When domestic politics hinder the peace process

When Unesco accepted Palestine for membership, the US pulled funding for the organization. As Palestine seeks membership in other UN bodies, the US will be required by law to continue defunding organization after organization. The US is in a bind. It must continue to defund the UN, effectively undermining our commitment to multilateralism, lest it rock the boat on the Israel-Palestine issue, something any President up for reelection would be loath to do.

Given this reality, and since it does not look like either Israel or Palestine intend to significantly change course in the short term, it is unlikely that any progress can be made until after the 2012 presidential elections. In any case, a stalemate cannot last forever. Moving forward, the US must realize that alone it cannot work miracles in the peace process but nonetheless has a major role to play in bringing about progress.

Ultimately, this is a problem that the Israelis and the Palestinians must solve. No solution will be reached until the Israeli and Palestinian leadership commit to achieving one, and prepare their people for the types of difficult compromises it will entail.

That’s not to say that the US shouldn’t bother trying. To the contrary: The President should make every effort and commit every diplomatic resource to the revitalization of the peace process. The only way progress might be made is by giving it a thorough effort.

The US must also realize that if it does truly hope to reach a solution in the Middle East, it must reevaluate its approach. Defunding Unesco and other UN agencies, for example, does not bolster the influence of the US at the negotiating table. US leaders must have the rectitude of judgment to strike the right balance between the support of Israel and the formation of policies that will facilitate rather than hinder the furtherance of a two state solution. “Pro-Israel” policies that make reaching a solution more difficult are not truly pro-Israel. Ultimately, a two-state solution is the only viable option for both the US and Israel. The best way that the US can support Israel is to do everything it can to further the path to a workable two-state agreement.

UNESCO: United Nations Eagerly Scorns Cartoon Op-Eds

On November 4th, the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a cartoon in which Prime Minister Netanyahu  and Defense Minister Ehud Barak order the Israeli Air Force to bomb not only Iranian nuclear facilities, but also the UNESCO office in Ramallah.

According to Haaretz:

“When he met with Eric Falt, UNESCO’s assistant director general for external relations and public information, Ambassador Nimrod Barkan was stunned to be handed a copy of this cartoon and an official letter of protest from UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova. Falt told Barkan the cartoon constituted incitement.

“A cartoon like this endangers the lives of unarmed diplomats, and you have an obligation to protect them,” Falt said, according to an Israeli source. “We understand that there is freedom of the press in Israel, but the government must prevent attacks on UNESCO.”

It really is amazing that UNESCO has no sense of humor at all AND would spend time submitting a formal complaint about a political cartoon.  The cartoon is clearly, obviously, and pointedly making fun of the Netanyahu government. Worse though, is that UNESCO failed to realize the ultimate irony that it is usually Islamists who do the complaining about political cartoons.

Which leaves only one question:

Has UNESCO already been infiltrated with hard-line Palestinian extremists?  It seems at least possible.

A Perpetual Frustration

From left to right: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; U.S. President Barack Obama; Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu

Last week’s decision by the United States to cut substantial funding from UNESCO marks another unfortunate event in the history of strained U.S.-Palestinian-Israeli relations. UNESCO is the first international organization to admit Palestine as a full member state, a move that gives Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a boost of confidence in his quest for Palestinian statehood recognition world wide.

That being said, it is important to recognize that Palestine’s actions were neither pragmatic nor prudent. They undermined a U.S. call for direct peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine; Palestine cannot use back door, sneaky techniques to establish itself as a sovereign state. It does nothing but aggravate Israel and the U.S., and forces America to withdraw funding from a U.N. agency that by and large works to foster positive values internationally. UNESCO’s admission of Palestine is a sign that the global community may be willing to work harder toward a peaceful two-state solution, but Palestine must realize that it has to do its own part to come to the table ready to negotiate.

So what should the U.S. do about Israel and Palestine? What can the U.S. do about Israel and Palestine?

All along, President Obama has advocated for a two-state solution, and rightfully so. So that’s one thing: continue to support the two-state solution and offer to act as an arbiter in peace negotiations. It is also important for the United States to stress that Palestine cannot continue to apply for statehood in the U.N. or in other international agencies and organizations. Such moves are distracting and counterproductive to the efforts towards an effective solution.

If direct negotiations are the solution to the broad problem, then the United States’ best option is to act as a host and moderator for such deliberations. We must provide a time, a venue, and our support for the proceedings. Of course this has been attempted in the past, but I think the current global climate is more conducive to a successful solution. The greatest obstacle for the U.S. is maintaining support for Palestine’s legitimate desires for statehood while continuing to foster a positive relationship with Israel, our greatest ally in the Arab world.

The recent IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear weapon capability introduces a difficult aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict solution. Israel has said it must consider preemptive action against Iran, a decision that could set back peace negotiations with Palestine. An Israeli military conflict with Iran would be incredibly counterproductive, and the U.S. must diffuse the situation and convince Israel that the idea is a poor one. Israel has to focus on the more immediate issue of Palestine.

The United States can continue to veto statehood applications and to withdraw funding from international organizations, but the ultimate goal will only be accomplished by providing an atmosphere in which Israel and Palestine can compromise and move towards peace. Stability in the region is important for U.S. national security and the President must immediately demand negotiations. Unfortunately, threats of withdrawing foreign aid from Palestine will not work, and ceasing aid to Israel would be political suicide. Military force is out of the question. I think the only way to induce peace talks is to hope Israel and Palestine are now ready to sit down and come to a solution. It is only a matter of time before they come to realize that compromise and common ground are necessary for regional stability.

Occupy Wall Street and the Trials of Social-Network Based Activism

                In “The Revolution Will Not be Tweeted” Malcolm Gladwell describes the limits of social network activism. He begins by reminding us that true social change depends on “strong-tie movements”. Most people who participate in such movements are closely linked to other activists, and are therefore more likely to be “committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values” of a social movement. Studies show that most people who participate in social movements that require a great deal of commitment join with friends or have friends who are already implicated as activists. Seventy percent of Red Brigade recruits in the nineteen seventies had friends who were already members. An equally potent example was that of the anti-government protests in East Germany during the late nineteen-eighties. During this period, the anti-government opposition movement consisted of a decentralized network, consisting of several hundred groups, each of which had about a dozen members. Since very few East Germans owned telephones, the most effective way of mobilizing support for the movement was to engage in public demonstrations; the main determinant of who showed up to these public demonstrations was the number of dissident friends one had. Gladwell concludes by arguing that since social networks are tools for fostering weak social ties, they cannot single-handedly foster the kind of social movement that will withstand any kind of organized coercion.

                It should come as no surprise then that the Occupy Wall Street movement’s greatest difficulties have stemmed from the apparent absence of clear goals and demands. It is a movement that has grown out of the influence of social networks and online activists; it has yet to produce any clear goals or core leadership structure. Currently, the Occupy Wall Street Movement possesses little support in the mainstream media and does not have any leader or centralized organizational structure. A recent Gallup Poll shows that 22 percent of Americans agree with the protest’s goals, while 15 percent disapprove and the remaining 61 percent say they are not informed enough to decide (http://www.gallup.com/poll/150164/americans-uncertain-occupy-wall-street-goals.aspx) . Clearly, the movement lacks direction.  Its website only refers to a general opposition to the capitalist system and oligarchic elites, with a passing reference to the potency of the Arab Spring. The website acknowledges the lack a centralized structure, saying that “the occupations around the world are being organized using a non-binding consensus based collective decision making” (http://occupywallst.org/about/).  Perhaps the protesters could begin by structuring their demands around the three main problems plaguing the banking sector:

  1. Higher capital requirements to minimize the banks’ ability to cause economic disturbances.
  2.  Cutting the massive bonuses that cause bankers to take excessive risks.
  3. Minimizing the  banks’  inordinate influence on international public policy.

Finally, it is imperative that the protestors transcend the “weak tie” structure of social network activism that has come to define the Occupy Wall Street Movement. They must work together to build a centralized coalition with clear demands, composed of single-minded members who act in accordance with a series of core principles for action.

United States’ Law Hinders Palestinian Peace Process

What is happening today in the Palestinian street and what is taking place behind closed doors, between top-tier Israeli and Palestinian officials are not in sync. Palestinian authorities have sent a strong message to their people that they will refuse nothing less than statehood and sovereignty from Israel. In reality however when peace talks occur there will definitely have to be concessions made by Palestine as well as Israel to achieve any sort of long lasting peace. Today, it’s difficult to see any serious international efforts focused on resolving Palestine’s standoff with Israel moving forward.

Israeli Prime Minister meets with Sec. of State Hilary Clinton and Palestinian Pres.

There is a complete absence of trust among Palestinians toward Israel and  the United States. With this frame of thought any negotiations made in all likelihood won’t be adhered to. Instead of attempting to keep moving forward with peace talks Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas has made the brash decision to completely ignore the requests and expectations of the United States and has filed for full state recognition with the United Nations Security Council and has succeeded in having Palestine voted in as a member of UNESCO.

Congress has made an odd choice in response and chosen to, instead of following American interests, the US is now de-funding and withdrawing from UNESCO because of the inclusion of Palestine. This is due to 1994 US law which states the US withdraw from and stop funding operations of any UN entity which accepts Palestinian membership.

By withdrawing from UNESCO America has seriously hurt Palestine’s chances at a two state solution with Israel. It is inevitable now that Palestine and its people will not stop until they are recognized as a united nation. Israel is only hurting themselves as well as the United States’ standing in the international community. It will only become a vicious cycle as Palestine is recognized in more UN organizations. The US cannot simply keep withdrawing funds and membership as the programs often can’t survive without the United States support. Israel must shake that delusion that they can keep ignoring Palestine’s forceful mission to obtain legitimacy.

Palestine isn’t without fault. They are hurting their relationship with the United States by circumventing talks and heading straight to the United Nations. The United State’s response, however should not have punished the UN. They should have made more of an effort to reach out to Palestine directly to keep the peace talks progressing.

Air Force Cybersecurity Lapse

A couple of stories about an Air Force cybersecurity lapse caught my attention recently and I thought I’d summarize what has happened at Creech Air Force Base in the last month or so.

Pilots at Creech Air Force Base remotely fly the US’ overseas drones using elaborate computer setups. This allows them to “Take out the Taliban and be home for dinner” as the New York Times put it. Unfortunately, sometime around late September, the computers’ security systems noticed a piece of malware installed in these sensitive systems. This keylogger captured all data entered into the computers used to fly the drones, but it is not known what it did with the data after that. It is also unknown how the malware found it’s way through the military’s so-called “Air Gap” which physically separates critical systems from the internet, with the intention of preventing situations like this from happening.

The worst part about this story is that higher-ups in the Air Force found out about the keylogger from a post on Wired Magazine’s “Danger Room” blog that cited anonymous sources at the base complaining that the keylogger kept on defying their attempts to erase it off the infected computers. This shows that the military has not yet done enough to prepare for the future of digital warfare and that more training is needed to make sure that situations like this one are reported and fixed immediately. Even if the keylogger was “nothing to worry about,” we are not sure when something that we need to worry about will be detected on our networks. What will the response be then?







Seeing Red: “China Anger” in the 2012 Election

The race for the Republican nomination for president has proven to be tumultuous and unpredictable, a storm of see-sawing polling numbers and accusations of flip-flopping. But one of the consistent themes of the nomination race (and the debates) thus far has been the topic of our economy in relation to China.

It is no secret that the China holds many dollars in American debt — a figure now in the trillions. The Chinese government owns approximately eight percent of the overall U.S. debt. There is a persistent fear of China as “America’s banker” and enemy that exudes from every corner of the Republican debates. We saw this clearly in the New Hampshire debate when Mitt Romney launched a very direct attack on China’s economic policies:

Day one, I will issue an executive order identifying China as a currency manipulator… People who’ve looked at this in the past have been played like a fiddle by the Chinese. And the Chinese are smiling all the way to the bank, taking our currency and taking our jobs and taking a lot of our future. And I’m not willing to let that happen.

Former Senator Rick Santorum followed up on Governor Romney’s tirade, saying, “I want to beat China… I want to go to war with China and make America the most attractive place in the world to do business.” Taken out of context, Santorum’s declaration of war with China seems very dangerous and aggressive, a move some see as antagonistic. But Santorum’s comments illustrate a very popular sentiment in American politics right now: China is a big, bad country we must fear, one that is taking our jobs and ruining our economy.

There is certainly truth to that belief. China has been rapidly expanding its industrial production, growing its GDP at 9.1% annually compared to 1.3% in the U.S. and 0.2% in the European Union. Furthermore, Chinese workers earn far less money than comparable American workers, allowing many U.S. corporations to move operations to China for its economic advantage. Additionally, China is accused of systematically devaluing U.S. currency in order to exploit our economy and gain leverage on the stage of international commerce.

Many lawmakers and policy wonks firmly believe that slapping sanctions on China for its currency manipulation would be a smart move politically for the United States. Romney, the most aggressive Republican nominee in terms of China, has asserted that the communist country is stealing American innovations. He suggests taking a number of steps against China, including disciplinary actions, if it does not change its approach to relations with the U.S.

It’s easy to see that Republicans (and many Democrats as well) are steadfast in their opposition to Chinese policies and their effect on the U.S. domestically. But are they right in their opposition? If elected, would any of the nominees maintain their contentious rhetoric and take a firm stance against one of our biggest “frenemeys” in the global community?

The U.S. Senate passed a  bill last week allowing the government to impose higher taxes on countries that purposefully undervalue American currency in order to gain an economic advantage. The Republicans on the debate stage seem to have gotten their wish for a tough stance against China from the U.S. economic sphere. Unfortunately, I think this move is one that will only set the U.S. back in its relationship with the Chinese government.

Republican nominee Jon Huntsman put it perfectly when he said, “I don’t want to find ourselves in a trade war. With respect to China, if you start slapping penalties on them … you’re going to get the same thing in return.” And that is exactly the case. By sanctioning China, the U.S. risks having the same penalties imposed upon us, penalties we can’t afford when our economy is in its current state. Fiscally, China has a huge advantage over America: it sells four times as many goods to the U.S. as the United States sends in return. The relationship is worth $450 billion. Can we manage to start a trade war with China? I don’t think so.

I truly believe that a move like this could indeed induce a commercial battle between the U.S. and China. A trade war really helps no one. As the Associated Press points out, the United States essentially expanded the Great Depression by imposing higher tariffs on foreign goods, commencing a breakdown of international business and inciting global retaliation. Some economists fear the same could happen with U.S. sanctions on China. These sanctions on China won’t make them back off, it will just anger them.

This all begs the question, How can Republican voters seriously be supporting candidates like Mitt Romney and Herman Cain over Jon Huntsman? Romney, the flip-flopping governor of a state with a poor job creation record, and Cain, the CEO of a national pizza chain, have little experience in foreign relations. Huntsman, on the other hand, was the U.S. ambassador to China and former governor of the economically stable state of Utah. If Americans are so afraid of the rising power of China, wouldn’t they want to support a man who is fluent in Mandarin, has vast experience in the business sector, and was the chief diplomat to the very country we seem to be so angry with?

It will be interesting to see how our conflict with China will play out. I think we need to listen to Jon Huntsman when he says,

For the first and the second-largest economies in the world, we have no choice: We have to find common ground… [A trade war] disadvantages our small businesses. It disadvantages our exporters. It disadvantages our agricultural producers.

This anger toward China, and the use of the country as a scapegoat for our domestic problems, is a very convenient tool politically. This does not go to say that China is completely innocent; there is substantial evidence to show that our relationship is in some ways harmful. But it would be irresponsible to begin what appears to be an economic battle with one of the biggest economies in the world. It may work with voters to get elected, but it won’t work when it comes to American policies.

China and Syria

A few days ago, Alex made some interesting assertions concerning China and Russia’s refusal of  a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria for its violations of human rights and civil liberties.  While I agree with most of what Alex  said about China’s motivations, I wish to add some information to further explain China’s actions.

On the whole,  I would argue that Alex is correct in suggesting that these events demonstrate that business take precedence over values and ideas. But, while the Chinese government clearly does fear popular uprisings at home, it has other reasons to veto the UN’s resolution. Part of China’s succesful business endeavors in Africa and other developing areas depends on its ability to sell itself as an alterntive to the West. . Many African leaders have welcomed China’s model for state-led economic growth with open arms because it insulates the power of illiberal regimes while providing citizens with legitimate reasons to hope for prosperity. In one particular case, the notorious dictator of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, lauded the Chinese model for its choice not to link political conditions with economic aid; Ethiopia -a nation that has recieved large amounts of aid from the United States- recently applauded Chinese methods, while arguing that the United States’s method only provided temporary relief.http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903392904576510271838147248.html  Certain African leaders even display a desire to begin implementing their own version of the Chinese model. South Africa has recently begun sending some of its officials to China so that they may learn to maximize the profits earned by state-owned companies and has “praised China’s ‘political discipline’ as a model for Africa”.  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/africa-mideast/dalai-lamas-invite-to-tutus-party-vexes-china-friendly-south-africa/article2184739/.  According to the Wall Street Journal, nations like Algeria, Nigeria and Zambia are welcoming Chinese advisors in an attempt to replicate China’s “special economic zone” system. Therefore, China’s failure to veto any resolution condemning a nation for human rights abuses would be  out of sync with the promotion of its economic interests and may even incur the added risk of demonstrating ideological incoherence. 


The View from Class: Feasibility in the al-Awlaki Case

In class today, we discussed at length some of the abstract questions at the heart of a very concrete issue in the al-Awlaki killing. I’d invite other members of the class to respond in the comments – or in new posts – about some of the different points made and discussed. One aspect of this debate that I find really interesting is the question of feasibility. Most people seem to understand, in one way or another, that the President of the United States all but permitted to take extraordinary actions in extraordinary moments. Presidents of both parties and all persuasions have made such decisions, often to great national benefit. The crux of the proposition of such an extraordinary circumstance in the al-Awlaki case is the notion that it would simply be unfeasible to retrieve him and bring him to an American court. Charlie Savage’s article, mentioned in previous posts, suggests that the feasibility argument was a major one in the Office of Legal Counsel’s memo that ultimately sanctioned al-Awlaki’s killing.

Robert Farley of “Lawyers, Guns & Money” presents some of the arguments supporting unfeasibility. What do people think?

A Response to Bill Nelligan

Earlier this morning, Mr. Nelligan posted about the secret OLC memo about Anwar Al-Awlaki as well as the secret panel that designated him a target.  Bill asked two questions: “what is the government obliged to explain to the public after taking such actions,” and “how do such events explain the Obama foreign policy, especially in relation to the rule of law?”  I will not begin to answer the second question, for I simply find it too taxing.  I will, however, take up Bill’s request for “a renewed debate” and address his first concern.

I want to make a standalone statement before going any further: The OLC memo should be released, as least in portions.

With that obligatory statement made, I will now elaborate on what the government is obliged to explain to the public after taking covert actions.  The key to covert action is that the role of the government should not be easily visible.  Ideally, knowledge of government involvement is only by a few.  In fact, covert action is expressly defined in the National Security Act as an “activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly” (italics are mine).  It is crucial that governments do not publicly acknowledge their role. Why is this?

Abe Shulsky and Gary Schmitt answer this question about covert actions in their book on intelligence:

[T]here may be cases in which a good deal of information about operations becomes public, but for diplomatic or other reasons, governments involved avoid officially acknowledging their connection with them.  … [I]t is less provocative and less disruptive to diplomatic relations not to acknowledge an operation even if the country adversely affected by it is well aware of one’s involvement.  The target country, either in the interests of good relations or because it cannot effectively prevent it, may ignore the covert action; it is much harder for it to do so if the government conducting it publicly acknowledges what it is doing.

Covert actions are considered the “Third Option” by the Executive, the 1st being diplomacy and the 2nd being military force.  It is important to keep in mind here that the overwhelming majority of covert action is not military in nature.    This could include propaganda (disseminating information that has been created with a specific political outcome in mind), political activity (such as supplying newsprint to anticommunist parties), economic activity (such as German counterfeit operations during WWII to undermine Western currencies), coups, or paramilitary operations.  As the level of violence associated with covert action increases, plausible deniability decreases.

At the root of Bill’s question is the obvious reality that the U.S. Government cannot realistically deny the existence of its drone program.  Why withhold OLC memos or similar documents to maintain plausible deniability when everybody knows we take certain actions?  This seems to be especially the case when counterterrorism advisor John Brennan makes speeches at Harvard and State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh gives similar legal explanations publicly.

The answer comes down to the difficulty posed by international law.  Although no international acceptance has been given to covert action, the target country may consider the use of military personnel in such an activity to be an act of war.   This is why the CIA, not the DoD, conducted the strike against Al-Awlaki, and that is why we have to maintain plausible deniability.  The question is not whether everybody knows we did it.  The root of the policy decision is having the ability to legally deny that we did it due to “act of war” concerns by the host state.  This answer’s Bills question about “what grave threat the federal government imagines might occur upon the release of its legal rationale for taking action against al-Awlaki.”

I am aware that, as Bobby Chesney points out, “host-state consent appears not to have been an issue in the al-Aulaqi strike, judging from the many reports indicating that the Saleh administration has been trumpeting its role in helping to locate al-Aulaqi in this instance” and that this is “likely is not so much a matter of law as it is a matter of controlling policy guidance, expressed in the form of findings (governing covert action) and execute orders (governing military operations under color of the AUMF, at least) that may differ in terms of the latitude they permit.”

My point stands, however, that the government has good reason not to disclose covert actions in general to the public.  Bill’s post brings to the fore another point: covert action has become so ubiquitous a tool in the Presidential toolbox that it is perhaps becoming misused.  Covert action is now being used to express policy, not to accomplish a task.  Essentially, the actual working of the program is less important than its existence.  Covert actions used to stay buried for years, and this has not been so recently.  Bill is right that in today’s media environment, covert actions are much harder to take without the American public becoming aware of it, and it is right to ask what obligation the government has to explain them.