Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

REPRISE: Reasoning from Conclusions in Afghanistan

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

See Jennifer Rowland, “NATO under-reporting green-on-blue violence,” Foreign Policy, May 1, 2012.

Editorial, “The Enemy Within,” New York Times, August 20, 2012.

REPRISE

First published on May 18, 2012

The Observer has often been struck by the manner in which the U.S. military in Afghanistan, and the U.S. government, basically plan policy in Afghanistan–and not only in Afghanistan–by reasoning from conclusions. For years, we have all heard that the strategy of the U.S. is to “stand up” strong Afghan military and police forces that can take on the Taliban, and to “stand up” a competent government that can enlist the loyalties of the Afghan people. Because these steps are necessary, we have reasoned for many years, they represent goals that will be achieved as a result of our military and civilian efforts, and those of our allies, in Afghanistan.

A striking illustration of this mode of thinking is provided by Michael Hastings in his fascinating book, The Operators, published by Penguin earlier this year. Describing general Stanley McChrystal’s approach to “communication strategy”, Hastings summarizes the corresponding mental operations as follows:

Dave…arranged logistics for the general’s travel and played a key role in shaping McChrystal’s communication strategy. He spoke in quick and compact bursts, compressing complex ideas into an insanely efficient militarized syntax. One of his jobs was to handle the Sync Matrix, or as Dave explained it, “to map out what the general is trying to accomplish, then put that on a time chart and functionally organize what we’re doing by his end states and objectives at certain dates and times, and then identify what events are missing based on his goals, plug those events in, and then leverage existing events as the forums we use to articulate our message.

–Michael Hastings, The Operators (New York, The Penguin Group, 2011), p. 40.

(Hasting is the author of “The Runaway General,” Rolling Stone, June 22, 2011. The article’s revelations led to General Stanley McChrystal’s dismissal by President Obama.)

This approach to not only justifying military policy in Afghanistan, but also developing and implementing it, seems to have been endemic in U.S. involvement in the country for a number of years. It explains, perhaps, the wide gap between military assessments of the situation in Afghanistan and those of U.S. intelligence agencies, whose mandate includes providing a dose of skepticism and critical judgment.

Reasoning from conclusions, and the consequences of this approach, are worth thinking about.

As we wrote in 2009,

Catastrophic Failure
One overriding fact remains. Our diplomacy in Afghanistan has not been successful. It has failed. It has failed in a catastrophic way.

The bad decisions are becoming evident, with no sign they will not be followed by even more bad decisions. They include:

1) Failure to understand that the NATO and UN templates from Bosnia and Kosovo were utterly unsuited to the realities of Afghanistan, where fresh analysis and program development was required.

2) Failure to change an electoral law that makes the development of national political parties almost impossible.

3) Agreeing to Afghan elections conducted by a Karzai-appointed commission, instead of sticking with the UN-conducted elections that worked so well in 2004 and 2005.

4) Not insisting, as (Peter) Galbraith wanted, that the fraud being prepared by the Karzai government be stopped.

5) Acquiescing in the election fraud, and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) looking the other way while the fraud occurred.

6) Failing to insist on a correct vote tally and a second round of voting, as required by Afghan law, thus showing Afghans what we, NATO and the UN really believe about democracy in their country.

7) More broadly, throwing out the whole democratic rationale for being in Afghanistan by going along with the election fraud.

Legitimacy–First Things First

The failure in Afghanistan has been a diplomatic and political failure, not just a military failure. Military strategy will falter if diplomatic and political strategy does not keep pace. We cannot succeed in Afghanistan by proceeding on the naive belief that we can “stand up” a legitimate government born of fraud, or that we can “stand up” an Afghan army both capable of defeating the Taliban and loyal to a government lacking in legitimacy and losing public support. Legitimacy is the key to developing both a more effective government and a more capable army and police. Without legitimacy, both possibilities appear to be but chimeras in the desert sand.

–The Trenchant Observer, “More Troops, or Better Diplomacy? Diplomatic and Political Failures in Afghanistan, October 6th, 2009

The utter fiasco of the “government in a box” concept in the Marja campaign in February, 2010 was a sure sign of how difficult it could be to establish “good governance”. So the United States decided to back Hamid Karzai to the hilt, and to more or less forget about the corruption problem. Moreover, the further assumption has been made, or reaffirmed, because it is necessary for the model to work out, that the trained and expanded Afghan military and police forces will remain loyal to the central government of Hamid Karzai.

The growing number of attacks on ISAF soldiers by Afghan military, the very people we are training to hand the country over to, points to the underlying issue of the loyalties of Afghan soldiers once the Americans are removed from combat and have a much lower profile in the country. The Americans, living in their military compounds, are not exposed to the intimidation and reprisals Afghan soldiers and their families face. Once they are gone, or their numbers greatly reduced, a drastic change in the dynamic in the country could occur.

There are no easy solutions here. We are now condemned to suffer the consequences of earlier bad decisions. We can hope for the best.

But even at this remove, reasoning from conclusions is not going to help us.

The Trenchant Observer

observer@trenchantobserver.com
www.twitter.com/trenchantobserv

For links to other articles on Afghanistan by The Trenchant Observer, click on the title at the top of this page to go to the home page, and then type in “Afghanistan” in the search box.

President Obama as “Executioner in Chief”

Friday, June 1st, 2012

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
–Lord Acton (1834-1902)

SOURCES

Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” The New York Times, May 29, 2012.

Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Assessing Obama’s Counterterrorism Record, New York Times,” May 29, 2012.

Marc A. Thiessen, “The Obama-Bush doctrine”, The Washington Post, May 31, 2012 (opinion).

Tara McKelvey, “Covering Obama’s Secret War; When drones strike, key questions go unasked and unanswered,”Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2012.

Andrew Rosenthal, “President Obama’s Kill List,” The New York Times, May 29, 2012 (Taking Note: The Ediorial Page Editor’s Blog).

Editorial, “Too Much Power for a President,” New York Times, May 30, 2012.

William Saletan, “Beyond the Kill List; On the dark side of the drone war, Obama’s rules don’t apply,” Slate, May 30, 2012

Amy Davidson, “The President’s Kill List,” The New Yorker (Daily Online Comment), May 30, 2012.

Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, “Inside the CIA’s ‘Kill List’:
An excerpt from Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State,” September 6, 2011, Frontline, September 6, 2011.

Jonathan Miller, “Obama’s Secret Terrorism ‘Kill List’,” National Journal,
May 29, 2012.

David S. Cloud, “CIA drones have broader list of targets; The agency since 2008 has been secretly allowed to kill unnamed suspects in Pakistan.” Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2010.

Kevin Gosztola, “Obama’s Personal Role in Drone Executions,” The Dissenter (Firedoglake.com), May 29, 2012.

Is Obama incompetent as a foreign policy leader?

Perhaps it is a blessing for President Barack Obama that he is not too impressed by or attracted to the countries of Europe, for in five, 10 or 15 years he is not likely to be spending much vacation time there.

The charge that he is an incompetent leader when it comes to foreign policy, and is the head of a foreign policy team that could be characterized as “the gang who couldn’t shoot strait”, received significant support this week when the President, acting through leaks to the New York Times, revealed that he personally directs and authorizes the targeted executions by predator strikes in Yemen and Somalia, and about a third of the strikes in Pakistan (the more difficult and complex ones).

In addition to blowing the cover, sources and methods of the CIA agent in Abbottabad (Pakistan) who helped find Osama Bin Laden (by misleadingly posing as a doctor sponsoring an immunization campaign), the President has revealed a great number of operational details about the secret operation that led to the killing of Bin Laden in his bedroom.

Obama is obviously leaking details of hitherto covert actions in order to enhance his standing on foreign policy issues, for political purposes.

Moreover, “to spike the football”, to brag to the country and the world about his achievement, he made it plain that the Pakistani government had not known of the Abbottabad operation.  He left no room for ambiguity, which might have served to help avoid the government’s and the military’s humiliation, and also to obfuscate a little what was a flagrant violation of Pakistan’s soverignty.

As a result, U.S. relations with Pakistan are at a nadir, with no signs of improving significantly soon. Unless they do, the whole future of the Afghanistan venture will be placed gravely in doubt.

The Nation’s “Executioner in Chief”

But the above is mere background for the revelations this week, which raise far deeper issues of character, issues which go far beyond competency.

The Observer will never think of Barack Obama in the same way in the future, now that he has revealed through anonymous government sources that he has become the nation’s “Executioner in Chief”.  To the extent these actions cannot be justified under international law–and a great number clearly cannot be, he could of course be termed the nation’s “Assassin in Chief”. This is the reason he may have to choose his travel plans carefully in five, 10 or 15 years.

Assuming the power and moral authority of a god, Obama, the leader of the nation’s foreign policy “juggernaut”, has decided that he will be the person who decides who will live or die, which members on the “kill list” will die today, as a result of his pulling the trigger on the drone and special operations killing machine of the United States. The list is updated at a weekly government meeting by teleconference, with a hundred participants, who add and subtract names, and then pass the “nominations” list to the Oval Office.

Obama has become like a vengeful god who willingly kills people when he doesn’t even know their names, on the basis of their bad associations (e.g., membership in a bad or “terrorist” organization), their bad social profile (e.g., males over 14 years old, acting in “signature” bad patterns), or simply the fact they may be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Obama has taken “guilt by association” to an entirely new level, that of “execution for association”.

The news, while not entirely new, is incredibly shocking. The president assassinates people every day, or almost every day. Without judicial process. Without any accountability under either domestic or international law.

Justification in accordance with a legal memorandum which is itself classified is no legal justification at all, at least not in a democratic state governed by law. The duty of public legal justification of government actions is an absolute and bedrock principle of the rule of law, on both the domestic and the international levels.

His Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, performed a similar function authorizing CIA drone strikes when he was Director of Central Intelligence. As Secretary of Defense, he may now be approving similar strikes by the military when they are not referred to Obama to pull the trigger.

Let us stop and think for a minute.

What does it mean when our President, on a daily or almost daily basis, from the Oval Office or from wherever he may be, personally decides to kill one or a number of people, and in effect pulls the trigger, perhaps watching on a live video feed the execution of his order?

Can we speak meaningfully of “civilian control of the military”, when the president himself assumes a wartime combat role, and in effect functions not as a check on the military, but as an enabler, as a killer himself?

What does the daily participation in such activities do to an individual’s mind, and more importantly, to his soul?

We’ve known for some time that the President had a double character, that he was in the classical sense a Doppelgänger, but only now can we begin to appreciate how crooked one of his two characters has become, how warped and twisted it now appears under the examining power of any moral lens.

He exercises now the awesome powers that dictators in the past have ascribed to themselves, men like Stalin and Hitler, and others of more modern vintage.

What does it tell us about a person when we learn he is willing to kill an innocent woman or child, or boy or man for that matter, if it is part of the cost of killing his intended target, or even of killing a group of people who have the characteristics of the enemy, who he would gladly kill by name if only he knew their names?

What does it tell us that he is willing to kill that innocent woman and that child, not as unintended collateral damage but as quite foreseeable results of his pulling the trigger?

In what moral universe does he reside?

His apologists say that in moral terms he lives in the world of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and the latter’s justifications of “just wars” and “unjust wars”–as understood in the thirteenth century. In understanding Aquinas and other moral authorities, interpreted for him by his spiritual guide who is “almost like a priest”, John Brennan, Obama is also relying on a former CIA official who was at the heart of the Bush torture program, and who got comfortable with torture.

“The end justifies the means” seems to be the operative principle here.

This principle, when all the words and moral posturings are parsed, is the principle that is followed, the principle that is operative. This principle operates, in the Oval Office and elsewhere in the government, under the leadership of President Obama, despite the fact that the entire constitutional and legal history of the United States has been founded on a rejection of the pernicious idea it expresses.

How could a president involved on a daily or almost daily basis in such god-like decisions regarding which specific individuals will live or die–based on baseball cards summarizing the pertinent facts in favor of their death or survival, and involved further in the actual conduct of the extrajudicial killing operation, how could such a person dispassionately lead the government in designing its foreign policy and conducting its foreign affairs?

The warrior appears to have been captured by the wrenching emotional experience of war-fighting, of personally fighting the war. In fact, it is quite conceivable that Obama is suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In thinking about his daily routines, and the war-fighting component of his life each day, it may be useful to review the DSM-5 criteria–the diagnostic criteria of the current proposed revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the authoritative diagnostic guide for mental conditions developed and used by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals.

Obama appears to think only in terms of perpetual warfare, like the warfare he is engaged in, personally, on an almost daily basis.

He has no vision of peace, and is unable to use his imagination to explore actions that might lead to peace. Beyond speeches, his foreign policy seems to be primarily reactive in nature. He has led few successful international initiatives. His administration has not secured a single multilateral international convention (treaty) of any great significance.

He has no appreciation of international law, which is a priori a fundamental building block of peace. One cannot imagine nations living together in peace without binding rules governing their behavior, including “rules of recognition” permiting the identification of such rules, and ultimately some kind of third-party judgment or decision as to the validity of conduct alleged to violate the rules. All of these rules, including those establishing an impartial judgment process, are known as rules or norms of international law.

In fact, there has been quite a lot of history since St. Thomas Aquinas. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) led to the founding of international law and the modern system of nation states through the writings of Hugo Grotius and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

That system of international law has developed over a period of more than three and a half centuries, and in particular following the ineffable horrors of  World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945).

There is a body of binding international law governing the use of force, which is applicable to drone strikes including the selection of targets. There is also a body of international law that prohibits the use of torture.

Obama, mumbling about Thomas Aquinas and the theoreticians of the “just war”, under the guidance of a high priest who himself became comfortable with torture and violation of the international law prohibiting torture (and U.S. law as well), has in effect turned his back on those three and a half centuries of developments in international law.

In justifying his drone and special operations activities, he has distorted the “law of war” or international humanitarian law, which has developed to mediate the horrors of war and to spare civilians, in order to purportedly justify these activities–without, however, subjecting his legal arguments to impartial international judgment.

The world America’s “Assassin in Chief” envisions is a world where he and John Brennan, and Leon Panetta, or their successors, will still need to meet weekly, or more often, as will a “nominations” group composed of a hundred other government officials, to decide who shall live and who shall die, as a result of their decisions, in the coming week or weeks.

Who, aside from the president himself, is responsible for Obama’s double character dragging him down into a dark and lightless place where even his soul cannot breathe?

Could it be the legions of fellow citizens who couldn’t take the trouble to think seriously about what Bush and then Obama were doing with their drone and special operations programs? Could it be the foreign policy experts, political leaders, and journalists who may have felt uneasy but who did not act, or who even willingly, gladly, drank the cool-aid as we descended into this moral abyss?

The Trenchant Observer

observer@trenchantobserver.com
www.twitter.com/trenchantobserv

For links to other articles by The Trenchant Observer, click on the title at the top of this page to go to the home page, and then consult the information in the bottom right hand corner of the home page. The Articles on Syria page can also be found here.

U.S. State Department Releases “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011″ (with video)

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Today, May 24, 2012, three months after the statutory deadline of February 25, the State Department finally released its annual report on the human rights situations in the countries of the world.

The U.S. Department of State “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011″ are found here.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks at the presentation of the reports are found here.

A video of Secretary Clinton’s remarks and the following briefing and question and answer session with Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Michael H. Posner, is found on C-Span here.

In her written preface to the reports, Secretary Clinton stated the following:

Secretary’s Preface

The world changed immeasurably over the course of 2011. Across the Middle East, North Africa, and far beyond, citizens stood up to demand respect for human dignity, more promising economic opportunities, greater political liberties, and a say in their own future. Often they faced tremendous odds and endured violent responses from their governments. The resulting upheavals are still unfolding today in places like Syria, where the regime has brutalized its own people. In Burma, after years of repression, the government has taken preliminary steps to allow reforms to begin. This year’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices chronicle these dramatic changes and the stories of the people defending human rights in almost 200 countries around the world.

Congress mandated these country reports more than three decades ago to help guide lawmakers’ decisions on foreign military and economic aid, but they have evolved into something more. Today, governments, intergovernmental organizations, scholars, journalists, activists, and others around the world rely on these reports as an essential update on human rights conditions around the world – where we have seen progress, where progress has come too slowly or at great cost, and all too often, where it has been rolled back.

Our reports are founded on the simple truth at the heart of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – that all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Respect for human rights is not a western construct or a uniquely American ideal; it is the foundation for peace and stability everywhere. Universal human rights include the right of citizens to assemble peacefully and to seek to reform or change their governments, a central theme around the world in 2011. As President Obama has said, “History offers a clear verdict: Governments that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not.”

In my travels around the world as Secretary of State, I have met many individuals who put their lives on the line to advance the cause of human rights and justice. In ways small and large, they hold their governments accountable for upholding universal human rights. Their courage and commitment to peaceful reform are an inspiration. This report recognizes their bravery and should serve as a reminder: The United States stands with all those who seek to advance human dignity, and we will continue to shine the light of international attention on their efforts.

These reports are part of our broad commitment to promote human rights. Every day, officials from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and many other government agencies devote themselves to advancing human rights as a priority of U.S. foreign policy. They champion our values in every country of the world and stand up for the inherent rights and freedoms of all people. I am honored to work alongside them, and I thank them for their contributions to this report.

On behalf of all of them, and everyone around the world working to protect human rights, I hereby transmit the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011 to the United States Congress.

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State

Following her remarks, Secretary Clinton introduced Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, who then conducted a special briefing on the reports prepared under the supervision of his office. His remarks, and the transcript of the question and answer session which followed them, are found here.

A video containing Secretary Clinton’s remarks, Assistant Secretary Michael H. Posner remarks and his question and answer session is found on C-SPAN here.

The individual country reports are available on the State Department website.

The report covers 199 countries and territories, according to Assistant Secretary Posner.

The Trenchant Observer

observer@trenchantobserver.com
www.twitter.com/trenchantobserv

For links to other articles by The Trenchant Observer, click on the title at the top of this page to go to the home page, and then consult the information in the bottom right hand corner of the home page. The Articles on Syria page can also be found here.

Obama’s foreign policy juggernaut, including Tom Donilon, and the risks of hubris (updated)

Friday, January 27th, 2012

jug[ger[naut  n.  (altered < Hindi Jagannath < Sans Jagannatha, lord of the world < jagat, world + natha, lord)
1 an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, whose idol, it was formerly supposed, so excited his worshipers when it was hauled along on a large car during religious rites that they threw themselves under the wheels and were crushed
2 (sually j-) anything that exacts blind devotion or terrible sacrifice
3 (usually j-) any relentless, destructive, irresistible force

–Webster’s New World Dictionary

Jug·ger·naut   /ˈdʒʌgərˌnɔt, -ˌnɒt/ Show Spelled (juhg-er-nawt, -not) noun
1. ( often lowercase ) any large, overpowering, destructive force or object, as war, a giant battleship, or a powerful football team.
2. ( often lowercase ) anything requiring blind devotion or cruel sacrifice.
3. Also called Jagannath. an idol of Krishna, at Puri in Orissa, India, annually drawn on an enormous cart under whose wheels devotees are said to have thrown themselves to be crushed.

Origin:  1630–40; < Hindi Jagannāth < Sanskrit Jagannātha lord of the world (i.e., the god Vishnu or Krishna), equivalent to jagat world + nātha lord

–dictionary.com

Tom Donilon appeared on the Charlie Rose television program for an hour on January 27, during which he expounded on the outstanding successes of President Obama’s foreign policy decisions and the process (led by Donilon) for reaching important foreign policy decisions.

Donilon was brilliant, and was it was not hard to see why President Obama chose him to be National Security Advisor after Gen. James Jones left in October, 2010, given his intellectual brilliance and highly articulate presentation of his views. Undoubtedly, Donilon is the kind of person Obama likes to be briefed by, someone with the intellectual brilliance to engage the president.

Still, the Oberver was left with a strange, intuitive feeling after watching the interview.

Absent from Donilon’s interview was any expression of self-doubt, any suggestion that the policy decisions made by Obama could be problematical in some ways, and could even potentially produce catastrophic results.

Areas where the foreign policy of the United States is open to serious questions, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, were quickly addressed in an intellectually authoritative manner.

There was no doubt that Donilon thought Obama was doing a brilliant job on foreign policy, was an unusually effective “executive”, and that Donilon himself, by the way, was doing an outstanding job for his boss.

After mulling these intuitive and inchoate misgivings over for a day, it all came together and “clicked”.

Here, on full display, was the enormous hubris of Obama and the foreign policy juggernaut he has created.

For his part, Charlie Rose failed to raise and insist on real responses to probing questions about the foreign policy of the United States. This is not an unusual role for Rose to assume, but last night–given the opportunity–it was particularly disappointing.

That’s it: hubris.

“The smartest guys in the room,” like at Enron. The overweening confidence of a foreign policy team that believes they are smarter, faster, and know better than all of their critics combined.

In view of these perceptions, it is useful to reconsider some earlier comments about Donilon, to see whether the characteristics they evoke appeared also to come through in the interview.

For a critical take on Tom Donilon, citing criticisms by Robert Gates and former National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, see Marcus Baram, “Tom Donilon Would Be A ‘Disaster’ As National Security Adviser, Robert Gates Reportedly Said,” The Huffington Post, October 8, 2010, updated May 25, 2011.

Baram quotes Bob Woodward who, in his book Obama’s Wars, reported the following regarding Donilon:

Donilon, who previously worked as a vice president for floundering mortgage giant Fannie Mae … was known for his strong views and opinions, once offending Defense Secretary Robert Gates so much during a meeting that the Pentagon chief almost walked out, according to Woodward.

He also reports that Woodward’s book quotes Gates as asserting that Donilon would be a “disaster” as National Security Advisor.

According to Woodward, in a meeting in his office in 2010, Jones had told Donilon he had three major shortcomings:

First, he had never gone to Afghanistan or Iraq, or really left the office for a serious field trip. As a result, he said, you have no direct understanding of these places. “You have no credibility with the military.” You should go overseas. The White House, Situation Room, interagency byplay, as important as they are, are not everything.

Second, Jones continued, you frequently pop off with absolute declarations about places you’ve never been, leaders you’ve never met, or colleagues you work with. Gates had mentioned this to Jones, saying that Donilon’s sound-offs and strong spur-of-the-moment opinions, especially about one general, had offended him so much at an Oval Office meeting that he nearly walked out.

The third criticism was that Donilon was insensitive with his dealings with his staff at the National Security Council.

So, there you have it. Donilon, the gatekeeper for Obama, full of the same hubris that the president himself exhibits.

To be fair to Donilon, perhaps he is only reflecting–to some extent, at least–the hubris of his boss. Also, all things being equal, we are fortunate to have a brilliant and highly articulate national security adviser.

Having said that, if Donilon still has shortcomings such as those suggested by his critics, procedures need to be put in place to ensure that Obama hears cogent dissenting views.

Though it would not be easy, perhaps President Obama urgently needs to establish an independent channel through which he can hear and discuss the views of outside critics and observers on a regular and recurrent basis, and even those from within the government whose views have not prevailed. A kind of team B could be set up, independent of Donilon, so that the preseident would be certain to hear the dissenting views on the most critical issues.

The difficulty the president might have in hearing this suggestion, and giving it serious consideration, points to the underlying problem.

Perhaps it is time for President Obama to reread, once again, David Halberstam’s brilliant book on John F. Kennedy and the decisionmakers he surrounded himself with, The Best and the Brightest. Obama is believed to have read the book before he became president or during his first days in office.

Other books that the Observer would suggest he reread again now, include the following:

The Guns of August

The March of Folly

Groupthink

Essence of Decision (2nd edition)

Good movies to watch, once again, include:

Blackhawk Down

The Quiet American

The Candidate

Midnight Cowboy

Missing

“Z”

Among the subjects not discussed in any significant way last night on the Charlie Rose program were those indicated by the following questions:

(1) It was notable in President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptace speech in Oslo on December 10, 2009 that he studiously avoided the words “international law”, and did not articulate a coherent vision of the role that international law and institutions can and should play in the nation’s strategy for achieving peace.

What should that role be, and what should be the strategy of the United States not only for reacting to threats and using its military force, but also for creating a world at peace?

(2) Do you believe that the incredible weapons and capabilities the United States has developed, combining real-time intelligence with drone strikes and special forces operations, will never be developed by other major powers such as Russia, China, India Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other technologically advanced countries?

(3) Do you believe that in the long term the security of the U.S. can be assured by developing and using high-tech weapons, without the development and observance of international law frameworks and norms to govern their use?

(4) How do you view the impact of recent developments in national security doctrines, laws and policies on the safeguarding of fundamental rights protected by the Constitution and by International Human Rights treaties and conventions?

(5) What should be the role of the United States in developing and observing the international law governing the use of force? Is it performing that role now? What needs to be done to improve its performance?

The fundamental shortcoming in President Obama’s foreign policy and foreign policy decision making clearly appears to be hubris.

For example, the United States government asserts the right to unilaterally place an individual who is in a foreign country on a special targets list, and to proceed to execute him or her, whether by drone strikes or special operations forces.  It asserts further that this policy may apply to U.S. citizens, notwithstanding the 5th amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

On the other hand, the U.S. has been adroit in its multilateral diplomacy, both at the U.N. Security Council and in forging consensus among its alliance and coalition partners. The Security Council resolution authorizing the protection of civilians in Libya “by all necessary measures” is one example. Its success in forging consensus on sanctions against Iran, both in the Security Council and among other states, represents another.

Significantly, in the case of the Security Council, Ambassador Susan Rice has been unusually effective. Rice was Obama’s chief foreign policy advisor during the 2008 campaign.

To be sure, in the case of Iran, policy makers also need to bear in mind as we go forward the unpredictable impact of oil sanctions that pose an existential threat, such as those against Japan which were an important factor in the runup to Pearl Harbor.

Even with these qualifications, key foreign policy decisions appear to be made by an inner circle which reflects the supreme self-confidence of the President. The entire defense strategy and budget presented to the Congress is based on the assumption that drone strikes, targeted killings, and special operations can deal with military challenges in the Middle East, and elsewhere. This should perhaps not come as a surprise, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was reported to have personally authorized each drone strike for a very long time when he was at the CIA. It represents the grand triumph of Vice-President Joseph Biden’s anti-terrorism approach in the Afghanistan policy review in 2009. It amounts to betting the farm on a policy whose effects on the ground have not yet been proven. What if the theory is wrong? The foreign policy team is very short on members in the inner circle who have experienced “the fog of war”.

There certainly appears to be a lot of hubris at the White House and on Obama’s foreign policy team.

It is a juggernaut, not attentive to outside views, and tending to crush its opponents. True to its etymology, “the American juggernaut” appears to see itself as “Lord of the World”.

The Trenchant Observer

observer@trenchantobserver.com
www.twitter.com/trenchantobserv

Obama’s New Year’s Resolutions for Foreign Policy in 2012

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

The Observer has been trying to get inside President Obama’s head for over two years. Recently, he may have succeeded, or had a very strange dream, in which the following was revealed:

Obama’s 10 New Year’s Resolutions for Foreign Policy in 2012

1. Ok, I will finally try to read through the impenetrable legalese of Philip Alston’s Report to the Human Rights Council on the legality under international law of U.S. drone attacks.

2. Admitting that public international law was not my favorite course in law school—in fact I can’t remember if I even took it—I will accept State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh’s longstanding offer to lead me in a weekly tutorial on the subject for, as Koh puts it, “as long as it takes for (me) to get it.”

3. I accept the challenge to deliver a speech based on a rewrite of my Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo which includes the themes of “a vision of peace” and “how to get there”.

4. To make my rewrite of the Oslo speech easy for everyone to understand, I will even stop avoiding the use of the words “international law”, which should be easier after (2), if not (1).

5. I will ask Ambassador Koh to explain to me in plain English what some of these European and European-influenced international lawyers keep referring to as “dédoublement fontionnel”, which I think has something to do with the idea that nations should try to build and strengthen international law, instead of just trying to see what they can get away with. I don’t really get the point, but maybe I’ll understand better if it is spelled out in English.

6. I agree that we don’t really want to be giving a lot of money to governments who murder outspoken journalists like Syed Saleem Shahzad. I think Admiral Mullen said something about this. Dexter Filkins made a pretty compelling case that the murder was ordered by the highest officials in the Pakistani military in his New Yorker article on September 19. (Letter From Islamabad: The Journalist and the Spies–The murder of a reporter who exposed Pakistan’s secrets. The New Yorker, September 19, 2011.)

There are even reports that the Pakistani Ambassador to Washington, until recently, fears for his life in Pakistan as a result of “memogate”. But, as Richard Holbrooke used to stress, we have to deal with the Pakistanis, unsavory as that may be. I will agree to cutting U.S. aid to the military there by one half—from $1.3 billion to $650 million. Once they’ve arrested and tried the general(s) allegedly responsible for the order to murder Syed Saleem Shahzad, the other half of the aid will be restored.

7. I will enlist the CIA, with Leon Paneta’s help if necessary, in a secret program aimed at persuading the top civilian and military officials involved in Bush’s torture program to retire. Attorney General Eric Holder has concluded that none of them except a few low-level types should be prosecuted for torture, but if he has new evidence and wants to take up the issue again, I’ll let him. If other parties to the Torture Convention arrest some of these officials while they are traveling abroad, and ask us if it is OK for them to try them themselves, I’ll let the Attorney General make the call.

8. Ok, guys, I will finally issue an executive order that confirms my interpretation of U.S. laws banning torture as banning all kinds of torture, as that term is defined in the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

9. After completing (2) and (1), I will reconsider the position that U.S. citizens may be executed by drones or special commando operations without trial if they have been placed on a special targets list. I don’t really get the point about the fifth amendment language that “no citizen will be deprived of …life..without due process of law” and I don’t see how these guys can be given the right to an attorney, but I will commit to not invoking the “state secrets” doctrine to block further consideration of these issues by the courts.

10. Ok, while I think we already examined our strategy in Afghanistan in 2009, ad nauseum, I promise I will reread Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s memos from November, 2009, for whatever that’s worth.

The Trenchant Observer

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The risk of uttering a scintilla of truth: Gen. Allen fires Maj. Gen. Fuller in Afghanistan

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

The top American commander in Afghanistan fired one of his senior officers Friday for comments made about Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

At a conference in the U.S., Maj. Gen. Peter Fuller, faced with a question about Karzai’s recent statement that Afghanistan would side with Pakistan in a war with the United States, responded to Politico as follows,

“Why don’t you just poke me in the eye with a needle! You’ve got to be kidding me . . . I’m sorry, we just gave you $11.6 billion and now you’re telling me, ‘I don’t really care’?” Fuller also referred to Karzai as “erratic”.
–See “U.S. general is fired for Karzai comments.” Washington Post, Nov. 4, 2011

For the Politico interview, see Tim Mak, “U.S. general: Afghan leaders ‘isolated from reality’”, Politico, November 3, 2011.

Under current Marine discipline in Afghanistan, the slightest statement reflecting a kernel of truth now appears to be a firing offense. One can imagine the answer Gen. Allen might have given to the question. The following statement regarding Maj. Gen. Fuller’s dismissal offers a clue:

“These unfortunate comments are neither indicative of our current solid relationship with the government of Afghanistan, its leadership, or our joint commitment to prevail here in Afghanistan,” said Marine Gen. John R. Allen, who oversees U.S. and NATO forces in the country. “The Afghan people are an honorable people, and comments such as these will not keep us from accomplishing our most critical and shared mission — bringing about a stable, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan,” he added.

–Joshua Partlow and Greg Jaffe, “U.S. general fired for criticizing Hamid Karzai,” Washington Post, November 5, 2011

The idea is simple: stricter thought control among the U.S. officer corps, and lockstep unity pushing the party line when speaking to the press.

At last the United States seems to have hit on a decisive strategy for defeating the Taliban!

The Trenchant Observer

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Comments are invited.

Afghanistan–A Hint of Future Collapse? Hand-off to Afghan Forces, as Taliban Seize Control around Mazar-e-Sharif

Friday, August 5th, 2011

A glimpse of how the Afghan government could collapse in the future, as the hand-off from American and other ISAF forces to the Afghan army and police proceeds, is provided by the following report on how the Taliban are seizing control of villages surrounding Mazar-e-Sharif in the North, previously considered a secure zone.

See Tanna Badkhen, “The Taliban Come to Mazar: Last month, NATO forces ceded this northern city to the Afghan army, calling it safe territory. But insurgent forces are on the doorstep,” Foreign Policy, August 3, 2011.

The overall failure to build a viable government in Afghanistan, over 10 years, and the specific failure of U.S. foreign assistance to contribute to this goal, are described in a report by The International Crisis Group released on August 4.

See International Crisis Group, “Aid and Conflict in Afghanistan” (Asia Report N°210), August 4, 2011

The fundamental flaw in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has been a failure to address the governance problem, relying instead almost exclusively on military means to stabilize the country. The result has been a totally corrupt narco-state ruled by local warloards, under the general coordination of the leading warlord in Kabul.

The only alternative policy that is left is to return to the earlier project of building a democratic government in the country, giving Afghan soldiers and police goals and an ideology to fight for that might be strong enough to overcome the religious and ideological appeal–and ruthless methods–of the Taliban.

See earlier articles by The Trenchant Observer on this theme:

Strategic disarray in Afghanistan
October 2, 2010

Corrupt-istan Update: Karzai’s Brazen Defiance
November 11, 2010

Fighting corruption and other challenges in Dexter Filkins’ Corrupt-istan
September 18, 2010

September 18 Afghan National Assembly Elections–Context
September 4, 2010

CIA Payments Undercut U.S. Efforts to Strengthen Governance in Afghanistan
September 2, 2010

REPRISE (from March 26, 2010): Afghanistan U.N. SRSG de Mistura Describes U.N. Electoral Role; What Are Allied Forces Fighting For?
July 29, 2010
(Originally published March 26, 2010)

“The Magician” enthralls donors once again, in Kabul
July 22, 2010

General Petraeus, the Haqqani network, and moral clarity in Afghanistan
July 14, 2010
Updated July 16, 2010

Urgent Note to Obama and Petraeus: Reread the Eikenberry Cables, Avoid Reasoning from Conclusions, and Adjust Course
July 1, 2010

After McChrystal: Obama, Petraeus, and Fixing a Failed Strategy in Afghanistan
June 23, 2010

KARZAI’S FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL IN AFGHANISTAN—THE REAL EXTENT OF THE ELECTORAL FRAUD, ABDULLAH’S CHANCES, AND WASHINGTON’S RESPONSE
October 16, 2009

MORE TROOPS, OR BETTER DIPLOMACY? DIPLOMATIC AND POLITICAL FAILURES IN AFGHANISTAN
October 6, 2009
.

The Trenchant Observer

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Words and Deeds: Obama’s Defense of Democracy in Africa, 2011

Monday, August 1st, 2011

In comments on July 29 following meetings with President Yayi of Benin; President Conde of Guinea; President Issoufou of Niger; and President Ouattara of Ivory Coast, President Barack Obama stated the following:

“Despite the impressive work of all these gentlemen, I’ve said before and I think they all agree, Africa does not need strong men; Africa needs strong institutions. So we are working with them as partners to build effective judiciaries, strong civil societies, legislatures that are effective and inclusive, making sure that human rights are protected.”
–President Barack Obama, West Africa: Remarks By Obama After Meeting With Four African Presidents”, July 29, 2011, reprinted in TheNigerianDaily.com, July 30, 2011.

As we have learned in other contexts, it is important to examine carefully not just what President Obama says but also, and most importantly, what he does. When he speaks of working with these and presumably other African leaders “to build effective judiciaries, strong civil societies, legislatures that are effective and inclusive, making sure that human rights are protected,” one must ask, “What are the specific programs, in which countries, and at what level of funding is he referring to?”

Again, how does this level of funding, per country, compare to the cost of deploying one American soldier to Afghanistan for one year?

Africans struggling to establish or strengthen democracy in their countries need not just words, but deeds. They need specific and meaningful programs that provide financial assistance for the strengthening of civil society organizations, including NGO’s working to ensure observance of fundamental human rights, and judicial reforms that not only improve the functioning of the courts but also expand access to justice among broader sections of the population.

See The Trenchant Observer, “Obama and Democracy in Africa, 2011,” July 16, 2011

Also worth noting in passing is the level of sophistication regarding Africa revealed at the White House, when the President refers to “Cote d’Ivoire” as if no one in the State Department knows the name of the country in English (Ivory Coast). If we are to start using the native languages for the names of different countries, we will have to refer to Egypt as Misr, Algeria as Jaza’ir, and Germany as Deutschland. It’s probably better to stick with English.

Or, to cite another example, when the Deputy National Security Adviser for Africa speaks of the president trying to find ways to speak directly to “the African people,” he is referring to the diverse peoples of the 54 countries of Africa as one people. It as if he were referring to people in Asia as “the Asian people” or the people in Latin America as “the Latin American people”. India, China and Brazil, to cite but a few examples, would not be pleased.

Details count, and are revealing.

The Trenchant Observer

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International Law and the Use of Force: Drones and Real Anarchy Unleashed Upon the World

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

Recently a number of articles have been published that are of particular interest with respect to the development and use of drones.

See

William Wan and Peter Finn, “Global race on to match U.S. drone capabilities, Washington Post, July 4, 2011

Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker, “War Evolves With Drones, Some Tiny as Bugs,” New York Times, June 19, 2011

Peter Beaumont, “Campaigners seek arrest of former CIA legal chief over Pakistan drone attacks: UK human rights lawyer leads bid to have John Rizzo arrested over claims he approved attacks that killed hundreds of people,” The Guardian, July 15.2010

Michael Tennant, “U.S. Begins Drone Strikes in Somalia,” The New American, July 14, 2011

In previous articles, The Trenchant Observer has pointed to some of the troubling issues in international law raised by the use of unpiloted aircraft or drones in situations removed from the active battlefield in an on-going armed conflict.

Now, with other countries driving to develop comparable military capabilities in the form of drones, some as tiny as bugs, the short-sightedness of U.S. military policy regarding drones has come fully into view.

Moreover, as far as is publicly known, the United States has done nothing to develop in cooperation with other countries new international legal regimes and norms that might help to control what appears to be a headlong rush toward real anarchy among the nations of the world.

President Barack Obama rarely, if ever, speaks of international law. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he spoke not of international law and legal norms, but rather of international “rules” or “norms”. The words “international law” are absent from his discourse.

One consequence has been an approach to international law that can be summed up as “If I can get away with it I can do it,” a formulation that goes back to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s famous dictum about “the bad man theory of law”.

The system of international law is different from the domestic system in which a “bad man” might focus on the law only in terms of what he might be able to get away with. For the nations that are subject to international law are themselves the creators of the norms of international law. They are at once the legislature, the sheriff and the potential offender. This creates a dual responsibility on the part of nation states and their lawyers: They must not simply interpret international legal norms in a permissive way that allows them to do what they want, but also act to safeguard and strengthen the system of international law, and the way international legal norms wiil be interpreted by other countries. This is sometimes referred to by international lawyers as the “double-function” (or “dédoublement fonctionnel”) of international lawyers and states: in choosing a course of action they must not only seek to pursue their own short-term objectives, but also the critically-important longer-term objectives of building a viable international legal order that will contribute to their own security.

It is precisely in this area, of the obligation to build future international norms and regimes, while not weakening those that exist, that the United States has utterly failed with respect to drones. In past eras, legal regimes to prevent the use of space for military purposes, or the seabed, were developed in order to shape the future environment in which force might be employed. This the Obama administration has failed to do with respect to drones, both as a result of a very short-sighted pursuit of immediate military advantages through their use, and as a result of the fact that President Obama does not seem to understand very deeply the function of international law in safeguarding the nation’s security.

To facilitate reflection on these issues and the legality under international law of the use of drones, a review of the following articles previously published here might be useful.

See

UPDATE: Anwar al-Aulaqi: Targeted Killings, Self-Defense, and War Crimes, August 6, 2010

Targeted Killings: U.N. Special Rapporteur Alston Publishes Report to U.N. Human Rights Council, June 2, 2010

Targeted Killings by Drone Aircraft: A View From India, and Some Observations, May 20, 2010

Targeted Assassinations: Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, International Law, and Strategic Implications, February 17, 2010

U.S. Targeted Assassinations Violate Citizen’s Right to Life and Due Process, Undercut International Law
February 3, 2010

As Thomas M. Frank (1931-2009), a distinguished international lawyer and professor of international law at New York University, and Edward Weisband once observed, we should be careful whether to observe and how to interpret international law, because “the law you make may be your own.”

See Thomas M. Franck and Edward Weisband, “The Johnson and Brezhnev Doctrines: The Law You Make May Be Your Own,” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 22, pp. 979-1014 (1970).

The Trenchant Observer

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Obama and Democracy in Africa, 2011

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

Michelle Obama’s visit to Africa in June was, by most accounts, a successful goodwill tour by the First Lady and her family, serving to underline the importance of U.S.-African relations in general, and the personal interest of the First Family in African countries in particular.

See Andrew Malcolm (commentary), “Michelle Obama’s magical family tour of Africa,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2011

Certainly, the symbolism, particularly of her meeting with Nelson Mandela, was powerful, recalling as it did the triumph in two great countries of peaceful social revolutions based on the ideas and inspiration of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela himself.

Nonetheless, the visit was also a time to reflect on U.S.-African relations, evoking a number of criticisms of U.S. policy toward Africa under President Barack Obama.

An article by Krissah Thompson, published in the Washington Post on June 18, 2011, nicely captured the gulf between the attention given the Obamas as media celebrities when they travel to Africa, and the reality of U.S. policies toward the countries of the continent.

Typical of the criticisms cited by Thompson were the foilowing:

(T)he big challenges facing the continent — poverty, government corruption, threats of extremism, and AIDS — have not drawn the White House attention that Mwiza Munthali, public outreach director of TransAfrica Forum, had hoped for.

U.S. officials, said Munthali, “are not seeing Africa as a big priority. There has been some ambivalence.”

From another viewpoint, the following criticism was heard:

Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, a Ghanaian who runs a New York investment and research firm specializing in Africa, pointed to what he said was the irony in the shared disappointment. “We really said if a black man became president, it would change the world, but we are basically back at the same level we were before,” he said. “The bulk of the policy is still the legacy of the Clinton and Bush years. The Obama legacy toward Africa is still yet to be seen.”

–Krissah Thompson, “First lady’s African trip resurrects criticism of president on African issues,” Washington Post, June 18, 2011

A lame defense of U.S. policy towards Africa offered by White House officials only underlined the absence of really significant U.S. programs and initiatives in the region.

White House officials disagreed (with the criticisms), saying that the administration has laid out clear priorities in Africa: supporting democratic regimes, decreasing hunger and developing the $63 billion Global Health Initiative. That program seeks to integrate the Bush administration’s focus on AIDS with a wider approach to public health issues.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, noted that Obama met with the leaders of Nigeria and Gabon this month, and last year hosted a large group of handpicked young adults from the continent for a White House forum.

While Obama’s schedule has prevented him from traveling (to) the continent more, Rhodes said, the president delivered audio messages urging a peaceful democratic transition in Ivory Coast and an end to violence in Sudan, which recently divided into northern and southern jurisdictions with U.S. backing.

“We have looked for ways for him to continue to speak to the African people directly,” Rhodes said.

–Krissah Thompson, “First lady’s African trip resurrects criticism of president on African issues,” Washington Post, June 18, 2011

This defense was bolstered–perhaps–by an apology for Obama administation policies toward Africa written by two Brookings Institution Africanists and published on July 6.

See Mwangi S. Kimenyi and Nelipher Moyo, “Favorite or Prodigal Son? U.S. – Africa Policy under Obama,” Brookings (blog of the The Brookings Institution), July 6, 2011

Against this backdrop, one might ask, what is going on in terms of U.S. support of democratic forces and civil society in the region? How much money is it spending on such support?

Going forward, how much has the Obama administration asked for, and how much is the Republican-controlled House of Representatives willing to spend, on democracy and governance activities in Africa that support democratic forces and strengthen civil society?

To put these numbers in perspective, one might also ask how does this number, per country, compare to the cost of supporting one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan for one year?

The fact is that demands for democracy and accountable government are not confined to the North African countries of “the Arab Spring.” They have also been heard in West Africa, from Ivory Coast to Liberia to Nigeria, while deep and significant movements toward democracy are also underway in the countries of Southern Africa, inspired in part by the example of South Africa. Elsewhere in the 54 countries of Africa, elections are being held and democratic governments are being formed and, everywhere, the struggle for democracy is underway.

What is the Obama administration doing, now, to support democratic forces and civil society in these African countries that are caught up in the struggle for democracy?

That is the question.

The Trenchant Observer

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See also Words and Deeds: Obama’s Defense of Democracy in Africa, 2011, August 1, 2011