Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Dear America, I Saw You Naked

Politico has a hilarious, revolting, and insightful article, written by former Transportation Security Administration screener Jason Edward Harrington. It’s called “Dear America, I Saw You Naked.” The subhead: “And yes, we were laughing.”

Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display. Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who’d had mastectomies were easy to discern—their chests showed up on our screens as dull, pixelated regions. Hernias appeared as bulging, blistery growths in the crotch area. Passengers were often caught off-guard by the X-Ray scan and so materialized on-screen in ridiculous, blurred poses—mouths agape, à la Edvard Munch. One of us in the I.O. room would occasionally identify a passenger as female, only to have the officers out on the checkpoint floor radio back that it was actually a man. All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels.

In July 2011, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the TSA to conduct a formal rulemaking and take comments from the public on the use of strip-search machines at airports. TSA took 20 months to propose a two-sentence regulation, which, as we pointed out to the agency, is totally defective.

The comment period closed in June last year and we have waited another seven months, at this point, for a final rule. When it comes out, it can be challenged in court under the “arbitrary and capricious” standard of the Administrative Procedure Act.

The evidence in the rulemaking docket shows that strip-search machines cost more in dollars, privacy, and dignity than they provide in security, which, as Harrington’s article again shows, is not very much: “We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed.”

Cato Scholars Respond to the 2014 State of the Union

Cato Institute scholars Alex Nowrasteh, Aaron Ross Powell, Trevor Burrus, Benjamin H. Friedman, Simon Lester, Neal McCluskey, Mark Calabria, Dan Mitchell, Justin Logan, Patrick J. Michaels, Walter Olson and Jim Harper respond to President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address.

Video produced by Caleb O. Brown, Austin Bragg and Lester Romero.

The Violence in Iraq: What Can Be Done?

Just over two years after the last U.S. combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq, an insurgency is raging throughout the country. The black flags of ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham – now fly over Fallujah, the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the U.S war in Iraq. These recent gains by extremists, and the apparent inability of the Iraqi government to exercise control over its territory, have many in U.S. foreign policy circles worried.

Many blame Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for the uptick in violence, arguing that his heavy-handed policies toward the Sunni minority laid the groundwork for the current insurgency. (e.g. here) Others blame the Obama administration for failing to successfully negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would have allowed a small residual U.S. force to remain in the country to help train the Iraqi army and conduct counterterrorist operations. The claim that such forces would have been able to exert great leverage over the Iraqi political class, and that Obama himself bears some blame for the violence because he withdrew U.S. troops rather than leave them in Iraq without a SOFA, ignores that our forces were unable to fix Iraq’s shattered political system even when they were in Iraq in large numbers. (More on this here.)

Iraqi politics, Iranian influence, and a spillover of violence from the Syrian civil war make the situation far more complex than most want to admit. It’s one thing to assign blame, it’s quite another to find solutions.

At an upcoming Cato policy forum, “Understanding the Continuing Violence in Iraq,” experts will provide context for the current situation, outline obstacles facing the Iraqi government, and debate what role, if any, the United States should play. Speakers include Douglas Ollivant of the New American Foundation, who wrote on this subject earlier this month, and Harith Hasan who, with Emma Skye, commented on Iraqi politics here last year, and has also written a book on the subject.

The event begins at Noon, on Tuesday, February 12th. To learn more, and to register, click here.

How’s That Oversight Coming Along?

One of the claims made by defenders of NSA spying is that it’s overseen and approved by all three branches of the federal government.

Computer security expert Bruce Schneier provides some insight into how well congressional oversight is working in a short blog post entitled: “Today I Briefed Congress on the NSA.”

This morning I spent an hour in a closed room with six Members of Congress: Rep. Logfren, Rep. Sensenbrenner, Rep. Scott, Rep. Goodlate, Rep Thompson, and Rep. Amash. No staffers, no public: just them. Lofgren asked me to brief her and a few Representatives on the NSA. She said that the NSA wasn’t forthcoming about their activities, and they wanted me – as someone with access to the Snowden documents – to explain to them what the NSA was doing.

Many members of Congress have been derelict for years in not overseeing the National Security Agency. Now some members of Congress are asking questions, and they’re being stonewalled.

It’s the government so…

I suggested that we hold this meeting in a SCIF, because they wanted me to talk about top secret documents that had not been made public. The problem is that I, as someone without a clearance, would not be allowed into the SCIF.

Randy Barnett and I made the case last fall that the panels of judges who approve domestic spying under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act should not be regarded as legitimate courts. Their use to dispose of Americans’ rights violates due process.

And the executive branch? Here’s President Obama: “I mean, part of the problem here is we get these through the press and then I’ve got to go back and find out what’s going on…”

How’s that tri-partite oversight coming along?

North Korean Politics as Blood Sport: China May Be a Target Too

North Korea has never been an easy ally for the People’s Republic of China. With the execution of Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle and supposed mentor, Beijing’s uncertain clout in Pyongyang is at risk. 

“Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il has been dead barely two years, but his son appears to have turned politics there into blood sport. While family members, including Jang under both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, were commonly sidelined, they never were publicly executed. 

Now the game has changed. Although Kim appears to be in firm control, the circumstances are extraordinary. A quick execution is as much a sign of weakness as strength, suggesting the need to dispatch a dangerous rival who might gather support. Undertaking a broad and deadly purge creates not only uncertainty but desperation, which might spark unexpected resistance.

As I recently wrote in US-China Focus:

The most obvious concern over the DPRK concerns a foreign policy which has gotten more erratic and confrontational since Kim Jong-il’s death. Kim regularly employed brinkmanship as policy, but always seemed to know just when to stop. Kim fils has demonstrated no such limits. His latest threat of war against South Korea went by fax to Seoul. The possibility of mistake or miscalculation seems much higher.

There also is rising doubt as to the PRC’s ability to offer a moderating influence on Pyongyang. China’s relationship with the DPRK never has been easy. Still, Chinese energy and food aid has been essential, and most recently Chinese investment has provided the DPRK an economic lifeline. 

There has been a recent hardening of attitudes in the PRC. Nevertheless, until now the North continued to seek support from China. But now Jang is gone.

Jang was widely thought to play an important role in economic affairs and place greater emphasis on economic development, which probably meant support for economic liberalization.

Moreover, Jang had established a strong relationship with Chinese officials. Bilateral deal-making seemed to accelerate in Kim Jong-il’s final years, when Jang played an important leadership role. In 2012, the latter headed a large delegation which discussed expanding special investment zones with Beijing’s support. Many North Koreans linked to Jang were in business in the PRC. 

It is widely presumed that Jang was removed for political reasons. Yet the bill of particulars included several economic charges.

For instance, Jang was accused of having “seriously obstructed the nation’s economic affairs and the improvement of the standard of people’s living.”  Even more telling, Jang’s indictment includes the charge of “selling of precious resources of the country at cheap prices” and having “made no scruple of committing such act of treachery in May last as selling off the land of the Rason economic and trade zone to a foreign country for a period of five decades under the pretext of paying those debts.” Moreover, corruption was charged involving a 2011 project at Rason. 

Of course, China is the “foreign country” cited.

The charges could merely reflect a “kitchen sink” quality, but they seem too specific for Beijing’s comfort. So far nothing has obviously changed. New contracts have been signed and one North Korean economic official announced “It’s just the same as before.” Still, inertia might continue to govern, with change to come. Zhu Feng of Peking University observed: “the negative impact must be tremendous.”

Chinese with whom I spoke in early December admitted that they could only speculate. But if the North really is targeting Beijing along with Jang, relations could deteriorate quickly.

North Korea’s urge to purge should prompt rethinking in Beijing about the North Korea “problem.” The PRC should explore options with South Korea and America, including taking a much tougher policy toward the DPRK in return for allied attention to Chinese concerns over economic costs, refugee flows, and security issues. The North’s neighbors should work together to ensure a stable and peaceful future no matter what.

Orange Revolution Redux in the Ukraine: America Should Stay Out

Nine years after the so-called Orange Revolution against electoral fraud, opponents of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich hope to stage a repeat.  But the issue today, whether Kiev aligns economically with Europe or Russia, doesn’t much concern the U.S. 

In 2004 the Orange Revolution helped deliver the presidency to Western-favorite Viktor Yushchenko, a disastrous incompetent.  Yanukovich narrowly won the 2009 race. 

He has been negotiating over an Association Agreement with the European Union.  However, Brussels demanded political concessions, most importantly the freeing of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been prosecuted by Yanukovich’s government, and refused to offer cash assistance. 

At the same time Vladimir Putin pushed Kiev to forswear the EU and join the Moscow-led Customs Union.  And Moscow brought cash to the table.  To the consternation of Brussels, last month the Yanukovich government signed an accord with Russia—though without joining the CU.

Brussels and Washington were shocked, shocked.  New German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said “It is utterly scandalous how Russia used Ukraine’s economic plight for its own ends.”

Sen. John McCain visited Kiev, where he complained that “President Putin has pulled out all the stops to coerce, intimidate and threaten Ukraine away from Europe.”  Former Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky demanded “a broad range of measures, including WTO sanctions, Russian expulsion from the Group of Eight and even a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics by political leaders, unless Moscow abandons its strong-arm tactics toward Kiev.” 

The hypocrisy is breathtaking. 

After all, the EU was pushing Kiev into making political concessions and choosing Europe over Russia.  In return, the Europeans offered the prospect of economic gain through increased trade.  After Kiev said no European officials said billions in grants and loans would have been forthcoming had Ukraine signed with the EU. 

As I point out in my latest Forbes online column:

Of course, Washington goes not one hour, let alone one day, without attempting to bribe or coerce another government to do something.  The American secretary of state circles the globe constantly lecturing other nations how to behave.  Since the end of the Cold War the U.S. has been the warrior state, routinely using military means to achieve its ends.  Indeed, Sen. McCain has variously supported war against Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Serbia, and Syria.

Russia is guilty of heavy-handedness?

Yes, the West offers a better, freer path.  Which is why protests have broken out over Ukraine’s abandonment of the EU.  It’s fair for Washington to wish the critics well and warn Kiev against a violent response. 

But why should Brussels or Washington meddle in the decision itself?  The Wall Street Journal insisted that the Obama administration “stand up for America’s interests and values.”  But what are they in Ukraine? 

Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland declared at the opposition rally in Kiev:  “the U.S. stands with you in your search for justice, for human dignity and security, for economic health, and the European future that you have chosen and deserve.” 

Washington should endorse justice and human dignity, which justifies support for honest elections and warnings against police brutality.  But Ukraine’s “economic health” and “European future” aren’t American values and are barely American interests.  How would Americans feel if Ukrainian politicians showed up at a Republican rally in Washington vowing to stand with protestors in the name of Ukrainian “interests and values”?

A stable, democratic Ukraine would be benefit all.  However, Russia’s activities in Ukraine do not threaten the U.S.  In contrast, bringing NATO up to Russia’s southern border could not help but be seen as threatening by Moscow—imagine the Warsaw Pact expanding to Mexico. 

The West should acknowledge legitimate Russian interests in Ukraine, while offering new incentives for Kiev to look westward.  Moreover, Europe should seek compromise with Moscow.  Ukraine has proposed creation of “a tripartite commission to handle complex issues,” including greater links between the EU and the Russian-lead CU, which might reduce Moscow’s pressure on Kiev.

If Ukraine wants to look east, so be it.  Even with Russia’s money Yanukovich’s reelection prospects are weak and Ukraine is likely to eventually join the West.  If not, the country never was the EU’s or Washington’s to lose.

Dennis Rodman May Be Crazy, But He Is Not Entirely Wrong

That Dennis Rodman is unconventional, even unbalanced, was evident when he played professional basketball.  His athletic skills won him a lucrative contract, but his behavior suggested no interest in diplomatic protocol. 

He has been much criticized for visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a brutal totalitarian dictatorship.  There are no political freedoms or civil liberties. 

Open Doors just released its latest World Watch List and the DPRK again is rated the globe’s worst religious persecutor.  The government tolerates a little more private economic activity, but that free space remains painfully small.

As I wrote in the Huffington Post:

Nevertheless, cultural and sports exchanges should be encouraged.  Americans gain a small window into the Hermit Kingdom, as well as an equally restricted opportunity to share unscripted moments with individual North Koreans.  When I visited years ago I was usually accompanied by a driver, interpreter, and handler.  But there were moments when I was alone with one or another.  And such opportunities are more frequent with larger groups which involve more local officials.

Private engagement of this kind may help influence North Koreans who might play a leadership role in the future.  The family dynasty will not last forever and may implode sooner rather than later.  It would be better for the U.S. if more North Koreans see Americans and realize that they do not match the demons of regime propaganda.

In fact, the U.S. government also would benefit from engagement.  Washington should offer to establish consular relations, creating a window into the “Hermit Kingdom” and a presence that could intercede when Americans are arrested, as is becoming more common. 

Thus, Rodman’s trips are not objectionable in the abstract.  Let his team of washed up NBA players journey to Pyongyang.  And then let the North send its team to America.

What Rodman got wrong was so shamelessly sucking up to the “young general.”  Calling Kim his friend for life, singing happy birthday to him, and seemingly endorsing the dictator and dictatorial system were grotesque. 

Rodman need not publicly denounce Kim.  But he could go about his business, quietly polite to North Korean officials and restrained when responding to American journalists.  He could simply say he went to the DPRK for sports, not politics, and then shut up—though, admittedly, that would be completely out of character for him.

The basketball great even glimpsed a small truth about l’affaire de Kenneth Bae.  The Christian missionary obviously is a man of courage and conviction.  And the government’s relentless persecution of religious believers is a human rights outrage.  There was nothing wrong with “what Kenneth Bae did,” as Rodman suggested, that justifies the former’s imprisonment.

However, Bae knew the risks he was taking.  He chose to visit the North and, apparently, violate North Korean law by engaging in evangelism.  He knew arrest and imprisonment would result if he was caught.  Unlike the hapless 85-year-old American tourist who found himself detained and accused of war crimes more than six decades ago, Bae intentionally though bravely put himself at risk. 

Thus, Rodman’s response when pressed on the issue, “that’s not my job,” was callous, not outrageous.  Still, basic decency should have caused the player to make an effort on the missionary’s behalf. 

An indirect approach likely would have been most effective.  Rodman could have cited his obvious commitment, despite significant criticism at home, to draw the U.S. and North closer together, but explained that Bae’s continued imprisonment impeded that effort.  He then could have advocated Bae’s release as a good will gesture. 

Rodman is a convenient lightening rod.  But he isn’t completely wrong. 

North Korea is a great human tragedy.  And we should hope that the next informal ambassador to the DPRK is someone less prone to inane outbursts.  Nevertheless, Dennis Rodman is (a little) better than nothing.