Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Whither the US Military?

This weekend The Economist, ran two fantastic articles about the future of the US military. In "Brains, Not Bullets," it was argued that:

ANOTHER debate to do with Iraq and Afghanistan is building in America, one that could have important consequences for the West. This debate is being conducted in the Pentagon—and it has to do with the future shape of America's armed forces. With its far-flung alliances and commitments, the superpower rightly wants a “full spectrum” of military capabilities to deal with everything from an all-out war to a small policing action. But precisely what the mix should be is increasingly contentious—and could prove expensive.

If the biggest threat comes from rising powers, such as a belligerent Russia or a pushy China, America and its allies will need to invest in aircraft, ships and advanced weapons to cope. If the greatest challenge is the fight against militants and insurgents around the world—seen by some as a new and different “fourth generation” of warfare—then they will need more boots on the ground and, crucially, different sorts of soldiers wearing them. Sadly for taxpayers everywhere, the emerging answer from America is that a modern power needs to prepare for both challenges. But there has been a clear swing towards manpower from technology.


The first is whether the Pentagon is right to focus so heavily on creating more combat brigades. With American units serving 15 months in the field and a year at home at best, the army understandably wants more front-line soldiers to ease the strain. But large armies have often found it extremely hard to fight guerrillas in far-away places—ask the French in Algeria, the Russians in Afghanistan and, not least, the Americans themselves in Vietnam. With the possible exception of the British in Malaya, it is hard to think of many insurgencies in modern times that have been crushed by a Western occupying power.

Post-colonial politics, stronger concerns for human rights, the rapid dispersal of news: all these (good) things make today's conflicts even harder to win for occupiers. So it may well be better to step back and work through local allies. Few insurgencies have unseated existing governments. In the “war on terror” most of the important al-Qaeda suspects have been rounded up for America by local allies. Strengthening local forces is the best way of salvaging Iraq and Afghanistan, and may help avoid the need for future interventions.

In the other piece, entitled "After Smart Weapons, Smart Soldiers," it is argued that "fourth generation warfare" will continue to become more prevalent in coming years:

Modern Western armies cannot, as the Romans did, make a wasteland and call it peace. Modern wars are complex affairs conducted “among the people” and, as Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British army, put it recently, “in the spotlight of the media and the shadow of international lawyers”. In Iraq in the 1920s, Britain's air force pioneered the use of “air policing” to put down rebellious tribesmen on the cheap; today the use of air power often carries big political costs. The greater the accuracy of modern weapons, the louder the outcry when they nonetheless kill or wound civilians. And the wider the reach of the internet, the bigger the impact of propaganda videos showing insurgent attacks against Western forces, regardless of civilian casualties. The British who fought the Mahdist religious rebels in Sudan in the 19th century had no need to worry about provoking attacks in London; today such a campaign would be seen as another front in the jihad against the West.

Such bewildering conflict is regarded by some military thinkers as the “fourth generation” of warfare, distinct from those of previous eras: the first generation, of line and column, which culminated with the Napoleonic wars; the second, of machinegun and artillery, which brought about the slaughter of the first world war; and the third, of manoeuvre with tanks and aircraft, which stretched from the second world war to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Fourth-generation warfare, according to Thomas Hammes, a retired colonel in the American marines, involves loose networks, made more powerful and resilient by information technology. It does not seek to defeat the enemy's forces, but instead “directly attacks the minds of the enemy decision-makers to destroy the enemy's political will”.

I have blogged about this problem before, arguing that "While the US military may have difficulties dealing with insurgencies, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated just how effective the modern US military can be against a more traditional foe (and even less traditional ones, as in Afghanistan). And here is the rub: the US military is being asked to do two very different jobs. First, it is asked to be supreme in conventional war, and it has clearly succeeded in that mission. But that mission may in fact make the second mission, rebuilding shattered nations and establishing democracy there, more difficult."

A potential solution that I believe holds promise is the development of a new service branch of the US armed forces, distinct from the 4 extant ones. As I suggested earlier, "future military campaigns are much more likely to resemble Afghanistan and Iraq than World War II. What are needed are boots on the ground (soldiers) trained not only in infantry tactics but guerrilla/urban warfare, police duty, and language/culture." The US needs to recognize that nation-building and counter-insurgency are very different operations from war-fighting, and that troops trained for one task may not be up to the other. The Economist articles agree with this position, arguing that the US military "may need more radical steps—in particular creating new specialist units to train allies, embed Western soldiers in local forces to improve their performance and be able to call in airstrikes, and help organise civil reconstruction. Generals complain about splitting the army, but they already oversee a myriad of specialist units. It is at least worth trying."

Yes it is.

Friday, October 26, 2007

More On the Syrian Nuclear (?) Site

The above pictures, taken by commercial satellite reconnaissance companies, show the site in Syria that was reportedly attacked by Israeli air assets on 6 September. The picture on the left, taken 10 August 2007 clearly shows a large structure measuring approximately 150 meters per side. The structure is not at all visible in the picture on the right, taken 24 October. Not at all visible. Not even the rubble or traces that would be expected to be visible following an air raid.

According to the New York Times, from which the above photos come:
the images, federal and private analysts said Thursday, suggest that the Syrian authorities rushed to dismantle the facility after the strike, saying its removal could be interpreted as a tacit admission of guilt.

“It’s a magic act — here today, gone tomorrow,” said a senior intelligence official. “It doesn’t lower suspicions; it raises them. This was not the long-term decommissioning of a building, which can take a year. It was speedy. It’s incredible that they could have gone to that effort to make something go away.”

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that this week released a report on the Syrian site, said Thursday that the building’s removal was inherently suspicious.


“It’s clearly very suspicious,” said Joseph Cirincione, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “The Syrians were up to something that they clearly didn’t want the world to know about.”

Mr. Cirincione said the photographic evidence “tilts toward a nuclear program,” but did not prove that Damascus was building a reactor. Besides, he said, even if Syria was developing a nuclear program, it was still years away from being operational and thus not an imminent threat.

The desolate Syrian site is situated on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River some 90 miles north of the Iraqi border and seven miles north of the desert village of At Tibnah. An airfield lies nearby.

The new images, in addition to revealing the removal of the tall building, show still standing a secondary structure and what could be a pumping station on the Euphrates. Analysts suspect the pumping station was for cooling the reactor.

The building was said by analysts to have been modeled on a design used by the North Koreans, whose building is a few feet larger that the Syrian building that vanished.

Mr. Albright called the Syrian site “consistent with being a North Korean reactor design.”


The Institute for Science and International Security, Mr. Albright’s group, released a report analyzing the new DigitalGlobe image. The building, it said, had been “completely removed and the ground scraped.”

The comparison of August and October images, it said, “effectively confirms that this site was indeed the target of the Israeli raid” in September.

The report said tractors or bulldozers could be seen where the suspected reactor building once stood, as well as scrape marks on the ground. It added that the dismantling and removal of the building “at such a rapid pace dramatically complicates any inspection of the facilities.”

The report said Syria had an obligation to inform the International Atomic Energy Agency of its decision to construct any new nuclear facility. It added that weapons experts were now debating whether Syria would have violated its safeguards agreement with the agency if it started clandestine work on a nuclear reactor.

Syria signed an agreement with the agency in 1992 and is obligated, the report said, under that accord to report on its nuclear plans and developments to the Vienna agency, which is an arm of the United Nations.

“An important question,” the report said, “is whether Syria may be in violation of its agreements.”

If the atomic energy agency found Syria in violation of its responsibilities, it could refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions, as has recently occurred in the case of Iran and its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The evidence is mounting that Syria was indeed building some kind of nuclear reactor. Such a move would be incredibly destabilizing, as Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and even Egypt would all be threatened by a nuclear-armed Syria. Israel's preventive strike may have averted a regional arms race that would be to the benefit of no one.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

From GWoT to A War of Ideas & Counter-Insurgency

Today's post is brought to you by Robert Kelly, a professor of international relations at the University of the Pacific. I met Bob on my trip to Israel to study Israeli counter-terrorism policy, and I think this is an excellent essay. Enjoy!!!

From GWoT to War of Ideas & Counterinsurgency
Since the start of the Global War on Terror (GWoT), the United States has implicitly treated its terrorist opponents as if they were states. American posture has long been structured around state opponents to US power. The US military would engage traditional warfighting against a country with a coherent military firmly controlling some space of territory with a ‘target rich’ infrastructure and population. In a Clausewitzian clash of forces, the US superpower would prevail, and the opponent would sue for a structured peace. In short, US planning has assumed and preferred opponents such as the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Indeed, the US military’s primary engagement in counter-insurgency – Vietnam - left the Army particularly so scarred and battered, that future planning purposely focused on state opponents. Never again would the US military wade into a long-term guerilla conflict where US military comparative advantage (firepower, logistics, air dominance) would matter little. For three decades the US military has been structured around a large, Cold War-style contest

Hence when the GWoT began after 9/11 the American instinct was to ‘state-ize’ the opponent. The US military is good at defeating states but has a mixed record at counter-insurgency and finds it quite distasteful. What might have been a campaign against a few specific terrorists entities – most notably al Qaeda – became instead a ‘war’ on terror. The ‘axis of evil’ indentified rogue states as America’s primary opponents, and the US has fought or threatened with ‘regime change’ states like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran.

Unfortunately this war paradigm mistargets the West’s opponent in this struggle. Defeating failed, postcolonial states is easy but will not reduce the actual Islamist threat, because the post 9/11 opponent is the slippery, transnational, radicalized edge of a contemporary Islamic revival. Terrorist groups are more like international nongovernmental organizations than states, and militarily reducing rickety Muslim-majority states only feeds the radicalism. National Intelligence Estimates suggest that the Iraq War may be pushing moderate Muslims toward the jihadis. Iraq and Afghanistan are now counter-insurgency efforts – ‘hearts and minds’ struggles in which legitimacy and moral authority trump ‘shock and awe.’ Tanks, artillery and other expensive, hard power assets are in less demand than good intelligence, cultural literate soldiers and black operators, and the restoration of US moral credibility after Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the ‘torture debate.’

A post-Bush strategy will more effectively match the shape of the force to the shape of the mission. Al Qaeda is not the Soviet Union, and few Muslim-majority states are openly balancing US power. Indeed, the GWoT is not really a war at all. It is a challenge by a medievalist wing of the current Islamic ‘great awakening’ to liberal modernity. And most Muslims reject this reactionary agenda. Hence the West’s goal is to win this contest of ideas – not crush rickety Muslim-majority rogue states because it fits the bureaucratic predilections of defense establishment. Force will occasionally be necessary, but in a discrete, focused counterinsurgency - tactics we must relearn despite the resentment over Vietnam. Israel’s struggle against local terrorism and asymmetric conflict, and Britain’s ‘emergencies’ in Ireland and Malaya provide a different frame for combating terror: a patient, fine-grained effort of special operations forces, special investigative and police powers, and intelligence, with the occasional backing of significant force – all couched a political framework of moral superiority to the guerillas.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Swapping Debt For Nature

The US has agreed to forgive approximately $26 million of debt from Costa Rica. The catch? Costa Rica has to use the money that would have gone to service the debt for environmental protection. Specifically, Costa Rica will "invest a similar amount in conserving high-risk natural areas that are the home to such threatened species as jaguars, squirrel monkeys and scarlet macaws. The funds will help protect important Costa Rican natural areas including the Osa Peninsula, Tortuguero, La Amistad, Maquenque, Rincón de la Vieja and the Nicoya Peninsula, officials said."

Debt-for-nature swaps are an exciting and innovative way to kill two birds with one stone: On the one hand, developing states can get out from under the crushing debt burden that stifle their domestic economies and strip valuable assets from the nation. On the other, it encourages developing nations to take a greater interest in protecting, rather than exploiting, endangered resources. Surprisingly, the Costa Rican deal is the 13th deal forged by the US (not to mention debt-for-nature swaps engineered by other counties, like one between France and Cameroon). Similar deals have protected endangered rain forests in Peru and tropical forests in Guatemala.

What's so surprising is that such deals have gotten so little publicity. I first heard of these deals only about a year ago, when it was reported that the US was negotiating the details of the Costa Rican agreement. But this seems to be case of win-win: the US can aid development in poorer parts of the world at the same time as it encourages responsible and sustainable environmental practices and conservation. So why is there so little attention being paid to these deals? It seems to me that, especially given current global antipathy towards American environmental positions and practices that the Costa Rican deal would be trumpeted from every available mountaintop in the US government.

Any suggestions as to why these policies are flying under the radar will be much appreciated (and if there are any graduate students reading this, this could make an excellent dissertation puzzle).

Monday, October 15, 2007

What Happened in Syria on 6 September?

On 6 September, Israeli aircraft penetrated Syrian airspace. Apart from that, not much is known for sure about what happened. Syria claims its air defense systems fired on the planes, forcing them to jettison their external fuel tanks; Syria also claims that only a building "related to the military" but one that "was not used" was destroyed. Israel has been unusually tight-lipped about the operation.

Slowly, however, information is beginning to leak out. The New York Times reported yesterday, in apparent confirmation of numerous rumors that had been swirling around, that the target of the airstrike was a nascent nuclear reactor, most likely provided to Syria by North Korea. The Times is reporting that there had been debate within the Bush administration about how to respond to the reactor, but that "there wasn’t a lot of debate about the evidence."

Why would there by any debate? Because if it comes out, in the middle of talks surrounding North Korea's own nuclear program, that North Korea has providing a nuclear reactor to Syria, the case for negotiating with North Korea would be eviscerated. The talks would inevitably collapse, it would be nearly impossible to continue any diplomatic processes, and military strikes, an option which is about as bad as doing nothing, would be the only options left on the table.

Apparently, this is the source of the division with the Bush Administration. The hard-liners, led by VP Cheney and supported by those like former Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, supported the strike and argue that the evidence pointing to the reactor:

should lead the United States to reconsider delicate negotiations with North Korea over ending its nuclear program, as well as America’s diplomatic strategy toward Syria, which has been invited to join Middle East peace talks in Annapolis, Md., next month.

Mr. Cheney in particular, officials say, has also cited the indications that North Korea aided Syria to question the Bush administration’s agreement to supply the North with large amounts of fuel oil. During Mr. Bush’s first term, Mr. Cheney was among the advocates of a strategy to squeeze the North Korean government in hopes that it would collapse, and the administration cut off oil shipments set up under an agreement between North Korea and the Clinton administration, saying the North had cheated on that accord.

Meanwhile SecState Rice and SecDef Gates both opposed the strike, perhaps out of fear that it would cascade into a collapse of the agreement with North Korea.

It strikes me that both sides are wrong. Cheney and Bolton oppose the North Korea deal in and of itself and very well might like to use the strike as a pretense for scuttling the deal. So, Rice and Gates are right to worry about preserving the deal with North Korea: it's clearly the only option for dealing with North Korea's nuclear program at the moment. But ignoring the reactor entirely may have been even worse.

The balance of power in the Middle East is a precarious one. Israel has, by far, the dominant military power, and has a nuclear arsenal of its own. But Israel has also long adhered to a policy of strategic ambiguity by refusing to discuss or confirm its nuclear capability, largely so that its Arab neighbors would not feel compelled to proliferate themselves, an act that Egypt, Jordan, and until now, Syria, have demonstrated little interest in doing. But a Syrian nuclear program would pose a grave threat to regional stability. And even though the reactor may have been in the very early stages -- "it would have been years before the Syrians could have used the reactor to produce the spent nuclear fuel that could, through a series of additional steps, be reprocessed into bomb-grade plutonium" according to the Times -- allowing it to progress would have increased pressure on other Arab nations to proliferate, as well as undercut Israel's deterrent capability.

Perhaps the best gauge for the need for Israel's strike is the reaction from the other Middle East, Arab, and Islamic states. Or rather the lack of reaction. For there was none. The deafening silence that emanated from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and even Iran was extremely telling. Normally, an Israeli airstrike, and especially an unprovoked one, would be met by a chorus of condemnations and anti-Israel UN resolutions. But no one other than Syria and North Korea has said a word in protest of Israel's actions. No one wants to see a nuclear-armed Syria.

So, once again, Israel has performed a valuable role in ensuring non-proliferation in the Middle East. Now it's up to the diplomats to ensure that this doesn't undermine the progress in North Korea.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Creeping Towards Palestine

Two pieces of good news yesterday in the Israel-Palestinian situation. First was the revelation that Hamas is seeking talks with Fatah and is considering ceding control of Gaza back to the centralized control of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his arm of the Palestinian Authority. Sanctions and isolation imposed on Hamas for its lack of recognition of Israel have damaged Hamas in Gaza and increased the misery of Gaza's residents. As I have written about many times, the bifurcated sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority -- in which the militias and not the government possess the majority of the power -- is one of the major obstacles to a just and lasting settlement of Palestinian claims. If Hamas is prepared to enter into talks with Fatah, Abbas must insist on the disarming of the militias of both parties and the subordination of Hamas (and Fatah) to the Palestinian Authority, no matter who is running it.

The other piece of good news was an indication from Fatah that while the Palestinians would insist on getting their state on the same amount of land that was occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, it need not be the exact same land. Ahmed Qureia, the lead Fatah negotiator and a former prime minister of the PA, stated that "it would be enough to declare the 1967 lines as the starting point, say the border is open to modifications, based on the principle that the Palestinians end up with as much land as they lost in 1967. The exact border would be worked out in negotiations following the Annapolis conference."

This is a vitally important breakthrough. It was inconceivable that the Palestinians were going to get Israel to go back to its pre-1967 borders, for security and demographic reasons. However, the vast majority of Israeli settlers live in and around Jerusalem or in a narrow band immediately inside the Green Line. In exchange for keeping those lands, which would leave almost almost 75% of the settlers in place, Israel would cede an equal amount of land on the northern border of the West Bank along with a corridor of land connecting Gaza and the West Bank. Additionally, Israel would withdraw, forcibly if necessary, the settlers remaining in Palestinian lands. This has long been recognized as the only feasible end-state, but getting both parties to accept it has been a long process.

The security fence being built by Israel has played a vital role in getting both sides (for an excellent discussion of this, see How to Build a Fence by David Makovsky in the March/April 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs). Settlers living deep inside the West Bank whom I met on my trip to Israel opposed the fence because they knew that every Israeli on the Palestinian side would eventually be forced to leave their homes. For the Palestinians, the fence created a fait accompli, that forced them to accept the political reality that Israel was not going to return certain lands.

There is still a long way to go before a Palestinian state can be realized. Israel, for its part, needs to do more to bolster Fatah against Hamas and to stop and even pull back expansion of the deep settlements. The Palestinians must do a better job of establish control over the violent militias. Both sides must be willing to discuss the Palestinian right of return and the final status of Jerusalem, both of which are explosive issues. But again, in each case there is a fairly obvious politically-attainable solution. But knowing the end isn't enough; it's getting there that is so difficult. But these two developments are both steps in the right direction.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Why I Will NEVER Vote for Ron Paul

Today's New Hampshire Union Leader has an op-ed piece from Representative Ron Paul (R-TX 14) in which he responds to a previously written editorial criticizing Paul's foreign policy proposal as isolationist. Paul responds:

If I understand the editors' concerns, I have not been accused of deviating from the Founders' logic; if anything I have been accused of adhering to it too strictly. The question, therefore, before readers -- and soon voters -- is the same question I have asked for almost 20 years in Congress: by what superior wisdom have we now declared Jefferson, Washington, and Madison to be "unrealistic and dangerous"? Why do we insist on throwing away their most considered warnings?

A non-interventionist foreign policy is not an isolationist foreign policy. It is quite the opposite. Under a Paul administration, the United States would trade freely with any nation that seeks to engage with us. American citizens would be encouraged to visit other countries and interact with other peoples rather than be told by their own government that certain countries are off limits to them.


It is not we non-interventionists who are isolationsists. The real isolationists are those who impose sanctions and embargoes on countries and peoples across the globe because they disagree with the internal and foreign policies of their leaders. The real isolationists are those who choose to use force overseas to promote democracy, rather than seek change through diplomacy, engagement, and by setting a positive example.


A Paul administration would see Americans engaged overseas like never before, in business and cultural activities. But a Paul administration would never attempt to export democracy or other values at the barrel of a gun, as we have seen over and over again that this is a counterproductive approach that actually leads the United States to be resented and more isolated in the world.
While I am often sympathetic to libertarian-type policies, Paul's understanding of US foreign policy -- both present-day and historial -- is woefully naive and dangerous.

First, his understanding of the Founders' approach to foreign policy is overly simplistic and inaccurate. It's true that George Washington, in his farewell address, warned the new nation against "the insidious wiles of foreign influence" and "excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another". Washington went on to make a Paul-like recommendation:
The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
Yes, this warning was less a deep-seated belief in impartiality than a response to America's fledgling status and under-developed power. As Robert Kagan makes clear in his magisterial work Dangerous Nation, such fears of entangling alliances were situationally determined. Where the US was weak, so was its desire to take sides or develop an activist foreign policy, and as American power would grow, so would its foreign policy, even in the hands of the Founders Paul is so convinced were opposed to such expansion. Washington provided some explanation for his apparent preference for neutrality, saying its point was "to endeavor to gain time for our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption to that degree of strength and consistency which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its fortunes." Even one as opposed to growth of federal power sought to tie the US to revolutionary France against Great Britain and was instrumental in developing the peace-time navy.

Paul's understanding of present-day foreign policy is just as flawed as his grasp of history. Implicit in his argument is that claim that American foreign policy is dangerous to both the US and to the rest of the world. In this op-ed, he focuses on the exportation of democracy "at the barrel of a gun," but his presidential campaign website voices his opposition to American membership in the WTO, NAFTA and all other free trade deals (not to mention his paranoid fear of the mythical NAFTA Mexico-to-Canada superhighway), the UN, humanitarian intervention, and all uses of force not expressly authorized by Congress.

Not only would such policies undermine the entire liberal economic order established by the US that is so vital for ensuring American and international prosperity, but it would undermine what little international political order there is, as such order largely depends on American hegemony. As Niall Ferguson wrote in his Foreign Policy article "A World Without Power," "anyone who dislikes US hegemony should bear in mind that, rather than a multipolar world of competing great powers, a world with no hegemon at all may be the real alternative to US primacy." The world wars were both products of international political systems lacking hegemonic control. Absent US security guarantees, the EU would be hard pressed to sustain itself, restraints on Iranian, North Korean, and even Chinese aggression would disappear, and the relative levels of cooperation and comity that currently exist in international politics would collapse.

Paul may try to disguise his policies in the cloak of the political philosophies and foreign policies of the Founders. But don't be fooled. George Washington wouldn't vote for Paul. Nor would Thomas Jefferson.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

One Laptop Per Child

Following on my post several weeks back about Kiva comes another opportunity for people to get personally involved with international development. The oft-discussed $100 laptop is about to be released. The idea was to create a laptop that could be afforded even in the poorest parts of the world. According to the One Laptop Per Child organization:

Extensively field-tested and validated among some of the poorest and most remote populations on earth, constructionism emphasizes what Papert calls “learning learning” as the fundamental educational experience. A computer uniquely fosters learning learning by allowing children to “think about thinking”, in ways that are otherwise impossible. Using the XO as both their window on the world, as well as a highly programmable tool for exploring it, children in emerging nations will be opened to both illimitable knowledge and to their own creative and problem-solving potential.
People in the developed world can donate a laptop or, starting November 11, participate in the "Buy 1, Give 1" program, in which $400 buys a laptop for you and one to be sent to a needy child in the developing world (they never succeeded in getting the price down to the mythical $100, but $200 still ain't bad).

So, what kind of laptop do you get for $200? According to David Pogue, the technology/computer guy for the New York Times, a pretty damn good one:
[It's] spillproof, rainproof, dustproof and drop-proof. It’s fanless, it’s silent and it weighs 3.2 pounds. One battery charge will power six hours of heavy activity, or 24 hours of reading. The laptop has a built-in video camera, microphone, memory-card slot, graphics tablet, game-pad controllers and a screen that rotates into a tablet configuration.


[One Laptop Per Child] does worry that people might compare the XO with $1,000 Windows or Mac laptops. They might blog about their disappointment, thereby imperiling O.L.P.C.’s continuing talks with third world governments.

It’s easy to see how that might happen. There’s no CD/DVD drive at all, no hard drive and only a 7.5-inch screen. The Linux operating system doesn’t run Microsoft Office, Photoshop or any other standard Mac or Windows programs. The membrane-sealed, spillproof keyboard is too small for touch-typing by an adult.

And then there’s the look of this thing. It’s made of shiny green and white plastic, like a Fisher-Price toy, complete with a handle. With its two earlike antennas raised, it could be Shrek’s little robot friend.


The truth is, the XO laptop, now in final testing, is absolutely amazing, and in my limited tests, a total kid magnet. Both the hardware and the software exhibit breakthrough after breakthrough — some of them not available on any other laptop, for $400 or $4,000.

In the places where the XO will be used, power is often scarce. So the laptop uses a new battery chemistry, called lithium ferro-phosphate. It runs at one-tenth the temperature of a standard laptop battery, costs $10 to replace, and is good for 2,000 charges — versus 500 on a regular laptop battery.

The laptop consumes an average of 2 watts, compared with 60 or more on a typical business laptop. That’s one reason it gets such great battery life. A small yo-yo-like pull-cord charger is available (one minute of pulling provides 10 minutes of power); so is a $12 solar panel that, although only one foot square, provides enough power to recharge or power the machine.

Speaking of bright sunshine: the XO’s color screen is bright and, at 200 dots an inch, razor sharp (1,200 by 900 pixels). But it has a secret identity: in bright sun, you can turn off the backlight altogether. The resulting display, black on light gray, is so clear and readable, it’s almost like paper. Then, of course, the battery lasts even longer.

The XO offers both regular wireless Internet connections and something called mesh networking, which means that all the laptops see each other, instantly, without any setup — even when there’s no Internet connection.

With one press of a button, you see a map. Individual XO logos — color-coded to differentiate them — represent other laptops in the area; you connect with one click. (You never double-click in the XO’s visual, super-simple operating system. You either point with the mouse or click once.)

This feature has some astonishing utility. If only one laptop has an Internet connection, for example, the others can get online, too, thanks to the mesh network. And when O.L.P.C. releases software upgrades, one laptop can broadcast them to other nearby laptops.

Power users will snort at the specs of this machine. It has only one gigabyte of storage — all flash memory — with 20 percent of that occupied by the XO’s system software. And the processor is feeble by conventional standards. Starting up takes two minutes, and switching between programs is poky.

Once in a program, though, the speed is fine; it turns out that a light processor is plenty if the software is written compactly and smartly. (O.L.P.C. points out that despite gigantic leaps in processing power, today’s business laptops don’t feel any faster than they did a few years ago. The operating systems and programs have added so much bloat that they absorb the speed gains.)

The built-in programs are equally clever. There’s a word processor, Web browser, calculator, PDF textbook reader, some games (clones of Tetris and Connect 4), three music programs, a painting application, a chat program and so on. The camera module permits teachers, for the first time, to send messages home to illiterate parents.

There are also three programming environments of different degrees of sophistication. Incredibly, one keystroke reveals the underlying code of almost any XO program or any Web page. Students can not only study how their favorite programs have been written, but even experiment by making changes. (If they make a mess of things, they can restore the original.)

What a fantastic idea. If you're looking to buy a computer for your child, why not consider the "Buy 1, Give 1" program? For $400, your kid will get a pretty good machine, and you'll change the life of a child in the developing world. Or, just donate one. Another opportunity for all of us to get directly involved in international development.

International politics is ultimately about making the world a better place. Groups like Kiva and One Laptop Per Child make it easier for us to do so, one person at a time.

The Secret Torture Memo?

The New York Times is reporting that, in spite of congressional legislation passed in December 2005 banning the use of "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of all prisoners in US custody, the Justice Department had, in February 2005 issued a secret memo providing the CIA witjh "explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures." Even after the passage of the Detainee Treatment Act in December 2005, the Justice Department memo remained in force and was reinforced by a second secret memo stating that the CIA's methods did not constitute "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment. Such policies would have been in conflict with a public memo released by the Justice Department in December 2004 which declared torture to be an "abhorrent" practice, and broadened its definition.

The Bush Administration is denying this report, claiming that, in the words of White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, "This country does not torture. It is a policy of the United States that we do not torture and we do not." Furthermore:

Asked about the story Thursday, Perino confirmed existence of the Feb. 5, 2005, classified opinion but would not comment on whether it authorized specific practices, such as head-slapping and simulated drowning. She said the 2005 opinion did not reinterpret the law.

Additionally, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the 2004 opinion remains in effect and that ''neither Attorney General Gonzales nor anyone else within the department modified or withdrew that opinion.''
I am on record as being open to the possibility that torture, or coercive interrogation, is something that must be considered in very specific circumstances and under very specific conditions to protect the US, and that I am skeptical of the claims that the use of torture/coercive interrogation is counter-productive. But this is essentially a different question.

The president is not allowed to legislate, especially when Congress has enacted a law governing a situation or circumstance. When Congress passes a law forbidding the use of coercive interrogation, the president must obey that law. I have written numerous times about this argument of war powers: in the absence of a declaration of war, the president is still bound to follow existing law. In the absence of a specific congressional act, the president does have some latitude to interpret or implement policies. But when Congress speaks, as it did by passing the Detainee Treatment Act in December 2005, the Constitution demands that the president comply with the law. It may be that the president and the Justice Department were able to make a semantic argument that allowed them to define certain tactics as "not torture" but at least on the face of it, such an interpretation would seem to be a flagrant violation of the spirit of the DTA, especially in light of the December 2004 memo.

If the report by the Times is true, this is likely a serious violation of both international and domestic law. The practices at issue -- "a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures" -- are almost certainly violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, which the Supreme Court ruled in June 2006 the US was bound to apply to all US-held detainees. The Military Commissions Act of November 2006 gave the president the power to establish specific permissible interrogation techniques, which President Bush did in July 2007, but with the caveat that the techniques would not violate the rules of the Geneva Convention.

The president must follow the law. Nothing can justify an unconstitutional action. As I have written many times before, if the president believes he needs broader powers to act without congressional authorization, he can ask for a declaration of war. Without one, the law remains.

UPDATE: Over at the Chronicle for Higher Education, it's noted that:
This affair might have played out differently, however, had Congress spelled out exactly which techniques it considers cruel, inhuman, and degrading. Many of the scholars involved in the recent debate over the American Psychological Association’s policy on interrogations expressed concerns about the vagueness of federal and international prohibitions on torture. U.S. laws and international treaties, they said, should more emphatically define and ban so-called soft torture techniques, such as long-term isolation and sensory deprivation.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Who's The Problem In Darfur?

Yesterday, hundreds of Darfur rebels poured out of the desert and assaulted a camp of peacekeeping troops from the African Union. When the attack was over, 10 peacekeepers were dead, dozens more were missing, possibly kidnapped, and lots of supplies, including heavy weapons, had been stolen. According to the New York Times:

Relief officials said that as those groups splintered, their new factions needed matériel, and that the attack on the peacekeepers might have been intended to seize quality weapons. “It’s indicative of the complete insecurity,” said Alun McDonald, a spokesman for the Oxfam aid organization in Sudan. “These groups are attacking anybody and everybody with total impunity.”

He added that armed groups were “increasingly targeting aid workers to steal their vehicles, radios and logistical stuff.” He said the attack on the peacekeepers “sounds quite similar to that, just on a much larger scale.”

Mr. McDonald's explanation is, however, unsatisfactory. Attacking the peacekeepers is very likely to result in the withdrawal of the AU force, and perhaps even a delay or cancellation of the UN-AU hybrid force that has been authorized to replace the existing AU force. Already Senegal, one of the largest contributors to the AU force, has announced that it is considering withdrawing its troops from the force. So, unless the rebels wanted the peacekeepers out of Darfur, attacking them doesn't make sense.

But it's altogether likely that the rebels do, in fact, want the peacekeepers out. The rebels are those Darfuri who have decided to take up arms against the Sudanese government in hopes of achieving greater political autonomy and protection, if not independence, for Darfur. The presence of peacekeepers, while perhaps sufficing to minimize or prevent the attacks against civilians that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions more, will not serve to advance the larger political goal. If anything, the peacekeepers will serve to entrench the status quo by freezing the battlelines and political demands in place. They certainly will make it more difficult for the rebels to attain their larger political goals.

Of course, if the UN was capable of disregarding concerns for sovereign equality and actually taking sides in ethnic conflicts like this, the rebels might have a little more faith that their concerns would be addressed by the international community. But history has likely given them little confidence that the presence of UN peacekeepers will do anything but perpetuate the existing situation, and might, in a worst case, prevent the Darfuri from defending themselves against Sudanese predation.

This attack will likely go a long way to convincing states that sending soldiers to Darfur is not realyl in their national interest. And while that might benefit the rebels, it will do little to ease the suffering of the average Darfuri. Whatever forces end up on the ground in Darfur must be capable of defending themselves against government or rebel forces, and must not be unwilling to use force to enforce the peace.

Why I May Have To Vote For Ron Paul

This is sheer brilliance....