Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Ukraine 101

As Ambroise Bierce once put it, “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” [BQ] It needn’t be a full fledged conflict, in these days of cable media it can be a threat of armed conflict in a volatile region.   Unfortunately, what we learn in the form of geographic knowledge we tend to subsume beneath a pile of pre-existing and often simplistic assumptions.

In the interest of complicating a complex situation further, perhaps it’s time to test a few assumptions.

1.Vladimir Putin wants to rebuild the Russian Empire.” This conclusion has been drawn by former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell. [CBS] Morell opines that the current problems between Russia and Ukraine stem from the ouster of the former Ukrainian prime minister who sought closer economic ties to Russia.   Yes, Putin has decried the break up of the old Soviet Union, so this line of argument has a kernel of consistency.  However, it also requires ignoring the instances in which Putin has observed that Ukraine is an independent nation. [NPR]  The two notions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but “nostalgia does not presupposed expansionism.” [IndUK]  A little more thought may be in order before we leap to this conclusion.

2.If Ukraine falls then Moldova, etc. are next.”  Slow down. If Putin’s nostalgia isn’t a ‘plan’ for Russian expansion then the argument falls apart, no matter how many nations formerly affiliated with the old Soviet Union are added to the list.

3.It’s just like Georgia.”  Every analogy, or attempt to argue by analogy, eventually crumbles into absurdity, and this one falls apart more quickly than most.   The European Union sponsored a three volume study on the 2008 conflict in Georgia and concluded the conflict was started by…the Georgians.  [EU vol 1 pdf] Specifically, a “sustained Georgian artillery attack on the town of Tskhinvali.”   Given the vast military superiority of Russian forces, had the Russians wanted re re-annex Georgia it would not have been an insurmountable task.  They didn’t. The Russians didn’t even take the Georgian capital at Tbilisi.   Georgia is still an independent entity, with a prime minister elected from a unicameral parliament. [CIA]  That doesn’t mean there aren’t some hard feelings, “Russia’s military support and subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia independence in 2008 continue to sour relations with Georgia.” [CIA]

Abkhazia has a long history of association with Georgia, but not one without periodic conflicts. [BBC] The problems with South Ossetia are more profound.  Their language is more closely related to Persian than Georgian, and Georgians account for less than 1/3rd of the South Ossetian population. [BBC] While the Russians have formally recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia  only  Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and Tuvalu followed suit.  Abkhazia uses the ruble as its currency and about 50% of its total state budget is financed by the Russians.  The economic situation in South Ossetia is a bit more dire, it has one major asset — the Roki Tunnel, which connects Russia to that portion of  Georgia.  Most of its economy is based on subsistence farming.

In short, it’s one thing to ‘declare’ a region independent and offer it recognition, but quite another to present the world with a fait accompli.  And, we’d also be well advised to note the geographic and economic ties between Russia and the two portions of Georgia upon which it has bestowed recognition are more complicated than a superficial glance would evoke.

4.We have to DO something.”   That would be a good thing, had we major compelling interests in Ukraine.   The major imports (in order) are (1) refined petroleum 13%, (2) crude petroleum, (3) semi finished iron, (4) hot rolled iron, and (5) railway freight cars. [OEC]  32.4% of the country’s imports come from Russia, 9.3% from China, 8% from Germany, 6% from Belarus, and 4.2% from Poland. [CIA]  The amount of refined petroleum imported might suggest that U.S. companies might be able to Drill Baby Drill into relevance.  This, of course, assumes that U.S. petroleum products sold on the international oil market would dominate the Ukrainian market.  However, when a country has a neighbor with an abundance of natural gas and refined petroleum (Russia) readily available at lower cost, then both the cost and the convenience outweigh U.S. capacity to get more involved in that market. [WaPo]  The arguments for the TransCanadian Keystone pipeline and fracking are essentially for our own domestic political consumption, and have little relevance for the petroleum (refined or otherwise) on global markets.

If we aren’t a major trade partner with Ukraine what vested interests are we to protect by involving ourselves in their political turmoil?   The related question is: Are we the global police force?  If we adopt this stance then we have to be ready to assume the costs associated with it.   We are paying approximately $816 billion for our operations in Iraq, another $701 billion for operations in Afghanistan [GP]  how much more are we prepared to pay for incursions into Ukraine…Syria…Libya…?

If we don’t adopt this stance then are we prepared to acknowledge that other nations, specifically members of the European Union, and even more specifically Germany, have greater interests involved in the stability of their relations with Ukraine and Russia?  [CarnegieEurope] [New Yorker]

Might a better American policy on the current issues between Russia and Ukraine be to allow those with more immediate interests take the lead in defusing the situation?  Or, in basketball parlance, should we be the player who makes other players on the court more effective?

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Keeping Score When It’s Not A Game

Horse Race GateCongress isn’t the only Washington, D.C. institution that’s off the rails, add the Beltway Media to the mix.  Consider the coverage of the face off over Syrian weapons:

“So far, no American bombs have been dropped on Syria, not one American soldier has died in fighting there, and no Syrian civilians have been killed by U.S. forces. But that hasn’t stopped the chattering class from eviscerating Obama, often with a mocking and condescending tone. Deeply invested in the Obama’s-stumbling storyline that was attached to the president’s initial call for bombing strikes, pundits and reporters failed (or refused) to adjust as the facts shifted and the crisis steered toward a diplomatic resolution.

The Syria coverage represents a clear case of the press adopting style over substance, as well as channeling Republican spin. Of treating foreign policy as if it were a domestic political campaign and insisting that a story unfolding half-a-world away was really all about Obama and how it affected (and/or damaged) his political fortunes. It was also coverage that often lacked nuance and context, and that refused to allow diplomatic events unfold without minute-by-minute surveys of the domestic winners and losers.”  [MMFA]

And therein lies the problem — the situation with regard to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons isn’t essentially part of a domestic political campaign — it IS a foreign policy issue.

Those who wanted background information and now seek to keep up with the current negotiations are better served by visiting the BBC Syria Profile,  KQED prvides “Six Excellent Resources,” on the Syrian situation — no Washington pundits included.

Consider the current conflict between the House Republicans and the threat to shut down the federal government.   There is some excellent background information available — just don’t wait to hear about it from the Beltway Press.   Better  background information is available from the Congressional Research Service, which published “CRS Report for Congress Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress Shutdown of the Federal Government: Causes, Processes, and Effects,” August 2013. (pdf) The CRS also created a report, “Government Shutdown: Operations of the Department of Defense During a Lapse in Appropriations,” in April 2011. (pdf)   Looking at the 2011 budget battle/shutdown threat, Business Week compiled, “How a Federal Shutdown Could Affect Americans,” in February 2011.

One of the more depressing aspects of this coverage is that some of the major news outlets have, in fact, published summarized information pieces about the economic impacts of a government shutdown — to be evidently ignored by their own pundits.  There was this prescient piece in the Atlantic,  April 7, 2011.  CNN Money published this guide on September 16, 2013.

However,  the Chatterati persists in reporting the clash between the Democrats and the Republicans, and the Republicans and the Republicans as if the economic impacts of this brinkmanship were tangential.  “Oh, by the way, if you want your question answered by a person in the USDA office — good luck. Or, if you want to find out about the status of your small business loan application — better be prepared to wait.   Do you have a contract to provide goods or services to any agency of the federal government?  Put that on hold please.”

But, but, but… sputter the talking heads on my TV screen… What about the impact on the 2014 elections?  Having purchased the Horse Race Reportage template  bit, bridle, halter, saddle, blanket and all, the pundits are trapped riding their only topic — election results.

“Well, yes, that does make things challenging. President Obama has to lead, but not too much, and not in a way that may make his rivals feel uncomfortable. He has to be hands-on and hands-off, preferably at the same time. He should use the so-called “bully pulpit,” but not in a way that connects the presidency to any specific issue Republicans may need to vote on.

And it’s against this backdrop that a few too many pundits wonder aloud why the president doesn’t overcome Republicans’ refusal to compromise by “leading” more. Many more suggested “schmoozing” would alleviate GOP intransigence.

But if Republicans are going to balk whether Obama engages or not, the advice seems misplaced.” [Benen]

The Chatterati persist in submerging foreign policy, economic issues, and social issues under the restrictive confines of “all things are politics” categorization.  It’s tantamount to “keeping score when there’s no game.”

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The Story of Six Warships

USS San AntonioThe full transcript of the President’s speech on the Syrian issue can be found here, and here.   The video can be found here.  The reactions, predictably run from precise to persiflage.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca): “As the Obama administration continues to pursue a diplomatic resolution, the president justly made clear tonight that the threat of military action remains on the table as we continue to work to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.” — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.”  [ABC]

Pelosi has been listening.  Note the phrasing, such as “continues to pursue a diplomatic resolution,” and “the threat of military action.”

When the former House Speaker used the phrase “continues to pursue a diplomatic resolution,” she was precisely summarizing U.S. diplomatic transactions with the Russians vis a vis their client state, Syria.  Business Insider followed the plot:

“Our goal from the beginning has been to secure the chemical weapons stockpile in Syria,” a senior administration official insisted.

The announcement by the Russians was the result of months of meetings and conversations between Presidents Obama and (Vladimir) Putin, and Secretary Kerry and Secretary Lavrov, about the role Russia could play in securing chemical weapons,” the official told AFP, asking to remain anonymous.

The idea was first discussed at a G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, a year ago by Obama and Putin, and has been raised in subsequent meetings “though agreement could not be reached,” the official said.

Kerry sought to flesh it out during a trip to Moscow in May, when he discussed with Lavrov “replicating the potential model of Libya’s nuclear program which in 2003 was removed under an international agreement.” (emphasis added)

The  diplomatic discussion concerning the control of Syrian chemical weapons has been a plot point since the G20 Summit on June 17, 2012.   The former Speaker is also on point with the phrase: “threat of military action.”

Notice that the topic of  options available for the control of Syrian WMD/Chemical weapons stockpiles has been ongoing since June 17, 2012, so why did Secretary of State Kerry’s comments, and publicizing of the topic draw such an immediate and positive response from the Russians?

A former Secretary of State’s observations shed some light on this.  Our previous Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton stated:

“It is very important to note that this discussion that has taken hold today about potential international control over Syria’s stockpiles, only could take place in the context of a credible military threat by the United States to keep pressure on the Syrian government as well as those supporting Syria, like Russia.” [Atlantic] (emphasis added)

In short, Secretary Kerry couldn’t reasonably expect the Russians to approve any proposals for external control of Syrian regime chemical and biological weapons without a statement by the U.S. President that he was perfectly willing to use force — if necessary — to curtail their use.    The Secretary now quotes Samuel Johnson, “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.”  The crux of the matter is that the U.S. has tried since June 2012 to impress upon the Russians the necessity of curtailing their client state’s use of chemical weapons — until the U.S.S. San Antonio and the U.S.S. Stout, Mahan, Ramage, Barry, and Graveley were parked in the neighborhood [GR.ca] the Russians had ignored these proposals.

Thus what “sounded” like a gaffe on June 9, 2013 was simply merely the publication of an American proposal, under quiet discussion for the previous year,  made more palatable to the Russian government by the presence of a “creditable threat” as personified by the six warships. Had Secretary Kerry made the proposals public before the arrival of the six warships the Russians could have made public their opposition to external control of Syrian chemical weapons without fear of much reaction.  The six warships made the point — the U.S. is very very serious about this option.

Congratulations to House Minority Leader Pelosi for keeping the plot straight, and for realizing that timing is everything.  First the negotiations, then the credible threat, then the publication of the proposal, and then the positive reaction.

RNC Chair Reince Priebus didn’t follow the plot: “The administration’s handling of the U.S. response to Syria has been so haphazard it’s disappointed even the president’s most ardent supporters. This rudderless diplomacy has embarrassed America on the world stage.” — Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.” [ABC]

Haphazard? Priebus may be good at following talking points, but he missed the sequence on this one.  “Rudderless?” It should be obvious at this point the U.S. had been proposing the external control option from the 2012 G20 to the 2013 G20 — the difference being those six warships serving as exclamation points made the option much more attainable by the 2013 session.   The rudders of those six warships weren’t guiding the vessels along a vacation route, there was a reason for their destination, and had been since June 17, 2012.

“Embarrassed?”  Only if one adopts Vladimir Putin as the ultimate negotiator, which the conservatives appear to be doing.  Did Putin “save the President’s face?” Or, come to the “Diplomatic Rescue?” [MMFAThese assertions work only if one ignores the initial positions of the two powers.  The U.S. wanted control over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in concordance with the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1993 CWC.  The Russians didn’t.   When one side adopts the position of the opponent during diplomatic negotiations that is generally conceded to be a Win.

There is still room for debate about the appropriate use of force to be deployed or applied by the United States. There is still room for debate concerning the efficacy of limited military engagement. There is still room for discussion about the nature of American interests in the region.  What should no longer be debatable is the consistency of Obama Administration policy on the use of chemical weapons.

Congress may choose to allow the Administration the rope (military option) to form the noose threatening the Russians and their client state in Syria — or it can opt to remove this tool from the diplomatic shed.  The question remains: How focused will the Russians be on a diplomatic solution  without those six warships deployed and fully ready to act?

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Recommended Reading: Syria and Silliness

Wheat ChaffThere is some rather insightful and serious thinking about the situation in Syria — as well as some of the sillier drivel ever put in print and pixels.

The Chaff

#1. Any article droning (pun intended) on about the internal political implications of the President’s proposal for limited military responses to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, and the potential actions which might be taken by the House of Representatives.  Add to this category any article which weighs in on the hypothetical political results of actions taken on one side or the other.   Would the President “lose” something? “Win something?”  Would Republican leadership in the House “win” or “lose?”  Drivel.   Worse still, this is lazy drivel.  Heaven forefend those covering the issues would inform themselves about the nuances of the subject, the priorities of the various actors and regional interests, and the complicated diplomacy required to find a sustainable resolution?

#2. Any article or post playing the blame game. Finger-pointing is also lazy reportage and analysis.  It requires absolutely zero intellectual effort to sling ad hominem attacks back and forth across the complex terrain.

The Wheat

There are some far more thoughtful summations of opinions, and Nicholas Kristoff’s “Pulling the Curtain Back on Syria,” in the New York Times.   He has also written “The Right Questions on Syria,” also in the Times.   Kristoff supports limited military intervention in the situation, and presents it as the least worst option.

Richard Price, writing for Foreign Affairs, argues that military intervention is not required and offers his analysis to substantiate his position.   For a longer, and more in depth discussion of the military issues associated with the conflict in Syria, download Kenneth Pollack’s “The Military Dynamics of the Syrian Conflict,” from the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

James Fallows opines about “The Best Result from Congress: A No Vote,” in his piece for the Atlantic.  Fallows opposes military intervention and specifies his reasons for his decision.  The editors of The Nation magazine offer a similar piece in “Standing Up To The Hawks in Congress.”   Another perspective is on offer from Robert Kuttner writing in the American Prospect”s “Obama punts to Congress — and scores.”

Shibley Telhami looks at the question of “credibility,” and its relation to the foreign policy issues associated with Syria in “Questioning U.S. Credibility with Syria,” in which he contends that this focus blurs the lines between vital and non-vital interests.

Interests and regional issues are also discussed in Jayshree Bajoria, and Robert McMahon’s “The Dilemma of Humanitarian Intervention,” writing for the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Invigilating the Syrian Test

Syria map 2While voices from the political Left and Right invigilate the most recent test of U.S. foreign policy in regard to the civil war in Syria — we’d be advised to prevent the test from becoming an impossible task.  We’d also be wary of confusing the concepts of rightness and rectitude; it’s easy to step into the trap described by an English poet: “Where he falls short, ’tis Nature’s fault alone; Where he succeeds, the merit’s all his own.”  Charles Churchill (1731-1764)

The Traps

#1. False equivalency:  “This is just like the Bush Administration’s marketing of the Iraq War.”   Comedian and pundit John Fugelsang has a rejoinder  to the effect that when the Obama Administration launches a war into the wrong country and awards Joe Biden’s old company $39 billion in contracts…then we can say that the two situations are similar.   There are more points of contrast than comparison.  The announced intention of the Bush Administration was regime change in Iraq.  President Bush was very clear about this in a May 22, 2006 press conference:

“Let me start with the Iraqi regime. The stated policy of my government is that we have a regime change. And as I told President Chirac, I have no war plans on my desk. And I will continue to consult closely with him. We do view Saddam Hussein as a serious, significant — serious threat to stability and peace.” (emphasis added)

President Obama’s statement of intent in his address on September 7, 2013 is cut from different cloth:

“What we’re talking about is not an open-ended intervention.  This would not be another Iraq or Afghanistan.  There would be no American boots on the ground.  Any action we take would be limited, both in time and scope – designed to deter the Syrian government from gassing its own people again and degrade its ability to do so.”

Slipping into the false equivalency trap is facilitated by the tendency of human beings to filter information through predetermined biases or previous experiences, and then to extrapolate either positive or negative outcomes based on those biases and experiences.   If one approaches the problem of Syrian use of chemical weapons from the no war, nor any act of aggression, is ever desirable perspective, then the administration — if it uses force — fails the test.

If the more militaristic perspective is applied — minor engagements are never as effective as taking on the problem aggressively  (or might makes right) — then the Administration fails again, too little military might was applied and therefore there will not be a positive outcome in terms of U.S. policy in the region.

#2. The Creation of Straw Men:   Once extrapolations are derived from conclusions predicated on various forms of equivalence, or previous conditions,  it’s hard to avoid the fields full of straw men each supported by the rectitude of their creators.  Most straw men stand holding the emblems or badges of hypothetical outcomes.

Unfortunately, one of the most difficult tasks among human beings is the calculation of what any one of them — or any group for that matter — will actually do in response to the actions of another.

Once again, the mind-set of the prognosticator is in play.  If the speaker or writer already has a perspective, and to the extent that perspective runs from  frangible or stalwart and unyielding, the predicted outcomes will be evaluated against those sets of preconditions and prejudices.   In this instance, if the perspective is essentially militaristic then the outcomes won’t be passing grade if there is much left other than piles of gravel.  If the perspective is primarily non-belligerent or placatory, then the outcomes will most often be couched in phrasing usual translatable as “The Whole Thing Will Blow Up.”

#3. The False Choice argument:  Again, the extremes pull against the middle.  Either we must do something, or we must do nothing.  This fails to recognize the full spectrum of diplomatic relations, which we might summarize as in the following rough graphic:

Foreign Policy SpectrumOnce more the pacifist will be happy with nothing less than peace, understanding, and cooperation, while the militarist won’t be best pleased with anything less than an all out missile launching, tank rolling, grenade tossing, outright war.  However, note that there are at least 4 optional policy locations in the “red” portion of the graphic.

#4.  Schools of Red Herrings:  Let’s propose an axiom for the purposes of discussion — that every diplomatic action must be (a) purposeful, (b) appropriate, and (c) intended to produce the most desirable outcome possible toward the resolution of a particular problem.

Suppose we frame the issue with Syria as follows:

The U.S.A. is a signatory to the 1925 Geneva Protocols on chemical and biological weapons; it is a signatory to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.  The 1993 Convention states that chemical weapons are not to be deployed and used in any circumstances.

If the report of the United Nations inspectors concludes that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons during its engagements with Syrian rebels, then what would be a purposeful, appropriate, and positively intended diplomatic and/or military response?

If as discussed in a previous post, there are options which are demonstrably impossible, irrelevant, or inappropriate — then what response can the U.S. employ which conforms to our role as the leading signatory of the protocol and convention, and still not tip the actions all the way to the right end of the graphic?

Drafting the correct response to this seemingly intractable problem will require focus, and posing relevant questions the answers to which ought to be incorporated into the policy discussions.   Very little is served by witnessing proponents and opponents of various options assailing each other as “morons,” “war-mongers,” “idiots,” and “tools.” Perhaps a better use of our time would be to avoid the fallacious and the counter-factual, and entertain the idea that drafting and implementing the more appropriate response is infinitely better than creating the “right one?”

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Prolegomenon for a Decision

Capitol DomeThe Whip Count on the question of authorizing the use of military force in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons for Nevada Representatives stands at 3-1.  Representatives Amodei, Titus, and Horsford are undecided, and Representative Heck is a definite “no.” [HuffPo chart]   The “yes” and “no” votes are literally all over the map.  The quandary in the House may reflect the discombobulation of the country — 50% believe the U.S. government should not “take military action” in the Syrian Civil War, 42% believe some action should be taken. [NBC pdf]  However, when the action is specified — to the use of Cruise missiles to strike chemical weapons implementation sites, the numbers reverse: 44% would oppose that kind of operation, and 50% would be supportive.   [NBC pdf]

Rather than fall into the Either/Or Nothing Else trap, there are some calling for alternative actions, a few of which are summarized in the Reason.Com blog:

#1. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) offers the war crimes tribunal alternative.  [WaPo]  In the interview Representative Smith also suggested the reason this won’t work:

“There is the ICC, but we’re not a party to it and neither is Syria. There is a mechanism that would allow us to refer cases to the ICC [through the U.N.], but that has been slow. So maybe some adjunct or hybrid effort could be worked out. But I’ve heard nothing from the administration about a Syrian court. And I would have thought they would come up with it sooner.”

Yes, we do have an International Criminal Court.  And no, we aren’t a member nation.  And, yes, there’s a reason we aren’t involved in it.  Republican opposition.   Consider this bit of history:

“The United States government has consistently opposed an international court that could hold US military and political leaders to a uniform global standard of justice. The Clinton administration participated actively in negotiations towards the International Criminal Court treaty, seeking Security Council screening of cases. If adopted, this would have enabled the US to veto any dockets it opposed. When other countries refused to agree to such an unequal standard of justice, the US campaigned to weaken and undermine the court. The Bush administration, coming into office in 2001 as the Court neared implementation, adopted an extremely active opposition. Washington began to negotiate bilateral agreements with other countries, insuring immunity of US nationals from prosecution by the Court. As leverage, Washington threatened termination of economic aid, withdrawal of military assistance, and other painful measures. ”  [GPO]  (emphasis added)

When the issue of participation in the ICC was discussed, and the possibility of the Rome Treaty ratification was in the news, the Republicans couldn’t run from it faster:

“The U.S. has spearheaded a series of proposals that seeks a 100 percent exemption for U.S. military personnel and nationals from the ICC’s jurisdiction. However, the U.S. position is not necessary since the Rome Statute already includes safety provisions that would protect U.S. military personnel and nationals from so called politically charged suits filed before the ICC. Under the Rome Statute for the ICC, the Court would only have jurisdiction to hear cases when national courts are unable to provide a fair trial or when national judicial courts systems do not exist. Nearly every U.S. NATO ally has signed the Rome Statute for the ICC.”  [FDN 12/4/00]

Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) made his opposition to U.S. participation in the ICC readily apparent, and strenuous:

“So what this Court proposes is this: It will sit in judgment of the national security policy of the United States. Just imagine what would have happened if this Court had been in place during the U.S. invasion of Panama? Or the U.S. invasion of Grenada? Or the United States’ bombing of Tripoli? In none of those cases did the U.S. seek permission from the UN to defend our interests. And so long as there is breath in me, the United states will never — I repeat, never — allow its national security decisions to be judged by any international Criminal Court.”  [Helms, SFRC, 4/23/98]

And there we have it.  So, as Representative Smith stumbles along, “So maybe some adjunct or hybrid effort could be worked out. But I’ve heard nothing from the administration about a Syrian court. And I would have thought they (Obama Administration) would come up with it sooner.”   The reason there’s no tribunal option available is that the United States has been singularly uncooperative with the notion of any tribunal, of any ilk, which might impinge on the independence of American military or civilian actions.  The Clinton and Obama Administrations have been partially cooperative with the ICC, up to a point — but the most vigorous and tenacious opposition to the use of war crimes tribunals has heretofore come from Republicans.  This probably explains why the Obama Administration hasn’t “come up with it sooner.” [Smith]

#2.  The arms embargo idea was floated by Sarah van Gelder, who realized that stopping arms sales from the Chinese and the Russians also required stopping the arms going to the rebels from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and others.  Diminishing the arms trade is a generally nice idea, however the specific problem with the weapons being used in Syria is that They.Were.Already.There.   Some intelligence reports indicate Syria has maintained a “chemical weapons program” of some kind since the 1970’s.  Other reports assert the country has been actively engaged in stockpiling chemical weapons since the 1980s.  An August 30, 2013 Congressional Research Service briefing declares: ” An expanded Syrian effort began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Declassified U.S. documents indicate that the Soviet Union supplied Syria with chemical agents, delivery systems, and training related to chemical weapons use. Syria is likely to have procured equipment and precursor chemicals from private companies in Western Europe. “

If the purpose of U.S. action is to degrade and damage the implementation of current chemical warfare tactics by the Syrian government, then the real problem is how to deal with what the Syrians are using NOW, not what they may be able to procure for future use.

#3. There was a time when the Peace Conference idea had some traction.  However, that was back in May, 2013. [NYT]  A few voices are still clinging to this fragile vessel. [LAT]  The fly in this amphora of ointment is that the Russians have already made it abundantly clear that no actions against the Syrian regime will be acceptable.   There’s another reason as well, and as old as the history of human conflict — neither side wants a peace conference while there is a chance that it’s winning.  Why risk giving away at the negotiations table what you’ve won on the battlefield?

If we conclude that at this juncture neither side of the conflict is particularly interested in a negotiated settlement, the some other problems must be addressed.  If neither side is willing to volunteer to negotiate, then who can apply the necessary leverage to get the parties to the table?  The hopeful among us suggest that the United Nations could do this. Really? With the Russians and the Chinese supporting the Assad Regime? With the Saudis unperturbed about supporting the rebels?   Peace conference proposals tend to rely on some form of unblemished humanitarian motives informing the foreign policy of nations.  Not to be entirely cynical, but — is it even remotely conceivable in the current situation that the Russians, the Chinese, the Americans, and the Saudis will strike down their banners and force the opponents in Syria to the table?   And, after they get to the table — then what?

Peace talks, however well intended, and however ultimately successful, take time.  Negotiations to end the Viet Nam War began in 1968 and didn’t conclude until January 27, 1973.  The Russians will remember that they began their exit strategy from Afghanistan in April 1985 but weren’t able to extract themselves until February of 1989.  We can only wonder if those calling for peace talks are willing to watch another 4 years of military/insurgent operations in Syria?

#4. The United Nations options, these vary from the call for a peace conference to admonitions that the UN should send peace-keepers, sanction limited military operations, including the notion that the western powers should “force the Chinese and the Russians” to openly declare their support for the Assad Regime — officially.  What, pray tell, would be the benefit of a public “vote” showing support for  the Assad forces in Syria, a position  the Russians and Chinese have already make clear as day?   Given the frangible structure and utility of International Condemnation, what else could the UN do?  The Russian Prime Minister has a proposal — the use of chemical weapons in Syrian could justify the use of force but IF and ONLY IF the United Nations approves the moves. [JPost]

That’s convenient.  The Russians will approve, if the UN approves, and the Russians have a veto in the UN Security Council.  A safer proposition may never have been set forth.

#5. Send humanitarian aid. This is a good idea.  However, it risks climbing into the Ignoratio Elenchi  Category of human fallacies.  There is, indeed, a humanitarian problem of epic proportions emanating from the Syrian conflict.  The world should be paying a great deal more attention to, and providing more support for, the refugees of this miserable conflict.  However, sending aid to refugee operations both official and NGOs, doesn’t solve the military problem.

Little wonder there are so many undecideds?

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Focus Please? Evaluating the evaluations on Syria

Syria map 2The Chatterati are all over cable news shows “explaining” their support of or their opposition to taking military action against the Assad regime in Syria.  We can sort the objections into categories.  There are some which are emanating from the same perspective though coming to different conclusions,  and of these we have the usual suspects focusing on hypothetical results affecting the perception of American power.

The underlying assumption is that America must never appear “weak,” and therefore any proposed response to a intractable diplomatic problem must be “strong, resolute, and over-powering.”  Whatever the policy or project, it must result in the domination of American interests.   Examples of this perspective are on offer from such pundits as Krauthammer, and General Robert Shales, ret. [WashMon]  The Power Argument has some intrinsic flaws.

First, it rests upon external perceptions:  We are only as strong as our adversaries think we are.  In one context it could be the policy analogy of the Quaker Cannons of the American Civil War… logs painted black and “pointed” at “targets” but far enough away not to be discerned for what they actually were.   Externalizing our evaluation requires precious little internal evaluation.  If our opponents believe we are a Super Power, then we must be. This obviates the need for self-evaluation.  Another facet of externalizing our evaluation is that we tread close to the differentiation between “respect” and “fear.”   Do we wish to be respected, or do we “Bomb Bomb Iran” indulging in the militarism which incites more fear than respect?

Secondly, the hyper-militarism seems to be predicated upon hyper-masculinity.  Attributes associated with the “He-Man Hero” genre of Hollywood fantasies are projected onto real international diplomatic issues.  Our response must be “robust,” our actions must teach the villains a “lesson.”  Our policies must leave no doubt about who is in control.   In this Shoot’em Up version of international relations the scripted imaginary world of film industry melodramas becomes the matrix in which we are to evaluate the efficacy of our diplomatic and military actions.   We can, and no doubt should, base our international relations on firmer grounds.

Another element in the debate focuses on hypothetical results of hypothetical actions.   In this realm we get the “What If? and the “What then?” questions.   Objections to taking any military action against the Syrian government may be framed as: “What if Assad survives, and announces to the world that he has stood up to the Super Power?”  As noted previously, this objection is grounded in the Perception of American Power perspective, and comes close to adopting the tenets of the  Bruce Willis – Rambo – Hollywood School of International Relations.   However, it also tracks with analysis based on judging hypothetical actions by their possible negative hypothetical results.  Ezra Klein provides a list of ten possible negative outcomes which fall into this general category. If there were ever a recipe for complete inertia this would suffice nicely.

However, merely because there might be negative results from some actions doesn’t necessarily mean all actions are equally undesirable.   This kind of thinking often produces nothing other  than the false choice fallacy: We must do Everything or we shouldn’t do Anything.

Again, as noted previously — we’ll get better answers when we ask better questions.

1. Does the United States have  legitimate interests at stake in the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War?  There are arguments refuting this — it is a civil war, and there are some bad actors on both sides, individuals and groups with which we have nothing in common and who are not generally supportive of our interests.   On the other  hand, the answer is “yes.”  We are a signatory of both the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1993 CWC.  We understand, and have agreed, that the use of these weapons causes unnecessary civilian casualties, violates international norms of behavior, and if we can’t act to stop this variety of egregious behavior, then what can and should we attempt to stop?

2. What should be the objectives of American policy toward Syria?  Should our objective be the restraint of the Assad Regime’s use of particular tactical weapons in the internal conflict? Or, should our objectives be wider, including such possibilities as (a) the removal of the Assad Regime? (b) the stabilization of the Middle East region? (c) the protection of Israel and allies like Turkey and Jordan?   Generally speaking the broader the objective the more difficult the diplomacy.  Eliminating the capacity of the Syrian government to transfer, deploy, or store chemical weapons isn’t a particularly daunting military objective.  Lord knows we have an arsenal of tactical weaponry suited to the purpose.  However, protecting our own interests while bringing the interests of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and other Middle Eastern states into the calculations is much more complicated.

Rather than pontificate on these two issues, let me offer some of the better reasoned position articles on the subject of American interests for your consideration.   On the conservative side, Mark Moyar, of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, provides a summary of U.S. interests in Syria.   Caparra and Farr, writing for the Brookings Institute evaluate “U.S. Intervention in Syria: Other Options besides Military Action.”  On the left, the Center for American Progress described the shift in American policy towards Syria in an article posted last June.  Ken Sofer provides a thoughtful piece, “Next Steps in Syria,” also from the CAP.   Richard Betts observes, “Pick Your Poison: America Has Many Options in Syria, None are Good, in Foreign Affairs.   The humanitarian aspects of the conflict are summarized in Atlantic’s piece, “Why Human Rights Groups Don’t Agree On What To Do About Syria.”

It shouldn’t be too much to ask that if we are to debate the value of an American intervention in the Syrian Civil War, at least we do so intelligently.

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Conventions and the Un-conventional: We’ll Get Better Answers When We Ask Better Questions

Dura EuroposThere’s no small amount of irony in the fact that the first evidence we have of military operations using chemical warfare comes from Syria — from about 256 A.D. when the Romans controlled the area.  It is postulated that a Sasasinian attack on the city of Dara-Europos included the use of braziers and bellows to pump fumes into a Roman tunnel, with bits of bitumen and sulfur added to flames to create a toxic cloud. We know this because the remains of 19 Roman soldiers and one Persian were found in the tunnel — still holding their weapons. [NatlGeog]

Fast forward to World War I  and the toxic clouds reappear as German forces released cylinders of yellow-green chlorine gas toward French lines at Ypres  in 1915.  Technically speaking: “Chlorine gas is a pulmonary irritant with intermediate water solubility that causes acute damage in the upper and lower respiratory tract.” [Medscape]  Of the 70,552 American soldiers exposed to gas during the War to End All Wars, 1843 were hit by chlorine gas.  Another gas entered the arsenal in 1917.

Mustard Gas, difficult to detect, surprisingly durable, and insidious.

“…one of the most dangerous aspects of mustard gas doubles as one of its most desirable attributes as a weapon. We know mustard gas is difficult to detect unless you’re under a direct attack. It’s even harder to notice in contaminated areas where the gas has settled. That posed a problem for soldiers walking through an exposed area that underwent an attack say two days earlier. The chemical agent would stay in the ground for weeks, depending on the temperature. The colder the ground, the longer the mustard gas would linger.” [Science]

Those exposed would suffer painful blistering on the skin, those who inhaled it would find their respiratory system compromised such that airways were sealed.  The gas didn’t kill quickly, or cleanly.  Gases did account for approximately 100,000 casualties during the Great War.

The League of Nations has its detractors, but one of its contributions to civilized society remains in place, the 1925 Geneva Protocol.  Enforced as of February 8, 1928, the Protocol prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons.   The Protocol was short, and to the point:

“Whereas the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world; and Whereas the prohibition of such use has been declared in Treaties to which the majority of Powers of the world are Parties; and To the end that this prohibition shall be universally accepted as a part of International Law, binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations;…” [UNODA pdf]

There are two important features of this Protocol which ought to be acknowledged.  First, it is contractual in nature and some signatories reserved the option to use chemical and biological weapons as a response to a chemical or biological attack. Secondly, there is nothing in the Protocol specifically prohibiting the use of chemical or biological weapons during civil/internal conflicts.  [Harvard/Sussex] Nothing in this brief document sets  any verification methods for determining the use of chemical or biological weaponry.

Those who would argue that the 1925 Geneva Protocol doesn’t offer any justification for intervention in the current Syrian civil war aren’t looking beyond the original document, specifically toward the 1993 CWC convention.

The CWC strengthens the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibition on the use of chemical weapons by prohibiting their use “under any circumstances”. Chemical weapons are defined broadly as “toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited”, munitions exclusively designed for the delivery of toxic chemicals and other equipment designed for use with such munitions. A major innovation of the CWC is its intrusive verification regime which requires :

(1) national declarations of data on industrial chemical production;
(2) continuous and routine inspections of treaty-related facilities;
(3) short-notice challenge inspections, intended to resolve concerns about compliance, of any facility on the territory of a State Party.

The 1993 Convention adds the phrase “under any circumstances” (including civil war and civil unrest) and delineates the verification elements missing from the original 1925 document.

Unfortunately, the Protocol and the Convention haven’t prevented the development (and use) of such munitions as napalm, Agent Orange, sarin gas, and other highly toxic items.  Syria is not a signatory to the CWC Convention. [CWC convention]

The arguments in favor of the enforcement of both the 1925 Protocol and the 1993 Convention run the gamut along the philosophical spectrum.

From a practical standpoint, since the case of that unfortunate Persian soldier at the entrance to the tunnel in Dara Europos it’s been apparent that the use of chemical weapons can be harmful to ones own forces. Witness the continuing controversy about the long term effects of Agent Orange.  Since the wholesale use of chemical weapons during World War I it’s been readily observable that these munitions defy civilized norms that war be conducted with attention paid to killing the enemy but doing so in a quick and humane fashion.  During the bad old days of mutually assured destruction nuclear weapons were reserved, if for no other reason than to prevent a Nuclear Winter.  In short, the long term human, ecological, and medical effects of exposure to non-conventional weaponry has mitigated against its use; or at least caused condemnation for its application.

Whether the verified use of chemical weapons by the Assad government during the current Syrian civil war rises to the justification of international intervention is going to be one touchy, technical, and tricky question for diplomats.

It would be extremely helpful in the debate over intervention in Syria if we were to move past the political posturing, and the punditry’s obsession with hypothetical implications of diplomatic and military activities.  The discussion would be enhanced if we could move beyond inquiries like “Who looks weak?” or “Who’s being hypocritical?”  We’ll get better answers if we ask better questions.

Trick Question #1: Does the international community have the authority to enforce the 1925 Protocol and the 1993 Convention on non-signatories (such as Syria) during the conduct of an internal civil war?  We ought to remember that one of the justifications for our intervention in Iraq was the gassing of the Kurdish population when Iraq was not a signatory to the 1993 Convention — Iraq didn’t sign until January 13, 2009.

Trick Question #2: Does the production and storage of chemical and biological weapons in a non-signatory country create a proliferation problem for signatory nations?   Would we benefit if further negotiations were conducted concerning the production, transportation, and the monitoring of commercial traffic involved in the manufacture of chemical weapons?  Might more stringent controls have prevented the sale of nerve gas chemicals by British firms to the Syrian government 10 months after the civil unrest began? [Record/Mail]  Does this remind us of the 1991 allegations that a Florida firm  sold cyanide to the previous Iraqi regime? [counterpunch]

Trick Question #3: In terms of U.S. foreign policy, are we treading close to the edge of the classic Security Dilemma?  This one is from International Relations 101:

“John Herz, who originally coined the term “security dilemma,” elaborated it as follows: “Groups and individuals who live alongside each other without being organized into a higher unity . . . must be . . . concerned about their security from being attacked, subjected, dominated, or annihilated by other groups and individuals. Striving to attain security from such attacks, they are driven to acquire more and more power in order to escape the effects of the power of others. This, in turn, renders the others more insecure and compels them to prepare for the worst. Because no state can ever feel entirely secure in such a world of competing units, power competition ensues, and the vicious circle of security and power accumulation is on.” [Sirpa pdf]

In short, not only does “power accumulation” cycle, but as the perceived aggressors appear to accumulate more power the “victim” sees fewer and fewer options in response.  In the classic explication of the Security Dilemma the adversaries are gradually reduced to a limited menu of military options.

Therefore, if we could please get beyond discussions about the internal politics of selecting a specific military option, and address at least one or two of those “trick” or larger questions we’d be better served as a nation, and a member of the world community.

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Templars, Tempests, and Turmoil: Syria, Russia, and the West

Templar Ruins TartusOnce again, Ambrose Bierce was correct: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”  In the current instance regarding the Syrian Civil War, hawkish pronouncements may also be a way of inserting a bit of history into the discussion.   Those laboring under the simplistic delusion that Vladimir Putin is merely being Petulant Puty on the subject are missing some of the back-story.   Syria has a major port.  The city of Tartus has been occupied since the 2nd millennium BC, first as the Phoenician colony of Aradus, including Antaradus (modern Tartus.)  Crusaders called the place Tortosa, and the Templars constructed their military headquarters there in 1158 including a castle, a keep, and double concentric thick walls.  This was insufficient to prevent Saladin from recapturing the city in 1188 and the Templars moved to Cyprus.  Russia has a major warm water port at Sevastopol, on the Black Sea.

Syria Map 1

No alarming amount of map reading skills are required to figure out that for the Russian fleet to move into the Mediterranean they must pass through the Turkish Straits.   In order to refuel and maintain ships  in the area the Russians established a naval base in Tartus in 1971.  This naval installation is part of a very long, very contentious, history of Russian interests in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean.

The Modern History

Follow the sequence of treaties regarding Russian access to warm water ports allowing their warships to reach the Mediterranean:

The London Straits Convention (1841) including Russia, the UK, France, Austria and Prussia declared the Turkish Straits under the domain of the Ottoman Empire and barred warships except those of the sultan during war-time. The British had access to the Mediterranean, the Russians were blocked. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is confined to the Black Sea.  This is highly advantageous to the British and the French, and the Russians are essentially blocked from operating freely in the Mediterranean.

The Treaty of Paris (1856) settled the Crimean War between the Russian Empire and a coalition of the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, the 2nd French Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia. The Black Sea became neutral territory, closed to all warships, fortifications and armaments were prohibited on its shores. The Russians were blocked from access to the Mediterranean Sea. The Russians lost territory previously granted at the mouth of the Danube, they were forced to abandon claims of “protecting” the Christians in the Ottoman Empire (in favor of France), and they lost influence in the Romanian principalities and Serbia. The Russians later renounced the treaty.  So, the Crimean War gave us Florence Nightingale (the Lady with the Lamp) the Charge of the Light Brigade, and a policy which left the Russians without a warm water port for their warships anywhere near the Mediterranean Sea, and not even in the Black Sea.   Little wonder the treaty was renounced, the British and French navies were free to maneuver in the Mediterranean, the Russians were blocked.

World War I: The Russians and Ottoman Empire forces engage in several encounters in the Black Sea, the Russians controlled the Black Sea until the collapse of the Romanov government in late 1917.  By the end of World War I there is no Russian Empire, and there is no Ottoman Empire.   There is, however, an attempt by the allied powers after World War I to partition the old elements of the Ottoman Empire.  Their occupation of Constantinople and Smyrna led to the Turkish nationalist movement under Kemal, and the Turks expelled the occupying forces in September 1922.  The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne gives Turkey diplomatic recognition as an independent nation.  Turkey now controls the Turkish Straits.  It will be official in 1936.

The Montreux Convention of 1936 granted the Republic of Turkey control over warships entering the Turkish Straits, but guarantees free passage for civilian vessels in peace time. This is still the controlling convention.  Now the Russian fleet will have access to the Mediterranean — IF the Turks agree.   The agreement becomes more difficult in the aftermath of World War II and the cold war formation of NATO.

Turkey joins the NATO in 1952, placing the Bosporus Strait in the Western Sphere of Influence.  Now, how does the Russian southern fleet get access to the Mediterranean?

The USSR leases a naval supply and maintenance base in Tartus in 1971 staffed by Russian naval personnel. Tartus is the last Russian military base outside the former Soviet Union, and the only Mediterranean fueling spot — meaning that Russian warships can refuel on the trip back to Black Sea bases through the Turkish Straits (NATO territory.)

Current Events

Why does all this matter on September 2, 2013?  It matters because the Russians have been trying to secure warm water ports and access to the Mediterranean since the early 19th century, and to expect them to quietly acquiesce to western demands that they act against those interests is naive at best and foolish at worst.   If the repulsive Assad regime is the “partner” who will guarantee Russian access to the Mediterranean, then “you dance with them that brung you.”

The major issue concerning Mediterranean navigation is complicated further by Russian military, armaments, and economic factors:

“First, strategic interests are at stake. In Tartus, Syria hosts the sole remaining Russian naval base on the Mediterranean, currently being refurbished by 600 Russian technicians after long disuse. To have to give up this Middle Eastern beachhead would be a shame, as far as the Russians are concerned.”

Not only would it be a shame, it would be contrary to Russian policy since the early 19th century — a policy of securing and maintaining naval operations in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.  If they are now dependent on the cooperation of a NATO member (Turkey) to move the southern fleet through the Turkish Straits, then a port of their own is the obvious option.

Much has been made of Russian commercial and economic interests in Syria, which looks like a client state if viewed through cold war lenses.

Second, although limited, Russia has real commercial interests in Syria. Contracts to sell arms to Damascus — both those signed and under negotiation — total $5 billion. Having lost $13 billion due to international sanctions on Iran and $4.5 billion in canceled contracts to Libya, Russia’s defense industry is already reeling. Besides arms exports, Russian companies have major investments in Syria’s infrastructure, energy and tourism sectors, worth $19.4 billion in 2009.” [UCLA Treisman ]

Before we become too enamored of the “commercial/economic” component to the current controversies between the U.S. and Russia over actions against the Assad regime, those elements are important but the Russian GDP in 2012 was some $2014.80 billion. [TradingEcon] Russian armament deals are important, and  $5 billion in arms deals is significant, but they represent .20% of the Russian economy.

The issues are further complicated by geo-political issues which place the Russians at odds with Middle Eastern power players.   In the 19th and early 20th centuries the Russians labored to secure warm water ports, access to the Mediterranean, and influence in the Balkans, in tenuous negotiations and confrontations with the Ottoman Empire — now they are facing opposition from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  The Saudis see a Sunni majority oppressed by a minority, and perceive the fall of the Assad regime as in their interests.

Security Blankets

The post assumes that the Putin government is primarily focused on security, and that this analysis is on target: ” Putin’s mission was to return Russia to stability and security — a massive undertaking for the leader of a country that not only is the world’s largest but also is internally diverse and surrounded by potentially hostile powers.”  [EuroDialog]  Going a step further, the situation has changed for the Russian leader as “Russian-friendly” governments in Europe have gone down to electoral defeat in recent years. Thus, a change in foreign policy both in terms of tactics and strategy:

“Russia’s main goal regarding Europe is to keep European powers divided while extracting what Moscow wants financially and technologically. The days have passed when Putin could call a friend in Europe to help with NATO or with technological deficiencies. Russia has to design a new strategy to deal with a very different Europe and adhere to its deeper imperatives rather than rely on personal and political relationships, which are fleeting compared to the forces of geopolitics.”  [EuroDialog]

Note the portion of the analysis which spotlights “help with NATO.”  Remember, Turkey is a NATO member, it has controlled the Straits since after the Ottoman Era, and it continues to do so under the provisions of the Montreux Convention.  If we offer the argument that Putin is primarily concerned with Russian security issues, then we could discuss arms deals, infrastructure investments, tourism, and oil pipelines endlessly without approaching the core of Russian concerns for its sovereign security.   — Access to the Mediterranean, once controlled by the Crusaders and abetted by their progeny the Templars from Antaradus (Tortosa), later controlled by the Ottoman Empire, impeded by French and British naval interests in the Age of Empires, and now threatened by the overthrow of an ally in the form of the Assad Regime in Syria.

This is not to argue that the Russian support for the reprehensible regime is warranted, merely that it is historically comprehensible.

There are some references not cited in the post, but which were extremely helpful in understanding the current situation with regard to Russian interests in Syria. A few have been selected as recommended reading: “Guided History,” Boston University (Babcock) “Russian Mediterranean Sea Interests before World War One.”  — this is a compilation of excellent reference sources for pre-war international policy.   “Billions at Stake as Russia Backs Syria”, CNN, February 10, 2012.  “Dangerous Scenario for Syria, Oil and War with Russia,” Forbes, May 28, 2013.  “Saudi Arabia seeks compromise with Russia amid Middle East upheaval,” Global Insider, August 22, 2013.  “Why Russia, China, and Iran are standing by the regime (Syria), CNN, August 29, 2013.  “Reported Saudi-Russia Deal Could Impact EU Gas Prices,” EUObserver, August 28, 2013.  “Saudis Urge Action On Syria,” Wall Street Journal, September 1, 2013.  “A Skeptic’s Guide to the Syria Mess,” Talking Points Memo, September 1, 2013.

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Forests and Trees

forestThe current hyper-partisan environment in Washington, D.C. appears to be both a result and function of the Village Press which has confused incidents and policy to such an extent that it is difficult to separate the scandals du jour from the policy reforms which might mitigate the possibilities of future foul ups.

Case in point: Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi.   As long as the D.C. press continues to focus on the construction of talking points in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on a diplomatic outpost seeking an elusive, and very likely non-existent connection to political machinations in campaign season, we’ll not get around to addressing some very real problems which make our diplomatic missions less safe.

There is another way to frame this information issue:  As long as the D.C. press corps is intent on categorizing all policy decisions and governmental activity in political terms we won’t get deeply enough into the policy implications.  This framing is easy, requires very little if any policy expertise, and can be deftly constructed to create a platform for hyperbole. The focus may sell newspapers and advertising but it’s not very helpful when looking for ways to solve real problems.

It might be interesting to know how many of the commentators and pundits who have graced us on the Sunday morning jabberwocky sessions have read the 39 page report from the State Department’s independent review panel.  (pdf)  Those who have will be familiar with the following sample of recommendations for action made by the independent review panel.

The Department must strengthen security for personnel and platforms beyond traditional reliance on host government security support in high risk, high threat posts.

The Board recommends that the Department re-examine DS organization and management with a particular emphasis on span of control for security policy planning for all overseas U.S. diplomatic facilities.

Regional bureaus should have augmented support within the bureau on security matters, to include a senior DS officer to
report to the regional Assistant Secretary.

The Department should develop minimum security standards for occupancy of temporary facilities in high risk, high threat environments, and seek greater flexibility for the use of Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) sources of funding so that they can be rapidly made available for security upgrades at such facilities.

The Board supports the State Department’s initiative to request additional Marines and expand the Marine Security Guard (MSG) Program – as well as corresponding requirements for staffing and funding.

The Board strongly endorses the Department’s request for increased DS personnel for high – and critical – threat posts and for additional Mobile Security Deployment teams, as well as an increase in DS domestic staffing in support of such action.

Perhaps instead of endlessly opining on the subject of how the Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency disputed the crafting of information to be made available to the public at large (including interested parties in Libya) we might take a moment to ask:

# What actions have the Department of State and other governmental agencies taken to reduce our reliance on host nation security forces for the protection of diplomatic outposts?

# What actions have been taken to better coordinate the agencies and departments responsible for developing and implementing plans for outpost security in high risk environments?

# If we are using temporary facilities in high risk areas what contingency plans are now in place to reduce the probability of attack.  Granted, we shouldn’t announce our security plans to the entire world, but it would be nice to know that the Department of State and other agencies are coordinating their efforts to plan for the use of temporary facilities and to mitigate threats.

# Where were the Marines?  The quick answer is: In Tripoli.  The important question isn’t why weren’t they dispatched to the scene immediately?  Quick answer: The were guarding the permanent embassy in Libya. The long answer is another question:  What is the appropriate kind of staffing for diplomatic security?

“Approximately 90 percent of U.S. diplomatic security personnel are private contractors, according to Deborah Avant, a scholar with a doctorate from the University of California San Diego who oversees The Private Security Monitor, an independent research project on government contracting.”  [UTSanDiego]

Do we want to increase funding for the expansion of the Marine Security Guard (MSG) Program? Or, do we want to rely on privately contracted security personnel?   If we mix the two, what percentage should be military personnel? Corporate security personnel?  Contractors from the host nation?  No, this kind of discussion doesn’t make for rousing ratings, but it would be far more informative than bickering about who edited talking points for Sunday morning consumption.

# The independent review panel urged the State Department to “increased DS personnel for high – and critical – threat posts and for additional Mobile Security Deployment teams, as well as an increase in DS domestic staffing in support of such action.”

“The State Department is asking Congress for more than $1.3 billion to boost security, out of contingency funds once allocated for Iraq: $553 million for additional Marine security guards, $130 million for civilian diplomatic security personnel and $691 million for installation improvements, officials told The New York Times.” [UTSanDiego]

The request has been made, now we need to know how much of this recommendation has be implemented, or is in the process of implementation?  Perhaps we could even find out how Marine Corps plans to get 1,000 more guards trained and available for diplomatic security duty?  Do they have the funding necessary to make all posts as secure as reasonably possible? Or, are current funding levels sufficient to meet some needs but not others?

The recommendations mentioned above are only a handful, and not representative of the entire report, but they are illustrative of the kinds of questions we should be discussing as a civil society with legitimate concerns for the safety of our diplomatic endeavors.  So long as the Villagers are content to air the political rendition of the Bickersons we’ll not likely hear much about the policy changes necessary to improve diplomatic security.

Case in Point:  The Tax Man Cometh.  The Internal Revenue Service faced a veritable flood of requests for 501 c(3) and 501 (c) 4 status (tax exempt) in recent years.  There were no less than 2,744 501 (c) 4 applications in 2012:

Compare that to 1,777 applications in 2011 and 1,741 in 2010, federal records show. Not since 2002, when officials processed 2,402 applications, have so many been received.

Meanwhile, Exempt Organizations Division staffing slid from 910 employees during fiscal year 2009 to 876 during fiscal year 2012, agency personnel documents indicate.

In 2010, IRS officials projected exempt division staffing at 942 employees. But IRS officials cut the number to 900 after the agency began slashing its budget in response to fiscal woes affecting most corners of the federal government.  [CPI]

Thus we have a decreasing number of people handling a 56% increase in the number of applications in a single year — and what do people tend to do when an agency is short handed?  They make short cuts.  In this instance some not very good ones.   We can quibble endlessly about who did what to whom? However, questions like is the “targeting” of right wing groups comparable to IRS investigations of Green Peace or the NAACP?” aren’t very constructive.   There are two policy points in this controversy, each less well covered in our media than would be good for us.

# Who should be making decisions about the application of campaign finance laws?  There are some legitimate lines of inquiry here:

“For the I.R.S.’s bipartisan legion of critics, the agency’s record has underscored its contradictory and seemingly confused response to the fastest-growing corner in the world of unlimited political spending: tax-exempt groups that have paid for at least half a billion dollars in campaign ads during the last two election cycles.

The I.R.S. has done little to regulate a flood of political spending by larger groups — like Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, co-founded by Mr. Rove, and Priorities USA, with close ties to President Obama — as well as Republican leaders in Congress and other elected officials. And an agency that is supposed to stay as far away from partisan politics as possible has been left in charge — almost by accident — of regulating a huge amount of election spending.”  [NYT]

Given the amount and sources of political funding in this country, it hardly seems rational to leave the determination of regulation to an agency tasked with revenue collection.  Perhaps we ought to be using this latest “scandal” as a starting point toward rationalizing our campaign finance structure?  We can see the agency struggling with how to deal with groups that announced their intention to “improve our general welfare,” but whose main object was to funnel campaign funds.   How was the agency to determine what was political and lobbying and what was “advocacy?”  Would a political, as contrasted with a social welfare, organization necessarily be involved with limited or expanding government, or with educating people about the Constitution?  [ABC pdf]  Should the term “party” in the title of the group be an acceptable flag identifying the applicant as a political rather than a social welfare or educational organization?   There is appropriate indignation from both sides of the political aisle about the shorthand methodology of the IRS, but that still leaves us wondering — Who is in charge of implementing campaign finance regulation in this country?

# Is the Internal Revenue Service appropriately staffed to allow that agency to meet citizens’ needs in a timely and accurate fashion?  Do we really believe that cutting staff from 942 to 900 will mean there are enough people to review the increasing number of applications for tax exempt status?  Is the agency so understaffed that there is a temptation to ignore the Big Players while smaller organizations get more scrutiny?

Case in Point: Pressing the Press.  The Department of Justice used FISA warrants to obtain information from 20 telephone lines related to reporting by the Associated Press.

“The organization was not told the reason for the seizure. But the timing and the specific journalistic targets strongly suggested they are related to a continuing government investigation into the leaking of information a year ago about the Central Intelligence Agency’s disruption of a Yemen-based terrorist plot to bomb an airliner.” [NYT]

We need to tread carefully here.  In 2008 Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act, in the wake of revelations about the NSA warrantless wiretaps during the Bush Administration.   This would be the self-same H.R. 6304 about which the ACLU raised significant objections.     The bill passed with a 293 to 129 vote in the House of Representatives on June 20, 2008 [roll call 437] and by a vote of 69 to 28 in the Senate on July 9th.  [roll call 168]  There were 188 House Republicans who voted for the bill and 105 Democrats voting in favor.  128 Democrats voted against it, while only 1 Republican (Rep. Johnson, IL) voted “no.”   All 28 “no” votes in the U.S. Senate were cast by Democrats.

While the Associated Press may characterize the the intrusion in angry terms:

“Gary Pruitt, the president and chief executive of The A.P., called the seizure, a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its news gathering activities.

“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” he wrote. “These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the news gathering activities undertaken by The A.P. during a two-month period, provide a road map to A.P.’s news gathering operations, and disclose information about A.P.’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.” [NYT]

The Associated Press ought not get a free pass in this instance because (1) we don’t know if it was “massive,” — we actually don’t know much of anything because that’s how the FISA Law was written,  (2) we don’t know if it was “overbroad” either because that’s how the FISA Law was drafted, and (3) we don’t know if AP’s “sources and methods” were compromised — and we probably aren’t going to find out because in the wake of various acts of terrorism the majority of members of the 110th Congress were pleased to enact ‘reformed’ measures to allow for this kind of surveillance in cases of national security (in this instance a CIA operation).   If the Associated Press naively thought it was somehow immune to the provisions of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 because a press pass is as good as a law-proof vest, then they’ve been sorely disabused of their optimism.

Some caution should be exercised when we call for a No-Holds Barred approach to “fighting the War on Terror” in the name of national security, because while it may appear to be a grand idea when the target is a potential or alleged terrorist or someone associated with a potential or alleged terrorist —  it’s a whole different ball game when the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 is applied to you.

The discussion in this instance needs to be more broadly focused — not on whether or not the AP is an aggrieved party or if CIA operational methods and sources were compromised by reporting — but on whether we may finally be ready to take a serious look at the objections to H.R. 6304 which were raised by the ACLU and other civil rights organizations when the law was being considered.

Simply bouncing from one “scandal” to the next in order to boost ratings and sell print isn’t going to serve the American public any better now than it did when we followed Whitewater into nothingness.   With each major incident there is a choice to be made — either follow popular titillation with the shallow aspects of a scandal, or take a more measured long term view which addresses serious questions about which we should demand serious answers.  It’s the difference between be able to discern good wood from pulp.

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