Posted by: Shaun | July 2, 2008

The Manchurian Terrorist

A little more than a month ago, it was revealed that the U.S. military cooperated with the Chinese government to interrogate Guantánamo Bay detainees from China’s Xinjiang province.  Today, another China-Guantánmo link was exposed, but this one is a bit more unusual.  It turns out that the interrogation techniques used on a few of the prisoners held on the island were actually pilfered from Chinese practioners…during the Korean War.  They were originally brought to America’s attention in 1957 by Dr. Alfred Biderman in an article [PDF] for the U.S. Air Force entitled “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War” before being incorporated into the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training to protect American prisoner’s of war from harsh interrogation.

Ah, yes, and therein lies the rub; the techniques were used by the People’s Liberation Army not to extract useful battlefield intelligence from American prisoners, but to elicit false confessions to war crimes and the use of weaponized pathogens.  When this was exposed in the 1950s, it generated substantial concern about communist “brainwashing” and inspired one of the great films of the Cold War era.  Apparently when it culled these tactics from the SERE training, the military neglected this somewhat important aspect of their origins.

What sorts methods were commended to America’s interrogators?  They were listed in a chart originally prepared by Dr. Biderman that included such gems as these:

[The] 1957 article described “one form of torture” used by the Chinese as forcing American prisoners to stand “for exceedingly long periods,” sometimes in conditions of “extreme cold.” Such passive methods, he wrote, were more common than outright physical violence. Prolonged standing and exposure to cold have both been used by American military and C.I.A. interrogators against terrorist suspects.

The chart also listed other techniques used by the Chinese, including “Semi-Starvation,” “Exploitation of Wounds,” and “Filthy, Infested Surroundings,” and with their effects: “Makes Victim Dependent on Interrogator,” “Weakens Mental and Physical Ability to Resist,” and “Reduces Prisoner to ‘Animal Level’ Concerns.”

The only change made in the chart presented at Guantánamo was to drop its original title: “Communist Coercive Methods for Eliciting Individual Compliance.”

This, tragically, is what we have come to.  The United States has adopted the practices of Maoist China; practices that, when directed against American prisoners of war in Korea, were decried as “torture” and “brainwashing.”  This abominable conduct is compounded by the fact the moral breaches in question were likely of little or no use to American security, though a revelation to the contrary would still not be exculpatory.  With the date of my country’s birth fast approaching, I can’t help but wonder what its founders would have thought about the creation of an extralegal enclave for the permanent detention and interrogation of prisoners, many of whom have been charged with no crime.  I suspect they would be somewhat troubled.

Posted by: Shaun | June 25, 2008

Ideology Trumps Talent at DOJ

A new report out of the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Justice derides what it alleges were illegal hiring practices that applied a political litmus test to applicants for the DOJ’s elite honors program for law school graduates as well as student internships.  The New York Times has details:

The report […] portrays a clumsy effort by senior Justice Department screeners to weed out candidates for career positions whom they considered “leftists,” using Internet search engines to look for incriminating information or evidence of possible liberal bias.

One rejected candidate from Harvard Law School worked for Planned Parenthood. Another wrote opinion pieces critical of the USA Patriot Act and the nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court. A third applicant worked for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and posted an unflattering cartoon of President Bush on his MySpace page.

Another applicant, a student at the top of his class at Harvard who was fluent in Arabic, was relegated to the “questionable” pile because he was a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group that advocates civil liberties. And another rejected candidate said in his essay that he was “personally conflicted” about the National Security Agency’s program of wiretapping without warrants.

This news should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the escapades of the Bush Justice Department.  From the improper firing of U.S. Attorneys who refused to carry out political hit jobs against Democrats, to shoddy legal justifications for the torture of detainees, to blatant political prosecutions; they’ve done it all.  When one considers the larger picture, it makes perfect sense that this grand amalgamation of political hackery would prosecute a case like this, for example:

Posted by: Shaun | June 22, 2008

India’s Beijing Intel Staff in Disarray

The Times of India has reported that a member of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s foreign intelligence service, has been recalled from his post in Beijing.  The Times writes:

Fresh controversy enveloped the mission with RAW station chief Uma Mishra being recalled this week, apparently for a poorly handled investigation into a “honeytrap” case.

Mishra is expected to return to India soon and this will be the second time a RAW official has returned from Beijing under a cloud.

Earlier, another RAW staffer, Manmohan Sharma, was recalled for his alleged affair with a Chinese interpreter. In connection with the Sharma case, an assistant to deputy chief of mission Saurabh Kumar has already been sent back.

The assistant, Gangadharan, was called back to Delhi on “special duty” and then given a recall letter and now it is believed that Kumar himself may be posted out as well after barely a year as deputy chief of mission. Kumar’s replacement is believed to be another [Ministry of External Affairs] official from Vietnam.

It seems that personal indiscretions and a dose of interservice rivavlry (between RAW and the MEA) have served to undermine the efficacy of India’s intelligence mission in the Chinese capital.  China is no doubt pleased to see that its long-time Asian rival is having trouble collecting information in its Beijing.  And, as the article seems to suggest with its reference to a “honeytrap” case, the Chinese may not be entirely uninvolved in the disruption.

Posted by: Shaun | June 22, 2008

Israel Practices Iran Strike

According to the New York Times, in early June the Israeli air force carried out an exercise simulating an attack on Iran’s nuclear development facilities.  The piece, relying on the interpretation of unnamed Pentagon sources, claims that more than 100 Israeli aircraft (F-15s, F-16s, and rescue helicopters) flew 900 miles as part of the mission; roughly the distance they would need to travel in attacking Iran.  Israeli officials refused comment on the specifics of the operation.

The speculation appears to be that the whole thing was conducted for the benefit of the United States and its Western allies, as a means of communicating Israel’s willingness to use force should the efforts to peacefully halt Iran’s nuclear program come to grief.  Although, Iran has taken notice as well.

For Israel, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran-whose president rhapsodizes about wiping the Jewish state off the map-is dire one.  However, Tel Aviv is unlikely to follow through on its saber rattling with any direct military action, at least not any time soon.  In fact, doing so would be a very bad idea.  Here’s why:

  • Foreign intelligence services have done a respectable job of tracking Iran’s nuclear program, but the fact is that no one knows where all of its components are.  The program is dispersed throughout Iran’s more than 1.6 million square kilometers of territory.  Air strikes could conceivably damage the program, but probably wouldn’t be able to destroy it.  Moreover, an attack could actually prompt a crash program to acquire a nuclear bomb at all costs and hasten the emergence of a threat.  Israel’s 1986 raid on the Osirik reactor sped up Iraq’s nuclear program to the point where it had nearly finished a bomb when the Gulf War broke out in 1991.
  • Iran cannot directly retaliate against Israel in the event of hostilities; it has almost no weapons that could reach the Levant and those few that may be able to (assuming they are functional and deployed) would risk the ire of a nuclear armed state.  It could, however, orchestrate serious retaliatory strikes through Hezbullah in Lebanon; a terrorist organization with which it has close ties.  This response would be ideal for Iran, giving it plausible deniability in regard to attacks on Israel, thus allowing to keep its place an “innocent” victim of Israeli aggression.
  • Finally, bombing Iran would have political repercussions within that country, providing fodder for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his hard-line allies.  As it stands, Ahmadinejad’s confederates fared poorly in Iran’s March parliamentary elections; a consequence of popular resentment towards their ineffectual economic policies and constant bickering with the West.  Attacking Tehran would almost certainly galvanise public opinion against Israel and the West, handing the tough-talking conservatives a new lease on political life.

These considerations would come into play if any Western power attacked Iran (immediate terrorist retaliation against Israel as an American proxy is a possibility, as well as strikes against shipping in the Strait of Hormuz).  At the same time, it is certainly not in Israel’s interest to have an avowedly Islamist state acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.  Iran’s nuclear program is a problem of immense difficulty for the international community, but at this point, the risks of a military solution are simply far too high to justify the meager returns of such action…if there are any at all.

UPDATE:  Mohammed El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warns against using force on Iran, saying that such action could turn the Middle East into a “ball of fire.”

Posted by: Shaun | June 19, 2008

Boeing wins tanker protest bid

It appears the epic struggle to decide who will supply the U.S. Air Force with a new aerial refueling tanker is destined to continue now that the Government Accountablility Office (GAO) has upheld Boeing’s protest [Press Release PDF] against competitor Northrop-Grumman and its European partner, EADS.  According to the GAO’s statement:

“Our review of the record led us to conclude that the Air Force had made a number of
significant errors that could have affected the outcome of what was a close
competition between Boeing and Northrop Grumman.  We therefore sustained
Boeing’s protest,” said Michael R. Golden, the GAO’s managing associate general
counsel for procurement law.  “We also denied a number of Boeing’s challenges to
the award to Northrop Grumman, because we found that the record did not provide
us with a basis to conclude that the agency had violated the legal requirements with
respect to those challenges.”

Essentially, the government watch dog found that the Air Force ignored or improperly applied a number of standards from its original solicitation for the KC-X tanker project.  The GAO has recommended that the Air Force enter into new negotiations with the two aerospace companies as a prelude to re-evaluating their respective bids.

It is somewhat heartening that this dispute seems to have been settled on the merits and within the letter of the law.  With Northrup-Grumman originally changing the rules to allow consideration of its larger design based on the Airbus A-330 and Boeing using its Washington state Congressional connections to pressure the military to change its mind after losing the bid, I find it remarkable that this entire process did not degenerate into a political grudge match with each company’s legislative allies using their influence to try to bring Pentagon pork home to their constituents.  Perhaps reason will prevail.  But then, there’s still a long path to tread and elections coming in November…

Posted by: Shaun | June 17, 2008

Condoleezza Rice: (Un)realist

Secretary of State Condoleezza RiceAs a student of international affairs, I make it my business to follow some of the more significant publications in the field; particularly the official journal of the secret Illuminati world government, Foreign Affairs.  (For those readers who aren’t  John Birch Society alumni, the publisher is oft unjustly maligned Council on Foreign Relations.)

Anyway, when I opened my mailbox and took a look at the July/August edition of the journal, I was taken aback by the feature essay, penned by our illustrious Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice and entitled “The New American Realism.” (At least, that is what is printed on the cover page, the formal title is “Rethinking the National Interest: American Realism for a New World,” hearkening back to her 2000 campaign essay “Promoting the National Interest.“)  As I gazed incredulously at the bold-faced lettering and its soft blue background, I thought to myself “…’Saddam Hussein shelters al Qaeda’…’greeted as liberators’…’ending tyranny in our world’…do Dr. Rice and I have the same understanding of realism?”

According to Hans Morgenthau, one of the progenitors of classical realist theory in international relations:

For realism, theory consists in ascertaining facts and giving them meaning through reason. It assumes that the character of a foreign policy can be ascertained only through the examination of the political acts performed and of the foreseeable consequences of these acts. Thus we can find out what statesmen have actually done, and from the foreseeable consequences of their acts we can surmise what their objectives might have been. (Emphasis added.)

Morgenthau, of course, addresses the issue of a realist theory of politics, but it is generally understood that the praxis which grows out of that theory must be similarly fact based.  In other words, you get the facts (reality), think about your options (forseeable consequences), and take whatever action you think most likely to serve your interests within the consrtaints of political reality. To borrow from another great realist, “politics is the art of the possible.”

The strange thing about this “new American realism” proffered by Secretary Rice is that it is seemingly bereft of reality.  It is, among other things, self-contradictory:

For the United States, promoting democratic development must remain a top priority. Indeed, there is no realistic alternative that we can — or should — offer to influence the peaceful evolution of weak and poorly governed states. The real question is not whether to pursue this course but how.

[…] Democracy, it is said, cannot be imposed, particularly by a foreign power. This is true but beside the point. It is more likely that tyranny has to be imposed.

I’ll grant that there is a fine line between “promote” and “impose”, but my sense is that the current ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq lean more toward the latter.  And tyranny is supposedly the unnatural political system?  I have no love for authoritarianism, but I do recognize the fact that it has been the predominant form of governance for the last 10,000 years of human civilization.  However loathsome tyranny may be, to simply dismiss it as a political aberration is disingenuous.

On the Middle East:

For six decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, a basic bargain defined the United States’ engagement in the broader Middle East: we supported authoritarian regimes, and they supported our shared interest in regional stability. After September 11, it became increasingly clear that this old bargain had produced false stability. There were virtually no legitimate channels for political expression in the region. But this did not mean that there was no political activity. There was — in madrasahs and radical mosques. It is no wonder that the best-organized political forces were extremist groups. And it was there, in the shadows, that al Qaeda found the troubled souls to prey on and exploit as its foot soldiers in its millenarian war against the “far enemy.”

One response would have been to fight the terrorists without addressing this underlying cause. Perhaps it would have been possible to manage these suppressed tensions for a while. Indeed, the quest for justice and a new equilibrium on which the nations of the broader Middle East are now embarked is very turbulent. But is it really worse than the situation before?

Actually, yes, it is.  Under President Bush’s leadership the United States has traded “false stability” in the Near East for outright instability by unleashing the underlying political fricitons between Shia and Sunni Muslims, eliminating all the regional checks on Iran’s power, and backing an aggressive Israeli stance toward Hamas and Hezbollah that has proved counter-productive.

And those authoritarian regimes we used to back?  Well, they’re still in place; happily presiding over their people from Cairo, Riyadh, and Jordan.  Essentially, the only Bush accomplishment in the Middle East was moving the bulk of America’s regional military presence out of Saudi Arabia (and away from Mecca and Medina) and to Qatar; an action that probably could have been taken without all the other fuss.

On Palestine:

[…] The Palestinian people must ultimately make a choice about which future they desire, and it is only democracy that gives them that choice and holds open the possibility of a peaceful way forward to resolve the existential question at the heart of their national life. The United States, Israel, other states in the region, and the international community must do everything in their power to support those Palestinians who would choose a future of peace and compromise. When the two-state solution is finally realized, it will be because of democracy, not despite it.

Except that in 2006 Palestinians did exercise democracy and they voted for the party of war, Hamas.  But this didn’t count, according to Rice, because Hamas proved itself incapable of governing by, well, being Hamas (which usually entails blowing things up).  Thus, the U.S., Israel, and the secular Palestinian leadership, Fatah, refused to recognize the election results and general chaos ensued, with Hamas seizing control of the Gaza Strip and Fatah holding the West Bank.  Now, it looks as if even Israel may have recongized the unsavory politcal reality of Hamas’ popular appeal.

I could go on, but I think I have effectively communicated the tenor of the Secretary’s piece.  Essentially, President Bush and Secretary Rice have looked at the world and found grave threats to American security that can only be attenuated by carrying the banner of democracy to the far corners of the globe.  The only faults with this argument are that the threats are exagerated, the solution is unsound, and democracy is usually won only after several decades or more of gradual exapnsion of civil and political rights, won at great cost by courageous advocates of liberty in their native country – not by invasion.  But that’s old realism talking; Secretary Rice has moved beyond her foreign policy education to a new plane of (un)reality.

Posted by: Shaun | June 6, 2008

Suppressing Kurds makes strange bedfellows

Who would have thought that the Near East’s beacon of secularism could be united with the region’s most notorious theocracy by something as simple as crushing another people’s aspiration to statehood:

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey and Iran have been carrying out coordinated strikes against Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq, a top Turkish general said Thursday. It was the first confirmation by a military official of Iranian-Turkish cooperation in the fight against the rebels.


“We are sharing intelligence with Iran, we are talking, we are coordinating,” General Basbug said at a security conference in Istanbul, CNN-Turk television reported. “When they start an operation, we do, too.”

Of course, the story makes no mention of protests on the part of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, but then why would it?  Iraq’s state of disarray leaves it basically powerless in the face of its neighbors, capable of mere tongue-lashings even when Turkish ground troops violate its sovereignty. It is, for the time being, utterly dependent on the United States to protect its interests in such cases and Washington has no sympathy for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) either.

Moreover, Iraq itself has little desire to lose territory to Kurdish separatism.  Though it would certainly rather not have Turkish and Iranian troops operating on its soil, such incursions are arguably less of threat to Iraqi security than the prospect of a large scale Kurdish secession.

Posted by: Shaun | June 5, 2008

Of terrorism and presidential power

The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration, BY JACK GOLDSMITH

W.W. Norton, 2007, 256 pp., $25.95

September 11, 2001 was a day of national tragedy for the United States as well as a day of national transformation.  In response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the executive branch undertook a reevaluation of its role in the permanent emergency that was to follow: the Global War on Terrorism.  Aside from tracking down elusive al Qaeda operatives in the mountains of southern Afghanistan, one of the greatest challenges its plans would face would be three decades of American and international law designed to curtail the power of states to wage indiscriminate war.

Few people are better placed to comment on the way George W. Bush and his administration approached this hurdle than Jack Goldsmith.  Goldsmith is a professor of law at Harvard University, though his career has taken from the University of Chicago through the Pentagon, where he served as Special Counsel, and, finally, to the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the Department of Justice.  It is his experience in this latter position that provides the most of the subject matter for The Terror Presidency.

The OLC is a form of legal adviser for the president, offering analysis of executive policies in order to determine their compliance with the law. This task has taken on increased urgency in the era of terrorism with the Bush administration consistently pushing the limits of its legal authority under the guise of the “Unitary Executive Theory” and inflated estimates of its “Commander in Chief” authority under the Constitution.

Goldsmith replaced Jay Bybee as head of the OLC in 2003 after winning approval from administration attorneys like Alberto Gonzalez and David Addington based on his competence as well as his conservative intellectual credentials (he is also the author of The Limits of International Law along with Eric A. Posner).  Goldsmith was immediately thrust into the thick of the fight when he was asked to provide an opinion on whether the rights conferred under the Fourth Geneva Convention applied to terrorists captured in Iraq.  When he advised the administration that under most circumstances they did, it was not pleased.  As he was informed, “They’ve never been told no.” (41)

Goldsmith provides interesting insight into some of the legal personalities behind the War on Terror, particularly David Addington.  Addington, Vice President Cheney’s counsel, is a zealous advocate of increased executive authority who seems to view post-Watergate legislation like the War Powers Act in the same light as Germany viewed the Treaty of Versailles.  He is also a notorious bully, once responding to an unfavorable legal decision by saying, “If you rule that way, the blood of the hundred thousand people who die in the next attack will be on your hands.” (71, emphasis in original)

The culmination of Goldsmith’s experience in the OLC came when he reviewed the decision on “enhanced interrogation techniques” written on August 1, 2002 by John Yoo.  This was the infamous “torture memo.”  He writes:

The message of the August 1, 2002, OLC opinion was indeed clear: violent acts aren’t necessarily torture; if you do torture, you probably have a defense; and even if you don’t have a defense, the torture law doesn’t apply if you act under the color of presidential authority. (144)

The problem, aside from the odious immorality implicit in the memo, was that the legal reasoning upon which the opinion was based was deeply flawed.  Goldsmith, rightly, took the extraordinary action of repudiating a memo that had been endorsed by his predecessor and the Attorney General of the United States.  Shortly after, he tendered his resignation.

Far from being an anti-administration jeremiad, Goldsmith’s book seeks to explain the enormous pressures under which the administration must operate.  Fear, in his experience, is the primary driver of tough anti-terrorism policies.  Given the nebulous nature of the threat, with bits of intelligence pointing in different directions, no official wants to take the chance that something they failed to do allowed the next attack to happen.  Thus, every possible action is taken to preempt the extremists and some lines are inevitably crossed.

On the other hand, legal advisers and policymakers are constrained by what Goldsmith calls the “post-Watergate hyper-legalization of warfare.”  He explains:

In my two years in government, I witnessed top officials and bureaucrats in the White House and throughout the administration openly worrying that investigators acting with the benefit of hindsight in a different political environment would impose criminal penalties on heat-of-battle judgment calls.  These men and women did not believe they were breaking the law, and indeed they took extraordinary steps to insure that they didn’t.  But they worried nonetheless that they would be judged in an atmosphere different from when they acted, because the criminal investigative process is mysterious and scary, because lawyers fees can cause devastating financial losses, and because an investigation can produce reputation-ruining dishonor and possibly end one’s career, even if you emerge “innocent.” (69)

He continuously reiterates this distinctive feature of the modern policymaking environment, reminding his reader that past presidents were not subject to such legalistic restrictions.  Lincoln administration officials didn’t fear prosecution for his suspension of habeas corpus nor did Franklin Roosevelt’s advisers look over their shoulders when consigning Japanese Americans to detention camps and trying Nazi saboteurs in impromptu military tribunals.

While it is true that prosecutions are not always conducted solely on the merits of a case and that, even when they are, facts can be distorted by hindsight, contemporary “hyper-legalization” has a legitimate historical basis for its existence.  As even Goldsmith himself admits, these laws were a response to very serious violations of American law and civil liberties during the 1960s and 1970s.  We would do well to remember that they have a purpose beyond acting as a nuisance to intelligence officials.

Ultimately, Goldsmith believes that most of the policies carried out by the Bush administration, along with the legal opinions written to justify them, were warranted.  The administration’s great failure, in his view, was that it did not properly educate the public on the terrorist threat to build support for these measures and that it failed to consult with Congress before taking action.

Certainly, greater transparency and Congressional approval would have been welcome changes from the secretive Bush administration we have come to know.  However, Goldsmith seems to adhere to the fallacious proposition that the threat posed by terrorism to the United States is “existential” in nature.  An extreme threat demands extreme measures, albeit limited in applicability to the current conflict and enacted with Congressional approval.  The fact is, such a threat does not exist.  Moreover, the only way that terrorism could threaten the existence of United States is if it were to so frighten the nation that it decided to abrogate the very civil liberties that are its bedrock.  In this respect, the course of action advocated by Goldsmith, while preferable to policy by executive fiat, is still deeply flawed.

The Terror Presidency offers a fascinating perspective on the inner workings of the Justice Department in a time of war.  It offers a great deal of insight into the pressures faced by legal authorities, decision-makers, and individuals on the ground while presenting a useful critique of the way those pressures have shaped presidential policy since 9/11.  Ultimately, Goldsmith presents a number of compelling stories and valuable ideas, but his criticism of Bush’s terror presidency does not go far enough.

Posted by: Shaun | June 4, 2008

The nomination heard round the world

Today the Washington Post ran a story covering the widespread enthusiasm for the candidacy of Barack Obama on the part of people throughout the world.  Kenyan’s, especially, seem to be pleased that one of their own (Obama’s father was Kenyan) may sit in the Oval Office next January.  The general consensus seems to be that an Obama presidency would be one in which America had more respect for other countries and peoples throughout the word.  Quoth one citizen of India:

“This is close to a miracle. I was certain that some things will not happen in my lifetime,” said Sunila Patel, 62, a widow encountered on the streets of New Delhi. “A black president of the U.S. will mean that there will be more American tolerance for people around the world who are different.”

A President Obama would almost certainly chart a substantially different course in foreign policy than his predecessor (eg. no more well thought-out schemes to conquer other nations that are perceived to be giving America the stink eye).  However, I wonder if some of this jubilation is premature.

There have certainly been racist presidents throughout American history as evidenced by Woodrow Wilson’s determination to give ignorant Latins a Princetonian education in “elect[ing] good men.”  But the majority of U.S. foreign policy maneuvers the world has found so noisome over the last two decades have largely derived from a sense of American national interest, whether properly construed or not, rather than any racial or ethnic antipathy.  Even the nation’s first black president idly watch Rawandan Tutsis put to the slaughter, backed Iraqi sanctions that starved thousands of innocents, and exacted vengeance on Sudanese pharmaceutical manufacturers for unrelated acts of terrorism.

What will the world think when a hypothetical President Obama is confronted with a tough foreign policy choice and he acts in the interests of the United States?  Would his solidarity with the peoples of the world stop him from striking Iran if he was told it was on the verge of completing a deliverable nuclear weapon?  Moreover, even if Obama sought to endear himself to the foreign public by, for instance, doubling U.S. development aid or signing on to the International Criminal Court, there is no guarantee that such measures would make it through a Congress beholden to the far more parochial views of the American public.

I am an Obama supporter, to be sure.  I believe he is this country’s best option for both foreign and domestic policy, and I think he has what it takes to be a great executive.  But I think a dose of realism is in order before global expectations get out of hand.  Barack is no George W. Bush, but he will govern for the people of the United States, not the world.

Posted by: Shaun | May 29, 2008

Silk Road to Ruin

This month marks the third anniversary of a dark chapter in global politics.  In May 2005, hundreds of Uzbek people took to the streets of Andijan to protest the authoritarian government of Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan and a holdover from Soviet times.  The protests followed attacks on several government buildings, including a jail from which several state prisoners were freed.  These events, unfolding in the shadow of neighboring Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution, held the promise of change for people who had been subjected to state fiat since the dawn of the modern era.  Such hopes were shattered by a hail of bullets, leaving some hundreds of Uzbek citizens dead (no ones knows how many-Tashkent claims 187 killed while Western human rights groups put the number around 750).

Certainly the Andijan Massacre, as it has come to be called, was a tragedy, but it only attained global political significance when it became an issue in the new “Great Game” for influence in Central Asia.  The killings rightly prompted a sharp criticism from the United States which, in turn, caused Uzbekistan to eject the U.S. military from its base at Karshi-Khanaba; an event considered a major strategic setback by many commentators, given the base’s role in supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.  President Karimov was embraced by China during a previously planned state visit to Beijing at the end of May and also won the implicit support of regional players in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The Andijan Incident and its aftermath prompts the broader question of how the United States should approach Central Asia given its largely authoritarian politics, powerful neighbors (Russia and China), and geo-strategic importance.  America’s primary interests in the region are two-fold: energy and Islamism (sound familiar?).  According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency’s report on the Caspian Sea region, there are between 12 and 49 billion barrels of oil and about 232 trillion cubic feet of natural gas waiting to be exploited from Central Asia.  All of this essentially makes the region  Eurasia’s energy hub both for petroleum:

And for natural gas:

Moreover, since Central Asia is landlocked and capital starved, it is a tempting target for American investment in energy extraction, refining, and transport.

Its proximity to Afghanistan makes the region an important part of the war effort there.  Though the military has been edged out of Uzbekistan, it still makes use of Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan and has agreements with other countries for overflight rights and expedited transit of war material.  In addition to its supporting role in the American War on Terrorism, Central Asia has, at times, found itself at risk from Islamic extremism.  The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has been responsible for several incidents in the region (as well as making for a convenient scape-goat following Andijan) and militant Islamic forces were present amongst the anti-government opposition in Tajikistan’s five year civil war.

Central Asia is also a tempting piece of real estate for those in the national security establishment who view China and Russia with increasing apprehension and see an American military presence in the region as a hedge against the expanding influence of Eurasia’s giants.  Both countries are deepening their relationships with Central Asia through bilateral diplomacy as well as regional groupings like the SCO and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

With all of this at stake, what is the American Empire to do?  It would be a mistake to ignore Central Asia entirely.  As September 11th clearly demonstrated, turning a blind eye to even the remotest corner of the globe can have serious consequences in the 21st century.  However, I do not believe the United States must kow-tow to Eurasia’s potentates and lavish military aid on their regimes in order to secure permanent basing rights the region.

America’s fundamental interests, increasing energy exports and controlling Islamic terrorism, are already being served by the domestic policies of Central Asia’s states.  The governments therein are searching for the means to develop their energy sectors and they are secular by nature, being descended from the Soviet bureaucracy of old.

As for Russian and Chinese influence, the Soviet legacy has also imparted a keen sense of the dangers entailed by the dominance of powerful outsiders.  No Central Asian country wishes to return to a state of imperial tutelage, whether under the guise of Moscow or Beijing (or Washington, for that matter).  Central Asia’s rulers are, by and large, clever enough to play the competitors in the Great Game off one another, and the United States should facilitate that by offering its diplomatic support as a counterweight to  Russia and China while not seeking undue influence itself.  (This leaves aside the fact that the “threat” from Russia and China is largely a chimera, but that’s a different post…)

In short, America should remain engaged with Central Asia, but not through permanent military bases.  And though we must, as always, recognize the limits of American influence on the internal affairs of others, we should not hesitate to speak out against the injustices committed against the people of Central Asia.  We ought not play the Great Game, for the prize simply isn’t worth the effort.

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