The BuzzTNI's Daily Media Monitor
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.
Does the Onion want the United States to fight another war in Syria? The satirical newspaper’s coverage of the two-year-old civil war in that country has taken a dramatic turn. While the publication made semi-regular references to Syria throughout the war’s earlier stages, its barbs have gotten more common and very pointed lately. Its recent posts have been deeply and darkly critical of current U.S. policy in Syria, and sometimes appear to border on outright calls for American intervention.
Consider three examples from the past six weeks. First, there is this mock op-ed on March 25, written from the perspective of the Syrian leader:
Hello. My name is Bashar al-Assad. I am the president of Syria, and in the last two years, you—the citizens of the world and their governments—have allowed me to kill 70,000 people. You read that correctly: I am an individual who has murdered 70,000 human beings since March 2011, and you have watched it happen and done nothing.
Then there is this news brief from April 4:
WASHINGTON—While tucking in his daughters as they settled into bed Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama reportedly kissed the two children gently on the forehead and reminded them that the lives of Syrian people are “worthless” and “completely insignificant.” “I love you two so much and Syrians are subhuman and don’t matter at all,” said the president.
And finally, there is this piece published yesterday, titled “‘Help Has To Be On The Way Now,’ Thinks Syrian Man Currently Being Gassed”:
HOMS, SYRIA—As Syrian military aircraft rained chlorine gas on his community Tuesday, local man Amir Najjar, 36, reportedly assured himself that military and humanitarian aid from foreign governments must certainly be racing toward the country at this very moment to protect him and other helpless civilians.
It’s telling to look at the assumptions that support this line of humor. Namely, these pieces all work from the premise that the world—and the United States in particular—bears the moral responsibility for what happens in Syria. As a result, the practical considerations about how an intervention to stop the killing might work are necessarily washed away. Reluctance to act on the part of President Obama implicitly means that he doesn’t care about the Syrian people, as the second item stresses. It’s the “responsibility to protect” doctrine in comedic form.
Part of the reason that the paper’s Syria coverage has been so striking to read is that in the past, it has often been a voice against what it sees as excessive or ill-advised American military action, particularly in Iraq. One example is this classic 2003 point-counterpoint published as the Iraq War began, which both anticipated many of the disasters that would happen as the war unfolded and perfectly captured the hubris of many of the war’s supporters. More recently, it has gone after President Obama’s regular use of drones to conduct targeted killings overseas. As one of its television “hosts” asked in a video last year, with the Onion’s trademark deadpan mock-seriousness, “After ten years of combat in Afghanistan, is it time to take a second look at our policy of killing Afghan children with missiles shot from terrifying, remote-controlled flying robots?”
Of course, Syria, Iraq and the drone war are all separate issues, and there are valid policy reasons to support one intervention but not the others. But it’s probably wrong to see the Onion’s “positions” (to the extent that one can call them that) as evidence of a consistent house agenda. The more likely explanation is that humorists are naturally going to respond to real or perceived mistakes, especially those made by the U.S. government. Thus far, Obama has chosen to err on the side of caution in Syria. As the body count has risen, this choice makes a fat target for the kind of biting satire cited above. Yet one can easily imagine an alternative scenario in which, if Obama had decided to intervene last year and things had gone badly, the Onion would now be skewering him from the opposite perspective, mocking his and America’s tendency to intervene frequently in other countries.
So, in short, the Onion is not exactly becoming a comedic arm of Bill Kristol–style neoconservatism or the liberal interventionism of Anne-Marie Slaughter. Nevertheless, its shift on Syria is notable, if only because the publication often serves as a bellwether of elite attitudes. Its Syria pieces have been very funny and well executed, but the reason they pack an emotional punch is because they rely on the presumption of a shared belief—on the part of both the audience and the authors—that of course the United States should be doing more in Syria. As the administration reportedly weighs new steps aimed at ousting Bashar al-Assad, the question of how this decision is portrayed in mass-media outlets—even satirical ones—is very much worth watching.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone. CC BY-SA 3.0.
The New York Times has a story this morning recapping a recent poll on U.S. public opinion toward the use of military force. Its main takeaway, as written in its first sentence, is that “Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria.” Daniel Larison explains why this characterization of these results makes little sense:
Of course, there’s not really any evidence of “isolationism” in this poll. Overall, the public opposes starting wars in Syria and North Korea. . . . The only people who would seriously describe this position as “isolationist” are hard-liners and hawkish interventionists that like to describe everything other than their own position as some form of “isolationism” or “neo-isolationism.”
It should go without saying that opposition to intervention in Syria and North Korea by itself does not represent an “isolationist streak.” It seems safe to assume that a large majority of those who oppose American military action in those two countries still support continued trade and engagement with nations across the world, for example. Moreover, it is also perfectly clear that most of them support taking military action when they believe it is actually merited. This is seen in this very same poll, as the next paragraph of the Times article reads:
While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.
So, to recap: Americans are skeptical of getting involved in North Korea and Syria. But they also appear to be on board—by a substantial majority—with the ongoing campaign of drone strikes across several countries that has reportedly killed about 3,400 people with 411 strikes over the past decade, according to one averaged set of estimates. And yet somehow, for the Times, this all adds up to evidence of “isolationism” on the part of the U.S. public. It makes one wonder what exactly the paper would consider an “interventionist” approach.
It’s time for the United States to act in Syria, says Anne-Marie Slaughter in the Washington Post, but the Obama administration is doing all it can to avoid recognizing that. She suggests it is succumbing to “the temptation to hide behind the decision to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction” as it carefully hedges intelligence suggesting that Syria used chemical weapons.
Slaughter mentions a secret December 2012 cable from the U.S. consul in Istanbul, which she says “conclud[es] that it was likely that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons” and reports victims “responded well to atropine, a drug used to treat people exposed to the nerve gas sarin.” However, charges Slaughter, the administration said the chemical used was a riot control agent, and “similar evidence has been squelched again and again.”
But the cable, obtained by Foreign Policy reporter Josh Rogin, doesn’t say any of that with such certainty. In fact, it states that it “is not able to definitely say whether chemical weapons were in fact used in the December 23 attack.”
Rogin notes that there are multiple discrepancies in reports of what happened: Was it delivered by a vehicle, as initial reports said, or by several short-range missiles, as later reports said? Did atropine make the patients better—as two Syrian doctors told Rogin—or make it worse, as one contact told the State Department? Did most victims have dilated pupils, as the contact said, or pinpoint pupils, as the two doctors say? Was the gas colorless, as the State Department-supported media project BASMA reported, or were there “clouds of white smoke,” as State’s contact said? Was the gas odorless, as in BASMA’s account, or was there a “pungent odor,” as the doctors say? These discrepancies don’t just invite questions about what happened. They also make it harder to determine what gas was used, since different chemical weapons (and “riot control agents”) have different properties.
Yet Slaughter’s account removes all this subtlety and contradiction. And this seemingly willful blindness to shades of gray in the interpretation of intelligence should awaken memories of the rush to war in Iraq, the same rush that Slaughter cautions Obama not to “hide behind.” It’s hard to make a categorical distinction between Slaughter’s interpretation of the Istanbul cable and, say, the 2002 analysis work of Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans.
Reports now swirl of a new Syrian chemical attack, this time in Aleppo in March. The latest set of evidence appears much more reliable than that in the Istanbul cable (although Arms Control Wonk’s Jeffrey Lewis notes it’s also not the best). It may be true that Syria has used chemical weapons on its own people. If so, this is further proof of the utter wickedness of the Assad regime. Yet Slaughter’s Cheneyesque reading of the Istanbul cable is a fresh reminder of the eagerness for war in some circles—right and left.