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,]'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.

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