Monthly Archives: January 2012

Catch-2012: Big-Spending Socialist, or Troop-Hating One?

The U.S. Navy plans to re-fit a decommissioned amphibious transport dock, called the U.S.S. Ponce, as a “mothership” for special operations forces, helicopters, and small high-speed boats.  The Ponce is to serve as a new offshore staging ground for small-scale operations in the Middle East.

The arrival of the Ponce in the Red Sea will coincide with a shift toward a leaner, better-trained military; the Pentagon has planned nearly half a trillion dollars in spending cuts over the next decade.  Overall troop strength will decline by nearly 100,000, returning to levels slightly higher than in 2000.  Our troop presence in Europe will be cut in half.  Ships will be retired and orders of the new F-35 fighter reduced.

The "Mothership" U.S.S. Ponce

No sane Republican presidential candidate will fail to leap upon the Pentagon budget cuts as evidence of President Obama’s insouciance/incompetence/malevolence (the diagnosis varies: is he a socialist menace? A golf-addicted dilettante?  An underqualified community organizer?).   They have ample incentive to do so.  Much of Obama’s remaining job approval lies in the foreign policy bucket, ready to be siphoned.  Apparently inverted is the conventional wisdom that Democratic presidents are soft on foreign policy (with only both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Haiti, Somalia, Pakistan, and Libya, and a few other adventures to their credit) and strong on economic issues.

Yet even after a year of doctrinaire only-cuts-will-do politics from Republicans, the argument will be made with a straight face: By allowing the Pentagon to cut its budget, Obama is retreating from the world.  He’s appeasing China.  He’s letting Iran run amok.

This presumes a link between budget reduction and foreign policy passivity.  Programs can’t be effective without big budgets: there’s a conservative idea.

Voters have at least some sense of what philosophy (if not what policies) they will be supporting where economic issues are concerned.  Regarding our actions overseas, however, they cannot be so confident.  Ridiculing Obama’s supposed softness toward terror suspects will not get far with the general electorate, for whom the phrase “drone strike” has become a banality and the bin Laden raid a Call-of-Duty fantasy.  On this score it is Obama’s base, not those who would unseat him, to whom he must explain himself.

Obama has been tough on Iran, and prioritized the Pacific as the naval theatre of the future.  Attacking his handling of the Arab Spring remains risky; with the jury still out, that complex and still-unfolding episode is treacherous territory for criticism, which ranged from the tentative to the incoherent early in the campaign and has since petered out. Indeed, candidates now seem to have opted not to challenge the President’s non-Iran Middle East policies directly but instead to issue bizarre proncouncements that might earn them a few extra votes from the far right (“Palestinians are an invented people”/“Turkey is ruled by Islamic terrorists”).

The dispatch of the refitted Ponce to the Middle East represents a more efficient, modern military for a post-Soviet, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, post-profligacy era.  The rhetoric of the president’s challengers—insipid, tired, unimaginative—likewise needs retooling.

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Ten Years of Guantanamo

Guantanamo Bay Prison Facility

The word terrorist comes freighted with associations.  When I hear it—to be honest—I do not picture Irishmen, Timothy McVeigh, or sarin attacks in Tokyo subway tunnels.  I picture crazy-looking bearded men, explosions, and sand.  Now, lest I be cast Juan Williams-like into the ring of hell reserved for the un-PC, I should emphasize that I do not say this is as it should be.  But subconscious associations like these pollute the debate, now recrudescent, over Guantanamo.

The baggage of the word terrorist owes most of its weight to the near-monopoly lately held by some enthusiastically Muslim Arab men over spectacular, ideologically motivated violence.  Non-Arabs and non-Muslims commit violence too, of course, but it is usually of a less spectacular or less ideological sort than that which emanates from the Arab Muslim community.  Most Americans who came of age at the turn of the millennium have therefore encountered the word terrorism in no other context, and are unable to separate abstract meaning from discrete experience.  Unlike war or human trafficking or theft, terrorism in most of our minds has specific geographic, religious, and historical dimensions. To consume media in the twenty-first century is to see picture after picture of exotic-looking Middle Eastern suspects while hearing the word terrorist. Repeat, repeat again, and the association forms.

The word Guantanamo is similarly compromised; like terrorist, it sags with baggage.  It evokes images of prisoner abuse and the excesses of Bush-era counterterrorism policy for some, and the words necessary evil (or just necessary) for others. Many of us select a position on Guantanamo either out of hatred for (presumably guilty) terrorists and contempt for the whiners who care about their rights, or out of outrage toward the prison as a house of post 9/11 horrors: abuse, neglect, and torture of blindfolded, orange-clad (presumably innocent) prisoners.

These associations, however, are irrelevant to the central question: that of Guantanamo’s fundamental legality.  This question is not about the justice of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, the causes of terrorism, or even about what happens inside Guantanamo.  A prison should not be closed simply because it has seen abuse or housed innocent prisoners.  It should be closed, however, if its existence violates the law.

Two precedents compete to define the debate: the criminal justice precedent, better for attacking Guantanamo, and the war precedent, better for defending it.  In a recent New York Times Room for Debate on the subject, Eric Posner invoked war, and argued that even if the present arrangement is not ideal, no alternative exists which respects human rights any better.  Even if we did try enemy combatants criminally, he says, we would still need some sort of holding center for freshly caught suspects.  Guantanamo serves that purpose.  Opponents of this view—those who deem Guantanamo an illegal or immoral counterterrorism tool—complain that those interned therein are denied the rights guaranteed by both the Constitution and most of the Geneva Convention.

Thus, the criminal-combatant distinction emerges.  Do terrorists have the same rights as international criminals?  If not, why not?  How do international criminals cross the conceptual boundary and become terrorists?

Answer one question, and more spring forth: do constitutional rights apply to everyone in U.S. custody?  Either they do, or they do not.  Do they apply only to citizens?  It’s a yes-no question.  Under what circumstances are one’s rights nullified?  This must be clarified publicly before another U.S. citizen is deliberately killed in cold blood by our military, because Guantanamo’s implications reach beyond Cuba.

Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by a drone on September 30, was hard to arrest.  He was fairly dangerous.  He was in a country whose police were unwilling or unable to capture him.  He was a member of al-Qaeda.  But this is not a question of practicality; it is a question of legality.  Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen.  Either it is legal to kill dangerous, inaccessible, al-Qaeda-affiliated Americans in cold blood or it is not.

One might say that the whole point of Guantanamo is that the earlier questions must remain unanswered in the name of national security.  This argument leads one not down a slippery slope, but over a cliff beyond which no law exists and anything is permissible.

Marwa Daoudy: A Weak Case Against Military Intervention in Syria

Don't feed the rhetoric: Bashar al-Assad

Last Thursday on aljazeera.com, Marwa Daoudy argued against what virtually no one is arguing for: U.S. military intervention in Syria.

In her opening paragraph, Daoudy sets the mostly imagined controversy up as one unfolding between enlightened voices like hers and those of “neo-Orientalists,” who, she notes, “once characterized” the Arab world as “politically and economically stagnant.”  Confession: I have once or twice applied the same characterization.  Please forgive my neo-Orientalism.

The Warmongers

Prompting Daoudy’s call for restraint are articles recently released by Washington-based think tanks (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Foreign Policy Initiative, and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) advocating a more aggressive foreign policy toward the Assad regime.  Instead of addressing the neoconservative think tanks’ arguments, and despite their stopping short of calling for regime change, Daoudy reminds us of their “history of pro-war advocacy” and links to the second Bush administration.  The think tanks, it seems, are on the march.

It gets worse.  The National Security Council itself has, apparently, investigated options for an intervention.  These options include establishing safe zones and humanitarian corridors.  The Syrian National Council, which represents the opposition, has also called for a no-fly zone to be established by the West (ah, so the neocons are not alone after all).

“The long term goal,” in Daoudy’s estimation, “is clearly strategic: to tame Syria as a key regional player” and “shape the country’s geopolitical links.”  Regime change, war, or tactical bombing would indeed serve those aims, but how would the humanitarian measures being proposed tame Syria as a regional player?  And this theory does not account for timing; it is Syria’s domestic murderousness, not its uncooperative foriegn policy, that is new here.  The options into which the NSC has looked seem more suited to the preservation of human life than the advancement of a geopolitical master plan; sorry if that sounds terribly naïve.

We Shall Overcome

Eventually, Daoudy meanders away from intonations about “pro-war” think tanks—who, to reiterate, do not advocate regime change or even all-out combat against Syrian forces—and toward an actual argument against military intervention (presumably by the U.S., since she addresses no other state’s foreign policy).  In doing this, she both selects the wrong target and aims poorly.

If a foreign military intervention happens in Syria, it will be Turkish, not American.  In fact, a Turkish intervention might already be said to have begun: Turkey has trained and harbored defectors of the Free Syrian Army, and Haaretz reports that Turkish officials today confiscated four Iranian truckloads of Syria-bound weapons.  His “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy doctrine apparently a victim of history, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already called on Bashar al-Assad to step down and approved sanctions against Syria.  Despite this, Daoudy mentions Turkey twice, both times in passing.

But let us suppose that America were indeed dusting off the 2003 war drums.  Why not bomb Damascus?  First, Daoudy invokes the reviled Iraq War and the less-reviled Libya intervention, attempting to establish a pattern of interventions gone awry.  She asserts that these interventions “appalled” Syrians, to whom she ascribes no ability to distinguish between the two episodes, or between either episode and the current one.

Daoudy then acknowledges that Syrian suffering has reached an “unbearable” level, before arguing, in so many words, that Syrians should go on bearing it.  She describes worsening living conditions, rising violence perpetrated by military defectors and frustrated civilians, and the state-sponsored orgy of torture, murder, and intimidation that has only accelerated since the departure of Arab League monitors.  She then calls not only for foreign powers to mind their own business, but for Syrian rebels to lay down their weapons and emulate Gandhi.

Don’t Feed the Rhetoric

Armed resistance, writes Daoudy, “could feed into official rhetorics on foreign-led insurgency.”   First of all, the official rhetoric of Syria is clear to Syrians; it is made of bullets, shells, and mutilated children.  Also, note what is implied here: that anything on which an adversary’s rhetoric can feed should be avoided.  That doctrine gives our adversaries practically limitless control over our actions; if they want us not to do something, they need only harangue their subjects about our nefarious plans to do it.

Daoudy also cautions that unarmed resistance has drawn “momentum and power” by being peaceful.  How she knows this is a mystery.  To claim that the Syrian uprising has been gaining momentum at all is a stretch; to identify nonviolence as the sole source of that momentum requires powers of divination I do not possess.

Daoudy claims without qualification that any foreign intervention—again, we are talking here about no-fly zones or safe havens—would push all hitherto undecided Syrians into the arms of the regime.    No historical precedent comes to mind that justifies this causal assumption (the case of Libya appears to weaken it); please leave a comment if you think of one.

Eventually, Daoudy prescribes two measures for the international community—human rights fact-finding missions and, “with time,” targeted sanctions which spare the general population.  She urges restraint and nonviolence from Syrians.  Whether or not nonviolence is the best course, it seems presumptuous both to tell us how Syrians would react to foreign intervention and to tell Syrians how they should react to being massacred by their own state.

We Have the Wolf by the Ear: Cut Egypt’s Military Aid

Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi

In 1820, the year the Missouri Compromise cleaved Maine from Massachusetts to maintain the Congressional balance between free and slave states, Thomas Jefferson wrote of the peculiar institution: “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

Until 2011, U.S. administrations were more or less content to hold close their Arab wolves (Mubarak, ben Ali, and the semi-tamed Qaddafi).  And in 2011, once the issue was forced, the wolves were rather easily let go.  But as Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces showed late last week when it raided the offices of NGOs dedicated to nourishing Egypt’s abused civil society, Hosni Mubarak was not the only wolf in Cairo.  The remaining wolves (Tantawi, Mohammed, Anan) present U.S. policymakers with a trickier problem than the old strongman.

Holding these wolves—which in concrete terms means continuing annual military aid payments of $1.3 billion, second only to Israel’s—will, to say the least, compromise the Obama administration’s attempt to demonstrate its solidarity with demonstrators.  On the other hand, some fear that letting them go will benefit the Islamic extremists they once held at bay.  This seemingly dichotomous choice results precisely from the ruthless trampling of centrist political movements over decades of military rule.

Indeed, as I heard John P. Entelis emphatically aver at a panel discussion at the Elliott School this fall, stage new elections anywhere in the Arab world and Islamists will win, in the first contest and probably in the second, too.  But, as he went on to say, this is not because of the immutable, violent Islamism warned against by Middle Eastern regimes; it is because of the very conditions those regimes deliberately created.  Where secular political opposition was too dangerous to brook, Islamism was useful as a bogeyman with which to scare the West—“it’s us or them.”  Thus did Islamist opposition groups accrue the advantages we see today.

We will never be certain that Arab democracy will produce friendly, docile allies.  In fact, in the short term we should assume that it will not.  The lesson of 2011, however, is that no moral alternative to democracy existed ever, and no practical alternative exists anymore, for America.  Our choice is not between democracy and theocracy, or between chaos and order.  Those choices are for Egyptians.  Our $1.3 billion choice is simple: do we hold the wolf or let it go?