Friday, February 20, 2009

Is The Bloom Off Of Obama's Rose?

I've been saying repeatedly that those expecting President Obama to massively overhaul the controversial policies of President Bush are going to be sorely disappointed. So far, there have been grumblings about Obama's not-quite-complete disavowal of torture and extraordinary rendition.

But in the last few days, Obama's actions have shocked and dismayed civil liberties advocates who assumed the Incarnation Of Hope That Is Obama would be their standard bearer. Last week, Obama invoked, as did the Bush administration, the claim of "state secrets" to argue for the dismissal of a lawsuit against Boeing Corp. for participating in a CIA-backed rendition to Morocco that resulted in torture (the Binyamin Mohammed case). The ACLU denounced this decision, arguing that it amounted to a "ratification" of Bush's policies that indemnified US agents guilty of torture.

Today saw two more moves by Obama that horrified civil libertarians. First, was the claim by Secretary of State Clinton that pressure on China over human rights issues would not be allowed to undermine economic cooperation between the two states. Amnesty International announced that it was "shocked and extremely disappointed" by the decision. Second, just today Obama announced that his administration agreed with President Bush that detainees being held in Afghanistan should have no legal recourse under US laws, announcing that people being held at the prison at Bagram Airfield cannot use US courts to challenge the legality of their detention. An attorney with the ACLU noted that "They've now embraced the Bush policy that you can create prisons outside the law," while a human rights advocate working on behalf of the detainees said that "The hope we all had in President Obama to lead us on a different path has not turned out as we'd hoped."

What these people, and others, fail to realize is that there are seriously dangerous people out there who want to cause immeasurable harm to US interests and citizens. President Bush did not implement the policies because he is mean, or likes torturing people, but because he believed the policies were truly necessary to protect this country. And now that Obama is president he seems to be coming to the same realizations. This is not to argue that the policies chosen by our presidents are necessarily the right ones. I have written a book about how and why many of Bush's policies under the war on terror were indeed illegal. But those advocating for "improving human rights" must not assume that the policies should be removed because they are nasty and unpleasant.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Case For Attacking North Korea

Over at the excellent new blog Shadow Government (written in part by my former dissertation adviser and professor Peter Feaver), Philip Zelikow has a fascinating and controversial post arguing that if North Korea tries to make good on its threat to test a long-range ballistic missile the US should attack and destroy the missile on the ground. Zelikow starts by hearkening back to 2006:

Rewind back two and a half years ago, to June 2006, when North Korea was preparing an earlier series of missile tests. Two of President Clinton's top defense officials, Ash Carter and Bill Perry, published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, entitled: "If Necessary, Strike and Destroy: North Korea Cannot Be Allowed to Test this Missile." Carter and Perry analyzed that, if hit with a conventional weapon,

the multi-story, thin-skinned missile filled with high-energy fuel is itself explosive -- the U.S. airstrike would puncture the missile and probably cause it to explode. The carefully engineered test bed for North Korea's nascent nuclear missile force would be destroyed, and its attempt to retrogress to Cold War threats thwarted. There would be no damage to North Korea outside the immediate vicinity of the missile gantry.

At the time this essay was published, I was serving in the State Department. Secretary Rice had asked me to help advise on North Korea policy. My view in June 2006 was that this analysis was basically right but that their recommendation of military action was premature, for two reasons: (1) attainment of a long-range or intercontinental missile capability would require more tests, so this one did not place North Korea at the threshold of an operational capability; and (2) given point #1, it was better to use the test to draw a "red line" with support from the international community. Thus, the next time, the United States would be in a much stronger position to act with international support.

And indeed, North Korea's missile and nuclear tests in 2006 produced just such an international foundation for further action. First came UN Security Council Resolution 1695, adopted in July 2006. There, the Council stated, it "demands that the DPRK suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme." Then came UN Security Council Resolution 1718, adopted in October 2006. That resolution was more ominous. The Council now said it was acting under the UN Charter's Chapter VII, its provisions for dealing with threats to international peace and security. These can include collective military action and self-defense. Resolution 1718 limited itself to non-military measures, but in it, the Council said it "decides that the DPRK shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching." This was imperative language, the strongest international action against North Korea since the 1953 Korean War armistice.

Now, however, the circumstances have changed:

In 2006, the United Nations drew a clear line, acting under Chapter VII of its Charter. Today, in 2009, the United States need not stand by and watch North Korea cross that line. Non-military measures were given a fair try. Now the political predicate for the Carter-Perry recommendations has been well laid.

The logical next step, after high-level discussions in the U.S. government and consultation with our allies, is to issue North Korea a warning to stand down (conveyed either directly, indirectly, or through a leak of planning to strike and destroy the missile). Pyongyang would either then stand down silently or they would not. We lose little from the warning if I'm right in estimating that the North Koreans cannot protect the test missile from a U.S. strike once they stand it up on the gantry. Our warning would be that, if you stand up the missile (itself a plain violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718), the United States will take it down. The North Korean perfection of a long-range nuclear missile capability against the United States, Japan, or the Republic of Korea would pose an imminent threat to the vital interests of our country.

If the United States strikes North Korea's missiles on their launch site, other would-be proliferators will take notice -- thus lending much greater weight to the fresh diplomatic initiatives the Obama administration has in mind. The downside, as in 2006, is the possibility of North Korean escalation against South Korea. The United States must consider its own security, the security of its Japanese ally, and the security of its South Korean ally. Ideally, all should arrive at a common understanding of what must be done to protect their long-term security.

Fascinating stuff.

North Korea is clearly trying to probe President Obama to see what he is made of. It is vital that he react firmly and decisively. Even if North Korean proliferation is, at this point, a fait accompli, it is not too late to prevent the deployment and testing of the delivery system that would not only threaten the US but Japan, China, Russia, India, and many other states. I whole-heartedly agree with Zelikow's assessment and prescription. Let's hope Obama does as well.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Obama Listens To Weinberger

OK, not really. But, back in November 2007, I wrote:

If the US intends to compromise at all on the missile shield, the price should be nothing less than Russia's complete cooperation in pressuring Iran to comply with its obligations under the NPT. That would be a worthy return on an unwise investment.
Today, Reuters is reporting that:
The United States signaled a willingness on Friday to slow plans for a missile defense shield in eastern Europe if Russia agreed to help stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.


"If we are able to work together to dissuade Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, we would be able to moderate the pace of development of missile defenses in Europe," a senior U.S. administration official told Reuters.

It was the most explicit statement yet by an administration official linking the missile shield to Russia's willingness to help resolve the international stand-off over Iran's nuclear program.

Excellent move.

The Peace Process In Trouble

The recent Israeli parliamentary elections are bad news for those who retain even the faintest glimmer of hope for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The moderate Kadima party "won" the election by claiming the most seats -- 28 -- in the 120 seat Knesset, leaving it in need of 31 votes to form a government. The Likud party of Binyamin Netanyahu claimed 27 seats, but the breakdown of the remaining seats with its strong right-wing tilt means that Likud may have a better chance of putting together a coalition. The once mighty Labor Party that ruled the country from its inception in 1948 until the rise of Likud in the 1970s claimed a pathetic 13. Today comes news that Kadima and Likud are considering forming a unity government including Labor that would create a coalition of 68 seats. Israel has had a unity government once before with Shimon Peres of Labor and Yitzhak Shamir of Likud rotating the prime ministry.

While this may be better for Israeli politics than a narrow coalition that empowers narrower, more extreme parties like the quasi-racist, anti-religious party of Yisrael Beiteinu or the strict religious parties like Shas or United Torah, it doesn't bode well for progress towards the two-state solution. Rumors also abound of a Likud-Labor-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition. While it's too early to predict what result will emerge, any government that includes Likud, and Netanyahu in particular, will not be friendly to the peace process that the Obama administration is hoping to advance.

The problem is that the longer the status quo drags on, the harder the two-state solution becomes to realize. Israeli settlement in the West Bank continues more or less unabated; illegal settlements deep in the West Bank are becoming increasingly permanent. While most of the settlers live immediately around Jerusalem and close to the Green Line -- and those settlements will likely be annexed to Israel in exchange for an equal amount of territory currently in Israel -- it is the settlements deep in the West Bank that are the problems. Israel has been entirely unwilling to curtail these settlements, and the US has, to date, been entirely unwilling to use its massive leverage with Israel to force it to do so.

And Israel must do so. The alternatives to the two-state solution are entirely unacceptable. As Stephen Walt points out at his new-ish blog:
First, Israel could drive most or all of the 2.5 million Palestinians out of the West Bank by force, thereby preserving "greater Israel" as a Jewish state through an overt act of ethnic cleansing. The Palestinians would surely resist, and it would be a crime against humanity, conducted in full view of a horrified world. No American government could support such a step, and no true friend of Israel could endorse that solution.

Second, Israel could retain control of the West Bank but allow the Palestinians limited autonomy in a set of disconnected enclaves, while it controlled access in and out, their water supplies, and the airspace above them. This appears to have been Ariel Sharon's strategy before he was incapacitated, and Bibi Netanyahu's proposal for "economic peace" without a Palestinian state seems to envision a similar outcome. In short, the Palestinians would not get a viable state of their own and would not enjoy full political rights. This is the solution that many people -- including Prime Minister Olmert -- compare to the apartheid regime in South Africa. It is hard to imagine the United States supporting this outcome over the long term, and Olmert has said as much. Denying the Palestinians' their own national aspirations is also not going to end the conflict.

Which brings me to the third option. The Israeli government could maintain its physical control over "greater Israel" and grant the Palestinians full democratic rights within this territory. This option has been proposed by a handful of Israeli Jews and a growing number of Palestinians. But there are formidable objections to this outcome: It would mean abandoning the Zionist dream of an independent Jewish state, and binational states of this sort do not have an encouraging track record, especially when the two parties have waged a bitter conflict across several generations.
The first and third options are inconceivable. Which means that if the two-state solution collapses or becomes impossible the only viable alternative is the second. And the second means a never-ending moral nightmare for Israel, a never-ending oppression for the Palestinians, and a never-ending war between the two.

Israel's insane electoral system and massively divided political culture makes it unlikely that Israel will ever be capable of dismantling the settlements on its own. The Europeans are trusted by Israel or the Palestinians, nor do they have sufficient leverage over Israel to make a difference. Only the US can push Israel towards the right, nay the only, acceptable outcome. President Obama should do whatever is necessary, including curtailing US economic and military aid to Israel, to ensure that the deep settlement stops and all illegal settlements are dismantled. Failure to do so not only jeopardizes the peace process, it risks Israel's very survival.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Best IR Joke of the Day? Of the Year? Ever?

US General David Petraeus met with French Defense Minister Herve Morin to discuss the on-going war in Afghanistan. However, the two did not discuss whether NATO members, and particularly France, would increase their troop presence in conjunction with Obama's planned "surge."

And why would there be any need to increase France's troop presence? According to Morin:
"France's effort counts for more than just the number of men on the ground, first of all because they are better than the others."
I can't remember hearing a better IR joke.

Let's see...there's the classified NATO report (note, both France and NATO have denied the existence of this report) stating that the French troops who were ambushed in August 2008 were woefully underequipped, lacking sufficient ammunition, food, radios, and other equipment to carry out a two-day long mission against Taliban forces. In the wake of the August ambush, a group of French troops announced their refusal to deploy to Afghanistan.

'Nuff said.

The Danger to Free Trade

Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal ran one of the scarier articles I've read in quite some time. In short, according to the article, "Countries grappling with global recession have enacted a wave of barriers to world commerce since early last month, scrambling to safeguard their key industries -- often by damaging those of their neighbors."

The details:

Russia has introduced 28 measures to raise tariffs on other countries' imports and subsidize its own exports since November, and plans six more.

It's not alone. The European Union has warned the U.S. that proposed "Buy American" provisions in planned stimulus spending could break trade rules. Meanwhile, EU nations have reversed direction and tightened their own trade rules, for instance by resuming subsidies to dairy farmers' exports and effectively barring Chinese screws and bolts from their market, while accusing China of dumping them below cost.

The U.S. is planning retaliatory tariffs on Italian water and French cheese to punish the EU for restricting imports of U.S. chicken and beef. India is proposing to increase tariffs on foreign steel at the request of its steel industry.

The landscape is moving so fast that officials at the WTO, the world's top trade-law enforcer, say they're relying on news reports to keep up with the changes, as governments are often slow to report them. They are reconsidering their Jan. 23 report that concluded protectionist pressures were largely being kept at bay.

Among the changes just since that finding: Egypt has imposed duties on sugar, and the U.S. has levied new tariffs on Chinese goods it contends are being dumped on the market, including mattress springs and graphite electrodes, used to conduct electricity in factory furnaces.

The WTO's figures show that antidumping cases overall, in which nations contend others are disrupting markets by unloading goods below cost, are up 40% since a year ago. In October, as the extent of the global recession became more certain, WTO director Pascal Lamy ordered his staff to start tracking protective actions, say WTO officials.

This is very scary ground we're treading on here. Free trade is subject to massive collective action problems that make these kinds of protectionist responses to crises very attractive. And the implementation of trade barriers can take on a spiral dynamic as one aggrieved party acts to protect its own industries and punish another state for its actions. In the 1920s and 1930s, such "beggar-thy-neighbor" policies undoubtedly worsened the impact and length of the Great Depression and led to a 66% contraction in global trade that contributed to the collapse of the German economy and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Is such an outcome possible today? The Wall Street Journal article doesn't seem to think so:

Economists and trade analysts say the current rash of trade constraints could make it harder for global economic growth to recover from the current downturn. Global trade is expected to shrink by more than 2.1% this year after growing by 6.2% in 2008, according to the WTO.

To be sure, the current growth of protectionism is different and less sweeping than the trade wars of the 1930s. "It's a creeping form of protectionism," said Frederik Erixon, director of ECIPE, a trade-policy think tank based in Brussels. By comparison, the Smoot-Hawley act in 1930 raised U.S. tariffs on foreign imports by an average of 20% across the board. "That could never happen now," Mr. Erixon said. "Political leaders agree it's illegal and immoral."

It's true we're a long way from the 20% tariff increases of Smoot-Hawley. But I don't put much faith in the legal and moral impulses of our political leaders. Just look at the idiotic "Buy American" language contained in the US stimulus package.

It is vital that in a time of economic fears and rising worries over trade that the US send a strong message to the international community of its own commitment to free trade. By backing away from the "Buy American" language, the US can help stop the justifications being used by other countries to protect their own industries and do what is best for the American economy. But American action needs to go beyond that. President Obama must push to stop these anti-dumping actions and to reestablish the norm of free trade. If he doesn't, we're in for some longer, harder times.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Update on Obama and Rendition

A few days ago I wrote about an apparent loophole in Obama's executive order dealing with the treatment of suspected terrorists, as it appeared that Obama had left open the possibility of continuing the policy of "extraordinary rendition" used by the Bush Administration. I did note that it was likely that "even if Obama does render prisoners to other countries that he will procure assurances that the prisoners will not be subject to torture."

Today, Obama's CIA director-to-be Leon Panetta confirms this view, stating that while rendition will continue, prisoners will not be delivered to countries for the purpose of conducting secret interrogations possibly involving torture. According to Panetta:
I think renditions where we return individuals to another country where they prosecute them under their laws, I think that is an appropriate use of rendition. Having said that, if we capture a high-value prisoner, I believe we have the right to hold that individual temporarily, to debrief that individual and to make sure that individual is properly incarcerated so we can maintain control over that individual.
Now, if the practice of rendition remain availabe for use, there's nothing necessarily preventing Obama from using it in the way that Bush did. But for now, at least, Panetta's testimony seems to make a clean break from the Bush Administration and close the door on the use of rendition as a back-door to torture.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Thoughts On The First 16 Days: An Open Thread

A good friend and reader asked me to start an open thread on the first 2 and 1/2 weeks of the Obama presidency. Normally, a new president is given 100 days before any kind of judgment is passed, and while 16 days isn't hardly sufficient time to make a serious assessment, I figured "Why not?"

My very early impressions are of someone who doesn't quite understand the burden and responsibilities of being president. Now, maybe noone can possibly anticipate and understand the burden and responsibilities of being president until actually becoming president. But, as I mentioned during the campaign, Candidate Obama was making promises that President Obama would be very unlikely to keep, such as rapidly withdrawing the troops from Iraq. Without doubt, the troops will come home, but they will do so on a schedule much closer to the one drawn up by President Bush in the Status of Forces Agreement than to the one promised by Obama. A prime example of that was Obama's prohibition on lobbyists serving in his administration; a prohibition that was dropped at the first sign of conflict. Obama granted a waiver to his new rule so that William Lynn, a former vice president of and lobbyist for Raytheon, one of the largest defense contractors in DC, could be named Deputy Secretary of Defense. While it is concerning having a lobbyist placed so highly in the DoD, what is more concerning is the fact that Obama was willing to break a campaign promise and newly-installed rule so quickly. This gives me the sense that Obama doesn't quite get the connection between what the president says and what the president does, or the magnitude of each and every word that comes out of his mouth.

Similarly, Obama's retreat from the "Buy America" language contained in the stimulus legislation sends the same message. Obama told the Fox Network that ""I think it would be a mistake ... at a time when worldwide trade is declining for us to start sending a message that somehow we're just looking after ourselves and not concerned with world trade." Wasn't world-wide trade declining when Obama started discussing re-opening NAFTA? And if sending a strong free-trade message is a priority, why did Obama reduce the prioritization given to trade and nominate someone with no experience in trade to be his trade representative? Again, I get the sense that Obama thinks that the things he says don't matter to the degree that they do.

His interview to Al Arabiya televsion pretty much confirms this sense. In it, Obama said that:

My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task.
Do the American people see the Muslim world as their enemy? Do the American people not already realize that the Muslim world is filled with people who want to live better lives? If that's the case, why have the American people expended their blood and treasure to protect and liberate Muslims from tyranny and oppression in places that often had little strategic value to the US, such as Somalia and Kosovo, not to mention in Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq?

And Obama's grasp of history seems to be a bit shaky as well. Were things really better between the US and the Muslim world "20 or 30 years ago"? As Jeff Jacoby writes in today's Boston Globe:

Twenty years ago, American hostages were being tortured by their Hezbollah captors in Beirut and hundreds of grief-stricken families were in mourning for their loved ones, murdered by Libyan terrorists as they flew home for Christmas on Pan Am Flight 103. Thirty years ago, the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, proclaimed America "the Great Satan," and inspired his acolytes to storm the US embassy and hold scores of Americans hostage. Meanwhile, Islamist mobs were destroying US embassies in Pakistan and Libya, and staging anti-American riots in other countries. Radical Islam's hatred of the United States is not a recent phenomenon, it has nothing to do with "respect," and it isn't going to be extinguished by sweet words - not even those of so sweet a speaker as our new president.

I know that US foreign policy towards the Muslim world isn't often conducted solely for the benefit of the Muslim people, and certainly there have been disastrously bad decisions made in the past (the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh comes to mind). And certainly, the US can and should be more critical of Israel and push Israel to make greater concessions in the West Bank to advance whatever is left of the peace process. But to act as if the US has done nothing in recent years to help the Muslim world, to ignore the sacrifices that this country has made for the Muslim world, and to insinuate that the hatred Islam feel for the US is caused by problems of "respect," is beneath the president of the United States. Obama seemed to feel the need to appear humble in this interview, and that's understandable. But, he went too far. As Charles Krauthammer writes, "In these 20 years, this nation has done more for suffering and oppressed Muslims than any nation, Muslim or non-Muslim, anywhere on Earth. Why are we apologizing?"

Again, it's far too early to pass any kind of judgment. It's certainly possible that Obama will grow into the job, and I expect that he will. But these early "returns" confirm my fear that Obama is too inexperienced for this job; that he doesn't understand the difficult choices that come with the most powerful job on the planet; that he believes in himself to such a degree that he is willing to break major campaign promises just days into his administration; and that he doesn't get the gravity with which his words are heard by others. Time will tell if he comes to understand these things.

Feel free to comment on your own impressions on the newborn Obama presidency.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Those In Power, Do

I've written several times recently that the inauguration of Barack Obama would not be likely to produce any major changes in US foreign policy. Indeed, we've already seen evidence of waffling, or at least strategic ambiguity, on the question of torture. But this weekend saw perhaps the most surprising evidence of this.

President Obama has, apparently, decided to allow the CIA to continue the policy of rendition in which suspected terrorists are transfered to other countries so that they may be detained and interrogated beyond the reach and protection of US law. As the Chicago Tribune reports:

The rendition program became a source of embarrassment for the CIA, and a target of international scorn, as details emerged in recent years of botched captures, mistaken identities and allegations that prisoners were turned over to countries where they were tortured.

The European Parliament condemned renditions as an "illegal instrument used by the United States." Prisoners swept up in the program have sued the CIA as well as a subsidiary of Boeing Corp., which is accused of working with the agency on dozens of rendition flights.

But the Obama administration appears to have determined that the rendition program was one component of the Bush administration's war on terrorism that it could not afford to discard.
The decision to maintain the use of rendition was contained in a small provision in the executive order that closed the CIA's secret overseas prisons that read that the order "do[es] not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis." The members of al Qaeda, including many of those being held in Guantanamo, are exceedingly dangerous people who seek to kill as many people as they can. It is completely unsurprising that Obama has realized this, and it equally unsurprising that he has apparently decided that some extraordinary mechanisms need to remain in place to address this threat beyond those of the American criminal justice system.

What is, shocking, however is the apparent acquiesence to Obama's decision by Human Rights Watch, an organization that was at the forefront of the criticism leveled at President Bush for his policies. According to the Chicago Tribune:

"Under limited circumstances, there is a legitimate place" for renditions, said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "What I heard loud and clear from the president's order was that they want to design a system that doesn't result in people being sent to foreign dungeons to be tortured."
As Darren Hutchinson, a law professor at American University, points out, "in an effort to defend the new administration in Washington, Human Rights Watch has apparently modified its position on the issue of rendition, which it previously viewed as inherently abusive and inhumane." Hutchinson goes on to illustrate the degree of this about-face:

Human Rights Watch: Before
Human Rights Watch, a very respected and passionate defender of civil liberty, was one of the most vocal critics of the CIA's rendition program. In fact, Human Rights Watch prepared a comprehensive document that reports incidents of alleged torture of rendered individuals. The report makes the following policy recommendations:
The US government should:

Repudiate the use of rendition to torture as a counterterrorism tactic and permanently discontinue the CIA's rendition program;

Disclose the identities, fate, and current whereabouts of all persons detained by the CIA or rendered to foreign custody by the CIA since 2001, including detainees who were rendered to Jordan;

Repudiate the use of "diplomatic assurances" against torture and ill-treatment as a justification for the transfer of a suspect to a place where he or she is at risk of such abuse;

Make public any audio recordings or videotapes that the CIA possesses of interrogations of detainees rendered by the CIA to foreign custody;

Provide appropriate compensation to all persons arbitrarily detained by the CIA or rendered to foreign custody (emphasis added).
Human Rights Watch rightfully opposed the practice of torture by the Bush administration, but it also demanded the cessation of rendition and that victims of the practice receive compensation.

The organization's recommendations went even farther, however. In order to make sure that the program ended, Human Rights Watch recommended that other countries should:

Refuse to cooperate in secret detention and rendition efforts, and disclose all information about past cooperation in such efforts (emphasis added).

Human Rights Watch: After
Now that the L.A. Times reports that rendition will continue during the Obama administration, Human Rights Watch has apparently altered its position. According to Tom Malinowski, the organization's "Washington advocacy director," the risk of torture and other abuses does not mandate the prophylactic cessation of rendition. Instead (quoting the L.A. Times):
"Under limited circumstances, there is a legitimate place" for renditions, said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "What I heard loud and clear from the president's order was that they want to design a system that doesn't result in people being sent to foreign dungeons to be tortured -- but that designing that system is going to take some time."

Malinowski said he had urged the Obama administration to stipulate that prisoners could be transferred only to countries where they would be guaranteed a public hearing in an official court. "Producing a prisoner before a real court is a key safeguard against torture, abuse and disappearance," Malinowski said (emphasis added).
Human Rights Watch, which has been unsurprisingly silent on this issue so far, most likely is confident that even if Obama does render prisoners to other countries that he will procure assurances that the prisoners will not be subject to torture. But there are no guarantees of that. That is the whole point of rendition: to get the subjects outside the reach of US law. Furthemore, HRW made it clear that its opposition to rendition was not solely based on the potential for torture. Hutchinson is appalled by this "flip-flop," calling Human Rights Watch's action "deplorable."

But just as Obama's action shouldn't be surprising, neither is that of HRW. Given the overt partisan and fawning nature of both the media and the major human rights organizations, as well as the not-so-slightly-creepy cult of personality that has sprung up around Obama, it shouldn't shock anyone that Human Rights Watch would shy away from criticizing the new president on grounds where it once lambasted President Bush.