Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Snowden, Surveillance, and Democrats: Debate Observations

The first debate among Democratic presidential contenders was more than half over before moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN got around to asking a question about the biggest intelligence scandal in more than 40 years. You can read the full transcript here but the exchanges between Cooper and the candidates on Edward Snowden (via Ars Technica) is what’s worth the read:

COOPER: Governor Chafee, Edward Snowden, is he a traitor or a hero?

CHAFEE: No, I would bring him home. The courts have ruled that what he did—what he did was say the American…

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Bring him home, no jail time?

CHAFEE: … the American government was acting illegally. That’s what the federal courts have said; what Snowden did showed that the American government was acting illegally for the Fourth Amendment. So I would bring him home.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, hero or traitor?

CLINTON: He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistleblower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that.

COOPER: Should he do jail time?

ClINTON: In addition—in addition, he stole very important information that has unfortunately fallen into a lot of the wrong hands. So I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music.

COOPER: Governor [Martin] O’Malley, Snowden?

(APPLAUSE)

O’MALLEY: Anderson, Snowden put a lot of Americans’ lives at risk. Snowden broke the law. Whistleblowers do not run to Russia and try to get protection from Putin. If he really believes that, he should be back here.

COOPER: Senator Sanders, Edward Snowden?

SANDERS: I think Snowden played a very important role in educating the American people to the degree in which our civil liberties and our constitutional rights are being undermined.

COOPER: Is he a hero?

SANDERS: He did—he did break the law, and I think there should be a penalty to that. But I think what he did in educating us should be taken into consideration before he is (inaudible).

Third Circuit Reinstates Muslim Discrimination Suit against the NYPD

Yesterday, in a case called Hassan v. The City of New York, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit accusing New York City of violating the 1st and 14th Amendment rights of Muslim-Americans in New Jersey under a sprawling and ineffective NYPD surveillance dragnet.

The ruling overturns a decision by the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey dismissing the suit for lack of standing and for failing to state a claim.

In layman’s terms: the district court, without a trial or the presentation of evidence, ruled that the plaintiffs weren’t harmed unjustifiably, that they hadn’t alleged sufficient wrongdoing by the police, and that they had no right to sue.  The Third Circuit ruling rejects those determinations and the case will now move forward at the district court.

An Associated Press investigation uncovered the NYPD program in 2011 and detailed the immense breadth of the NYPD’s surveillance efforts against the Muslim community in several states.  Police officers and informants infiltrated dozens of mosques. Police installed surveillance cameras so that Muslim-owned businesses, places of worship, and residences in New Jersey could be surveilled remotely. The NYPD even sent undercover officers to infiltrate Muslim student organizations at out-of-state universities such as Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, including one field trip to go whitewater rafting.  Those agents recorded the names of the students, how often they prayed, and what they talked about.  The NYPD is alleged to have “generated reports on every mosque within 100 miles of New York City.”

Despite the cost and the seemingly boundless geographic and jurisdictional scope of the spying program, there is little evidence of success.  In fact, the now-defunct “Demographics Unit,” a central component of the program, generated no convictions or, according to one agent deposition, even any tangible leads in more than a decade of operation.

Why We Should Be Wary of Calls to Intervene in Syria

In a recent commentary published on the World Post, Niall Ferguson criticizes President Obama for “Playing Patience While Syria Burns.”  In his view, the Obama administration has chosen to kick the can down the road because the president “naturally prefers the path of least resistance.” 

The problem with Ferguson’s argument (and many similar articles) is that it criticizes Obama for dithering over Syria without elaborating a viable alternative policy.  Ferguson quite rightly points out that the choice is not simply between doing nothing and plunging into another Iraq—“there are many degrees of intervention in a war like the one raging in Syria.”  Yet he never explains what type of intervention would actually help resolve the conflict in Syria. He seems to imply that Obama should have armed the Syrian rebels,but he fails to explain how that would end the conflict.  Could the rebels have toppled Assad if they had American arms (and maybe air support like in Libya)?  Is such an approach still viable following Russia’s intervention?  And even if the rebels were to succeed in toppling Assad, then what?  There are more than forty different rebel groups operating in Syria.  Are they all going to cooperate in forming a national unity government?  Or will they simply start carving out their own little fiefdoms, and perhaps begin fighting each other?  These are the types of questions that need to be addressed before the United States intervenes—and they’re surely questions that the Obama administration has been wrestling with. 

Ultimately, Ferguson’s article demonstrates that it’s a lot easier to criticize President Obama for doing too little than to devise a positive strategy that would accomplish much in Syria.  The fact that the situation in Syria is currently so abysmal does not necessarily mean that a more proactive approach would improve the situation.  U.S. intervention could easily make a bad situation worse.  Since the Syrian conflict is such a complex problem, as Ferguson acknowledges, we should remain wary of calls for the United States to do more until the proponents of greater intervention are able to explicate a clear, detailed strategy—a strategy that explains specific actions the United States can implement, and, more importantly, how those actions will actually facilitate a resolution of the conflict.

Will TTIP Wilt in the Shadow of the Aging German Voter?

In today’s Cato Online Forum essay, Iana Dreyer of the EU trade news service Borderlex marshals public opinion data to support a rather gloomy prediction about the chances for a robust and comprehensive TTIP outcome. Despite having “strong ‘Atlanticist’ instincts and the vision for Europe as a dynamic, globalized, economic powerhouse,” the EU’s business community and its cosmopolitan policy makers are likely to be thwarted by demographics: especially, by the aging German voter.

Iana concludes that the likely outcome will be a TTIP agreement that reflects the sensibilities of older, risk-averse Europeans who are unwilling to gamble with their social safety nets, even though those safety nets are not really on the negotiating table, which means a rather shallow and limited agreement at best.

The essay is offered in conjunction with a Cato Institute TTIP conference being held on Monday.  Read it. Provide feedback.  And register to attend the conference here.

What Is Russia’s Intervention in Syria All About?

There’s been a lot of speculation in the press recently about Russia’s motives for its military intervention in Syria, and many are quick to attribute the intervention to a desire to – metaphorically speaking - poke America in the eye. Surrounding this speculation are images of Vladimir Putin as a strategic genius, playing geopolitical chess at the grandmaster level.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s certainly convenient for Putin to make the United States look bad in any way he can. But there are a variety of other reasons for Russia’s involvement in Syria. And though Putin may briefly look like he is in control of the situation in Syria, the intervention is likely to end badly for him.

It’s notable that while many reports are portraying the Russian intervention in terms of U.S.-Russian relations, and intimating that Russia is in some way ‘winning’, Russia specialists are more likely to point to other factors, and to view the intervention as ill-fated.

Politico recently published a compilation of interviews with 14 Russia specialists on Putin’s goals in Syria. All but one pointed to a couple of key factors to explain Russian intervention: 1) Russian domestic concerns; 2) a desire for diplomatic gain; or 3) a desire to prevent other authoritarian regimes from falling. More tellingly, the vast majority also expressed the opinion that Russia’s actions are reckless, and will end badly.  

The first of these motivations – domestic political concerns – is likely the key reason for Russia’s intervention in Syria. It’s an excellent opportunity for Vladimir Putin to distract domestic attention from his ongoing failings in Ukraine, and to present an image of Russia as a great power.

Japan’s Vanishing Pacifism?

Last month, the upper house of Japan’s parliament approved legislation that shifted Japan’s defense policy away from traditional self-defense towards collective self-defense. The new law enables the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to come to the aid of allies in the event of armed conflict. It is the latest in a series of measures that represent Prime Minister Abe’s drive to increase Japan’s military power and burnish its status as a great power in East Asia.

Without a military capable of deploying abroad, Japan was seen as a kind of abnormal country, a second tier global player, despite its first-tier economy. In the wake of the recent legislation, it is tempting to believe that Japan will begin to exercise more power in its region. One optimistic commentator hopes by opening the door to collective defense, the JSDF might be used to shape and preserve international order. Taking a more aggressive and fearful tone, Chinese commentators warn against the resurrection of Japan’s old war machine and lambast Abe as a hawkish historical revisionist who wants to destabilize East Asia.

Such rhetoric about Japan’s growing military power paints a picture of a very strong country capable of exerting its will upon its neighborhood and beyond. Adherents to what I call the vanishing pacifism argument focus on how Japan’s military could play a more active role beyond its borders, but their assessments ignore or downplay the myriad challenges and potential roadblocks that are likely to prevent Japan from becoming a serious regional military power.

Most notably, the Japanese public remains opposed to an expanded overseas role for the JSDF. Shortly before the legislation was adopted, a poll showed that 54 percent of voters opposed it. Abe’s forceful support of the legislation has caused a nose-dive in his popularity, dropping his approval ratings to the lowest level since he became prime minister in late 2012. Abe had to expend considerable political capital on this controversial legislation. Public opposition could limit what the JSDF does in the field and make the use of military force unappealing as Abe tries to shore up popular support for his domestic policy agenda.

A Case for Making TTIP Better for Workers

In today’s Cato Online Forum essay, George Washington University Professor of Foreign Affairs Susan Ariel Aaronson argues that the “TTIP provides an opportunity to think differently about how policymakers in advanced industrialized economies can protect labor rights, encourage job creation, and empower workers.”  After describing some of the concerns workers have about the TTIP and explaining why certain parts of the agreement could serve to undermine labor rights, Susan provides some fresh recommendations for making the TTIP more appealing to workers.

Read it. Provide feedback.  And register for Cato’s October 12 TTIP conference.