START is Just the Beginning

by Daniel Cassman | June 29th, 2009 | |Subscribe

missileThis December, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), is set to expire. START is the only mechanism that places verifiable limits on Russian and American nuclear arsenals. Currently, diplomats from both nations have been hard at work negotiating an extension or successor to the treaty. At a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, Ambassador Thomas Graham, and Dr. Keith B. Payne discussed the prospects for U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reductions. They were generally optimistic that we can make progress on arms reduction talks. It is imperative that we negotiate a new arms reduction treaty with Russia. But renegotiating START should be only the first step in a much longer process. We should view a new START as the beginning of a broader effort to curb nuclear proliferation and repair our relations with Russia.


Respecting Rights in an Age of Terror

by John Eden | June 26th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Jose PadillaIt is easy to forget that the war on terror poses a direct challenge to the very ideals that animate and enliven our democracy. America is predicated on the idea that fairness and justice should reach the farthest bounds of the republic, providing identical protections to the good and wicked alike. This, of course, requires extreme caution when depriving the liberty of even those criminals that are clearly guilty of the most heinous crimes.

Many thoughtful, intelligent people believe that this premise, this central ideal of American democracy, seems to make little sense when applied to suspected terrorists. After all, the foes we face are un-uniformed and do not announce themselves to us. They attack our economic, political and social infrastructure with frightening skill and ingenuity. Al Qaeda, in particular, has proven itself to be an adversary never to be underestimated, a foe that successfully attacked the world’s preeminent military power with very modest resources. Since we are facing such a vicious, lawless opponent, can it really be rational to extend the same protection to (suspected) terrorists that we would to ordinary criminals?

Jose Padilla believes that the answer is yes. Mr. Padilla has filed a lawsuit contending that John Yoo, co-author of the torture memos, abused his charge as a government lawyer by helping to create policies that encouraged harsh interrogation tactics and torture. The idea here is simple: Yoo should be held liable for the foreseeable results of the interrogation policies for which he provided legal justifications. This sort of theory has a long and storied pedigree, making its initial appearance in a case called Bivens, where the Supreme Court granted damages to an individual citizen who had his constitutional rights violated by federal agents acting on behalf of the U.S. government.

Moving Parts in the Middle East

by Raj Purohit | June 25th, 2009 | |Subscribe

While we have all been appropriately focused on the developments in Iran over the past two weeks, several other cogs in the interconnected Middle East have been turning and a few are worth reflecting on briefly this morning.

First, in Israel we saw the government authorize the building of 300 new settlement homes in defiance of US calls for a halt to such activity. This raised concern among various commentators who rightly fear that if settlement activity continues it will end any chance for a two state solution. After this news broke, Middle East watchers wondered whether the Obama administration would react. They did not have long to wait.

US State Department Spokesperson Ian Kelly stated that a scheduled meeting between Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu and US Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell, originally slated to take place in Paris today, was postponed with no new date set. Kelly went on to note that:

“This was done because we want to give Special Envoy Mitchell a chance to meet with Defense Minister Barak, and that visit will take place on Monday where we hope to advance discussions on a range of issues.” (more…)

Cyberspace: The New Battlefield

by John Prandato | June 24th, 2009 | |Subscribe

As we continue to hurtle through the Information Age at breakneck speeds, a glance back at the early 1990s makes it ever clearer that everything we thought we knew about the way our world works has changed. Every day, millions of people ascend into a dimension of human interaction that did not exist – at least not at all the way it does today – just 15 years ago. Cyberspace, as this dimension has come to be known, is a transformative realm, transcending the traditional domains of air, land, and sea because it simply knows no boundaries. It breaks down physical barriers, blurs the borders of nations, and ignores the intrinsic concept of spatial separation. The social networking phenomenon has given rise to a global conversation unprecedented in human history. “For the first time,” Peter Daou writes, “we are thinking aloud unfettered and unfiltered by mass media gatekeepers . . . pouring the content of hundreds of millions of minds onto a global cyber-canvass, the commixture becoming something new and unpredictable.” Most significantly, information no longer flows linearly – it leaps randomly from one mind to the next and from one side of the globe to the other. One could say that the global exchange of ideas occurs in a purer way than ever before.

But there is a flipside to this coin. Our collective security is now in more danger than ever for the very same reason the cyber revolution is such an amazing achievement – we are all interconnected. Virtually every aspect of our lives has an uninterruptable link to the cyber world. Our electricity, water, oil, telecommunications, banking, public transportation, air traffic control, and defense systems all rely on computer networks. “For all these reasons,” President Obama has said, “it’s now clear this cyber threat is one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation.” (more…)

Iran: putting the dēmos back in democracy

by David Isenberg | June 23rd, 2009 | |Subscribe

The Iranian people are putting the demos back in democracy.  Demos, or, to use the proper ancient Greek word, dēmos, stand for “The common people; the populace.”

By the way, Greek is a part of the Indo-European family of related languages now spoken on every continent on Earth. It includes most European languages along with the Indic and Iranian languages of Asia.

So it could be said that right now by virtue of their continuing demonstrations on the streets of Tehran and other cities that the Iranian people are the best examples of the ancient Greek democratic ideology, bar none.

Like many other people outside Iran I have been monitoring the coverage of the protests over the fraudulent results of Iran’s presidential election. And with all due respect to my fellow blogger Brian Vogt’s post on the subject there can be no doubt that the announced results were a fraud, as in blatantly rigged.

When I watch a YouTube video of a young Iranian woman daring to kick a body armored security force goon and then being repeatedly hit by a baton afterward my heart goes out to her and all the people in Iran confronting the forces of tyranny.

As I write this the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported that numerous Iranians beaten and injured by security forces as they tried to stage peaceful demonstrations have been arrested and detained when they sought medical treatment in hospitals.

The question is what can people outside Iran do about it? (more…)

Thinking Clearly about Military Commissions

by Edwina Chin and John Eden | June 17th, 2009 | |Subscribe

This month, President Obama announced that his administration would be retaining and reforming, rather than abolishing altogether, the heavily criticized military commissions implemented by the Bush administration. His reforms outline a number of changes to the commissions’ procedural rules, primarily designed to afford greater protection to detainees and to thereby “restore the Commissions as a legitimate forum for prosecution, while bringing them in line with the rule of law.” Needless to say, Obama’s decision to maintain the military commissions has bitterly disappointed human rights and civil liberties advocates, who had hoped that his promise to close Guantanamo Bay would also signal the end of the politically and legally controversial commissions. In criticizing the Obama’s decision, such advocates have raised two key questions about the retention of the military commissions. First, will the proposed changes in fact restore the legitimacy of the commissions, or do they not go far enough? Second, is the underlying raison d’être of the tribunals—the idea that the detainees in question are too dangerous to release, but too difficult to prosecute in the federal courts—still valid?

A Green Revolution or the Next Tiananmen?

by Brian Vogt | June 16th, 2009 | |Subscribe

The world watches as the post election drama proceeds in Iran.  Although most commentators don’t foresee an Iranian version of the Ukrainian orange revolution, it remains to be seen just what effect this nascent “green revolution” could have.  We all hope that this does not turn into another Tiananmen square in which an authoritarian government under threat lashes out with violence against those who take to the streets.

My gut reaction when seeing Iranian citizens take to the streets is to voice my support of their right to peacefully assemble and voice their opinions.  However, throughout the past few days, I’ve been asking myself, “What if they’re wrong?”  What if Ahmadinejad did win outright in the first round?  Maybe he didn’t win by the 2-1 margin reported, but could he have actually won over 50%?  How do we know the real wishes of the majority of Iranians?

The problem, of course, is that there were no international or domestic independent observer delegations who could have provided another source of information that could either confirm or raise questions about the electoral process and the reported result.  What we have, instead, is a huge  public outcry over the result.  Of course, people marching in the streets does not necessarily mean that an election result was fraudulent.  Losers frequently report misconduct and improprieties during an election.  This is nothing new.  There are problems in every election.  Some of them are significant and systemic.  Others are isolated and have little effect on the eventual outcome.  The key is to determine whether the problems identified are systemic or not.

Another clue to the veracity of the claims of election fraud would be pre-election polling.  A pre-election poll that differed dramatically from the reported results could be a possible indicator of fraud – though it is by no means conclusive.

Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty wrote an op-ed in Monday’s Washington Post that highlighted an independent poll conducted by a nonprofit group based outside of Iran, Terror Free Tomorrow, that mirrored the 2-1 margin reported in the election results.  This seemingly would further weaken Mousavi’s case.  However, it’s important to point out that this poll took place from May 11-20, well before much of the campaign activities,  including an important candidate debate.  What’s more, while the poll did indicate that Ahmadinejad was leading Mousavi by a 2-1 margin when the poll was taken, the percentages were 34% (Ahmadinejad) to 14% (Mousavi).  27% were undecided and 22% refused to answer.  Juan Cole explains in this post that the majority of undecided voters expressed that they favored political reform, which would seemingly favor Mousavi.  Having nearly half of respondents not providing an answer about their candidate preference raises real questions about the poll’s value in confirming the election results.  While this poll might have been an accurate snap shot in time when it was taken, it still does not provide adequate proof that would support Ahmadinejad winning with 62% of the vote.  In fact, when this poll was released prior to the election, it was portrayed as an indicator that Ahmadinejad would not win in one round.  Now, after the fact, the op-ed authors argue that it was, in fact, predicted Ahmadinejad’s win.  You can’t have it both ways. (more…)

Troubled Iranian elections may unify international community

by Joel Meyer | June 15th, 2009 | |Subscribe

The world has been transfixed by the drama surrounding the Iranian elections. Worryingly, the events of the weekend seem to suggest a move from an imperfect-but-functioning theocratic democracy to autocracy. Perhaps naively, many in the West and in Iran believed that Supreme Leader Khamenei would allow Mir Hussein Moussavi a largely fair chance at defeating Ahmadinejad at the ballot box. It is now clear that the Supreme Leader and the power elite in Iran do view Ahmadinejad as their man, and virtually no tactic, however draconian, is beyond consideration to keep him in the presidency.

It is this realization that has confirmed the skepticism many had about Moussavi in the first place. While viewed as closer to the reformist camp, Moussavi would have been president inside a system run by the Supreme Leader and his cohort. Powerful institutions in Iran, including the Revolutionary Guard, have institutional interests that are threatened by moves toward a more pragmatic foreign policy. Human rights problems and intransigence on the international stage were more likely than not to continue under Moussavi, albeit perhaps to a lesser extent.


Lend Money to Iran: Why Not?

by Daniel Cassman | June 11th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Yesterday, I attended a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee meeting on the foreign policy implications of our response to the international financial crisis. The controversial security issue discussed was America’s funding for international financial institutions (IFIs) that lend money to nations like Iran, Sudan, and Syria. It would be great if we could convince the IFIs to stop loaning to regimes we don’t like. However, these institutions will play a critical role in the world’s economic recovery, and funding multilateral institutions necessarily requires that we sacrifice some control over where our money goes.

At the hearing, Representatives Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Ed Royce (R-CA) castigated President Obama for his recent promise of billions of dollars in new funding to the IMF and the World Bank. Dr. Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global development testified that IFIs can stimulate growth in developing countries. That growth in turn boosts the American economy by providing markets and trading partners. It also keeps America safe by combating the poverty and economic instability that foster extremism and failed states.

Can’t anyone here manage a contract?

by David Isenberg | June 9th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Tomorrow, according to the Associated Press, the Commission on Wartime Contracting will present a bleak assessment of how tens of billions of dollars have been spent since 2001. The 111-page report, according to AP, documents poor management, weak oversight, and a failure to learn from past mistakes as recurring themes in wartime contracting.

The commission’s report is scheduled to be made public Wednesday at a hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform’s national security subcommittee.

While this is hardly the first report to document failings of oversight on private contractors it is nevertheless significant, as supposedly the U.S. government has taken significant steps in the past couple of years to improve its management of contractors. Yet apparently, to paraphrase the poet Robert Frost, contractors have numerous promises to keep and the government has years to go before it can sleep comfortably.

Having written a book on this subject I’m sure that much of what the commission will report will sound familiar. U.S. reliance on private sector employees has grown to “unprecedented proportions,” yet the government has no central database of who all these contractors are, what they do or how much they’re paid, the bipartisan commission found.

That is ironic, to say the least, considering the government has devoted much effort the past few years trying to do exactly that. It even created the Synchronized Pre-deployment and Operational Tracker database to track contractors. I know, I know; I’m picturing a government auditor calling, “Here SPOT, here boy.”

Humor aside though this is grim news. Regardless of what one thinks about the pros and cons of using private contractors on the battlefields and in conflict zones one thing is clear, they are not going away.

The Obama administration seems to recognize that contractors are now the American Express card; one does not go to war or do “contingency operations,” to use the favored government euphemism, without them. And if it doesn’t, it will certainly realize it as it conducts its own surge of U.S. military forces to Afghanistan.

This is why the Obama administration is worth watching. It has launched a campaign to change government contracting. In February it introduced a set of “reforms” designed to reduce state spending on private-sector providers of military security, intelligence and other critical services and return certain outsourced work back to government.

It also pledged to improve the quality of the acquisition workforce — the government employees who are supposed to be supervising and auditing the billions of dollars spent monthly on the contracts. If there is one single thing that is needed to make contracting work, that is it.

On the other hand, the White House has also promised to decide what work should stay in government and what’s acceptable to outsource. The introduction to Obama’s budget for 2010 noted, “The administration also will clarify what is inherently a governmental function and what is a commercial one; critical government functions will not be performed by the private sector for purely ideological reasons.”

Good luck with that. Many others have tried and failed. (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.