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Terrorism in Boston

By Frank Ascaso and Jane Powers

Originally posted on

There’s not much we can say about the bombing of the Boston Marathon. There are, however, a number of lessons we can draw from the responses to the attack. Like the violence itself, none of them is pretty.


President Obama in his initial response neglected to call the bombing terrorism. This was not an oversight on his part, and a day later pressure from the right forced the President to express that yes, the Boston attack was an act of terror.

Obama’s goal in not using “terror” as a descriptor was that he wanted to prevent people from jumping “to conclusions before we have all the facts.” With the historic precedent of targeting Muslims and south Asians in the wake of 9/11, it seems clear that Obama was trying to prevent a racist backlash against innocent people. Given the treatment of the one Saudi national present, also a victim of the bombing, the attempt to calm racist knee-jerk reactions is reasonable.

Laudable though his goal was, implicit in Obama’s use of the term is that terrorism can only be committed by Muslim people. Based solely on the facts, the Boston bombing, an act of political violence directed against innocent people, is terrorism. Yet in the language of Washington, terrorism has such a warped meaning that it can’t even be identified unless we know it was a Muslim person who did it.

The trouble with defining terrorism was replayed the following day, when White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked point-blank whether a US drone strike that killed 11 children a few days earlier is “a form of terrorism.” The rambling and incoherent response from Carney, his struggle to find the definition of terror and defend US actions, is a pristine example of Orwell’s notion of “doublethink” in action. For Obama, Carney and the Washington establishment, terror is only something they – the Muslims, radicals, our enemies – do to us. When the events of history and reality unfold before their eyes, those in power struggle to incorporate them into their Orwellian framework, stumbling as they do, with facts as plain as the nose on their face.

Worsening Situation for Civil Liberties

The terror attacks in Boston are horrible on their own. The large number of victims, the child who has been killed, make one’s heart sink. But the reaction in the US will only make things worse.

The level of state surveillance, already violating longstanding principles and legally protected rights, will get much worse. The New York Times has reported that law enforcement is extensively using social media to investigate the attack. And the focus of the political discourse coming from Washington is already shifting to greater powers for the security state. Just at a moment when social justice values and agendas, as they relate to Guantanamo, drones and other issues were beginning to favor a socially progressive opening, these small victories will be rolled back as the discourse of security will gain new salience.

Additionally, minorities and political activists of all types can expect more profiling and harassment from police agencies. This is certainly true for Muslims in the US but also for social justice organizers, especially those with radical ideas – socialists, anarchists and others.

Double Standard

But there’s a bigger lesson for us from the attacks. The popular reaction to the terrorist attack in Boston is, in many ways, heart-warming. Virtually the entire US political establishment has mobilized in some way to condemn this wanton act of violence. Nearly every newspaper in the nation dedicated its front page to this story and even sports channels interrupted their normal broadcasting to cover the developments. Most encouraging of all, however, has been the response of average Americans, who have reacted with sadness, moral outrage, and cross-country solidarity. To an outside observer, the US might appear as an exceptionally civilized and moral country; one that is able to disregard political, religious and cultural differences and unite in its opposition to violence and support for the value of human lives.

Unfortunately, such an observer will immediately be disappointed when she realizes the deafening silence within the US regarding its own terrorism. How can we understand the discrepancy between the public reaction to the murder of three Americans with the nonexistent reaction to the murder of countless Iraqis, Afghanis, Pakistanis?

In 2006, epidemiologists from the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health found that from 2003 to 2006, 654,965 Iraqis had been killed as a result of the US-led war. Other sources put the figure above one million. Not only did the US murder Iraqis but we also poisoned them. The depleted uranium in US bullets coated Iraq with a thin layer of low-level radioactive dust that will sicken Iraqis for years. The University of Michigan’s department of obstetrics and gynecology studied 56 families in Fallujah between 2007 and 2010 and found that over half of babies born had birth defects, e.g., missing limbs, heart defects, brain defects and so on. Prior to 2000, the birth defect rate was under 2 percent.

Unfortunately, the Iraq war is not an exception. US global terrorism predates 2003 and continues today with Obama’s illegal drone war that has left thousands dead. Last year’s important NYU/Stanford report entitled “Living Under Drones” exposed this murderous policy. The ominous prospect of death by drone “terrorizes men, women, and children” in Pakistan, the report says. The study details the use of “secondary strikes” or “double taps” – drone attacks on rescuers that come to aid the original drone victim. The US has even targeted funeral processions of drone victims, discouraging family members from attending.

US global terrorism can continue only because of the silence of average Americans – the same people who now mourn the violence in Boston. If we are to take morals seriously, we should not only mourn the victims in Boston but we should appreciate the amount of blood that’s on our hands as taxpayers and complacent observers of years of state-sanctioned murder. And crucially, we should do something about it.


Regime Change in Syria

By Jane Powers

Originally posted on

For well over a year, the US has pursued a policy of regime change in Syria. This policy is rooted in Washington’s broader regional interest: maintaining obedient client states and eliminating states that challenge US hegemony. More specifically, the US is interested in breaking the “Iranian sphere of influence” in which Syria is key. In pursuit of regime change, the US has been supporting the rebels. This support includes hundreds of millions of dollars in aid; the facilitation of arms transfers to the rebels; the training of rebels in Jordan; and the provision of actionable intelligence to select rebel factions.

This policy is opposed to one that would seek to mitigate the violence. Opposed, because the US-funded rebels, like the Assad regime, have committed serious war crimes and human rights violations (and owe much of their gains to Jihadist factions). Therefore, the US’ policy, which includes support for the Syrian rebels, is a policy that promotes war crimes and human rights violations.

An intervention in Syria, whatever form it might take, will simply mark an escalation of tactics in a pre-existing policy. And it doesn’t take a degree in international relations to understand that increased support for war criminals will only increase violence.

Unfortunately, it looks as if the Obama administration is pushing for some sort of intervention. In order to sell this intervention, Obama has used the chemical weapons “red line” as a pretext. As with any intervention, a pretext is necessary, as the American public would immediately reject the administration’s real hegemonic aspirations.

This pretext can be easily exposed as a load of junk by examining Washington’s own record with chemical weapons and support for chemical weapon’s users. For ten years during the Vietnam War, the US dumped millions of gallons of Agent Orange on Vietnam. Agent Orange is a herbicide containing the carcinogen dioxide, and was meant to rout out the Viet Cong. In reality, Agent Orange poisoned an estimated 3 million Vietnamese and caused hundreds of thousands of birth defects, destroying much of the land. A legacy that continues to this day.

The mass poisoning of Vietnamese (and US veterans) seemed to sit well with the United States as it continued to support indiscriminate chemical weapons use through the 80s in its support for then close ally Saddam Hussein. As early as 1984, the US State Department publicly acknowledged that Iraq had been using chemical weapons in its war against Iran.  That same year, however, the CIA began to provide Iraq with intelligence that was used to target Iranian troops for mustard gas attacks. The US would provide Iraq with billions of dollars in aid and exports that included helicopters (used for chemical attacks) and chemical and biological agents (including anthrax). Saddam killed thousands of Iranians and Kurds with chemical weapons during the 80s, all with US support.

The US’ support for chemical warfare continued through the last decade. Under Plan Colombia (1999), the US has provided billions of dollars in mostly military aid as a part of Colombia’s longstanding counter-insurgency war against its own population (officially called a “war on drugs”).  A central tactic of the government has been its aerial fumigation campaign, officially designed to eradicate coca crops with herbicides. The consequences of dumping chemicals from planes on 3 million acres of rural Colombia are highly predictable, and therefore can’t be labeled ‘unintended:’ over 10,000 farmers have reported food crop destruction, thousands have complained of sickness, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced; again, all with enormous US support.

Washington continued its embrace of chemical warfare in its war against Iraq. The US used white phosphorus; it also developed and used a new version of napalm; the depleted uranium packed in US bullets coated Iraq with a thin layer of low-level radioactive dust. The depleted uranium now appears to be the most insidious: The University of Michigan’s department of obstetrics and gynecology studied 56 families in Fallujah between 2007 and 2010 and found that over half of babies born had birth defects, i.e., missing limbs, heart defects, brain defects and so on. Prior to 2000, the birth defect rate was under 2 percent.

Besides the inherent double standard packed into Washington’s condemnation of chemical warfare, the “redline” pretext still doesn’t make sense. Why are chemical weapons the exclusive “redline”? It is very arbitrary.  70,000 people have already been killed in the civil war by conventional weapons (a death toll far greater than a single incident of chemical weapons is likely to cause). Why not mark guns and missiles as a “redline?”

All this raises serious questions. Is the US really interested in an intervention? If so, why now? And what kind of intervention? But the unknowns don’t change the fact that the chemical weapons “redline” is a lie; that Washington has been fueling the violence by supporting the warmongering rebels; and that any escalation of tactics (that includes more support for the rebels) will only escalate the violence and is therefore a very bad idea. Those who value human lives won’t tolerate the support of one group of human rights abusers over another.

The NYT’s Trouble with Drones

By Frank Ascaso

predator-drone The New York Times is trying to push the administration on Obama’s illegal drone program.  Their appraisal is that the Obama administration is dragging its feet when it comes to reforming the program.  They want to make sure the drones have a modicum of legal cover, and advocate a judicial review panel similar to the FISA court, the oversight body charged with reviewing the federal government’s use of foreign wiretaps.

The problem, for the Times, is not the morality of the strikes themselves, for the use of drones, in the eyes of Americans, have “become a permanent fixture of national policy.”  Nor is it secretive role of the CIA and the lack of transparency.  They see the division between military strikes and those carried out by the CIA is crucial because, “if American military forces hit Pakistan,” now largely the CIA’s role, “it could be an act of war.” A legal nicety the victims of the strikes, overwhelming civilian, no doubt appreciate.

More significant for the Times is that the program is becoming embarrassing.  “Popular discontent with the drone program,” they write,  “has built slowly,” and the strikes are now “projecting a harmful, violent image of American foreign policy.”  For them, the drones mar the face of US human rights like the scars of Guantanamo, Abu Gharab, and Iraq.  And to solve this “image” problem the Editorial Board is looking for cosmetic solutions.

The Times advocates “some form of judicial review, like the special court that approves wiretaps for intelligence gathering, before it kills American citizens.”  This is a remarkable formulation.  In it is an implicit endorsement of the president’s assassination powers.  As Glenn Greenwald writes it’s hard to get more authoritarian than endorsing the executive’s unilateral and secret power to kill.

Furthermore, seeking a solution in a hidden court is no solution.  The wiretap court is a secretive court, with no public accountability, that has done little to stop illegal wiretaps of US citizens.  In fact, the executive, starting with Bush, has openly flaunted the surveillance court, leaving serious privacy violations on going.  The case is much more serious when dealing with questions of life and death.

The Times formulation of the problem with drones and their possible solution demonstrates the poverty of political discourse in the US. In essence, the journal of record advocates a secretive court for executive military authority that the President has indicated will be used to kill US citizens. Our descent toward political tyranny is marked by this editorial. When the most prestigious, and liberal, mainstream “watchdog” news outlet, marking the consensus thinking of the liberal establishment, argues for secretive courts, executive assassinations, and legal framework for gross immorality, we are in bad shape.  It’s hard to imagine a position to the right, short of Heideggerian fascism, that could be any worse.

Obama’s War at Home: Developing a Police State and Driving the Government Underground

By Jane Powers

Originally posted on

Last week the Washington Post reported on the Justice Department’s unsuccessful attempt at changing the laws so as to make it easier for the government to obtain access to emails of US citizens without a warrant. This report should be unsettling to those that value their relative freedoms. Unfortunately, these types of actions have become highly typical of the Obama administration, and should come as no surprise to informed readers. In fact, the Obama administration has sought to turn the US into a police state, while simultaneously driving the government underground. The following is a review of the most dangerous developments.

First off, any good police state needs prisoners. As of 2011 there were over 2 million people locked in US prisons. This means that although the US only has 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. If you include those on probation or parole, this figure rises to nearly 7 million (1 in 34 US adults). Amazingly, hundreds of thousands of people are in the US correctional system for victimless drug offenses—almost half of all federal prisoners in 2011. The US also holds the title for most prisoners raped. As of 2012, nearly 1 in 10 state prisoners reported an incident of sexual abuse (half of the incidents involved a staff member). Although the Obama administration can not be blamed for creating the world’s worst system of mass incarceration, it has certainly kept it in perfect shape and deserves credit for all the lives ruined by the US prison system since 2008.

Obama has not only continued repressive policies inherited from his predecessors, however. His administration has launched the most formidable assault on civil liberties in US history. This assault has been Obama’s most significant contribution to developing a police state.

In June 2010, Obama’s Justice Department scored a victory with Supreme Court decision Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. This was not a victory for those that value free speech, rather a major blow. Federal law prohibits giving material support to an organization on the US terrorist list. Holder v. Humanitarian Law Projectdecided that material support even includes advice, or speech. This makes it a federal offense to advise an organization that is on the (completely arbitrary) US terrorist list to pursue peace. This decision was followed by numerous FBI raids against peace activists, many of who were subpoenaed to a grand jury.

In December 2011, Obama signed into law a bill that effectively turned the military into a police force. The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included a provision that allows the US military to arrest and indefinitely detain US citizens that it believes have connections to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, all without a trial. Anyone detained can also be rendered to a foreign government. Although Obama publicly expressed his apprehensions with the preventative detention provision, it apparently didn’t bother him too much, as he promptly signed it into law and then went on to defend it in the courts.

The Obama administration has also significantly increased domestic spying. Last fall, the ACLU reported that “federal law enforcement agencies are increasingly monitoring Americans’ electronic communications, and doing so without warrants, sufficient oversight, or meaningful accountability.” Justice Department documents obtained by the ACLU show sharp increases in the use of “pen register” and “trap and trace” surveillance. (Pen registers capture outgoing calls and emails; trap and trace devices, incoming). The report notes that more people were affected by pen register and trap and trace surveillance in 2009-2011 than in the entire previous decade!

The most dangerous police state policy of the Obama administration has been it’s targeting of US citizens for assassination without due process. The most detailed articulation of this policy was leaked in a Justice Department memo early last month. This memo declares it legal for the government to assassinate a US citizen that is associated with al-Qaeda as long as the target represents “an imminent threat” against the US. However, the administration adopted an elastic definition of “imminent” that doesn’t actually require the target to be actively engaged in planning an attack.

In practice, the Obama administration has set a dangerously low precedent for targeting US citizens. In 2011, it targeted and assassinated Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and then weeks later, his son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, both of whom were U.S. citizens. The Obama administration claimed that Anwar al-Awlaki, a known al-Qaeda propagandist, was directly involved in planning terrorist attacks against the US. They provided no evidence to support this claim, however. That wasn’t a problem though, since evidence is unnecessary in an extrajudicial killing. Weeks later, Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was targeted and killed by a US drone while he was attending a picnic. Unlike his father, who was guilty of engaging in free speech, Abdulrahman had no activity in al-Qaeda; but as senior Obama advisor Robert Gibbs explained, Abdulrahman was killed because “he should have had a more responsible father.”

While the Obama administration has been pursuing dangerous police state policies, it has also driven the government underground by operating in total secrecy and punishing those that expose it.

The US government carries out policies such as preventative detention, extra judicial assassinations, and warrantless spying, but it does so in the dark, shielding itself from any scrutiny, and importantly, any judicial oversight. In fact, this has been a hallmark of the Obama administration. In 2012, the NY Times and the ACLU sued the Obama administration for refusing to reveal its legal justification for its targeted killings program. The Obama administration argued that it couldn’t disclose such details, as it would jeopardize national security. In early January 2013, a New York federal judge decided in favor of secrecy. Even the judge commented on the ridiculousness of her decision and the administration’s reasoning: “I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”

Again, a month later in February, the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 vote that US citizens could not challenge the Obama administration’s warrantless surveillance program. Why? Since the surveillance program is a government secret, individual citizens could not prove that they were personally been targeted, therefore they didn’t have “standing” to challenge the program.

The Obama administration is also increasingly citing national security as a reason forrejecting FOIA requests. “The government’s responsiveness under the FOIA is widely viewed as a barometer of the federal offices’ transparency,” the Associated Press reported. In 2012 “the government cited national security to withhold information at least 5,223 times — a jump over 4,243 such cases in 2011 and 3,805 cases in Obama’s first year in office. The secretive CIA last year became even more secretive: Nearly 60 percent of 3,586 requests for files were withheld or censored for that reason last year, compared with 49 percent a year earlier.”

In fact, US tax payers pay an enormous amount to keep their government as secret as it is. Last summer, the NY Times reported that in 2011, the government spent over $11 billion to protect state secrets. This is double the amount spent in 2001 by the Bush administration. “The costs include investigations of people applying for security clearances, equipment like safes and special computer gear, training for government personnel, and salaries for officials who review documents for classification and declassification.”

While US citizens fund their government’s repression and secrecy, they are expected to be submissive and quiet. If one is to be bold enough to expose the government by leaking anything deemed secret, they can expect the Obama administration to retaliate with unusual ferocity. They will be made an example of for others that might dare to do the same. Such an example is being made of whistleblower Bradley Manning.

Bradley Manning was a US army intelligence analyst in 2010 when he was arrested for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks. Included in the leak was a video of an American helicopter firing on innocent civilians in Baghdad (including journalists and children). This video certainly depicted war crimes. However, Manning did not receive praise for exposing injustice. Now 25, Manning has been locked in prison for two and a half years in torturous conditions that include “no contact with other people, being kept in his cell for more than 23 hours a day, being checked every five minutes, sleeping on a suicide mattress with no bedding, having his prescription glasses taken away, lights kept on at night, having toilet paper removed.” Currently, Bradley Manning is facing charges of “aiding the enemy” which could carry a life sentence.

Although Manning has received the worst treatment, many other whistleblowers have faced unusual state repression under the Obama administration. For example in the last few years six whistle blowers have been indicted under the anachronistic 1917 Espionage Act, which was passed in WWI to persecute dissenters as part of the first Red Scare. Prior to Obama, the Espionage Act was only used three times to prosecute whistleblowers. As the New York Times’ David Carr reported: “The Obama administration, which promised during its transition to power that it would enhance ‘whistle-blower laws to protect federal workers,’ has been more prone than any administration in history in trying to silence and prosecute federal workers.”

The Obama administration’s effort to institute a police state and drive the government underground might leave one a bit confused. What’s changed? Why did state planners all of the sudden decide it was time to increase domestic repression?

These trends make sense when one properly understands the function of states. States seek power and privilege for elites. These are a state’s “interests.” In order to pursue its interests, a state needs to control its domestic population. The more control, the better. The War on Terror created an environment of fear and jingoism that allowed state planners not only to increase repression abroad, but also at home. Obama is acting as any rational state planner would by taking advantage of opportunities to pursue power. We should not be surprised.

Morality and US Grand Strategy

By Jane Powers

Originally posted on


In recent months, a number of essays have been written by some of the most prominent scholars in international relations, all on the same topic: US grand strategy. The question that these scholars have sought to address is whether the US should adopt a more restrained strategy, avoiding intervention and counterinsurgency programs, and downsizing its military, or whether the US should continue to assert itself in every region of the globe, maintaining its huge military and sprawling network of bases, and its chronic habit of intervention.

Two essays appear on this topic in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs. The first piece, written by MIT professor Barry Posen, is called “Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy.” The second piece, written by Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth, is called “Lean Forward: In Defense of American Engagement.”

These two pieces are very important, as they define the parameters of acceptable opinion within the US political establishment. Therefore, these two essays expose much of what is wrong with established political thought and its underlying assumptions. These flaws can be uncovered just by examining Posen’s piece, which represents the dovish end of the spectrum.

Posen’s main argument is that the US’ post-Cold War strategy, which he calls “liberal hegemony,” has become counterproductive and unsustainable. Posen writes:

It makes enemies almost as fast as it slays them, discourages allies from paying for their own defense, and convinces powerful states to band together and oppose Washington’s plans, further raising the costs of carrying out its foreign policy…. the Pentagon has come to depend on continuous infusions of cash simply to retain its current force structure – levels of spending that the Great Recession and the United States’ ballooning debt have rendered unsustainable.

Instead, Posen proposes the US adopt a more restrained strategy: “Washington should not retreat into isolationism but refocus its efforts on its three biggest security challenges: preventing a powerful rival from upending the global balance of power, fighting terrorists, and limiting nuclear proliferation.”

So what would a “restrained,” strategy that still seeks to prevent a “powerful rival from upending the global balance of power” look like? Unfortunately, it would look very similar to the strategy we have now. Posen makes it clear that the difference in a restrained strategy would be primarily quantitative, not qualitative.

The US would still have a military presence that extends around the globe:

Because the Pentagon would, under this new strategy, swear off counterinsurgency, it could cut the number of ground forces in half. The navy and the air force, meanwhile, should be cut by only a quarter to a third, since their assets take a long time to produce and would still be needed for any effort to maintain the global balance of power. Naval and air forces are also well suited to solving the security problems of Asia and the Persian Gulf.

China would still need some level of containment:

Given concerns about China’s rising power, not all U.S. forces should leave the region…The U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force should keep the bulk of their forces stationed in and around Japan in place, but with appropriate reductions. Elsewhere in Asia, the U.S. military can cooperate with other states to ensure access to the region should future crisis arise, but it should not seek new permanent bases.

Also, the US would still need to keep order in the Middle East: “Washington still needs to reassure those governments that fear that a regional power such as Iran will attack them and hijack their oil wealth, since a single oil-rich hegemon in the region would no doubt be a source of mischief.” Posen goes on to cite the first Gulf War as an example of a military venture that the US would undertake under his restrained strategy.

The problem with Posen’s thinking is shared with the entire US political establishment: morality is not a factor in his arguments. Posen doesn’t have any moral problem with “liberal hegemony” – wars, proxy wars, and authoritarian allies that leave millions of people dead and maimed. Posen’s problem with liberal hegemony is that right now, its too costly, or that it encourages free riding, or that it gives the US a bad reputation. These critiques aren’t principled, as Posen himself points out at the end of his piece: “Perhaps current economic and geopolitical trends will reverse themselves, and the existing strategy will leave Washington comfortably in the driver’s seat, with others eager to live according to its rules.” Posen is living in the world of strategy. He is playing a game of battle ship and he’s decided that his ship’s current strategy is becoming counterproductive. Maybe later on this strategy will be viable, but not now. Ultimately, he still seeks power for his ship.

The problem with Posen’s approach is that, in reality, morals exist. We have to make strategic and moral decisions. Take Posen’s words on the Iraq war, for example:

Officials in the Bush administration convinced themselves that a quick application of overwhelming military power would bring democracy to Iraq, produce a subsequent wave of democratization across the Arab world, marginalize al Qaeda, and secure U.S. influence in the region. Instead, Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds stoked the violence that the United States labored to suppress, and Shiite and Sunni factions fought not only each other but also the U.S. military.

To Posen, the Iraq war was merely a strategic blunder. Good intentions gone awry. The only thing that can be learned from this mistake is in the realm of strategy. Posen fails to consider how many Iraqis were killed, maimed, and poisoned as a result of the war.

Author Barry Sanders summarized death toll figures in his book The Green Zone:

Epidemiologists at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, along with a team of Iraqi physicians conducted a national cross-sectional cluster sample survey of mortality in Iraq in 2006. Their study concluded that the number of ‘excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of war’ had reached 655,000. They published their results in the British Medical Journal ‘The Lancet’ in October 2006. According to the study’s authors, between May 2003 and June 2008, 50 percent of Iraqi children under fifteen years of age were killed by coalition air strikes… And the well-respected British group, Opinion Research Business Survey, calculated the number of civilian deaths, as of October 2006, at a low of 733,158 to a high of 1,446,063.

This was not just a strategic blunder, rather a moral catastrophe of genocidal proportions. To Posen, it was not worth mentioning. Those who take morals seriously would work to eliminate institutions like the Pentagon that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis over the last decade, not just restrain it.

However, it wouldn’t be completely accurate to accuse Posen and the US political establishment of being without morals. Certainly some sort of value judgment is required to advocate for one state over another. What values does the US political establishment have? As demonstrated by Posen’s arguments, these values are assumed, and not stated (and certainly shared by the “Lean Forward” camp): the US should work to maintain the “global balance of power” by policing the world; the US has the right to police the world because it is benevolent; if the US makes a mistake in its police work and kills a million people, it is because it got caught up in its good intentions or made strategic mistake. It is establishment doctrine that prevents establishment thinkers from being morally intelligent.

For those of us who aren’t deluded with establishment doctrine, and value human lives, non-interventionism is the obvious course.


The Asia Pivot and US Motivations

By Jane Powers

Originally posted on

In 2011, the Obama administration formally introduced an offensive strategy designed to contain China’s rise to power, termed the “Asia-Pivot.” In a November 2011 speech to the Australian Parliament, Obama described the Asia-Pacific as a “top priority,” explaining that “as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future…The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.”

As a part of this strategy, the US has made plans to substantially increase its military presence in the Asia Pacific. By 2020, the US is to have 60 percent of its naval forces stationed in the Pacific, up 10 percent from today. In terms of troops, the US already has 320,000 stationed in the Pacific region, and this number is set to increase. By 2016, the US will station 2,500 marines in northern Australia. The US is working to build and strengthen its military relationships with a host of Asian Pacific countries in order to counter China’s influence (more on this below). The US has also taken diplomatic action by siding with China’s neighbors in a number of territorial disputes (China v. Japan, Vietnam, Philippines). This has exacerbated tensions between these countries and worked to destabilize the region.

As the 2012 presidential election showed, there is near consensus within the US political establishment that the Asia Pivot is a wise strategy. There is a debate on the extent to which the US should pursue “balancing” as opposed to “engagement” with China, but there’s general agreement that some level of balancing is a good idea. The question of why China requires balancing at all is rarely posed.

In a speech delivered in Mongolia in July 2012, Secretary of State Clinton gave an answer to this question. Commenting on the US pivot to Asia, Clinton asserted that the “heart of the strategy” is “our support for democracy and human rights.” She explained that “[democracy and human rights] are not only my nation’s most cherished values; they are the birthright of every person born in the world. They are the values that speak to the dignity of every human being.”  The Washington Post noted approvingly that “Although she never mentioned China, Ms. Clinton warned that China’s model of authoritarian capitalism cannot be sustained, and she beckoned other nations to take a different path.”

So the Obama administration claims that the Asia Pivot is ultimately about promoting democracy and human rights, and that China, as an authoritarian country, needs to be challenged. This reasoning sounds good, but unfortunately, it’s not true.

The problem with this reasoning is that it contradicts a key tactic of the Asia Pivot- building and strengthening relationships with authoritarian regimes. A strategy that’s end is to promote democracy and human rights can’t include tactics that promote brutality and authoritarianism, as the Asia Pivot does. A few brief examples:

As part of the Asia Pivot, the US has strengthened its military ties with Vietnam. In late 2010, the US and Vietnam carried out the first joint naval training since the Vietnam War. In 2011, the US and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation. Vietnam is a country where the majority of death sentences are imposed on drug traffickers. Under the law, Vietnamese officials have the power to arrest and detain citizens without a trial. This authority is often used to jail religious and political dissidents. Prisons are filthy and overcrowded. Inmates are often beaten, tortured, and forced to do hard labor.

In recent years, the US has been offering the Philippines military equipment and funding in exchange for greater military access to the country. In late 2012, it was reported that the US is planning on substantially increasing its presence in the Philippines, in terms of troops, aircrafts, and ships. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report on the Philippines faulted the Aquino regime for allowing the security forces to continue extrajudicial killings (“hundreds of leftist activists, journalists, and clergy” killed in the past decade), forced disappearances, and torture.

US Special Forces have been training Cambodia’s military in “counterterrorism” tactics. In recent years, Cambodia has taken part in a series of US-led naval exercises called the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training. In late 2012, President Obama visited a number of South East Asian countries, and attended ASEAS Summit in Cambodia. Amnesty International urged Obama to use his trip as an opportunity to condemn the human rights situation in Cambodia under Prime Minister Hun Sen, former Khmer Rouge commander. Amnesty International cited the land crisis in Cambodia in which thousands have been forcefully evicted to make way for big corporations. Activists against the land crisis (and others) are abused, and often killed, with no recourse in the corrupt government-run courts. Unfortunately, Obama did not take Amnesty International’s advice and kept silent on human rights.

Myanmar has received much praise for its supposed political reforms of the last couple years. Obama joined the choir of praise during his visit to the country last November. Besides appointing a permanent ambassador to Myanmar, the Obama administration has lifted several sanctions against the country and promised more investment. This is clearly part of the Asia Pivot strategy, as human rights conditions still remain atrocious in Myanmar. Human Rights Watch acknowledges some progress in reform, but reports that “hundreds of political prisoners remain, ethnic civil war and inter-ethnic conflict has escalated, and Burmese security forces continue to use forced labor and commit extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.”

Supporting authoritarian countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar, and others will only promote authoritarianism in the Asia Pacific. Therefore, a strategy that includes building relationships with these countries cannot be aimed at supporting “democracy and human rights,” as the Obama administration claims. What then is the real purpose of the Asia Pivot and countering China’s rise?

In an essay in Foreign Affairs entitled “Bucking Beijing,” Princeton Professor, and former Bush administration official Aaron Friedberg presents arguments for increased “balancing” of China. One argument is particularly informative for understanding US motivations in the Asia Pivot. Friedberg writes: “What China’s current leaders ultimately want—regional hegemony—is not something their counterparts in Washington are willing to give. That would run counter to an axiomatic goal of U.S. grand strategy: to prevent the domination of either end of the Eurasian landmass by one or more potentially hostile powers.

Friedberg goes on to explain the dangers of a “potentially hostile” power, such as China, dominating its region: “Within China’s expanding sphere of influence, U.S. firms could find their access to markets, products, and natural resources constricted by trade agreements dictated by Beijing.” (Friedberg also warns about the threat to democracy a dominant China will pose, but this reasoning can be dismissed, as demonstrated above).

It would be a historical anomaly for the US to plan its foreign policy around democracy promotion and human rights, as the US has a long history of supporting authoritarian governments and undermining democracy. It would, however, be highly typical, for the US to use its comparative advantage, its military, to gain access to markets and control over resources. These motives explain why the US is working to counter China’s rise and has therefore pivoted to Asia. And given the “axiomatic” nature of these objectives, the Asia Pivot will continue to be a prominent strategy in the years to come.

Lessons in Liberal Intervention

By Frank Ascaso

Last week the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution allowing military intervention in Mali. The United States, a sponsor of the measure and long supporter of intervention issued a statement justifying action saying that “success in Mali is in our strategic interest, and in the interest of our allies and partners.” Whatever the United States means by success, it is clear that western intervention, even that spearheaded by neighboring African nations, will mean a humanitarian and political crisis in the region.

In the days prior to the passage of the Security Council resolution, Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on the international community to refrain from taking military action for the likely human rights and humanitarian crisis it will cause. While HRW reports “numerous serious abuses” by Mali’s northern rebels, the focus of their report is on Malian government actions. It found that reprisals were being planned against the Tuareg, an ethnic group in the north that created an autonomous zone in a January uprising, and that government allied militias have lists of individuals identified for attack should government or multilateral forces enter the north.

Militias allied to the government and specifically to March coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo are already responsible for heinous crimes that the HRW report details. They note that military detainees, mostly Tuareg and Arab ethnics, “were beaten with batons, sticks, and gun butts; kicked in the back, head, ribs, and genitals; stabbed in their extremities; burned with cigarettes and lighters; and forced at gunpoint to engage in anal sex with one another.” In months of investigation HRW found that security forces:

have been implicated in numerous serious abuses including torture, enforced disappearance, and the intimidation of opposition voices. Outside the capital, the Malian army has arbitrarily detained and executed [individuals] for their alleged connections to rebel groups in the north.

These concerns were reiterated by Amnesty International in a press statement following the passage of the UN resolution. And as far back as November the International Committee of the Red Cross issued similar dire warnings, highlighting that as much as half of the area population, 500,000 people, are reliant on foreign aid that a military intervention would disrupt. Such disruptions could have dramatic consequences, including food shortages. Many in the Timbuktu region fear collective punishment should the government, or multinational forces, reinvade.

The goals of the US and the French, the other major sponsor the resolution, are unclear, but they are undoubtedly not motivated by forcing peace negotiations on Tuareg separatists groups in the North, as is commonly stipulated. Such groups, notably Ansar Dine, the “Taliban in the Sahel,” have agreed to a negotiated peace settlement for months. Since November they’ve had envoys in Algeria and Burkina Faso working on establishing a negotiated settlement, and in the days prior to and just after the UN resolution have reiterated their willingness to negotiate.

That the west is pursuing military intervention in spite of the warnings from the top human rights groups suggests that western intervention is not motivated by humanitarian concerns. This is particularly clear since a diplomatic alternative exists. Why risk disrupting the foreign aid for 500,000 people, when there is potential for a negotiated settlement? This risk will certainly not be taken for the benefit of the people of Mali.

What, then, is motivating western intervention? Africa in general has been an increasing focus of great power interest. Both China and the United States have increased their commercial and military presences there, China by purchasing numerous natural resource production facilities, the US by increasing its military footprint through AfriCom and other measures.

Why Mali, and why now? Since the collapse of the Quadafi regime in Libya many armed militants fled and established new encampments in places like Algeria and Mali. In the northern portion of Mali, long home to separatist Tuareg rebels, this new infusion of arms and trained militants sparked an uprising to create semi-autonomous region. A minority of rebels, but an armed and organized one, are Islamic militants, including groups with ties to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Ansar Dine, “defenders of the faith,” who are frequently posed as the Taliban in West Africa in western media. They have destroyed religious world heritage sites and reportedly are acting to impose Sharia law.

But as demonstrated on this site and elsewhere, rarely does the US act solely to disrupt jihadist movements. Instead a complex web of international power plays are under way. Mali’s single largest trading partner is China, which represents a whopping 31% of Mali trade, twice as much as any other nation. China had been fostering Mali as a major cotton and sugar source, helping to develop sugar refining capabilities there. Most importantly, Mali is a significant gold exporter, a material crucial for the manufacture of electronics and aerospace materials. Over the last decade China has secured commercial relations with some of the region’s biggest powers, including Mali and Libya. The United States and the West have sought to counter these gains through their strongest suit, military power.

Furthermore, Mali’s proximity to major oil exporter Nigeria could also play a significant role in the decision to intervene. Nigeria is the largest US trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa, and supplies a fifth of US oil. Nigeria also faces its own rebels, some Islamist, some ethnically based, others opposed to neo-colonial relationship between Nigeria and the west, who seek greater nationalist and environmental controls for the use of Nigeria’s oil. Having a regional ally, with close proximity to Nigeria, a nation of strategic importance to the US, can’t be far from state planners’ minds.

The situation in Mali is dire, but western intervention of the kind allowed in the UN resolution will only make matters worse. Instead, the warnings of the world’s humanitarian community should be taken seriously. Human Rights Watch’s call to investigate the crimes of the military, honor the rebels’ pleas to engage in a negotiated settlement, and to allow careful monitoring of the situation could spell a way out of an impending humanitarian crisis, one largely precipitated by western intervention.