Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Let Me Get This Straight

Number of Israeli deaths due to rocket attacks from Gaza in the past eight years: 19.

Number of Palestinian deaths due to retaliatory fire from Israel in the past 36 hours: 375.

Hmm. Of course what really matters is the percentage of each that are civilian, versus military, targets.

What should Obama do about this mess when he takes office?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Trouble in Niger

The New York Times has a long report on the drive for uranium in Niger, which is threatening to create a conflict between Tuareg nomads who live on but presumably do not own the land wherein the ore is to be found, and the government, which presumably would prefer to profit from mining contracts at their expense:

"A battle is unfolding on the stark mountains and scalloped dunes of northern Niger between a band of Tuareg nomads, who claim the riches beneath their homeland are being taken by a government that gives them little in return, and an army that calls the fighters drug traffickers and bandits.... Uranium could infuse Niger with enough cash to catapult it out of the kind of poverty that causes one in five Niger children to die before turning 5.

Or it could end in a calamitous war that leaves Niger more destitute than ever. Mineral wealth has fueled conflict across Africa for decades, a series of bloody, smash-and-grab rebellions that shattered nations. The misery wrought has left many Africans to conclude that mineral wealth is a curse.

In February 2007, a group of armed Tuaregs mounted an audacious attack on a military base in the Air Mountains. A new insurgency was born. They called themselves the Niger Movement for Justice and unfurled a set of demands: that corruption be curbed and the wealth generated by each region benefit its people.

To fight the rebellion, the government has effectively isolated the north, devastating its economy. International human rights investigators have also documented serious misdeeds on both sides. The rebels use antivehicle land mines that have killed soldiers and civilians, while the army has been accused of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and looting of livestock. In all, hundreds of people have been killed, and thousands have been pushed from their land.
I have some reactions to this aticle. One: this is an important wakeup call, and I'm glad to see Lydia Polgreen reporting on this now, before the situation turns into a bloodbath. Two: observers will note the paralells between the unfolding situation and the origins of the conflict over the Darfur region of Sudan. The grievances and mobilization strategies are identical; the 2004 war and its related atrocities were also sparked by attacks on military bases that provoked a disproportionate response; and now that the Niger government has attack helicopter it is anyone guess whether they will limit their response to hitting "bandits" or go wholesale against villages. Current signs aren't promising, and surely this is a situation where there is an opportunity for some preventive action. (Empedocles? What might work?)

Third, I will note a slight mischaracterization in the article when the use of anti-tank landmines against military personnel is labeled a "misdeed" in the same paragraph as extrajudicial killings. While the latter is clearly a violation of human rights law as well as Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would apply in this situation, the former is nothing of the sort. Only anti-personnel landmines are prohibited under the Ottawa Convention, and not being signatorites the Tuareg wouldn't be bound by that anyway. Anti-vehicle mines must only be used so as not to target civilians directly; it's simply collateral damage of they are caught in the crossfire. Since Polgreen's article is otherwise designed, it seems, to provoke sympathy for the rebels, I must assume that this is not intended to suggest moral relativism but rather either a misguided attempt to appear objective, or otherwise a simple error.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Reconsidering Nuclear Policy

Writing in the Salt Lake Tribune today, two arms consultants ask some pointed questions:

For decades, nuclear weapons were thought to make us safer by deterring the first strike by another nation. Today we need to re-evaluate the roles and dangers of nuclear weapons in the world. Let's ask ourselves: Does it help the United States to have nuclear weapons? Would the whole world be safer if no one and no nation had even one of these weapons?
Well, isn't the follow up question: safer from what? Safer from nuclear holocaust, perhaps. Safer from conventional war with all its bloodiness? Hard to know, since the decline in inter-state war coincided not only with the nuclear era but also with the establishment of the UN Charter regime.

At any rate, strategies to escape from MAD are back on the foreign policy agenda. Writing in Foreign Affairs this issue, Ivo Daadler and Jan Lodal make a case for disarmament. Or so they say:
"The next President will have the opportunity to make the elimination of all nuclear weapons the organizing principle of US nuclear policy."
But actually the authors' proposals do not take the US very far in that direction. One - a better nuclear-control regime - makes sense but really is an extension of the non-proliferation treaty, not a pledge to disarm. Another - a pledge to use nuclear weapons only to deter attacks against allies - would only formalize US adherence to existing nuclear norms, while presumably keeping weapons on a hair-trigger alert and maintaining a policy based on a threat to commit a grossly unethical act - the incineration of foreign civilians as revenge for a similar attack against an ally. A reduction of US arsenals to a "mere" 1,000 weapons would be lovely, but how is that even close to approaching a world of "zero"? And if the US can't be expected to take this goal seriously, then how is Daadler and Lodal's proposal that that the US convince its allies of the "logic of zero" anything other than a recipe for hypocrisy?

The truth is, of course, that any steps toward disarmament will have to be baby steps. Even disarmament advocates like those writing for the Salt Lake Tribune can't seem to do any better than this modest proposal: increasing the amount of time required to make a nuclear launch decision.
More time would then be available to double check for possible computer malfunctions. We can also take physical steps to increase the time it takes for a weapon to be launched. For example, today's modern Minuteman missiles can be "safed" in their silos, much as the older Minuteman missiles were safed in late 1991 at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
What would it take for the US to simply disavow the use of nuclear weapons as inherently unethical and take the lead in nuclear disarmament?

Belated Friday Star Trek Blogging (Yeah, Well, It Was A Holiday...): "The Wrath of Bush"

President Bush is doing what a lame duck can: try to complete rule-making processes at federal agencies that would lock in conservative policies on labor, environmental and health standards:

"With the economy tumbling and American troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush has promised to cooperate with Mr. Obama to make the transition 'as smooth as possible.' But that has not stopped his administration from trying, in its final days, to cement in place a diverse array of new regulations.

The Labor Department proposal is one of about 20 highly contentious rules the Bush administration is planning to issue in its final weeks. One rule would make it easier to build power plants near national parks and wilderness areas. Another would reduce the role of federal wildlife scientists in deciding whether dams, highways and other projects pose a threat to endangered species.

A new president can unilaterally reverse executive orders issued by his predecessors, as Mr. Bush and President Bill Clinton did in selected cases. But it is much more difficult for a new president to revoke or alter final regulations put in place by a predecessor. A new administration must solicit public comment and supply 'a reasoned analysis' for such changes, as if it were issuing a new rule, the Supreme Court has said."
You know what all this makes me think of?

This fan trailer, "The Wrath of Kirk":

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Justice is (badly) Served

Salim Ahmed Hamdan has been returned to his native Yemen, ostensibly to serve the final months of the sentence he received from the military commission that convicted him of providing material support to Al Queda, but cleared him of the more serious charges of conspiracy. The majority of his 5 and a half year sentence was served at Guantanamo prior to his trial and conviction. What can one make of this? A few thoughts come to mind.

First, that US justice, even in its most adulterated form, can succeed. A man can be found guilty, or not; serve his allotted sentence, and go free. Second, that this can only happen when the accused are put to trial; sadly, Hamdan is one of only 11 detainees to get even this sort of trial; over 500 more have never received this opportunity. Lastly, it makes one pause to wonder; if a man is found innocent, years after his incarceration, how will the U.S., this supposed bastion of freedom and democracy, restore that most precious commodity that it has wrongly stolen from them - time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Radio Free Europe has a valuable case study on the politics behind counting war casualties. The article details the work of Mirsad Tokaca, a contro-versial Bosnian figure whose careful studies put the casualty figures of the war over Bosnia-Herzegovina at about 97,000, less than half of the official government tally of 200,000. Moreover, while most commentators act as if the 200,000 represents noncombatant dead among Bosniaks, the ethnic group against whom it is widely accepted that genocide took place, the database concludes that of the war's direct victims, almost 40,000 were civilians and 57,500 were military victims. Of the civilian victims, some 33,000 were Bosniaks, 4,100 were Serbs, and 2,200 were Croats.

Tokaca's work has taken place under the auspices of a non-governmental organization, the Research and Documentation Center, whose key report "Human Losses in Bosnia-Herzegovina 1991-1995" is also known as the "Bosnian Book of the Dead." The 200,000 estimate (beware of round numbers) was promulgated by government officials during the war and reiterated by the global media and Western scholars. By contrast:

"Tokaca's database is the only one in existence that offers the war dead sorted by name, place, and circumstances of death. Civilians, soldiers, women and children, of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims alike. The list contains 14 separate streams of information, free of ethnic prejudice, and based on facts, not estimates.

Patrick Ball, director of the Human Rights Program at the U.S.-based Benetech Initiative, has said the "richness and depth of this database is astonishing." Ball, who has worked with nine truth commissions around the world, said the RDC database "could have a significant impact on how the history of the Bosnian war is understood."
But many in Bosnia are not happy with his findings:
"Smail Cekic is one of Tokaca's critics. The head of the Sarajevo-based Institute for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity and International Law, Cekic questions Tokaca's research methods and accuses him of "fogging the essence and size of the genocide" of Bosniaks. He also says Tokaca "covers up" the depth of what he calls the "demographic disaster" committed against the regional populations, believing that Tokaca should include in his statistics those members of society who would have been born to those who were killed.
I'm with Tokaca. I suspect that much of the backlash against his analysis is due to the notion that a finding of "only" 30,000+ civilian dead would undermine claims that Bosnian Muslims suffered a genocide, but the concept of genocide is based on intent, not scale. Moreover, seems to me that 30,000 dead is plenty to justify outrage. While the argument that his database is weighted toward deaths is valid, the same organization is indeed investigating "indirect victims" separately, another pathbreaking exercise. Either way, it's important to base such claims on accurate data, and incredibly difficult - politically and logistically to find that data in conflict and post-conflict zones. The courage it has taken for him to stand up for unbiased reporting in that society is an inspiration.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What Every Professional Journalist Needs to Know About War Crimes

As I perused the web this morning I was delighted to come across a resource on the laws of war at the Society of Professional Journalists' website. In describing some of the historical antecedents of the existing laws of war, they make an important and correct observation:

"There is no one 'Geneva Convention.' Like any other body of law, the laws of war have been assembled piecemeal, and are, in fact, still under construction."
Important point, since so many commentators refer to "the Geneva Convention," but there are actually four; and since the laws of war are not limited to the Geneva rules but include the Hague Conventions and various other treaties and rules from customary law.

An important source of international humanitarian law, however, seems to have been overlooked by the SPJ: the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court. The website reads:
"It is impossible to produce a complete and up-to-date list of war crimes. Even today, weapon systems such as land mines are being debated at the highest levels of international policy."
That's not true, and nor does one sentence follow from the other. In fact, a complete and (at that time up-to-date) list of war crimes appears in Article 8 of the Rome Statute, the multilateral treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. While there are other lists, the Rome Statute is authoritative in the sense of being the product of a multilateral discussion involving most UN member states.

Whether additional things should be added to that list and what else might qualify under an item on the list, are different questions and, perhaps, await the first ICC Review Conference next year.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pirates (Again)

Pirates have captured a supertanker with a cargo worth $100 mil. Kenneth Anderson has an interesting appraisal of the legal dynamics of the situation at Opinio Juris. A minor, but interesting observation, among many others:

There are obviously many serious international law questions here. But I would also flag in advance that we law of wars lawyers need to bear in mind - I include myself emphatically in this admonition - that we have focused almost entirely on the law of land warfare, and that the law of armed conflict on the seas is its own distinct body of law and doctrine. Big mistake to assume that, as a legal matter, it is the same.
Read all of it here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Where is the Outrage?

Here is a perfectly dreadful story I missed last week in the heat of the US election: a 13-year Somali girl who was raped by three men was stoned to death for "adultery" in front of a crowd of 1000 onlookers.

At Huffington Post today, Amitai Etzioni is asking why there is not more focused outrage at these types of events:

Public voices that are often raised (frequently for very good reasons!) to criticize many of the policies of the Bush Administration (and Israeli policies in dealing with the Palestinians), are mum about atrocities committed by extremist Muslims. I wonder why we do not hear a peep from these voices when a 13 year old girl is stoned to death for the "sin" of having been raped, as just happened in Somalia. There are good people who are concerned about the pain inflicted on those executed in the United States during the last minutes of their lives by the chemicals they are injected with--a valid concern--but why are these same voices strangely mum when they learn about the particularly prolonged, painful, agonizing death of a child?

Nor did I hear from feminists about the special insult that emanates from blaming the victim of rape for having committed a sin. Or, from anybody about the Taliban who behead their countrymen on buses in Afghanistan --countrymen on their way to visit family or start a new job-- to show that they are in control and not the Karzai government, or to make some other such point.

I am told that public intellectuals refrain from criticizing these Somali and Taliban barbarians (I can practically see some of my colleagues raising their eyebrows as high as they go for my use of such a "harsh" word) because they believe that these killers cannot be reached. "Why waste one's breath?" I hear the otherwise silent public intellectuals whispering. In contrast, they say, condemning Americans (and Israelis) may yield some good results.
I think there is another reason for this. Horrible as these events are, many liberals in the West are more comfortable criticizing members of our own communities than casting stones at others. How effective can we be at spreading feminist or humanitarian ideals when we fall so short of such standards as a nation ourselves? Too, some may argue that "democratic" governments who claim to champion women's equality have a greater responsibility for living up to these ideals. This explains why organizations likeAmnesty International regularly disproportionately singles out the US in its country reporting, for example.

I'm not saying this is the correct view, only that this view may be part of the problem. To the extent that it's valid, I would turn Etzioni's question around and ask why moderate Muslims are not speaking out against this sorts of atrocities taking place in their name. Of course, some are.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Srebrenica Victims Angry At Acquittals

This week, Bosnia's top war crimes court convicted Mladen Blagojevic for inhumane treatment of prisoners, but acquitted three others accused of participating in the Srebrenica massacre for lack of evidence. The acquittals have drawn ire from victims' groups:

"“This is a disgrace. While we are looking at mass graves all day long, verdicts like this are made. I'm very unsatisfied with the Bosnian courts,” Sabra Kolenovic, a member of the Mothers of Srebrenica group, told IWPR."
However they may feel, this is a triumph for Bosnian rule of law. These verdicts came not from the international tribunal in the Hague, but from Bosnia's national courts. When Bosnia's government took over war crimes trials of not-so-big-fish accused of crimes during the war, there were questions as to whether a post-war government could provide genuine justice over men accused of participating in atrocity.

The courts' refusal to consider the defendants guilty until proven innocent, despite the emotional needs of and political pressure by those who lost loved ones, is both consistent with international standards of due process, and likely to contribute to the courts' legitimacy over time.


So today we hear that "assassination fears surround Obama" but don't worry, because the Secret Service is on the job, and Obama even has a codename: "Renegade."

Hmm. The Secret Service goes to the trouble of giving him a codename, then makes it public. I buy that.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Turning Back the Clock

The Center for Constitutional Rights has initiated a campaign, “100 Days to Restore the Constitution.” Chief among its goals:

"Ending Torture, Rendition, and Illegal Detention; Protecting Dissent; Abolishing Preventive Detention; Limiting State Secrets Privilege; Restoring the War Powers Act; Stopping Warrantless Wiretapping; Rolling Back Executive Power.
Among its specific policy proposals for the new administration to achieve these goals, outlined in this brochure.
Close Guantanamo and either try people in US federal courts or resettle them safely in a country where they do not risk persecution or torture.

Work to repeal the PATRIOT act and prevent the emergence of any additional similar legislation.

Pledge to veto any legislation creating preventive detention or national security courts as alternatives to the existing criminal justice system.

Work with Congress to pass legislation making it clear military contractors are accountable for their abuses.

Withdraw from Iraq and end the occupation.

Pledge to end all secret surveillance programs not reviewed by either the courts of Congressional committees.

Recognize and respect international law and join the International Criminal Court.
Two things of note:

1) Some of these proposals are written in the language of deed, some in the language of word. I'm not sure what it means for the CCR to propose that Obama "withdraw from Iraq" but only "pledge" to end surveillance programs.

2) Useful to distinguish the truly novel proposals here, like joining the ICC, from the same things Obama has already pledged to do on the campaign trail, such as reverse any of Bush's policies he deems unconstitutional.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

President Obama: Stop Civilian Casulaties in Afghanistan

So says President Hamid Karzai.

A fine idea. Of course, the US isn't in the business of killing civilians directly; it only "accidentally" hits wedding parties and other civilian gatherings on a regular basis. And while this is perfectly lawful, it is also perfectly horrid, not to mention counterproductive.

Sarah Holewnski, Executive Director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, argues that Obama should appoint a high-level Pentagon official to protect civilians in conflict zones where US forces are deployed:

"The Pentagon is a sprawling bureaucracy, but with all that manpower, there is no one place, no one person specifically paying attention to civilian casualties. Leadership from the top on this very contentious issue is absolutely necessary, lest U.S. forces continue to make more enemies than friends. The Pentagon position would assess the potential human cost of war before any shots are fired, make sure proven techniques to avoid civilians are in place and constantly improved, maintain proper investigative and statistical data on civilian harm in combat zones, and ensure prompt compensation to any civilians unintentionally harmed by U.S. combat operations."
Another fine idea. What say ye, Mr. President-Elect?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Clearly, We Have Entered the New Century.

First of all, Americans elected their first African-American president tonight.

Second, this election appears to be emblematic of a sea change in American political culture; and many argue this will be a turning point in America's relationship with the rest of the world.

Third, we can now have commentary delivered to us via hologram:

Hat tip to Drudge.

What do you know?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Rules for Psychotropic War?

Foreign Policy reports sardonically on the DOD's research into cognitive enhancers for warfare in this article, entitled "This is Your Brain on War."

Could pills one day replace bullets in an army’s arsenal? It might sound like science fiction, but thanks to new advances in pharmaceuticals and neuroscience, the next generation of conflict may indeed move from the battlefield to the brain. That’s according to a recent report commissioned by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency to map the future of cognitive warfare.
Yep, the old "It Might Sound Like Science Fiction but..." we seem to be hearing that about most new weapons in the US arsenal: nonlethals, autonomous weapons, and now psychotropic drugs or cybernetic technology designed to give militaries an edge.
Combat in years to come, according to the report, will be dramatically influenced by breakthroughs in neuroscience that can be adapted for defense purposes. These developments might involve improving a soldier’s ability to process information with chemicals that alter brain chemistry or computer hardware that interfaces directly with the brain... The U.S. military is also interested in applications that impair its enemies’ performance. These could range from neural-imaging technologies that tell interrogators when a prisoner is lying, to aerosols that destroy an adversary’s will to fight or drugs that alter their moods, even increasing their trust as they are attacked.
Should we be troubled? And if so how much? Citizens associated with MindJustice.org say yes. Yet international rules governing such weapons have yet to be written. One set of precautionary principles are already on the books however: Article 36 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions reads:
"In the study, development, acquisition or adoption of a new weapon, means or method of warfare, a High Contracting Party is under an obligation to determine whether its employment would, in some or all circumstances, be prohibited by this Protocol or by any other rule of international law applicable to the High Contracting Party."
In other words, governments should consider whether new weapons meet basic war law standards before developing them. The key questions to ask are whether the weapons can be controlled and used discriminately and whether they are humane or would instead cause unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury. The US has not ratified AP 1 and so is not technically required to review new weapons thus, but historically has done so nonetheless. Perhaps instead of trying to get these weapons banned in advance, activists should put the burden of proof on the government to make the case that they are consistent with the rules of war.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Friday Star Trek Blogging

It seems that Obama has captured the Trekkie vote. A Google search turned up no similar group for McCain.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Breaking Rules in Syria

In another public trouncing of established international law, U.S. military helicoptors staged an attack yesterday 8 kilometers inside Syria. According to the Washington Post:

"Sunday's attack was on the Sukkariyeh Farm near the town of Abu Kamal, five miles inside the Syrian border. Four helicopters attacked a civilian building under construction, firing on the workers inside, shortly before sundown."

The target of the strike was Abu Ghadiya, described as "one of the most prominent foreign fighter facilitators in the region" by an anonymous official who added "He is believed to have been killed." Details were added by Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Moallem in this video posted on CNN's website; according to his reports, the helicopters landed at the farm in broad daylight; soldiers disembarked and killed civilian construction workers, the farm guard and his family, four children, and even a hapless nearby fisherman.

This action will surely complicate the already hairy negotiations over a longer US precense in Iraq after the UN mandate expires in two months. And although Western papers are overwhelmingly including the word "rare" in their description of the attack (just try Googling "Rare Attack on Syria" to see what I mean), we have to view this event within a larger context. First of all, although US strikes into Syria may be "rare" (right now), strikes across Pakistani borders were getting increasinly un-rare until a large enough public backlash occurred several months ago. Secondly, the neccesity for breaking international rules to protect national interests reflects a broad trend in contemporary conflict - state actors pitted against non-state actors.

I like Lionel Beehner blog-topic of earlier this year (check it out at Huffington Post) in which he makes the case for non-violence in these new wars against terrorists, criminal networks, and separatist groups.

"The steady erosion of sovereign borders and growing threat of non-state actors like al-Qaeda suggest that these kinds of cross-border incursions will grow ever more frequent. Moreover, because states fear tipping local sympathies toward the side of the non-state actor--and losing the public relations battle, as it were--these kinds of "hot pursuit" missions will not be sustained, heavy-handed attacks with massive casualties but rather short in-and-out raids or air strikes. The targets will not be large population centers but terrorist camps or weapons caches, mostly found along borders."

Beehner writes that this kind of war strategy cannot work, because the deck is stacked against the state actor - raids aren't heavy-handed enough to suppress the threat, but they are heavy-handed enough to cause outrage. The outcome is a long, intractable conflict with public opinion turned against the state. The viable strategy is nonviolent, says Beehner: long term development through improving social, economic, and political conditions - and relationship building on the ground.

It seems to me that this "radical" strategy gives the added benefit of protecting and strengthening normative rules instead of undermining them. And the rules it protects are pro-social ones that underpin stable democratic regimes: human rights and non-violent conflict resolution. Hmm - how's that for "democratization"?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Warriors of a Feather?

Robert Kaiser’s WAPO discussion of Obama and McCain’s foreign policy similarities contains a grain of truth. Kaiser points out that both want to increase the size of the military, and both envision using the armed forces for both “moral and strategic” reasons, and neither intends to end the war on terror.

But the examples used to make this case for symmetry actually demonstrate deep differences. Not in what the candidates would do, perhaps, but in why they would do it. In just war theory this makes all the difference.

Examples: Obama has cited Rwanda and Nazi Germany and promised to stem genocides where they occur during his watch. McCain pledges to “roll back rogue states” to spread democracy. These are completely different goals – spreading democracy is not the same as ending mass atrocity: in fact, the two goals typically work against one another. Moreover, while ending mass atrocity would constitute “just cause” under just war precepts, regime change to make other states look just like us would not.

In short, there is a world of difference suggested here – just not, perhaps, what some on the political left might hope.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Friday Star Trek Blogging

Sarah Palin can't pronounce nuclear. There's been a funny exchange at Duck of Minerva and some follow-ups about whether this should matter and why.

I say, if Chekov can pronounce "nuclear," then come on, people.

Al Gore Was Definitely Right.

Climate change is a pressing security problem, not just an environmental cause.

Just ask wildlife experts in India Sundarban islands:

" The number of tiger attacks on people is growing as habitat loss and dwindling prey caused by climate change drives them to prowl into villages for food, experts said Monday."
The Security Council is sure to "remain seized" of that matter.

Thank you, General Powell

One of the most historically significant parts of Powell's speech on Meet the Press endorsing Barack Obama was his powerful description of this photograph:

The Washington Post concurs. For more this fallen soldier, see Michelle Gross's post at Huffington Post. For remarks on Powell's speech and the entire clip, see Dan Nexon's post at Duck of Minerva.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Talking Down to Parents

A new PR campaign for the US military is targeting nervous parents of would-be recruits. Check out the film clips on this website:

Noah Schatman at Danger Room has a few choice words about all this:

The new website is strangely silent about the biggest, most obvious worry a recruit's mom or dad might have about military service: Overseas combat.

[Instead,] TodaysMilitary.com's "questions to ask a recruiter" include pressing issues like "Can two friends go through Basic Training at the same time?" and "Do women receive 'military haircuts' too?"... The website also features a set of "Myths vs. Realities." One typical "Myth": "Military food is bland and unappealing." The "reality":

1) Modern military meals are varied and nutritionally balanced.

2) Options include hot and cold meals and even popular fast-food chains.

3) Food is similar to college cafeterias and is prepared by professional chefs...."
What an insult to the intelligence of American families. Let's keep an eye out and see whether this backfires, like John McCain's negative ad campaign, or if it works to reconstitute families' view of the military as "just another" career option.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

McCain: War Hero or War Criminal?

Robert Richter has an article at Counterpunch arguing that commentators should focus more on McCain's conduct as an airman during Vietnam. In particular, his frame as a war hero may be incongruous with his role in the US policy of indiscriminate bombing during that war.

As character assassination attacks on Sen. Barack Obama have now taken over Sen. John McCain's campaign, and because McCain cites his military experience as of prime importance, now is the time to focus closer attention on a facet of the Arizona Senator's own character. This is related to his 23 combat missions for Operation Rolling Thunder - the Pentagon's name for U.S. bombing of North Vietnam... The targets McCain and his fellow pilots actually bombed in Vietnam and his justification then or now for the actions that led to his capture, are no longer simply old news. They are part of what must be taken into account today, as voters weigh support for him or Obama to be the next President of the United States.
Fair enough. I too would like to see more focus on how Presidential candidates fought in US wars rather than whether they did. However two minor misconstruals of the Geneva Conventions in his piece:

First, the time period to which he refers was the mid-60s, but the explicit protection for civilian populations against indiscriminate bombing was only codified in treaty law in 1977. So, under which provisions of treaty law would McCain or other US pilots be prosecuted for "war crimes" for failing to live up to a post-1977 standard for minimizing civilian casualties? (Not that they shouldn't be, but the legal case may not be as cut and dry as Richter hopes.)

In giving a nod to counterarguments, though, Richter concedes too much ground:
There were questions raised about whether the Geneva conventions applied to the pilots, since there had been no formal declaration of war by the U.S. against the Hanoi regime - and the Geneva rules presumably are only in force in a “declared” war.
If this was true then, it certainly isn't now. The rules are understood to apply in "situations of armed conflict" declared or not.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Human Rights and Human Trafficking

James Hathaway has a post of note up at Opinio Juris on the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, which is an addendum to the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. The whole thing is worth reading; here's the abstract:

"It is doubtful that the advent of the Trafficking Protocol deserves anything approaching the nearly unanimous support it has received from those committed to the promotion of international human rights. To the contrary, the Trafficking Protocol has enabled governments to hive off a tiny part of the global problem of slavery as the focus of international attention and resources, leaving the overwhelming majority of slaves to depend on largely irrelevant and ineffective supervisory structures. Governments invoked the Trafficking Protocol to recast the duty to end slavery as best pursued through antitrafficking efforts, allowing states to claim the moral high ground in the fight against slavery despite the irrelevance of the new commitments made to most slaves."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Candidates Speak

As of 9:30 pm Tuesday night, John McCain has convinced me I'm "not a rifle shot," and turns out Obama believes that a good number of us "may remember the events of 9/11." How inspiring, our leaders' faith in us.

It's great to see the responsibility to protect foreign civilians back on the US foreign policy agenda. McCain dodged the question with a bunch of references to Iraq, which as Obama correctly points out is the biggest reason why the US is too overstretched to protect civilians in Darfur. Obama's response is about the importance of soft power: "There's a lot of cruelty around the world. We won't be able to be everywhere all the time. That's why it's so important for us to be able to work in concert with our allies."

10:11: Obama definitely wants to "kill bin Laden."

10:13: McCain takes over the role of moderating from Tom Brokaw, who doesn't seem to know what moderating means.

Worst question of the night: Is Russia under Putin the evil empire?
Best question of the night: What don't you know and how will you find it out?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Freedom For Political Bloggers Isn't Free

We bloggers in North America have it good and shouldn't take it for granted.

From Al-Jazeera:

"One of Malaysia's most prominent bloggers and a high-profile critic of the government has gone on trial for sedition. Raja Petra Kamarudin, who is already being held under Malaysia's Internal Security Act (ISA), could be sentenced to three years in jail if he is convicted.

In an entry on his Web site - Malaysia Today - he allegedly implied that Malaysia's deputy prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, was involved in the high-profile murder of a young Mongolian woman.Raja Petra denies the allegation and supporters have criticised what they say is a government attempt to gag critics and suppress freedom of speech.
Raja Petra's blog is here. Interesting that the lead post dates from 2005, though the events he is accused writing about didn't take place until 2006. I'm interested to know if at some point the transnational community of political bloggers will develop its own professional association devoted to promoting the human rights of bloggers. So far it's easy to find bloggers who write about human rights, and human rights organizations that address free speech violations against bloggers, but it seems like there is a niche to be filled here.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

That Corrupt United Nations

If anyone still thinks that "the United Nations" calls the shots on anything without the consent of member states, note that against his wishes, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has just agreed to retain Rwandan Maj Gen Emmanuel Karake Karenzi as the second highest-ranking commander for its Sudan peacekeeping force, despite the fact that Karenzi has been indicted by a Spanish court on war crimes charges for his slaughter of Hutu civilians in 1994, as the Rwandan Patriotic Front put an end to the genocide against Tutsis.

Ban Ki-Moon had insisted on Karenzi's resignation, but changed his mind when Rwanda, the biggest troop contributor to the Darfur mission, threatened to pull out its entire contingent if Karenzi's contract were not renewed. And, presumably, no other members states were willing to step in and provide the troop replacements that would have enabled the UN Secretariat to call Rwanda's bluff. Indeed, the US just shrugged its shoulders, saying, there is " no conclusive evidence that Maj Gen Karenzi had engaged in human rights abuses." Right. That evidence would have to come out, if at all, in the trial that he's not going to have anytime soon now.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Battlefield Bots

iRobot Corp has just received a $3.75 million R&D contract from the US Army to build two iRobot warrior platforms.

IRobot said in a press release: "A powerful and rugged robot, the iRobot Warrior can perform a variety of critical missions such as evaluating danger zones and inaccessible areas, providing real-time video, audio, and sensor readings to warfighters and SWAT teams. The robot will feature an advanced digital architecture and a multi-mission chassis that supports up to 150-pound (68 kg) payloads."
In all the excitement over replace existing cannon fodder with our new robot minions, it's important to consider the ethical rationale and concerns about autonomous weapons on the 21st century battlefield. Good thing the US Army is thinking about ethics, while developing the robots. Or at least, fact-checking how much popular opposition they might encounter on ethical/legal grounds. A survey completed last October by Georgia Tech's Mobile Robot Lab asked the public, politicians, roboticists and military personnel questions like:
"In which roles and situations is the use of such robots acceptable? What does it mean to behave ethically in warfare? Who, and to what extent, is responsible for any lethal errors made? What are the benefits and concerns for use of such robots?"
The full report is here, but in particular note the following findings:

So, let's see, R&D in this area is proceeding apace despite a concern that robot warriors will lower the threshold for resorting to armed violence, and that "our" soldiers' protection will come at the expense of "their" civilians' lives.

Kenneth Anderson has the latest in a series of posts on legal issues at Opinio Juris.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Defending Hamdan: An Expert Witness Ruminates

Complex Terrain Lab is currently running a very interesting symposium on the trial of Salim Hamdan in a US military commission. Known for being "bin Laden's chauffer," Hamdan was also a "test case" of sorts for the US military commission system, the White House's compromise with the Supreme Court over what to do with the Guantanamo detainees - a test many commentators have claimed the Bush Administration flunked. This summer, Hamdan was acquitted of many of the charges against him by a commission of US military officers, and sentenced to the equivalent of only five more months in prison.

CTLab's symposium opens with a series of posts by Brian Glyn Williams, a professor at UMass-Dartmouth who happened to serve as an expert witness for the defense in the tribunal. His narrative recounts not only a day-to-day view of the workings of the tribunal, but also a legal argument on which his testimony rested: that al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was not a mere "terrorist network" but a field military with attributes that should have qualified its members for POW status under the Geneva Conventions.

William's' conclusion is optimistic:

"The verdict will doubtless begin the process of rebuilding America’s reputation which has been damaged abroad by those who focus only on our faults and mistakes. While Guantanamo Bay remains a bone of contention even with close allies like the British, I believe that the Hamdan verdict will begin the process of reminding the world of what America stood for before it became defined by such terms as Abu Ghraib, Haditha, rendition, and most infamous of all, Gitmo."
More recent contributors are responding to Williams. Tony Waters is less optimistic, calling the Hamdan acquittal "lipstick on a pig." L.L. Wynn questions the assumption that the right to a fair trial in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions depends on whether one wears a uniform. William Snyder wonders whether Hamdan was actually lucky to be tried in a military commission rather than a regular court. Jason Ralph asks important questions about the way that the trial reconstituted understandings of "lawful" v. "unlawful" combatancy and rightly draws our attention to the history of the term, which was not invented by the Bush Administration. His post highlights the USG's inconsistency in treating the campaign against al-Qaeda as a "war" rather than crime-fighting, yet denying that the laws of war apply. (For a different view on this, see Andrew Sullivan's recent comments at the Atlantic.) Marc Tyrell ties these same questions into an interesting discussion of world order which begins with the question "When does a non-state become a state?"

The entire forum is full of fascinating food for discussion. Unfortunately I can't figure out how to comment over there. So, if you have responses to any of the above (in particular to Tyrell's in the last sentence of the above paragraph) feel free to react here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

"Capture and Kill Bin Laden?"

Did Obama mis-speak during the debate? Or is he really suggesting that bin Laden be summarily executed upon capture? If he is committed to the rule of law, he should be more careful. If captured, bin Laden would be entitled to humane treatment including a fair trial before execution.

Friday Star Trek Blogging

Dan Drezner is worried that Sarah Palin might have something in common with the Eymorgs.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Paying Ransoms in Mexico

It's expensive to protect organized criminal networks. Mexican gangs have escalated kidnappings across social classes to raise the funds for their armed campaign. An LA Times article details the new "virtual" and "express" kidnapping schemes, as well as the increasingly fatal outcome for victims.

It's hard to know what the international community should do in a situation like this. Train the Mexican police? Send in reinforcements to help hunt, capture or kill the insurgents the druglords and frontmen in their dens? Support the vigilantes emerging allegedly to take on the responsibility of protecting "innocents" (however defined)?

Unfortunately there is no tried and true strategy for engaging proactively in factional conflict - that is, violent conflict waged by warlords, druglords and brigands to protect lucrative trade networks or criminal activities, as opposed to violent conflicts based on ideology or identity. But that doesn't mean doing nothing.

Why not put human security at the heart of social philanthropy and third party intervention? What Mexicans (not Mexico) need right now is a trust fund for paying ransoms. The international community could donate to this fund, protecting the life savings of average Mexicans and protecting against predatory lenders for those who don't have the 10,000 it takes to bail out Uncle Raul. Virtual kidnapping consists of threatening to kidnap a family member unless the ransom is paid by a certain deadline. But risking kidnapping means risking death, according to recent events in Mexico.

For those who might argue that this strategy would only perpetuate the cycle of kidnapping and retribution, Empedocles says - so what? That cycle is only worrisome for the state, because it provides funds to druglords in their continued pursuit of violent struggle. But the context of that struggle has been perpetuated by state complicity. Why should people pay the price? Perhaps the more important point is that failing to help Mexicans pay these ransoms will not alleviate the problems that led to this phenomenon. Third party actors should prioritize that which is worrisome for normal Mexicans - the immediate prospect of losing yourself or your loved one in this game of pawns.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Insect-Drones Are Coming!

No joke:

It may seem like a futuristic arcade game, but a scene from an Air Force animated video shows a new wave in military strategy. The scene goes like this: Bad guys are being shadowed from a careful distance by small robotic drones designed to resemble birds and insects. When one of the bad guys opens his apartment door, a tiny robo-bug — looking like a garage door opener with wings — sneaks in to spy. In another scene, a robo-bug creeps into a sniper’s roost and delivers a deadly shot.

Air Force officials think Micro Air Vehicles, or MAVs, could be a significant part of the Defense Department’s arsenal in the not-so-distant future. Civilian researchers and airmen at the Air Force Research Laboratory, based at this installation outside Dayton, Ohio, have set a 2015 deadline to roll out the first generation of tiny drones. This first group, they hope, will be the size of birds and be able to operate several days without recharging.

Britain’s Special Forces have tested a 28-inch-long MAV, called the Wasp, on reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan. Last year, the U.S. Marines placed a $19.3 million order for the small unmanned aircraft, developed by California-based AeroVironment. The Wasp can be fitted with explosives that could theoretically be used in a surprise attack.
Could this be another healthy step in the so-called "bloodless" revolution in US military doctrine? I think yes, possibly. Little unmanned drones can get into positions that a human sniper couldn't, enabling more discriminate targeting and saving civilian lives on the other side. A solution perhaps to the current and counterproductive strategy of dropping 500 pound bombs from 30,000 feet when trying to take out seven insurgents... They also contribute to force protection. In Iraq small unmanned drones have already been used to identify IEDs.

But I was less heartened when I continued reading this article. I haven't yet acquired and watched the video it's describing, but from the reporter's depiction, Air Force marketing teams are characterizing the military utility of these assets in far from "bloodless" terms:
The marketing video, created by the Air Force scientists to explain their vision, claims the drones would be “unobtrusive, pervasive, lethal.”
Hmm. Not that they would be discriminate. In fact, depending on how they're deployed, they could be quite the opposite, according to Wired Magazine. Furthermore:
Parker added that the use of tiny MAVs could have civilian applications. For example, small unmanned air vehicles could be dispatched into rubble after a natural disaster to search for signs of life.
Hmm, they'd have no military application in protecting civilians and other noncombatants in war zones? For example, dispatching them into rubble after a barracks has been targeted to search for signs of wounded there or in the vicinity? (Which it would then be the responsbility of the US military to treat humanely.) Funny that this is described as an afterthought, and something divorced from military affairs, rather than integral.

My concern is not with the drones - they're likely to be an improvement over existing "precision guided" munitions and reconnaissance methods. My concern is with the military's frame. That their marketing researchers think the best way to sell these assets to the public is by emphasizing their lethality, rather than their precision and humanitarian applications, is a sad sign of the times.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Friday Star Trek/Pirate Blogging

Bless my guts, today was International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Very well, hear ye this:

For an alternative view, read this and this.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

You Followin' Me?

Blogger tells us we ought to have you regular readers identify yourself as "followers" of this blog using its new "follower list" widget. This is now an option: check it out and click on the right if interested. Partly, we're sticking this up here as an experiment... we know how many followers we have already by using Google Analytics, but we're curious whether Blogger's guess that people will want to publicly identify themselves in this way is correct or not.

Soft Power and the US Elections

Check this out: the majority of respondents in every country in a recent BBC poll say that their respect for Americans would increase if we elect Obama rather than McCain this Fall.

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that McCain not only can't tell the difference between Sunni and Shia, but apparently thinks Spain is a country in Latin America.

If Americans put this guy in office after eight years of Bush, who can blame the rest of the world for associating us with the policies of our government?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

France Skirmishes With Pirates Near the Horn of Africa

Daniel Sekulich at Modern Day Pirates provides a good roundup of recent engagements between France and various maritime gangs off the coast of Somalia:

Earlier today, France sent its military forces into action against Somali pirates, dispatching a team of 30 commandos to free two French nationals being held hostage. One Somali pirate was reported killed and six others captured by the commandos, who rescued Bernadette and Jean-Yves Delanne. The couple had been sailing from Australia to France when their sailboat was attacked on September 2 in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia’s northern coast.

This marks the second time French forces have engaged Somali pirates, the first incident being in response to the hijacking of the luxury cruiser Le Ponant in April. At that time, the French captured six pirates alleged to have been participants in the commandeering of the cruise vessel, taking the Somalis to France where they currently await trial on a variety of charges. The gang that was holding the Delanne couple apparently demanded the release of their pirate brethren from French prison, as well as a ransom of $1.4 million.

On Sunday, another French vessel – a tuna boat – came under rocket fire by pirates while sailing some 400 nautical miles off the Somali coast, in the Indian Ocean. Whether the attack on the fishing boat was related to the capture of the Delannes is not known. But it should be noted that the issue of illegal fishing and over fishing of stocks off Somalia has been the cause of previous pirate incidents.
OK, it may be facecious to suggest that these incidents are the opening shots of an ongoing low-intensity conflict on the seas off Somalia, but note that the International Maritime Board has tracked a marked increase in attacks in the region since last year - seven attacks occurred in the region this week alone - military responses from the US, Canada and France have increased accordingly. Danger Room has more.

It will be interesting to see how prominent an issue maritime security will be on the agenda on next year's "World Ocean Conference." My guess is: prominent - if only because the conference is being hosted by Indonesia, a state previously known for one of the worst pirate problems in the Straits of Malacca, but who with the coordination of its neighbors has managed to reduce the incidence considerably. Can the world's governments come to terms that could extend cooperation over maritime security issues beyond regional straits and toward the high seas? Or will other concerns take precedence?

One of the issues under discussion should be who has responsibility for assisting hostages. France's hard line this week, it should be noted, only regards its own nationals. But as Amnesty International reports, 130 other people of various nationalities are also being held by pirates in this region. Whose responsibility is it to protect them?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Russia Calls For "New Security Norms"


"The existing international security system has failed in a crisis situation, which is confirmed by developments in both Iraq and Kosovo, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told a new conference after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Moscow."
Hmm, he may have a point.
"He noted that unipolarity or domination were no longer acceptable principles on the political arena, as even the largest states as the USA could not lay down the rules for the entire global community. To do it should be up to special institutions such as the UN and regional organizations."
OK. Except what Medvedev "proposing" is actually the UN Charter regime, which has been around for sixty years...

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Protection of Civilians 2.0

The following video is circulating on the YouTube and was publicized yesterday by the Associated Press. It is said to be cell phone footage taken of the civilian victims of "stray" US bombs in Azizabad, Afghanistan. If genuine (it was reportedly filmed by a local doctor) the film would appear to weigh in on the side of the Afghan government's claim that scores of civilians were killed in the attack, and refute the US argument that only 7 civilians and 35 "militants" died.

Some quick thoughts. First, does being "militant" make a person a legitimate military target? This appears to be another semantic construction in the Bush Administration's GWOT discourse. I wonder if it means that any military-age male suspected of involvement with the insurgency is a military objective at all times. This would fly of course in the face of the laws of war: you battle those who are actually armed and fighting back, not just anyone who supports a movement.

On the other hand, if these were actual fighters their location would have constituted a valid military objective. The question then is whether the military weighed the expected collateral damage against the military necessity of hitting that target then. Considering that the civilians killed were apparently attending a funeral service in the vicinity, this is unlikely. While their deaths wouldn't constitute war crimes unless they were intentional, failing to take measures to avoid collateral damage is still a violation of the laws of war - determining whether many civilians are massed together for a funeral and waiting until they dissipate would be an example of the type of command decision that is expected of US military officers in such an instance. Another terrible possibility is that the deaths actually weren't wholly unintentional. While the US generally has an excellent record all told when it comes to avoiding civilian casualties, there are famous examples where soldiers go haywire - often in circumstances very similar to the events of that day, which included an ambush on the Special Forces in the area.

At any rate, when the USG denies and attempts to quash an investigation, that is usually a sign that someone really screwed up in authorizing a course of action (or worse), that they know it, and that they hope to do damage control. (They have now cut their losses in light of emerging evidence.)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Military's "Non-Lethal" Blow Torch

The Danger Room has been following the US military's R&D into allegedly "non-lethal" weaponry for some time. Last weekend, Noah Schachtman reported:

"Defense contractor Northrop Grumman is promising the Pentagon that it'll have weapons-grade electric lasers by the end of 2008. Which means honest-to-goodness energy weapons might actually become a military reality, after decades of fruitless searching."
Sounds promising. Then, today, David Hamblin provides a closer look at how these weapons would actually work on human targets:
"By applying a little basic physics we can get a ballpark estimate of what this might do to flesh... if the beam stays on the same spot of the target for a full two seconds –- which is a very long time under the circumstances –- it would in theory boil off a disc around one centimeter deep... Bullets are lethal when they damage a vital organ (like the heart or the brain) or when they cause rapid blood loss. Most likely, a laser of this type would not easily be able to go deep enough to affect a vital organ. Plus, the laser would will be self-cauterizing, with the heat sealing off blood vessels. It's not going to kill you quickly. Skin damage is very much easier to achieve than penetration; simply raising skin temperature to (say) 80C/ 180 f to a depth of a couple of millimeters will cause serious blistering (second-third degree burns). If 40% of the body is burned in this way, then the target will be disabled and may die. A rough calculation suggests that exposed skin would be blistered/burned in under a twentieth of a second, so the beam could play over the target at quite a high rate. It's unclear whether clothing would have much protective effect or whether it would simply ignite and cause secondary burns."
Jesus. Largely, I share Mike Innes' reaction:
"Owww. Bad.

Mad scientists. They're everywhere."
Stepping back for a moment, let's first disabuse ourselves of the notion that "non-lethal" weapons are necessarily humane or bloodless. Second, since the development or use of weapons causing "unnecessary suffering" is against the laws of war, the burden is on the US government to make the case for the military utility and necessity of these weapons. I don't see the government making that case publicly, and it's certainly not obvious to me.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Making Amends

With the brou-ha over Mrs. Pain Palin since Friday (and anyone who still thinks that being Commander in Chief of the Alaska National Guard constitutes command experience, check out this post at Armchair Generalist), it was easy to miss this story::

Libya and Italy signed an accord on Saturday under which Italy will pay $5 billion in compensation for colonial misdeeds during its decades-long rule of the North African country.

"This accord opens the door to the future cooperation and partnership between Italy and Libya," Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said at the signing ceremony at a palace which was once the headquarters of the Rome government's senior official during the 1911-1943 colonial rule.

Anthony Clark Arend has this take on it all:
"Needless to say, this is all part of Libya's "rehabilitation" and its movement away from "rogue" status, which began several years ago.

But on a related note-- can you imagine what would happen if Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and indeed, the United States were to "compensate" states for the "misdeeds" of colonialism?"
Hmm. There's an idea... in fact, this is not lost on various other former colonies of both Italy and other European powers.

One Day for the Watchman is more cautiously optimistic:
"One has to wonder how the human social, cultural, and personal toll of colonial oppression can be translated into a dollar figure, and one that might be seen as rather small. Otherwise, I personally think that compensation is important symbolically and politically, and in some instances could be very useful economically. Other nations will be right to begin to press their cases for compensation, especially when in so many instances, the majority in fact, formal colonial rule ended only in the last 40 to 50 years, with a significant mass of humanity (even if not the majority) having been born as colonial subjects."

Sunday, August 31, 2008

How to Pick a VP

A lot of people are asking what the heck John McCain was thinking when he nominated Sarah Palin, the youngest governor ever of a state not even connected to the US mainland, someone who admits to smoking pot, who will certainly alienate rather than attract Hilary supporters, and whose best qualification for being Commander in Chief should McCain keel over is her ability to hunt moose.

JedReport has an answer. HT to Daily Kos.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Karadzic Pleads Not Guilty, Alleges Conspiracy

That's the big news story of the day from outside the continental United States, where all eyes are instead on McCain's bewildering VP pick. More on both when I finish hob-nobbing with political scientists at this year's APSA Conference.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Blood Cows"??

You heard that right: bovines are the latest "conflict resource" to accurse the African continent. According to CSMonitor:

"Warring rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo are stealing and selling livestock to finance a conflict sparked by spillover from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 were killed.

Vast and volatile, the Democratic Republic of Congo has long suffered from conflicts fought over its reserves of gold, copper, uranium, and coltan, a mineral needed in cellphones and other electronics. For years, armed groups have sought control over mines and forests, their acquisitions of wealth fueling cycles of violence. Cattle may sound less glamorous than precious metals, but they're accessible.

"It's just like the mining resources," says Alpha Sow, head of the local office of the United Nations Mission in Congo (MONUC). "Part of this money goes to buy munitions."
OK, good luck trying to "securitize" that cause. It didn't work with coltan, it didn't work with timber; even "blood diamonds" didn't catch on in the public consciousness without a major movie (who is going to pay $9 USD to watch "Blood Cows"?) and only then because of a successful marketing campaign that appealed to US consumers.

Since most US beef is not raised in the DRC, it's not clear what purchase this trope will have on galvanizing attention to the Congo. What this news story shows is the inventiveness of militias in the Great Lakes region and the likelihood that any crackdown on a specific "conflict resource" will simply evince substitution effects. The unanswered question is what if anything the international communtiy can / ought to do.

Plus, exactly what does it say about the US media that it takes a story like this to be "news," when the regional war in Africa's Great Lakes region took 5,400,000 lives by August 2007, involves at least nine African nations, thousands of child combatants and shows no signs of abating? In comparison to the media blitz over the Russo-Georgian "war" (which may not even count by social science standards) this is appalling.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

What's so Asymmetrical About the GWOT?

Mark Tyrell at CTLab proposes an interesting definition of asymmetric warfare, based not on differential in capacity / tactics, but on whether or not an intersubjective understanding of the game rule-sets exists between a party to a conflict:

Within the broad definition of a game, i.e. the acceptance of underlying principles, any conflict where the "players" accept those principles and operate according to them will be, by definition, "symmetric" because of that agreement. Conflicts which a), do not accept those principles, and b), include "battlespaces" beyond the "rules" are, by definition, "asymmetric".
I really like this, but am puzzled by the example he provides:
Thus, for example, al Qaeda accepts a definition of media and symbol system regardless of geographic boundaries as the primary "battlespace" (workspace), while Coalition forces use the concept of bounded geography as the primary battlespace. This is a classic example of an asymmetric conflict; it is "asymmetric" because the players are using different workspaces and different game rules.
Is it so cut and dry? The USG’s strategy has also moved far beyond the concept of bounded geography: it has conceived of its battle as “global” from the beginning, and has extended that “battle” to areas as diverse as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Indonesia or the many “ghost ships” plying the high seas carrying detainees from this global war. Even the language it uses and rule-sets on which it draws suggest not only a presumption that the war is unconventional, but an insistent reliance on “post-modern” tactics and discourse as well. Moreover, al-Qaeda is not alone in waging war through media-space: the USG’s elaborate “hearts and minds” campaign is central to its efforts (if not necessarily any more effective than al-Qaeda’s).

Al-Qaeda Today

The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence has just released its assessment of the intentions and capabilities of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, seven years after the start of the war on terror.

Key points:

* The core Al Qaeda leadership remains in place, but it is still far from recovering the position of strength it enjoyed in 2001.

* There has been a considerable backlash against Al Qaeda-inspired violence across the Muslim world, with the result that even in places where Al Qaeda used to be highly active - such as Iraq, Algeria, Egypt, and Saudi-Arabia - its campaign has lost traction and influence.

* The one geographical area where Al Qaeda has retained influence, or even consolidated or increased its standing over the last three years, is the Afghan-Pakistan border region.

* The key to defeating Al Qaeda will be to undermine its local base in the Afghan-Pakistan border area.

* It will be important to promote the drift of the Afghan Taliban away from Al Qaeda, which could be achieved by allowing President Karzai more political room to negotiate a deal.

* Al Qaeda will aim to provoke further intervention by foreign forces, knowing that this is the one thing all the tribes will combine to oppose.
Entire paper available here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Now This is Interesting.

From the San Diego Union Tribune, a news story entitled "Civilians to Try Iraq War Case Against Marine":

When Jose Nazario goes on trial this week in Riverside on charges of voluntary manslaughter, he won't exactly face a jury of his peers.

Jose Nazario
Nazario, 28, is a former Camp Pendleton Marine sergeant accused of executing two prisoners during the battle to retake Fallujah, Iraq, from al-Qaeda militants in November 2004.

Two of Nazario's men, Marine Sgts. Ryan Weemer and Jermaine Nelson, are facing courts-martial at Camp Pendleton because they are still on active duty or in the reserves.

But because Nazario had left the Marine Corps, only a civilian federal court has the jurisdiction to try him. He's the first former service member to be tried under an 8-year-old law passed primarily to allow prosecution of U.S. civilians connected to the military who commit crimes overseas.

"This is a trend-setting case,” said Joseph Preis of Irvine, one of Nazario's three pro-bono attorneys. Opening arguments are expected tomorrow in U.S. District Court in the city where Nazario was working as a probationary police officer at the time of his arrest.
A healthy sign to see civilians in the US taking an active interest in penalizing our own soldiers for crimes against "the enemy"... perhaps Russia and Georgia could take some pointers. On the other hand:
Some observers don't like the idea that a Marine's combat actions are being judged by civilians who know little of war.

“You're talking about a group of people that validly wake up every morning with an intent to kill,” said Colby Vokey of Dallas, a Marine Corps defense attorney at Camp Pendleton until his retirement a few weeks ago. “That's a little tough to grasp for someone who has never been in that situation.”
OK, but they're not supposed to wake up thinking about killing prisoners. But there is a semi-valid critique here. It's not "war" that the civilian jury needs to know something about, it's "war crimes." Where are these jurors to be found, in a country whose populace has been systematically lied to about the actual letter of the Geneva Conventions and who prior to 9/11, was wantonly ignorant of them (not having dealt with a war on our soil in oh-such-a-long-time).

I'd be interested to know something about the jury selection process.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Lesser Evil

Ahh, the rhetoric of international politics. While Russia refers to its ¨peacekeeping mission¨ to ¨prevent genocide¨, Georgia calls for an end to the ¨armed invasion¨. Meanwhile the US escalates its involvement, accusing Russia of ¨seizing territory¨. Public statements demonstrate a predictable framing, designed for popular consumption. Yet insofar as they are engaged with each other OVER Georgia, both Russia and the US are parties to this conflict, not intermediaries. The good news is, a ceasefire is in the works thanks to a constructive intervention by France.

But the debate between territorial integrity versus right to self-determination is agan in full swing. In the current crisis over South Ossetia, I find myself curious: Which is the lesser evil - secession or forced integration?

Secession is a means to an end - political autonomy, which in itself represents group loyalty and sentiment. Decades of research on the topic demonstrates that the aspiration of national peoples for political autonomy need not come at the cost of state integrity - if state governments are able to provide that which national peoples seek.

¨Peoples who are denied basic cultural, linguistic, and political rights by their rulers are more likely to resort to violence than those who have been given a large measure of local autonomy¨ (¨Self Determination: Soveriegnty, Territorial Integrity, and Right to Seccession¨, United States Institute of Peace).

This hypothesis of violent conflict is largely borne out by decades of research by Ted Gurr´s Minorities at Risk Project among others, from which USIP relies for data. He draws more concrete conclusions, but they essentially they come down to felt perceptions of security. In short, secessionist conflict based on insecurity is likely to the extent that a state cannot ensure:

  • Protection and promotion of legitimate political and cultural interests
  • Substate autonomy for regional minorities

And this holds true for ¨seccesionist conflict¨ whether we are talking about national peoples (regionally concentrated cultural groups) or locally concentrated identity groups in a completely different kind of environment. The recent decision to ¨forcibly integrate¨ Los Angeles penal institutions has led (and will lead) to protests and violent conflict within US prisons. Inmates, who voluntarily segregate themselves within LA prisons, are fearful of the new mandate handed down by the Supreme Court. They voiced opinions at a recent meeting in the San Quentin Garden Chapel (grouped together voluntarily in whole pews of different ethnicities).

  • ¨We protect our own. It´s always been that way.¨
  • ¨If I get into a fight with a black cellmate, then I´m out in the yard, they´re all gonna get me.¨
  • ¨What if 80% decide together that we don´t want these new rules? Will you still enforce the program?¨ (The answer by the way: Yes, and through ¨progressively coercive methods.¨)

Compare these narratives of fear and insecurity to those voiced by Ossetians and Georgians:

  • ¨The Georgians bombed us, they wanted to destroy us¨ (NPR interview with Ossetian civilians).
  • Saakashvili close to tears said ¨he will ´never, ever surrender´in the showdown with much-larger Russia. ´You are dealing with a people who despise anything human´¨(reported by the Associated Press ).
  • A recent referendum shows Ossetians are against integration, viewing Georgia see as incapable of guaranteeing their collective security (view article here)
  • South Ossetians fear annibiliation by Georgians, reports Hasan Dzutsev (an Ossetian sociologist), a fear that Georgians brush aside.
  • Georgians are afraid that ¨Moscow´s real goal is to remove their president¨, a fear that Moscow brushes aside.

Although there may be rational reasons for integation, the desire for autonomy is a fundamentally emotional aspiration. Only when collective institutions (whether political, economic, or social) can genuinely substitute for the trust and predictability of our most salient identity-based connections, can humans trade in kinship for associational bonds. And the jury is still out on the strength of these bonds for minorities in Western pluralistic societies.

The bottom line? Most ethnonational conflicts begin with the quest for autonomy, and end with some arrangement of sub-state autonomy. It´s less costly for governments to settle, and seperatist movements are generally outmatched (though not out-right beatable). Yet loyalty and love of nation are not negotiable, not easily traded - even for ¨economic development¨ or ¨greater political participation¨. The worse for human ¨rationality¨once violent conflict has entered the picture. Violence fractures the associational bonds that tie diverse groups together, driving humans into more local and trusted networks - as both US prisons and the crisis in Georgia demonstrate all too clearly.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Was Russia Exercising a Responsibility to Protect?

With Russia justifying its actions in Georgia through reference to the Canadaian "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, it's worth reminding ourselves what this doctrine actually says about international interventions to protect civilians. This doctrine, first laid out in the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and later endorsed by the international community in the 2005 Millennium Document, begins by spelling out the "threshold requirements" for such an intervention - in other words, the conditions under which human rights abuses inside a state justify grounds for breaching the territorial integrity of that state through the use of force. Such an intervention must be in response to:

"large scale loss of life, actual or apprehended, with genocidal intent or not, which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect or inability to act, or a failed state situation; or

large scale "ethnic cleansing," actual or apprehended, whether carried out by killing, forced expulsion, acts of terror or rape."
The report demurs on what constitutes "large-scale loss of life"; and if it was justifiable for NATO to enter Kosovo after only a few hundred Kosovar Albanian civilians had been killed, then it might be said that Russia has something like a valid claim in this case.

But the R2P doctrine is not simply a green light for great powers to violate small states' territorial integrity whenever they can reasonably claim civilians are at risk. Rather, it carefully balances humanitarian concerns with the UN Charter regime. Intervening governments must not only demonstrate just cause, but they must meet six other criteria as well:
Right Intention: The primary purpose of the intervention must be to halt or avert human suffering...

Last Resort: Every diplomatic and non-military avenue for the prevention or peaceful resolution of the humanitarian crisis must have been explored.

Proportional Means: The scale, duration and intensity of the planned military intervention should be the minimum necessary to secure the humanitarian objective in question.

Reasonable Prospects: Military action can only be justified if it stands a reasonable chance of success, that is, halting or averting the atrocities or suffering that triggered the intervention in the first place.
Anyone can see that Russia's intervention satisfied the last of these criteria quite nicely. And although the jury is still out, for the sake of argument let us accept Russia's claim that the Georgian government's crackdown on separatists in S. Ossetia was indiscriminate and thus constituted just cause for an intervention. Even if so, it is hard to argue that Russia's means have been proportionate to its goals, that Russia exhausted any non-military avenues first, or that Russia has actually acted solely out of humanitarian objectives.

Perhaps most importantly is the question of right authority: who decides on the legitimacy of such a move? The Commission recognized the validity of such arguments, then made by Russia and China, that a humanitarian intervention norm would create a slippery slope toward the dissolution of the non-aggression norm entirely. So they devoted an entire chapter to the question of the authority to determine whether such an intervention should take place. It first stresses that to be genuine, humanitarian intervention must be multilateral, not unilateral; that it ought to be endorsed by the Security Council; and failing this (as it did in the case of Kosovo and now Darfur) could be legitimized under a Uniting for Peace resolution in the General Assembly. Point being, a single state exercising this "responsibility" on its own, without even a discussion among its peers, would negate the concept entirely.

Specious Russia's claims may be, but it is heartening to see them made. Paying lip service to a new international norm, even as a smoke-screen, legitimizes that norm. But it also provides the international community with an opportunity to apply and clarify the norm itself. This is greatly needed in the case of R2P, and the events in the Caucasus provide a useful test case.

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