Monthly Archives: September 2016

Guidelines for a Redeemed US Syria Policy

When Russian warplanes swooped down on a United Nations convoy trying to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians near Aleppo last week, they did not just blow to smithereens 20 innocent people and desperately needed supplies – they also demolished the already-tattered shards of United States policy in Syria.

A few days earlier, American warplanes had, in an obvious error, attacked the ground forces of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. They apparently mistook them for ISIL or Al Qaeda terrorists. And, even though the 60 killed were combatants fighting on the side that has caused the overwhelming amount of death and suffering in the conflict – and therefore arguably merited such an attack – the Americans quickly acknowledged the error and even apologised.

The Russians, by contrast, brazenly deny their cynical and brutal atrocity, although no one believes them.

There is only one word for the American attack: mistake.

There is also only one word for the Russian attack: terrorism.

This isn’t indirect “state-sponsored” terrorism. It is direct state terrorism of a particularly vicious variety. Indeed, it is probably the most heinous act of state terrorism by a major power since the end of the Cold War.

The American response – “urging” Russia and Syria to please stop bombing and murdering civilians – was shameful. In the name of pursuing a ceasefire, and ultimately a peace agreement, in Syria, Washington has now reduced itself to serving as the unwitting dupe of the Kremlin, Mr Al Assad and their key partners, Iran and its terrorist proxy, Hizbollah.

President Barack Obama seems set to be the first two-term US president in many decades not to have suffered a manifest, obvious, major scandal in his second term. But the bizarre surrender of both American interests and values in Syria may ultimately be recalled as his latent second-term scandal.

The incoming president, in all probability Hillary Clinton, will be inheriting the most mishandled major US foreign policy since the Iraq invasion. The Obama administration has allowed the Syrian conflict to get so far beyond American influence, and ceded control so firmly to Russia and its nefarious allies, that fixing the policy meltdown has become infinitely more difficult than avoiding it ever would have been.

US policy in Syria must be urgently rescued from its present crisis. That will be difficult, but a set of clear, simple guidelines can help.

The first principle must be to start actively protecting innocent people in Syria. Russia’s state terrorism – as are daily regime attacks on civilians with weapons ranging from barrel bombs to chlorine gas – is a prime example of what can no longer be tolerated. The United States needs to start flexing its political, diplomatic and even military muscles to ensure that, in at least some places, innocents are no longer murdered with abandon and impunity.

Washington should establish, with partners or even alone, safe zones in Syria free of bombing attacks from above and the pro-Assad ISIL and Al Qaeda killers on the ground. If this means shooting down Syrian, or if necessary, Russian, warplanes, so be it.

No reasonable person could blame Washington for starting to reassert itself in the region by protecting innocent Syrians from such wanton slaughter. Many would applaud.

Second, sustained actions should be taken to alter the balance of power on the ground and disabuse the regime of the notion that it is winning and doesn’t need to compromise. For a political agreement to become viable, those around the dictatorship must understand that they must make a deal in order to survive. Otherwise they will never make any compromises.

Third, to reclaim American credibility, Washington must revive its dormant, but indispensable, former policy that Mr Al Assad – a soft-spoken but monstrous, and in today’s global scene totally unrivalled, war criminal – has no role in Syria’s future and must go.

Mainstream rebel groups urgently need substantial incentives to ally firmly with Washington and decisively turn against Al Qaeda-affiliated organisations. It’s not hard to incentivise those at war. All that’s required is the will, persistence and resources.

Finally, US policy must always reflect and communicate the core understanding that ISIL and Al Qaeda, and the Assad dictatorship, are two faces of the same sectarian total-warfare coin.

The terrorists can’t be defeated, or even successfully marginalised, if efforts to achieve that are perceived as strengthening the dictatorship. Effective Syria policies must undermine both simultaneously, or at least not strengthen either, and must be widely viewed that way.

Because change is constant and events are always moving, especially during war, it’s never too late to act. The next US president must redeem American policy in Syria.

The first step is for Washington to forcefully re-engage by using all reasonable means, including military force if necessary, to begin to end the mass slaughter of innocent Syrian civilians.

The American moral and political capitulation in Syria cannot continue. Enough is now surely enough.

Neither Hero Nor Villain, Snowden Should be Pardoned

After a long, slow evolution of thought, I have reluctantly concluded that former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden should be granted a presidential pardon.

This has nothing to do with Oliver Stone’s movie about him, released this weekend, which I have not seen and know little about. Instead it reflects the complex competing considerations about, and implications of, his actions, as well as a genuine appreciation for the very real downsides of pardoning him.

I don’t naively view Mr Snowden as a hero, and I understand the serious negative consequences of both his own actions and a potential pardon.

His supporters and detractors both tend to paint a simplistic picture in which he is cast as either an icon of liberty or a dangerous traitor. In fact, there are powerful arguments both for and against his public disclosures of official secrets.

When his exposé first became public, I was appalled at the unconstitutional and illegal mass surveillance he revealed. But, I thought, it isn’t, and cannot be, up to any individual to decide when and if the law should be broken and government secrets exposed.

Mr Snowden’s revelations surely had some very negative, as well as some very positive, consequences. They might have helped criminals and terrorists evade surveillance, and they have complicated – or even compromised – legitimate intelligence activities.

It’s hard to be certain, but there was almost certainly a cost, and possibly a hefty one.

Yet Mr Snowden unquestionably exposed excessive and abusive mass surveillance and violations of the privacy of millions.

Moreover, officials routinely lied to the public about the extent of mass surveillance. Just weeks before the Snowden revelations, and as he was overseeing these vast programmes, director of national intelligence James Clapper insisted in congressional testimony that the government was “not wittingly” collecting mass data on private communications.

Court rulings, new legislation and other reforms resulting from Mr Snowden’s revelations – especially regarding the misuse of the Patriot Act and section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which were misinterpreted as authorising mass data collection of private communications – have provided crucial restorations of citizens’ rights.

These vital reforms, not to mention the indispensable debate about mass surveillance, that area direct consequences of his actions strongly suggest that the indisputable public benefits from Mr Snowden’s actions significantly outweigh the probable harm, which is hard to gauge.

Indeed, the far greater breach of public trust was on the part of the US government itself.

But if Mr Snowden is pardoned, could that send the message to any national security official that they are entitled to unilaterally determine what can and should be made public, provided they think the stakes are high enough?

The US government has legitimate secrets, and a pardon might be misconstrued as implying it is acceptable for officials to decide personally to reveal them. It’s therefore crucial that any pardon of him is presented as utterly exceptional.

A Snowden pardon could indeed have a range of negative effects on the culture and atmosphere within the US intelligence community. But that may be part of the price American society must pay for the unacceptable excesses he exposed and helped stop.

It is therefore the government, not Mr Snowden, that must bear primary responsibility for those costs.

The US constitution gives the president the authority to pardon because sometimes circumstances dictate that punishment, even for real criminal offences, is inappropriate, unnecessary, undeserved or not in the public interest.

Despite the probable downsides of both Mr Snowden’s actions and a pardon, this seems almost a textbook example of when such a pardon is appropriate.

His technically illegal actions did overwhelmingly more good than harm to the public interest. Without them, massive and abusive surveillance programmes would probably have continued and might well have intensified.

WikiLeaks, and especially its founder Julian Assange, which are grossly irresponsible and, I would argue, primarily a tool of the Kremlin, really represent the negative caricature of Mr Snowden painted by his detractors.

Yet Mr Snowden isn’t a hero or a martyr either, as his champions frequently suggest. Instead he is a deeply flawed man who seems to have fudged the truth on occasion and who not only broke the law but was, in many ways, reckless.

But the level of official malfeasance he exposed, and the “public service” – as former US attorney general Eric Holder put it – he performed through his revelations were of an infinitely greater magnitude.

It would be bizarre to regard the overall effect of an action as, on balance, invaluable, yet still want the responsible party to be mercilessly punished.

Mr Snowden needn’t be put on a postage stamp. His conduct has involved too many ethical and legal shortcomings for him to be celebrated.

However, given the overall context and consequences of his actions, he doesn’t belong in prison either. The only reasonable outcome now is a presidential pardon for Snowden.

JASTA: A Pandora’s Box for U.S. Defense and Diplomacy

The recent adoption by overwhelming majorities in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) is a grave threat – not only to U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, which is the primary target of the legislation – but also for conducting U.S. foreign policy generally and, potentially, to the effectiveness, safety, and security of U.S. officials around the world. The act, which would lift the customary international convention of sovereign immunity, preventing governments and their officials from being sued in other countries for their official conduct, seeks to allow the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue foreign governments and officials – in this case, those of Saudi Arabia – who some continue to suspect were complicit in those attacks.

There can be no questioning the legitimacy of the demands for justice for the victims of terrorism anywhere in the world. However, the impact of lifting sovereign immunity by the United States on U.S. officials and military officers serving around the world could be extreme. While U.S. courts would soberly deal with the claims of the 9/11 families against foreign governments and their officials for terrorist attacks committed against American citizens on U.S. territory, the floodgates around the world would be opened against the country’s own representatives.

Following a major drone strike, a significant covert operation, or military action that leads to loss of life, even if that is restricted to legitimate combatants and other lawful military targets, U.S. officials deemed responsible could be subjected to endless prosecution and lawsuits.

The convention of sovereign immunity protects the United States, as well as its officials and military officers, as much as it does any other country in the world. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine another country more vulnerable to an endless series of legal challenges, litigation, lawsuits, and prosecution – many frivolous, but some possibly even appropriate under the domestic law that may apply in a given country – than the world’s sole remaining superpower.

It may be practically impossible for parties based overseas to recover financial damages from the U.S. government or its officials based on such lawsuits. However, the thinking behind JASTA, apparently, is that foreign assets in the United States could be seized pursuant to rulings against foreign defendants. There are some states that will not have access to U.S. assets. But there are many that, at least theoretically, might.

Would they dare? Under the current circumstances, surely not. But if the United States set the example, why wouldn’t they? And what would we say if they did? That we may do it, but they cannot?

U.S. President Barack Obama has vowed to veto JASTA as a major threat to the country’s ability to conduct its foreign policy without constantly considering the international legal implications of every action the United States takes, and without every civilian or military official considering his or her own potential legal liabilities before obeying any instructions to take action in the national interest.

White House officials claim that many members of Congress have privately agreed with the president’s concerns about the impact on U.S. defense and diplomacy if the country takes the lead in scrapping the principle of sovereign immunity, and opening the door to prosecutions against the U.S. government and its officials. All Americans should hope this is true, and that wisdom will prevail in the event of any vote to override the expected presidential veto.

However, given the continued emotional resonance of the 9/11 attacks, felt by all with this week’s 15th anniversary, there is a danger that enough members of the House and Senate would vote to override a presidential veto in order to avoid having to explain to their constituents why they “denied justice” to the 9/11 families. The great political problem for JASTA is that justice for the 9/11 families is a simple and easy to understand proposition, and one that is impossible to oppose. But the problem with the law is not merely that it would cause additional strains with a crucial ally in the Middle East on whom we depend in the struggle against terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and al-Qaeda and in curtailing the pernicious influence of Iran and its allies such as Hezbollah, though it certainly would do that.

The biggest problem with JASTA is the potential havoc it probably would wreak on the United States’ ability to conduct its foreign policy without fear that its officials will be hauled before a judge to defend themselves on a regular basis. When considering this legislation, the public, and members of Congress, tend to think and speak merely in terms of providing a guarantee that foreign officials implicated in the death of innocent Americans will be held to account in upright and fair-minded U.S. courts. It’s much harder to get people to imagine all of the prosecutions and lawsuits that await the U.S. government and its representatives the world over if the United States takes the lead in trashing the principle of sovereign immunity that has protected this country, in many ways above all others, for so long.

And the fallout wouldn’t necessarily be restricted to U.S. officials being accused of terrorism regarding intelligence or military activities. Once the principle of sovereign immunity is lifted, governments and their officials are potentially liable for violating allegedly breaking any law another jurisdiction determines has been violated.

There’s a familiar metaphor that sums up what JASTA really means for U.S. defense and diplomacy: it’s a Pandora’s Box that looks attractive at first glance but opens up a series of endless nightmares. If Congress does override the promised presidential veto, Americans will surely regret it for decades to come.

Republicans are already carefully preparing to destroy a Hillary Clinton presidency

The polls are tightening, which was almost inevitable given the extreme partisan polarisation in American politics. But the electoral college map remains clear and looks poised to repeat the party breakdown of 2012. So, it’s going to take a remarkable turnaround – probably requiring a dramatic and largely imponderable event such as an unprecedented “October surprise” or a totally unexpected performance by either party in the presidential debates – to allow Donald Trump to beat Hillary Clinton in November.

What’s most fascinating is not the likely outcome, which seems set to deliver the White House to Mrs Clinton. Far more interesting, and troubling, is what awaits her after inauguration.

The probable Clinton presidency is already in the crosshairs being set up by Republicans across the board. If elected, she is likely to become the target of massive and unending accusations, investigations, official inquiries, committees, special prosecutors and, if possible, even an impeachment. Signs are everywhere, unmistakable and alarming that Republicans are openly building the infrastructure for the most paralysing gridlock in recent American history.

For that, they need only retain control of the House of Representatives, and they are at least as likely to do so as Mrs Clinton is to become president.

Democrats need the same kind of political miracle to take control of the House as it would take for Mr Trump to win the presidency. Neither is on the cards.

The bigger question is the Senate, which is poised on a razor’s edge. Assuming Mrs Clinton becomes president, Democrats would need four new Senate seats for a functional majority with her vice president, Tim Kaine, serving as tiebreaker, or five for an outright majority.

Odds for both parties in the Senate now appear about 50-50. A Democratic Senate majority would allow Mrs Clinton to at least secure her cabinet and other senior appointments, particularly to the Supreme Court, without Republican obstruction.

But if Republicans retain control of the Senate, she can look forward to nasty fights on virtually everything she tries to do, with the possible exception of basic expenditure or job-creation programmes. Much beyond that will be utterly paralysed, including, if the Republican lawmakers can manage it, foreign as well as domestic policy.

If Democrats get four new Senate seats, Mrs Clinton could secure her appointments and be practically safe from conviction in the Senate if whe were impeached by the House (the lust, though hardly the grounds, for which is already clear). But her legislative agenda would be all but dead in the water.

For lack of better ideas, Republicans have long-cultivated being an obstructionist party. Their bitterness about the massive 2008 loss to Barack Obama sharpened this inclination to a keen edge. They are familiar and comfortable with being an obstructionist force in government, saying no to virtually everything, and practising the dark art of creating gridlock and rationalising its virtues.

Mr Obama came into office as a constitutional scholar with an instinctive mistrust of arbitrary executive authority and a strong inclination to build compromise and consensus. But his two terms increasingly turned him into one of the most expansive practitioners of executive orders in the country’s history, largely because he found that without using presidential authority to bypass a Republican Congress, he simply couldn’t get much done.

Most Republicans may not like Mr Obama much. But many despise Mrs Clinton at a very different personal and visceral level.

So while Republicans refined their techniques of obstructionism over the past eight years, the prospect of Mrs Clinton in the White House is already turning many minds towards more serious forms of attack.

Leading the prep work is house oversight committee chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who is pursuing a relentless campaign regarding Mrs Clinton’s emails and devices used during her tenure as secretary of state. To bolster his position to harass her now and into the future, he is also calling on Mr Trump to release his tax returns.

One can hardly imagine a Clinton presidency not haunted by endless investigations based on ancient, more recent and yet-to- be discovered alleged scandals.

From ancient allegations concerning Vince Foster, Travelgate and Whitewater to newer ones about Benghazi and her emails, and on a raft of new accusations as yet unarticulated, the attack will surely be instantaneous and relentless.

Mrs Clinton and her husband Bill have been under intense scrutiny for decades, and have made many mistakes, errors of judgment and worse, providing an endless series of targets, some real but most imaginary, for her would-be persecutors.

So, while Mrs Clinton will probably win, it’s almost certain that her presidency will be among the most troubled in history and that she will be relentlessly pursued by Republicans whose only remaining defence is a vicious and relentless attack. They are lining up, cleaning and aiming their ample cannon at her already.

Mexico’s Terrible Week: Adios JuanGa, Hola Trump

Mexican culture may be remarkably attuned to pain and loss, but last week delivered a pair of especially brutal blows. One came from Mexico’s own incompetent young president, while the other was delivered by the old specter that haunts the land of the Day of the Dead: Santa Muerte herself, the exterminating angel.

On August 28, she swooped down on one of Mexico’s most popular, influential and important artists, the 66-year old singer-songwriter Juan Gabriel. He was not only a beloved performer and composer of songs that help make up the national soundtrack. He was also a repository and transmitter of Mexico’s history of popular music.

One of his most significant, and frequently overlooked, achievements was the 1996 recording Las Tres Señoras. Gabriel persuaded three of Mexico’s greatest singers — Lola Beltran, Amalia Mendoza and Lucha Villa, by then all old ladies — to come out of retirement and sing together for the first time, along with an array of male superstars.

They belted out patriotic and sentimental compositions by Gabriel that drew on a range of traditions, celebrating and summarizing Mexican popular culture. The opening and closing, both called “Oberatura Mexicana,” define the spirit of rancheras and other key Mexican genres — complete with fireworks, and nationally distinctive cat-calls and whopping cockerel-crows from the men.

It’s histrionic, operatic, preposterous, joyous, and, like its true subject which is Mexican popular music itself, ultimately magnificent. At the final crescendo pauses, “JuanGa” himself, his voice cracking with pride, shouts out, “Viva Mexico!” Anyone listening who remains unmoved is simply soulless.

JuanGa preserved and promoted the best in Mexican culture, but also boldly and effectively challenged some of what’s worst. His flamboyant persona itself indicted deep-seated patriarchal and homophobic attitudes. Asked if he was gay in an interview, his impeccable response was, “They say you shouldn’t ask about what’s completely obvious.”

Mexicans were reeling from this sudden and massive loss when their hapless president, Enrique Peña Nieto, made the inexplicable blunder of inviting Donald Trump — without doubt the preeminent living promoter of anti-Mexican bigotry — to a respectful meeting that left the struggling Republican nominee looking almost presidential.

While adopting a relatively obsequious tone, Mr Trump basked in the unearned quasi-diplomatic legitimacy. That evening, however, he returned to a rally in Arizona that proved little more than hate-fest against immigrants and, especially, Mexicans.

Mr Trump laid out a blood-curdling program on immigration that would turn the United States into a brutal police state. Hundreds of thousands would be jailed awaiting mass deportation. Police would comb the landscape looking for anyone they suspect of being “illegal,” or simply dislike. Families would be ripped apart and young people expelled from the only country they have ever known.

The America he described was a Kafkaesque nightmare patrolled by fugitive-hunting goon squads, and with intensive state surveillance to support mass incarcerations and mass deportations. He proposed creating a vast and barely-accountable authoritarian apparatus to ferret out and expel hard-working, peaceful, productive, and otherwise law-abiding and blameless people, and inevitably abuse countless more in the process. His America would be utterly, and hideously, unrecognizable.

Mr Trump’s caricature of undocumented workers as vicious criminals preying on innocent Americans is not only false, it is a complete inversion of reality — citizens are, in fact, far more likely to commit crimes. But fear and hate, not facts, are his métier.

Mr Trump’s weird mindset of dominance and subordination — both sadomasochistic and Manichean — makes him oscillate between a meek and servile tone, as in Mexico, and an angry and vicious one, as in Arizona. Mexicans and Muslims are his favorite targets. Especially Mexicans.

America’s most notorious racists cheered his immigration speech the loudest, correctly hearing their own voices speaking through him.

About half of Mr Trump’s pathetic “Hispanic advisory council” resigned in disgust, with one former member saying he felt like a “prop” and another calling it “a scam.”

One of the last “Latinos for Trump” left standing, Marco Gutierrez, provided a perfect grace note by grimly warning the United States could soon have “taco trucks on every corner.” Americans, who have long preferred salsa to ketchup, responded with a mighty “Yum!”

Mr Trump’s fire-breathing performance further alienated Republican leaders, including their National Committee, who are already appalled by his irresponsibility. New campaign rhetoric from embattled Republican candidates like Paul Ryan and John McCain clearly implies they fully expect him to lose and asks for voter support in order to prevent complete Democratic rule.

His poll numbers may be improving, but Mr Trump still needs a miracle to secure 270 electoral college votes and win in November. Now Mexico, of all countries, gives him his only really “presidential” moment. He did his best to squander it at a bizarre, dystopian, white nationalist jamboree. But the trip was still a huge success for him.

While grieving for one of their most uplifting cultural icons, aghast Mexicans watched their own bumbling president inexplicably throwing Mr Trump this invaluable political lifeline. Though his incorrigible self-destructiveness prompted Mr Trump to try to cast it aside, qué pena, carnal!