Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Drawing the Line

The situation on the Korean peninsula continues to escalate, with the latest being North Korea's threat to attack US and South Korean warships if either country attempts to search North Korean vessels as part of the Proliferation Security Initiative (the PSI is one of President Bush's biggest successes, as it created a global network of inspections and interdictions aimed at preventing transfers of nuclear technology and materiel).

In the face of North Korea's insults, threats, and saber rattling, the US needs to respond forcefully and unambigiously: both the US and South Korea will act to enforce international law, and any attack on South Korea warships or other assets will be met in kind. The US has far too much at stake here to back down in the face of a threat that is, I believe, more bluster than anything: North Korea will lose any military engagement between it and the United States and even losing a small exchange will seriously compromise the stability of a regime that depends on the full and unquestioning support of the military. While the US has few good options, North Korea simply has none. Backing down here will allow North Korea to proliferate internally as well as to continue aiding other countries, such as Syria, to do so as well. Keeping North Korea in check is critical for maintaining stability in Asia, and the US simply cannot allow North Korea to willfully defy international law and will.

This is certainly shaping up to be President Obama's first serious test. Obama needs to reassure American allies and make it clear to both Russia and China that the US will not permit North Korea to proliferate in this manner, to defy international law and will, or to attack South Korea in any way. Despite its often-times bizarre behavior, North Korea has always behaved rationally; it's hard to see what North Korea stands to gain by going to war with either South Korea or the US. Rather, North Korea is counting on the international community to once again fail to back up its words with strong action. Obama must be prepared to send American soliders, sailors, and airmen into combat, but being ready to do so makes it all the more likely that he will not have to do so.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Another Opportunity for Obama to Miss an Opportunity

When North Korea launched a "satellite" back in April, I wrote about how Obama missed a golden opportunity to shore up the UN's role in security issues as well as to put together a serious international effort to rein in North Korea.

Things have gotten worse.

Over the weekend, North Korea conducted what seems to be a successful test of a nuclear device that erases the failure of its previous attempt. Yesterday and today, North Korea has been launching several missiles -- both surface-to-air and surface-to-ship -- and is threatening to launch several more tomorrow. President Obama has vowed a swift and strong response to the test and launches, but it's not clear what good options exist at this point. Dan Blumenthal and Robert Kagan, in an op-ed in today's Washington Post outline the paucity of choices for the US:

the United States probably has little choice but to wait out Kim until the emergence of a leader who can make the strategic decision to abandon the nuclear weapons program. In the meantime, Washington should embark on a three-pronged approach. First, it should enhance its deterrent to protect itself, South Korea and Japan. That means, above all, bolstering American and allied missile defenses and deterrent capabilities. Unfortunately, it is precisely American missile defense capabilities that the Obama administration is now cutting -- despite the growing missile threat from North Korea and Iran. Second, it should strengthen multilateral efforts to stem North Korean proliferation, including more active efforts at interdiction and freezing bank accounts used to fund proliferation. Third, it should give up on the six-party talks. If it ever proves useful to talk to Pyongyang -- a big "if" -- let's do so directly.
Blumenthal and Kagan argue that neither China nor Russia has any serious interest in reining in North Korea, and thus efforts focused on mustering international will through the UN are useless.

While it's true that China does have an interest in a unpredictable and unfettered North Korea, that interest has its limits. China most certainly does not have an interest in a strengthened and proliferated Japan, which is a very serious possibility in the wake of the latest test. As Reuters reported over the weekend, Japan's ruling party is preparing to alter the constitution to allow for preemptive strikes under Japan's pacifistic doctrine. The LDP is also considering developing an indigenous early-warning satellite capability as Japan is currently dependent on US intelligence for warning of missile launches.

This would be a most unwelcome development for both China and Russia, which have long benefited from having a weakened and restrained Japan on their borders. And this is Obama's opening.

It's true that there aren't really any good options here. While it may have been feasible for the US to strike against the rocket launched two months ago, it is not possible for the US to use limited strikes against the nuclear program or the short-range missiles being launched now. The only option that exists while waiting out the passing of Kim Jong-Il is to get the UN to impose a complete and total sanctions regime on North Korea along the lines of that which was imposed on South Africa during the apartheid era. Doing so would require not just the acquiesence but the participation of both China and Russia, neither of which would participate for free.

But Obama has two things to offer: One is the prospect of the US operating through the multilateral channels of the UN, which Obama has clearly expressed a preference for doing when possible. Obama should make it clear to both Russia and China that North Korea is a test of their willingness to support the UN on issues of security, and that if they fail, the US will simply consider the UN to be obsolete on such issues in the future. If they want the UN to be a major player and to restrain the unilateralism of the US, then the UN has to be able to deal with such relatively easy cases as North Korea. Second, Obama should offer to use his good offices to prevent Japan from expanding its military doctrine and, down the road, from proliferating.

Both of these are issues about which Russia and China both care deeply; more deeply I believe than they care about keeping North Korea on the loose. If Obama plays his cards right, North Korea can be made to pay a meaningful and painful price for its wanton disregard of its obligations under international law.

But I doubt Obama will play his cards right. While Obama has shown a willingness to talk to any and all and to "reset" US relations, so far his talking has borne little if any fruit. Iran is just as intransigent, if not more so, than before, North Korea is, obviously, even more defiant, and Russia and China have responded to Obama's overtures with caution rather than warmth. So far, I've seen little evidence that Obama, his cabinet, or his policy aides have a strong coherent sense of policy to match their enthusiasm for talking.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Does It Matter What Pelosi Knew and When?

Last week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi revealed that she had been briefed by the CIA about waterboarding in September 2002, although she argues that there was little she could have done in response. While Pelosi has been a vocal and vehement critic of the Bush administration and waterboarding, but claims she saw little way of challenging the use of waterboading, and other controversial interrogation tactics, but to win control of Congress for the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, in her column yesterday, Maureen Dowd asserted that "the question of what Pelosi knew or didn’t, or when she did or didn’t know, is irrelevant to how W. and Cheney broke the law and authorized torture."

This is an absolutely absurd argument, because it completely misses the point. The critical question to understanding the debate surrounding the use of waterboarding is to determine whether waterboarding qualifies under existing US and international law as torture. That's what the OLC memos were attempting to do: define the parameters of torture and determine on what side of the line waterboarding falls. Now those memos were often fast and loose with the law, and display some seriously shoddy methodologies; but, that does not inherently make them illegal.

If the OLC and the CIA believed that Congress knew about their legal determinations and the use of waterboading, it's perfectly reasonable for both offices to assume that, in fact, there aren't any seriously problems with their legal rationales or the use of the technique. As Justice Jackson explained in the famous Youngstown decision (the Steel Seizure case during the Korean War), when the executive branch takes an action that is not contested by Congress, which in turn signals tacit approval or acceptance, the tendency is to assume that the action is in fact legal and within the purview of presidential power. By failing to act in any way to protest, block, or outlaw the use of waterboarding, congressional leadership sent a message of acceptance.

But what of Pelosi's claim that there was nothing she could do other than try to take control of Congress? The Democrats have controlled Congress since the midterm elections of 2006 and has not tried to outlaw waterboarding (Senator Kennedy tried to attach an amendment banning waterboarding that was rejected, and Congress passed a bill forcing the CIA to adhere to the techniques approved in the US Army Field Manual which was vetoed and not repassed). And since January 2009, the Democrats have controlled the House, the Senate, and the presidency...guess how many bills banning waterboarding have been passed?

It does matter what Pelosi knew and when. It does matter what stance on these issues Congress takes. Congress is the enacter of the laws, and the laws on torture are frustratingly vague and open to different interpretations. If Congress doesn't trust the presidency to interpret those laws acceptably, it is incumbent on Congress to pass clarifying legislation. When the executive branch acts with the knowledge of Congress and without protest, it is only right to assume that the action is legal.

As I have said several times before, if Congress REALLY cares about this issue, it must pass legislation outlawing waterboarding or restricting the CIA to the Army Field Manual techniques immediately. If it doesn't, it is placing its trust in an executive order issued by President Obama, an order than can be undone by a subsequent order. And does Congress really trust Obama -- the very same Obama who has kept the policy of extraordinary rendition, slowed the withdrawal from Iraq, revived the use of military commissions, invoked the states secret privilege, etc. -- that much?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Iraq Journal, Part Four

[The third dispatch from my father about his experiences living and teaching in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimani is up on City Journal. You can read the first one here about his arrival in and first impressions of Suli; his second dispatch about the economic and political situation is here; one from my mother about a visit to Halabja can be found here.]

City Journal Home.
Jerry Weinberger
Iraq Journal, Part Three
A visit to Saddam’s chamber of horrors
14 May 2009

Editors’ note: This is the third in a series of dispatches from Kurdistan, where the author is spending four months consulting for the American University in Iraq–Sulaimani. The first and second installments are here and here.

The “Red Museum” in the city of Sulaimani, or Suli, isn’t red or much of a museum. It’s three hideous concrete buildings, erected in 1979 to house Saddam Hussein’s security apparatus as part of his campaign to subdue the Kurds after their quixotic 1975 uprising—quixotic because they trusted Iranian and American promises of support. Two of the buildings had windows, but they were shot out by Suli’s enraged citizens in a spontaneous uprising after the Gulf War in 1991. The third had no windows, because it was a place where no one should be able to see in or out. Sunlight wasn’t welcome in a chamber of torture and death.

Saddam’s campaign began as a giant feat of social engineering and ethnic gerrymandering. By 1979, the regime razed over 1,000 villages along the borders with Turkey and Iran and moved their inhabitants to grim resettlement camps. Arabs were moved into, and Kurds expelled from, strategic and disputed towns in the region, especially Kirkuk. But Saddam also spent lots of money on economic development to dampen Kurdish nationalist zeal.

Things changed dramatically with the revival of the Kurdish rebel forces, the advent of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, and the formation of the Kurdistan National Front in Tehran in 1987. With Saddam now viewing the Kurds as an Iranian-backed fifth column, ethnic gerrymandering gave way to lethal repression, culminating in the genocidal chemical murder of the Anfal campaigns, which began with attacks around Suli in February 1988. When Iranian and Kurdish forces took the city of Halabja in March and threatened to take the nearby Darbandikan dam as well, Saddam’s regime shelled and gassed that city and its surrounding villages. By the end of the Anfal campaigns in August 1988, according to historian David McDowall, Saddam’s vast apparatus of murder had killed perhaps as many as 200,000 men, women, and children, produced hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees in Turkey and Iran, and left Kurdistan bereft of rural village life.

All of this is cold historical fact. There is nothing cold about the faces one sees on the walls of the Red Museum, where from 1979 until the uprising in 1991, Saddam tortured and killed in pursuit of the Kurdish rebels. Though Saddam usually buried his victims in mass graves as far as possible from where they lived, he had no scruples about compiling a photographic record of the killing. The first photo one sees freezes the blood. It looks like a picture in a college yearbook: a class of 13 young men, perhaps a debating or a Latin club, except for the anxiety evident in their eyes. The legend informs that it was taken in the prison in 1986 and that all but one of these young men were tortured and executed. Then photo after photo shows a bloody body crumpled at the foot of the stake to which the victim was tied to be shot. In one photo, two Baathist security men, grinning widely beneath their mustaches, hold up a headless corpse, their free hands raised in the victory salute. Next comes a picture of three women—child, mother, and grandmother—with faces frozen in fear just before their execution for suspected connection with rebels in the mountains. Numerous images record the last minutes in the lives of such women and children.

Then we see photos of the villages: buses being loaded with dispirited inhabitants headed toward industrial-style execution; smoldering ruins; piles of the dead killed by artillery and bombs. And throughout, Saddam’s soldiers filled with jubilant pride at their murder of the innocent and unarmed. The walls of the last room are covered with photos taken by Suli citizens during the Kurds’ short-lived 1991 uprising against Saddam. We see Baathist tanks on fire, a person shot out of a wheelchair lying dead in the street, wounded Baathists getting first aid from the Kurds, and a heartbreaking picture of a young boy holding a sign asking, WHERE IS MY SISTER?

From the photo rooms, the museum’s guide, Khalil Ali Mustafa, takes visitors to the rooms where the real business of the prison went on. They’re surprisingly small: two 20-by-12-foot cells, on either side of a short hall leading to two toilets, together housed up to 120 prisoners on an average day. From the cells, the prisoners could see, down another short hall, the “relaxation post,” where prisoners fresh from torture were tied to a wall and kicked, pummeled, and insulted by the guards who walked by.

There are also two torture rooms, each about 10 by 15 feet, and each with a beam, suspended from the ceiling, to which are attached several meat hooks. From these hooks, prisoners were hung by their wrists tied behind the back: the effect was to dislocate the shoulders and cause slow and agonizing suffocation while the rest of the body was beaten with wire whips and shocked by a generator attached to the nipples and genitals. The shock machine and the whips are on display. Between the two torture rooms is a smaller “listening room,” where the next victim would be held for hours to listen to the screams and contemplate what he would soon endure. Many cracked and talked just from that pressure. And children were among the tortured, to extort information from their horrified mothers. Down another hall is a long line of isolation cells, roughly four by five feet, where particularly important prisoners were kept for up to six months of repeated torture sessions. Wires once attached to small microphones run outside the cells.

The cells’ walls are scratched with the names of prisoners who tried to leave some vestige of their existence. In one is a small statue of a teacher, Ma Masta Ahmad, who after six months of confinement and torture was subjected to 24 hours of hanging by his wrists. To end this torment he told everything he knew—and then was shot. On the wall is etched his pathetic little calendar, which he kept to keep some contact with an outside world that he never saw again. Of the thousands of men, women, and children who came through the doors of the Red Museum, almost none came out alive. Those who did not perish were sent to Abu Ghraib in Baghdad to be hanged.

In the basement of the Red Museum, a dark and dank and stinking place, is a small room with pictures of the 1988 chemical attack on Halabja. Many in the West are familiar with the photo of a man lying prone on the threshold of a house, on top of a small child whom he tried to shield from the gas. It’s heartbreaking, to be sure, but it’s almost abstract and thus suitable for newspaper display. I doubt that many of the photos in the Red Museum have been seen in the West, because they’re so gruesome as to turn the stomach of anyone who sees them. The one I found most disturbing was a close-up of a little girl, maybe six or seven years old. Her ashen white face is surrounded by brownish hair and her mouth is frozen in a ghoulish grin. Her eyes are open, but are so crossed as to make her look like a little fiend from hell. The gas not only killed her; it turned her corpse into what looked like a monster.

A few weeks later, I went to Halabja with a young woman and her husband. Both were seven when the city was gassed. We first stopped at the memorial building on the edge of the city. The memorial was ransacked in 2006 and is still a mess. Angry Halabja citizens attacked it in protest against government indifference. They had a point: Halabja is drab and sad and has few paved streets. It’s a monument to government neglect as well as to the misery of the Anfal campaign.

In the city center is an old graveyard surrounded by a fence, on which a sign reads: BAATH NOT PERMITTED TO ENTER. Amid the old single graves are three new mass graves in which about 3,000 victims of the attack are interred. Beyond them is an expanse of small headstones, each representing an entire family. The young woman accompanying me said that she was lucky that her father, a peshmerga—a rebel fighter, one of “those who confront death”—had told her and her mother to leave the city because an attack was sure to come. They fled to one of the vast, squalid refugee camps in Iran and after six months made their way back to Suli. Her father was gassed and eventually died of the effects. Her brother was arrested, tortured, and executed. Her husband, too, remembers clinging to his mother’s dress as they fled into the mountains to escape the gas. At one point they had to choose between paths to two separate villages. Both villages were bombed by gas, but the bomb hitting the village they chose turned out to be a dud. It’s sheer luck that he’s alive. The young woman’s brother did not live to see this horror. In 1981, she told me, at the age of 14, he was murdered by his best friend, also 14 but even at that age a Baathist agent.

The mountains above Halabja are dotted with empty villages, monuments, and mass graves, some barely large enough for a few families, one the size of a football field. Many small mass graves lie near two natural springs whose water was poisoned by the gas, instantly killing those who drank it. On the day I visited, throngs of picnickers were enjoying their Friday in the country, barbecuing, playing music, and dancing. It was hard to believe that in these now serene mountains, old men, women, and children were once mowed down by helicopter gunships and chemical bombs.

In politics, the legacy of suffering has made the Kurds hard. They trust no one, look out for themselves, and engage in double-dealing, often to the chagrin of their friends in America and elsewhere. But apart from politics, Kurdish civil society is healing, and the Kurds are getting over the experience of being victims. In fact, one problem in Suli, notes Judith Bass, a Johns Hopkins professor of public health working here with the Heartland Alliance’s Victims of Torture Project (which provides mental health services), is that the victims, especially disabled and shell-shocked peshmerga, feel that they’re being forgotten as the Kurds get on with making the most of their freedom. Few citizens of Suli visit the Red Museum. When they go to the silent graves of their murdered beloved, they go to picnic and dance—to celebrate life and freedom.

Jerry Weinberger is a professor of political science at Michigan State University, director of the LeFrak Forum at Michigan State, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. His most recent book is Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought. He thanks Kamal Osman Kaķi, who served as translator at the Red Museum.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Maybe There's Something To This al Qaeda Thing After All

This past week, with relatively little fanfare or notice, President Obama made what should have been a startling revelation. In stark opposition to his campaign promises and actions in the early days of his presidency, officials in the Obama administration announced that the president is likely to revive the use of military tribunals to prosecute suspected members of al Qaeda and other Guantanamo detainees. According to the New York Times:
Officials who work on the Guantánamo issue say administration lawyers have become concerned that they would face significant obstacles to trying some terrorism suspects in federal courts. Judges might make it difficult to prosecute detainees who were subjected to brutal treatment or for prosecutors to use hearsay evidence gathered by intelligence agencies.

...

It is not clear how many of the remaining 241 detainees are likely to be prosecuted. The four-month suspension of military commission proceedings Mr. Obama ordered is to end May 20. As a result, administration officials are considering whether to ask military judges at Guantánamo for an additional delay. In making such a request, administration lawyers might outline their proposed changes.

In recent days, senior administration officials have hinted publicly that commissions were far from dead, yet offered no specifics and their comments drew little attention. In Congressional testimony on Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said, “The commissions are still very much on the table.”

In a news conference this week, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. emphasized that if the administration did use military commissions, the rules must give detainees “a maximum amount of due process.”

But, speaking of detainees whom American officials have accused of involvement in major terrorist plots, Mr. Holder added, “It may be difficult for some of those high-value detainees to be tried in a normal federal court.”
As I see it, there are three possible explanations for this. First, that Obama is the same kind of rights-trashing, law-disrespecting monster that Bush was. Second, that Obama is simply hoarding presidential power now that he is president and is reluctant to give up any power that he has a right to exercise. Third, that al Qaeda represents a real threat to the United States, which Obama, now that he has unfettered access to US intelligence agencies, has come to realize and that giving civilian legal protections to the most dangerous detainees does, in fact (as Bush claimed it did) threaten the national security of the country.

I think we can discard the first possibility without much discussion. The second probably plays some part in this, but any decision to revive military tribunals is most likely a result of the third. Al Qaeda is a serious threat to this country. How much of a threat is certainly up for debate, but when we debate the question we must realize the limits to our knowledge. We do not know how many plots have been foiled, how many al Qaeda cells have been infiltrated, how much the government knows, and how dangerous al Qaeda still is. We can speculate and debate these questions, but we simply cannot know the answers in the same way that our governing officials can.

Since coming to office, Obama has maintained the policy of extraordinary rendition and is now considering the military tribunals which he once voted against as a senator. Perhaps this tells us he's simply a power-coveting politican; but it also might tell us that the threat to our country is a serious one that requires extraordinary measures to combat.

Monday, May 04, 2009