Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

“Three Amigos” Meet, Drugs on the Agenda

The presidents of Mexico and the United States and the prime minister of Canada are meeting today in Guadalajara. One of the many things they’ll discuss will be cross-border drug trafficking and the violence that accompanies it. Although swine flu is making the headlines, most Americans probably don’t know that drug violence has killed many times more people than the attention-grabbing epidemic.

Who knew this presumably important fact? The well-informed readers of Cato Unbound, that’s who. (Swine flu has killed 1,154 worldwide; since 2006, drug violence has killed more than ten thousand in Mexico alone.)

This month’s lead essayist, former Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda, complains of “A U.S. War with Mexican Consequences.” He notes that we in the United States have a greater taste than Mexicans for both illegal drugs and prohibition. And we have a disturbing tendency to export the consequences of those tastes to Mexico. Without the United States, there would scarcely be a Mexican drug problem. Many policies offered as solutions aren’t working. In particular, militarization is a dangerous step that has worked out badly in other Latin American countries; a U.S. military presence would be politically unpopular and would not be tolerated in Mexico. Mexico pursuing drug decriminalization is just as unpopular in the United States; American governments have worked hard to keep decriminalization off the Mexican political agenda.

Journalist and Latin American affairs expert Stephanie Hanson of the Council on Foreign Relations responds that both countries should consider decriminalization of marijuana and possibly of harder drugs as well. It may be time, she suggests, to admit that prohibition isn’t working, at least as it’s been practiced so far. She points to experiments conducted in the Netherlands, Portugal, and — for those not as well-informed — the experiment in the fictional Baltimore of The Wire, where decriminalization offered a measure of calm, albeit only for one episode.

Another expert in the area, James Roberts of the Heritage Foundation, suggests otherwise. Drug decriminalization and/or legalization will also ruin lives and kill people, just as prohibition has done, except this time it will be done with the support of our governments. Rather than give in to the drug cartels, he recommends fighting them every step of the way. In any event, decriminalization is never going to succeed politically in the United States, so we’re better off with a vigorous, effective prohibition than a halfhearted one.

Tomorrow we’ll hear from Cato’s own Ted Galen Carpenter, an expert with yet another view of the situation. A discussion will follow over the next few weeks and, given the diversity of views, it will no doubt be an interesting one.

Iranian Show Trials Continue — As Divisions Within Regime Grow

The news out of Iran continues to be bad, as show trials continue, with Stalinesque confessions.   However, protests are rising over torture and other abuse of prisoners.

Reports the New York Times:

A top judiciary official acknowledged Saturday that some detainees arrested after post-election protests had been tortured in Iranian prisons, the first such acknowledgment by a senior Iranian official.

Meanwhile, a second day of hearings was held in a mass trial of reformers and election protesters, with more than 100 people accused of trying to topple the government. The accused included a French researcher and employees of the French and British Embassies, prompting angry responses from Britain, France and the European Union.

But even as the trial appeared to further the campaign by the hard-line establishment to intimidate and silence the opposition, at the expense of alienating Iranian moderates and the West, the statement on torture by the judiciary official, Iran’s prosecutor general, revealed continued divisions within the government.

Speaking to reporters at a news conference, Qorbanali Dori-Najafabadi, the prosecutor general, said “mistakes” had led to a few “painful accidents which cannot be defended, and those who were involved should be punished.”

Such mistakes, he said, included “the Kahrizak incident,” a reference to the deaths of several detainees at Kahrizak detention center in southwestern Tehran.

It is frustrating to have to stand by as such  human rights abuses occur, but that is almost always the case irrespective of the country.  There usually is little that Washington can do.  So it is in Iran.  Absent initiating war,  the U.S. government — which already has imposed economic sanctions against Tehran in response to its nuclear program — has no good options.

Ultimately, the Iranian people, who appear to be increasingly restive under an ever more repressive system (which  these days looks more purely authoritarian and less genuinely Islamic), will have to force reform.  The sooner they succeed, the better for them and believers in liberty around the globe.

Pakistani Taliban Commander Dead

While American officials have yet to confirm his death, Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which operates as Pakistan’s version of the Taliban, may have been killed Wednesday in an American missile attack in South Waziristan. Pakistan viewed Mehsud as its top internal threat. He was blamed for a wave of attacks that killed nearly 2,000 people in the past two years. He was also suspected of killing former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and of having connections to al Qaeda.

Three things:

Number one, Mehsud’s death may or may not be a big blow to the TTP. Other deputies can easily take his place. In fact, shortly after Mehsud’s purported death, the Taliban Shura (an advisory council meeting) convened to elect a new TTP chief. (Among those being considered are Hakimullah Mehsud, Azmatullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman Mehsud. The successor might be announced after Friday evening prayers). Any of these new leaders could quickly pick up where Baitullah left off, which means that picking off high-value targets in any insurgency does not guarantee that jihadists will melt away. We could only hope that a leadership void creates a power struggle among rival factions of the group, but that seems unlikely.

Number two, the drone operation shows improved coordination between the United States and Pakistan, which is welcome news. But the strike exemplifies the binary nature of the discussion surrounding the use of aerial drones: On the one hand, U.S. officials point to the successful killing of high-level al-Qaeda militants, such as Abu Laith al-Libi in January 2008, and chemical weapons expert Abu Khabab al Masri in July 2008. On the other hand, drone strikes have triggered collective armed action throughout the tribal agencies and have added more fuel to violent religious radicalism in this unstable, nuclear-armed country. One U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to McClatchy Newspaper correspondent Jonathan Landay, called drone operations “a recruiting windfall for the Pakistani Taliban.”

Number three, Pakistan might continue the same policy as before, differentiating between the “good Taliban” (those who attack U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan) and “bad Taliban” (those who attack the Pakistani military and the government). At the strategic level, Pakistan and the United States are still not on the same page.

Pessimism About Afghanistan

Despite the happy talk from some government officials, the American people see the situation in Afghanistan as more likely to deteriorate than improve.  Rasmussen Reports tells us:

Voters are less hopeful about the war in Afghanistan these days.

 A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that only 22% expect the situation there to get better, down seven points from a month ago.

 The plurality (41%) says things will get worse in the coming months, an increase of two points since the beginning of July. Another 24% say the situation will stay about the same during that time, up from 21% in the previous survey.

 Forty-three U.S. soldiers and 31 soldiers from other Western allies were killed in Afghanistan in July, the highest monthly total for both groups in the eight-year-old war. President Obama began shifting more U.S. troops to Afghanistan shortly after taking office because he contends that the country is the central front in the war on terror.

Unfortunately, there is much to be pessmistic about, as Cato’s Malou Innocent has been reporting.

The End of the World War I Generation

Harry Patch died a little over a week ago.  At 111 he was the last British veteran of World War I.  No French or German participants in that horrid war survive.  Only one American participant still lives–Frances Buckles, age 108, who drove an ambulance during the war.

World War I is largely ignored in America, but it seared Europe in particular, as well as other participants, such as Australia and New Zealand, onetime British colonies which sent off soldiers to die for their parent nation.  Although less bloody than World War II, the first conflict set the stage for the second, far more murderous contest, as well as the Cold War that followed.

World War I, once called the war to end war, was foolish and stupid for all participants.  Nothing was at stake that warranted a death toll which approached 20 million.  On top were even more injured and maimed, economic collapse, and political chaos, leading to the rise of fascism, Nazism, and communism.

Harry Patch understood that he had been deployed in a mistaken crusade.  Reports the Washington Times:

Mr. Patch did not speak about his war experiences until he was 100. Once he did, he was adamant that the slaughter he witnessed had not been justified.

“I met someone from the German side, and we both shared the same opinion: We fought, we finished and we were friends,” he said in 2007.

“It wasn’t worth it.”

War sometimes is necessary.  But as Robert E. Lee intoned while looking down on the impressive military tableau at the battle of Fredericksburg, “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.”

Harry Patch certainly understood.  According to the Times:

His most vivid memory of the war was of encountering a comrade whose torso had been ripped open by shrapnel. “Shoot me,” Mr. Patch recalled the soldier pleading.

The man died before Patch could draw his revolver.

“I was with him for the last 60 seconds of his life. He gasped one word - ‘Mother.’ That one word has run through my brain for 88 years. I will never forget it.”

Iran’s Stalinesque Show Trials

Stalinism was dropped even by the Soviet Union when the murderous Joseph Stalin died, but it has never disappeared completely.  North Korea, for instance, mimics the bizarre personality cult promoted by the Soviet dictator.

Now Iran appears to be adopting the Stalinesque tactic of staging show trials, with “confessions” from the obviously brutalized accused.  Reports the Wall Street Journal:

On Sunday, reaction by Iranian newspapers and Web sites to the trials of some 100 detained opposition members, including a former vice president, was polarized as some raised questions about whether their confessions were coerced.

The trial by Tehran’s Revolutionary Court appears to be paving the way for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to secure his grip on power and cap a gradual takeover of Iran’s political landscape by hardliners. Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose government claimed victory in the disputed June 12 presidential elections, is to be inaugurated Monday for a second four-year term. Opposition leaders said the election was rigged.

Top reformist figures appeared in court Saturday looking disheveled and dazed. They sat in the front row wearing gray prison pajamas and plastic slippers without socks, in an apparent attempt to humiliate them in public. The reform leaders were unshaven and had lost weight.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a cleric and former vice president to former President Mohamad Khatami, appeared without his robe and turban. Mr. Abtahi, who should legally be tried at the special tribunal for clerics, clutched a piece of paper and took the stand to give an elaborate confession. He said that reform leaders had been plotting for years to take over the government and had vowed to stick together.

By putting its outrageous repression forward front and center, the regime–fronted if not controlled by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–has delivered its own affirmative answer to the question whether the recent ballot was stolen.   Although the regime has sufficient coercive force to remain in power at the present, it has sacrificed any remaining legitimacy at home as well as abroad.  The oligarchy led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is likely to have an ever more difficult time fending off challenges within the governing elite as well as among the people.

Americans should wish the forces of liberty and democracy well.  There is little that the U.S. government, with an unsavory record of supporting repression in Iran, can do, other than ensure that Washington does not divert attention from the responsibility of the Tehran regime for the many problems facing the Iranian people.  But people around the nation and world can help publicize the struggle in Iran and provide Iranians with the tools of freedom, including freer access to the Internet.  The Iranian struggle against tyranny is one with which all lovers of liberty should identify.

Is America About to Be Overrun by the Chinese/Russians/Anybody?

One of the frequent tropes of recent years is the notion that the United States is in decline, and America is plunging from being the only great power in the system to a status merely as first among equals.  A veritable slew of books have come out in recent years making this argument.  You also get this rhetoric when folks are arguing that we need more F-22s than we actually do, or for various other military-industrial-congressional boondoggles that the MIC complex and its supporters don’t want to give up.

One rhetorical tactic these folks have used is the “defense spending as a share of GDP” approach, which implicitly argues that defense needs should not be based on threat assessment, but rather on economic growth.  The more economic growth, the more defense needs we have.  (By this ramshackle logic, an uncharitable critic like me could note, economic growth is deleterious to national security.  By contrast, if we went into a serious and enduring economic downturn, we’d get much more secure.)

A couple of useful data points have recently emerged that could help lower our pulse a little.  The folks over at the U.S. Naval Institute blog point to the sixth failure of the latest Russian SLBM technology, snarkily observing that “generally speaking, the preferred direction for a ballistic missile, especially a sub-launched one is UP.”

In addition, Tom Donnelly offers a sensible take on the “Russia is going to reassemble the USSR” argument, noting

Moscow’s ability to enforce its writ in the hinterlands has fallen far down. And even Putin isn’t spending the rubles required to rebuild the Red Army. Second, the collapse of the Soviet Union cost the Russian empire about 400 years worth of conquests. Retaking Abkhazia [sic] might seem like a first step, but the road to great power status – as measured by something more than nuclear weapons and commodity prices – is very long.

Still, recognizing that Russia is not capable of reassembling the Soviet empire does not mean that we ought to be sending Joe “Ukrainian Chicks Are Hot” Biden over to Georgia and Ukraine to plump for NATO expansion and dance on the Soviet grave.

But the new panic we’re supposed to take up is the latest discernment of the glacial Chinese move toward developing their first aircraft carrier.  The USNI blog points to an op-ed by the Brookings Institute’s Peter Singer throwing cold water (sorry) over the bow of said carrier:

In trying to justify Cold War-era structures, people often point to the danger presented by the rise of another “peer” state that is building a blue-water fleet just like our own. This is Pentagonese for China as a “rising sea dragon,” with their desire to match our aircraft carriers perhaps the most widely cited manifestation of their menace.

[…]

But a little reality check may be in order. First, their “new” carrier is not all that new. Actually, the Varyag was first laid down back in 1985. Originally planned for the Soviet fleet, it was never completed. Instead, at the Cold War’s end, it was scrapped of all its electronics and engines and sold off to be a floating casino. Even if the Chinese can refurbish it, at best they will be getting an old, untested ship that carries only a third as many planes as a U.S. carrier.

Similarly, the idea that the Chinese can build four new carriers over the next decade is less than realistic. It takes approximately six years to build one of our aircraft carriers, and we have been doing this for more than eight decades. By comparison, the biggest warship the Chinese have yet to build on their own is 17,000 tons, a quarter the size. More importantly, building a ship is not the same as operating it successfully.

Maybe we’re all going to survive after all.  My colleague Ted Carpenter has described our tendency to overrate our threat environment as “strategic hypochondria.”  We should get over it.  It’s unbecoming in a country, as Sen. J. William Fulbright noted, “whose modern history has been an almost uninterrupted chronicle of success.”  Such a country, wrote Fulbright, “should be so sure of its own power as to be capable of magnanimity.”  Meanwhile, some of the most serious problems the country faces, as has become evident, come from within.  It’s going to be much harder to fix them while we’re simultaneously trying to run the planet.