Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

PATRIOT Act Reauthorization Fight Begins This Week

If the House Judiciary Committee keeps to its current schedule, on Thursday it will meet to consider the third version of the USA Freedom Act in the last two years. I’ve seen a very recent draft of the bill, and from my perspective in its current form the bill effectively acts as if the Snowden revelations and several independent reviews of the PATRIOT Act Sec. 215 metadata program never happened.

The bill ignores the fact that both the Congressional Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks and the 9/11 Commission itself found that the attacks happened because of information sharing and analytical failures, not because of intelligence collection shortfalls. The bill claims to end the controversial telephone metadata program, but a close reading of the bill reveals that it actually leaves key PATRIOT Act definitions of “person” or “U.S. Person” intact—and under 50 U.S.C. sec. 1801(m) of the PATRIOT Act, “person” is defined as “any individual, including any officer or employee of the Federal Government, or any group, entity, association, corporation, or foreign power.” It’s the “group, entity, association or corporation” language that leaves open the possibility of continued mass telephone metadata surveillance under the PATRIOT Act.

The bill also grants the government sweeping “emergency” collection authority not tied to an imminent threat of death or bodily harm, which has generally been the standard for such programs in the past. The bill allows the government to retain U.S. Person call detail records if the government alone determines such records are “foreign intelligence information”. The bill’s FISA court revisions include the creation of amicus curiae (previously called “special advocates” in earlier version of the USA Freedom Act) that in theory would help the court work its way through particularly thorny cases potentially involving major interpretations of law. But there are two key caveats to this provision: the FISA court has sole discretion to appoint—or not appoint—these amicus curiae and the government still retains the ability to invoke the “state secrets” privilege, which would render the presence of the amicus curiae moot.

What is missing from the bill is at least as significant as what it contains.

Americans Should Not Wait for Politicians to Help Syrian War Victims

KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT—Seventy-eight nations plus 40 non-governmental organizations recently gathered to raise money for the relief of Syrian refugees. Kuwait’s Emir opened the Third International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria with a plea for funds.

The small Gulf nation has carved out an international humanitarian role. “This is our baby,” one Kuwaiti official told me.

Kuwait opened the proceedings with a promise of $500 million, matching last year’s donation. The U.S. won the number one position with an offer $507 million, but many participants offered little more than good will. Overall the conference generated $3.8 billion of the $8.4 billion which aid agencies were seeking.

Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, warned that “We are at a dangerous tipping point.” The vulnerability of those caught in the conflict’s crossfire was highlighted by the Islamic State’s advance to the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees on the outskirts of Damascus.

Alas, virtually no one in Syria has escaped the impact of four years of civil war. More than 200,000 Syrians are thought to have died; another million have been injured. The economy has imploded. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon added: “Four out of five Syrians live in poverty, misery and deprivation.”

Some 12.2 million people, more than half of the population, are estimated to need humanitarian assistance. A similar number have been displaced—between 6.5 million and 7.8 million within Syria and three to four million on to neighboring states.

Washington Should Make Foreign Policy for Americans, Not Foreign Liberals

Washington’s actions abroad affect the size and power of Washington at home. “War is the health of the state,” declared social critic Randolph Bourne.

The more active America’s foreign policy, the more the United States has to spend on the military: the “defense” budget is the price of Washington’s foreign policy. American military personnel and contractors die. Enemies are created, some of whom become terrorists. A national security state develops.

Thus, Americans committed to limited government and individual liberty should support a foreign policy based on humility and restraint. An imperial foreign policy like that today inevitably inflates–indeed, requires–a Leviathan state.

Nor should anyone who understands government believe the American state to be capable of competently fulfilling more expansive foreign policy objectives. At times, war is an unfortunate necessity and government must rain down death and destruction on other peoples.

Far more often, however, policymakers turn the military into just another government tool intended to achieve complicated ends that often aren’t even important, let alone vital. Attempts at so-called humanitarian intervention and nation-building, for instance, almost always turn out badly, even disastrously.

Remaining Obstacles to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

The Obama administration is hailing the framework agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program as a great diplomatic triumph. It is clear, however, that several significant obstacles remain—any one of which could fatally undermine that achievement. The most obvious threat is the unrelenting hostility to the accord by hawks in the United States. The ink was barely dry when William Kristol, editor of the flagship neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard, published an editorial openly urging Congress to kill the agreement. Outspoken congressional hawks, including Senator Tom Cotton and Senator Lindsey Graham, have made it clear that this is their objective as well. Given GOP control of both houses of Congress, such opposition is more than a minor worry.

But there are other sources of potential trouble. Just days after Kristol’s screed, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisted that all economic sanctions against his country must be lifted once the final version of the nuclear accord is signed. Yet even the Obama administration has adopted the position that sanctions will be lifted only in stages as Tehran fulfills its commitments. Clearly, that dispute could unravel the entire accord.

Disagreement about the timing and extent of terminating sanctions reflects the continuing lack of trust between Tehran and Washington. Although most Americans would argue that Iran is the untrustworthy party, I point out in a recent article in Real Clear Defense, that there is also reason to doubt Washington’s willingness to abide by its commitments. The U.S. track record is not especially reassuring. During the latter stages of the Cold War, for example, the United States proposed a procedure of “cross recognition” regarding North and South Korea. In other words, if Moscow and Beijing established diplomatic ties with Seoul, Washington would recognize the government in Pyongyang. China and Russia have since done so—and now enjoy a wide range of diplomatic and economic relations with South Korea. But the United States has yet to normalize relations with North Korea.

From Iran’s standpoint, an even more worrisome precedent is the action that the United States and its NATO allies took with regard to Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya. Gaddafi abandoned his nuclear program in exchange for promised diplomatic and economic concessions. Within a few brief years, those nations turned on Gaddafi, openly funding and arming an insurgency to overthrow his regime. That campaign culminated with NATO (primarily U.S.) cruise missile strikes to support the successful rebel offensive.

The Libya episode hardly creates an incentive for Iran, North Korea, and other potential nuclear-weapons states to forgo such ambitions. Indeed, it likely reinforces the opposite incentive. The pertinent lesson seemed to be that only a very foolish government would give up the nuclear option in exchange for the mere promise of normalized relations with the West.

The challenge for the Obama administration is to demonstrate to Iran that it can and will deliver on the U.S. commitment to lift sanctions, if Tehran fulfills its obligations under the new nuclear agreement.  Given the extent of the opposition in Congress, though, it is uncertain whether the administration can prevail, even if it is serious about keeping the U.S. side of the bargain.  Celebration in response to reaching the framework accord is decidedly premature.  We are still a long way from the implementation of an effective settlement to this dangerous feud.

U.S. Intervention Most Threatens Mideast Stability

The Obama administration’s decision to negotiate with Tehran triggered near hysteria among U.S. politicians and pundits who advocate perpetual war in the Middle East. One complaint is that the talks failed to address Iran’s regional role.

These critics denounced Tehran’s imperial ambitions. For instance, the Foreign Policy Initiative insisted that “Iran’s drive to dominate the region has been years in the making.”

However, if Mideast domination is Iran’s long-term priority, Tehran has accomplished little. Most governments in the region oppose the Islamic regime and America has far more influence.

Operation Decisive Failure

A front page story in today’s Washington Post highlights that the failure of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition campaign in Yemen is already becoming apparent:

Two weeks into a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, airstrikes appear to have accelerated the country’s fragmentation into warring tribes and militias while doing little to accomplish the goal of returning the ousted Yemeni president to power, analysts and residents say.

Foreign Policy makes similar points:

Through its backing of Saudi Arabia—with bombs, intelligence, refueling, and search-and-rescue capabilities—and Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen, the United States is effectively at war with the impoverished land that occupies the southwestern heel of the Arabian Peninsula. That war is going spectacularly badly.

None of this should be surprising. Yemen’s history is replete with tribal conflict and failed invasions, as I highlighted yesterday in the New York Times. Yemeni insurgencies have defeated the British, the Egyptians, and the Saudis in the last 50 years alone.

Cuba and the State Sponsors of Terrorism List

President Obama has signaled that his administration may remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list. The change should have occurred years ago, but would be particularly appropriate now, at a time when the United States is trying to resume economic and diplomatic ties with the country. Cuba’s inclusion on the list is a major sticking point in these negotiations. 

It is reasonable to surmise that the defenders of the Cold War-era embargo, including Senator Marco Rubio and the editors of the Wall Street Journal, oppose a change in Cuba’s terror sponsor designation because they want to thwart normalization. They ignore the fact that the embargo has failed to bring about regime change in Havana, and has similarly failed to expand the freedoms of innocent Cubans caught in the middle of the running dispute between Washington and Havana. The WSJ notes, for example, that the Cuban government’s repression of political dissidents and human right activists continues, but doesn’t explain how a continuation of the status quo will force a change in Havana’s behavior. 

Indeed, the embargo hasn’t merely failed. It denies Americans their basic rights to trade with and travel to the country. It also functions as a convenient excuse for the Castros and their cronies when they are pressed to explain why Cubans lag well behind others in the Western Hemisphere in terms of economic development and basic living standards. It says a lot about the magnanimity of the Cuban people, who have been lied to for so long about U.S. intentions, and who have been told that America is to blame for their misery, that they still retain a measure of affection for their neighbor to the north. If removing Cuba from the list hastens the process toward normalization, that might be reason enough to do so.

But the best reason for removing Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list may be because Cuba does not appear to be a state sponsor of terrorism. As a story in today’s Washington Post notes, “In many ways, the U.S. designation, first imposed in 1982, is a Cold War relic. Although the United States strongly objects to Cuba’s domestic policies, it has offered no evidence for decades that Cuba is actively involved in terrorism abroad.”

This situation is not unique to Cuba. The terror sponsor list has become a catch-all for countries we don’t like very much, including for other reasons – human rights abuses, weapons proliferation, and general roguish behavior. Countries should be scorned, and perhaps even sanctioned, for such activities, but casting them as terrorist sponsors when they clearly are not renders the entire enterprise farcical. CFR’s Micah Zenko makes a great case for abolishing the state sponsor of terrorism list entirely. 

The president is unlikely to make such a dramatic step, of course, but he could push to ensure that it includes those states that actually do sponsor terrorism. An accurate list would likely include a number of long-time U.S. allies, which, no doubt, would make for some awkward embassy cocktail parties.