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“O-M-G.” These were the opening words—letters?—of Samantha Power’s first major speech as America’s permanent representative to the United Nations. It was an appropriate reaction—Power had just walked out onto the stage at Invisible Children’s Fourth Estate Summit to screams and adulatory applause, moments after a slick video introduction had lauded her achievements. She’s something of a rock star in liberal-interventionist circles, and on Saturday she looked the part, working the cheering crowd like a pro. No UN ambassador has likely ever enjoyed such a reception, at least not since Bill Richardson’s baseball days.
Yet why did Power choose Invisible Children for her debut? The organization is controversial in humanitarian circles. Founded to address atrocities by Uganda’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, the organization shot to fame early last year after its documentary on LRA head Joseph Kony went viral, plugged by celebrities and viewed tens of millions of times. Criticism swiftly followed—the film was trashed for grossly oversimplifying a complicated conflict, its fans for thinking that tweets and t-shirts could stop a war, and its producers for running an organization focused as much on “awareness” as on action. Most of the organization’s budget last year went to administrative costs, media production and “mobilization” efforts; less than 40 percent went to programs that directly address the impact of Kony and the LRA. Most of its revenue comes from sales of trendy merchandise. I’ve met my share of Africa wonks and development workers; I’ve yet to meet one with a positive view of Invisible Children.
That’s why Power’s move is odd. She’s no simpleton—her work as a reporter on the Yugoslav conflicts and her Pulitzer-winning 688-page brick of a book on genocide testify to that. She has to be intimately familiar with Invisible Children’s problems. Her speech showed she knows the organization’s style—it’s a mix of inspirational platitudes, praise for the audience and social-media plugs. And it was at times painfully naive, suggesting that human nature and political realities can be transcended by youthful passion and moral clarity—“The most powerful weapon of all...is YOU. It is the next generation that is unencumbered by 68 years of doing things a certain way, but that still feels deeply connected to the same urgency, the same vision, the same belief that drove the creation of the UN. Peace.”
Power’s appropriation of Invisible Children’s approach hints at her reasoning. Invisible Children isn’t the most effective humanitarian organization, or the richest. But it has the biggest media presence and a proven ability to mobilize swarms of supporters, and it's far more willing than mainstream aid groups to urge military action. It also cuts across traditional political lines, courting lefty college students and evangelical Christians alike. If Power is hoping to use her spot on Obama’s cabinet to push America toward a foreign policy of armed altruism, Invisible Children would be a powerful backer. “Your activism enables us to do more,” said Power, continuing that “without you, it’s not at all obvious that there would be such strong bi-partisan support for sending U.S. military advisors to central Africa to help defeat a warlord.”
It’s a savvy political move, especially for someone who’s never held an elected office. But it says nothing good about liberal interventionism that one of its most powerful proponents sees a constituency in an ill-informed band of young idealists.
Psychologists today say that children as young as six months can make moral judgments between right and wrong. While life undoubtedly grows more complex as we age, we all weigh various factors in our struggle to lead a good life. Money, comfort, convenience, family, consequence and a host of other elements figure into every decision we make. Some choices are risky. Some have concrete consequences. Simply put, Milton Tepeyac—the veteran subject of Kevin Sullivan's front-page piece in yesterday's Washington Post—doesn't seem like a bad man. But he is a man who made a bad choice. He is now facing the consequences of his actions. Is that wrong? Mr. Sullivan's overly rosy portrait would lead you to think so.
Here are the facts: U.S. Immigration law says that noncitizens (including green-card holders) who commit serious crimes forfeit their right to stay in the country. Milton Tepeyac was a green-card-holding U.S. Marine. He served in Kuwait and Iraq. After his service he began a seafood business in Phoenix as a civilian. The business hit a rough patch, and he needed money. He was offered $1,000 to help with a drug deal, which landed him four years in prison. When his prison term ended, he was deported to his native Mexico, as was consistent with his felony conviction and temporary status.
Is this sad for Tepeyac? Sure. Even more unfortunate perhaps because he was eligible for citizenship at age eighteen and never filled out the paperwork. (Note: If being a U.S. citizen is important to you, looking into your eligibility for said citizenship might be a good idea.)
That established, Sullivan makes Tepeyac's tale a real sob story when it's simply not: He now "scrapes by on $3 an hour in this northern Mexican city [Hermosillo], where he has lived since the U.S. government deported him in April. His rented room floods when it rains. Scorpions skitter in. To kill them, he had to pay an exterminator $40 — more than a quarter of his weekly paycheck." Boo-hoo. Well, I'm sure that's no party, particularly when formerly, "he ran a seafood business in Phoenix, drove a BMW, and owned a five-bedroom house with a billiards room and a pool."
It's clear that our friend Milton was not one for looking into the law, but if he had, he probably could have compared these two scenarios and determined whether risking his entire way of life was worth $1k. It's unfortunate he didn't have that foresight. (One wonders, couldn't he have sold his BMW?) As an editor who distinctly does not have a pool or billiards room but manages to keep from brokering drug deals, my sympathy for Tepeyac is pretty limited. There are plenty of people who want to be U.S. citizens or even green-card holders who would never risk the privilege that life here affords, even when the going gets rough. Presumably because they understand that the "rough going" in America isn't what it is in Hermosillo, Mexico, or Mogadishu or San Pedro Sula or [insert nightmare here].
No doubt, Milton Tepeyac learned that the hard way.
Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, lamented, “It’s tragic in a case of somebody like [Tepeyac], who is not a hardened criminal." Yet truly, how many crimes does it take for someone to become a "hardened criminal"? Before earning his deportation, Tepeyac "was busted twice, for possession of cocaine and then drug paraphernalia, and placed on probation." The deal that got Tepeyac deported? For ninety-one pounds of marijuana with a street value of nearly $300,000. Not exactly chump change.
Many green-card holding recruits go on to serve honorably in the U.S. military and become citizens. As Sullivan enumerates, "Since 2009, about 9,800 military recruits have earned their citizenship during basic training in a program run by the military and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)." Kindly note that one of the qualifications to become a U.S. citizen is "good moral character." While Tepeyac might have been a nice guy to those who knew him in the United States, it's clear that he was not a man of outstanding morals. That's what Sullivan gets wrong in this excessively maudlin portrait, which focuses on the ramen Milton eats, his "baby blue" clothes, his family who rarely visits.
Sure, Milton served in the military, but he risked it all on lousy bet. Should have thought twice.
Image: Kenneth Allen. CC BY-SA 2.0.
He may have just been crazy. Garry Davis’ stump speech in his 1988 campaign for the presidency of the United States—he was running on the ticket of the World Citizen Party—begins:
I want you to know from the outset that I am a Leo with Gemini rising and the moon in Aries.
It had, on the day of that speech, been nearly forty years since Davis walked into the U.S. embassy in Paris, raised his right hand before an official, and taken a formal oath renouncing his American citizenship. He declared himself to be a “world citizen,” and shot to international notoriety several months later when, his French visa nearly up, he camped out on the steps of the Palais de Chaillot, which had been declared international territory to host the Secretariat of the new United Nations. Davis requested recognition of his world citizenship, arguing that without documents he’d be imprisoned if he remained in France, and imprisoned anywhere the French sent him. “On the seventh day,” wrote Davis,
I received my answer. I was expelled forcibly. The U.N. Secretariat, not having any police, requested the French Ministry of the Interior to please "invade" their so-called international territory and remove this piece of international flotsam. So on Sept. 17th about 50 French policemen, wearing their sternest looks, came in, took me against my will and deposited me in France again, a distance of about 10 yards.”
And so, after five years of wandering the world with no nation or international organization to represent him, expelled from country after country by confused customs officers, he declared for himself a world government. Until his death a few weeks ago, the expansion of that government was his credo. The World Government of World Citizens, claiming power everywhere but based in Vermont and Washington, D.C., issued passports, birth certificates, exit visas, and occasionally conducted elections. (“Dear World Citizen: As a candidate for World President, I hereby solicit your World Vote. A World Ballot is enclosed.”) It could claim nearly a million registered world citizens.
Davis’ ambitions for the world government were impressive. Having seen the dark side of nationalism from a Second World War bomber, he was determined to liberate humanity from its divisions, replacing sovereign nations with one sovereign leadership. Peace would follow, and with it, prosperity—not only would swords be beaten into ploughshares, but the world government would be joined by a World Citizen’s Corporation,
which has as its purpose the complete integration and coordination of all the physical resources, means of production, and labor of the entire planet, for the direct benefit of all the consumers thereon, which excludes no one. Such a one world consumer's cooperative, linked to no politics or private interests because of its very inclusive nature, would allow each and every working world citizen to benefit directly from his or her labor and the labor of his or her neighbor throughout the total world community.
Davis appears to have failed. Yet for him world government and world citizenship were always real—“if we stumble, falter, even fall, there are others to carry on, for the reality of Man's Unity is a truth that cannot die.” Well, it was a metaphysical reality, one in which the world’s jumble of sovereign nations stood in contrast to the “inherent total sovereignty with full authority and rights...of individual man.” The world government he proclaimed in 1953 “exists only in his person, but since all men are world citizens with full world sovereignty...the proclamation of world government is every man’s right, privilege, and responsibility.” He further declared the point at which he stood—in the city hall of Ellsworth, Maine—to be “World Territory.” He noted that “a point has no dimensions...and therefore no physical existence.” Yet nonexistence had its existential advantages—“it having no physical existence, my claim needs no confirmation on the part of the national authorities as such...As a world sovereign, existing legally only in a worldly sense, I am able to give this point a legal existence.”
That metaphysical certainty—and the dream of a world economy that abolishes private interest—put Davis among the twentieth century’s multitude of utopians. Yet while the others measured their successes in mass graves, collective farms and Lebensraum, success for Davis was a fresh stamp in his World Passport from yet another bewildered official. He quickly came to learn, in declaring himself a sovereign government, the rough and tumble world that sovereign governments inhabit—he was imprisoned dozens of times, shipped back and forth between unwelcoming countries, and once spent weeks stuck on a bridge crossing from France to Germany, the Germans not letting him enter and the French not letting him return.
Though his speeches and writings often sounded absurd in their seriousness, his life showed a world that could be seriously absurd. Perhaps it was not crazy for a man living in mankind’s deadliest century to turn against an order that threatened the world with nuclear destruction. Yet his renunciation traded one absurdity for another, the madness of Strangelove for the alienation of Kafka. Spears were replaced by spindles, firearms by filing cabinets. The terror of divided Berlin yielded to the torpor of bureaucratic Brussels. Garry Davis called himself the first of the world citizens. But he lived as the new world’s first citizen, shuffled from clerk to clerk. We may be free for a moment from imminent great-power war, but the new world's not nearly as nice as Davis had imagined.
Israel has lost a key ally in its struggle against Iran—Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. From his inauguration in 2005 to his replacement on Sunday, there was no one in the world who did more to advance Israeli foreign interests. For without the bearded madman raving in Tehran, the international community would have never come together in such an unprecedented manner to isolate and sanction Iran over its nuclear program.
The Israelis had long perceived the Iranian nuclear program as a burgeoning existential threat, and accordingly have been the chief proponents of measures against it. As early as 1992, prominent Israelis across the political spectrum were warning of the danger and urging international cooperation against it. Foreign minister Shimon Peres called Iran “the greatest threat and greatest problem in the Middle East, because it seeks the nuclear option while holding a highly dangerous stance of extreme religious militancy.” And Benjamin Netanyahu, then a deputy minister, called for “an international front headed by the U.S.” to “uproot” the threat. But in spite of Israeli entreaties, America only slowly came around, with its primary focus on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The rest of the world paid little attention.
So, at the turn of the millennium, the international front against Iran had just two members. The 2002 revelation of secret nuclear activities—most notably the massive enrichment halls at Natanz—grabbed the attention of several European powers. Yet they were hardly committed opponents of Iran. Hossein Mousavian, then a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, and Mohammed ElBaradei, then head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, each noted in their memoirs that both the German and British foreign ministers said privately that Europe was taking a leadership role in nuclear talks only because they wanted to be a “human shield” preventing a U.S. or Israeli attack. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office, the international community was watching Iran’s nuclear activities closely—talks with the IAEA were regular—but there was no consensus, and the Security Council had taken no action. Sanctions were spare, climbing oil prices promised new prosperity, and the Americans had just overthrown Iran’s enemies to the east (the Taliban) and west (Saddam).
From Iran’s perspective, however, the situation was still far from perfect. Ahmadinejad and his team felt that the West was subjecting Iran to unfair scrutiny, and that their predecessors’ willingness to negotiate had only increased Western demands. And so at home, they launched a strident public defense of the nuclear program; abroad, they sought to “look to the East,” attempting to gain the support of China, Russia, the Muslim world and the Nonaligned Movement to balance the Israelis, the United States and their halfhearted European supporters. The latter move was a miscalculation—Mousavian would charge that the “‘looking to the East’ policy exaggerated the cohesion, abilities, and willingness of the ‘Eastern bloc’ to confront the West,” that “in some instances, it even consolidated Eastern and Western countries against Iran,” and that the policy’s “failure was a blow to the credibility of Iran’s foreign policy.” And the Ahmadinejad administration’s public defense of the nuclear program, while successful as a domestic political move, did little for Tehran’s position abroad.
These were mistakes, and are sufficient to account for some of Iran’s troubles. Yet the blame for Iran’s present isolation and misery rests squarely on Ahmadinejad’s badly tailored shoulders. He missed no opportunity to make himself appear erratic and irresponsible in international fora. His international debut, just over a month into his first term, was a wandering speech before the United Nations General Assembly. His remarks included references to “the Zionist occupation regime,” oblique doubts that Al Qaeda really carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks, and hints that Israel is secretly manipulating world affairs behind the scenes. All this was bookended by millenarian religious rhetoric, including a closing call for the return of the Mahdi. He allegedly later told a cleric that he had been bathed in a divine light during the speech.
One month after the UN speech, addressing a “World Without Zionism” conference in Tehran, he stated of Israel that “the establishment of the occupying regime of Qods [Jerusalem] was a major move by the world oppressor [the United States] against the Islamic world.” He praised the conference’s title, saying that “They say it is not possible to have a world without the United States and Zionism. But you know that this is a possible goal and slogan.” He compared the arrival of a world without the United States and Israel to the fall of the Shah and of the Soviet Union. He followed this with his most controversial remark—a statement translated by the New York Times as “Our dear Imam [Khomeini] said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map...I have no doubt that the new wave that has started in Palestine, and we witness it in the Islamic world too, will eliminate this disgraceful stain from the Islamic world.”
The translation has been hotly disputed—some argue that Ahmadinejad had not said that Israel “must be wiped off the map,” but rather that it “will vanish from the page of time.” The Israelis did not feel it was terribly important whether their demise was being invoked in the passive or active voice. The fact that Ahmadinejad reprised these remarks at a Holocaust denial conference the next year was even more alarming—and his timing could not have been worse, as Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was visiting German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin the same day, making for a powerful joint denunciation of the Iranian leader.
Suffice to say all of Ahmadinejad’s remarks recounted above—and the many similar ones he made over his eight-year presidency—were unnecessary. All Iranian leaders have to take a hard line on Israel and invoke divine will—these are each part of the Islamic Republic’s raison d’être. Yet stating these positions in such particularly outrageous terms served no purpose. Ahmadinejad lent credibility to Israeli warnings that an apocalyptic regime could not be trusted with apocalyptic weapons. And thus his remarks cost Iran dearly. Mousavian notes: “Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy enabled the United States and Israel to win over the EU, Russia, China, India, Japan and other countries on the referral of Iran’s [nuclear] dossier to the Security Council and to orchestrate unprecedented sanctions resolutions against Iran at the United Nations.” Many states have also launched unilateral sanctions. Coupled with the Ahmadinejad team’s economic mismanagement, the result has been a disaster: bursts of extreme inflation, shriveled oil exports, falling currency reserves, high unemployment and a cutoff from international banking. And Ahmadinejad’s remarks made it impossible to address the crisis in Iran’s international position directly: as Mousavian notes, “the unnecessary controversies that Ahmadinejad created also raised the domestic political costs in Washington of talking to Iran. This contributed to the failure of Obama’s engagement policy.”
In short, then, Ahmadinejad brought Israel major successes in what has become a central goal of its foreign policy. Israeli leaders had been trying, and failing, to convince the world Iran was dangerous for more than a decade. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did that successfully in just a few months. Netanyahu ought to send a card thanking him for his services.
Image: Marcello Casal Jr\ABr. CC BY 3.0.
Freshly retired U.S. Central Command head General James Mattis caused a stir last week by accusing the Obama administration of responding too softly to a 2011 Iranian-backed terror plot. “I don’t know why [it] wasn’t dealt with more strongly,” Mattis told an audience in Colorado. “We caught them in the act, and then we let them walk free.” The plot, in which an Iranian American used-car salesman tried to hire Mexican drug cartels to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States as he ate at a tony Georgetown restaurant, had been exposed by the Department of Justice after a tipoff from a DEA informant. Mattis argued that the plot was authorized “at the very highest levels in Tehran,” yet the response was confined to actions by the Justice Department. He warned that Iran’s present stance was, in a remarkable analogy, “like children balancing lightbulbs full of nitroglycerin,” and that there was a severe risk that “one of these days they're going to drop one and it's going to knock out the London stock exchange or Wall Street because we never drew a line and said, ‘You won't do it.’”
Mattis has a long history of eye-catching statements, and the plot was so outrageous and poorly executed that many have expressed doubts that Iran—even Iran—would sponsor it. (Our own Paul Pillar suggested that the plot may have been designed to be discovered, i.e. that rogue elements within the Iranian government hankering for deeper confrontation could have been behind it.) Yet Mattis makes a fair point if he’s right that the plot was ordered from the top. Why would the United States tolerate a confirmed terrorist plot by an unfriendly state, even as it spends hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives to prevent the emergence of terrorism in other countries? Further, letting such an action go unanswered would send a dangerous message of weakness and irresolution.
A chief problem with taking action, however, is that it would rebound on the main U.S. government priority toward Iran: preventing it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. As Geoffrey Kemp and I explained in our book, War with Iran, a key strength of the current U.S. position rests on the delicate international balance that has allowed an unprecedented sanctions regime. A U.S. military action against Iran could lead to major powers withdrawing their support for sanctions, undermining one of Washington’s few points of leverage.
And a military action would have risked a spiraling confrontation with Iran, one which could easily have spread into both Iraq and Afghanistan, and which may have seen terrorism in multiple continents—possibly even within the United States. America can dominate this escalation in theory—the ability of the world’s most powerful military to make a weaker state hurt is limited mainly by our creativity and our qualms. In practice, however, the costs grow. The United States can confront Iran in isolation, but a global power never confronts anything in isolation. The entanglement of U.S. forces in one corner of the globe creates openings in all other corners. Great powers like China and Russia would react negatively, and the conflict would have compounded America’s strategic, military and fiscal overextension. The United States was, at the time, already involved in two major conflicts and experiencing substantive domestic political dysfunction and imbalance. Iran’s weak hand becomes competitive in such a context.
Lesser responses have their own weaknesses. The Hill called for more sanctions after the terror plot was revealed, but this is hardly an appropriate response to a belligerent act—and Congressional calls for more sanctions can’t be a very powerful signal to Tehran anymore, given that they’re issued so frequently. Covert action would have been more symmetrical, but it would not hurt Iran enough to make it stop, and would further entrench the norm of cloak-and-dagger violence between the United States and Israel on one side and Iran on the other—a norm which offers Iran a fig leaf for acts of terror.
One way out of the sort of cyclical violence any military action likely would have caused is to take matters into the courts, answering the latest attack not with further attacks but by trying the perpetrators. Trying the restaurant plotter—which is what the administration did—accomplished this without ever starting the cycle. It also is a smarter response if the government was, contra Mattis, unsure that Tehran had officially authorized the attack. Since we in the public sphere can’t see the intelligence to which Mattis and other officials had access, it’s frankly impossible to do more than speculate on the appropriateness of the administration’s response. The fact that Mattis suggested certainty that Tehran authorized the plot is significant, but Mattis’s reputation for not choosing his words with extreme care is, too.
Had the plot gone through—had the Saudi ambassador been killed, with other Washington bigwigs possibly among the victims—there would not have been so much flexibility. If a foreign power can carry out acts of terror on American soil without paying a grievous price, what is our military for? What purpose does our pursuit of global leadership serve? If, as I’ve suggested, worries about our efforts to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon might factor into our response to an Iranian terror attack, our priorities might not be in balance. An Iranian bomb could have serious consequences for the stability of the Middle East, for the strategic balance on the Gulf and for global nonproliferation. Yet the damage to American interests here is more potential than actual. The U.S. would retain a multitude of tools to manage the Iranian threat—including, at last resort, our vast stockpile of nuclear weapons. The restaurant attack, on the other hand, would have been an egregious violation of U.S. sovereignty and of numerous international norms, and likely would have cost many Americans their lives. The damage to American interests would be concrete, and the risk that inaction would invite further damage would be great. The complex strategic concerns over proliferation are appropriate. But in this case they would have to yield to the more central and visceral concerns of physical security that are at the core of any government’s foreign-policy duties. Mattis might have been running his mouth last week. But he might have been right.
It’s long been known that the U.S. government considers itself to be at war with Al Qaeda and its “associated forces.” But exactly which groups does that include? Earlier this week, I noted that the list of organizations that the Pentagon sees as meeting this standard remains classified. In a May congressional hearing, Senator Carl Levin asked Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, to provide his office with the “existing list of groups that are affiliated with al Qaeda,” and Sheehan promised to do so. Since then, the Pentagon has apparently provided Levin’s office with the list, but refused to disclose it to the public.
Today, ProPublica’s Cora Currier followed up on this question to ask for the rationale for keeping the list secret. She reports:
A Pentagon spokesman told ProPublica that revealing such a list could cause “serious damage to national security.”
“Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces’ can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States, we have classified the list,” said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jim Gregory. “We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks.”
So, to summarize, the argument is that if this list were made public, groups that were named as enemies of the United States would be able to use this fact as a recruiting tool of sorts, allowing them to enhance their capabilities and making them stronger.
This is deeply unconvincing. At Lawfare, Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush administration, calls this rationale “weak” and provides a thorough rebuttal. Two points of his are especially worth highlighting. The first is that the Pentagon spokesman appears to greatly exaggerate the harm that might be caused by naming these groups and thus “inflating” them. As Sheehan said at the hearing, to qualify as an associated force a group “has to be in co-belligerent status with al Qaeda operating against the United States.” Presumably, then, as Goldsmith notes, they are already “on the receiving end of U.S. or U.S-supported military operations,” a fact that would already be well known on the ground in whichever country they operate in. That would be “a spur to recruitment” whether or not Washington officially acknowledges it. Put another way, if an organization is already doing something that makes it enough of a threat to the United States to be put on this list, it’s hard to see what officially naming it as such would do to meaningfully add to this threat.
Second, whether or not there is a marginal benefit to keeping the list classified, the Pentagon’s statement fails to take into account any of the corresponding costs. In Goldsmith’s words:
There is a countervailing interest in disclosure that the DOD statement does not discuss: The American People’s interest in knowing against whom, and where, U.S. military forces are engaged in war in its name. Such knowledge – which at the May AUMF hearing many members of even the Armed Services Committee seemed to lack – is minimally necessary for the American people to assess the quality, prudence, and necessity of our military efforts.
This is the key point: it is quite simply impossible for the U.S. public to exercise any level of democratic accountability over its government on issues of war and peace when the government will not even say publicly who it considers itself to be at war with.
In his May 23 speech at the National Defense University, President Obama said, “We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” This is an entirely sensible reframing, both for the government in conducting its operations and for the public in making sense of them. But if the president is really interested in getting the public to think about the conflict as a series of “targeted efforts” rather than a boundless global war, the least he could do is define for us exactly who those efforts are targeted against.
At Lawfare, Jack Goldsmith has a short post this morning following up on a much longer one from May about the question of how far the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) can be stretched. The original post followed a May congressional hearing in which Defense Department officials appeared to endorse an extremely broad reading of the AUMF that would allow the government to use force against Al Qaeda-associated groups in Mali, Libya and Syria. As Goldsmith wrote in May, the hearing made it “plain that the AUMF-war is much broader and much more easily expandable” than was previously believed, and that the Senate Armed Services Committee “has no idea how DOD is interpreting the AUMF.”
At the hearing, Senator Carl Levin asked the administration to provide the committee with an “existing list of groups that are affiliated with al Qaeda” and to let the committee know when changes are made to the list, and the witnesses promised to do so. Today, Goldsmith tells us:
I have it on reliable authority that DOD has responded to Levin’s request, albeit in a classified fashion. Apparently DOD answered numerous questions for the record by committee members, and some of the answers (the unclassified ones) will be released with the official print of the hearing transcript (which apparently has not yet been released).
This is, in some sense, a limited piece of good news. But it’s also a sign of just how bizarre it is that up until recently, the Senate committee responsible for overseeing the Defense Department did not know exactly which organizations the administration believed it had the legal authority to target. It’s hard to think of a better example to illustrate former senator Jim Webb’s thesis, argued in a recent cover essay in TNI, that Congress has become increasingly irrelevant to the making and functioning of the country’s foreign policy.
At this point, it is unclear if this list will be among the items declassified and made public. As Goldsmith argued in May, it should be. In his words, “It should not be a surprise to the American people . . . where and against whom Congress has authorized the President to use military force.” The fact that this even needs saying is remarkable. To argue that this list should stay classified, you have to believe that the U.S. public either should not know or does not need to know who its government considers itself to be at war with. Either assertion makes a mockery of even the possibility of democratic accountability when it comes to matters of war and peace.
The Working Group on the Responsibility to Protect, a panel of impressive foreign-policy figures convened jointly by the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Brookings Institution and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has just released its final report to much fanfare. The document, “The United States and R2P: From Words to Action,” is a robust long-form exegesis and defense of the R2P concept; given the rise of R2P proponents within the Obama administration of late, it is well timed and deserves examination. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former presidential envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson attempt to ease critics’ worries that R2P is a recipe for endless American “police actions” divorced from core U.S. interests. Yet this is a straw man, and they fail to address R2P’s real problem—its disregard for national sovereignty, which gives it potential to create, rather than ease, instability.
The Responsibility to Protect concept is rather simple, resting on three pillars: first, states bear “primary responsibility” for keeping their populations safe from atrocities; second, the international community has a responsibility to “assist and encourage” states to provide such protection; third, if a state fails to provide protection, or actively attacks its own people, the international community has a responsibility to take action. The second pillar means that the R2P concept isn’t necessarily tied to military intervention. Preventing atrocities can include helping to ease societal tensions long before violence breaks out—and, the authors note, such precrisis action is both more effective and more politically feasible than sending in ground troops once a conflict has broken out. And as the authors note, preventing atrocities can often be in U.S. interests, for such cataclysmic social disruptions can create lasting instability; why not do it preventively and proactively?
The third pillar is where the rub is. The notion that the international community has an obligation to become involved in a country under certain circumstances, regardless of what its government says, appears to erode national sovereignty. Albright and Williamson charge that this is a misperception—in fact, they say, R2P “is designed to reinforce, not undermine, national sovereignty. It places primary emphasis on the duty of states to protect their own people and its complementary focus on helping governments improve their capacities to fulfill their commitments.” In other words, R2P expands the concept of sovereignty—sovereignty includes not only rights, but also responsibilities, responsibilities which states should help each other fulfill. Sovereignty here is so sacrosanct that states failing to exercise it fully lose their title to it—“Only when a government fails or refuses to live up to the responsibility of sovereignty does it run the risk of outside intervention.”
Yet this is a curious way to construe sovereignty. Sovereignty becomes not merely an empirical fact about states that is prudently respected, but a right entrusted from on high; given that the right passes to the international community when abused, it would seem this sovereignty sees the world as a federation. International institutions—treated in the report as the final authorities on third-pillar actions—graciously devolve their responsibilities to local viceroys and governors-general, whom it may relieve of their duties if their failures are severe enough. It’s not really sovereignty, then—it’s mere administrative convenience.
Albright and Williamson might reply that all these worries repeat the error of assuming that R2P is mainly about its third pillar, when in fact “R2P is at its core an instrument of prevention. It does not mandate military action by the United States or others. The idea is to generate preventive diplomacy, increased development aid, sanctions, and other tools to avoid the military options that might be necessary when prevention fails and atrocities commence.” The second pillar, for them, bears the most weight.
Yet the way Albright and Williamson envision this pillar working is also a threat to sovereignty. They imply this in the Politico op-ed they released to plug the report, as they note that “Syria today presents us with a stark reminder of the high human costs of equivocation. As Assad began to turn state organs into his own tool of repression, R2P’s preventive underpinnings were rightfully called into question...” Indeed. No preventive action could have kept Assad from turning the state’s institutions into tools of repression while also respecting Syrian sovereignty, because Assad’s rule was already repressive. As in most autocracies, the government could not become less repressive without endangering its continued hold on power. Assad was thus likely to regard the second-pillar efforts that would have been necessary to stabilize prewar Syria as a threat, and to refuse them. (Indeed, other autocracies, such as Russia and Egypt, have similarly refused such “help.”) So should these second-pillar measures be conducted over a government’s objections? If not, they’ll often be insufficient; if so, sovereignty is further eroded. Yet Albright and Williamson pass over this problem in silence.
Why is R2P’s gutting of national sovereignty a problem? Respect for sovereignty is generally a stabilizing force in the international community. It narrows the scope of acceptable disagreement between states—there are fewer things to fight about. This can lead, in turn, to fewer international armed conflicts—and fewer of their attendant atrocities. R2P’s disregard for sovereignty might empower the international community to, from time to time, actually stop a genocide by intervention. Yet all too often, no “international community” exists. Interventions can become proxy conflicts (this would happen in a Syria intervention, and was a danger in the Balkans). And these proxy conflicts can readily yield atrocities of their own, perhaps far worse than those the intervention was launched to prevent.
The R2P concept of sovereignty can also give bad actors like Assad perverse incentives. A case in point is threats to bring those behind atrocities before international courts—threats made in Albright and Williamson’s report. Assad is hardly more likely to seek peace and step down if he thinks that might see him brought before the International Criminal Court and thrown in prison for decades. Such a risk is all the more reason to hang on desperately—and to keep inflicting horrors on his people. Second-pillar actions, too, could make him more troublesome. If the international community insists that states accept outside efforts to change their politics, autocracies will have incentives to resist the international community; those within autocratic regimes who benefit from their positions have incentives to spoil the deal. And the resistance can be quite destructive, endangering international stability and even causing atrocities. Iran’s support for terrorist groups and sectarian militias throughout the Middle East may be driven in part by this dynamic.
Of course, second-pillar actions that do respect national sovereignty can do a great deal of good, as so many successful efforts by international and nongovernmental organizations attest. And violations of other nations’ sovereignty can sometimes be vital to American security. Albright and Williamson’s are quite conscious of all that. What’s alarming is that they don’t seem to realize that there are trade-offs to be made and balances to be weighed. Breaches of sovereignty anger other nations and give them reason to take action against the United States. They must thus be employed with utmost care, in defense of vital U.S. interests. Atrocity prevention and other humanitarian causes rarely rise to that level.
Image: Flickr/Dun_Deagh. CC BY-SA 2.0.
At the Washington Post’s “Plum Line” blog, Greg Sargent discusses some of the responses in Congress to the recent revelations regarding the National Security Agency and the FISA court, and makes a great point:
What continues to remain striking is that, for all the intense media attention to the NSA story, almost no attention has been given to efforts such as these that would actually do something about the problem, or at least one important dimension of the problem.
There are three explanations for this. First, the drama that has played out with Edward Snowden, from his flight to Hong Kong to his current state of limbo in the Moscow airport, is undeniably fascinating. It is hardly surprising that people find the story interesting and that it is eating up a ton of media oxygen. Second, many in both parties are simply not bothered by the substance of what has been disclosed. Senator Dianne Feinstein put it most starkly the day after the Guardian first reported on the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata when she dismissed criticism of the programs by saying that “It’s called protecting America.” And the third reason, as Sargent notes, is that the suggested policy fixes “have little chance of going anywhere” in Congress.
Nevertheless, Sargent is right that the efforts in Congress to roll back some of the secrecy surrounding the NSA and the FISA court deserve both more attention and more support. He calls attention to a series of proposals that have been made, of which one is particularly noteworthy. Last month, a group of eight senators, led by Democrat Jeff Merkley and Republican Mike Lee, introduced a bill that would require the declassification of the FISA court’s opinions that provide the legal basis for the extent of the NSA’s surveillance. As the New York Times reported recently, the court, which was “was once mostly focused on approving case-by-case wiretapping orders,” has now “become almost a parallel Supreme Court, serving as the ultimate arbiter on surveillance issues and delivering opinions that will most likely shape intelligence practices for years to come.” In doing so, it has dramatically expanded the scope of legalized surveillance—in part, the Wall Street Journal revealed, by redefining the word “relevant” to encompass databases of “records on millions of people” rather than more individualized requests.
As Ron Wyden, another of the eight senators, said, “It is impossible for the American people to have an informed public debate about laws that are interpreted, enforced, and adjudicated in complete secrecy.” Indeed, it is clear now that the FISA court’s interpretation of the law is markedly different from what members of Congress understood themselves to be voting for when they reauthorized the Patriot Act in 2006. Hence, the senators’ push to declassify the rulings is a welcome one. Whether or not one believes that the NSA’s dragnet-style collection of metadata is in America’s best interest, the idea that it ought to have continued forever without public knowledge and justified only by a secret body of legal rulings, is pretty much indefensible.
In a muscular 2004 article in these spaces, Harvard social scientist Samuel P. Huntington warned of a “denationalization of the American elite.” He noted a growing gap between the vast majority of the American public and its intellectual, political, and economic leaders. While ordinary people held strong patriotic attitudes, favored the general preservation of American culture and identity, and wanted protection of American jobs to be a high priority for the government. Yet at the top of society,
these concerns are secondary to participating in the global economy, supporting international trade and migration, strengthening international institutions, promoting American values abroad, and encouraging minority identities and cultures at home. The central distinction between the public and elites is...nationalism versus cosmopolitanism.
Huntington reserved most of his ire for the influence of the cosmopolitan elite on the government, warning that policy had diverged so much from public preference that it had created “an unrepresentative democracy,” with attendant costs for the public’s faith in the political system. But he also noted “an emerging global superclass” of “Davos men” or “economic transnationals,” consisting of
executives of multinational corporations, large NGOs, and comparable organizations operating on a global basis and . . . individuals with skills, usually of a highly technical nature, for which there is a global demand and who are thus able to pursue careers moving from country to country.
The Davos men have made their living off the globalization of the world economy. They call Berlin in the morning and teleconference with Beijing in the evening. They trade in Indonesian coffee from Chicago or insure Panamanian ships from London. They work for multinational companies headquartered in New York or Paris, but with assets across the globe, companies that answer to no higher sovereigns than the share price and the board of directors. When your livelihood is everywhere, your home can be anywhere—and can be halfway around the world next week if needed. And so they
have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite's global operations. In the coming years, one corporation executive confidently predicted, "the only people who will care about national boundaries are politicians."
The quintessential Davos man was Marc Rich. Born in Belgium, which he left for the United States to escape the Nazis, he revolutionized the world trade in commodities. Markets emerged where none had existed—most consequentially, for oil. Breaking the grip of the big producers required creativity, both in business and in law. He carried out transactions that a more nationalistic—or merely more ethical—trader would have spurned. As the Economist notes in its obituary,
Mr Rich found his way round any political or moral obstacle. He sold Soviet oil to apartheid South Africa, despite a UN embargo, and between 1979 and 1994 made profits of around $2 billion there. He sent Soviet and Venezuelan oil to Cuba in exchange for sugar, ignoring America’s ban on trade. He sold on the global market surplus Iranian oil that had flowed to Israel down a secret pipeline, and kept the arrangement going seamlessly despite the Iranian revolution of 1979, another embargo, and the American hostage crisis.... He was soon the world’s largest independent oil-trader, with a turnover in 1980 of $15 billion.
Such practices angered U.S. authorities, who eventually caught up with him.
In 1980-81 he violated America’s domestic oil-price controls by relabelling Texas crude from old fields as new-found, jacking up the price by as much as 400%. He made profits of $105m and shipped them abroad, avoiding taxes of $48m. Once federal prosecutors were after him for that, they charged him with 64 other crimes, including racketeering and “trading with the enemy”. In 1983 he fled to Switzerland with his family, having also tried to spirit away two trunks of subpoenaed business papers.
Yet for a Davos man, prosecution in your home country need not be the end. Other identities, other markets and other opportunities beckon.
He remained—until 1994, when he sold his stake and his company became the vast, tentacular Glencore—the world’s biggest trader of metals and minerals, while darting between Spain, Switzerland and Israel, a citizen of all three. In Marbella or St Moritz, beside a $9.5m swimming pool or among his Braques and Picassos, with a fortune estimated at $2.5 billion, he reconciled himself to exile.
This made Rich a test case for the power of the elite transnational identity. Is the pull of globalization so strong, the joy of wealth so overwhelming, that a man can abandon his home entirely? The Economist’s obit suggested that for Rich, the loss of nationality had been painful, but bearable: “You cry a little, you move on.” This prompted a letter to the editor from R. James Breiding, an author and businessman, himself a dual citizen of Switzerland and the United States:
I met Marc Rich shortly before his death . . . It was a broken man who told me that “I have failed in the things that I have valued most.”...He could not attend the funeral in America of his daughter when she died in 1996 because he was a fugitive.... And yes, he had to say kaddish down the telephone to his dying father. The cause of Marc Rich’s death may have been a stroke, but to those close to him it was said that he died of a broken heart.
Denationalization kept Marc Rich from spending the rest of his life in federal prison. Yet it destroyed him nonetheless. His exile is a cautionary tale for those elites who may think that a global economy makes global citizenship possible, that places are not a vital part of who we are. Rich had fabulous wealth and lived like a prince. Yet all of us are tied to the places from which we come. Rich’s money could fly in any friend or family member he wanted to see. But their homes would always pull them back, away from him. Only a few will ever be able to live the global life of the Davos man. Cosmopolitanism has many rewards. But there’s no place like home.