Published: Fri, 02 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Last Build Date: Fri, 02 Dec 2016 13:26:03 -0500
Tue, 15 Nov 2016 06:00:00 -0500The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program, by Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept, Simon & Schuster, 217 pages, $24.99 One summer day in 2013, NBC reporters Richard Engel and Robert Windrem unveiled a lengthy news story revealing a dark truth about America's use of drones to fight terrorists overseas: The CIA did not really know who it was killing with strikes in Pakistan, but it was classifying them all as "other militants" anyway. Readers may be forgiven for not remembering this exposé. It was released on June 5, the same day Glenn Greenwald, in The Guardian, published the first of an explosive series of stories detailing how Western intelligence agencies were using mass surveillance systems to track and store enormous amounts of private data about their citizens. Even before former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden outed himself as Greenwald's source, the coverage led to a massive media blitz and to related revelations by other outlets. NBC couldn't compete for attention. Engel and Windrem were not the first reporters to cover the dark side of the drone wars, and they haven't been the last. Jeremy Scahill (author of Dirty Wars and Blackwater) and the staff of The Intercept, where Greenwald is now an editor, are the latest to receive, analyze, and disseminate secret information about America's program of drone assassinations. Like NBC's report, their book, The Assassination Complex, shows how Washington's drones are killing civilians in such countries as Pakistan and Yemen. To conceal the potentially unpleasant repercussions of these strikes, the administration—when not stonewalling attempts at transparency entirely—classifies these deaths as "enemies killed in action," or EKIAs, though it is actually often unsure of these people's identities. The designation is changed only when posthumous evidence proves those killed by drones were definitively not members of terrorist cells. With the help of confidential documents leaked to The Intercept, the book is able to offer some hard numbers. In a yearlong operation in northeastern Afghanistan, the United States killed more than 200 people; only 35 were intended targets. The source who leaked the documents explained: "Anyone caught within the vicinity is guilty by association," but "there is no guarantee that those persons deserved their fate…so it's a phenomenal gamble." Regardless of the success rate of that gamble, it appears to have become the status quo. Two competing pressures have made it so. One is the push to protect Americans from radical forces gathering in the Middle East. The second is the demand that, in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president reduce the footprint of actual U.S. troops in these areas. Adm. Dennis Blair, a former director of national intelligence, sums it up: "It is the politically advantageous thing to do—low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term." The trade-offs that reduce the risks faced by American troops also contribute directly to the likelihood that innocent civilians will be killed in these strikes. The government has become extremely reliant on SIGINT, or "signals intelligence"—what the rest of us refer to as surveillance. Hunting targets is increasingly done not with eyes on the ground but by tracking their communications. A human being may technically be the target, but it's the person's phone that's actually being tracked and that will tell the drone pilots where to launch the attack. They have a very limited view of what is actually happening where they're striking, making it even more likely that civilians or other unrelated people will be injured or killed. One analyst determined that drone strikes were 10 times more likely to kill civilians than raids by manned aircraft. There are more subtle trade-offs as well. Because drone strikes are likely to be more lethal tha[...]
Thu, 10 Nov 2016 13:09:00 -0500A senior adviser to President-elect Donald Trump indicated that the next president will not condemn the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as an "obstacle to peace," according to the Associated Press. This would be a complete reversal of the avowed policy of every U.S. president since 1967—Democrat and Republican—that for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians to hold, eventually the latter group would need the land in the still-occupied West Bank to establish a soveriegn homeland. Jason Greenblatt—executive vice president and chief legal officer with the Trump Organization—also told Israel's Army Radio that he expects Trump to fulfill his campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a controversial move because although Jerusalem is Israel's capital city, it was captured in 1967's Six Day War after being occupied by Jordan since Israel's 1948 founding. Any final agreement over a Palestinian state would also have to include the fate of primarily-Arab East Jerusalem, which is also internationally recognized as occupied by Israel. Jerusalem Post reports Greenblatt also said Trump "is not going to impose any solution on Israel. He thinks that the peace has to come from the parties themselves. Any meaningful contribution he can offer up, he is there to do, it is not his goal, nor should it be anyone else's goal, to impose peace on the parties." Trump had once promised to be "neutral" in any negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but reversed course after Hillary Clinton jabbed him for being insufficiently pro-Israel. Like many of Trump's policies, a coherent explanation of what he actually intends to do has not yet been presented, but all indications point to his administration being far more hands-off with regards to the long-dormant Mideast peace process, which one far-right minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government celebrated as the end of any meaningful discussions about the creation of a Palestinian state. The fact that Israel is approaching 50 years of occupation of the Palestinians speaks to the ineffectiveness of the U.S. in helping to negotiate a meaningful peace. And despite President Obama's prickly relationship with Netanyahu, the outgoing president just gave both Israel and the U.S. military-industrial complex a record-breaking $38 billion subsidy. Yet, despite the unflinching support of the U.S. for Israel, our government at least maintained the pretense that the ultimate goal was for Israel to have secure borders and peaceful (if always tense) relations with its neighbors, and also self-determination for the Palestinians. It's too early to tell for sure, but that pretense appears likely to end under President Trump.[...]
Mon, 31 Oct 2016 14:33:00 -0400One of Hillary Clinton's top national security advisers, Michael Morell (who also happens to be the former acting director of the CIA), told the staunchly pro-Clinton think tank the Center for American Progress that the upcoming U.S. presidential election provides a "great opportunity for the next president of the United States to go to the Middle East and say 'We're back, we're going to lead again.'" And what might the leadership that the Hillary Clinton administration imposes on a region halfway around the world look like? Morell brought up the fact that Iran arms the Houthi rebels who have seized control of Yemen's capital city Sanaa, to the great displeasure of nominal U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, which has spent much of the past two years bombing both military and civilian targets with U.S. support in an all-out effort to defeat the rebels and return to power the Saudi-allied President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Juxtaposing against what he must perceive as a lack of leadership from his former boss, President Barack Obama, Morell said: I would have no problem, from a policy perspective, of having U.S. Navy board those ships and if there's weapons on them for the Houthis, turn those ships around and send those ships back to Iran. I think that's the kind of action, tough action that would get the attention of the Iranians and will get the attention of our friends in the region to say the Americans are now serious about helping us deal with this problem. Make no mistake, what Morell just proposed is an act of war, which Bloomberg's Eli Lake aptly characterized as "something you might hear this month in an alternate reality, from the Rubio-Cheney campaign." And if Clinton supporters think war with Iran is necessary or an exercise in "smart power," that's their right, but they should at least be honest about it. As Reason's Nick Gillespie wrote, "a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for war." While some might still be in denial that Clinton is a staunch hawk even neoconservatives can adore, Morell's comments provide much-desired candor about Clinton's foreign policy ambitions. The Democratic nominee has been able to remain infuriatingly vague on military matters throughout the campaign thanks in part to her opponent's flailing incoherence and her general refusal to give press conferences. But if one of her most senior national security advisers is willing to openly engage in this kind of saber-rattling while smilingly declaring, "We're back," it's fair to expect more and grander military intervention under a President Clinton than we've experienced under President Obama.[...]
Mon, 31 Oct 2016 12:42:00 -0400
(image) Pink-themed awareness campaigns—including cynical and cringe-worthy ones—have been a staple of the battle against breast cancer in America for decades. This sort of consciousness-raising has jumped the proverbial shark so many times that it's hard to believe it can keep getting worse, and yet ready to assuage our doubts... the U.S. government is here to help! Or at least so reported Slate and others last week.
"Like breast cancer, fighter jets kill women, making these instruments of war perfect on-message vehicles for the deadly weapons of awareness," quipped Christina Cauterucci at Slate. "They will fly through the skies, blasting tumors and lack-of-awareness with their missiles, bringing pink death and pink destruction and pink civilian casualties and pink refugee crises and pink destruction of cultural heritage wherever their noble cancer-aware pilots lead."
I was prepared to share in Cauterucci's outrage... until I spent a few more minutes reading about the pink plane. It turns out the "Heliconia"-pink F9F-8 Cougar won't actually be taking to the airways to rain death. In fact, it has naught to do with the U.S. Navy in any official capacity. Throughout October, the pink Cougar lived aboard the USS Lexington, a decommissioned naval ship turned private Texas military museum.
"Representatives from the USS Lexington Museum picked a fighter plane to symbolize all of the people that have fought and continue to fight the battle against cancer," KIII News reported. According to Rusty Reustle, USS Lexington director of operations and exhibits, dish-washing liquid was added to pink latex paint so it could be easily removed later, a technique he got from the movie Pearl Harbor, which was partially filmed aboard the museum-ship.
So, thankfully, the American military hasn't (yet) decided to paint an instrument of war a festive shade of pink as a way to say "let's save lives!" But Israel's has. On October 27, the Israeli Air Force tweeted a photo of the pastel pink fighter jet, with the message "We are #Pink. @breastcancernow #BreastCancerAwareness"
Thu, 20 Oct 2016 10:50:00 -0400
(image) Hillary Clinton reiterated her desire for the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone in Syria at the third presidential debate, saying it "could save lives and could hasten the end of the conflict" even as she insisted she understood the "really legitimate concerns" about such an action drawing the U.S. deeper into the conflict (as Chris Wallace noted that President Obama worried) or start a war with Russia and Syria (as Wallace noted that the joint chief of staff chairman, Gen. Joseph Dunford, worried).
Once again, Clinton used the viral photo of a wounded 4-year-old boy at a hospital in Aleppo, calling it "haunting," to defend her decision to support accepting more Syrian refugees (her current position differs from her position while she was Secretary of State, when the U.S. accepted virtually no Syrian refugees, something it would continue to do until last year). But she did not talk about how escalating the U.S. role in the conflict in Syria was likely to exacerbate the refugee crisis, as did U.S. interventions in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, nor how her preferred course of action would lead to more civilian casualties in Syria, which she admitted in a private speech to Goldman Sachs in 2013, when Russia was not as involved yet and Syrian forces were not as entrenched in the conflict as they are now.
"They're getting more sophisticated thanks to Russian imports," Clinton said back then. "To have a no-fly zone you have to take out all of the air defense, many of which are located in populated areas. So our missiles, even if they are standoff missiles so we're not putting our pilots at risk—you're going to kill a lot of Syrians." Clinton continued in the Goldman Sachs speech: "So all of a sudden this intervention that people talk about so glibly becomes an American and NATO involvement where you take a lot of civilians."
At the debates she has ignored this private idea, treating U.S. intervention glibly and ignoring the civilian casualties she so easily uses to justify her policy positions when the casualties are not U.S.-caused. There is not a widespread awareness of the situation in Syria, let alone widespread support for further intervention. U.S. meddling in Syria so far has mostly just aggravated the conflict and introduced weapons that end up in the hands of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. There is not a clearly identifiable public constituency calling for war with Syria (except perhaps the mainstream media) so it's hard to take Clinton's enthusiasm for escalating U.S. involvement in Syria as anything but genuine. Clinton has not had to answer at the general debates why she was wrong on the Iraq war, or any questions about her role in pressing for intervention in Libya and the disastrous results there. For all the talk (including last night) of the prospects of Donald Trump deciding to start a nuclear war, Hillary Clinton seems to have a better grasp of the policy decisions that would lead there and a genuine fervor for advancing them.
Mon, 17 Oct 2016 13:18:00 -0400In an interview with Vice President Joe Biden on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd continued the tradition of journalists shamelessly asking questions that incorporate their own worldviews and political preferences into the questions themselves. "Why is there not a no-fly zone over Aleppo?" Todd asked in an exasperated tone of the situation in Syria. There's a long answer to that and a short one. The long one involves, among other things, the misconceptions people have about the effectiveness of no-fly zones, the lack of a clear strategic U.S. interest, disagreement about the facts on the ground in Syria and the difficulty of imposing a no-fly zone there specifically. The short answer is Russia operates in Syria, increasing the risk of conflict escalation significantly. Much of the media and political class, however, worked up into a frenzy over Donald Trump and his supposed connections with Russia and Russia's alleged attempts to interfere in the U.S. election, have chosen to ignore Russia as a complicating factor in Syria. When Hillary Clinton callously suggested a no-fly zone, which she had previously admitted would inevitably lead to civilian casualties, could be used to create leverage that could force Russia to the negotiating table over Syria, no one asked her what the purpose of forcing Russia to the negotiating table would be. The U.S. government's only clear goal in Syria is the removal of Bashar Assad. While President Obama acknowledged failing to plan for the aftermath of the intervention in Libya was the greatest mistake of his presidency, no one seems particularly concerned that Clinton (who was secretary of state during the Libya war) has not explained what the plan for a post-Assad Syria is. That so-called moderate rebels are in danger of joining extreme groups absent U.S. support suggests there are no substantive moderate forces in Syria, let alone ones the U.S. could with any kind of confidence support as a new Syrian government. Even if there were, the strategic benefits to the U.S. of toppling Assad are murky at best. For his part, Biden responded to Todd's question by insisting the U.S. had to defeat ISIS first. "We could not do both." Biden also blamed Republicans for not giving the Obama administration the authority to use force in Syria. "All those Republicans talk about how tough they were," Biden insisted, blatantly tapping into the machismo conceits of U.S. interventionism, before revealing that those Republicans had a point. "They'd say, 'What happens, we send planes over there, they get shot down? We have to go in and get 'em'," Biden explained. "Well, yeah, we have to go in and get 'em." Todd pressed on with the leading questions: "How does Syria not become the Rwanda of this administration? That you guys look back and wonder what if? What if? What if? What if?" The comparison itself is ridiculous and reveals a shallow understanding of the 1994 conflict in Rwanda, the current conflict in Syria, or both. "Rwanda was soluble," Biden insisted. "This is complicated." Todd continued: "So we're not gonna regret not doing more in Aleppo?" Biden's response was that the administration regretted whenever anyone dies. "I regret that we're not doing something about, you know, genital mutilation in Africa. I regret there's still real problems in Afghanistan," Biden said, without explaining what he had in mind about what could or should be done in those areas. "But there has to be a sense of humility about what is able to be done at the time. And what we're doing is the right thing. Generating a consensus among the Arab countries as to what we should be doing in the region. And at the same time, going after ISIL [ISIS] to destroy it." Trump and Clinton both broadly agree with the Obama administration's anti-ISIS strategy as summarized by Biden. Trump says he will be tougher but doesn't specify how (except to say he would not announce U.S. operations) while Clinton has also ins[...]
Fri, 14 Oct 2016 13:45:00 -0400The push for a no-fly zone in Syria has been ratcheted up in recent days, with Hillary Clinton explaining at Sunday's presidential debate why she was in favor of imposing a no-fly zone and members of government in the United Kingdom pressing for one. At the debate, Clinton said she advocated for a no-fly zone as Secretary of State (she served from 2009 to 2012—the Syrian civil war began in 2011) and said she was doing so again as a presidential candidate. "We need some leverage with the Russians," Clinton explained, "because they are not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution, unless there is some leverage over them. And we have to work more closely with our partners and allies on the ground." At an emergency parliamentary session in the United Kingdom on Syria on Tuesday, Conservative, and Labour, members supported a no-fly zone, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called on the West to explore more "military options" in Syria, saying Russia was at risk of becoming a "pariah nation." The new prime minister, Theresa May, said she would carefully consider the option but that it was up to "the international community to continue to put more pressure on Russia." France, for its part, has tried to pass a United Nations Security Council resolution that would demand an "immediate halt" to the bombings by the Syrian and Russian air force in Aleppo. The resolution, which could have been used to justify the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria, was unsurprisingly vetoed by Russia. China, another veto-wielding power, abstained. While Clinton admitted at the debate more U.S. intervention in Syria would have the aim of creating leverage vis a vis Russia, Clinton and other intervention advocates generally cite the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo as their motivating factor, claiming that Russia and Syrian forces were bombing populated civilian areas under the control of rebel groups. Syria insists these are terrorist groups, among them ISIS. Donald Trump repeated that claim at Sunday night's debate. At a speech to Goldman Sachs in 2013, Clinton explained the difficulties of imposing a no-fly zone in a way she hasn't at the debate or elsewhere on the public campaign trail. "To have a no-fly zone you have to take out all of the air defense, many of which are located in populated areas," Clinton said according to leaked transcripts. "So our missiles, even if they are standoff missiles so we're not putting our pilots at risk—you're going to kill a lot of Syrians." Clinton continued: "So all of a sudden this intervention that people talk about so glibly becomes an American and NATO involvement where you take a lot of civilians." This was in 2013, before ISIS had become a recognized threat and before Russia intervened in the civil war. Back then, then Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCOS) chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said that tens of thousands of U.S. troops would be needed to impose a no-fly zone and that the operation could cost a billion dollars a month. A no-fly zone is an even more difficult proposition now and would be harder still by the time Hillary Clinton were to enter office in 2017. More recently, last month current JCOS chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said that imposing a no-fly zone would "require" war with Syria and Russia. Previously, the U.N. passed a Security Council resolution in 2011 concerning violence in Libya (China and Russia abstained) that was used by Western powers led by France and the U.S. as a justification for a no-fly zone. China and Russia complained almost immediately that the resolution was being used beyond the scope for which it was intended, with the Russian ambassador to NATO arguing the aim of the operation was to oust Col. Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator. Rebels eventually captured, sodomized, and killed Qaddafi with the help of U.S. air cover. Before that, the U.S. participated in the imposition of a no-fly zone over Iraq [...]
Thu, 13 Oct 2016 15:22:00 -0400The USS Mason destroyed three coastal radar sites held by the rebel government in Yemen, the Pentagon announced last night, after the USS Mason was twice within four days the target of missiles launched from rebel-held territory in Yemen. Those missiles all missed and the USS Mason was not damaged. The U.S. action is the first time it has bombed Houthi targets in Yemen since Houthi rebels ousted the U.S.-backed government in Sana'a, which retreated to Aden, in 2014, sparking a civil war in which Saudi Arabia has intervened in support of the exiled government. The Saudi and U.S.-backed president escaped to Saudi Arabia in 2015. "These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships, and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passageway," Pentagon spokesperson Peter Cook said in a statement. "The United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic, as appropriate, and will continue to maintain our freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb, and elsewhere around the world." The Houthi government denied responsibility for the failed missile strikes, saying it had "nothing to do with this act." Instead, Houthi officials suggested the accusation was an attempt to distract from the "heinous" airstrike on a funeral in Yemen over the weekend that killed more than 150 people. Saudi Arabia denied responsibility itself for the air strike on Yemen, and said it would "investigate." Human Rights Watch said remnants of U.S.-made munitions were found at the site. The U.S., for its part, insisted its support for Saudi Arabia did not amount to a "blank check" for Saudi actions in Yemen, with the White House claiming it would conduct an "immediate review" of what a National Security spokesperson described as "significantly reduced support to the Saudi-led Coalition." Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) tried last month to block a $1+ billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia but the effort failed in the Senate. Saudi Arabia has been the primary recipient of U.S.-made arms from 2011 to 2015, a period during which the U.S. was responsible for a third of arms exports across the world. While the Pentagon asserted that U.S. commanders "retain the right to defend their ships," it says the strikes on the radar sites in Yemen, which the U.S. insists were in remote coastal areas far from civilians, were authorized by President Obama upon the recommendation of Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Prior to the civil war, the U.S. conducted drone strikes in Yemen against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other targets, sometimes fed to them by the government now in exile. Unsurprisingly, the airstrikes bred anger at the government and encouraged anti-Americanism. The power vacuums aggravated by Saudi intervention in the current civil war have helped Al-Qaeda resurge in Yemen, with the terrorist group even taking complete control of Mukalla, the third largest port city in the country. Yemen's exiled government has accused the Houthi rebels of being backed by Iran. No one appears to accuse the rebels of being backed by Al-Qaeda. The U.S. could not, then, twist the 2002 authorization for the use of military force against the perpetrators of 9/11 and their "associated forces" for a more direct and more sustained intervention in the Yemen conflict in the way it has used the AUMF to justify interventions in conflicts from West Africa to the Kush.[...]
Mon, 10 Oct 2016 07:30:00 -0400A question about U.S. intervention in Syria at the second presidential debate devolved into quibbling between moderator Martha Raddatz, the chief global affairs correspondent at ABC News, and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, that illustrated the assumptions embedded in the debate over intervention. Raddatz read a question submitted via social media about what the candidates would "do about Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo." The question continued: "Isn't it a lot like the Holocaust when the U.S. waited too long before we helped?" Clinton answered first, making a disturbing case to impose no-fly zones and so-called "safe zones" in Syria, because the U.S., she argued, needed "some leverage with the Russians" because Russia was "not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution, unless there is some leverage over them." No-fly zones easily become stepping stones for broader interventions. The U.S. previously imposed no-fly zones in places like Iraq and Libya. Russia, which has a naval base in Syria that offers it access to the Mediterranean, is unlikely to permit such a no-fly zone to be approved by the United Nations Security Council (where it holds veto power), let alone for one to be imposed without some resistance. Advocates of further U.S. intervention in Syria have not identified a compelling national security interest that might begin to justify intervention. Raddatz's intro to the question included a reference to video of a 5-year-old boy in an ambulance who had just been pulled out of the rubble in Aleppo. What was at stake in Aleppo according to Clinton? "What is at stake here," Clinton explained, "is the ambitions and the aggressiveness of Russia. Russia has decided that it's all in, in Syria. And they've also decided who they want to see become president of the United States, too, and it's not me. I've stood up to Russia. I've taken on Putin and others, and I would do that as president." Clinton added that "wherever we can cooperate with Russia, that's fine," noting her work as secretary of state (during the famous "reset" of U.S.-Russian relations) on nuclear weapons treaties and the Iran nuclear deal. In response to a previous question about Trump's December 2015 Muslim ban comments, Clinton referenced a picture of an injured 4-year-old in Syria who'd "been bombed by the Russian and Syrian air forces." She continued: "There are children suffering in this catastrophic war, largely, I believe, because of Russian aggression." Children suffering from U.S. actions overseas don't come up in the mainstream as reasons to reconsider interventionism. In his own response to the question about Aleppo, Trump ridiculed Obama's "so-called line in the sand" with Russia. Clinton interrupted to complain she "was gone" by the time that happened and Trump appeared to concede the point. "You were in total contact with the White House, and perhaps, sadly, Obama probably still listened to you," Trump responded. Obama first made comments about a "red line" with Syria in 2012 when Clinton was secretary of state. In 2013, after Clinton was gone, reports of the Assad government using chemical weapons against civilians briefly led to renewed calls for the U.S. to intervene militarily in Syria. Off the cuff remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry about Assad relinquishing his chemical weapons led to Russia President Vladimir Putin offering to arrange just such a thing. Trump then moved on to talk about the nuclear, pointing out that whole Clinton "talks tough against Russia, the U.S. nuclear program "has fallen way behind, and they've gone wild with their nuclear program," appearing to suggest the U.S. should not have entered into nuclear weapons treaty with Russia. "Now, she talks tough, she talks really tough against Putin and against Assad," Trump continued. "She talks in fa[...]
Thu, 06 Oct 2016 00:34:00 -0400One of the things that fans of Ron Paul, the former congressman and antiwar GOP presidential candidate in 2008 and 2012, tended to admire about him was a bracing willingness to actually point out that the U.S. was not always a good actor in the world when it came to their foreign policy interventions. This is not something considered polite or sayable in most respectable thought, so seems especially refreshing, or shocking to some, when it is said, or even suggested. The New York Times seems thrilled tonight to have "caught" Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson doing the same sort of thing, actually seriously questioning the moral propriety of our foreign policy interventions and their often fatal effects. This sort of thing had not previously been front and center in Johnson's foreign policy pronouncements. The headline: "Gary Johnson Equates Syria Deaths Caused by Assad and West." The fuller context, in which reporters Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns insist that Johnson: drew a parallel on Wednesday between the Syrian government's targeting of noncombatants in that nation's civil war and the accidental bombing of civilians by United States-backed forces. Attacking Hillary Clinton over what he criticized as her overly interventionist instincts, Mr. Johnson pointed to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians killed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, as well as civilian deaths caused by the American-backed coalition, and said Mrs. Clinton, the former secretary of state, bore at least partial responsibility. But when pressed four times on whether he saw a moral equivalence between deaths caused by the United States, directly or indirectly, and mass killings of civilians by Mr. Assad and his allies, Mr. Johnson made clear that he did. "Well no, of course not — we're so much better than all that," Mr. Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, said sarcastically. "We're so much better when in Afghanistan, we bomb the hospital and 60 people are killed in the hospital." Given the admitted badgering and that the actual quote out of his mouth the Times presents in fact is discussing the larger question of whether U.S. actions anywhere rise to the level of condemnable murder of civilians, by bringing in Afghanistan, and not just about Syria, that headline could just be one more in the media's very lively practice lately of misrepresenting the meaning of what public figures say in order to gin up controversy. Someone not blinded by a sense that American amour propre requires never saying we are to blame for anything we do when it comes to our foreign policy missions, or what atrocities or even highly fatal "accidents" are caused by those we arm and fund, might find it not that shocking that someone might think civilian deaths caused by decisions made by the U.S. government, or even, as their only direct quote makes clear, actually committed by U.S. forces, might be blameworthy. One may decide in their total moral calculus that particular means, or particular motives, or particular end goals, make one set of people blown to bits a moral monstrosity (by them) and the other just something sort of regrettable (by us and ours). But it shouldn't be considered idiotic or disqualifying for serious policy discussion to actually have enough of a sense of responsibility, especially for someone vying to lead the U.S. military machine, to actually worry, and worry a lot, about innocents killed in our foreign policy adventures. Johnson went further, as the Times quotes: "Because Hillary Clinton can dot the i's and cross the t's on geographic leaders, of the names of foreign leaders," he said, "the underlying fact that hundreds of thousands of people have died in Syria goes by the wayside." He charged that Mrs. Clinton "bears responsibility for what's happened, shar[...]
Mon, 03 Oct 2016 11:55:00 -0400University of California (UC) President Janet Napolitano wrote an impassioned defense of free speech on college campuses, published in the Boston Globe yesterday. The former Obama administration Secretary of Homeland Security and erstwhile Arizona governor laments "how far we have moved from freedom of speech on campuses to freedom from speech," and describes the inhibiting of "the free flow of ideas" on campus—a place meant to "incubate discovery and learning"—as possessing an "irony that gives me pause." Napolitano makes some excellent points. Among them: "The oldest versions of the university were institutions of indoctrination, whether by the church or by the state. Not until the potent combination of the Enlightenment with the revolution in natural science inquiry did the value of free speech in democratic societies surface." "In 1900...the benefactor of Stanford University, forced the firing of a faculty member in large part because he supported labor unions. Not until the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the mid-60s was the principle established that the only limits on free speech should be those defined in the Constitution, at least as far as our nation's public universities were concerned." With regards to the tactic of shouting down offensive speech or preventing problematic speakers from having their say at all, Napolitano argues, "the way to deal with extreme, unfounded speech is not with less speech — it is with more speech, informed by facts and persuasive argument. Educating students from an informed 'more speech' approach as opposed to silencing an objectionable speaker should be one of academia's key roles." But Napolitano loses the narrative a bit when evoking the old misunderstood saw about "yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theater" as impermissible speech. While creating a stampede for no good reason isn't protected speech, the Supreme Court decision which birthed that cliched analogy was actually about restricting the free speech of anti-war socialists during World War I—which is the kind of speech Napolitano seemingly would support the protection of, especially considering she evokes the anti-Vietnam War Free Speech Movement of the 1960s in this op-ed. Conspicuously absent from Napolitano's op-ed is any mention of the policy adopted by UC's Board of Regents earlier this year that appears to conflate some expressions of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism—specifically, the "demonization of Israel, applying a double standard for Israel, and de-legitimizing Israel's right to exist," each of which was previously labeled by the State Department as an example of speech which crosses the line from political criticism of the nation-state of Israel to inciting hatred against a particular group. Though Napolitano supported the Board of Regents proposal, ultimately the board decided to list anti-Zionism as a form of "intolerable" speech, but did not impose a blanket ban on it. It is understandable that Napolitano would not want to re-litigate that issue in her op-ed in support of free speech, but it remains a revealing blind spot. Activists on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict should be able to have their voices heard on campus, however difficult their ideas might be to be hear. As I wrote earlier this year for Reason, "holding the belief that the state of Israel's creation was misbegotten or unjust is a political position, one that is frequently debated in academia. While controversial, it is not necessarily motivated by anti-Semitism any more than someone opposed to Hamas running a de facto Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip is motivated by Islamophobia."[...]
Thu, 29 Sep 2016 12:20:00 -0400Saudi Arabia has long been a troublesome ally for the United States. Sure, the government has provided space for military bases, but those ended up being Osama bin Laden's top grievance with the United States. And sure, the Saudis have been helpful in cracking down on some violent radical Islamist groups, but they've sponsored and created just as many. And yes, they're a major trading partner in both oil and arms, but they've also been using our military support to indiscriminately kill civilians in Yemen. And of course, they're basically among the worst in the world when it comes to freedom of speech and religion, women's rights, LGBT rights, and human rights in general. But the special relationship between the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States may be forever transformed by Congress handing President Obama an overwhelming veto override yesterday—the first of his administration—on a bill that strips immunity of foreign governments and their officials from lawsuits regarding terrorism on U.S. soil. The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) enjoys its robust support in Congress due to its association with 9/11—and congresspeople don't want to be seen as voting against the interests of 9/11 victims' families in an election year, just weeks after the fifteenth anniversary of the attacks. The bill was spurred by allegations that certain Saudi government officials provided financial support to 9/11 hijackers, which were detailed in the recently-released "28 Pages" of a congressional inquiry into 9/11. But President Obama and the few dissenters of the bill in Congress have argued JASTA is too broadly written and not limited to 9/11 victims' families, and that it could also make U.S. military personnel and officials liable to legal retaliation in foreign courts. White House press secretary Josh Earnest called Congress' override of the president's veto "the single most embarrassing thing the United States Senate has done" in decades, and that by not fully considering the consequences of the bill to diplomatic relations and military servicepeople, "Ultimately these senators are going to have to answer their own conscience and their constituents as they account for their actions today." At least two senators who supported the bill and the veto override—Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.)—have suggested trying to "tighten up" the bill during the upcoming lame duck session of Congress by limiting the legislation only to 9/11. The Washington Post quotes Corker as saying the bill as written could end up "exporting...foreign policy to trial lawyers" and make U.S. personnel liable for lawsuits from anything to drones strikes to support for Israel's military actions. Congressional support for Saudi Arabia was once as good as a rubber stamp, but a number of congresspeople recently made a bipartisan push to restrict a more than $1 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia because of concerns over the Kingdom's bombardment of schools, hospitals, and civilians in Yemen. The resolution almost certainly will not have the support to stop the sale, but the pushback from Congress is new and noteworthy, regardless. There are legitimate concerns about the reciprocal nature of laws pertaining to the liability of foreign officials, but editor emeritus of World Policy Journal David A. Andelman made some pretty weak arguments against the bill in a CNN op-ed. One of his concerns is that the Saudis could clamp down on oil production and thereby contribute to a rise in fuel prices worldwide. A fair if potentially overstated economic concern, but it assumes the Saudis would be more concerned with lawsuits than they are with their ongoing proxy war against Iran, where [...]
Thu, 29 Sep 2016 10:51:00 -0400Right before I interviewed him at the Libertarian National Convention in May and again before his CNN townhall in June, Gary Johnson made the same odd comment to me (this is a paraphrase): "Matt, I'm so sorry that it's me up there defending libertarian ideas instead of you people who have been speaking about it so eloquently for so long!" He made a similar comment to longtime Libertarian activists just after accepting their nomination in Orlando. Aside from being an expression of his endearing-for-a-politician humility, the pre-apologies pointed to a central paradox of the Johnson campaign: His strategy has been laser-focused on getting into the presidential debates, and yet as a communicator, he is uneven, goofy around the edges, and prone to the occasional WTF moment. Like this: src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/uXFb0eSYjEA" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> Oh sure, you can come up with some caveats and whataboutisms here. I don't know who my favorite foreign leader is either! NPR and Salon and all the rest are unfairly mischaracterizing this as Johnson being "unable to name a foreign leader"! There's scant evidence that the voting public cares about foreign-policy gotcha moments, particularly in this of all campaign seasons! Also, what about Hillary Clinton's warmongering and Donald Trump's incoherent Mideast bluster! All of that may be interesting, but it doesn't change the fact that Gary Johnson screwed up bigly here, because this is who Gary Johnson is. A partial list of self-inflicted errors in this exchange: 1) If you don't like or can't answer a question in a live broadcast situation, don't answer the damned question. The English language is filled with little sidestepping phrases like, "Well, the most important thing is," or "When you step back and take the broader view...." Also available are the Pushback ("Chris, I'm not playing your foreign policy trivia game"), the Shutdown ("It's not appropriate for a presidential aspirant to pre-emptively name international favorites"), and the Redirect ("I'm more focused on rolling back our friendship with dictatorships, like Saudi Arabia!"). Not a viable option for a potential commander in chief? Stammering out loud about your own inability to answer a question. 2) The phrase "Aleppo moment" is wrong for several obvious reasons. Starting with, Aleppo is a city where a lot of people are dying—imagine someone using terminology such as "Sarajevo moment," or "Darfur moment"; feels icky and wrong. Also, it's a self-inflicted callback to one of the campaign's lower points. 3) Neither "Vincente Fox" nor "Angela Merkel" are good answers, either. If you're gonna go former office-holder, there are no shortage of legitimate heroes to choose from (I would start with Václav Havel, who served contemporaneously with Fox). As for Merkel, she hasn't had what you would call a particularly good year. Look, you can rage that the questioning was somehow unfair, or at least that the way people will seize on it will be. But part of running for president is showing people—live, on TV, constantly, to the point of mental and physical exhaustion—that you are nimble enough on your feet to deal with a brainfart without saying "Hey look, we're having a brainfart over here!" Libertarians and other marginalized groups have a weird man's burden in which they are frequently held to even higher standards than the two-party dolts who actually hold power, but the response to that is to gratefully accept the challenge and then rise to the occasion, not be resigned to your own flaws. After the first Aleppo moment, Gary Johnson warned that it wouldn't be the last one. He was right on the prediction, but wrong on the expectation. It suck[...]
Mon, 26 Sep 2016 12:55:00 -0400
(image) The Senate blocked an effort by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) to nix a $1.5 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a war of choice in Yemen, where the U.S.- and Saudi-backed government was overthrown by Iranian-backed rebels in 2014. Al-Monitor described the vote (71-27 to dismiss the measure) as the Senate "in effect casting the first vote on US participation after 18 months of war in Yemen."
Even if Paul's measure had passed both houses of Congress, it's unlikely there would be enough support to override the president's veto. And the Obama administration has completed more than $100 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia so far.
In The Atlantic, Samuel Oakford and Peter Salisbury call Yemen the "graveyard of the Obama doctrine," noting U.S. involvement in the proxy war contradicted rhetoric the president deployed at the United Nations this month, where he bemoaned proxy wars as one of the factors preventing conflict resolution in the Middle East. "No external power is going to be able to force different religious communities or ethnic communities to co-exist for long," the president told a gathering of world leaders at the U.N. this month.
Yemen used to be one of Obama's vaunted success stories. Two short years ago the White House was pointing to it as a model of success in the war on terror. Who knew launching drone strikes based on information fed to the U.S. by a long-time dictator would help destabilize the country and encourage a rebellion that would ultimately be successful?
As Trevor Thrall and John Glaser argued here at Reason earlier this year, U.S. support of Saudi Arabia has enabled Saudi ruthlessness in Yemen. The proxy war, they argued, "compromises both U.S. interests and its moral standing" by expanding a power vacuum that benefits Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the initial impetus for U.S. bombing campaigns in Yemen and which opposes the Houthi rebels. A Dutch attempt to get a United Nations inquiry into human rights violations and other war crimes in Yemen was blocked at the European Union last week by the United Kingdom.
Mon, 19 Sep 2016 11:40:00 -0400The City University of New York (CUNY) released a report earlier this month, detailing an independent investigation conducted by former federal judge Barbara Jones and former federal prosecutor Paul Schechtman into whether the actions of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) had contributed to an intimidating atmosphere of anti-Semitism and violence on CUNY campuses. The extensive investigation—spurred by a letter written by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) that claimed SJP's actions had left Jewish students feeling "harassed, threatened, and even physically unsafe"—has led the authors of the report to conclude that it would be a "mistake" to "blame SJP for any act of anti-Semitism on any CUNY campus," and rejected calls to ban the pro-Palestinian group. Noting that many of SJP's theatrical protest tactics such as "die-ins," mock checkpoints, and its annual "Israel apartheid week," constitute protected speech, the authors wrote, "Political speech is often provocative and challenging, but that is why it is vital to university life. If college students are not exposed to views with which they may disagree, their college has short-changed them." This is precisely correct, and also leaves room for the university to take a stand against "hate speech," in the form of condemnation, but not officially sanctioned punishment. Also from the report: As a public university, CUNY is limited in the ways that it can respond to hate speech, whether the words are anti-Semitic, racist, anti-Muslim, or anti-LGBT. CUNY cannot punish such speech unless it is part of a course of conduct so pervasive or severe that it denies a person's ability to pursue an education or participate in University life. It cannot mandate civility or sanction isolated derogatory comments. But what CUNY cannot punish, it can still condemn. As a general rule, CUNY's Administrators and College Presidents have spoken out against anti-Semitic comments. That practice must continue; hate speech must be challenged promptly and forcefully lest it breed. Earlier this year, the University of California Board of Regents moved to ban "anti-Zionism" as a form of hate speech, and the New York State Senate voted to pass a bill that would defund student groups that so much as encouraged boycotts of certain countries (Israel among them). The bill died, but only because the New York State Assembly failed to vote on it before the legislative session ended. Pointing out the absurdity and seemingly arbitrary nature of a law that would ban college students from expressing themselves politically about some countries but not others, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) created the handy info-graphic below. FIRE's Adam Steinbaugh notes that because of the language of the bill, the Vatican, Sweden, India, all of Africa, and most of Asia would have been subject to calls for boycotts on-campus, but not Cuba, Pakistan, Venezuela, or Turkey. Three cheers for unproductive government, because had this bill made it into the Assembly, it would have very likely passed, and free speech on campus would have suffered a staggering defeat.[...]