Friday, June 30, 2006

A Presidential Smackdown on Hamdan and the Separation of Powers

Yesterday, the Bush Administration's War on Terror was dealt a serious blow by the US Supreme Court which, in a 5-3 decision in Hamdan v Rumsfeld, struck down the president's ability to demand military tribunals to hear the cases of those accused of terrorist activities. In short, the Court ruled that in the absence of specific congressional authorization the tribunals violated both US military and international laws.

I am not a lawyer, so I won't comment on the legal findings. If you want good analysis, go look at the discussions on Opinio Juris or Exploring International Law.

As for my analysis, the Hamdan seems to uphold my general argument about separation of powers, which is no different in this case than in the NSA surveillance. The country is not at war. Period. Yes, we are in a struggle with people that want to, and have, killed Americans. Yes, our soldiers are fighting and dying. But Congress has not declared war. And that means something.

As the Supreme Court determined yesterday, Congress plays a critical role: it controls legislative powers. A legislative act is one which affects the standing or condition of a domestic actor, and choosing military tribunals over courts of criminal law is certainly a legislative act. The executive branch has limited power to act domestically in a legislative manner in the absence of a congressional action. And as was made clear in the concurring opinon by Justice Breyer, returning to Congress to ask for military tribunals remains an option for the administration.

The War on Terror is a terrible and serious struggle, but it is most certainly misnamed as it is not a war anymore so than the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty were wars. In wars, all (or nearly all) the energies of the nation are directed towards the end; and the end is clearly defined by achievable metrics. The War on Terror will never end. One side can hold an edge, but the terrorists will never be defeated and eliminated; certainly the US and other western powers are not about to collapse. In such a conflict, it is even more important than usual to be exceedingly careful when handing unlimited and unchecked powers to the president. In the absence of a declaration of war, the president needs to be much more engaged with Congress, and get permission to do the things he wants, and oversight to ensure they are being done correctly.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Negotiating With Insurgents

In response to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's efforts at national reconciliation, several of the main Sunni insurgent groups have apparently offered a conditional truce as a precursor to sitting down for talks about how to shape the future of the Iraq and its government. The condition for that truce: the promised withdrawal of all US, British, and coalition forces from Iraq within 2 years.

This is not an unreasonable demand (hold your horses...before you scream "we don't negotiate with terrorists", wait until the end). From an American perspective, it's time to create some metrics for victory in Iraq, and US troop presence is a decent one. If American troops are still needed in large numbers 2 years from now, it'll probably be safe to say the government isn't working too well. 2 years may seem like a fairly aribtrary number, but at this point, that may be what is needed. Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the US officer in charge of training Iraqi troops, said today that the Iraqi Army will be at full strength by the end of the year, although it would take a bit longer to train enough officers for the army. If Gen. Dempsey is right, than another 2 years should be plenty of time to train Iraqi officers to make the army capable of indepenent action.

Now, what about the problem of negotiating with people who have been killing US soldiers and Iraqis? Yes, it looks bad in public opinion, but sometimes politics requires making distasteful choices. If the choice is between talking with the insurgents and prolonging the insurgency? Seems like an easy choice to me. Even the aforementioned Gen. Dempsey seems to agree, stating that "there is a sense of inevitability" about the granting of amnesty to insurgents who have killed US or Iraqi troops.

Things seem to be progressing in Iraq. A government has been formed that is acceptable to Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds alike. Now, the Sunni insurgents are at least talking about talking. Politicians must not be hamstrung by public opinion or fear of looking weak; the stakes are too high here.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Courage of Saddam's Convictions

To protest the killing of one of his defense lawyer, Saddam Hussein went on a hunger strike. It lasted for all of...lunch. In a searing protest, Hussein skipped lunch on Thursday. Weakened by his ordeal and having made his point, Saddam broke his 8-hour hunger strike with dinner on Thursday.

So this is what has become of the Butcher of Baghdad. Take away his secret police and his Republican Guard and he's nothing more than a pathetic loser.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The High Cost of Low Defense

In the run-up to a suspected North Korean missile test-launch, the United States has announced that its missile defense system only possesses "limited operational capability," meaning that it is most likely incapable of intercepting the North Korean missile.

Missile defense has been one of the most controversial defense issues for many years now, and, to my mind, it's a giant waste. Not because it doesn't work: this is exceedingly difficult technology, but there's no reason to think the technological hurdles won't be overcome. The question is at what price? It's hard to pin down a figure of how much the US has spent on missile defense, because there are multiple agencies and defense programs involved. The best information I can find comes from this Center for Defense Information report from January 2006 which claims that $92.5 billion has been spent on missile defense since 1983. Also, according to this CBS report from 2003, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that missile defense will cost, by 2015, $49 billion. No matter the figure, we're talking huge chunks of change.

Again, I don't object to missile defense on its to-date ineffectiveness. Nor do I object based on the price tag alone. But, how much of a threat is posed to the US by a missile strike? The answer, I believe, is not much, especially when compared to the other things that threaten this country. Launching and accurately targeting a ballistic missile is an exceedingly difficult prospect that, for the forseeable future, will only be possible by states. This is made clear when looking at the nature of the missile defense program: it is clearly aimed at states like North Korea. But why should it be assumed that traditional deterrence will fail to work? It may be difficult to deter regional powers from taking actions in their own backyards, but that's not what's at issue here. Rather, we're talking about a direct attack against the United States homeland. I see no reason to assume that the overwhelming might of the US and the American ability to retaliate would not be seen as a credible deterrent threat.

So, if deterrence can work to restrain rogue states from lobbing missiles at the US, then what's the point of spending umpteen billions of dollars on a missile defense system? Not much. That money would be better spent on other defense programs, like expanding the "boots on the ground" force or training troops for urban control operations.

UPDATE: The two top defense officials in the Clinton Administration, William Perry and Ashton Carter, have an article in today's Washington Post arguing that the US should "immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched." The authors acknowledge that this would be an exceedingly unpopular step, especially with South Korea, but recommend the course of action nonetheless.

Such an action is a critical step in maintaining the deterrent relationship against North Korea. The US needs to make clear, in no uncertain terms, that a rogue state like North Korea will, in no way, form, or manner, be permitted to undermine regional or global stability, or threaten its neighbors.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Sudan Rejects UN Peacekeepers (Again)

Continuing in a long line of decisions, Sudan has once again rejected the deployment of UN peacekeepers to Darfur. Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir emphatically rejected the proposal to replace the too-small and ineffective African Union peacekeepers with a larger, multinational force under the UN, saying "Sudan, the first country in Africa south of the Sahara to win independence, will not be the first country to be recolonized." The African Union has already backed down, with AU President Alpha Oumar Konare stating that no action could be taken without the consent of the Sudanese government. This decision comes in the wake of the cease-fire signed between Sudan and the largest Darfur rebel group that depended on the deployment of UN forces.

It's time for the UN to step up and try to enforce its own norms and values. In the 2005, the UN passed the "Responsibility to Protect," agreeing that "states have a primary responsibility to protect their own populations and that the international community has a responsibility to act when these governments fail to protect the most vulnerable." Sudan is, without a doubt, one of the worst human rights violators in the world. Ethnic cleansing, genocide, slavery, government-sanctioned rape; all of these have been employed by the Sudanese government against the people of southern Sudan and Darfur. The UN has made it clear that sovereignty does not create a license for such behavior; rather, the Responsibility to Protect declares that sovereignty creates a duty on the government to, at a minimum, not rape or slaughter its citizens.

Of course, it's exceedingly unlikely that Sudan will either comply with the demands of the UN or stop its crimes. And it's even more unlikely that the UN will take any meaningful action to enforce its rules and norms. This underscores what I have said time and time again: the UN is not an effective body to handle issues that promote liberal norms at the expense of sovereignty. The US must, as leader of the international community and global hegemon, enforce the norms and values that underpin that community. Just as NATO stepped up when the UN was incapable of acting in Kosovo, and (like it or not) the "Coalition of the Willing" stepped up when the UN was unable to enforce and maintain its containment of Iraq, it is time for the US to take the lead in ending genocide and punishing those states that commit and indulge the destruction of their own people.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Happy Birthday, Aung San Suu Kyi!!!

Today is the 61st birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's most prominent and outspoken democracy activist. Myanmar, the forgotten and 0ft-overlooked dictatorial regime, is still keeping Suu Kyi under house arrest, which has now stretched on for more than 3 years. Myanman, once known as Burma, has been under the thumb of military rule since 1988. More recently, a pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy headed by Suu Kyi, won a national election in 1990, only to have the military junta refuse to step down.

Unfortunately, Myanmar has long enjoyed the support of Russia and China in the UN, who will reliably veto any international pressure being placed on the regime by the Security Council. The regime is among the worst human rights violators in the world, and is currently embarked on a ethnic cleansing campaign against the Karen ethnic minority. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 10,000 Karen have been chased out of their homes since November 2005, homes have been burned, and Karens forcibly conscripted or killed. All in all, more than 650,000 people have been displaced. According to Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch Asia director:

sources inside and outside of Burma continue to provide extensive reports of government-organized forced labor. These are primarily portering for military operations, construction of military bases, income generation projects for the military, infrastructure projects, and forced conscription into the military. There appears to be a direct correlation between forced labor and military activities in ethnic areas.

There are political prisoners all over the country. Freedom of expression ends the moment someone speaks critically of the government. In addition to individuals arrested for political reasons, the government continues to arbitrarily arrest and detain people for crimes such as failure to pay army taxes or to sell the required crop quota.

The SPDC does not allow domestic human rights organizations to function independently and is hostile to outside scrutiny. It refuses requests from UN Special Envoy Razali Ismail and UN Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro to visit. In short, the better question would be to ask the SPDC: What human rights do you respect?

Things are certainly not improving. They aren't slaughtering students in the streets now, but that is only because students are too scared to risk that kind of public opposition. Civil and political rights are at a low ebb starting from a very low, almost nonexistent, base. Mismanagement and corruption keep the economy in a constant state of crisis and the number of extremely poor people high. A couple of years ago, enthusiasts for the regime said things were improving. It's hard to find people saying that now.
So happy birthday, Aung San Suu Kyi. Keep up the good fight, and let's hope that the international community, which saw fit to award you a Nobel Peace Prize, has the guts to aid you in your struggle to free your country.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Al-Qaeda's Woes Grow

Thanks to the Associated Press, here is the text of a document found in the house in which Zarqawi was killed. If accurate, it paints a clear picture of the degree to which al-Qaeda is losing in Iraq. As I have said many times, winning and losing cannot be measured by the body bags on either side. This is a test of wills: Can the Iraqis put together a government capable of representing and protecting the interests of Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds? Can the US maintain a troop presence long enough to allow such a government to come to being? Or will the violence perpetrated by both al-Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency convince the US to leave and the government to collapse? The following document seems to indicate that the foreign-backed insurgency is weakening and is becoming increasingly incapable of mounting operations. Yes, there is still brutal violence daily in Iraq. But that is not, cannot, and must not be the metric of victory. It is still too early and the situation too volatile to be confident that this project will succeed. But if this memo is authentic, at least one sign is pointing in the right direction.

Text of al-Zarqawi Safe-House Document
Jun 15 8:58 AM US/Eastern

Text of a document discovered in terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's hideout. The document was provided in English by Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie:

The situation and conditions of the resistance in Iraq have reached a point that requires a review of the events and of the work being done inside Iraq. Such a study is needed in order to show the best means to accomplish the required goals, especially that the forces of the National Guard have succeeded in forming an enormous shield protecting the American forces and have reduced substantially the losses that were solely suffered by the American forces. This is in addition to the role, played by the Shi'a (the leadership and masses) by supporting the occupation, working to defeat the resistance and by informing on its elements.

As an overall picture, time has been an element in affecting negatively the forces of the occupying countries, due to the losses they sustain economically in human lives, which are increasing with time. However, here in Iraq, time is now beginning to be of service to the American forces and harmful to the resistance for the following reasons:

1. By allowing the American forces to form the forces of the National Guard, to reinforce them and enable them to undertake military operations against the resistance.

2. By undertaking massive arrest operations, invading regions that have an impact on the resistance, and hence causing the resistance to lose many of its elements.

3. By undertaking a media campaign against the resistance resulting in weakening its influence inside the country and presenting its work as harmful to the population rather than being beneficial to the population.

4. By tightening the resistance's financial outlets, restricting its moral options and by confiscating its ammunition and weapons.

5. By creating a big division among the ranks of the resistance and jeopardizing its attack operations, it has weakened its influence and internal support of its elements, thus resulting in a decline of the resistance's assaults.

6. By allowing an increase in the number of countries and elements supporting the occupation or at least allowing to become neutral in their stand toward us in contrast to their previous stand or refusal of the occupation.

7. By taking advantage of the resistance's mistakes and magnifying them in order to misinform.

Based on the above points, it became necessary that these matters should be treated one by one:

1. To improve the image of the resistance in society, increase the number of supporters who are refusing occupation and show the clash of interest between society and the occupation and its collaborators. To use the media for spreading an effective and creative image of the resistance.

2. To assist some of the people of the resistance to infiltrate the ranks of the National Guard in order to spy on them for the purpose of weakening the ranks of the National Guard when necessary, and to be able to use their modern weapons.

3. To reorganize for recruiting new elements for the resistance.

4. To establish centers and factories to produce and manufacture and improve on weapons and to produce new ones.

5. To unify the ranks of the resistance, to prevent controversies and prejudice and to adhere to piety and follow the leadership.

6. To create division and strife between American and other countries and among the elements disagreeing with it.

7. To avoid mistakes that will blemish the image of the resistance and show it as the enemy of the nation.

In general and despite the current bleak situation, we think that the best suggestions in order to get out of this crisis is to entangle the American forces into another war against another country or with another of our enemy force, that is to try and inflame the situation between American and Iraq or between America and the Shi'a in general.

Specifically the Sistani Shi'a, since most of the support that the Americans are getting is from the Sistani Shi'a, then, there is a possibility to instill differences between them and to weaken the support line between them; in addition to the losses we can inflict on both parties. Consequently, to embroil America in another war against another enemy is the answer that we find to be the most appropriate, and to have a war through a delegate has the following benefits:

1. To occupy the Americans by another front will allow the resistance freedom of movement and alleviate the pressure imposed on it.

2. To dissolve the cohesion between the Americans and the Shi'a will weaken and close this front.

3. To have a loss of trust between the Americans and the Shi'a will cause the Americans to lose many of their spies.

4. To involve both parties, the Americans and the Shi'a, in a war that will result in both parties being losers.

5. Thus, the Americans will be forced to ask the Sunni for help.

6. To take advantage of some of the Shia elements that will allow the resistance to move among them.

7. To weaken the media's side which is presenting a tarnished image of the resistance, mainly conveyed by the Shi'a.

8. To enlarge the geographical area of the resistance movement.

9. To provide popular support and cooperation by the people.

The resistance fighters have learned from the result and the great benefits they reaped, when a struggle ensued between the Americans and the Army of Al-Mahdi. However, we have to notice that this trouble or this delegated war that must be ignited can be accomplished through:

1. A war between the Shi'a and the Americans.

2. A war between the Shi'a and the secular population (such as Ayad 'Alawi and al-Jalabi.)

3. A war between the Shi'a and the Kurds.

4. A war between Ahmad al-Halabi and his people and Ayad 'Alawi and his people.

5. A war between the group of al-Hakim and the group of al-Sadr.

6. A war between the Shi'a of Iraq and the Sunni of the Arab countries in the gulf.

7. A war between the Americans and Iraq. We have noticed that the best of these wars to be ignited is the one between the Americans and Iran, because it will have many benefits in favor of the Sunni and the resistance, such as:

1. Freeing the Sunni people in Iraq, who are (30 percent) of the population and under the Shi'a Rule.

2. Drowning the Americans in another war that will engage many of their forces.

3. The possibility of acquiring new weapons from the Iranian side, either after the fall of Iran or during the battles.

4. To entice Iran towards helping the resistance because of its need for its help.

5. Weakening the Shi'a supply line.

The question remains, how to draw the Americans into fighting a war against Iran? It is not known whether American is serious in its animosity towards Iraq, because of the big support Iran is offering to America in its war in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Hence, it is necessary first to exaggerate the Iranian danger and to convince America and the west in general, of the real danger coming from Iran, and this would be done by the following:

1. By disseminating threatening messages against American interests and the American people and attribute them to a Shi'a Iranian side.

2. By executing operations of kidnapping hostages and implicating the Shi'a Iranian side.

3. By advertising that Iran has chemical and nuclear weapons and is threatening the west with these weapons.

4. By executing exploding operations in the west and accusing Iran by planting Iranian Shi'a fingerprints and evidence.

5. By declaring the existence of a relationship between Iran and terrorist groups (as termed by the Americans).

6. By disseminating bogus messages about confessions showing that Iran is in possession of weapons of mass destruction or that there are attempts by theIranian intelligence to undertake terrorist operations in America and the west and against western interests.

Let us hope for success and for God's help.

Book Review: The Cold War

Continuing with reviews of the books I'm reading this summer, #2:

The Cold War: A New History, John Lewis Gaddis (New York: The Penguin Press, 2005).

The United States was as much, if not more, to blame for the emergence of the Cold War. The US post-World War II threatened Soviet interests by pushing on Soviet borders, offering the Marshall Plan to countries well within the Soviet sphere of influence, and otherwise pushing the Russians up against a wall where they had no choice but to challenge the US through the latter half of the 20th century. This is (or was) the argument of the "revisionist" historians who blamed the Cold War on US economic expansion that threatened Stalin and Soviet interests and power.

This new history of the Cold War, concise and sweeping, by Gaddis thoroughly demolishes and lays to rest any notions that the US or the West was to blame for the Cold War. Building off of his remarkable We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, Gaddis uses recently opened Soviet archives to reveal to what great extent the Soviets really were intent on world domination and the expansion -- sometimes by force, sometimes by persuasion -- of communism.

Gaddis focuses on several themes with which to frame the Cold War: those who challenged Soviet ideology in different ways (Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Ronald Reagan) make up the main focus of the latter days of the struggle. The beginning of the tale centers around Stalin, Khrushchev, and other Soviet leaders as they search for ways to spread revolutionary communism and consider how best to challenge the west. This is where the revisionist theories are destroyed. It's impossible to read Gaddis' account of the partition of Germany and Berlin, the original plans for the UN, or Soviet actions in Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia and maintain a belief in US blame or culpability for the war.

Gaddis makes several particularly interesting points throughout the book. First, he explains why some presidents are allowed to get away with lying, deceit, and subterfuge while others (Nixon) are pilloried for similar behavior. The difference hinges on whether the action in question could be, if exposed to the light of day, be justified as necessary for American interests. Gaddis writes:

Where Nixon went wrong was not in his use of secrecy to conduct foreign policy -- diplomacy had always required that -- but in failing to distinguish between actions he could have justified if exposed and those he could never have justified. Americans excused the lies Eisenhower and Kennedy told because the operations they covered up turned out to be defensible when uncovered. So too did the methods by which Nixon brought about the China opening, the SALT agreements, and the Vietnam cease-fire: the results, in those instances, made reliance on secrecy, even deception, seem reasonable.

But what about the secret bombing of a sovereign state? Or the attempted overthrow of a democratically elected government? Or the bugging of American citizens without legal authorization? Or burglaries carried out with presidential authorization? Or the organization of a conspiracy, inside the White House itself, to hide what had happened?

These actions, impossible to justify in pursuit of US interest, would not be accepted by the public if conducted openly; thus, when their clandestine pursuit was revealed, they were even more controversial. Gaddis' argument here helps explain why there has been little public outcry or dismay at revelations of NSA domestic unwarranted surveillance. Americans can understand and accept that such actions might be necessary to protect the country from international terrorism and that such a program might need to be conducted secretly.

Gaddis also highlights the need for morality and ideologies in the conduct of foreign policy. While the realpolitik of Nixon and Kissinger was able to manage the Cold War, it took the ideological challenge and leadership of Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Walesa to bring the conflict to an end (Gaddis downplays the role that Gorbachev willingly and actively played in opening Russia, ending the Cold War, and dismantling the Soviet Union). Realism may protect interests, but it often does little to advance and promote them and just as often entrenches the status quo for lack of a vision. In this view, the Cold War should, in fact, be fundamentally understood as a battle of ideas and ideologies often played out in violence.

This new history is written on a grand scale, covering all of the Cold War in a mere 266 pages. It is an excellent read, and should be interesting for academics, historians, and interested lay people alike. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand the defining political contest of the 20th century.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Little Civil War Now and Then Is A Good Thing

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, and as I've written about before, it may be time for the Palestinians to undergo a civil war. It is both painful and depressing to suggest that the Palestinians, who have already suffered so much, go through what would no doubt be a bloody and brutual struggle for the soul and political soul of their nation. But the alternative is worse.

According to the International Crisis Group, the Palestinians are moving towards civil war. Most observers see a civil war as a bad thing, but I'm not so sure. One of the critical problems faced by the Palestinians is the lack of a monopoly of force in the hands of the government. Neither Fatah nor Hamas is capable of controlling the militias of the other side, meaning that while one party is trying to govern, the other is undermining that governance. Such a situation is intolerable for any state, let alone one trying to negotiate with an occupier for its independence.

Neither party, when in power, was willing to risk civil war by confronting the militias and consolidating power in the hands of the government. Now, Fatah-led militias are attacking and destroying government buildings in protest of Hamas. When and if Fatah comes back into power, there is no doubt that Hamas and other Islamic parties, will use their militias to undermine any negotiations with Israel, if not attack Fatah directly.

The proposed referendum on the "prisoners' plan" is a good start, but if the Palestinians want to have anything remotely resembling good governance the time has come to eliminate the competing militias. Nothing good will come to the Palestinian people, whether from without or within, until that happens.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The US Drops a Bomb

In the World Cup, that is. The US just got absolutely smoked by the Czech Republic, 0-3. The US team looked flat, listless, unenergetic, and uninspired. There was no teamwork, no concerted offensive strategy, mistakes throughout the back line, and by the end of the match, the team had clearly given up. With goal differential being such a critical part of the first round (2 of 4 teams advance from each group, and when teams are tied, goal differential determines who moves on), even scoring 1 goal could have really helped. Instead, the team hung its head and gave up. Now, the US will probably have to beat both Italy (this Saturday) and Ghana. The way the team looked today, they won't come close.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Hamas Is Getting Nervous

In the wake of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' threat to call a referendum on the questions of recognizing and negotiating with Israel, Hamas seems to be getting nervous that its hard-line position won't be so popular. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has called on Abbas to postpone, if not drop, the call for a popular vote on the so-called "prisoners' plan". The ostensible reason is to protest the Israeli killing of Jamal Abu Samhadana, a leader of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) militant group who had also been appointed by Hamas to serve as a senior security chief.

It's a bit tough to swallow this justification. Hamas is very likely scared that the Palestinian people, tired of the abject poverty currently being exacerbated by the funding cut-off, will reject the Hamas platform of no recognition or direct negotiation. The referendum would be the first opportunity for the Palestinian people to directly register their opinion on the matter, and most opinion polls indicate strong support for the proposal. And, to make matters worse for Hamas, al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, also weighed into the referendum debate on Hamas's side, urging Palestinians to reject the proposal.

Hamas came into to office, most likely, not due to its position on Israel, but for its ability to provide social services to the people, where the PLO/PA had failed, and for its reputation for honesty and uncorruptability. However, the consequences of that decision has been nothing short of disastrous for the Palestinian people. It's time for the Palestinian people to speak up and let their leaders, the Israelis, and the world, know what they want. I'm fairly certain they know what's in their own best interest.

UPDATE: In response to the Israeli killing of Abu Samhanada, members of the PRC launched rockets into Israel, which prompted a relaliatory Israeli strike. The Israeli strike seems to have targeted a beach, killing 10 Palestinians, including 3 children. In response, Hamas has announced that it will no longer observe the 16 month old cease-fire. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, also the leader of Hamas, called the attacks a war crime, Palestinian President Abbas called them "a bloody massacre," and Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri announced that Hamas would resume attacks against Israel.

The Israeli Army is investigating the attacks, and the Chief of Israeli Southern Command seemed to hint that the deaths were either accidental, or not the fault of Israel, saying "[Israel is] exploring two possibilities -- a wrongly aimed artillery shell or an independent incident we were not involved in." Either way, however, Hamas is likely going to learn a tough lesson. It's one thing to exist as a shadowy organization, striking out at Israel. It's another thing to try to carry on the armed struggle at the same time as governing a state. Hamas now has "hard" targets: government buildings, legislators, officials who must be out in public and have their whereabouts known, etc. Israel's target set is now much larger and Hamas is much more vulnerable. Resuming the armed struggle against Israel may force Hamas to give up its political goals, and its not clear that Hamas will be willing to do so.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Abu Musab-al Zarqawi, RIH

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has been killed by 500 lb bombs dropped by US F-16s. I can only hope his last seconds were spent roasting in agony (BTW...RIH = Rest In Hell. Zarqawi's soul certainly deserves no peace).

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

In Praise of Sweatshops

Nicholas Kristof has another excellent piece in yesterday's New York Times: "In Praise of the Maligned Sweatshop." The article is part of A recurring theme of Kristof's on development and policy in the developing world, and more specifically, follows on the argument of "Two Cheers for Sweatshops"in the Times magazine on 9/24/00. The argument: "Anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa."

Kristof goes on:

Imagine that a Nike vice president proposed manufacturing cheap T-shirts in Ethiopia: "Look, boss, it would be tough to operate there, but a factory would be a godsend to one of the poorest countries in the world. And if we kept a tight eye on costs and paid 25 cents an hour, we might be able to make a go of it."

The boss would reply: "You're crazy! We'd be boycotted on every campus in the country."

So companies like Nike, itself once a target of sweatshop critics, tend not to have highly labor-intensive factories in the very poorest countries, but rather more capital-intensive factories (in which machines do more of the work) in better-off nations like Malaysia or Indonesia. And the real losers are the world's poorest people.

Some of those who campaign against sweatshops respond to my arguments by noting that they aren't against factories in Africa, but only demand a "living wage" in them. After all, if labor costs amount to only $1 per shirt, then doubling wages would barely make a difference in the final cost.

One problem — as the closure of the Namibian factories suggests — is that it already isn't profitable to pay respectable salaries, and so any pressure to raise them becomes one more reason to avoid Africa altogether. Moreover, when Western companies do pay above-market wages, in places like Cambodia, local managers extort huge bribes in exchange for jobs. So the workers themselves don't get the benefit.

Kristof is exactly right. This isn't a question of our own moral sensibilities or labor standards, nor is it an argument that sweatshops are nice, pleasant places to work. It's a question of what is best in the long run for the economic development of these countries and the improvement of the lives of their citizens.

The comparative advantage that these countries and their workforces have to offer is cheap, unskilled labor. When the price of that labor rises, it no longer becomes economically efficient to open factories in poor, developing countries. If a company has to pay a higher wage, it would prefer to "get more" for that wage, in terms of better trained and educated workers, healthier workers, better infrastructure, etc. Only if the cost of labor and production is low will businesses choose to open factories in places like Namibia.

OK, so cheap labor may attract businesses to the developing world, but, goes the anti-sweatshop logic, those jobs are exploitative, cruel, dangerous, and so on. But, the alternatives are much, much worse. As Kristof notes in yesterday's and his early article, "sewing clothes is considerable less dangerous or arduous -- or sweaty -- than most alternatives in poor countries." For example: "a 40-year-old woman named Nhem Yen, who told [Kristof] why she moved to an area with particularly lethal malaria. 'We needed to eat," she said. "And here there is wood, so we thought we could cut it and sell it.'" ("Two Cheers")

Furthermore, the development of a industrial base, even a cheap and unskilled one, is critical for the economic advancement of a country. "Over the past 50 years, countries like India resisted foreign exploitation, while countries that started at a similar economic level -- like Taiwan and South Korea -- accepted sweatshops as the price of development. Today there can be no doubt about which approach worked better. Taiwan and South Korea are modern countries with low rates of infant mortality and high levels of education; in contrast, every year 3.1 million Indian children die before the age of 5, mostly from diseases of poverty like diarrhea." ("Two Cheers")

Think back to the 1970s..."Made in Japan" was synonymous with cheap piece of junk. Japan was known for producing crappy electronics, cheap plastics, and shoddy clothes. Not anymore. That mantle passed to South Korea and Taiwan. And then to Thailand and Malaysia. And then to China, which is currently passing it onto other countries. As workers work in sweatshops they save their wages. Those wages go to improving their lives, and in particular the lives of their children. More businesses come in to sell to those workers, which brings more and better jobs, which demand improved worker skills and national infrastructure. As the local labor pool improves to meet those demands, living conditions rise. And rise. This is the pattern that has lifted millions in Asia and Southeast Asia out of poverty. It is the pattern that the developed countries went through in their own Industrial Revolutions. It is the pattern that all developing countries must go through. Trying to circumvent it just means that businesses will take their factories elsewhere, denying the poor the jobs, and aborting the pattern before it starts. There is no evidence that trying to force Western-style labor standards improves living conditions or human welfare in the developing world. [Please see In Defense of Global Capitalism, Johan Norberg, CATO Press, 2003, esp. pp. 192-201]

Sweatshops may be repugnant to our own sensibilities, but when cheap labor is all a poor country, or a poor person, has to offer, who are we to say that they shouldn't be able to utilize that? In the words of Jesus Reyes-Heroles, Mexican Ambassador to the US, "in a poor country like [Mexico], the alternative to low-paying jobs isn't high-paying jobs -- it's no jobs at all."

UPDATE: This letter to the New York Times couldn't do more to make Kristof's point. The author, a geography professor at the University of North Carolina, writes "student organizers understand that the competition among poor countries is a race to the bottom for the poorest people." Therefore, "a humane approach must begin with workplace democracy (collective bargaining), recognition of the right to earn a living wage, and international agreement about the differences between a sweatshop and a factory."

First, there is absolutely no evidence of the much-feared "race to the bottom." Yes, business gravitates towards markets with lower costs. But no, there is no evidence of countries slashing their regulations to compete for business. Second, and more important, the author of the letter completely misses the basic economic understanding of the argument. Countries that specialize in cheap unskilled labor are not in a position to demand living wages or collective bargaining agreements, and attempts to do so will result in no jobs at all. Sweatshops come first, and collective bargaining follows.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Corporation

My review of the film The Corporation appears the most recent issue of Political Communication. Here it is:

The Corporation, produced, directed, and edited by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan. Zeitgeist Films, 145 minutes. 2004.

Reviewed by Seth Weinberger

If corporations are considered, for legal purposes, to be a person, what kind of person are they? This is the central question considered in The Corporation. The answer, arrived at rather early in the film, is: A psychopath. Taking a pseudo-psycho-analytic look at the pathologies and purpose of big business and using numerous people, from Michael Moore to Noam Chomsky to a ex-CEO of a carpet maker-turned environmental activist, The Corporation concludes that its subject is a greedy, amoral entity, bent on acquiring as much profit as possible and not caring one whit about anything or anyone else. Unfortunately, what could have been a powerful argument about the bifurcated nature of business is made in a context where alternative views are either not presented or are given in a manner that makes them appear laughable and are easily dismissed. Little serious thought is given to any positive aspects of modern capitalism and even less time is spent considering any viewpoint other than the one espoused by the filmmakers. Sadly, this seems to be the modus operandi of many recently released “documentaries” which are more interested in presenting a political attack than carefully examining an issue.

The slant begins with an opening montage of corporate logos and a voice-over declaring that “like the Church, the Monarchy, and the Communist Party, the corporation is today’s dominant power.” First, such a claim seems to ignore the power of governments, which still have the power to regulate, police, and punish the businesses that operate within their borders. Furthermore, drawing a comparison between powers intended to dominate and control all aspects of life with one trying to sell ice cream or pesticide seems sketchy at best. However, this statement clearly sets out the main argument: that corporations are all-powerful, insidious, amoral entities that operate unchecked in our daily lives and produce nothing but ill consequences.

In support of this argument, The Corporation brings out numerous experts and scholars to attest to the mental state and nature of business firms and to lay out their “diagnosis.” In their opinion, corporations exhibit “callous unconcern for the feelings of others,” and “reckless disregard for the safety of others.” As evidence of the harm that corporations cause to those around them, the film points out behaviors including layoffs, union busting, use of sweatshops, production of dangerous products, pollution, and the practice of “the science of exploitation.” A former FBI psychologist then pronounces that corporations can be viewed as the prototypical psychopath. Noam Chomsky denounces firms as “monstrous.” The CEO-turned-environmental activist decries that companies, such as the one he once headed, commit “intergenerational tyranny” and “taxation without representation” by passing off the costs of their environmental “plunder” to future generations. However, the asset column of the ledger sheet of such taxation is far from empty. Should we spare our children the costs of modern business by denying them the benefits as well? Would our descendants prefer to be given a clean slate by starting in a new Stone Age and reinventing the wheel, the car, the airplane, and plastics?

Presenting the negative aspects of business without considering the concomitant positives and benefits is a standard tool of the film. How should one weigh the production of Agent Orange against the impact that modern fertilizers and pesticides have had in the developing world? Are the workers in factories in South East Asia being exploited or are they being given opportunities to better their lives? The Corporation is uninterested in such difficult questions, preferring to focus only on abuses and harms.

The assault on modern business continues with a segment on the evils of privatization, as Chomsky defines the selling of once-public goods as “taking a public institution and giving it to an unaccountable tyranny.” Chomsky goes on to argue that the reason certain goods should remain in public hands is that a public company is able to run at a loss in order to produce other benefits, such as jobs, which are a “good thing.” Absent is any discussion of who will bear that loss or how to account for higher prices for the public good. In fact, quite surprisingly for a documentary about business, there is almost no serious economics discussed at all.

The lack of even a semblance of alternative views undermines the argument and efficacy of the movie. While Milton Friedman is prominently touted in the credits, presumably to provide a veneer of fairness, his appearances are limited to very short explanations of very basic issues, as when he informs us that externalities are costs borne by third parties. Most of the information that runs counter to the film’s arguments comes in the form of cheesy 1950s public service films and sitcoms that tell us that “business is good.” An analyst who makes the not-so-uncommon argument for trading of pollution rights is mocked with a pastoral reference to the commons of pre-industrial England. Of course, there is no mention of the collective action problems that prompted the establishment of property rights, such as the aptly named tragedy of the commons.

The movie also buys into the anti-advertising myth being promulgated that consumers are little more than gullible suckers, waiting to be told by all-powerful corporations what to buy, eat, wear, and listen to. In blasting the role of public relations firms in overwhelming the free choice of the public, the movie points out that one firm, whose CEO is heard in a voice-over defending its work as assisting people in making informed decisions, helped the Philip Morris Company organize the National Smokers’ Alliance in order to fight anti-smoking regulations and aided the Canadian logging and mining firms against environmental groups, among other listed “evils.” There is not the slightest acknowledgement of the public policy debates around smoking laws or conservation. The film makers are right and anyone who disagrees is not only wrong, but clearly evil.

The height, or low point, of the film’s willful ignorance towards any opposing viewpoint comes at the end, when Michael Moore expresses his amazement that corporate America allows him to practice his trade. After all, his movies and views repeatedly express his disgust with capitalism and the corporate world. Why would corporations allow Moore’s films and books to insult them? Moore chalks this up to what he terms the “greed flaw” of modern capitalism, which is that in the quest to maximize profits, businesses will happily sell the rope that will be used to hang themselves. It does not seem to occur to Moore, or to the film makers, that such freedom is an inherent component, and a necessary one, of a modern capitalistic system. The very same Milton Friedman whom the movie uses in a very limited fashion addressed this very question in his book Capitalism and Freedom, in which he wrote that economic and political freedom are inextricably linked and limiting one will inherently and inevitably deny the other. Friedman specifically discussed the role of opposition, arguing that capitalism is the only system that can protect the rights of dissenters, precisely because it is value neutral. Where socialism or communism strive to produce equality, at a cost Friedman argues of political freedom, capitalism produces what is desired by the marketplace without regard to ideology. Thus, “one feature of a free society is surely the freedom of individuals to advocate and propagandize openly for a radical change in the structure of the society,” and that “in a capitalist society, it is only necessary to convince a few wealthy people to get funds to launch any idea, however strange, and there are many such persons, many independent foci of support” (Friedman, 1982). What alternative to a free market democracy would Moore, or the film makers for that matter, prefer? We do not know, as the other possibilities are not presented, or even discussed; we are only told that capitalism is evil. This is even more distressing given that Friedman appears in the film. Certainly, he could have been asked about this? A debate between Moore and Friedman would have lent some degree of objectivity and credibility to the film. Even asking Friedman to address Moore’s argument would have been an improvement. Unfortunately, no such exchange occurs.

The strongest points of the film come when the directors move away from presenting their opinions and instead refer to the real world of business. For example, in one scene, the CEO of a British energy company who finds that his home is being picketed by environmental activists goes out to bring the protestors coffee and snacks. He then engages them in discussion, in which both sides become enlightened of the others’ opinions. Here we see the most interesting example of the film’s premise: a CEO willing to admit that his company occasionally behaves badly and who is ready to speak to protesters about how that behavior can be improved. However, this seems to undermine the very argument that directors are trying to make. Why does the CEO wish to improve the environmental record of his company? Because he is himself an environmentalist? Perhaps. But more likely it is that he has perceived that environmentalism is good business. As Adam Smith wrote: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

The Corporation does provide some interesting anecdotes in which corporations have behaved badly. The squashing of a story written by two investigative reporters about the risks of bovine growth hormone in milk by Fox News is one such example. There is no doubt that corporations do not always behave according to the public interest, and that the drive for profits often causes businesses to break laws. But such a revelation is not surprising. In fact, nothing in The Corporation is. Except, of course, for the lack of any serious discussion of the issues it purports to address. Even a tip of the hat to some alternative arguments could have made this movie an interesting examination of the problems surrounding the modern American incarnation of capitalism. As it stands, The Corporation is nothing more than a vehicle for the film makers, Michael Moore, Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein, and Noam Chomsky to vent their hatred of capitalism. That is not sufficient enticement to watch, even for those who share that point of view.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Book Review: America at the Crossroads

OK...I've finished the first book on my summer reading list and I thought it might be fun if I provided quick little reviews as I make my way through the list.

America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, Francis Fukuyama (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

As far as I'm concerned, this is the best book out to date for understanding how and why the US got involved in the Iraq War. The much-ballyhooed The Assassins' Gate isn't nearly as good, mainly because Packer doesn't seem to understand the nuances in the political philosophies of the main actors; for example, Packer lumps all of the realists together under the "neoconservative" umbrella, including Rumsfeld and Cheney, which just doesn't make sense. Fukuyama, on the other hand, clearly explains who the neocons are, and how their ideas got corrupted (by the neocons themselves) into the Iraq War. Fukuyama walks us through how the security needs of the US have transformed, and how the country needs to develop a new focus on development.

The last two chapters are especially interesting, as Fukuyama discusses how the US can develop a new type of multilateralism designed to alleviate some of the problems that arise within the UN and other international institutions and other multilateral fora. He recommends, along the lines of my thoughts in this post and this one, that the time has come to build a new institutional structure outside of the UN that can complement the UN as well as backstop it when the chips are down. Fukuyama discusses upgrading NATO by giving it more authority over US actions in exchange for streamlining its military decision making processes, as well as greater reliance on other regional institutions, such as ASEAN or the Community of Democracies.

I can't really agree with this argument more. The pure realist world is no more...existing institutions have already truncated the space in which true international anarchy dominates. However, as I've noted many times, the desire for inclusiveness and equality in international politics leads to a world based on sovereignty that is incapable of dealing with the serious threats to international security. The time has come for states that share a vision of the future of both international and domestic politics to create a new international institutional framework that can be both legitimate and effective. It won't be easy. But it must be done.