Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Murky North Korea

North Korea is doing things again. On Monday, it announced a nuclear test, today it announced the treaty that ended fighting in the Korean War to be valid. From an external standpoint, its timing is off. Until now, the spirit from the Obama administration has been one of rapprochement; Obama even sent a senior official to Pyongyang in April, but North Korea did not receive him.

The test could be an attempt to bully Obama, but…how much can North Korea really bully? Any real attack on the American homeland would be suicidal, and any attempt to go rampaging through Asia would be nearly as silly. No one in the region would benefit from that, and many would be in a position to stop it. China, the United States, and South Korea are all armed to the teeth, and their economies are so enmeshed with each other (and with Japan) that each would suffer greatly if the region were to be destabilized. The best Pyongyang could reasonably hope for is to be left alone, and it already is. Missile launches are probably an attempt to ensure this, but I think there’s more to it than that.

We may not know what’s going on until the regime falls one day, but my guess is this has more to do with succession. If Pyongyang were to normalize relations with the United States, for example, that would mean ambassadors, talks, maybe even trade. All these things would mean the United States would have a much better idea of what is going on in North Korea than it does presently. If Kim Jong Il has indeed suffered a stroke, as has been widely reported, closer ties would mean the United States would be in a much better position to influence the choice of his successor. Detonating a nuclear weapon while ramping up hostile rhetoric is a perfect way to dissuade all outside actors, including the U.S., from trying to influence the country’s politics. It’s also a means of changing the subject – CNN is no longer talking about whether Kim Jong Il is incapacitated, it’s talking about North Korea’s threats against South Korean and American troops.

If Kim Jong Il has indeed suffered a stroke, current bets are that he will hand power to his 26-year-old son. He has older sons, but they have disgraced themselves nicely, the middle one was caught a few years ago trying to sneak into Tokyo Disney. If Kim does indeed tend to hand power to a 26-year-old, it may be to his advantage to keep his own top officials guessing about what will happen, lest a senior general or government official who has had decades to build up clout make a play for the top job. Disloyalty at the top is not unprecedented, especially in times when leadership in uncertain. In the early 90s, as Kim Il-Sung was dying and Kim Jong Il was consolidating his power, a group of generals is rumored to have plotted to seize control and modernize the country. The most recent missile launch occurred a few days before a meeting of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's Supreme People's Assembly. Scott Snyder at Global Security argues that the missile was meant to show that Kim remains in power. An earlier test, in 1998, also occured just before an SPA meeting and many observers believed it represented Kim Jong Il's consolidation of control over the nation and the party. This new launch may be a renewed attempt to assert the Kim family's control, especially if succession is murky.

So what should the Obama administration do? I favor Mitchell Bliss's idea of "malign neglect", in which the U.S. announces its desire to return to Six Party Talks as soon as the North does, and then says nothing else to Pyongyang, and instead focuses on its improving its alliance with South Korea and Japan. It would also welcome South Korea's joining the Proliferation Security Intiative, and encourage China to do so, which would send a message that the international community would not tolerate any nuclear exports from North Korea. Unsexy? Yes. But malin neglect places all the burden for change on North Korea, where it should be.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Civil War Texting

The Sri Lankan government announced the death of the rebel leader by sending a text message to cell phones across the country and then backpedaled, saying it wasn't sure it had identified the body. Is this the modern day equivalent of dropping propaganda leaflets from planes?

The State Dept on Social Media

The US State Department is now on Twitter. I thought we were going somewhere when Barack Obama showed up in my Facebook feed encouraging me to tune into his latest press conference. Now, apparently, one can follow the State Department on Twitter (Same posts: “Briefing Notes: On Aung San Suu Kyi -- She should not be under arrest, not facing trial, not threatened with prison. On Iran -- We are assessing Iran's progress on starting direct dialog, but we do not have any timeline.” Or “Secretary Clinton just stepped onto the Yankee Stadium field to loud applause. Most NYU commencement ceremony students standing and cheering.”)

It initially seemed an odd move for a government institution, especially one known for carefully worded statements. These things are traditionally the province of younger people, who wrote angsty or funny updates that communicate their personal mood more than anything else. (Someday, I will commission a study to prove that AIM away messages from about 2000 were behind all the social media. People, or at least my friends and I, got used to using the internet as a virtual dry erase board of their lives. Or else they posted random song lyrics. But I digress.)

At any rate, these sorts of things are traditionally person-to-person communications, and they’re constantly updated. Governments and large institutions are usually exceedingly careful about their public statements, and I’d expect even 140 word messages to have to be run by a team of lawyers. And indeed, many of State’s tweets are the sort of predictable press page items you’d expect. But I actually…like them. The feed is updated several times a day, and State usually has some something to say about the day’s major controversies. Its tweets aren’t usually earth shattering, but they have a way of making the day’s international news manageable. A quick glace down the page is an easy way to keep up with what’s going on in the world.

What I hadn’t expected was how much State interacts with other Twitterers. It responds to queries, usually with a link to relevant information, and corrects users who write things it disagrees with. This brings me to a larger idea – maybe the purpose of social media for an organization like State is not so much to put out new information, but to combat disinformation. Being on Twitter enables State to react to rumors when they get started, rather than waiting several days for them to metastasize before dismissing them at a press conference. It doesn’t post radical changes every day, because it can’t, but by being a part of the conversation, it’s able to steer the discussion while it’s happening.

(Two Tangents: State’s page evidently predated the White House’s; a tweet from May 1 welcomes @whitehouse to Twitter. Also, I wonder if I can follow the IRS?)

Friday, May 15, 2009

U Thant's library.

Recently, I took a few days off work to get all the final paperwork in for my grad degree. Mostly, this involved sitting in the international relations department waiting for various people to come in so that they could sign my forms, so I had a lot of time on my hands. After reading an LSAT prep book for the better part of an hour, I wandered over to a collection of bookshelves housing U Thant's library. It was sort of a compendium on world trouble spots circa the 1960s - lots of US-Soviet stuff, and lots of Asia/Vietnam stuff. In the middle of this, I picked up a book from the 60s called the "Vietnam Reader", a compendium of about 20 articles from people on various sides of the conflict. Most of the stuff from political leaders was polemical - Lyndon Johnson's was basically a list of things the United States wouldn't do ("We will never back down in the face of Communist aggression. We will never be defeated in Vietnam. Aggression aggression aggression tyranny aggression aggression"). The North Vietnamese articles were equally polemical ("We will fight for our homeland, homeland homeland homeland glorious history homeland.")

In the middle, however, was an incredibly lucid article about the conflict from Hans Morgenthau, the founder of realism. While I remain skeptical about whether his philosophy can be applied in all situations, it did a brilliant job of cutting through the rhetoric and shoe-banging in this situation. More incredible, for an article written in the mid-60s, everything he predicted would happen in Vietnam actually did happen. Morgenthau argues that US involvement in Vietnam is not worth it because the real threat to US interests in Asia is not Vietnam, but China. If we left Vietnam in the 60s, he said, Vietnam would become an ally of the Soviet Union, which was also China's enemy. Showing an ability to read history books sadly lost among most commentators of the person, Morgenthau wrote that China was the traditional enemy of Vietnam, and predicted the North Vietnamese government would seek alliance with China only if desperate. This is exactly what happened. After reunification in 1975, Vietnam became a Soviet ally, allowing the USSR to build a navy base there, and an antagonist towards China, fighting a border war with that country in 1980. After the USSR collapsed, Vietnam was without allies and did attempt to turn to China, only to have China rebuff all offers of alliance and authorize foreign oil companies to drill in Vietnamese waters. So the two were never natural allies.

Morgenthau went on to suggest that the United States should seek to prevent North Vietnam from becoming desperate by withdrawing from the country, which it was unlikely to hold in the long term anyway, so that Hanoi would side with its "first choice" ally, thus creating a thorn in China's southern side, rather than a Chinese-influenced Vietnam. Morgenthau noted that since the only way to completely counter Chinese influence was to invade and occupy the country, we would do better to content ourselves with the cheaper option of checking its power, even at the expense of our Cold War philosophy. Wow. It's an interesting thing about human psychology - we have a tendency to assume our enemies are working with each other. In the Cold War, this often translated to an assumption that all Communists were the same. This mistake is staggering obvious when someone else makes it - for example, the Khmer Rouge convinced themselves that the CIA and KGB had put aside their differences to make life difficult for them - but much less obvious when we make it ourselves. Perhaps it takes a certain amount of cynicism about everything to actually do the research about our's antagonists that allow us to make accurate predictions.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Service outage...

Service outage this week as I finish up my final papers. My away message is "The end of grad school and the last paper." I am funny.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Fact check

How are we supposed to continue promoting America as this guiding light of democracy and how are we supposed to win hearts and minds in the world as long as we continue with these actions?

Well, first of all, you do what's right. That's the most important thing -- that you make a judgment of what's right. And in terms of enhanced interrogation, and rendition, and all the issues around the detainees. Abu Ghraib is, and everyone said, Abu Ghraib was not policy. Abu Ghraib was wrong and nobody would argue with...

This is disputed. There's an excellent discussion of the issue on the PBS documentary program Frontline's page about who is to blame for Abu Graib. With the exception of Janis Karpinski, the brigadier general who was in charge of the prison, no senior official was ever punished for Abu Ghraib. Karpinski told Frontline that
"People that were under tremendous pressure to get more actionable intelligence, then through the chain of command might give instructions to do whatever you need to do to get that information. It's open to interpretation: What do you mean by 'do whatever we need to do?' "
At the time, government officials were making a number of vague "We're gonna get 'em" statements. For example, the CIA's Cofer Black told Congress that "there was "before" 9/11 and "after" 9/11. After 9/11, the gloves come off." The president's lawyer, Alberto Gonzales, wrote that "The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information. In my judgement, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners." Little specific guidance was given to local commanders who captured suspected terrorists. If this is the rhetoric from on high, it seems naive to expect a 20 year old Abu Ghraib guard to reach for his copy of the Geneva Conventions.

Except that information that's come out since then speaks against that.

No, no, no -- the information that's come out since then continues to say that Abu Ghraib was wrong. Abu Ghraib was. But in terms of the enhanced interrogation and so forth, anything that was legal and was going to make this country safer, the president wanted to do. Nothing that was illegal. And nothing that was going to make the country less safe.

And I'll tell you something. Unless you were there in a position of responsibility after September 11th, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans. And I know a lot of people are second-guessing now, but let me tell you what the second-guessing that would really have hurt me -- if the second-guessing had been about 3,000 more Americans dying because we didn't do everything we could to protect them.

If you were there in a position of authority, and watched Americans jump out of 80-story buildings because these murderous tyrants went after innocent people, then you were determined to do anything that you could that was legal to prevent that from happening again. And so I think people do understand that.

I have some sympathy for this position, and I'm sure this was a terrifying time for high officials. Immediately after the attacks, the government created a number of vaguely worded policies designed to find those responsible and prevent future attacks, including a statue passed by Congress calling for the president to "use all necessary means" to punish those responsible and prevent future attacks. Particularly controversial were the legal opinions of Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, whose memo in August 2002 argued that federal anti-torture laws did not apply to the president. Yoo's opinion stated that in order to be considered torture, techniques must produce lasting psychological damage or suffering "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." The opinion was vilified by the international law community. In an interview with the Washington Post, Yoo said that his critics did not understand the difficult circumstances in Washington after 9/11.

Now, as to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and so forth -- I agree with you. We have tried to use the trafficking in persons and all of those measures, human rights reports and so forth, to put a spotlight on the kinds of problems that you have in places like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or Oman or other places. But you can't -- you don't have the luxury in foreign policy of saying, alright, I won't deal with that country because I don't like its human rights record. You don't have that luxury. So if you need Saudi Arabia to fight al Qaeda internally -- which is by the way where al Qaeda came from -- or if you need Saudi Arabia to be part of a coalition that's going to help bring a Palestinian state, you can't decide not to deal with Saudi Arabia because of its problems with human rights. Or, if you need to make sure that the Gulf is safe from Iranian influence -- you want to talk about human rights abusers? -- Iran.

This is true. It's interesting to note, along these lines, that when the Iraqi government was using chemical weapons against Iranian troops in the 1980s, the Reagan administration was giving it intelligence information, and that both the Reagan and Bush I administrations gave Saddam billions of dollars in commodity credits and import loan guarantees after the Anfal genocide of Iraqi Kurds genocide in 1988. Even after the first Gulf War, Saddam's brutal suppression of the Shi'ite uprising in 1991 was facilitated by Bush I's agreement to allow the Iraqis to use helicopters, a move made all the more cynical by the fact that Bush had encouraged the uprising in the first place. He likely had second thoughts because of fears Iraqi Shi'ites would be loyal to Iran, the only powerful Shi'a nation. In all these cases, Washington deemed it more important to defeat Iran or limit its influence in Iraq than it did to human rights concerns. Indeed, Iran has used religion to spread its regional power - it has funded Hezbollah, the Shi'a militia in Lebanon, and has been accused of funding Shi'ite groups in Iraq after the Second Gulf War. (For more information, see Kenneth Roth, "War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention" in Human Rights in the War on Terror, edited by Richard Ashby Wilson.

I'm well aware.

Excuse me?

I'm well aware.

So, foreign policy is full of tough choices. Very tough choices. The world is not a bunch of easy choices in which you get to make ones that always feel good.

I'm aware, but...[I'm sorry, we have to move]

Let him finish, let him finish.

Even in World War II, as we faced Nazi Germany -- probably the greatest threat that America has ever faced -- even then...

With all due respect, Nazi Germany never attacked the homeland of the United States.
Technically, it did, although its efforts were never very successful. One could also argue that an organized genocidal expansionist power with an organized army constituted the greater threat to world security, and by extension American security.

No, but they bombed our allies...

No. Just a second. Three thousand Americans died in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

500,000 died in World War II, and yet we did not torture the prisoners of war.

And we didn't torture anybody here either. Alright?
When states are accused of torture, they generally respond in one of three ways: 1)Outright denial 2) What we did wasn't torture. 3) What we did was torture, but it was necessary for the survival of the nation. Bush administration officials generally go with #2.

We tortured them in Guantanamo Bay.

No, no dear, you're wrong. Alright. You're wrong. We did not torture anyone. And Guantanamo Bay, by the way, was considered a model "medium security prison" by representatives of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe who went there to see it. Did you know that?

Rice's argument that the U.S. did not torture prisoners at Gitmo is contracted by a leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which found that interrogation techniques used at the facility constituted torture.Two former Bush administration lawyers have also described certain official acts at Gitmo as torture.

Were they present for the interrogations?

No. Did you know that the Organization -- just answer me -- did you know that the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe said Guantanamo was a model medium security prison?

No, but I feel that changes nothing...

No -- Did you know that?

I did not know that, but that changes absolutely nothing.

Alright, no -- if you didn't know that, maybe before you make allegations about Guantanamo you should read.

Now, the ICRC also had access to Guantanamo, and they made no allegations about interrogations at Guantanamo. What they did say is that they believe indefinite detention, where people didn't know whether they'd come up for trial, which is why we tried with the military commissions system to let people come up for trial. Those trials were stayed by whom? Who kept us from holding the trials?

I can't answer that question.

Do your homework first.

I have a question...

Yes. The Supreme Court.

Rice is referring to Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court case which found the Bush administration's military commissions set up to try detainees did not have "the power to proceed because its structures and procedures violate both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the four Geneva Conventions signed in 1949." It did not, however, rule out trying them by other means, and certainly did not endorse indefinite detention.

I read a recent report, recently, that said that you did a memo, you were the one who authorized torture to the -- I'm sorry, not torture, waterboarding. Is waterboarding torture?

The president instructed us that nothing we would do would be outside of our obligations, legal obligations, under the Convention Against torture. So that's -- and by the way, I didn't authorize anything. I conveyed the authorization of the administration to the agency. That they had policy authorization subject to the Justice Department's clearance. That's what I did.

Okay. Is waterboarding torture?

I just said -- the United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. And so, by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Conventions Against Torture.

It is interesting that Rice brings up the U.N. Convention Against Torture. A 2006 report on Guantanamo by the Committee Against Torture, the the U.N. body that monitors compliance with the Convention, called on the United States to "cease to detain any person at Guantanamo Bay and close the detention facility." The report found that

“The State party[the United States] should rescind any interrogation technique, including methods involving sexual humiliation, “waterboarding” [emphasis added], “short shackling” and using dogs to induce fear, that constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, in all places of detention under its de facto effective control, in order to comply with its obligations under the Convention.”
(See Comments by the Government of the United States of America to the conclusions
and recommendations of the Committee against Torture. (Word doc)
The Bush administration's comments are particularly interesting.)

It is unclear what Rice means by "if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations" under the Treaty. The relevant treaty body had already called for the United States to halt waterboarding, calling it "torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." In addition, under contemporary international law, there are no circumstances under which the president could legitimately authorize torture. Certain principles, called abuses jus cogens, are considered to be so important they can never be derrogated from. These include prohibitions on slavery, genocide, and torture. Jus cogens in international law first came gained prominence after World War II, when it was used to prosecute Nazi war criminals, who argued that their actions had been legal under German law at the time.

Thank you.

You're welcome.


Foreign Policy has a transcript of the conversation here.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Condi Rice Interrogated at Stanford

Condoleeza Rice was meeting with students in a dorm at Stanford, where she intends to go back and teach, and several of them grilled her about Guantanamo. She was roasted in the Internet, and in the New York Times, for arguing, among other things, that waterboarding could not have been a violation of the Convention Against Torture because it was authorized by the president. The students' questions went on for at least seven minutes, and much of it is posted to YouTube.

I was going to post the video with a caption saying "And the children shall lead them". While these students certainly ask more critical questions than many reporters during the Bush era, I can't help but have some sympathy for Rice. Her answers about the most damning matters are very removed and legalistic. When asked if she authorized waterboarding, she said, "I didn't authorize anything. I conveyed the authorization of the administration to the agency that they had policy authorization subject the the Justice Department's clearance." She gets borderline emotional when saying students can't possibly imagine being in a position of authority after 9/11. This seems to be a major theme with her - she said on Leno that she doesn't want to comment on the Obama administration because she remembered people commenting on her actions who didn't necessarily know what was really going on. I once read a biography of Rice that suggested the attacks caused a shift in her thinking that lead her to endorse risky adventures like the Iraq War, before returning to the more cynical and but less insane realism. It's getting late, but more about this later in the week.