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Iran Update June 21, 2009

Posted by Afflatus in Politics, World Affairs.
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“The 1979 Islamic Revolution modified Iran’s green, white, and red flag, adding a new central emblem featuring Muslim symbols. “God Is Almighty” appears on the stripes 22 times, honoring the 22nd of the month of Bahman when the Islamic Revolution was victorious.”

– Atlas of the Middle East by National Geographic

Another post on Iran is long overdue. Since our last discussion on the eve of the election on June 12, now nine days ago, an update is necessary and inevitable. I’ve found my favorite place to get news is the huffingtonpost’s live blogging.

Ill be brief for now, because there is too much to say.

Fareed Zakaria’s GPS show today had a great panel discussion and up-to-date analysis of the situation. Zakaria interviewed a technology expert that provided me with some interesting new insight. The state authorities have attempted to shut down virtually all communications infrastructure. The government has tried to shut down SMS, twitter, facebook, and more. People with cameras, and video cameras are being singled out during the daily demonstrations. All foreign journalists have either been ordered to leave in 24 hours or arrested.

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My Response to the “Red Line” Argument Re: Syria September 9, 2013

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The “red line” argument vis-a-vis Syria goes something like this: “Obama said the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would constitute crossing a “red line” of the United States’. Because of this, the United States must attack Syria’s chemical weapons depots. To do otherwise would render the U.S. a feckless, paper tiger, embolden Assad and other dictators to use chemical weapons by permitting a lack of accountability, and finally it will weaken the U.S. position towards Iran.”

Here is my response:

Just because Syria crossed a so-called “red line” for the United States, why must President Obama then necessarily respond with a military attack? There are other ways to provide accountability for this horrific atrocity the Syrian regime has perpetrated. Why not tighten sanctions? Ambassador Power and other officials in the Obama Administration don’t say. Why not respond in a way consistent with international law? The United States has decided not to attempt to go to the UN (there are decent reasons for this, of course. But still!). Then, even if one assumes the U.S. chooses to disregard international law in a supposed effort to uphold international law (indeed), why not allow UN inspectors to finish their work discovering evidence prior to attacking with military force?

I don’t understand why crossing a fictitious “red line” (which we supposedly have evidence Syria actually already crossed twice prior to this recent, large-scale chemical attack), necessitates a rapid military response in violation of UN rules. Furthermore, how far does this supposed “red line” extend. What if, in 2014, there is an uprising in North Korea or China and the government there uses chemical weapons to put down the rebellion?

Finally, even if one finds the “red line” argument more convincing than my rebuttal, I still believe a “realist” analysis of the underlying interests at stake for the United States in the Middle East — counter-terrorism and oil price management — will be better served by not attacking Syria. In my opinion, this “national interest” analysis should be finally devastating to any arguments in favor of striking.

Disappointed and Dumbfounded by Obama’s Syria Policy September 8, 2013

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Since last writing, my views about the normative question pertaining to Syria have changed dramatically. Through a bit more reading on the subject, thinking through my own views further, and discussing with friends, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a very poor decision to conduct even limited strikes against Syria.

Listening to United States Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power speak at the Center for American Progress, I find myself downright confused and disheartened by the arguments and statements I’m hearing from the Administration. Power and Neera Tanden (President of CAP) make an appeal for intervention that rests largely on emotional arguments, calling it “monstrous,” talking about fathers crying over their dead babies. Yes, this all horrible. Atrocious. The videos of the Syrian chemical attack are shockingly gruesome. And I don’t doubt that it was Assad and the Syrian government behind these attacks.  But ultimately, there are humanitarian atrocities the world over. Omar al-Bashir, President of Sudan has murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people. The Lords Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, is a band of rebels causing havoc in uncontrolled regions of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic. Kony and his gang mutilate and rape their victims, while abducting children and forcing them to fight on their behalf. And the list goes on. If we accept Ambassador Power’s argument for humanitarian-based intervention, where do we draw the line? Which do we get involved it, and “how can we stomach,” in her words, sitting out and “standing idly by” while other atrocities takes place? (Side note: a fact too little known is that the US did send military personnel to fight against Kony and the LRA in October 2011.)

Furthermore, the idea that the United States is the moral international arbitrator in this situation — an argument Ambassador Power alludes to repeatedly — is patently absurd. In the 1980’s, the United States helped Sadaam Hussein massacre thousands of Iranians with chemical weapons in a calculated effort to maintain the balance of power between those two countries in the Persian Gulf region. This is not an allegation, but a fact proven by recently declassified CIA memos. Read them, they’re shocking.

Additionally, Ambassador Power claims that we must do this because it’s an international treaty. The simple yet devastating counter to this silly point that the administration is making has become almost hackneyed: since when has the United States obeyed international law, or upheld treaties?  The United States hasn’t even ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty! And why didn’t the United States care when it’s ally, Bahrain, (where the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet is harbored) was arresting doctors and other medical personal as they rushed to tend to peaceful demonstrators (who had been injured by government riot police) that were demanding democracy and a voice in their government affairs? Why didn’t the United States want to intervene to uphold the Geneva Conventions in Bahrain. So, having belabored the point, I hope I have shown how absurd Ambassador Power seems to anyone who has a conception of history, international law, and the traditional role the United State has played in world affairs.

Ambassador Power claims the United States has exhausted alternatives, yet she makes no mention about any efforts to tighten sanctions. Sanctions won’t stop chemical weapons being used on civilians, but neither will targeted strikes. And if targeted strikes do succeed in stopping further chemical weapons attacks by Assad, what is to stop Assad from decimating innocent Syrians with traditional weapons? What is the end game for the United States?

Ultimately, I don’t buy the argument that this is a humanitarian ground for the reasons stated above. Rather, I think (but I have no evidence for this claim) that America’s national security apparatus is exaggerating the “threat” to America’s national security, to global stability, or to any of our non-core interests, in order to work to take out Assad. This is exactly what happened in Iraq in 2003. And Libya in 2011 was very similar. The common theme in all 3 cases is that a decent pretense (9-11 with Iraq, the Libyan Spring, and sarin gas now in Syria) is used as an excuse to achieve a longstanding goal — getting rid of a dictator we don’t like. But why must we do it again!? In both Libya and Iraq, the outcomes were terrible for the United States! In Libya the outcome was good for Al-Qaeda and very bad for the U.S. embassy and the estimable Ambassador Christopher Stevens; in Iraq today there is no democracy, internecine sectarian violence continues, and in many important ways Iran’s position in the region was strengthened by the US intervention. So, assuming we even could somehow take out, or weaken, Assad, what could the national security apparatus of the United States possibly expect as a productive outcome for US interests!? The U.S. knows it doesn’t like the opposition forces (that’s why the Obama Administration has been reluctant to provide lethal military support). The United States fears that the opposition is sympathetic to Al-Qaeda or other extreme Muslim groups. I’m struggling to see what good for the United States will come from an attack on Syria.

I think this intervention plays perfectly into Al-Qaeda’s narrative and will undermine our global counter-terrorism efforts. It will surely increase instability in the Middle East possibly increasing the price of oil. Counter-terrorism and oil price management are the primary core national interests of United States in the Middle East. Limited strikes on Syria will undermine both of those goals.

So what is President Obama doing? I am dumbfounded.

Egypt in Crisis January 28, 2011

Posted by Afflatus in Events, Politics, World Affairs.
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Protests in Egypt are larger and more intense than they’ve ever been before. “Unprecedented” is the word most frequently used to describe the current political events there. The size of the democratic revolt is unprecedented, as are the levels of repression and censorship. After videos like this Tiananmen square incident and this government shooting were posted to internet sites, the Egyptian government shut down Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and other social networking sites. This extreme form of government repression and censorship reminds me of the Iranian protests after their June 2009 election was allegedly rigged. The main difference between these protests and those of the Green Movement in Iran is that the Egyptian regime is a staunch ally of the US, whereas the Iranian government is Americas top foe in the region. This fact makes for an extremely delicate challenge for the Obama administration. How should the U.S. respond when a democratic revolution threatens to topple a government that serves our interests?

In his State of the Union, the President spoke of the ideas our nation was founded upon. Perhaps the two most fundamental ideas of the American revolution was that all people have the rights to liberty and to govern their own affairs. The political repression in Egypt is on par with the harshest in the world. The economy has been horribly mismanaged for years. Egyptians don’t have certain inalienable rights. America’s fundamental values from which American exceptionalism is derived – liberty, democracy, and the pursuit of happiness – are in direct conflict with a state which protects our core vital interests i.e. counter-terrorism, cheap flow of oil through the Suez Canal, as well as mediation in regional issues such as Gaza, Lebanon, and Iran. Our values conflict with our realpolitik national interests. Historically, for the United States the later has nearly always trumped the former; our core vital interests as a state override our the values we profess to uphold.

But this is the wrong time to forsake our values. Not only is standing on the side of freedom and democracy the right thing to do, if the calculation of the United States’ core interests is made with a long-term view, it is also in the best interest of the United States. Mubarak is 84 years old and sick, the population is young, unemployed and restless, and inflation is off the charts. These protests may or may not topple the regime, but they have already made the US support for Mubarak more costly. Mubarak’s succession is imminent. One way or another he will be replaced soon. Rather than attempting to prop him (or his son) up indefinitely, the United States should support the people of Egypt, both in words and deeds by using its immense leverage with the Egyptian government to make serious, democratic reforms.

Like all revolutions, the one gathering steam in Egypt is multifarious. Thus, it is difficult to tell whether the next government of Egypt (whenever it comes) will be closer in political outlook to the Muslim Brotherhood or Mohammed El-Baraedi. The US would certainly prefer the later, but that is not a choice for the US to make. Instead it should distance itself from the Mubarak regime (something the Obama administration is already beginning to do). The US should also seek better relations with future power brokers in Egypt, so that when power changes hands the US will be more likely to find common ground with the new regime.

This should get very interesting!

The best Western-based coverage I’ve seen so far is a primary account in the NY Review of Books, however it’s author was a Cairo-based Egyptian journalist, Yasmine El Rashidi. Twitter has some good coverage as well: lots of links to primary coverage. One tweet read: “The entire nation of Egypt has no Internet access, and the top story on the NYT is the Chicago Mayor’s race? WTF??”

Provacative Read from STRATFOR, But Misguided October 26, 2010

Posted by Afflatus in Politics, World Affairs.
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This is a pretty provocative article by George Friedman at STRATFOR. Friedman basically argues that a successful full-scale attack on Iran is Obama’s best chance of getting reelected in 2012. He asserts this after speculating on Obama’s post-midterm political calculus. Though he concludes by arguing that an attack on Iran is not a good idea (the risks outweigh the rewards), he maintains that without a decisive attack upon Iran or an economic boom, Obama will fail to be reelected. It is indeed a subtle argument.

While I agree that an attack on Iran is not a good idea due to the potential negative repercussions (oil disruptions, Iranian-incited terrorist campaign, Iranian potential to excacerbate problems in Iraq and Afghanistan), I disagree that it is the only (or even the best) strategy for Obama’s reelection. I think that’s a silly argument to be making right now; It’s too early to make bold claims about the President’s reelection chances. Friedman’s article looks even more silly if he truly is against an Iranian attack and thinks it’s a bad idea. In this sense his argument trips on itself: If an Iranian attack is a debacle, as Friedman thinks to be most likely (risks outwiegh rewards), then this will further hurt Obama’s chances to get reelected not help them!

I thoroughly enjoyed the article for its insightful musings on both Obama’s political options and a potential Iranian attack. And for that I recommend it. However his conclusion that this is the best way for Obama to get reelected seems off base.


What are New START’s Chances? October 21, 2010

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The New START treaty was signed in April between Presidents Obama and Medvedev and will reduce both countries deployed strategic nuclear weapons by 30%. Additionally it will reimpose a verifications process on each country’s nuclear arsenal consisting of on-site monitoring, data exchanges, and more. New START replaces the original START treaty which President Reagan helped negotiate and which was ratified by a vote of 93-6 while President H.W. Bush was in office. START 1 received such overwhelming bipartisan support because it’s one of the rare no-brainer political issues. Reducing nuclear weapons and improving transparency and cooperation with Russia through inspections makes the United States much safer.

The New START treaty is having an extremely tough time getting ratified in today’s Senate. Why? Because the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that they are willing to abandon common-sense national security in order to stymie a foreign policy victory for the president and his party. However, military and foreign policy experts, from both sides of the political divide, all agree that ratifying this treaty is essential. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of the JCS Mike Mullen, seven former commanders of US Strategic Command, Henry Kissinger, and more ALL adamantly believe ratifying New START is crucial to our national security in multiple ways.

Currently all Democratic Senators plus the two Independents, as well as four Republicans are in favor of ratification. Due to the intense political partisanship the Republicans who have voted in favor can be labeled as courageous though I hesitate to do so because, like I said, ratification is a no-brainer. Thus for their “courage” they should be named: Sens. Richard Lugar, Johnny Isakson, Bob Corker, and Bob Bennett.

So that puts the public whip count at 64. To ratify a treaty you need a 2/3 supermajority, or 67 votes. No doubt the White House has been meeting assiduously with the few Republican Senators who are not ideologically backwards (Senator DeMint) and might be persuaded to vote for ratification.

Democrats first wanted a vote in June, Republicans delayed. Then Democrats wanted a vote in September or early October before Congress adjourned for the elections; again, Republicans delayed. The White House and Senate Majority Leader have made clear that New START is a priority in the lame duck session. Will it come up for a vote?

It seems to me unlikely that New START will come to a vote in the lame duck session. I don’t mean to be a naysayer but I do think its chances are slim. Senator John Kerry has estimated that three legislative days would be needed to debate the issue sufficiently on the floor. Given the other high priorities facing the Senate (Omnibus Appropriations, Defense Reauthorization Act, and the Bush tax cuts) I find it hard to believe that our constantly gridlocked Senate will find three days to spare for New START.  Three days for New START in a lame duck session expected to be only 2 weeks seems improbable. Additionally, the Republican Party has given no reason to believe they wont delay further on this issue, especially if they are emboldened by big legislative victories on November 2. Worse still, one of the crucial Republican votes, Sen. Bob Bennett, lost his primary to a Tea Party conservative crazy who is expected to win the seat easily, so his vote will be gone when the new session starts in January.

The consequences of failing to ratify the New START treaty are immense. Since START 1 has expired we have gone nearly a year without verifications and inspections on Russia’s nuclear arsenal; this is unsafe and irresponsible. Failure to ratify further harms our national security by weakening our negotiating hand with nuclear-hopeful states like Iran and North Korea. Not ratifying the treaty would also be a major set back in our relations with Russia – an extremely important geopolitical relationship despite that fact seeming to fade behind news of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Muslim World (whatever that is). If New START isn’t ratified in this Congress (only 2 weeks left of session), the treaty may not be ratified for very long time.

Ratification of New START is crucial for our national security and safety. The Republican idea that this would somehow grant the Democrats a victory is nonsense. It would be a victory for Republicans too, if they would only vote for it.  It would be a victory for the entire United States!

Ellsberg and Secrecy Oaths July 5, 2009

Posted by Afflatus in History, Politics.
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Daniel Ellsberg is a former US military analyst employed by the Rand Corporation who precipitated a national political controversy in 1971 when he released the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and other newspapers.

He wrote an very interesting article for the Harvard International Review in 2002. It’s interesting from a historical perspective, governance perspective and more, and he proposes a solution that’s hard to disagree with.

Secrecy oaths: A License To Lie?

Harvard International Review – June 22, 2004

Daniel Ellsberg

Between 1968 and 1971, I repeatedly broke a solemn, formal promise that I had made in good faith: not to reveal to any “unauthorized persons” information that I received through certain channels and under certain safeguards, collectively known as the “classification” system.

I have never doubted that, under the circumstances facing me, I did the right thing when I revealed the contents of the top-secret Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War to the US Senate and the press. Although it involved breaking the promises I had made to various government agencies and the Rand Corporation, it was the only way to inform the US Congress and the US public of information that was being wrongfully withheld from them; I had considered many other options and tried most of them. The information was vital to Constitutional processes of decision-making on an ongoing war in which tens of thousands of US citizens and many more Vietnamese had been–in effect–lied to death.

Moreover, this had occurred with the complicity of a generation of officials–myself among them–who had placed loyalty to their oaths of secrecy (and to their bosses and careers) above their loyalty to the US Constitution and to their opportunity to avert or end an unnecessary, wrongful, hopeless, and vastly destructive war. By 1971, it was clear to me that it was my earlier complicity with the secrecy system that was mistaken and censurable, not my later choice to tell the truth.

I signed many secrecy “oaths,” or contractual agreements, over the years: as a US Marine officer, as an employee of the Rand Corporation, as a consultant to the offices of the US Secretary of Defense, the US Department of State, and the White House, and later as an employee of the US Department of Defense and the US Department of State. All of them were blanket promises that I would never give any information that was identified as safeguarded, “secret,” or “classified,” to a person who had not been otherwise authorized to receive it by the person or agency that gave me the information.

Implicit in my promises not to reveal such information to “unauthorized” persons was that I would follow them no matter what this information might be: whether it revealed evidence of official lies, crimes, planning for wars in violation of ratified treaties or the US Constitution, violations or planned violations of laws made by the US Congress; whether the unauthorized persons or agencies were officials of the legislative and judicial branch who vitally needed the information to carry out their constitutional functions and had a legitimate right to learn the truth; whether an election, congressional investigation, or vote that decided issues of war and peace were affected by the silence and obedient lies about the government’s plans and actions; and whether countless people had died and were continuing to die because the information was being wrongfully withheld by my own colleagues and superiors under a policy of secrecy and deception.
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