There was something oddly fitting about a President who prizes spontaneity abruptly deciding to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base and his April announcement that an “armada” was making its way into Korean waters to confront the North over a sanctioned weapons program. Noted critics like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham were full of praise when they issued a joint statement urging Trump to “take Assad’s air force…completely out of the fight.” Cable news figures like Brian Williams were almost poetic in their praise — Fareed Zakaria said Trump “became president that night.” White House ally Ann Coulter and Capitol Hill skeptics like Rand Paul and Tulsi Gabbard were not convinced; the Kentucky Senator rightly pointed out that the White House had no authorization to use force because the United States was not attacked. Continue reading
Category Archives: foreign affairs
When Congress passed the USA Freedom act and closed out the National Security Agency’s unwarranted data gathering the appropriate response was simple. Good riddance. The program, initiated under terms of Section 215 of the Patriot Act and revealed by Edward Snowden, lived outside lines originally drawn by the fourth amendment. Its value in preventing attacks was repeatedly questioned and eventually the White House relented. But with ISIS and al Qaeda still lurking, a string of attacks spanning from Paris to Jakarta, and the Obama administration under continuing criticism for both strategy and results big data is lurking again. The Paris attack helped resurrect the beast when unconfirmed reports circulated alleging that the perpetrators used encrypted devices to plan their assault. It also inspired a formerly reluctant president and his one-time Secretary of State to press Silicon Valley for a way in. The president dispatched some of his top aides to San Jose for closed-door meetings, Ms. Clinton praised their “extraordinary capacities” before she talked up the notion of a “Manhattan-like project” at a Democrat presidential debate. They’ve got allies, like John Kasich, on the other side of the aisle. “We have to give the local authorities the ability to penetrate and disrupt,” the Ohio governor said. “Encryption is a major problem and Congress has got to deal with it…to keep us safe.” The first half is sensible, the second is heading off the rails in search of an elusive boogeyman.
Kasich’s remarks fit a familiar narrative, one regularly deployed in the battle over metadata: safety. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was playing the same card when he claimed intelligence agencies did not have “the funding and the tools…to keep America safe” before he blamed the USA Patriot Act. The standards it set up are worth noting in relation to Christie’s statement and the prospect of a legislative effort against encryption. The law took collection of telephone and internet data from the NSA, handed it to service providers, and allows law enforcement access if it can show proof of “reasonable suspicion.” The same standard should be applied to encryption, with an important caveat — the ability of either program to prevent attacks before they happen is dubious at best. A 2014 study by a White House working group had to admit as much when it found no evidence the NSA program was “essential to preventing attacks.” The program’s value was further undermined by the working group’s conclusion that what metadata did find could have been discovered via conventional court orders. Those findings are important now because ISIS is leading a change in terror tactics. They are broadening the field beyond the Middle East, but have shown less interest in highly-planned, spectacular attacks like the one that brought down the World Trade Center towers. The standard has shifted to attacks like San Bernardino or Philadelphia perpetrated by lone wolves.
In this environment, there is potential intelligence value in contact information and message content from known terrorists like Sayed Farook or Edward Archer. It could help law enforcement stay one step ahead of the next would-be jihadi. How much remains to be seen, but the quest for answers has reached Capitol Hill and brought forward two factions: one would use a court order to gain access to encrypted data; the other would gather representatives from technology firms, privacy advocates, academia, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies to brief Congress before it acts. “It’s not a bad idea,” Senator Dianne Feinstein noted. The Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat is still eager to move because “the terrorists are not going to go away,” so the lingering threat of a future attack remains. True. But there is reason for deliberation because the “back door” FBI Director James Comey has been dilligently seeking will not work the way he imagines. So say skeptics like Apple CEO Tim Cook who insists there is no way to leave “a key under the mat” for government agents to access encrypted data without simultaneously clearing the way for hackers and hostile foreign governments. This is not a matter for lawmakers or would-be presidents to simply brush aside for the sake of expediency; there is no more value in fighting terrorism by weakening internet security than there is in burning down a barn to smoke out a wolf.
The smoke of the Paris attacks has cleared, but while Belgian and French authorities continue tracking suspects questions still linger. Some have been answered, but one stands out: what changes will they bring? They’ve inspired French President Francois Hollande to launch “a war without pity” and sent him to Moscow and Washington in search of allies. The attacks are inspiring change among other key players and revealing more about them. First up is the terrorists: their choice of targets says something about them. In recent weeks a Russian airliner was bombed, a concert hall and soccer arena in Paris were assaulted, and a hotel in Mali was shot up. Each target lacks the security of a police station or military outpost and offers an opportunity to spill blood and spread fear. In an article in The Atlantic writer Peter Beinart argues the motive is military, that Russia and France were targeted because both have launched air strikes against ISIS. In his own clumsy way, US Secretary of State John Kerry hit on what he called a “rationale” for the shootings at Charlie Hebdo. Religion. The same motive is propelling ISIS in its attacks, including Paris. Anything that does not fall in line with their vision of Sunni Islam is a threat to be dealt with accordingly. That could be people, like Yazidi in Iraq or Coptic Christians in Egypt. It can also be artifacts and monuments, like temples in Palmyra or shrines in Mosul. Even cafes in Paris.
Echoes of the Paris attacks can be felt in the west as well. They include Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ loopy assertion that climate change is indirectly responsible for terrorism and President Obama’s belief that Paris’ ongoing climate conference is a “rebuke to the terrorists.” They’re a great way to dodge the terror issue by focusing on an obsession these two share over climate change, the same one that guided them to declare it a national security threat. That stubborn obsession is mirrored by one some conservatives, like Sean Hannity, have over the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” President Obama and Hillary Clinton continue to refuse to use it, prompting Donald Trump to pipe up over this tempest in a teapot. Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have joined in; Jeb Bush did too, in a 30-second TV spot. It’s a great way for the candidates who have taken up this cause to distinguish themselves from the president and his former Secretary of State, but only one has proposed a real shift in policy and it isn’t Trump. Lindsey Graham is not on the bluster bandwagon, but has proposed sending 10,000 troops into Iraq as part of a coalition. Trump is, yet he’s offered little more than a pledge to “bomb the xxxx out of” ISIS and create a “tremendous safe zone” in Syria. Dirty Harry he ain’t.
The discovery of a Syrian passport on one of the Paris suicide bombers brought back the refugee issue by provoking fear of jihadi hiding in their midst. In light of the president’s proposal to settle 10,000 in the U.S. the GOP-led house passed a bill to refine the screening process that gained a veto-proof majority with Democrat’s help. After a number of Republican governors joined in by refusing to accept refugees. President Obama took after opponents, accusing them of “political posturing” and being afraid of “widows and orphans,” before asserting refugees would be subject to “the most rigorous process” available. The problem for the White House is that FBI Director James Comey said he cannot vouch for the screening process President Obama puts his faith in because there is no reliable database to screen against. The irony is that with all the rhetorical back-and-forth over refugees nobody has confronted the central question: how to keep jihadi from blending in. If it’s possible. It’s not an easy topic to deal with when it’s so easy to mingle jihadi with Muslim in a way that sounds good on TV but is no different than saying every Christian pro-lifer is a Robert Dear waiting to happen. The notion is absurd, but if ISIS propaganda and the San Bernardino shootings inspire more of that kind of fearful thinking it would be a change for the worse.
It’s an odd partnership that has brought Syria back to the front lines of public debate, but the stream of refugees — and the reactions they are provoking while on their way into Europe — is regularly on the nightly news and the front pages of the Los Angeles Times. The raw numbers have been enough to force the European Union, the Vatican, and the United States to take notice; each has responded by agreeing to take in a percentage of the masses escaping from ISIS and the four-year old Syrian civil war. In the midst of this mess Pentagon officials note an allegedly isolated Russia has deployed a detachment of marines, tanks, and artillery in support of the Syrian state. Their response to European and American objections? A yawn, what Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called a “strange hysteria,” while noting that “Russia has never made a secret of its…cooperation with the Syrian Arab Republic.” Russia’s well-known maintenance of a cold-war era naval facility at Tartus, its involvement in a bargain that spared Bashar Assad’s regime the brunt of airstrikes in retaliation for use of chemical weapons, the quiet acceptance of its newly minted airbase at Latakia, and the success of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s search for support in Syria’s war against ISIS help to explain Ms. Zakharova’s confusion.
Those objections are at the heart of the issue now because they point out the vacuum left by American and European negligence. Their reluctance is sensible given what intervention has brought to Lybia, but Russia has taken advantage of it to back up Bashar Assad. So has Hezbollah. The US and EU? Nothing. Despite President Obama’s well-publicized “red line,” British drone strikes and French reconnaissance there has been no concerted effort to remove President Assad from power equivalent to the one keeping him in Damascus. A no-fly zone? Nothing. Arms and training for the Free Syrian Army? Nope. Nothing at all to back up rhetoric like President Obama’s claim that Syria’s war will only end with “an inclusive political transition to a new government without Bashar Assad.” The price of years of western indecisiveness and inaction is being paid in Berlin, Belgrade, and Budapest. The toll has led to German criticism of their EU compatriots and Hungarian use of razor wire and tear gas to defend its borders. The rise of ISIS and their gains in Iraq and Syria, as well as their moves into Lybia and Afghanistan, are driving and deepening the current exodus. Their success against President Assad’s forces may be what is drawing President Vladimir Putin’s attention and forcing Russia’s hand because he has no interest in abandoning a long-time ally.
The response from Washington to Moscow’s “Arms for Assad” program isn’t all that different from its response to Russia’s moves into Ukraine. Rhetoric. President Obama promised to make it clear that Russia cannot “continue to double down on a strategy that is doomed to fail,” while trying to lure them into the coalition launching airstrikes against ISIS. While President Obama is trying to talk Russia out of supporting the Assad regime Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov is trying to convince the US and its allies to team up with Syria to overthrow ISIS. The bottom line is it’s decision time at the White House and the topic is priority: either bring regime change to Damascus or destroy the caliphate in Raqqa. The problem for this White House is that means either provoking the Russian bear or — potentially — teaming up with the Assad regime against ISIS. Assuming its priority is ISIS, an accord with Syrian forces that would bring them into the coalition might be President Obama’s only choice given his well-known distaste for “boots on the ground” and the relative failure of his administration’s program to arm and train Syrian rebels. In either case the pressure for a change in American strategy is building, and will only intensify so long as the Russo/Syrian alliance remains unchallenged and refugees continue to stream into Europe.
Looking at Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s proposal to trim the American military to its smallest size since World War II one question pushed itself to the front of the line: why? At the address where he put forward the new budget Secretary Hagel spoke of a need to adapt to a “more volatile, more unpredictable” world while cutting overall costs. Tactical and budgetary concerns offer a plausible answer, but not a complete one. What becomes evident when considering Secretary Hagel’s plan in context of the last five years is that it is a reflection of the administration he serves. From the first days President Obama has shown greater interest in domestic policy, and the signature achievements (stimulus, health care, Dodd/Frank) of his first two years are a reflection of it. On the world stage the president put forward two goals: to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to reshape American foreign policy by placing leaning on multilateral diplomacy. After years of careful planning the peace dividend is within reach, and the president’s 2015 budget proposal shows he has every intention of spending it.
President Obama has made speeches and offered up initiatives on climate change and strategic arms reduction, but his interest in gradually leaving the world stage is revealed by how he handled the wars his administration took charge of when President Bush left office. The Status of Forces agreement President Bush signed in 2008 was left to expire in December 2011 because the last American troops left Baghdad two weeks earlier. Afghanistan is still in play, though plans have already been drawn up for American troops to leave by the end of this year. An agreement to leave up to 10,000 troops there is in the works but President Obama is holding out the possibility of a complete withdrawal. Going public with the issue may be a negotiating tactic, but it is at best a thoughtless one. These two pieces are part of a bigger puzzle, Syria is another; not the civil war, but the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb. When faced with the possibility that his “red line” remarks would require acting the president wavered, explaining that “the world set a red line.” This gave way to a plan for a cruise missile strike, a wait for Senate authorization, and eventually to a deal whereby Syria would surrender its chemical weapons stockpiles to the UN. How well that deal works remains to be seen since the Syrians have missed its first two deadlines.
The picture that emerges is of a president willing to speak and act on the world stage when it pays off in political capital that can be invested here. The “red line” statement on Syria is one example. That speech was made in the midst of the 2012 elections and could be seen as a warning to President Assad and an attempt by President Obama to enhance his foreign policy credentials with voters, giving him a better shot at reelection. The change in how he spoke of the raid that ended in the death of Osama bin Laden follows the same pattern. In a very low-key speech in 2011 announcing bin Laden’s death Obama congratulated the military and said that “justice has been done.” To explain why photos of bin Laden’s body were not released he said simply “we don’t need to spike the football.” In the thick of the campaign that calculus changed. The president followed a simple narrative throughout the 2012 campaign, repeating some variation of “al Qaeda is on the run” and “bin Laden is no more.” The need to maintain that narrative may have influenced the way his administration handled the aftermath of Benghazi, specifically its repeated assertion that the attack was sparked by a protest over a youtube video.
The cycle is repeating in ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. The administration’s early enthusiasm has waned with the president now giving 50/50 odds to a comprehensive deal to build on the six month agreement struck in November. He’s just not that into it; which isn’t much of a surprise since the interim deal is done, the headlines and editorials have been written, credit has been given, and the Oval Office photos of President Obama on the phone with President Rohani have made the rounds. Assuming the developing situation in Ukraine doesn’t require anything more than an expression of concern, a warning to Russia, a boycott of the G-8 summit, and a handoff to the UN there is plenty to be done on the home front. Executive orders will need to be written, Obamacare still needs to be defended, or modified, or delayed; then there’s still a disobedient Congress to whip into line and midterm elections to win. The table is set, a “year of action” is on the way.