Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Freedom for Yang Zili

Congratulations to Yang Zili, a Chinese advocate for political pluralism and human rights who has been set free after serving eight years in prison.

As I noted in the Fall 2007 edition of Cato’s Letter, Yang was an admirer of the libertarian thinker F. A. Hayek and described himself as a political liberal. A computer engineer by trade, Yang quickly recognized the power of the internet to spread ideas, founding a website, the “Garden of Ideas” (www.lib.126.com), where he forcefully condemned communism and argued for democratic reforms. “I am a liberal,” he wrote, “and what I care about are human rights, freedom and democracy.” Yang also participated in a discussion group called the New Youth Society, where he discussed the potential for political reform in China with young people who were similarly passionate. In 2001, Yang Zili and three of his colleagues were jailed for conspiring to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party.

As the Washington Post reported in 2004, the small group met for only a few months, and during that time one of its members was reporting to the Ministry of  State Security. Indeed, the Post reported:

What happened to the New Youth Study Group offers a glimpse into the methods the party uses to maintain its monopoly on power and the difficult moral choices faced by those caught in its grip. The fate of the study group also illustrates the thoroughness with which the party applies one of its most basic rules of survival: Consider any independent organization a potential threat and crush it.

The eight members of the New Youth Study Group never agreed on a political platform and had no real source of funds. They never set up branches in other cities or recruited any other members. They never even managed to hold another meeting with full attendance; someone was always too busy.

And yet they attracted the attention of China’s two main security ministries. Reports about their activities reached officials at the highest levels of the party, including Luo Gan, the Politburo member responsible for internal security. Even the president then, Jiang Zemin, referred to the investigation as one of the most important in the nation, according to people who have seen an internal memo summarizing the comments of senior officials about the case.

Such is life in a police state.

Yang Zili spent eight years in prison for being brave enough to speak out against an authoritarian regime, which is 8 years too many in my book. Still, we can take comfort that he got out, and that his colleagues are slated to be released from prison next year.
Unfortunately, many young internet activists brave enough to stand up for freedom still languish in jail.

Obama’s First Signing Statement

obama-signs-billPresident Obama issued his first signing statement last week. While approving the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill, he reserved the right to reinterpret, evade, or ignore a number of the bill’s provisions. To some conservatives, that smelled like vindication; and some liberals found it fishy. Who’s right? Both, to some extent.

During the Bush years, “signing statements” came to stand for a much broader set of issues than the practice itself. After President Bush used one to basically announce that, veto-proof majority or no, he didn’t have to follow the McCain Detainee Treatment Act, “signing statements” in the public mind became shorthand for the Bush theory that the president is sole constitutional “decider” on all matters related to national security—in much the same way that the PATRIOT Act became shorthand for overzealousness in homeland security. The obnoxiousness of each—open defiance in the signing statement case, the dopey Orwellianism of the acronym with PATRIOT—made them symbols, even though neither represented the worst abuses in the fight against terrorism.

But what really matters is the underlying constitutional theory, not the particular quasi-legislative device it’s reflected in. Which is worse: openly announcing that you’re not going to obey new congressional restrictions on torture—as Bush did with the 2006 McCain Amendment—or secretly violating the old ones for years? The latter, clearly. At least a signing statement puts you on notice.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama, unlike McCain, never promised to end the practice of signing statements entirely. Obama’s position was more nuanced. When it comes to signing statements, some nuance is appropriate. I don’t agree with the ABA’s blanket condemnation of the practice. As the Congressional Research Service has pointed out, despite the Supreme Court’s 1983 repudiation of the legislative veto, Congress continues to smuggle legislative vetoes into omnibus spending bills. One could argue that the president’s only recourse is to veto the bill–and more vetoes of spending bills would surely be welcome. But it seems to me that in such cases, issuing a signing statement is a venial sin at worst. There’s a vast difference between that sort of signing statement and one that asserts that the president cannot be bound by a law barring torture.

Most of the objections Obama lodged in his signing statement fall well short of the Bush-Cheney end of the spectrum. But there’s at least one that looks particularly dodgy:

United Nations Peacekeeping Missions. Section 7050 in Division H prohibits the use of certain funds for the use of the Armed Forces in United Nations peacekeeping missions under the command or operational control of a foreign national unless my military advisers have recommended to me that such involvement is in the national interests of the United States. This provision raises constitutional concerns by constraining my choice of particular persons to perform specific command functions in military missions, by conditioning the exercise of my authority as Commander in Chief on the recommendations of subordinates within the military chain of command, and by constraining my diplomatic negotiating authority. Accordingly, I will apply this provision consistent with my constitutional authority and responsibilities.

Here Obama echoes Bushian claims about the extent of the president’s authority under the commander-in-chief clause. But given the context, perhaps the better parallel is with Bill Clinton. President Clinton also asserted the power to ignore congressional restrictions on his ability to place U.S. troops under foreign command. That sort of executive unilateralism in the service of multilateralism was distinctly troubling. As one commentator noted in 2000:

Responding to congressional efforts to stop the new policy, the Clinton administration has claimed a broad constitutional power in the president to delegate military command authority to any person. According to the administration, the president’s commander in chief power allows him to select whomever he believes necessary for military success…. That position has serious constitutional and policy defects. First, the administration’s legal justification for its recent multilateral command policy fails to account for the Constitution’s limitation on the delegation of federal power outside of the national government….

You know who wrote that? John Yoo. My head hurts.

Who Owns Cybersecurity?

There is a government brawl underway over cybersecurity.

The Department of Homeland Security’s National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) is legally responsible for cybersecurity for nonmilitary parts of the government. It is also supposed to help state and local government and the private sector protect their networks. But Shaun Waterman reports that the guy running that center just quit because the National Security Agency (the wiretapping intelligence agency) was basically running his office and taking over its function.

According to Walter Pincus’ article in today’s Washington Post, Strategic Command (the nuclear weapons command) is in charge of offensive cyber attacks and defending US military networks from cyberattack. But the NSA oversees Stratcom’s cybersecurity activities, somehow or other.

The White House is conducting a 60-day cybersecurity review, which is being led by an official in the office of Admiral Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence. Blair wants a bigger role for U.S. intelligence agencies in cybersecurity. Presumably that means the NSA, which employs some of the nation’s leading cryptographers. Meanwhile, Obama is likely to give General Keith Alexander, head of NSA, his fourth star and make him the White House’s cybersecurity coordinator (aka, the cyberczar).

So it sounds like the review may be moot – the decks are stacked for the NSA to take over. The Federal Times, however, reports that Congress may upset those plans.  Congressmen on the homeland security committee still want DHS in the lead.

What about private networks? The White House Review will address that too. Alexander has said that the NSA should play a role. But right now, according to most people, it’s DHS’s job. Pincus writes, “Responsibility of protecting civilian networks currently rests with the Department of Homeland Security.”

I would have thought it rests with the network operators. Missing in this debate, from what I can tell, is any attempt to outline what public goods are at play. Clearly, the federal government should defend its own networks. (Whether it should do so through the leadership of agency recently engaged in vast illegal activity is less clear.) The feds should probably also collect intelligence about cyberattacks, make it available to the public and pursue perpetrators. But providing security to private entities, through technology transfers or consultation, seems akin to providing locks to homeowners. That may be too simple – and the relevant distinction may be whether we are talking about state or non-state threats – but it’s something that the review should consider.

Here’s more on the great cybersecurity freakout.

The Hazards of Expanding the War into Pakistan

This morning, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration may expand the war in Afghanistan deeper into Pakistan in order to target Taliban safe havens in Balochistan.

The war would have a very different character if the Pashtun and Balochi areas of western Pakistan did not act as de facto sanctuaries for the leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban. As I’ve written before, NATO’s stalemate will continue so long as Pakistan is unable – or unwilling – to uproot militant sanctuaries.

But I’ve also argued about the hazards of the United States using unmanned aerial drones to strike targets within Pakistan. These aerial strikes lead to collateral damage that undermines the authority of sitting Pakistani leaders, fuels violent religious extremism in a nuclear-armed Muslim-majority country and exacerbates anti-American sentiment even among the more moderate elements of the country.

U.S. policy in this region is beyond complicated. It’s a complete mess. Right now, more than three-quarters of provisions for U.S. and NATO troops must travel through Pakistan’s worsening security conditions to make it into land-locked Afghanistan. But after previous U.S. aerial drone strikes within Pakistan, leaders in Islamabad have more than once closed their main supply route.

As I argue in a forthcoming Cato policy analysis,

Our dependence on [Pakistan] constrains the usefulness of their support… To make matters worse, Washington’s diminished leverage over Pakistan means that elements of its military and intelligence service will continue to take advantage of America’s dependence by failing to tackle terrorism more vigorously.

Other routes for the Afghanistan mission are currently being considered, but the leaders of these countries bring their own problems, as other scholars have written both here and here.

For the foreseeable future, the war in Afghanistan will remain hostage to events inside Pakistan. And sadly, Washington’s attempts to stabilize Afghanistan will likely continue to destabilize Pakistan.

Monday Podcast: ‘Challenging Domestic Military Detentions’

410px-ali_saleh_kahlah_al_marriAli Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, the exchange student from Qatar who was detained by the FBI with alleged ties to al-Qaeda, sat for years in a military brig in South Carolina as the only domestically detained enemy combatant.

The Bush Administration used al-Marri to test a legal theory aimed at keeping suspected terrorists in military prisons indefinitely.

President Obama has reversed that ruling, and has moved al-Marri into civilian courts. The Supreme Court is no longer hearing al-Marri’s appeal.

In Monday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Legal Policy Analyst David Rittgers says that there’s nothing that will stop future administrations from again reversing the policy.

This is creating this legal cul-de-sac where we can have military detention domestically…and the reason that they picked Al-Marri is, just as you would pick a sympathetic plaintiff to sue to overturn a law, if you want to keep a law…you would look for an unsympathetic defendant, and Al-Marri is as unsympathetic as you can get.

…He is the test case to keep this policy open.

The Cato Institute co-authored an amicus brief (PDF) at the Supreme Court supporting al-Marri’s challenge to the military detention.

What’s New in Pakistan?

200903_innocent_blogThis weekend, protesters supporting Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) clashed with police in riot gear in downtown Lahore. The sight of lawyers being tear-gassed is shocking to many Americans. But what should be more shocking—yet extremely more complicated to work through as explained below—is America’s continued backing of Pakistan’s unpopular president, Asif Ali Zardari, who continues to obstruct his democratic opposition and (until recently) the reappointment of ousted Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudrhy.

It’s easy for people in the West to dismiss these demonstrations as the outgrowth of the country’s petty political infighting. But Americans must recognize that historically, U.S. policy and assistance has either enhanced the position of Pakistan’s military at the expense of its civilian leaders, or has helped domestic civilian leaders more popular within Washington than within their home country. Throughout the Cold War and up to the present day, these domestically unpopular figures devoted more government resources toward themselves, their own political parties, and their own bureaucratic expansion rather than toward economic and social reforms to modernize and better educate Pakistan’s population. Consequently, Pakistani citizens began to blame American aid and support for their own deteriorating situation.

Certainly Pakistan’s domestic power struggles and ceaseless political infighting will continue to overshadow a menace more sinister than legislative rivals—i.e.-the Taliban, al Qaeda and other militant groups sweeping through large swaths of Pakistani territory.

But for long-term stability, U.S. policymakers must jettison the idea that a foreign leader’s denunciation of America means that leader poses a direct threat to U.S. interests. What America should want most is stability and continuity, particularly within Pakistan if we want to prevent the convergence of global terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Thus, in a perverse way, Sharif’s condemnation of the United States, coupled with his unwavering support for restoring judges sacked by Musharraf, has shored up his support within Pakistan, and his rise to power may actually bring solidity to the country.

The question of whether the military will step back in is much more complicated. Last August when the military backed away from politics, that move was based on political expediency (a desire to repair its tarnished image) rather than on political principle (a desire to restore the country’s democratic rights). If people in the military begin to feel that the country is slipping out of control they would attempt to retake power. There are, however, two main reasons why the military would not try to reassert its authority: 1) political pressure from Washington (the belief that with the military focused on governing, it would take its focus off combating the insurgency); and 2) pragmatism (after all, if Pakistanis are in an uproar over Sharif, imagine the protests that would ensue if army generals tried to impose martial law).

But when it comes to foreign policy, anything is possible, and Pakistan’s government has swung like a pendulum between military dictators and electoral democracies throughout its 61-year history. Because civilian leaders do not have a monopoly on government decision-making, U.S. policymakers must cultivate relations with both the civilians and the military, as civilians may be in power one day and the military in power the next.

Pakistan’s army is on standby ahead of today’s planned sit-in by lawyers in Islamabad, and authorities warn that such a protest would paralyze the government. The best U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can do is work with both Zardari and Sharif to arrive at a negotiated settlement to restoring judges and ending the political deadlock. But overall, Pakistan’s long-term success depends on the strength of its civilian institutions and the public’s repudiation of extremism. In this respect, America must be committed to strengthening cooperation not only with the Pakistani Government but with the Pakistani people.

Update: Sharif this morning calls off protest

Our Problem on the Ground in Afghanistan

Virtually no one believes that things are going well on the ground in Afghanistan.  The reasons are many.  Some of the practical frustrations are captured by my friend Joshua Foust, who is working with the military on attempting to better understand Afghan society.  He writes:

 Over scalding cups of tea in mid-February, an elder in Nijrab, Afghanistan said to me, “For two years you have come here and asked me the same questions. I like you, I like the French, but you people never learn.”

He was referring to the generic questions Westerners ask Afghans: What is your life like? Where is the Taliban? What are your village’s needs? This particular elder has regular contact with American troops, and likes Americans enough to have tea with us. Nevertheless, he was deeply frustrated by the way, for all our questions, we never seem to learn from our experiences.

Very few people in Kapisa province assume that coalition forces are there to do them harm. They acknowledge that ISAF behaves fundamentally differently than the Soviets did. Yet as the seventh year of the war begins, there is enormous frustration with the coalition for not learning from its mistakes, and also with the Afghan government for being unresponsive.

One elder from northern Tagab said, “We can sit down and have tea with you, but we can’t with our own government.” He said he wished the coalition would focus more on the people and less on the government. “Governments come and go,” he said, “but the people will always be here.”

Indeed, countless interviews indicate that people in Afghanistan have very little confidence in their local government or the police, instead trusting their shuras (community and district councils) and the Army to represent their interests.

His reports on his blog also are well worth reading.  Josh is a skeptic of preventive wars and nation-building, but his posts are more reportorial, giving us ivory tower sorts a better sense of the reality that America’s military and civilian personnel must confront every day in Afghanistan.