The BuzzTNI's Daily Media Monitor
In the Weekly Standard, Bruce Bawer reviews Jeremy Scahill’s recent book, Dirty Wars, which is about America’s approach to war, counterterrorism and targeted killings over the past decade. Bawer’s review is an ugly piece of work that is awash in evidence-free assertions and attacks on Scahill’s character. He calls Scahill “a radical ideologue out to discredit America and debilitate its defenses,” and closes with this paragraph:
What Scahill has given us here is, in short, an indictment of the West’s entire post-9/11 struggle against jihad. To offer serious criticism of American strategy is, of course, thoroughly legitimate. But Scahill isn’t a patriot who wants to see America triumph. On the contrary, it seems clear that the only thing he would hate more than a mismanaged war on jihad would be a successful one. Indeed, it’s hard to avoid feeling that this book’s definitive goal, like that of Awlaki’s sermons, is to swell the jihadist ranks—anything to bring down the Evil Empire with which Scahill has been at war all his professional life.
Bawer’s piece has other problems, but this passage exemplifies what is easily the worst thing about it: the fact that a good chunk of it is devoted to attacking Scahill’s motives rather than his arguments. Moreover, the motives that Bawer assigns to Scahill—namely, that he doesn’t want “to see America triumph” and that his goal in writing the book “is to swell the jihadist ranks”—are absurd on their face. Using Bawer’s method of argumentation, one could just as easily contend that the real reason that he and the Weekly Standard’s other authors generally support the measures the United States has taken in waging the “war on terror” that Scahill criticizes is that they are sadists at heart who take a visceral pleasure in the idea of killing people around the world. Of course, this would be completely ridiculous. But it’s no more so than what Bawer actually wrote.
Back in reality, Dirty Wars is a deeply reported, well-written book that covers a whole slew of important issues and is very much worth reading, for supporters and critics of current U.S. counterterrorism policy alike.
Despite the fact that the conflict in Syria has been raging for over two years, many Americans (some of whom undoubtedly want us to intervene there) fail to accurately identify the country when asked.
Today, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released the results of a January poll indicating that only 50 percent of respondents were able to identify Syria correctly when shaded on a map. Nearly one in five (19 percent) named the country as Turkey (no word on Erdogan's thoughts on this), and 11 percent thought it was Saudi Arabia. Five percent identified it as Egypt, and 15 very, very sad percent found the question too daunting to answer.
For comparison, about 79 percent of people were able to correctly identify the Twitter logo in a recent Pew survey.
While the public's lack of geographical knowledge is somewhat disheartening, more significant is the fact that this lack of basic information does not keep individuals from establishing policy opinions. Only 23 percent of people are unsure about whether the United States should intervene in Syria or not. Given how elementary this type of knowledge seems, it doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest the folks who cannot identify Syria on a map may also lack other extremely basic information that might play into a decision matrix regarding Syrian intervention. The question then becomes, by imparting the most basic knowledge, can the public consensus on Syria sway greatly? And if so, how do those in political power reach the "23 percent"?
Daniel Klaidman’s cover story in the current issue of Newsweek is about the Obama administration and its approach to the prison in Guantánamo Bay. He picks up on President Obama’s comments two weeks ago—in which the president said that the prison “needs to be closed” and that he “was going to go back at” the challenge of closing it—and reports on the administration’s thinking and the obstacles to doing so.
Possibly the biggest piece of news in Klaidman’s story is this:
In the coming days, Obama plans to address both Guantánamo and drones—another festering, controversial element of the administration’s national-security agenda—in a broad “framing” speech that will try to knit together an overarching approach to counterterrorism. In the speech, Obama plans to lay out a legal framework for the administration’s evolving strategies on targeting, detention, and prosecution.
Klaidman tells us that the “interagency wrangling” over the contents of the speech “has apparently taken months,” and that the speech “had been scheduled for last month but was then abruptly rescheduled.” One imagines that the Boston Marathon bombing was the reason why. (Klaidman also reports that in the wake of the bombing, Obama “will also address the evolving threat of self-radicalization and lone wolves.”)
At any rate, the fact that the administration wants to address all of these issues publicly is at least a limited piece of good news. A public accounting and defense of Washington’s approach to counterterrorism and targeted killings has long since been due. But on the Guantánamo question in particular, two things are worth watching. The first is something that Klaidman observes—namely, the concern on the part of the president’s critics that this will turn out to be just another Obama speech, heavy on lofty rhetoric yet “rarely followed up by resolute action.” They worry that he will express “righteous indignation,” but then “be persuaded by his political team that the time is not right to fight.” Given how the past four years on Guantánamo have unfolded, this is an entirely reasonable concern for civil libertarians and others to have.
Second, and more important, is the issue of what the president actually means when he says that he wants to close Guantánamo. He has long wanted to shutter the physical facility in Cuba—that much is clear. But as both Benjamin Wittes and Glenn Greenwald (a supporter and a critic of indefinite detention, respectively) noted after Obama made his comments two weeks ago, that does not mean ending the system of indefinite detention that is Guantánamo’s defining characteristic. Even if Congress had put no restrictions on Obama’s ability to close Guantánamo, the practice of holding some number of people indefinitely, without any charges, would have continued. It would have simply been a smaller number of people, held at a domestic facility within the United States. As Wittes wrote, Obama is trying to have it both ways. He wants to keep the core benefit of Guantánamo, “the ability to detain enemy fighters and leaders outside of the criminal justice system,” but also wants to “partake of the rhetoric of its delegitimization.”
Klaidman’s reporting suggests this is not about to change. He notes, in a parenthetical aside, that “shutting down the facility would likely entail freeing some prisoners, transferring some to jails in other countries, prosecuting some, and moving still others—those being held indefinitely—to U.S. prisons” (emphasis added). This would be progress of a sort, but it’s not exactly what most people would think of when they imagine the government “closing Guantánamo.” As the president gives his anticipated speech, how he presents this choice merits very close attention.
At Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt has a good piece in which he examines (and praises) President Obama’s view of the global threat landscape. In Walt’s words, “The bedrock foundation of Obama's foreign policy is his recognition that the United States is very, very secure.” In this assessment, there are few scenarios that threaten American security or interests to a degree that they require an aggressive U.S. response, especially in the form of military action. As a result, “Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected.”
Walt ends with this wish:
I wish he could give one of his trademark speeches explaining this logic to the American people. He probably can’t, alas, because this sort of realism cuts against the rhetoric of “global leadership” that has been part of the Establishment echo-chamber for decades, not to mention the self-conceit of American exceptionalists. So Obama will continue to sound like his predecessors when he talks about America's global role; he just won't do most of the foolish things that most of them would have.
Walt is certainly correct that we are never likely to hear a presidential speech extolling the virtues of “buck-passing” or “leading from behind.” Nor are we likely to hear any president tell us that by any objective standards, the United States remains very secure.
But if this analysis misses anything, it’s that the rhetoric Obama has employed sometimes cuts against the kinds of policies that would naturally follow from Walt’s threat assessment. Consider one example that is not mentioned in this piece: Iran. Walt has previously argued that the potential effects of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons have been vastly exaggerated. The United States should surely continue to try to dissuade Iran from getting the bomb, he tells us, but it’s not worth going to war over it.
Thus far, however, President Obama has taken the opposite tack—at least verbally. His administration has loudly and repeatedly declared that a nuclear Iran represents an unacceptable threat and that it would go to war to prevent such an outcome. Of course, this rhetoric is not by itself inconsistent with the approach Walt outlines. Even if the president did plan to implement a regime of containment and deterrence rather than wage a preventive war, he might now bluff aggressively in order to try and prevent himself from ever having to make this choice in the future.
Yet there’s some reason to think that it’s not just a bluff. In an excellent reported piece in Time in March, Massimo Calabresi revealed that in its first term, the Obama administration conducted an extensive series of debates on the question of “prevention vs. containment.” He wrote that Obama had decided in favor of prevention, persuaded that the possible consequences of Iran’s nuclearization—among them heightened regional tensions and the collapse of the NPT regime—were too great. In effect, the president signed on to the “consensus” view of the threat a nuclear Iran would pose held by elected officials in both parties.
Hopefully, we will not get to the point where Obama faces this choice in real time, in its purest binary form. But if so, it will present perhaps the ultimate test case of whether his actual view of the global threat environment is closer to the one Walt attributes to him, or to the more conventional one he has presented in public statements so far.
Jacob Heilbrunn rightly praises Danielle Pletka for exposing the hollowness of the Republican internal debate on foreign policy. It’s past time for a discussion of what, exactly, America aims for in the world beyond its borders, and how the government should work abroad to advance the interests of the citizens it exists to serve. (That debate shouldn’t be confined to the GOP, either—a national conversation is in order.) Yet there’s an unsettling undercurrent to Pletka’s article: the effort to rebrand neoconservatism as internationalism.
Pletka is hardly the only example of this. A major Foreign Policy essay by John McCain, whose views are almost the Platonic ideal of neoconservatism, repeatedly uses the label. The American Enterprise Institute has launched the American Internationalism Project, co-chaired by former senator Joe Lieberman, another neocon. The project’s media presence has been full of neoconservative bromides.
This is somewhat understandable. As National Review’s Reihan Salam has pointed out, “the distinction between Republican internationalism and Republican hawkishness often appears to have collapsed.” The neoconservatives have become the primary voice of GOP foreign policy. The conservative-realist intellectual tradition—which in the past claimed prominent names like Eisenhower, Nixon, Kissinger and Scowcroft—has largely vanished, even though it is certainly internationalist. And at times the alleged isolationists earn the epithet. Rand Paul, for instance, filed a budget amendment with the stated purpose of “reduc[ing] spending by withdrawing the United States from membership in the United Nations.” It’s hard to say that’s internationalism. But the same time, Paul has called himself a realist and, (rumor has it) was influenced deeply by a recent book on ur-realist George Kennan.
The new label erases all the ideological space between the part of Rand Paul that wants out of Turtle Bay and the part of John McCain that inexhaustibly desires new wars. This undermines the very conversation that Pletka wants to promote. It also buries the real key to a Republican restoration—the rejection of the neocons’ reflexive interventionism as the party’s foreign-policy fulcrum. This reflex, now being branded “internationalism,” brought America’s international power to its lowest ebb since the days of Carter. Yet the neoconservatives seem to wear their new nametag without irony.
For job seekers, sometimes there's no substitute for pounding the pavement—or even putting yourself on display in a storefront window, hoping to catch the attention of a potential employer passing by. In Denmark, the Wall Street Journal reports, some white-collar professionals have resorted to this awkward, sidewalk self-exhibition, a practice often associated with prostitutes in Amsterdam's red-light district.
The Situationist International, postwar Marxist activists who decried the "society of the spectacle," would have a field day pointing out this commodification of the individual worker. Perhaps they had a point, anticipating that there are instances in which capitalism really does start to resemble a theater of the absurd.
But in the market of our time, where flexible labor is valued over job security, workers are already in the habit of constanty advertising their services in very public albeit virtual forums such as LinkedIn. The window stunt may simply acknowledge that for the unemployed, posting to online forums and sending out dozens of resumes via email per day has limited utility—particularly when many of these messages are lucky to be read by a computer algorithm, let alone a human hiring manager. And to be fair, it's not as if the shop window is akin to some medieval slave market: the job seekers sit in relative comfort, tapping away on their laptops.
One window in Copenhagen may not signal a coming revolution. Yet it is a tangible sign of how intractable long-term unemployment has become in many Western countries. Even the credentialed professional must hang like meat at the butcher, waiting for a willing buyer.
Even the most secure countries occasionally suffer deliberate attempts on the lives of their leaders. Yet only an absurdly insecure country would see its leader attacked with deadly force by accident. This is what happened in Egypt on Sunday, when a gang of young men in a pickup truck—apparently on their way to a fight—drove into the midst of Prime Minister Hisham Qandil’s motorcade. Qandil’s bodyguards fired warning shots to keep the truck away, prompting one of the men to return fire. Luckily for Qandil, the two volleys of birdshot didn’t hit him (though a bystander may not have been so fortunate). Yet the incident was a distillation of Egypt’s deepening troubles, troubles that eventually may overwhelm it.
Egypt has become an increasingly violent place. Tahrir Square, catapulted into the spotlight as the focal point of the 2011 revolution, has become an open sore, unsafe to visit at night, home to “criminals, former prison inmates freed during 2011 prison breaks, and drug dealers,” and occasional fits of random destruction. Women who venture into the area are sometimes sexually assaulted by mobs; when the police deign to help the victims, they have been known to urge them not to file a report.
Police indifference, in fact, is a key component of Egypt’s problem. Footage from a deadly April attack on a funeral service at a Coptic cathedral appears to show officers doing nothing to interfere with a man firing a pistol at the church; they did manage, however, to arrest four of the mourners. Though the police don’t bother to deliver safety, abuses—sometimes deadly—are widely reported. Reforms are unlikely. President Morsi reportedly fears that police strikes—already a major concern—will spread further if he takes serious action; the police, in turn, fear Morsi aims to bring them under Muslim Brotherhood control.
East of Egypt’s Nile core, the situation is still worse. The Suez Canal area continues to suffer aftershocks from a deadly 2012 soccer riot, and has been an epicenter of police resistance. In the Sinai, antigovernment violence continues to resemble a low-level insurgency and has seriously hindered Egypt’s exports of natural gas, while Salafist terrorists from the Gaza Strip used the area to fire rockets into Israel.
Yet as bad as the security situation has become, disturbing economic trends suggest things could go further downhill. Egypt’s foreign-currency reserves are dwindling and inflation rates are uncomfortably high. Foreign investment is hard to come by, idling Egyptian factories. There are fuel shortages. Children are already going hungry, and there are fears that Egypt’s massive demand for wheat might not be met—the government bet on increased production, but the economic problems are harming agriculture, too. And in spite of all this, Egypt continues to dawdle on taking a big IMF loan that could at least kick the crisis down the road.
In the long run, it’s no prettier. Climate change will be particularly unkind to Egypt, and farmers in some areas are already facing saltwater intrusion from the Mediterranean. Growing demand for water in countries higher up the Nile could combine with decreased rainfall and increased evaporation to reduce the flow of Egypt’s essential river. Birth rates—a key indicator in an overcrowded, underemployed and import-dependent country—have spiked to highs not seen in more than twenty years. Egypt may become a place where an ever-growing public struggles for a piece of a smaller and more expensive pie.
This may be pessimistic. Egyptian officials think they can significantly boost agricultural yields with improved techniques and reduced waste. Reforming the bloated subsidy system so that it helps the poor more than the rich would yield significant savings while reducing the distortions in Egypt’s economy. Getting the police back on the streets might restore some stability and create a better investment climate. So would more predictable politics rooted in a strong constitution. Yet many of these would be tough to realize—and tougher still given the Egyptian state’s current problems. In the worst-case scenario, Egypt continues its slide. The economy shrinks, the population booms, insecurity and intolerance become constants. And with sub-Saharan Africa booming, Egypt could become the new land of international pity.
In the saddest twist yet to the military's mushrooming rape epidemic, the chief of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch of the U.S. Air Force, Lt. Col Jeffrey Krusinski, was arrested and charged with sexual assault this past weekend.
The Arlington, Virginia, crime report reads: "On May 5 at 12:35 am, a drunken male subject approached a female victim in a parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks. The victim fought the suspect off as he attempted to touch her again and alerted police. Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, of Arlington, VA, was arrested and charged with sexual battery. He was held on a $5,000 unsecured bond."
In his booking photo, Krusinski seems to have sustained obvious scratching injuries to the face and neck as a result of the alleged assault.
Krusinski's arrest appears to be the ultimate signal that the military's recent attempts to provide sexual-assault oversight from within are insufficient. His apprehension comes at a moment when the Pentagon is being examined intensely for not doing enough to prevent rape in the forces, and even when officials are alerted to inappropriate conduct, abusers are rarely punished. Recently, military newspaper Stars and Stripes detailed particular criticism the Air Force has faced over another assault, scrutiny that will no doubt intensify after Krusinski's attack:
The Air Force recently came under fire for a decision by a lieutenant general to throw out the sexual assault conviction of fighter pilot Lt. Col. James Wilkerson. Wilkerson, 44, the former inspector general for the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was convicted last year of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to a year in jail, forfeiture of pay and dismissal from the Air Force. Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned the sentence and reinstated Wilkerson into the Air Force.
Yet the Air Force is not alone in its shame. Just this March Navy vet. Brian Lewis testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on his rape by a higher ranking petty officer. Like many other service members who report rape or assault, Lewis was diagnosed with a "preexisting personality disorder" and washed out of the military. Lewis told the committee, “I carry my discharge as an official and permanent symbol of shame, on top of the trauma of the physical attack, the retaliation and its aftermath.” (The video of Lewis' testimony is affecting.)
It's clear that a civilian oversight agency within the DoD for sexual assault cases is necessary in order to break the cycle of dismissal accompanying these abuses. Krusinski's alleged assault indicates corruption at the highest level—a finding that should unsettle many, as service members continue to be silenced and shamed for being raped.
Google's stated mission is "to organize the world's information." But that's not always as simple as providing the best Chinese takeout menu: in its attempt to classify vast amounts of data, the internet search giant also must make choices that cause controversy—and the occasional international incident.
Its popular maps product, for example, informally adjudicates in numerous international border disputes. The ubiquity of Google Maps means that even unintentional glitches can have real world consequences. In one instance, reports the New York Times, "Google Maps’ imprecision reignited a long-standing border dispute that, with a few miscalculations, could have led to a real war."
Last week Google weighed in very publicly on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Reuters reports that following last November's UN vote to recognize Palestinian statehood, "Google's Palestinian homepage and other products previously labeled 'Palestinian Territories' were changed on May 1 to read 'Palestine.'"
As one might imagine, Palestinians are elated: Google has "put Palestine on the Internet map, making it a geographical reality," said an advisor to President Mahmoud Abbas. According to Reuters, he added "that the Palestinians had invited Google's cartographers to come and gather more data for their online maps." Israel, unsurprisingly, is furious, claiming that the Google's endorsement of Palestinian statehood is an attempt to circumvent the negotiations process.
Google claims it is simply following the lead of international organizations. A spokesman told the BBC that the company "consult[s] a number of sources and authorities when naming countries. … In this case, we are following the lead of the UN, Icann [the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers], ISO [International Organisation for Standardisation] and other international organisations."
Putting aside the question of whether Google considers U.S. interests as one of its "sources and authorities," the episode is yet another example of a world that does not turn on the bottom-up, transparent culture of the Wiki. Even the leaders of Silicon Valley—some of the biggest cheerleaders for an Arab Spring fueled by the power of individual Tweets—use an opaque process to reach decisions with significant geopolitical consequences.
Closer to home, tech industry leaders seem to have recognized that public policy is not made by Tweets alone, particularly when it comes to domestic issues. "Facebook’s lobbying budget swelled from $351,000 in 2010 to $2.45 million in the first three months of this year, while Google spent a record $18 million last year," reports the Times. Companies like Google—which once said its motto was "Don't Be Evil"—are finding it increasingly difficult to stay above the fray.
On the difficult business of writing, people of letters often like to quote a maxim attributed to Ernest Hemmingway: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." Yet, we are not all so fortunate as to bleed metaphorically. You could call Mohamedou Ould Slahi one of the unlucky few for whom the bell tolls.
Slahi has been detained at Guantánamo since August 2002 under the authority of AUMF. After largely growing up in Germany, the native Mauritanian traveled to Afghanistan in late 1990 to train in an Al Qaeda camp and support the mujahedeen, whom the United States/CIA was covertly supporting at the time against Soviet invasion. After the conflict ended in 1992, Slahi severed ties with Al Qaeda and returned to Germany for studies—with a brief stint in Canada for a job—eventually returning home to Mauritania in 2000.
At the request of the U.S. government in 2001, Slahi was summoned for questioning by Mauritanian police and willingly complied, even driving himself to the police station. Despite Mauritanian officials publicly declaring his innocence, the United States requested that he be sent to Jordan for further questioning under the pretense that they believed him involved in the 2000 Millennium Plot. The reasoning was that a member of Slahi’s mosque was caught with plot-related explosives; ipso facto it was thought that Slahi must have indoctrinated this individual despite disavowing AQ in 1992. The Jordanians questioned Slahi under torture for seven months and concluded he was not involved in Millennium, but, unsatisfied, the CIA sent Slahi to Bagram then Gitmo for further torture and questioning. After being held at Guantánamo for eight years despite never being charged with a crime, a writ of habeas corpus granted Slahi's release on March 22, 2010. The Obama administration filed a notice of appeal days later. It’s yet to be announced when a U.S. District Court will rehear Slahi’s petition, but until then, he remains at Guantánamo. A more comprehensive timeline of Slahi's "endless world tour" of interrogation and detention can be found here.
This week Slate published select excerpts from a 466-page handwritten memoir Slahi wrote in prison from 2005-2006 that has just become unclassified. It is intensely disturbing. Providing an unprecedented window into a life of indefinite detention and torture, the sheer volume of manuscript pages underscores one person's attempt to comprehend a new life beyond comprehension. Foreign Policy called it the piece the U.S. government does not want you to read.
While the politics of the facility that CIA veteran Paul Pillar calls a "disgrace" are hotly contested, it's worth noting that however compelling this memoir, six prisoners at Gitmo do face formal charges relating to the September 11th attacks. So while Slahi's experience of a life suspended with no criminal charges is abhorrent, it is not the only story here, something that Slate largely glosses over. That said, six people are hardly a reason to spend $800,000 per prisoner a year (and our international credibility) to keep the place open. Read this now.