Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Burma’s Agony Continues

The trial of Nobel laureate and Burmese democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi has concluded as expected:  with an extension of her term of house arrest.  The official offense was an unauthorized visit by American John Yettaw, but the regime would have found another excuse had Yettaw, who was sentenced to seven years in prison, not made his unexpected appearance.

The Burmese military junta, which styles itself the State Peace and Development Council, is one of the worst governments on earth, having promoted war and prevented development as a matter of state policy.  The regime continues to imprison Ms. Suu Kyi to better enable it to control the elections scheduled next year.  But the poll will be a farce without the participation of Ms. Suu Kyi, who won the last free ballot two decades ago.

The junta also continues its brutal war in the east against ethnic groups, such as the Karen, which have long sought autonomy from the central government.  Millions of people have been displaced within Burma (also called Myanmar) and hundreds of thousands of refugees have been driven across the border into Thailand by the conflict.

America’s options are limited.  The U.S. and European Union already have applied economic sanctions against Burma, including controls targeted against regime elites and cronies.  Unfortunately, China has exhibited no similar scruples, becoming the junta’s strongest backer.  Other nations throughout the region also engage in substantial investment in and trade with Burma.

Any attempt to expand general sanctions is likely to fail and, even if successful, would hurt Burma’s vulnerable population more than regime elites.  Instead, the U.S. and Europe should press India, the ASEAN states, and Japan and South Korea to adopt limited sanctions targeted against junta leaders and their economic allies.  Moreover, Washington should engage Beijing over the issue, indicating that promoting political reform in Burma would enhance its international reputation and claim to global leadership.

Finally, the U.S., along with its Asian and European friends, should offer a positive package of economic and diplomatic benefits should the Burmese junta improve human rights and open Burmese society.  Washington’s expectations should be limited:  the regime is not likely to yield power irrespective of the inducements offered.  However, the junta might decide that the benefits from more limited reform are worth the risks of change.

It’s Not So They Can Buy You Gender-Appropriate Birthday Gifts

ac_secure_flightStarting Saturday, U.S. airlines are going to start asking you for your birth date and gender when you go to buy tickets. They will hand this information over to the Department of Homeland Security for use in running your name (with these other identifiers) against their watch lists. This is the “Secure Flight” program moving forward.

I copied an image file from the Transportation Security Administration Web site that illustrates the problem TSA is trying to solve. Many different people have the same name. The government wants to do a better job of vetting you against their watch lists.

TSA has done a lot to keep Secure Flight going. It’s been a rolling failure for many years, and at least one serious problem remains: It doesn’t secure air travel. Watch lists don’t include unknown wrongdoers, and eluding identity checks will always be trivially easy (barring a bulletproof, national, cradle-to-grave biometric tracking system).

The privacy problem is simple: Giving better identifying information to the government reduces your privacy by an equivalent amount. Today, that’s not too concerning, and the TSA’s privacy impact analysis for Secure Flight promises they will keep data on most people’s travels for “a short period of time.” But promises can be broken—either in secret, or with the stroke of a pen. And you’ll have no effective recourse when that happens.

According to a Washington Post report, people will not be denied travel if they decline to provide this information. They will just be directed to secondary search. This points to a strategy that a small number of people—people like yourself—can use to have a large influence on this program.

If enough travelers decline to provide information—and threaten not to travel by air—the airlines will be forced into a privacy advocacy role.  To defend their bottom lines, they will lobby against making this data collection mandatory.

As always, protection of your privacy is up to you. Go ahead and indulge your prickly, obstinate side on this one.

Stephen Brooks’ Response to Me, and Mine to Him

Guest-blogging for Stephen Walt last week, I offered some criticism of Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth’s book, World Out of Balance.  Brooks has emailed to offer his response, which I post below with my reply.

Brooks writes:

First, the concluding chapter of our book distinguishes between two forms of systemic activism that a leading state can pursue — the first one relies on the use of the military and the second (identified by Robert Gilpin) involves changing the structure of the global economy, international institutions, and standards of legitimacy.  We favor a focus on the second approach to systemic activism (that is what our Foreign Affairs article is all about) and taking this route does not involve the deployment or use of military force.  It is hard for me to see how undertaking this second form of systemic activism can contribute to imperial overstretch.

Second, our main point about the financial crisis does not concern the US policy response.  Rather, the essential point is that the crisis does not change the fact that America’s lead over its competitors is very, very large and that relative power shifts slowly.  Knowing that the US is so far ahead is sufficient for us to reach the conclusion that the US will long remain the sole superpower.

My response is as follows:

Let me start by making clear that I think Brooks and Wohlforth have the better of the “is unipolarity ending?” argument.  I also think they have the better of the argument about the likely implications of the financial crisis on the balance of power.  Due to interdependence and a number of other factors, the United States will almost certainly emerge from the wreckage with its unipolar status intact.

Rather, the point of my highlighting their argument that the long-term fiscal problems in the United States “can be fixed” was to observe that they seem quick to dismiss problems that may pose serious danger to America’s standing over the medium term.  To my mind, the fiscal imbalances are significant, and don’t appear likely to be fixed any time soon.

Second, Brooks adds that his and Wohlforth’s preferred systemic activism does not involve military activism, but rather a focus on “changing the structure of the global economy, international institutions, and standards of legitimacy.”  On this point they cite Robert Gilpin.  Gilpin did distinguish between three objects of foreign policy (physical/military control of territory, “influence over the behavior of other states,” and influence over the world economy), and acknowledged that economic control had increased in salience since the global economy developed.  But he made clear that economic interests “cannot be easily isolated from the first two” types of objective.  That is, the relative weight of the three may shift, but they remain tethered to one another.

To my mind, this fact can be seen in Brooks and Wohlforth’s proposal in Foreign Affairs to revise the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.  While the authors present this as an institutional change, it would create laws that would need to be enforced.  For the past couple decades, as a unipole, the United States has tasked itself with being the ultimate backstop against proliferation, with mixed results.  At bottom, then, the question is who will enforce the law?

The authors propose creating an institution to provide nuclear aspirants with LEU but precluding them from obtaining indigenous enrichment capabilities, and creating a new institution involving NATO allies, South Korea, Japan, and Australia to impose sanctions on the violators of this new regime.  If recent experience is any indication, though, the countries listed do not believe it in their interests to impose tight economic sanctions, let alone military action, to stop proliferation.  One wonders how the creation of a new institution would shift these countries’ willingness to impose binding constraints on proliferation.

A primacy strategy that focuses on enhancing legitimacy and international institutions does not seem separable from military power—and the willingness to use it.  If Brooks and Wohlforth’s position is that the systemic activism which they favor does not involve “the deployment or use of military force,” then that is a curious view indeed.

“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.