisis, and the need for a real solution as soon as possible. If there was ever a time for bipartisan cooperation, now is it. We are facing crisises on all fronts (not to mention a need for health care, education, and a host of other domestic reforms), and do not have the luxury of time to engage in our old partisan bickering. So far, it looks like the Obama team is moving in the right direction. Congressional leaders need to get on board and get to work!

The times they are a-changin’

by PSA Staff | December 17th, 2008 | |Subscribe

President-elect Obama campaigned on a broad platform of “change”, promising to bring an end to the partisan fighting that had caused Washington to grind to a near halt.  Many were skeptical of Obama’s ability to REALLY change anything, – after all how many other politicians who had come before making the same types of promises really succeeded?

Well it looks like Barack Obama might be doing it.  A recent article in the New York Times notes that so far, Obama has received praise from those on the right, including such key players as Karl Rove and Michael Gerson, President Bush’s onetime senior speechwriter, for his Cabinet appointments.  Conservatives have found something to like in the national security team of Robert Gates at the Pentagon and Gen. James Jones as National Security Advisor, as well as the selection of Timothy F. Geithner, who helped draw up the Bush administration’s Wall Street bailout plan, as his Treasury secretary.  And Obama has been able to do this, while still staying true to his more liberal/progressive minded principals.

Whether we are witnessing a new era of trans, post, or bi-partisanship, it is certainly encouraging.  PSA was founded with the understanding that America’s biggest problems won’t be solved with partisan solutions, and that inter-party dialogue and cooperation is a crucial aspect to fixing the country.  No matter whom you voted for in November, now seems like a great time to jump on the bipartisan bandwagon – everyone else is.

On the situation in the Congo

by Edwina Chin | December 16th, 2008 | |Subscribe

The UN has prepared a draft report on the recent escalation in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the results are damning.  The report, which is due to be presented to the Sanctions Committee of the Security Council this week, accuses the governments of both the DRC and Rwanda of fuelling the long-standing conflict through the covert supply of arms, personnel (including child soldiers) and financial aid.

The report alleges that the Rwandan government, headed by a former Tutsi rebel, has been supplying troops and heavy artillery to General Laurent Nkunda, the leader of the Tutsi community in the DRC.  Meanwhile, the DRC government (or more precisely, the DRC army) stands accused of collaborating with the FLDR, a Hutu militia encompassing many of the leaders of the 1994 genocide.  The result is a proxy war of sorts, between two governments eager to formally distance themselves from the conflict and keen to portray the civil war as a battle between renegade forces.

The report will force the Security Council in general, and the Sanctions Committee in particular, to think long and hard about novel ways to approach the DRC conflict.  Clearly, the current approach of combining an arms embargo with a significant, in-country UN peacekeeping presence has been ineffective in addressing rising security and humanitarian concerns.  The arms embargo, the UN report has found, has been repeatedly breached by the Rwandan and DRC governments, among other organisations.   The UN peacekeeping force, whilst being the largest and most expensive of its kind in the world today and the beneficiary of a recent injection of a further 3,000 troops, still faces considerable problems in terms of both legitimacy and practical power.  The disparate nationalities of the troops and the size of the peacekeeping force, relative to the civilian population, have made it difficult for the peacekeepers to fulfil their mandate of disarming the rebel forces.  Suggestions that the peacekeeping force has not been appropriately prioritising the protection of civilians, including by respected aid agencies such as Oxfam, have only added fuel to the fire.  (more…)

Glimmers of hope for Burma

by Brian Vogt | December 16th, 2008 | |Subscribe

On Monday I attended the National Democratic Institute’s annual luncheon that featured several awards given to prominent democrats (with a small D).  Although much of the public was particularly interested in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s acceptance of the W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award, I was struck by another award that was given to a much lesser known recipient.  The Women’s League of Burma, represented by Thin Thin Aung, received the 2008 Madeleine K. Albright Award for its work promoting human rights and women’s political participation in Burma.  It is activists such as these around the world that are the face of democracy to so many who know only oppression from authoritarian regimes.  The military junta of Burma certainly fits that bill, as demonstrated in its complete disregard for its citizens’ livelihoods in the aftermath of cyclone Nargis that struck this past May.  After rebuffing many offers of aid, just days after the hurricane hit, the military junta went ahead with a sham referendum on a new constitution that would cement its role in the future governance of the country.

Many are dismayed at the seemingly never ending stream of news reporting oppression and authoritarianism that comes out of Burma.  Although there is much cause for concern, there are also glimmers of hope.  The Women’s League of Burma is one of those points of light that demonstrates that the spirit of democracy is alive in Burma.  Despite continuous attempts by the military junta to silence its critics, groups such as the Women’s League of Burma show us that even in the most oppressive environments, yearning for self determination can not be completely extinguished.

The Women’s League of Burma is training young Burmese women activists in the Thai border area who then risk their lives when they return to their country to document human rights abuses such as forced prostitution and human trafficking by the military junta and organize citizens to promote a greater role for women in Burmese society.   (more…)

Trying Terrorists Fairly

by John Eden | December 11th, 2008 | |Subscribe

In a recent piece in Slate, Jack Goldsmith and Benjamin Wittes outline the various challenges that the Obama administration faces in trying and convicting terrorists. The Obama administration must determine who to release, where they should be released, who is dangerous enough to warrant continued detention, and how to prosecute the remainder. Perhaps the most difficult problem is the last, since once Guantanamo Bay is closed, we will need to find a way to prosecute terrorists effectively without compromising our national security interests. Securing legitimate convictions through fair trials will undoubtedly be the objective, but it is extremely difficult to say what this lofty aim requires when suspected terrorists are the defendants.


Why a Torture Commission Makes Sense

by Raj Purohit | December 11th, 2008 | |Subscribe

When members of the Obama transition team suggested that the new administration would look to create a 9/11 style commission to investigate torture committed by and on behalf of the U.S., the concept was not well received by many anti-torture activists. Jonathan Turley, a Constitutional Law Professor at George Washington University, captured their core concerns in an interview on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show when he stated:

“We have third world countries that when they have found that their leaders committed torture war crimes, they prosecuted them. But the most successful democracy in history is just, I think, about to see war crimes, [and] do nothing about it. And that’s an indictment not just of George Bush and his administration. It’s the indictment of all of us if we walk away from a clear war crime and say it’s time for another commission.”

As a fellow anti-torture activist, I understand why Professor Turley and others oppose a Commission and believe that prosecutions are the only way forward. However, I have to break with them on this issue and support the creation of a Commission by the new administration. I support this approach both for reasons I have long felt are compelling and for more recent considerations. (more…)

The time to think about the prevention of genocide is now

by Brian Vogt | December 10th, 2008 | |Subscribe

On Monday a report was released on steps that the next US administration can take to help prevent genocide (reported here in the Washington Post).  At first glance, most readers will probably agree that of course the US government and international community should be taking whatever steps necessary to prevent genocide.  The tragic reality is, however, that with so many pressing foreign policy priorities at this time – namely Iraq and Afghanistan – the actual thought of working to put together a strategy to prevent something off in the future is probably quite far from the minds of many of today’s policy makers.  This report is right to point out that we can not let the emergencies of today prevent us from preventing the emergencies of tomorrow.  It’s just this type of forward thinking that is so sorely needed in America’s foreign policy establishment.

What I thought was particularly noteworthy in this report was the emphasis on leadership.  The United States is at a critical juncture in our relationship with other countries around the world.  Critics of the US role in the world see the US as empire building and imperialistic.  Althought the US professes to support democracy and human rights around the world, its actions in so many places lead many to question its actual motives.  Leadership on the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities around the world can go a long way towards rebuilding the American ideals for which so many around the world yearn. 

Some will say that the we have so many other pressing foreign policy emergencies that threaten our own security that we don’t have the luxury of addressing issues of genocide and mass atrocities.  I argue that any time genocide occurs around the world, it is a direct attack on who we are and what we stand for.     Our efforts to prevent genocide and mass atrocities are indicative of who we are as a people. 

There has been much talk in foreign policy circles about the Obama administration the role it will play in places like Darfur.  I am heartened by the fact that some of the people chosen and others under consideration have spoken out so forcefully on these issues.  This report takes the next step and lays out a framework that is worthy of consideration in terms of how we can prevent the next Darfur.

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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.