Category Archives: Foreign Affairs

Foreign policy debate: Candidates line up on big policy points

While it was full of zingers from both sides, the Oct. 22 presidential debate on foreign policy did a good job of clarifying some of the candidates’ positions on foreign policy issues. Here’s the rundown (all debate quotes come from The New York Times’ full transcript of the debate):

  • Candidates perfectly aligned on drone use

Moderator Bob Scheiffer threw in the obligatory question about drone use – it seemed as though he had forgotten to write one and then saw one of the thousands of tweets coming in demanding one after the debate hit the one hour mark, so came up with something off the cuff. Here is the full exchange on drones:

MR. SCHIEFFER: Let me ask you, Governor, because we know President Obama’s position on this, what is — what is your position on the use of drones?

MR. ROMNEY: Well, I believe that we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world. And it’s widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes, and I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology and believe that we should continue to use it to continue to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends.

Let me also note that, as I said earlier, we’re going to have to do more than just going after leaders and — and killing bad guys, important as that is. We’re also going to have to have a far more effective and comprehensive strategy to help move the world away from terror and Islamic extremism.

We haven’t done that yet. We talk a lot about these things, but you look at the — the record. You look at the record of the last four years and say, is Iran closer to a bomb? Yes. Is the Middle East in tumult? Yes. Is — is al-Qaida on the run, on its heels? No. Is — are Israel and the Palestinians closer to — to reaching a peace agreement? No, they haven’t had talks in two years. We have not seen the progress we need to have, and I’m convinced that with strong leadership and an effort to build a strategy based upon helping these nations reject extremism, we can see the kind of peace and prosperity the world demands.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, keep in mind our strategy wasn’t just going after bin Laden. We’ve created partnerships throughout the region to deal with extremism — in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan. And what we’ve also done is engage these governments in the kind of reforms that are actually going to make a difference in people’s lives day to day, to make sure that their government aren’t corrupt, to make sure that they are treating women with the kind of respect and dignity that every nation that succeeds has shown, and to make sure that they’ve got a free market system that works.

So across the board, we are engaging them in building capacity in these countries and we have stood on the side of democracy. One thing I think Americans should be proud of — when Tunisians began to protest, this nation, me, my administration stood with them earlier than just about any other country. In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence there is no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed.

But there are always going to be elements in these countries that potentially threaten the United States.

And we want to shrink those groups and those networks, and we can do that, but we’re always also going to have to maintain vigilance when it comes to terrorist activities. The truth, though, is that al-Qaida is much weaker than it was when I came into office, and they don’t have the same capacities to attack the U.S. homeland and our allies as they did four years ago.

While neither candidate seems to note the irony of seeking to reduce Islamic extremism while simultaneously establishing a canopy of lethal robots over a good chunk of the Middle East, that seems to be the policy America will pursue for the next four years, regardless of the outcome of the next election.

  • Iran’s a threat. We should negotiate.

On Iran, Obama went first. After saying that he would support Israel if they were attacked by Iran, he articulated his administration’s approach:

But to the issue of Iran, as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.

I’ve made that clear when I came into office. We then organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy. Their currency has dropped 80 percent. Their oil production has plunged to the lowest level since they were fighting a war with Iraq 20 years ago. So their economy is in a shambles.

And the reason we did this is because a nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security and it’s threat to Israel’s national security. We cannot afford to have a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region of the world. Iran’s a state sponsor of terrorism, and for them to be able to provide nuclear technology to nonstate actors — that’s unacceptable. And they have said that they want to see Israel wiped off the map.

So the work that we’ve done with respect to sanctions now offers Iran a choice. They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.

Nothing off the table means the possibility of a military solution to the Iranian problem.

Now Romney:

Well, first of all, I — I want to underscore the — the same point the president made, which is that if I’m president of the United States, when I’m president of the United States, we will stand with Israel. And — and if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily. That’s number one.

Number two, with regards to — to Iran and the threat of Iran, there’s no question but that a nuclear Iran, a nuclear-capable Iran, is unacceptable to America.

It presents a threat not only to our friends, but ultimately a threat to us to have Iran have nuclear material, nuclear weapons that could be used against us or used to be threatening to us.

It’s also essential for us to understand what our mission is in Iran, and that is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means. And crippling sanctions are something I’d called for five years ago when I was in Israel speaking at the Herzliya Conference. I laid out seven steps.

Crippling sanctions were number one. And they do work. You’re seeing it right now in the economy. It’s absolutely the right thing to do to have crippling sanctions. I’d have put them in place earlier, but it’s good that we have them.

Number two, something I would add today is I would tighten those sanctions. I would say that ships that carry Iranian oil can’t come into our ports. I imagine the EU would agree with us as well. Not only ships couldn’t, I’d say companies that are moving their oil can’t, people who are trading in their oil can’t. I would tighten those sanctions further.

Secondly, I’d take on diplomatic isolation efforts. I’d make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it. I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world, the same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.

We need to increase pressure time and time again on Iran because anything other than a — a — a solution to this which says — which stops this nuclear folly of theirs is unacceptable to America. And of course, a military action is the last resort. It is something one would only, only consider if all of the other avenues had been — had been tried to their full extent.

Both candidates want to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons through peaceful means, but both are willing to follow their diplomacy with military force if necessary.

Can a U.S. President indict a foreign leader under the Genocide Convention, as Romney said, for what might be considered – in the U.S. – free speech? Politico’s Byron Tau looked into it.

In essence, Ahmadinejad’s comments would likely be protected by the first amendment if prosecuted in the U.S. Romney, however, said that he would have the Iranian leader indicted under an international, United Nations convention. That being the case, such a trial would likely occur in international courts which are generally less protective of free speech.

“That said, some of the calls for genocide of the Jewish people, and wiping Israel off the map may be actionable, as true threats.  It is doubtful that this would be prosecuted in the U.S., but international courts may view the rhetoric differently,” he [First Amendment attorney Lawrence Walters] said.

If the candidates have a difference on Iran, it is that Romney’s approach to diplomacy is slightly more hard-nosed. Both candidates have pledged military action, if necessary, to prevent Iran from building a nuclear arsenal.

  • Syria solution: Hold a meeting

Both candidates have strongly condemned the violence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, but neither is willing to devote military troops to removing the dictator from power.

Here’s Obama:

What we’ve done is organize the international community, saying Assad has to go. We’ve mobilized sanctions against that government. We have made sure that they are isolated. We have provided humanitarian assistance, and we are helping the opposition organize, and we’re particularly interested in making sure that we’re mobilizing the moderate forces inside of Syria. But ultimately, Syrians are going to have to determine their own future.

Romney goes out of his way with his answer to talk about the tragic results of the Syrian conflict so far and then mention the strategic importance, especially relating to Iran, of Syria in the overall picture of the Middle East. Then he agrees with Obama: No military action.

Well, let’s step back and talk about what’s happening in Syria and how important it is. First of all, 30,000 people being killed by their government is a humanitarian disaster.

Secondly, Syria’s an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now. Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea. It’s the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us. Number two, seeing a — a replacement government being responsible people is critical for us. And finally, we don’t want to have military involvement there. We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict.

And so the right course for us is working through our partners and with our own resources to identify responsible parties within Syria, organize them, bring them together in a — in a form of — of — if not government, a form of — of council that can take the lead in Syria, and then make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves.

Romney’s premise that Syria is Iran’s only route to the sea was a bit troubling, given a quick look at a map shows that Iran has coastline on two seas, and does not border Syria.

  • Romney likes democracy, just not the leaders it brings

Romney had a strong opening, summarizing what he likes in the Middle East and highlighting Iran as his big talking point for the evening. He also took a swipe at Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

With the Arab Spring came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women and — and public life and in economic life in the Middle East. But instead we’ve seen in nation after nation a number of disturbing events. Of course, we see in Syria 30,000 civilians having been killed by the military there. We see in — in — in Libya an attack apparently by — well, I think we know now by terrorists of some kind against — against our people there, four people dead. Our hearts and minds go to them. Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali, by al-Qaida-type individuals. We have in — in Egypt a Muslim Brotherhood president.

Later, Romney:

So across the board, we are engaging them in building capacity in these countries and we have stood on the side of democracy. One thing I think Americans should be proud of — when Tunisians began to protest, this nation, me, my administration stood with them earlier than just about any other country. In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence there is no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed.

So Romney has, in less than an hour, listed the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership in Egypt as a “disturbing event,” despite the fact that Morsy was democratically elected, which Romney thinks “Americans should be proud of.”

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Three questions a sensible opponent would raise about Obama’s foreign policy

As President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are getting ready to debate on foreign policy. I suspect far too much time will be spent on both sides bickering over whether or not Obama’s policy was too wussy in Libya and whether the White House was trying to pull the wool over America’s eyes about intelligence suggesting the consulate attacks were caused by an organized effort or a spontaneous mob.

However, a sensible opponent to Obama and his policies abroad might touch on another, broader, set of issues. To name a few…

Among progressives and civil-liberties voters, Obama’s initial decision to shelve the Guantanamo issue represented a betrayal of the highest order. Dreaming publicly now about closing Gitmo after he didn’t take the opportunity to do so in the first two years of his term — when Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress — rips open an old wound that only depresses base enthusiasm rather than energize it.

Neither is it clear that the proposal will get much traction in the broader electorate. Americans supportkeeping the prison open for business at a rate of 70 percent.

What other foreign policy issues would you like to see Obama give answers on? Let us know in the comments.

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Protests erupt in Russia


In Russia, unrest sparked by a recent election thought by many to be rigged has led to massive protests, in which thousands of Russian citizens have assembled against the nation’s leadership.

A human rights group set up by the Russian president, meanwhile, has called for snap elections.

The Kremlin’s rights panel also called for the resignation of the election chief on Saturday in a statement about what it called “discredited” polls that have sparked mass demonstrations.

Recommendations by the panel – which advises Medvedev on rights and social issues – are not binding but will add to pressure on the authorities for radical changes in the wake of the polls.

It said that there was “mass distrust of the poll results” which showed significantly diminished support for Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, but still gave it a majority in parliament.

The Kremlin panel added that new election laws should be put in place “with the aim of then calling snap elections” to replace the current parliament that met for its first session on Wednesday.

“Numerous reports of ballot stuffing, re-writing of protocols of ballot results, an unjustified removal of observers and journalists [from polling stations], a ban on photography and video recording and other violations of electoral rights as well as inexplicable paradoxes of electoral statistics lead to mass distrust of the poll results,” the panel’s statement said.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the fall of the Soviet Union, is among the thousands calling for the resignation of President Vladimir Putin.

“I’m happy that I have lived to see the people waking up. This raises big hopes,” the 80-year-old Gorbachev said on Ekho Moskvy radio.

He urged Putin to follow his example and give up power peacefully, saying Putin would be remembered for the positive things he did if he stepped down now. The former Soviet leader, who has grown increasingly critical of Putin, has little influence in Russia today.

Photo: In Brussels today, a group showed solidarity with the Russian protestors, holding up signs calling for fair elections. Creative Commons/Flickr user Max Mayorov

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China, South Korea at odds over Yellow Sea stabbing

A Chinese fishing captain stabbed and killed a South Korean coast guard officer this week when the officer boarded his vessel to arrest him for fishing in South Korean waters. Another officer was stabbed as well.

This week, the crisis came when a Chinese fisherman stabbed two South Korean coast guard commandos when they tried to arrest the fishermen for operating illegally in Korean waters. Officials say the fisherman denies having stabbed anyone.

South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper noted that this was the second murder of a South Korean sailor by Chinese fishermen over illegal fishing in the South China Sea in three years. The first drowned after an attack in 2008.

Chosun Ilbo went on say that the only way to deterfurther violence was “strong reprisals.”

Adding violence to the already-tense international relationship would not help things, but it could help protect Koreans. Neither of these incidents have directly involved the Chinese government, but they certainly illustrate an attitude of hostility between China and South Korea.

With strong U.S. backing, the small nation of South Korea poses a significant threat to China, as any engagement could draw action from the Pentagon and possibly Japan. And as we learned in 1914, it only takes one violent death to start a very, very large war. Let’s hope for the sake of the region that those Chinese fishing captains can limit their knife use to the fish.

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American supply routes to Afghanistan causing political weakness


As its relationship deteriorates with Pakistan, the U.S. has been forced to get creative in resupplying its troops in Afghanistan. Now the government must pay a higher cost — either diplomatic or monetary (the choice is with the Pentagon) — to keep troops fed.

The Diplomat explains:

The U.S. and NATO, having already anticipated problems with Pakistan, had been building up another set of overland supply routes from Europe through the former Soviet Union to Afghanistan, known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). By the time of the Pakistan cutoff, a bit more than a third of NATO cargo to Afghanistan went in via the northern route, slightly more than via Pakistan. The remainder goes in by air, which avoids any geopolitical complications but is far more expensive.

It’s not known how long Pakistan will keep the supply routes closed, but after an incident last year in which the U.S. killed three Pakistani soldiers, Pakistan shut off the border for ten days. U.S. officials say that with the NDN, and with large amounts of goods stockpiled in Afghanistan, they don’t anticipate any shortages as a result. Still, recent events have shown that the United States’ partners on the northern route may now try to take advantage of its increased dependence on them.

Uzbekistan has been a key partner on the NDN and an estimated 98 percent of overland traffic from the north to Afghanistan passes through the southern Uzbekistan border city of Termez. As a result, and despite the unseemliness of cooperating with one of the most brutal and repressive governments in the world, the United States has been strengthening its ties with Tashkent. Washington recently changed its policy which forbade sales of military equipment to the country because of its miserable human rights record. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to Tashkent in October, said there had been “progress” on human rights and democracy in the country, prompting critics to claim that Washington was selling out its principles for the sake of access for its military.

The U.S. is now forced to rely on countries fundamentally opposed to American ideals. Uzbekistan has something of a human rights crisis, condemned just today by Human Rights Watch for torture and a corrupt justice system, among other things. Human Rights Watch said the U.S. has failed to address the former Soviet state’s failures for need of access.

“Driven by a short-term interest in Uzbekistan’s strategic importance … the U.S. and the (European Union) have failed to respond to Uzbekistan’s deepening human rights crisis,” HRW said in its report.

The U.S. could be using more air transport or alternate routes instead, but in the interest of keeping costs down, has opted to use more politically precarious routes. The Diplomat explains the options:

By the time of the Pakistan cutoff, a bit more than a third of NATO cargo to Afghanistan went in via the northern route, slightly more than via Pakistan. The remainder goes in by air, which avoids any geopolitical complications but is far more expensive.

Russia isn’t as essential a link as Uzbekistan – the coalition can bypass Russia by transiting through the Caucasus, across the Caspian Sea into Kazakhstan and then Uzbekistan. But the Russian route is nevertheless easier and cheaper.

The added money would have a political cost back home, and taxpayers likely would rather not pay to airmail chemically preserved meatcakes to the troops. Americans would almost always rather read about atrocities in the paper than pay extra taxes to keep money out of the hands of those who commit them.

The bottom line is that without Pakistan as a suplly route, and even with it, Washington’s political power, foreign and domestic, will suffer. With taxpayer money flowing to the oppressive regimes they publically condemn and a very sensitive polticial string in the hands of a country on the other side of a nuclear missile shield only so America can continue to send its young men to attempt (in vain, some say) to stabilize the Graveyard of Empires, this can not end well.

Photo/Creative Commons/Defence Images

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Bridging the gap: U.S. opens ‘virtual embassy’ in Iran

Yesterday, the U.S. State Department launched a new website which will serve as a “virtual embassy” to Iran without creating any official diplomatic ties with the government, AFP reports. Because of high tensions between Iran and the west (the U.K. kicked out Iran’s diplomats last week), this move is bolder now than it would have been when the plan was announced in October.

The State Department’s goal with the new website is to skip the middleman; the Iranian government is seen as oppressive by western nations and is not receptive to U.S. influence, but the people might be. The site is intended for the citizens of Iran, not its government.

“Because the United States and Iran do not have diplomatic relations, we have missed some important opportunities for dialogue with you, the citizens of Iran,” [Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] said in a video message.

“But today, we can use new technologies to bridge that gap and promote greater understanding between our two countries, and the peoples of each country, which is why we established this virtual embassy,” she said.

This isn’t the first virtual embassy on the internet. In 2005, Maldives opened a virtual embassy on Second Life, a wildly popular online life simulator where users could live through digital avatars. The Maldeves embassy wasn’t in place to bypass official relations, however. It was targeted at Second Life users in general, not those of a specific real-world nation.

The American site, designed to be resistant to cyber attacks (presumably from the Iranian government) is too young to have generated success or failure. It seems to be put together well and achieve its target of being America’s hand in Iran, assuming Iranians can access it. Despite Clinton closing out her video message with “I look forward to hearing from you,” the site lacks interactivity features, so it’s unclear if she hopes to hear from citizens via Facebook and Twitter or to just call her up at the office. Otherwise, it seems to have a wealth of information that anyone in Iran (Iranian or otherwise) might want to learn from America.


Critics say U.S. spy tech aids oppressive regimes abroad


The multi-billion dollar electronic surveillance industry, which has grown roots in California and around the U.S., has certainly aided the war on terror, but is it aiding oppressive regimes such as the Chinese and Syrian governments? The Washington Post says signs point to yes. And government regulations aren’t keeping up.

After receiving from WikiLeaks sales brochures from companies that create both hardware and software to aid digital surveillance, the Post looked into the issue. The tools can scan network traffic via WiFi, cpy on users’ computers after being installed as a fradulent iTunes update, and more. 

Northern Virginia technology entrepreneur Jerry Lucas hosted his first trade show for makers of surveillance gear at the McLean Hilton in May 2002. Thirty-five people attended.

Nine years later, Lucas holds five events annually around the world, drawing hundreds of vendors and thousands of potential buyers for an industry that he estimates sells $5 billion of the latest tracking, monitoring and eavesdropping technology each year. Along the way, these events have earned an evocative nickname: the Wiretappers’ Ball.

These events, held in multiple countries all over the world (the U.S. included) are invite-only and provide an opportunity for governments, local law enforcement agencies, and intelligence agencies to meet with vendors.

Lucas says the technology does a great deal of good

This technology is absolutely vital for civilization,” said Lucas, president of TeleStrategies, which hosts the events, officially called Intelligent Support Systems World Conferences. “You can’t have a situation where bad guys can communicate and you bar interception.

Critics say the technology does a great deal of harm as well, allowing governments to abuse the technology’s far-reaching powers to meet goals of opressing free speech, censoring the internet, and crushing rebellion.

The WikiLeaks documents, which the group also provided to several European news organizations and one in India, do not reveal the names of buyers. But when Arab Spring revolutionaries took control of state security agencies in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, they found that Western surveillance technology had been used to monitor political activists.

There are official sanctions against oppressive countries which prevent trading of arms and other tools of oppression, but this fast-growing industry has not been closely tracked by lawmakers, allowing it to outgrow these regulations. Some legislaters are bringing this issue to attention, but it has largely failed to gain traction.

As a nation that publicly supports peaceful uprisings in the Middle East and decries China’s oppression of its people, the U.S. is in no position to be the origin of these regime’s tools.

Photo/Creative Commons/ Flickr user wickedboy_007


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China shows off sub-killing plane, but for whom?

David Axe reports that China appears to be testing a new plane designed for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). The plane is equipped with various scanners for the detection of underwater vessels as well as a bomb bay.

As the U.S. bolsters its troop presence in the Pacific, these planes could be seen as China’s answer, a statement that the area will not be ceded easily. Axe explains why this probably isn’t the case. Mainly: the planes are still a generation behind similar Japanese and American planes, and thus aren’t a match against American nuclear subs (SSNs).

“Since this [the Y-8] is only a second generation ASW aircraft, it’s probably a generation behind P-8 Poseidon in terms of the platform and sensors,” notes “Feng,” a blogger from the highly-regarded websiteInformation Dissemination.

For that reason, it’s likely the Y-8 patroller is meant to track the less-sophisticated submarines belonging to countries such as Vietnam and Taiwan – and only when they’re close to shore where other Chinese forces can help.

“China has very limited ASW capabilities and appears not to be making major investments to improve them,” explains Owen Cote, Jr., an analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The ASW capabilities it does have appear focused on coastal defense, and on the threat posed by the diesel submarines of potential regional adversaries as opposed to American SSNs.”

Whether China will continue to develop its military tech in the open remains to be seen (or not). This could be the first of many of these quasi-public shows of new, increasingly advanced maritime warefare technology. Only time will tell.

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EU rules privacy more important than piracy


The European Union Court of Justice today ruled that they see citizen’s privacy rights as a higher priority than copyright laws. The case came to the court when Sabam, a Belgian copyright advocacy group, challenged that internet service providers (ISPs) should be responsible for blocking illegal internet traffic from their users, claiming that use of peer to peer software was responsible for piracy.

Belgian ISP Belgacom appealed the case to the Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court, on the grounds that detecting such traffic would be a violation of users’ privacy.

Bloomberg Businessweek has coverage of the case:

Belgacom, the largest telephone company in Belgium, won antitrust approval to acquire Scarlet in 2008. Scarlet is appealing a June 2007 Belgian court order to “make it impossible” for users to violate copyright laws, saying it would entail breaching customers’ privacy rights.

As the United States pursues anti-piracy laws such as the Stop Online Piracy Act and now the Protect IP Act, the european case may provide some guidance — and some anecdotal ammunition — for advocates against the legislation.

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Putin booed, or was it just the line for the bathroom?

Vladimir Putin took some hits in the ring this weekend. It was his ego, not his face, that came out brusied.

After Russian fighter Fedor Emelianenko beat out American Jeff Monson in a mixed martial arts (MMA) fight, Putin took to the ring to congratulate his fellow Russian. The prime minister is himself a blackbelt martial artist, but that didn’t win him any popularity from the crowd.

On a YouTube video of the media broadcast, boos can be heard over Putin’s short speech.

Some of his supporters denied the booing, the guardian reports:

Kristina Potupchik, a spokeswoman for the Kremlin youth group Nashi, was the first to provide an alternative scenario.

“People, have you gone completely mad?” Potupchik asked. “I was at Olimpisky tonight, people were screaming and whistling from happiness.”

Potupchik went on to say that if there was booing, it had nothing to do with Putin.

She wrote that the shouts and whistles “were most likely linked with the stupid organisation of entry and exit into Olimpisky”, adding: “Some of the 22,000, their bladders filled with beer, started to protest against their inability to empty them. Yes, that happens. You should go to the toilet beforehand, gentlemen.”

Having never been to an MMA fight, I can’t comment on the usual wait times for the facilities, but based on the noise, that must have been an awfully long line.



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