Category Archives: foreign policy

Airport Security Protests Fizzle and Inspections Continue as They Must

By Marc Seltzer; originally published at care2.com on December 6, 2010. (The original posting received more than 100 comments, often strongly disapproving, which can be seen at the care2.com link.)

. . .

Protests against airline security procedures did not materialize last week despite a media campaign in which a variety of hopeful instigators clamored that the public would not tolerate the invasion of privacy.  While the new procedures — x-ray technology that sees through clothes and pat downs that include private parts — are bound to make people uncomfortable, the vast majority of passengers accept that the threat of attack is serious and the security measures reasonable.

The sniping at the Obama administration and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and claims that TSA procedures are unconstitutional on the one hand and misguided on the other don’t hold up to scrutiny.  First of all, flying is optional.  We choose to do it by paying for a ticket and accepting the rules that go with the privilege of flying.  The government, rather than the private airline companies, conduct security operations, but no one is forcing passengers to get in line.  Second, flying is not something you do in the confines of your home, where you would expect the most 4th amendment protection from government search and seizure.  The question of whether it’s reasonable to conduct these admittedly invasive searches in an airport security line depends on the level of protection needed and the availability of other options.

While the U.S. has been lucky that the shoe bomber, underwear bomber and other attempts have failed to bring down a plane, there is a clear threat to aviation security.  The procedures are the best that experts can come up with at this moment.  No doubt less invasive, and more effective, machines are on the drawing board.

Another argument is that the scanners and pat downs can’t stop every conceivable threat.  True, but the new procedures increase the chances of a successful inspection for dangerous materials.  They take more time, they see more, and they make it more difficult to plan and carry out an attack.  That is enough to justify their use, even if something slips through.

The people in aviation security, from front line screeners to administration decision makers, deserve credit for doing a difficult job where a single mistake can cost many lives and the enemy actively tries to exploit errors and weaknesses.

Marc Seltzer is also a contributor to SupremePodcast.com, a weekly U.S. Supreme Court case review podcast.

Advertisements

North Korea’s Nuclear Bravado v. the U.S.’s Newfound Hesitation

By Marc Seltzer; originally published at care2.com on November 30, 2010.

. . .

I am watching the news and wondering when everyone went to sleep? Is anyone else wondering the same thing?

Why are we allowing North Korea to have nuclear weapons and at the same time act aggressively? I understand that if we respond aggressively, they might start a war, but since when is that an impediment? We started a war in Afghanistan because they attacked us with our own planes. We started a war in Iraq because they were belligerent and might have had dangerous weapons technology. Both of those situations might have been handled differently, but why isn’t it worth standing up to North Korea? I can’t imagine the logic.

If allowing North Korea or Iran to “go nuclear” leads in the long run to nuclear weapons proliferation among people who do irresponsible things and then hide behind their nuclear weapons, or worse, the use of a nuclear weapon by an individual not associated with a state for whom deterrence isn’t important, what could be worse? What path are we on? North Korea sinks a South Korean ship and attacks a few South Korean civilian homes. No response?

We should be reticent to force regime change on another country, but are we confused that we could not attack their nuclear capability, their military, their government, if we wanted to? Should we at least draw a line that says, “if you kill more than a thousand civilians, we have to stop you” or “if you demand a change in foreign policy based on your nuclear capability, we have to destroy that capability?”

It’s not so much that the recent incident in North Korea is crucial in itself. But it sends the signal to everyone who ever wanted power, that if you can get your hands on some plutonium, you can really throw your weight around. Moreover, we are at only one moment in this evolution, we have a whole future ahead of us facing the prospect of a nuclear North Korea selling or trading weapons to others. In fact, for North Korea, it would seem that a destabilizing attack by a third party on the United States would strengthen the North’s standing in the world, so long as it couldn’t be directly blamed on North Korea so as to justify retaliation.

Although I have not been against the war in Afghanistan — other than it should only have been fought from a plane to punish perpetrators of 9/11, rather than on the ground with the dream of building a modern country — or the war in Iraq — though I was never convinced by the articulation of reasons or the simplistic approach to remaking Iraqi society — I don’t understand how anyone could think that either of those efforts were in the same league in importance compared to curbing the avowed development of nuclear weapons among small belligerent states.

What bothers me is that I am not even reading in the news any consideration of a serious response to either North Korean actions or nuclear proliferation. It seems that the discomfort of standing up and risking another war has become so high that it is off the table. The alternative, a future cataclysm, that we can’t quite predict and that might still be twenty-five years off or might never occur, offers false comfort.  Experts on PBS NewsHour are saying there isn’t much we can do. I understand that President Obama has taken the position during his presidency that North Korean stunts should not be elevated in political importance by receiving a presidential response. This make some sense as a political posture, but at some point, the only appropriate response to a military attack is a serious response.

Unlike in Afghanistan, where a great deal of costly response has achieved very little, the United States needs to find ways for a little response to achieve a great deal. If anything needs to be rethought by the Defence department and civilian leaders, this is it.

The real lesson of 9/11 was to access risk with some imagination. The risk here is that someone or some group will find it advantageous to use a nuclear weapon on a major metropolitan area, whether New York, Moscow, London or Mumbai — that in the subsequent international instability and economic distress, their position would be improved. There are many interests whom are disadvantaged in the current world order, and it is impossible to predict the path connecting nuclear technology and radical political designs.

While the President cannot eliminate all threats to the United States or its allies, the conclusion drawn from a period of ineffective or at least inefficient military campaigns cannot be to take confrontation, including military action, off the table. The United States must think smart about where the greatest risks lay, and take action now to achieve the most effective containment of those risks. History will not wait for us to get it right.

. . .

Check out my podcasts on U.S. Supreme Court case law at SupremePodcast.com

To Protest or Reform — Who’s Messing with Our Minds?

(photo:  Greece’s P.M. Papandreou and France’s Sarkozy in Davos, Switzerland, recently, managing economic turbulence)
. .
By Marc Seltzer; originally published on March 19, 2010, at care2.com

. .

There is still a strong undercurrent of anger in the United States about bailouts and stimulus spending.  Republicans, and even Democrats and Progressives, have reacted angrily to President Obama and his financial team.  This is significant because President Obama lost political capital on the economic recovery plan, and has far less power now to push though health care, education and financial reforms than he would have absent these actions.

The common critique from the Right is that Mr. Obama is moving in a socialist direction, while from the Left it is that Geithner, Summers, Romer and Bernanke, the U.S. government’s economic chieftains, are corporatist and beholden to the bankers.

More puzzling than the conservative complaints about the administration’s stewardship of the economy, is the Left’s opposition to it.  A significant part of the Democratic party seems to believe that our current leadership is on the side of the wealthy in a new class struggle, and that the government bailouts have effected a transfer of wealth from the little guy to the fat cats.  To be fair, this antagonism towards saving the financial system is in part a more structural distaste for corporate political and legal power — unrelated to recent U.S. government actions.  None-the-less, Obama is now trying to enact reforms in this across-the-spectrum, anti-government political climate.

To challenge the idea that Obama’s actions were pro-bank, pro-corporate, or designed to bail out the fat cats at the expense of the public, I want to compare the European response to the financial crisis with U.S. actions.  European nations, often called “social democracies,” are respected by the American Left and cited as examples for their stronger safety net of worker protections, health care and liberal benefits.

Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the European Central Bank, equivalent to our Federal Reserve Bank (Ben Bernanke), said recently about American and European government interventions:

“We had to put on the table on both sides of the Atlantic around 25% of taxpayer risk to avoid the Depression, a major Depression, which would have come had we not been that bold.  When I say we, I mean the governments.  Of course, the central banks also have been very bold, in engaging in non conventional measures — the Fed and us [European Central Bank].”  (Bloomberg on Demand, March 12, 2010, from interview with Tom Keene)

What is insightful here is that European governments and related institutions behaved much as the American government did.  As the New York Times reported in early 2009:

“So far, Europe’s largest economies, France, Germany and Britain, have been spared demonstrations. All three governments have introduced huge stimulus measures aimed at spurring employment and protecting banks.

Regardless of the outcome, the three countries will face large budget deficits and higher state borrowing, which economists say will be passed on to taxpayers. And in the case of France and Germany, the governments could find it more difficult to introduce bold reforms at a time of recession.” (New York Times, January 26, 2009.)

To be sure, European nations have faced public protests over the past year, including demonstrations in recent weeks against the Socialist government in Greece.  And modern European nations are a mix of strong state intervention in industry and free markets.  But despite their more left-leaning perspectives, European government actions to save banks and support their nations’ economies with emergency stimulus spending, resemble US approaches.

The underlying reason for this is plain: Healthy economies require healthy banking systems.  The only other option for lawmakers in 2009 would have been to nationalize, through government takeover, the major banks and investment companies.  This would not only have been too radical for a young American President in the first days of his Presidency, but was not favored by European nations, which, despite more Socialist political visions, prefer to keep most individual businesses in the hands of private owners.

It is as much of a stretch to believe that Barack Obama, community-organizer-turned-politician, attained the Presidency in order to embrace the rich and powerful over the little guy, as it is to draw the conclusion that the Socialist and left-leaning governments of Europe transformed in 2009 into standard bearers for corporate and special interests across the Continent.

Why the American Left should find itself so opposed to the positions of both European and American governments requires little guesswork.  The greed, irresponsibility and power in the financial system made the public angry.  The Republicans, with little post-election political power and prospects, turned anti-corporate anger into anti-government anger with some clever “grass roots” anti-Democrat marketing messages.

Now, instead of joining the administration and embracing reforms, many a Democrat flirts with anti-government energy, which is really just self-serving partisan manipulation pushed by the Republican party.

Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich, in discussing his last-minute decision to vote for the President’s health care reform, acknowledged the tension between pressing for progressive reform and falling into a trap laid by the opposition:

“With three years left in the Obama Presidency we have to continue to encourage him, but we’ve got to be careful that we don’t play into those who want to destroy his presidency and say, you know, the birthers and others who say he should never have been President to begin with.  There is a tension that exists. . . .  we have to be very careful about how much we attack this president even as we disagree with him because we may play into those who just want to destroy his presidency.”  (Democracy Now!, March 18, 2010 (radio interview with Amy Goodman))

Careful indeed!  It’s about time.

Podcast March 6, 2010

March 6, 2010 “My Show”

Iraqi election and the courage of starting a new democracy.

Health care reform and whether “reconciliation” is really just a buz word and political attack with no real historic significance.

Email or call with comments (310) 928 1408 and I will try to discuss in the next show.

Military Tribunal or Civilian Courts for Terrorists?

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on January 6, 2009, at care2.com

. .

The recent decision to treat the perpetrator of the December 25, 2008, terrorist attack on a commercial airline flight as a criminal defendant, rather than as an enemy combatant, again raises questions about the use of civilian courts for terrorists.

A foreign national enemy soldier in U.S. federal court, will not, in fact, receive all the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.  Still they will receive more substantial legal protections than likely to be provided in a military tribunal.  Why then provide all the rights and process of U.S. civilian courts, rather than simply relying on military courts and justice?

The answer relates more to the failure of the Bush administration to effectively establish and use military tribunals than to the appropriateness of federal court for terrorists.  The Bush administration created secret prisons and harsh interrogation techniques but no workable process for judging enemy prisoners.  Under the circumstances, Republican criticism of the Obama administration decision to prosecute Abdulmutallab in civilian court is hypocritical.

This case is different in key ways from the case of the five Guantánamo detainees, who will be tried in federal court.  For example, the government will seek the death penalty for the five Guantánamo detainees.  After the damage to the government’s reputation because of treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and questions about interrogation and legal authority for detention without trial at Guantánamo, the execution of these detainees without a traditional civilian trial would have aroused international outrage and significant domestic criticism.

However, the December 25th attempt to destroy a plane as it descended towards Detroit failed, and no injuries resulted.  Thus, the government will likely seek incarceration, not the death penalty.  Moreover, Defendant Abdulmutallab has not been interrogated using enhanced techniques and his detention will be at the hands of the Obama administration, which has disallowed torture.  Therefore, there is not the same need to demonstrate the legitimacy of the process as there was with the Gauntanamo detainees.

The Bush administration proposed to deal with detainees outside of the civilian legal process, but parts of its plans were rejected by Congress and the courts.   After scandals at Abu Ghraib and questions about the administration’s treatment of prisoners and judgment in reviewing detainee cases without judicial oversight, the Bush administration lost some credibility in its role as authority over detainees.  This also cost the executive branch authority to use what should have been an ordinary process in time of war, the military tribunal.

The Obama administration has asserted that it will use tribunals in some cases.  For example, where evidence against a detainee is not sufficient to achieve a conviction in a civilian court, the administration will still seek to incarcerate people it believes are a threat, using a military tribunal.  Similarly, if a large number of foreign soldiers needed to be tried, it would overwhelm a civilian court, but be easily accommodated in the more flexible rules of a tribunal.

It makes no sense to try every enemy soldier in a civilian court. But the Obama administration will have to pick up where the Bush administration failed.  It will have to demonstrate to Congress and the courts that it can conduct military tribunals with the right mix of prosecutorial judgment and judicial process.

For now, the December 25, bomb attempt left an obvious trail of evidence and only one defendant.  This is an easy case for a federal court to handle.  Moreover, the defendant started providing information to the law enforcement officials immediately upon his arrest.  CIA or military intelligence officials could have been called in, but the defendant cooperated and provided detail immediately, according to the administration.  Under these circumstances, the administration’s decision to prosecute Abdulmutallab in civilian court was sound, although the greater challenge will come as the administration tries to prosecute some of the remaining Guantánamo detainees in military courts.

Follow me on Twitter

January 6th, 2009, UPDATE:  In depth discussions on foreign policy and detentions on C-Span; President Obama discussing security issues.

President Obama Achieving the Possible

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on December 20, 2009, at care2.com

. .

I, for one, would like to see a re-energized Republican party.  I don’t think its good for America when one party has lost its way and we have to rely, at least temporarily, on the leadership of only one political team.

I rather like medical malpractice reform, a piece of the current Republican puzzle.  If Republicans could coalesce around a message of discipline and sacrifice for the common good on post-recession budgets — and maybe cleaning up the terrible problem in states that elect judges without asking them to recuse themselves when they preside over the cases of their campaign donors, they could have the beginning of a party platform.

Instead, I had to read in the NY Times today that the Republican response to President Obama’s efforts to reach reasonable and practical agreements to reduce international pollution and to the President’s leadership on health care — again seeking compromise in order to achieve what is possible — is that the President should only be working on the economy.

As if it weren’t bad enough that the Republicans have opposed serious efforts at health care reform — including opposing the current reform package that takes significant steps at cost control, while providing health care to those priced out of the system.  (The New York Times reported “the $871 billion cost of the bill would be more than offset by the new revenues and cuts in spending, so that it would reduce future federal budget deficits by $132 billion between 2010 and 2019” per the CBO.)

As if denying that environmental pollution could have a global impact, and claiming that serious scientists doing their best to understand and report climate change were balanced by a far smaller number of skeptics, many of whom represent polluting interests, wasn’t holding America back.

Now the Republican message is that the President of the United States should not do more than one thing at a time.  No matter that the nation is at war, that China presents capitalist competition at a whole new level, that environmental damage is not bound by borders and China, India, Brazil and the like are industrializing fast, that regulation of our private financial system needs obvious overhall and that the great gains in productivity and commerce of recent years got absorbed into rising health care costs rather than making our products more competitive on the international market or our workers better paid and businesses more profitable.  The Republicans want the President to address no more than the economy.  And on the economy, they want unregulated markets, without government action.  In other words, laissez faire, and let the chips fall where they may.

This President is tackling real problems in the economy, health care, and national security, and laying the groundwork for longer-term progress on environmental protection, education, and financial regulation.  His administration is developing new partnerships in international cooperation in keeping with changes in the dynamic power and nature of world nations.

Take for example, the health care compromise aiming to garner 60 votes in the Senate.  It will be picked on mercilessly by those who wanted something more or something less.  Some will say it does nothing and others will say it remakes the American economy into a socialist order.  But read the basics of what it achieves and think.  It offers an estimated 30 million people, who were rejected from or priced out of health insurance, the opportunity to obtain coverage.  It subsidizes low income wage earners and it taxes enough of those parts of the health care industry that are subsidized and overused to achieve significant cost-cutting.  It has features which draw the praise of economists like Paul Krugman. See his recent NY Times op-ed “Pass the Bill.”

The fact that Mr. Obama speaks well and that he uses expressions, such as “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” which turn out to perfectly capture the political dynamic, is a mighty bonus.  The President has clear insight into what realistic progress looks like.  Those who criticize compromise do not, although they may have a point that in the future progress can go beyond what we agree to today.  But we have to start from where we are, and sometimes getting started is the hardest part.  Once we move in the direction of cleaner energy, we can invest our education, creativity, entrepreneurial spirit and regulatory know-how to take us farther than we can now imagine.  Or more dire circumstances may force us to take other measures.  But this is still the beginning.  We are not lacking leadership at the top.  Let’s take advantage of where we are and get started.

To hear my conversation with care2.com blogger Jessica Pieklo on Copenhagen hopes and Health Care votes follow this link and click on the “December 15, 2009 podcast, Copenhagen’s Promise and Health Care Reform Politics.”

The Vice President’s Op-ed is also worth reading:  Joe Biden in the NY Times.

December 21, 2009 UPDATE: NY Times Editorial in favor of the Senate bill.

President Obama, is Afghanistan more like Vietnam or Germany?

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on November 30, 2009, at care2.com

. . .

When President Barack Obama addresses the nation on Tuesday evening, December 1, from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I will be looking for the President to answer specific questions I have about the United States’ conduct of the war in Afghanistan.

I would like to hear Mr. Obama state clearly the current objective.  Is it to build a modern nation in Afghanistan, create a quasi-democratic state, or simply stand a government that can police its own population and take actions that support U.S. security objectives?  Eighty percent of Afghanistan’s population live in 32,000 rural villages. Economic and political life is different there than in modern societies, and I want to see that the President’s plan does not rest on unrealistic expectations and assumptions.

President Bush’s military mission in Afghanistan was to remove the Taliban from power and stop Al Qaeda and its associates from conducting violent action against the United States.  The initial invasion succeeded in ending the Taliban national government, and the ongoing campaign has forced Al Qaeda to seek more hospitable territory elsewhere.  However, installing a democratic government with control of the entire country has proved impossible, and in the face of such difficulty, the mission has become less clear.

The most important issue in the war in Afghanistan may be its impact on Pakistan.  If any nation could be the catalyst for a WWIII scenario it is a nation with a nuclear arsenal and a violent extremist insurgency.  Pakistani Taliban and other insurgents are actively fighting against the democratic government of Pakistan and lethal bombings of civilian and military targets are becoming daily occurrences.  An all-out civil war in Pakistan would be catastrophic and could require international forces to secure nuclear weapons, at the very least.  If this is part of the calculation of continuing our military effort in neighboring Afghanistan, Mr. Obama should say so. The Bush administration played fast-and-lose with the reasoning behind the invasion of Iraq, and confidence in American credibility suffered as a result.

And then there’s the Vietnam question.  Are we even capable of defeating the Taliban?

In Vietnam, we were unwilling to risk a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union and China, and yet could not defeat the North Vietnamese people without risking such an all-out superpower war.  Thus, we were in an unwinnable war with no good diplomatic solutions.

While there is no superpower behind insurgent forces in Afghanistan, there is significant support in the population and financial backing from abroad.  We have been fighting insurgents for eight years and are no closer to victory.

It is a combination of troop strength and strategy that will make or break the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.  Not just critics of the war, but top military brass, have said that a political solution is ultimately necessary.  In Iraq, an important part of the “surge” strategy was hiring the unemployed former army members and others who were fighting against us.  The concurrent increase in U.S. troops also supported government and military efforts to control violence, but the change in strategy was key. A similar initiative to pay local Talibs to switch sides is now underway in Afghanistan.

If the new strategy for Afghanistan is not producing positive results in a year or two, will the President accept defeat and withdraw our resources?  There is evidence that President Lyndon Johnson did not want to be involved in the Vietnam war and did not think it was winnable.  Yet, he continued to increase American participation based on domestic political consequences and complex international uncertainties.  However, our resources are precious and should be used with serious intentions, not squandered, or commited by default.

Will there be an honest assessment as to whether the new strategy in Afghanistan is working?  Does the President have the courage to recognize and accept failure?  It was one thing to refuse to accept defeat in a WWII.  The war against Germany and Japan saw a far greater commitment of resources and manpower.  Our entire nation was transformed into an armament factory and the committment to destroy the enemy and remake its society was total.  On the military front, we used all the force we had and accepted both our own heavy losses and devastating destruction of German and Japanese civilian targets.  Total victory was necessary and total defeat was not an option.  However, the situation in Afghanistan is not a world war.  Failure of a operation does not mean the surrender of all objectives.  Only fourteen years after South Vietnam fell to the Communist North, the Berlin Wall came down and international communism was on its way out.  (If you still have an image of Communism guiding China and Vietnam today, travel there and test your ideas.  Both nations provide thriving business environments and gradual reforms).

The lesson here is that we should not follow a failing strategy for long.  The risk of failure is substantial, and the President and his military command must be able to evaluate and change course, as necessary, including abandoning losing causes.

I will listen with an open mind to the President’s reasoning on Afghanistan.  What I hope to hear is not so much an answer that fits my preconceived notions, but an explanation of the U.S. mission there and a realistic assessment of strategy designed to achieve our goals.

For an Afghan voice and perspective (although somewhat dated), see my Interview with Massoud Quiam and Commentary by Massoud Quiam.

December 2, 2009 Update: C-Span 3 is covering live Congressional testimony of Defense Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen on Afghanistan.

Point of contention is whether it makes sense to ramp up the battle now, while at the same time saying that we intend to start transferring responsibility for security to the Afghan authorities by mid 2011.  Is this just the usual attack on the President, or is there a contradition here?  Can we say that we are only willing to spend so much time and money (and risk to our troops) and that that time is running out — a limmited commitment — without hurting our chances of success?  It is a legitimate question, but the benefits of such a policy may still outweigh the costs.