Barack Obama, Shrink-in-Chief: Putting bipartisanship on the couch

by Marina Dathe | January 30th, 2009 | |Subscribe

With a few carefully chosen key appointments across the aisle, Barack Obama has shown he means to practice bipartisanship. While most of the world applauds, some reserve judgment: Much will depend on Barack Obama’s ability to govern effectively with so many egos looking out for themselves.

Never more so than over the past eight years have relationships between congressional staffers become strained. Bills are drafted behind closed doors, and rammed down the throat of the opposition. There are many possible reasons for this, including ego, arrogance, anger, poor communication/understanding, etc. Frequently, these traits have become contagious. Individuals on the Hill have become entrenched behind their different value systems.  As the new Administration has already discovered, the passing of legislation is fraught with difficulty, fragmenting its legitimacy, which is why Barack Obama should, and seems to, care.


Next Up, Civilian Trials for Detainees?

by Matthew Rojansky | January 29th, 2009 | |Subscribe

After President Obama’s order last week calling for a full review of the terrorism detainee system with closure of the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay within a year, experts are beginning to ask the next logical question: What, exactly, does the Administration plan to do with the two hundred or so detainees it still has at Guantanamo, and the potentially hundreds or thousands more it may acquire in the coming years? At the moment, I’m not 100% convinced either way.

There are essentially three categories of options on the table, assuming you have to have some means of detaining, trying, and punishing people apprehended on suspicion of some kind of involvement with international terrorism: (1) Treat them all as criminals and channel them into the domestic U.S. criminal justice system, or in some cases, foreign criminal courts; (2) Treat them all as war criminals or “illegal combatants” and detain them as such under the Geneva conventions, trying them for war crimes when the evidence suffices or holding them through the end of hostilities, whenever that may be; or (3) Come up with a third option that takes a little from each category, and perhaps creates special “national security courts” with jurisdiction over terrorist prosecutions.


International Justice Systems and the Muslim World: Why Bashir is Wrong

by Raj Purohit | January 28th, 2009 | |Subscribe


Friends – I hope you find this joint effort with my friend Amjad Atallah of interest. Amjad is the Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.

International Justice Systems and the Muslim World: Why Bashir is Wrong 

by Raj Purohit, and Amjad Atallah

If the International Criminal Court (ICC) issues an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in February, it will certainly be met by a volley of criticism from the accused as he continues to frame the ICC as a tool of the west in its fight against the Muslim world. Al-Bashir can be expected to use the world-wide revulsion over the civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip to deflect attention from his own crimes. 

However, human rights activists should not cede ground to Mr. al-Bashir and his allies on this issue; instead they should embrace a debate centered on the relationship between international justice and the Arab and Muslim worlds while maintaining a moral consistency across every conflict that highlights the inviolability of every civilian life. 

President Obama Engages Muslim World

by Raj Purohit | January 27th, 2009 | |Subscribe

He gave a very important interview to Al-Arabiya yesterday. The transcript can be found at the end of this link. The entire interview is well worth reading and the tone and approach taken by the President is very encouraging. Here is one clip from the interview:

Q President Bush framed the war on terror conceptually in a way that was very broad, “war on terror,” and used sometimes certain terminology that the many people — Islamic fascism. You’ve always framed it in a different way, specifically against one group called al Qaeda and their collaborators. And is this one way of—– 
THE PRESIDENT: I think that you’re making a very important point. And that is that the language we use matters. And what we need to understand is, is that there are extremist organizations — whether Muslim or any other faith in the past — that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith’s name. 

And so you will I think see our administration be very clear in distinguishing between organizations like al Qaeda — that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it — and people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop. We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down.

But to the broader Muslim world what we are going to be offering is a hand of friendship.

Secure the Network, Secure the Nation

by Ginger Seip-Nuno | January 26th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Although President Obama may have found a way to keep his BlackBerry, he will not be able to use it while executing his new job.  He might eventually be able to move to a phone-PDA certified by the National Security Agency to handle Top Secret voice, email, and website communications, but at the moment, the government is understandably wary of using handhelds for storing and transmitting classified information.

The threat of hackers and cyber thieves is very real and can be extremely dangerous.  If a “Group” (terrorist organization, nation, state, non-state actors-pick your poison) could coordinate a cyber attack with some type of physical intrusion or ground offensive, the “Group” could do some serious damage.  An example of such a scenario would be the controversy surrounding Russia’s invasion of Georgia last August.  Georgia had been experiencing distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks targeting its government websites before and during the hostilities.  These attacks disrupted Georgia’s communications, but no direct evidence links the Russian government to having orchestrated the attacks.  It is also worth noting that a similar cyber attack happened in Estonia last year during tensions between Moscow and the Baltic state.  Czech Business Weekly states, “while no one is pointing fingers openly at Russia, all heads are turned in that direction.”  But, like the cyberattack on Georgia, no conclusive evidence points to the Russian Government.  In the case of Estonia, no ground offensive was necessary to effectively shutdown servers and major infrastructure-including the banking industry-setting off massive panic and a “cyber-riot” that plunged the tech-savvy country in the cyber dark for over two weeks.

Although this scenario is unlikely to happen in the United States, America is certainly not immune to cyber attacks.  America’s information systems have been targeted for decades.  In 2007, the Pentagon’s systems were hacked. Although China was “blamed” for the attack via indirect channels, there is no conclusive evidence that they where behind the breach.  Obama and McCain’s Campaign computers were hacked mid-summer 2008 by “a foreign government or organization” looking for proposed policy information.  In November 2008, the Department of Defense acknowledged their systems had been infected by a virus and, subsequently, banned the use of all thumb drives.  Just think: electricity, water, transportation, all major infrastructures, are run by computer.  A well placed virus can cause a system to malfunction quickly.

Is this making anyone else a bit nervous?


George Mitchell to become Middle East Envoy

by Raj Purohit | January 22nd, 2009 | |Subscribe

I could not sign off for today without noting how encouraged I am that Senator George Mitchell is about to be appointed Middle East Envoy (with a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). My friend Amjad Atallah wrote about the appointment at TWN:

Reuters was reporting that Senator George Mitchell was being strongly considered to become the next Middle East Envoy – a man of considerable gravitas who negotiated an end to the more intractable Irish-British dispute (a conflict with significant similarities with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).

I met Senator Mitchell when he led the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact Finding Committee appointed by former President Bill Clinton. He completed his work in the first five months of President Bush’s presidency – and it was the closest President Bush ever got to addressing the underlying fundamentals of the conflict.

I like this move and I also hope that the new Administration finds a way to use Sen. Hagel in its foreign policy. I would have liked to see him drafted to focus on US-Iran issues but I think that slot will be filled by Dennis Ross. Nevertheless, Hagel is an asset and should be used by the Obama Administration – perhaps that is a decision for day 2 or 3…

A Need to Expand the Public Discussion on Torture

by Raj Purohit | January 22nd, 2009 | |Subscribe

ABC news and some progressive blogs noted last night that the President would be signing three executive orders related to torture:

According to a former Hill aide, the orders will:

∙ close the detainee camp at Guantanamo Bay within a year and establish a process by which the U.S. government figures out what to do with the remaining detainees;

∙ establish new rules on interrogation methods moving forward;

∙ establish new guidelines for the treatment of detainees moving forward.

While these three orders are very important and, as was noted on these pages yesterday, crucial in beginning to restore the US reputation in the world, they have and will provoke a backlash. We saw the start of that today with cable news discussion this morning that has predictably descended into superficial statements from talking heads and a few politicians (Sen. Cornyn for one needs to become better informed before discussing these issues on TV).

The essence of some of the remarks is the following – If there is a roll back of the Bush torture policies and then the US is attacked, the Obama team and “the left” will be blamed for doing away with the policies that have made us safe. Of course this is rubbish.

This line of thinking includes  a convenient omission of the data suggesting torture produces more poor info than good info; that torture is a recruiting tool for AQ; that the AQ mode of operation seems focused on multi year planning (ie an attack on the US could be in the works).

Nevertheless, it does suggest that we need to have a dialogue on torture and interrogation in the months ahead to ensure that the public and policy makers are operating with the info they need to make smart decisions. The President should consider whether a Commission may be the way to go at this time.

Obama Embraces PSA Statement Recommendations

by PSA Staff | January 21st, 2009 | |Subscribe

According to a recent AP article, U.S. officials state that President Obama is considering a proposal that would “require all CIA interrogators to follow conduct outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual.”  This proposal is consistent with the recommendations of the distinguished bipartisan group organized by PSA who released a February 2008 Statement calling for a Uniform Interrogation Standard.  PSA has pursued the issue of the humane treatment of prisoners since our inception.  In 2005, we released a Statement that condemned the inhumane treatment of prisoners stating that such actions are inconsistent with America’s values and do irreparable damage to America’s reputation, resulting in a less secure United States.

The Obama Speech

by Raj Purohit | January 21st, 2009 | |Subscribe

The speech was a powerful one and will be unpacked here and in other places over time. I want to take a moment to share two portions that struck me as important to the discussion here at Across the Aisle.

The first is this reference to alliances and convictions:

“Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.  They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.  Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

A friend mentioned this morning that he felt the reference to a humble foreign policy was a shot at the Bush admin which failed to carry out the humble foreign policy promised in 2000 by then Gov. Bush.

I also found this clip remarkable:

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.  We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.  We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

More from me later, use the comments to share your thoughts on the speech.

Ahem! About that balanced news coverage

by David Isenberg | January 19th, 2009 | |Subscribe

I have been in the midst of a transition to a new, albeit temporary, job at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) where I will be helping to run the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers. So now, I am in Norway, and, yes, it is snowing as I write this.

As such, what with traveling, unpacking, settling in, et cetera I have not been checking in to the PSA blog every day. But I assumed people would continue to comment on the important issues of the day.

Hmmm, maybe not. Where is the commentary re Israel’s invasion of Gaza? Checking the blog I’m seen just one, and I find that rather appalling.

I have to say, especially as a Jew, that I used to consider the charge of lack of balanced coverage of Israel in the media to be frequently overstated, similar to the charge that America’s Middle East policy was set by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

But not this time. Since some people erroneously assume that Jews around the world fully support Israel in everything it does, like the people in this demonstration, I feel I must dissent from the orthodoxy.

And I am not the only one. Consider what J Street, the American Jewish David to AIPAC’s Goliath, recently wrote:

J Street understands that Hamas is a terrorist organization and a harsh enemy.  We are neither dovish nor pacifist, nor are we blindly opposed to the use of force.  We support Israel in defending and protecting its citizens from attack, including through military action if necessary and appropriate to the threat.  We believe, however, that force cannot be Israel’s only or preponderant response – even to Hamas.

We are pragmatists grounded in the real world and the lessons it teaches.  As such – and as avid supporters of Israel – we are asking whether the specific actions taken by Israel in Gaza actually do advance Israel’s and America’s interests.  In this case, J Street believes they do not.  We believe that the actions taken this week – disproportionate to the threat and escalatory in nature – will be seen, with time, as counterproductive.  They will further isolate Israel and the US internationally, deepen hatred among the Palestinian and Israel peoples, foment extremism throughout the Arab world and undercut the position of more moderate Arab regimes.


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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.