Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Washington Likes Democracy — When People Vote Right

The U.S. government is a big proponent of democracy — as long as foreign peoples do what they are told.  Washington pushed for early elections in Gaza and the result was … oops!  A victory for Hamas.  So now Washington doesn’t like democracy and won’t talk to the victors of a democratic vote.

Now the pattern risks repeating itself.  Vice President Joe Biden recently visited Lebanon and told the Lebanese how much America likes democracy — as long as they vote for the parties that the Obama administration prefers.  Reports Associated Press:

Vice President Joe Biden said Friday that future U.S. aid to Lebanon depends on the outcome of upcoming elections, a warning aimed at Iranian-backed Hezbollah as it tries to oust the pro-Western faction that dominates government.

Confident its alliance will win, Hezbollah criticized Biden’s visit as a U.S. attempt to influence the June 7 vote and held a mass rally to show its popular support.

Biden is the highest-level U.S. official to visit Lebanon in more than 25 years and the attention shows American concern that the vote could shift power firmly into the hands of Hezbollah. U.S. officials have said before they will review aid to Lebanon depending on the composition of the next government, apparently meaning military aid.

“The election of leaders committed to the rule of law and economic reform opens the door to lasting growth and prosperity as it will here in Lebanon,” Biden said. The U.S. “will evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates.”

The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist group and Biden’s one-day visit was clearly timed to bolster the Western-leaning faction led by Prime Minister Fuad Saniora ahead of the vote. He expressed strong support for the government.

Given the disastrous record of foreign aid over the years, I’d rather the administration simply stop handing out Americans’ money, irrespective of the government in power in a particular nation.  But Washington certainly should stop trying to publicly, even ostentatiously, buy votes.  Imagine how Americans would respond to a similar threat from another country:  “We’ll pay you if you vote our way, but forget the cash if you choose the other guys.”  Most Americans, whatever their personal political preferences, would not be amused, shall we say.

There’s good reason not to like Hezbollah, but Lebanese politics is more complicated than many U.S. policymakers seem to realize:  some Christian factions are allied with the Shiite group.  Moreover, Hezbollah’s focus is on Israel, not America.  There’s no reason to turn another fractious and well-armed group into an enemy of the U.S.

I know it would be a revolutionary change for  Washington, but how about just staying out of other nations’ affairs?  Show our respect for democracy by not trying to buy the result that we want.  Treat others as we would expect them to treat us.  And stop meddling in political disputes in which we can do no evident good.

Foreign Aid Establishment Runs Scared

For years the foreign aid establishment has simply pointed at pictures of starving children abroad and said:  give.  Congresses and presidents have responded by tossing billions at the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, U.S. Agency for International Development, and other so-called aid agencies.  The result, unfortunately, has been continuing poverty mixed with increased indebtedness.  For good reason aid has been said to involve taking money from poor people in rich countries and giving it to rich people in poor countries.  But the arguments against misnamed “foreign aid” advanced by Cato and other free market advocates have been largely ignored.

The latest challenger is Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, who has gained significant public attention for her new book, Dead AidI’ve reviewed it in the Washington Times and Cato has hosted a forum for her.  Dedicated to legendary British economist P.T. Bauer, the first recipient of Cato’s Milton Friedman Prize, Dead Aid excoriates the aid establishment for supporting policies that actually make recipients worse off.  Foreign aid would be better called foreign hindrance.

Now, reports the Financial Times (full text hidden behind a subscription wall, alas):

A swell of opposition is building in the aid world to a new protagonist who has thrown down a strident challenge to the rock stars and liberal economists who have long dominated debate over foreign assistance to developing countries.

Galled by the ease with which Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian economist and former investment banker, has risen to prominence this year, activists are circulating detailed critiques of her ideas and mass mailing African non-government organisations to mobilise support against her.

Yet it is proving hard to suppress the hyper-active graduate of Oxford and Harvard, who pops up weekly in a new capital to promote her book, Dead Aid — the title itself an affront to rock star Bob Geldorf’s Live Aid campaigns.

Obviously the aid lobby is worried.  Free market friends should jump in to back up Moyo.  She has brought both attention and credibility to the case against foreign aid.  This moment must not be wasted.

Cheney vs. Obama: Tale of the Tape

In case you missed it, President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney spoke separately today on terrorism and national security. Like two boxers at a pre-fight press conference, they each touted their strength over their opponent. They espoused deep differences in their views on national counterterrorism strategy.

The Thrilla in Manilla it ain’t. As Gene Healy has pointed out, they agree on a lot more than they admit to. Harvard Law professor and former Bush Office of Legal Counsel head Jack Goldsmith makes the same point at the New Republic. Glenn Greenwald made a similar observation.

However, the areas where they differ are important: torture, closing Guantanamo, criminal prosecution, and messaging. In these key areas, Obama edges out Cheney.



I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.


I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What’s more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured.

Torture is incompatible with our values and our national security interests. When we break our own rules (read: laws) against torture, we erode everyone’s faith that America is the good guy in this global fight.

Torture has been embraced by politicians, but the people who are fighting terrorists on the ground want none of it. As former FBI agent Ali Soufan made clear in Senate hearings last week, it is not an effective interrogation technique. Senior military leaders such as General Petraeus, former CENTCOM commanders Joseph Hoar and Anthony Zinni, and former Commandant of the Marine Corps Charles Krulak all denounce the use of torture.

If we captured Al Qaeda operatives who had tortured one of our soldiers in pursuit of information, we would be prosecuting them. Torture is no different and no more justifiable because we are doing it.

Closing Guantanamo


I think the President will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come.


[I]nstead of serving as a tool to counter-terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.

This is an area where Cheney is disagreeing not just with Obama but with John McCain. We would be having this debate regardless of who won the last Presidential election. Get over it.

The current political climate gives you the impression that we are going to let detainees loose in the Midwest with bus fare and a gift certificate for a free gun at the local sporting goods store. Let’s be realistic about this.

We held hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war in America during World War II. The detainees we have now are not ten feet tall and bulletproof, and federal supermax prisons hold the same perfect record of keeping prisoners inside their walls as the detainment facility in Guantanamo Bay.

Criminal Prosecution

Obama basically said that we will try those we can, release those who we believe pose no future threat, and detain those that fit in neither of the first two categories. That’s not a change in policy and that pesky third category isn’t going away.

Obama and Cheney do have some sharp differences as to the reach of war powers versus criminal prosecution.


And when you hear that there are no more, quote, “enemy combatants,” as there were back in the days of that scary war on terror, at first that sounds like progress. The only problem is that the phrase is gone, but the same assortment of killers and would-be mass murderers are still there.


Recently, we prosecuted and received a guilty plea from a detainee - al-Marri - in federal court after years of legal confusion. We are preparing to transfer another detainee to the Southern District of New York, where he will face trial on charges related to the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania - bombings that killed over 200 people.

I have written extensively on al-Marri, the last person to be detained domestically as an enemy combatant. The FBI did everything right when it investigated and indicted this Al Qaeda sleeper agent masquerading as an exchange student, only to have the Bush administration remove those charges in order to preserve the possibility of detaining domestic criminals under wartime powers. This claim of governmental power is a perversion of executive authority that Obama was right to repudiate.

The man being indicted in New York is Ahmed Gailani. If he is convicted for his role in the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, he will join his co-conspirators Wadih El-Hage, Mohammed Odeh, Mohammed al-Owhali, and Khalfan Mohammed in a supermax.

This is also where we hold 1993 World Trade Center bombers Ramzi Yousef, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (the “Blind Sheikh”), Mohammed Salameh, Sayyid Nosair, Mahmud Abouhalima, and Ahmed Ajaj.

Not to mention would-be trans-pacific airline bombers Wali Khan Amin Shah and Abdul Hakim Murad.

Al Qaeda operatives Mohammed Jabarah, Jose Padilla, and Abu Ali will share his mailing address.

Let’s not forget American Taliban Johnny Walker Lindh, Shoe Bomber Richard Reid, Al Qaeda and Hamas financier Mohammed Ali Hassan Al-Moayad, Oregon terrorist training camp organizer Ernest James Ujaama, and would-be Millenium Bomber Ahmed Ressam.

That’s a lot of bad guys. It’s almost like we’re checking names off a list or something.



Behind the overwrought reaction to enhanced interrogations is a broader misconception about the threats that still face our country. You can sense the problem in the emergence of euphemisms that strive to put an imaginary distance between the American people and the terrorist enemy. Apparently using the term “war” where terrorists are concerned is starting to feel a bit dated.

Obama: no quote is necessary here. The differences in narrative between Obama and Cheney are clear and woven into what Obama says.

Terrorism is about messaging. America finds herself in the unenviable position of fighting an international terrorist group, Al Qaeda, that is trying to convince local insurgents to join its cause. Calling this a “War on Terror” can create a war on everybody if we use large-scale military solutions for intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic problems.

We have to tie every use of force or governmental power to a message: drop leaflets whenever we drop a bomb, hold a press conference whenever we conduct a raid, and publish a court decision whenever we detain someone. Giving the enemy the initiative in messaging gives them the initiative in the big picture.


Once we get past the rhetoric, the differences are few but worth noting. I take Obama in the third round by TKO.

Why We Shouldn’t Bomb Iran—From an Unlikely Source

Many of the same people who were telling us what a cakewalk invading Iraq would be are now lobbying to bomb Iran.  They assure us it would be another cakewalk which would restore American prestige around the world.  Indeed, North Korea and other rogue states would come groveling.


But an unusual opponent of launching another war has emerged.  Reports the Jerusalem Post:

There is no viable military option for dealing the Iranian nuclear threat, and efforts by the Israeli government and its supporters to link that threat to progress in peace with the Palestinians and Syria are “nonsense” and an obstacle to the Arab-Israeli and international cooperation essential to changing Iranian behavior.

That’s the conclusion of Keith Weissman, the Iran expert formerly at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), speaking publicly for the first time since the government dropped espionage charges against him and his colleague, Steve Rosen, earlier this month.

There’s no assurance an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities - even if all of them could be located - would be anything more than a temporary setback, Weissman told me. Instead, a military strike would unify Iranians behind an unpopular regime, ignite a wave of retaliation that would leave thousands dead from Teheran to Tel Aviv, block oil exports from the Persian Gulf and probably necessitate a ground war, he said.

“The only viable solution is dialogue. You don’t deal with Iran with threats or preaching regime change,” said Weissman, who has lived in Iran, knows Farsi (as well as Arabic, Turkish and French) and wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago on Iranian history. That’s where the Bush administration went wrong, in his view.

“President Bush’s demand that Iran halt all nuclear enrichment before we would talk with the regime was an excuse not to talk at all,” Weissman said. “And the administration’s preaching of regime change only made the Iranians more paranoid and told them there was no real desire to engage them, only demonize them. The thing they fear most is American meddling in their internal politics.”

His arguments would have had no effect on the previous administration.  But his judgment offers powerful and welcome backing for President Barack Obama, who seems determined to pursue diplomacy.

… But Obama Generally Comprehends Terrorism

My difference with the President on releasing photos of Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, he exhibits an understanding of terrorism and how to counter it – an understanding that was not on display at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue this week or at the American Enterprise Institute today.

Here’s a portion of President Obama’s speech today showing that he knows how overreaction to terrorism (such as resorting to torture) plays into the terrorism strategy:

As commander-in-chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What’s more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured. In short, they did not advance our war and counter-terrorism efforts – they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all.

Transparency and National Security Are Not in Tension

Penny-wise and pound-foolish. That is my take on the “balance between transparency and national security” President Obama claims to have struck with regard to photographs of wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib.

Taking it as a given that release of the photos would inflame enemies in Iraq and threaten our troops there, failing to release the photos will warm anti-American sentiment the world over for far longer as people assume that the U.S. is concealing far worse than what is already known.

Not lancing a boil is a way to avoid pain, but failing to lance that boil is potentially much more painful over the long haul. By not releasing the photos, President Obama protects troops today at a cost to more troops in the future.

The damage was done at Abu Ghraib. All that remains is to let sunlight heal the wounds or to let the infection continue to fester.