The Good, Bad and Terrible on DPRK

by Matthew Rojansky | May 27th, 2009 | |Subscribe

The Dear Leader
The “Dear Leader”

In the 2008 Presidential Campaign, and in President Obama’s subsequent speeches, there has been a lot of very sensible and justified emphasis on diplomacy over military force. If nothing else, this Administration seems to have a much lower threshold for initiating diplomatic dialogue and a much higher threshold for cutting it off. But there must be times when Democrats and Republicans, conservatives, neocons, and liberals, can agree that diplomacy just isn’t enough.


Welcome to PSA Congressional Fellows

by PSA Staff | May 27th, 2009 | |Subscribe

PSA is excited to welcome a new class of Fellows to its Congressional Fellowship Program next week. The initial group of 27 Fellows includes highly motivated and accomplished staff from 14 Democratic and 13 Republican offices, with 16 from the House and 11 from the Senate. The Program, taking place from June to October 2009, will help these young leaders build relationships across the aisle and gain skills and knowledge necessary to bridge the partisan divide and build consensus on critical issues.

They bring impressive backgrounds to the Program, including active duty military service, legal practice, scientific research, political campaigns, community service, think tanks, and media. Building on these diverse backgrounds, Fellows will participate in critical analysis of U.S. foreign policy guided by former senior foreign policy officials. Following the completion of a series of five events geared toward enhancing effective bipartisan dialogue, Fellows will complete a Final Project aimed at resolving real world challenges on Capitol Hill. The full list of Fellows can be found on the PSA website.

The Congressional Fellowship Program will fill a crucial need on Capitol Hill for the promotion of bipartisanship in a long-term context. Too often, contacts between Members and staff from opposite parties are temporary, made on an issue-by-issue basis. We believe that relationships formed in the earlier stages of a career can help forge a more bipartisan atmosphere and process in Congress across the range of foreign policy challenges faced every session. No one party has a monopoly on wisdom, and by bringing together these Fellows now, they will be able to get to know each other and share ideas and experiences that will pay dividends in future policy debates. We look forward to working with the Fellows and to a great summer.

Torture? I’m shocked, shocked I say

by David Isenberg | May 26th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Perhaps distance brings perspective but as a U.S. citizen watching the torture debate from outside the United States I can’t help but feel that there is a disingenuous tone to the ongoing debate.

While it is good that policymakers and the public are debating this publicly it can’t come as a surprise to anyone but the most willfully ignorant that the United States has been torturing prisoners, including those who definitely are guilty of nothing, in its custody for years.

If the actor Claude Rains were alive today he would instantly recognize this hypocrisy for what it is. After all it was his words in the classic film Casablanca which has since served as the signature line for all those who feign indignation over something they have long known is going on.

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?

Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!

[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]

Croupier: Your winnings, sir.

Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
Captain Renault: Everybody out at once!

I hate to say it but too many Americans resemble the “Good Germans” who at the end of WWII claimed they hadn’t a clue that a Holocaust had been taking place. We have consciously and for many, willingly, turned a blind eye and ear to what has been done in our names. Some people are so morally and ethically debased that they trivialized torture as just high spirited roughhousing. Just remember when in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib revelations maniacs like Rush Limbaugh or even as recently as last year a Congressman like Dana Rohrbacher dismissed torture as fraternity pranks.

It also bears note that in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib we have yet to do anything to the military and civilian officials at the highest levels of the national security bureaucracy who authorized this. Instead, we prosecuted a few lowly enlisted men for doing what they were told. There was a time when America did not accept “just following orders” as an excuse, either for those who followed them or for those who issued them.

One hardly needed to read the memos from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that the Obama Administration released to know that torture was going on. It has been the subject of analysis and debate in law journals for years. All anyone had to do was type “torture” into the Lexis-Nexis legal database and you would get thousands of results. Note that these aren’t the result of searching for “abuse” or “enhanced interrogation techniques” but just plain “torture.” (more…)

Is Burma Obama’s Real Test?

by Michael Landweber | May 25th, 2009 | |Subscribe

From day one, there has been rampant speculation about what will test Obama on foreign policy.  Iran and North Korea come up frequently as countries that could force Obama into a crisis situation.  However, I think that another country may be the real test of the fledgling Obama doctrine:  Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi went on trial last week.  Her crime is allowing an American trespasser, John Yettaw, who swam to her isolated house uninvited, to spend a night in her guest room.  This violated the rules of her house arrest, which she has been under for years.  The house arrest was about to end and conventional wisdom holds that the Burmese generals who rule the country would have trumped up some reason to keep her under lock and key.  Yettaw just saved them the trouble of having to make something up.

The U.S. has condemned the trial, just as we have condemned every action by the ruling junta since they took control of the country decades ago.  The Administration also announced that sanctions would continue on Burma for at least another year, by which time I assume the announced U.S. review of Burma policy will be complete.  The question is what could possibly change.


American Idol holds big lessons for American democracy

by Matthew Rojansky | May 22nd, 2009 | |Subscribe

Fox, Frank Micelotta/AP PhotoThe newest addition to the American Idol pantheon is Kris Allen, and not the multi-talented Adam Lambert. Millions of fans were heartbroken, but Adam seemed to take it well. Either way, it was bound to be a close race and another record-setting vote by American Idol fans. After all, every new season of the show has brought new record vote tallies, as more viewers register their preferences by text message, and more of them vote multiple times.

Last night’s tally, we were told, came in just under 100 million, an average of between 2 and 3 votes for every one of the almost 40 million viewers. That’s just shy of the 130 million votes cast in the 2008 general election, and even on a one-vote-per-customer basis, it rivals totals for the hotly contested Democratic presidential primary. Most importantly, as fans of both Adam and Kris would agree, the selection process was fair, transparent, and got people’s attention.

American Idol may not be a perfect direct democracy in action, but in some respects I think Simon, Randy, Paula, and Kara could teach us a lot about how to make our democracy better and more interesting. Here are just a few of American Idol’s lessons for American democracy: (more…)

Bipartisanship by any other name

by Matthew Rojansky | May 21st, 2009 | |Subscribe

Obama and Shultz at the White House on May 19 (AP photo)
Obama and Shultz at the White House on May 19 (AP photo)

At a meeting Tuesday with former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), and former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, President Obama summed up the group’s deliberations on the goal of achieving a world without nuclear weapons:

“This is a reminder of the long tradition of bipartisan foreign policy that has been the hallmark of America at moments of greatest need, and that’s the kind of spirit that we hope will be reflected in our administration.”

It’s great to hear this from the President who also made “bipartisanship and openness” an official plank in his campaign platform, and now identifies it as a key to effective US national security and foreign policy for his Administration.

You might think Obama’s commitment to bipartisan consultation and cooperation on national security would win nothing but plaudits from a group of former leaders obviously assembled not just for their substantive expertise, but for their bipartisan credibility. So then what are we to make of George Shultz’s reply, in the role of spokesman for the elder statesmen? Not once, but twice, the former Reagan administration official remarked that President Obama was wrong about nuclear disarmament being a “bipartisan issue,” because:

“It’s really nonpartisan. This is a subject that ought to somehow get up above trying to get a partisan advantage. And it’s of such importance that we need to take it on its own merits. And that’s the way we’ve proceeded. And that’s the way, at least it seems to us, you’ve proceeded.”


Suggested Reading for Governor Huntsman

by Brian Vogt | May 19th, 2009 | |Subscribe

The big news at the end of last week for those who follow China or have an interest in bipartisanship was the appointment of Governor Jon Huntsman (R-UT) to be ambassador to China.  I’ll explore here both the political angle on Huntsman’s appointment and also propose one idea on the approach that Huntsman might consider as Ambassador to China.

Many people are still trying to figure this appointment out.  Just a bit over a week ago, Chris Cillizza of the was pointing to Huntsman as one one to watch for 2012.  Barack Obama’s campaign manager said that Huntsman made him a “wee bit queasy”.  What’s more, Huntsman recently returned from a trip to Michigan, an important Republican primary state.  So, amidst all of this speculation about Huntsman’s 2012 plans, Obama named Huntsman, John McCain’s campaign co-chair, to be his next Ambassador to China.  How’s that for an unexpected pick?

However, upon further consideration, it makes a lot of sense when looking at Huntsman’s background.  Huntsman has been a moderate Republican who has regularly pushed the party to expand its tent.  He has been a champion of bipartisanship in Utah, which also meshes well with Obama’s approach to governance.  He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, served as Ambassador to Singapore, and did missionary work in Taiwan.  Anyone looking for a strong candidate (Democrat or Republican) would want to consider someone like Huntsman for such an important relationship.  China isn’t a job for a wealthy or well connected donor.  It’s going to be one of the most important relationships for the US in the decades to come. (more…)

Congo’s Air of Suffering

by John Prandato | May 18th, 2009 | |Subscribe


For the last decade, deep in the heart of the African continent the Democratic Republic of the Congo has laid claim to one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in history. Since the beginning of the Second Congo War (also known as Africa’s World War) in 1998, an estimated 5.4 million people have died, making the war and its ongoing six-year aftermath the deadliest conflict since World War II. Equally appalling is the fact that only 10% of deaths are attributed to violence, with most resulting from starvation and easily preventable disease. An estimated 45,000 people are still dying each month – more than triple the mortality rate at the peak of the Darfur crisis in 2003 – and, according to both the World Bank and the IMF, the Congolese people are, quite simply, the poorest in the world.

The extraordinary level of Congo’s suffering is perhaps only rivaled by the conflict’s own complexity. Congo’s eastern provinces contain massive mineral deposits that are the source of the metals used in the cell phones, laptops, mp3 players, and digital cameras we use every day. But the minerals are mined in horrendous conditions under the watchful eye of many ambiguously interrelated militant factions, earning the lucrative natural resources the name “conflict minerals”.

Recently, strides have been taken toward achieving transparency of the origins of the minerals with the introduction of the Congo Conflict Minerals Act, co-sponsored by Senators Brownback, Durbin, and Feingold. The legislation would require all U.S.-registered electronics companies selling products containing columbite-tantalite, cassiterite, or wolframite to annually disclose the country of origin – and, if derived from Congo or an adjacent country, the mine of origin – to the SEC. Through oversight by the State Department, the intended outcome of the bill will be to sever the funding of the armed groups at the source. By modeling the effort on the Kimberley Process – the regulatory policy that has brought relative stability to the diamond trade in Liberia and Sierra Leone – the plan hopes to achieve the same results. (more…)

March 2009: Those were the days

by David Isenberg | May 12th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Remember way back when, in March 2009, when everyone was so pleased and excited that the Obama administration had announced its “comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” As Mary Hopkin once sang:

Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.

It has been less than two months but the “strategy” is not looking so hot. Right now, policymakers charged with implementing it are probably reaching for an entire bottle of Jack Daniels, as opposed to the glass or two of wine in Hopkin’s song, as they contemplate the AfPak area of operations.

Consider a few news items from just the past week.

Over half a million people have fled the fighting in Pakistan’s Valley, bringing the total number of displaced since August to one million as 125,000 Pakistan soldiers fight a reported 4,000 Taliban militants there. Even assuming the Pakistani military is committed to the fight, something it has promised before but not followed through on, it is unclear whether it will succeed. Pakistanis in the area say the Taliban had so far held on to every neighborhood they had seized in the previous days and months. Witnesses said Friday that the insurgents remained in control of Mingora, the district capital, and many parts of the districts of Buner and Lower Dir.

And, if the Pakistani military does not decisively destroy the Taliban there that will put them far too close for comfort to various Pakistani nuclear facilities. As Leonard Spector Deputy Director of the Monterey Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation wrote:

Taliban fighters will surely be emboldened to probe into government-controlled areas closer to the capital and to several key nuclear sites. Given their enormous political and military salience, the nuclear sites would be particularly appealing targets. Whether government forces would fare any better in protecting these locations than in the Swat Valley would be hard to predict. If a site were overrun, local physical protection measures would mean little.

U.S. military and intelligence officials worry that Taliban forces pushed out of Afghanistan by reinforced U.S. troops this summer will flow unimpeded into Pakistan, as they did during U.S. operations in Afghanistan in 2001.

Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, said in an interview that Pakistan has become the nerve center of al Qaeda’s global operations, allowing the terror group to re-establish its organizational structure and build stronger ties to al Qaeda offshoots in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, North Africa and parts of Europe. (more…)

The Somali Anomaly: Bringing Order to the Epicenter of Chaos

by John Prandato | May 7th, 2009 | |Subscribe

In the wake of the recent surge in piracy, it would be hard to argue that there is not a silver lining fastened to this unique international crisis – the tragedy of Somalia has finally been pushed onto the world stage. Somalia has long been a political catastrophe, having hit rock bottom after claiming the #1 ranking in The Fund for Peace’s most recent Failed States Index. In the last 18 years, Mogadishu has watched 14 failed attempts at establishing a functioning central government, and the current transitional government’s sphere of control has been reduced to just a few city blocks of the war-torn capital. The rest of the country is governed by unbridled anarchy in a violent free-for-all between rival clans, powerful warlords, and radical Islamists. To call Somalia a classic embodiment of Hobbesian state of nature would be a monumental understatement because Thomas Hobbes never fashioned his model of anarchy to include a seemingly infinite supply of automatic weapons. The timeline of the past two decades is dotted with covert military forays and half-hearted state-building efforts, but only as the crisis begins to spill over into the Gulf of Aden and aboard the decks of merchant vessels has the world finally truly taken notice. At a recent conference in Brussels attended by leadership from the UN, the EU, the African Union (AU), the Arab League, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the international community pledged $213 million (far exceeding the requested aid) toward strengthening Somali security forces. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN special envoy for Somalia, said recently that “the problem of piracy has opened the eyes of those who have forgotten Somalia.”

However, many have been quick to note that international intrigue and foreign aid do not necessarily equate to results especially since, at first glance, stability in Somalia appears all but hopeless. After all, 2 million displaced refugees and a $600 per capita GDP in a country defined by drought, famine, and incessant war does not paint a promising picture. But Somalia is an anomaly among the rest of the world’s failed states, which are almost invariably defined by deep-seated religious or ethnic sectarian conflict. Somalia, on the other hand, is strikingly homogeneous. Nearly the entire population of almost 10 million shares the same ethnicity, religion, language, and culture. But the prolonged absence of the rule of law has given rise to violent clan loyalties that have shattered the Somali nation into countless unidentifiable pieces. Nevertheless, the pieces of unity exist. They just need a foundation on which to take shape. (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.