Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Five Problems with the “Secret” Drone Campaign in Syria

Last week’s Washington Post report of the CIA/Special Forces “secret” drone campaign provided fresh evidence that the United States is heading in the wrong direction on the Middle East. Supporters of increased military action abound in Washington, of course, and lacking any better idea, the Obama administration has decided to double down on drones, despite no evidence that such an effort will have any measurable effect on the situation in Syria or Iraq. Instead, the new drone campaign is likely to have (at least) five negative consequences.

First, it will inflame anti-American sentiment in the region. Sadly, as survey after survey shows, anti-Americanism is rampant through the Middle East, even in countries the U.S. counts on as allies in the fight against terrorism and the Islamic State. A recent study shows that the Arab Twitterverse is awash in negative sentiment toward the U.S., illustrating that  And even more relevant, a recent Pew study documents the unsurprising fact that U.S. drone strikes are incredibly unpopular almost everywhere, prompting majorities in several Arab countries to say strikes against the United States for its behavior are justified. More drone strikes will move the U.S. backwards, not forwards.

Second, it will aid Islamic State recruiting and spur more terrorism. After 9/11 the United States went on the offensive, looking to destroy Al Qaeda and kill terrorists abroad before they could visit America to do more harm. What happened, however, was that by killing large numbers of Al Qaeda members and supporters, but also a large number of civilians, and thereby causing immense chaos, strife, and uncertainty, the United States managed to give fresh air to first Al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts and now to the Islamic State’s. In 2001 there were 1878 terrorist attacks in addition to the 9/11 attacks. After 13 years of war on terror there were 16,818 terror attacks worldwide in 2014. In short, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy has been debunked. With every drone strike, the U.S. lends weight to jihadist claims that the U.S. is a malign presence in the Middle East.

China’s Enduring Hatred of Japan Could Spark Renewed Conflict Involving U.S.

BEIJING—There are many obscure tourist sites in Beijing. One missed by many foreigners is the Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War Memorial Hall.

The museum illustrates why China, America’s most fearsome potential competitor, and Japan, Washington’s most important Asian ally, often are at odds. The two are a conflict waiting to happen, which could draw the U.S. into war with a nuclear power.

Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over last week’s World War II victory parade in Beijing. However, the conflict with Japan continues in many people’s minds.

Following Washington’s lead, Tokyo did not recognize the PRC until 1972. Since reestablishing official ties the two countries’ relationship has gyrated up and down. More than talking is necessary to resolve four major disputes: history, trade, territory, and security.

Although the Chinese Communist Party manipulates history for its own benefit—young Chinese learn little about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests—the CCP has been quick to criticize Tokyo for failing to take responsibility for Imperial Japan’s actions.

U.S.-South Korea Alliance Treats Pentagon as Department of Foreign Welfare

As South and North Korea exchanged artillery fire in late August, the U.S. rushed three B-2 bombers to Guam. The Obama administration hoped to deter the North from taking military action, but why is Seoul still a helpless dependent 62 years after the Korean War ended?

Imagine a hostile relationship existing between the U.S. and Mexico. The Mexicans threaten America with war. Washington responds by begging Europe and Japan to send military aid.

America would face raucous laughter. After all, the U.S. has more than 2.5 times Mexico’s population. America’s GDP is an even more impressive 14 times that of Mexico’s.

Yet the disparity between the ROK and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is larger. The South enjoys a population edge of two-to-one and an economic advantage upwards of 40-to-one.

Seoul has stolen away the North’s chief military allies, China and Russia, which no longer would fight for the DPRK. On every measure of national power save military South Korea dominates. And it lags on the latter only out of choice.

Presidential Candidates Need to Stop Bashing China

One important issue that should be the topic of sober discussions in the ongoing U.S. presidential campaign is policy toward China.   Instead, that topic receives inadequate attention–especially compared to the obsession with every minutia of Middle East policy. As I point out in a recent article in China-U.S. Focus, when China policy is not ignored, candidates too often take shrill positions to score cheap political points. That has been true in nearly every presidential election cycle since the Carter administration established diplomatic relations with Beijing.

Although Donald Trump seems determined to ignite a trade war with China, Carly Fiorina and Gov. Scott Walker have been especially prone to engage in China-bashing on a broader basis. Fiorina has taken an extremely confrontational stance regarding such complex issues as the South China Sea territorial disputes and cyber security. In an interview with CBS News, she recommended that the United States increase its provocative flyover aerial surveillance of the South China Sea. And it is clear that she has no sympathy for Beijing’s territorial claims. “We cannot permit China to control a trade route through which passes $5 trillion worth of goods and services every year,” she stated bluntly. 

Fiorina was mild on the South China Sea controversy compared to her stance regarding recent cyber attacks—which she blithely assumed originated in China and were approved by the Chinese government. She contended that such attacks were an act of aggression against the United States, implying that an especially confrontational response was warranted.

Walker has likewise advocated a extremely hard-line policy.  In a July interview with The National Interest, he portrayed China as a threat, stating that Washington needed to beef-up its military capabilities in East Asia, strengthen its alliances with Beijing’s neighbors, and develop a robust cyber capability “that punishes China for its hacking.”  And as if those positions would not be enough to poison the bilateral relationship, Walker stressed that the United States needed to “speak out against the abysmal lack of freedoms in China.”  Interestingly, Walker has not adopted a similar position with respect to human rights abuses committed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other U.S. allies.

Matters have become worse in the days since I wrote the China-U.S. Focus article. Walker recently insisted that President Obama rescind his invitation to Chinese Xi Jinping for a state visit to Washington in September. Chinese leaders (and the Chinese people) would regard a rescission as a gratuitous insult, so that proposal is especially irresponsible. 

Sen. Marco Rubio also has entered the China-bashing sweepstakes. Although Rubio took a shot at China’s human rights record, labeling it “a disgrace,” it was clear that Beijing’s principal sin, in his view, is its defiance of U.S. hegemony in East Asia. “Xi Jinping is trying to convince his country’s 1.3 billion people that the way to establish Chinese greatness is to undermine the United States and enhance China’s influence at our expense,” he fumed. The goal, Rubio assumed, was “to push America out of Asia.” Numerous scholars have pointed out that Beijing’s policy is far more ambivalent and nuanced than that, but such subtleties tend to get lost in the heat of presidential campaigns.

The onset of shrill, combative rhetoric is most unfortunate. The United States and China do have some major substantive disagreements, and they deserve to be addressed. But it is important that candidates do so in a sober, constructive fashion. Campaign grandstanding, even if not meant seriously, creates needless suspicions and resentment in U.S.-China relations. Presidential candidates need to remember that preserving a cordial relationship with China must be a top U.S. foreign policy priority. Bilateral cooperation enables China and the United States to foster global strategic stability and economic prosperity. Conversely, a breakdown of the relationship would lead to unpleasant and possibly catastrophic consequences. Policy toward China is far too important for candidates either to ignore or demagogue.   

North Korea Remembers Libya, So No Iranian-Style Deal

The Obama administration’s success in negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran has led to hope that a similar agreement might be reached with North Korea. Halt your program, dismantle some of your capabilities, and accept intrusive inspections in return for “coming in from the cold.”

Unfortunately, there’s virtually no chance of that happening. As I point out in National Interest online: “The North already has a nuclear capability and views preservation of a nuclear arsenal as critical for domestic politics as well as international policy. Moreover, the West’s ouster of Libya’s Moammar Khadafy is seen in Pyongyang as dispositive proof that only a fool would negotiate away missile and nuclear capabilities.”

In word and action the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has demonstrated its commitment to being a nuclear state. Moreover, even a good offer for denuclearization looks suspect in light of U.S. and European support for the ouster of Libya’s Khadafy, who negotiated away his nuclear, chemical, and long-range missile programs.

President George W. Bush promised that Libya’s “good faith will be returned.” Khadafy was feted in European capitals. Tripoli was cited as a model for Iran and North Korea to follow.

However, four years ago the U.S. and European governments saw their chance. Under the guise of humanitarianism, Washington and Brussels promoted low-cost (to them) regime change.

Alas, the self-satisfied celebration of Libya as a “good war” quickly dissipated after that nation suffered post-war atrocities, loosed weapons across the region, generated rogue militias, spawned two governments, descended into incipient civil war, and became another battleground for Islamic State forces. 

Now Libya also stands as a stark warning against nonproliferation, at least for any government believing itself to be in Washington’s gunsights. Had Khadafy possessed nukes, chemical weapons, and/or missiles, the allies almost certainly would have kept their planes and drones at home.

The North Koreans took immediate note. The Foreign Ministry observed:  “Libya’s nuclear dismantlement much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm and then swallowed it up by force.”

Pyongyang has no reason to believe that the allies would not take advantage of a similar opening against the Kim dynasty.

Nevertheless, the Iranian negotiations have revived hopes that the DPRK might be enticed into following suit. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman suggested that implementation of the Iran agreement “might give North Korea second thoughts about the very dangerous path that it is pursuing.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the Iranian deal was an “active model” for the North.

Alas, Kim Jong-un took power only a couple months after Khadafy was killed in rather gruesome fashion. That event likely was imprinted upon his consciousness. Kim isn’t likely to give up his most important weapon to deter outside intervention.

After announcement of the Iranian agreement, the North Korean foreign ministry issued a statement explaining that the situation of the North was “quite different” from that of Iran and that Pyongyang was “not interested at all in the dialogue to discuss the issue of making it freeze or dismantle its nukes unilaterally first.”

After all, the DPRK was a nuclear state and faced ongoing threats from the U.S. Thus, its nuclear deterrent was not “a plaything to be put on the negotiating table.”

This should surprise no one. Author Mark Fitzpatrick contended that the Iranian deal showed that the U.S. “treated the Iranians as equal negotiating partners, according them respect and collegiality.” But Washington treated Libyans that way too. Which didn’t stop the U.S. and its allies from ousting the same government a few years later.

It never was likely that the DPRK would yield up its nuclear weapons. But the Obama administration’s Libyan misadventure makes that prospect even less likely. Washington may rue this precedent for years to come.

Thailand’s Military Delivers Oppression Rather than Happiness

Thailand long has been the land of smiles, a friendly, informal place equally hospitable to backpackers and businessmen. But politics has gotten ugly in recent years.

As I warn in Forbes online: “Now a cartoonish dictator out of a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera runs a not-so funny junta which jails opponents and suppresses free speech. The bombing of a popular Hindu shrine in Bangkok demonstrates the danger of terrorism becoming a tactic by the disaffected, in which case life in Thailand could generate far more frowns than smiles.” General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power, last year, promising happiness, prosperity, and security. But the junta has failed to deliver all three.

Those denied political rights and civil liberties aren’t happy. The generals also found that economic forces do not yield to military dictates. The investigation of the recent Bangkok bombings yielded contradictory official claims, causing the government to threaten the public for circulating “false information.” General-Prime Minister Prayuth suggested that the police watch the New York police drama “Blue Bloods” for help.

The dictator betrays a touch of comic megalomania. On taking power he declared that happiness had returned to Thailand.  Irritated with a journalist’s question, he blustered: “Do you want me to use all of my powers? With my powers, I could shut down all media … I could have you shot.” Hopefully he wasn’t serious. However, the generalissimo often has surrendered to his inner autocrat. Freedom House reported that the coup pushed Thailand backwards from “partly free” to “not free,” with a reduction in civil liberties and especially political rights.

Should NSA Be Immune from Constitutional Scrutiny?

Today the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit issued a ruling in NSA v. Klayman that has almost no practical effect, but is a potent illustration of how excessive secrecy and stringent standing requirements effectively immunize intelligence programs from meaningful, adversarial constitutional review.

Contrary to some breathless headlines, today’s opinion does not “uphold” the NSA’s illicit bulk collection of telephone records—which, thanks to the recent passage of the USA Freedom Act, must end by November in any event. Rather, the court overturned an injunction that only ever applied specifically to the phone records of the plaintiffs. And they did so, not because the judges found the program substantially lawful, but because the plaintiff could not specifically prove that his telephone records had been swept into the database, even though the ultimate aim of the program was to collect nearly all such records.

Together with other similar thwarted challenges to mass government surveillance—most notably the Supreme Court case Clapper v. Amnesty International—the decision sends the disturbing signal that mass scale surveillance of millions of innocent people by our intelligence agencies is, for all practical purposes, immune from meaningful constitutional scrutiny. Even when we know about a mass surveillance program, as in the case of NSA’s bulk telephony program, stringent standing rules raise an impossibly high barrier to legal challenges. Perversely, the only people with a realistic chance of challenging such programs in court are actual terrorists who the government chooses to prosecute. The vast, innocent majority of people affected by bulk surveillance—those with the strongest claim that their rights have been violated—are effectively barred from ever having those rights vindicated in court.

Given the routine refusal of courts to step in to protect our Fourth Amendment rights, it is fortunate that Congress has already acted to bring this intrusive and ineffective program to a halt.