27 July, 2009

Use it or lose it

A recent Brookings paper discusses the international legal aspects of targeted killing.  As you would expect, American policy isn't in sync with the emerging global norm.  An idealist might argue that the US is in the wrong (and they have a very strong case under the International Convention on Human Rights); a Realist might argue that the US needs the latitude to kill because it (or somebody--and nobody else is available) has the responsibility to combat enemies of the legal regime that everyone else assumes.  The point that I hadn't thought of before is the conclusion that the US might want to be open about what it is doing and assert--as a legal principle--that this is as it should be. 

The ultimate lesson for Congress and the Obama Administration about targeted killings is “Use it or lose it.” This is as true of its legal rationale as it is of the tool itself. Targeted killings conducted from standoff platforms, with improving technologies in surveillance and targeting, are a vital strategic, but also humanitarian, tool in long-term counterterrorism. War will always be important as an option; so will the tools of law enforcement, as well as all the other non-force aspects of intelligence work: diplomacy and coordination with friends and allies. But the long-standing legal authority to use force covertly, as part of the writ of the intelligence community, remains a crucial tool—one the new administration will need and evidently knows it will need. So will administrations beyond it.


The death of Osama bin Laden and his top aides by Predator strike tomorrow would alter national security counterterrorism calculations rather less than we might all hope. As new terrorist enemies emerge, so long as they are “jihadist” in character, we might continue referring to them as “affiliated” with al Qaeda and therefore co-belligerent. But the label will eventually become a mere legalism in order to bring them under the umbrella of an AUMF passed after September 11. Looking even further into the future, terrorism will not always be about something plausibly tied to September 11 or al Qaeda at all. Circumstances alone, in other words, will put enormous pressure on—and ultimately render obsolete—the legal framework we currently employ to justify these operations.


What we can do is to insist on defining armed conflict self-defense broadly enough, and human rights law narrowly enough—as the United States has traditionally done—to avoid exacerbating the problem and making it acute sooner, or even immediately.


We stand at a curious moment in which the strategic trend is toward reliance upon targeted killing; and within broad U.S. political circles even across party lines, a political trend toward legitimization; and yet the international legal trend is also severely and sharply to contain it within a narrow conception of either the law of armed conflict under IHL or human rights and law enforcement, rather than its traditional conception as self-defense in international law and regulation as covert action under domestic intelligence law. Many in the world of ideas and policy have already concluded that targeted killing as a category, even if proffered as self-defense, is unacceptable and indeed all but per se illegal. If the United States wishes to preserve its traditional powers and practices in this area, it had better assert them. Else it will find that as a practical matter they have dissipated through desuetude.

Does the US (or someone) have the right to target individuals?  In States where the US is not formally at war?  Inside the US?

I suspect that someone has to have the job of playing cop in the international system.  I don't see anyone but the US who is able and willing to do it.  A UN force is a possibility, but it still comes down to great power politics and capabilities.  On the other hand, I don't want to give the cops--any cops--the right to target whoever they choose.  Even if they start with the best of intentions, that's a structure that corrupts the cop, alientates the community, and kills the innocent.

24 July, 2009

Why I don't expect I'll ever be Secretary of State

..or much of any other government-related position.  Stephen Walt gives a list of the 10 Commandments--the 10 "thou shalt not hold or even consider" positions that are considered outside of "acceptable" foreign policy discourse.  I've given serious consideration to ALL of them at one time or another.  Probably about half of them are things I believe today.

This reminds me of when I was a very young research analyst, and after handing in a report I had out a lot of work into, my boss (for whom I had and still have the greatest respect) returned it with the comment

"Well thought out.  Almost certainly true.  Don't ever say it again."

I think that was the point I decided I'd get out of professional consulting and focus on the university.  University political science departments have their own taboos, but once you get tenure you are less vulnerable to sanction.  And officially, at least, every idea is supposed to be considered on its merits--even the "unacceptable" ones.

Taboo Topics on Contemporary Foreign Policy Discourse | Stephen M. Walt

22 July, 2009

Another small step in the right direction

Last month, the Seventh Court of Appeals found that “government must operate through public laws and regulations” and not through “secret law.” Specifically, the Court rejected the claim of the Department of State that it could classify any article as a "defense article," thereby making it subject to export controls.  The author of the decision, a Reagan appointee, wrote that to accept the government's claim to act "without revealing the basis of the decision and without allowing any inquiry by the jury, would create serious constitutional problems.”

Is somebody reading the Constitution?

Court Rebukes Government Over “Secret Law” | Secrecy News

21 July, 2009

It ain't over till it's over

From our friends at the Times:

Iran’s reformist former president Mohammad Khatami called Sunday for a referendum on the legitimacy of the government in the wake of last month’s disputed presidential election, Iranian Web sites reported.

Mr. Khatami’s comments amounted to a bold challenge to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has dismissed the opposition’s claims that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory on June 12 was rigged, and has ordered protesters to accept it.

It is unlikely that Iran’s hard-line leaders will accept the referendum proposal. But the fact that Mr. Khatami proposed it at all suggests a renewed confidence within the opposition movement.

Don't get your hopes up.  The apparatus of oppression seems quite comfortable supporting the present regime.  Besides, we're not talking about liberal democracy here.  A "reformist" in Iran is not what most people think it is.  The real debate is among members of the elite to determine the inner workings of the Islamic Republic, its relation to the corruption that is endemic to the elite, and how far it will go to maintain the strictest interpretation of the law. 

On the other hand, some Islamic Republics are better than others.  This situation deserves monitoring.

Ex-President in Iran Seeks Referendum - NYTimes.com

Bernanke op-ed in the Wall Street Journal

Ben Bernanke wants to assure people that the Fed isn't just throwing money at the current problems, unaware of the long-term impact on inflation.

My colleagues and I believe that accommodative policies will likely be warranted for an extended period. At some point, however, as economic recovery takes hold, we will need to tighten monetary policy to prevent the emergence of an inflation problem down the road. The Federal Open Market Committee, which is responsible for setting U.S. monetary policy, has devoted considerable time to issues relating to an exit strategy. We are confident we have the necessary tools to withdraw policy accommodation, when that becomes appropriate, in a smooth and timely manner.

Gee--is everybody confident now? A few observations:

1) The chairman of the Federal Reserve Board is worried enough about confidence that he chooses to make this statement.

2) He does so in a form that allows no questioning or rebuttal.

3) To the extent that he discusses the tools to contract the money supply, it's all pretty much the same as before. We've learned they aren't nearly as all-powerful as he want us to believe.

4) Bernanke says almost nothing about the international dimension--including foreign exchange and the impact on what has been the world's reserve currency.

5) All these promises miss the political dimension altogether. Are we really to believe that those who have been personally helped by recent policies--bailed out banks, investment houses, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, etc.--are going to sit by and watch the Fed crank up the pain? The relation of Congress and State governments to the stimulus package is similar to that of an addict to cocaine. The American people will want their freebies, and they won't want to pay for them.

I'm supposed to feel more confident after reading this?

Bernanke Op-ed in WSJ: The Fed’s Exit Strategy - WSJ.com

09 July, 2009

Rethinking liberal arts

(Reposted at Duck of Minerva)

What does a citizen need to know? What skills and knowledge should we assume in our interactions with others? What makes a person a well-rounded person? The issues go back for centuries, and every so often some suggests modifications to the list of "liberal arts." I teach at a university with a "liberal arts" requirement, and I know from experience the battles to have a class listed as required (or optional) mix issues of academic politics and teaching philosophy. They can make or break particular classes, or entire programs.

A recent reconsideration of "liberal arts" (note: not the liberal arts) is available at the link below. What began as a series of conversations on a blog has been refined to a short book. The contributors go out out of their way to declare their list is not canonical, but here's their table of contents:

Introduction Timothy Carmody, Robin Sloan vii
Attention Economics Andrew Fitzgerald . . . . . . . . . . . 2
Brevity . . . . . . . . . . Gavin Craig . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
Coding and Decoding Diana Kimball 8
Creativity Aaron McLeran 12
Finding Dan Levine . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .16
Food Gavin Craig, Theresa Mlinarcik 18
Genderfuck . . . . . . . . Laura Portwood-Stacer . . . . . . . 22
Home Economics . . . . . . Jennifer Rensenbrink . . . . . 24
Inaccuracy . . . . . . . . Alex Litel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28
Iteration . . . . . . . . . Robin Sloan . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
Journalism . . . . . Timothy Carmody, Matt Thompson 34
Mapping . . . . . . . . . . Jimmy Stamp 36
Marketing Matt Thompson 40
Micropolitics Matt Thompson 42
Myth and Magic . . . . . . Tiara Shafiq 44
Negotiation . . . . . . . . Matthew Penniman . . . . . . . . . . 48
Photography Timothy Carmody 52
Play Matt Thompson 56
Reality Engineering . . . . Rex Sorgatz . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58
Translation Rachel Leow 62
Video Literacy Kasia Cieplak Mayr-von Baldegg . . . 66
About the Contributors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71

So, what do you think? What needs to be added to the list of liberal arts? What needs to be dropped? Is there a place for what we teach?

new-liberal-arts-2009.pdf (application/pdf Object)

08 July, 2009

Drugs for fun and profit

The UN's 2009 World Drug Report is out.  I'm pleased to report they acknowledge the limitations in their methodology.  I'm amused--but not surprised--to see the response to the argument that "the drug war isn't working" is to increase enforcement.  At least they want to prioritize the producers and distributors.


UNODC_WorldDrugReport2009.pdf (application/pdf Object)

Conventional force structure and asymmetrical conflict

A thoughtful article asks a question I never thought I'd see in Naval Proceedings: why do we need a navy?

If "the naval era" is defined as the era of sea control, it ended in 1945—the last year of Fleet-size combat operations. Because the most recent sea battle worthy of the name occurred in October 1944, we are now into the seventh decade of the post-naval era.

The global war on terrorism is essentially a rifle fight. As much as partisans rankle at the notion, navies are largely irrelevant to its conduct, and the Air Force has been marginalized. In fact, unmanned aerial systems represent the growth industry, approaching the importance of manned aircraft. Meanwhile, the air superiority mission is nearly extinct: American pilots have shot down only 55 hostile aircraft in 36 years, the last one in 1999.

But the problem extends far beyond hardware to the fundamental realm of roles and missions. In a revealing document, the Department of Defense does not consider conventional warfighting a priority-land, sea, or air. In fact, the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review listed four missions under "Operationalizing the National Defense Strategy":

  • Defeating terrorist networks.
  • Defending the homeland in depth.
  • Shaping the choices of countries at strategic crossroads.
  • Preventing the acquisition or use of weapons of mass destruction.5

An inbound question, low and fast out of left field: If not even DOD is concerned about conventional warfare, why do we persist in building a warfighting Fleet?

One of the "disadvantages" of technical and numerical superiority is that other people refuse to play by your rules. When direct experience dies, so does expertise. Some things can't be taught from a book. Even in a world of virtual reality training systems, the political elements--and the knowledge that it really isn't the "real" thing--lead to scenerios and assumptions increasingly divorced from reality. Then, when the real thing comes along, everyone is surprised. The questions become who will learn faster, and how much can they afford to lose while they are learning?

Proceedings Story - U.S. Naval Institute

The Duck of Minerva waddles at midnight

I'm pleased to announce that I'm filling in as a guest blogger at Duck of Minerva. For those of you who don't know of it, there's a link to the left of this page under my "daily reads". Its regular authors share an uncommon combination: expertise in international relations and skill in writing for the general public. It's an honor to join the team.

I'll still be posting here, but it's always worth the time to check out the Duck for more insights (and controversy).

This is going to be fun.

05 July, 2009

Saudis and Israelis

There's an old saying that countries don't have friends, only interests. Like many old sayings, there's a germ of truth in it. And while the enemy of my enemy is most assuredly not my friend, he may be someone I can work with to achieve a common end. Case in point:

The head of Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence service, has assured Benjamin Netanyahu, its prime minister, that Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye to Israeli jets flying over the kingdom during any future raid on Iran’s nuclear sites.

Earlier this year Meir Dagan, Mossad’s director since 2002, held secret talks with Saudi officials to discuss the possibility.

The Israeli press has already carried unconfirmed reports that high-ranking officials, including Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, held meetings with Saudi colleagues. The reports were denied by Saudi officials.

“The Saudis have tacitly agreed to the Israeli air force flying through their airspace on a mission which is supposed to be in the common interests of both Israel and Saudi Arabia,” a diplomatic source said last week.

The countries don't have formal diplomatic relations, but that doesn't mean much--especially in a part of the world that's noted for deal-making, deception, and war. The Saudis would have to pay a political price, and they would have to accept the risk of playing a battlefield in a regional war. The move is a threat to the regime on several levels. However, the threat, especially if it is denied by the governments involved, could rattle the Iranians, and both Israel and Saudi Arabia have reason to consider that a good thing.

Saudis give nod to Israeli raid on Iran - Times Online

02 July, 2009

The Korean War is underway

But don't panic about it. An op-ed in the WSJ points out that since the North Koreans announced in 2003, 2006, and as late as May 26th this year that the Armistice is no longer binding on them, it means it is no longer binding for the UN (US) forces, either.

I doubt we'll see American ships fire on North Korean any time soon, but legally the US is within its rights to do so.

Perhaps North Korea should reconsider its position on the Armistice?

How to Stop North Korea's Weapons Proliferation - WSJ.com