La Riposte

Monday, November 29, 2010

Focused on Wikileaks, Missing the Big Picture

The newspapers and blogs are predictably awash today with reaction to the latest release by Wikileaks, and the sum total of this sound and fury covers the spectrum from the funny (Dr. Charli Carpenter as a Julian Assange supporter) to the predictable (US government claims Wikileaks is going to get someone killed) to the disturbing (US Congressman working to get Wikileaks labeled as a Foreign Terrorist Organization).

It’s worth considering a few of the common themes in these discussions:
  1. Wikileaks is telling us nothing we didn’t know before. That seems to be the premise of Dr. Carpenter’s post at Duck of Minerva.Really? If this is the case, then why the furor? 
  2. Diplomats need a forum where they can tell lies, order UN regulations to be broken, and make unnecessarily snarky remarks about foreign dignitaries without being subjected to scrutiny by the public that they represent. That’s the moral of the story where Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber interprets Saki's "Tobermory" as a commentary on the need to keep some things quiet for the benefit of polite society.
  3. Wikileaks workers (and any those of any other organization that helps spread such documents) are terrorists and as such should be subjected to the full range of US instruments of power. Galrahn at Information Dissemination doesn’t seem to think this is the right course of action, but thinks the broadness of the current US law may allow it, and says that something must be done to “stand up” to Assange and his ilk.
  4. Government and conservative talking heads are continuing the tired tropes that “loose lips sink ships” – but so far, no sailors are to be seen bobbing in the waters, causing Nancy Youseff to raise the very legitimate question of how long the Administration and its supporters can keep using this line before they have to make like Jerry McGuire and “show us the bodies!”
So, a few thoughts. First, I believe that it’s a little early for bloggers to be writing off this release (or others) considering the volume of the material and their own probable lack of primary source research – really, have any of them read through all, the majority, or even a significant fraction of the total releases of this or previous leaks?

Second, Henry Farrell takes the wrong moral from Tobermory. The story was not meant to show why it was in fact a bad idea to teach cats to talk, but to suggest that society might perhaps need to change so that even if cats could repeat verbatim the private conversations of their owners, those people might not be terribly concerned. Among the various cables are passages that refer to various personages in unflattering terms, and are, frankly, completely unnecessary. Comparing Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev to Batman and Robin? It would be more accurate and diplomatic to simply say “Although technically subordinate to President Medvedev, Putin continues to exert a disproportionately high degree of influence on Kremlin policies” – and no one could fault the author for such an analysis sans the accompanying baggage of insulting characterizations. If people (especially diplomats) simply spoke and wrote as if there were a Rolling Stone reporter in the room, there would be fewer out-of-work Generals and red faces in the State Department. As to the morally dubious instructions to spy on Ban Ki Moon and similarly disquieting revelations, it is useful to consider the words of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, in 1816, "It is strangely absurd to suppose that a million of human beings, collected together, are not under the same moral laws which bind each of them separately."  Thus to suppose that agents of the government of such a collection of millions receives some special dispensation to behave badly, and should not be held responsible by the public that elected them (or the officials who appointed them) strains credulity.

Third, the attempt to paint Wikileaks with the broad brush of “terrorism” is frankly so Orwellian that it taxes the imagination, and raises questions about who couldn’t be labeled as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The only criteria are to be foreign-based, and to have the potential to threaten US interests or nationals. Well, lots of organizations are based in other countries, and every organization has the potential to threaten US interests. All it takes is a week-long consultative process between the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Attorney General to bestow the label, which essentially places restriction on movement and funding, and makes giving support (i.e. a PayPal donation to Wikileaks) a crime for US citizens.

And there’s really no need to beat the dead horse of the lack of tangible damage to US property or personnel (or that of any country, for that matter) any further. Despite its repeated allegations, neither the US nor any other government has brought to light any evidence that current operations have been compromised or that anyone’s actually come to harm. In fact, several partner nations have spoken out to say that their relationship with the US will be undamaged by the revelations in these cables.

So, what should we be learning from the fuss over Cablegate? Probably this. Those who focus too narrowly on Wikileaks miss the bigger picture. Should Assange be shut down, another similar organization will only rise to take his place. The technology exists, as well as an undercurrent of civil discontent with the excesses of governments, big businesses, and religions. It is the same sort of confluence of discontent and technology that was seen with the printing press in the 15th Century.

A more important question is to consider the future of politics, diplomacy, warfare, and daily life in the coming “Age of Transparency” – where the inability to guarantee secure communications and a greater intrusion into previously “private” aspects of life such as political and religious beliefs, sexual mores, shopping habits, income, debt and interpersonal communication will be facilitated by the growing ubiquity of electronic technologies – both for individuals, corporations, and governments.

This is a rich subject that bears exploration by the best minds of the blogosphere, a task they might more readily attend to were they not so focused on a single symptom rather than the underlying condition.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The True Cost of War in Korea

The true cost of war goes beyond
military expenditures.
There’s been a lot of talk about how to deal with North Korea lately, and much of it seems to envision armed conflict. Some think that South Korea could triumph militarily on its own, or with a modicum of US air support. Others envision China weighing in on the ground to effect regime change. The White House has dispatched carrier groups to the area as a show of force – but really, what are the prospects that a military solution would succeed, or be adopted?

First, it’s useful to consider a couple of items regarding the current US response to the crisis.
  1. The naval show of force by South Korea and the US is likely to only inflame the situation, which started when an earlier exercise by the South culminated in some of their artillery pieces firing into waters which the North claims as its own.
  2. Putting fleets into this area raises the distinct possibility of another Cheonan-style submarine attack; ask anti-submarine warfare officers, and you’ll discover that the strong currents and heavy silt in the Yellow Sea makes detecting and prosecuting submarine threats very difficult.
  3. Given that “face” is an important concept in Asian politics, this type of brinksmanship is highly unlikely to do anything except aggravate the North, and shift Chinese perceptions against us.
Now, let’s talk about why South Korea hasn’t (and won’t) go to war over this incident, why China won’t intervene against the North, and why we shouldn’t consider it either.

Lots of folks have done a bit of strategic and tactical calculus and concluded that North Korea could be beaten in a conventional war. Perhaps, but such a war would not be nearly as simple as Iraq, given the terrain, the weather, and the North Korean IADS (integrated air defense system). Ignoring, for a moment, the probability that a significant guerilla conflict might follow “victory”, the real cost to the winner would be absorbing the responsibility for 24 million destitute North Koreans.

Consider for a moment the disparity in wealth between the North and South. South Korea’s approximately 49 million people enjoy a per capita income of about $30,000 USD, compared to $1900 for their Northern kin. Studies have indicated a $3 trillion dollar price tag and a 10-year timeline to bring incomes in the North to even 60% of those in the South, and the example of Germany suggests that high unemployment and mass migrations will be just a few of the economic challenges that will drive the cost even higher.

That is the reason the South has not pushed especially hard for a peaceful reunification, and it’s why they literally can’t afford to start a war with the North – because it would cost their citizens about 1/3 of their annual income to establish a degree of equality in distribution of wealth; and that’s before considering the economic impacts of bringing a third of the newly-unified population from a Human Development Index rating of 75 up to South Korea’s number 12 ranking.

This is not to say that if faced with total war, the South would not fight, and fight well – but it should clarify the reason why provocation short of an all-out assault across the DMZ are unlikely to be answered with force.

And what about China, the US, and Coalition actions. Could the Red Army swarm across the Yalu again, this time to unseat their former allies? Physically possible, but it won’t happen, and not because, as some have stated, China wants a “buffer zone” between her borders and those of the democratic South Korea. Simply put, North Korea is one of the 5 remaining Communist regimes, and China is another. Solidarity and “face” must be maintained, so China will not take its own military action, and might again intervene in a major conflict to obtain a resolution favorable to the North, or one that at least maintains the status quo.

The idea that China would act as part of a coalition against North Korea in a major conflict is fraught with technical difficulties – NATO weapon systems identify Chinese aircraft as “threats.” Communications would be a barrier as well – the best that could be hope for would be a World War II style “rush to Berlin”, but coordinated operations would be difficult to implement.

So, what’s a superpower to do? Stay out of the Yellow Sea and avoid provoking the North further, or giving their sub commanders a greater selection of targets. Stop treating North Korea like a willful child, and start bilateral negotiations in good faith. Remove the trade barriers and sanctions that contribute to their national poverty, and wake up from the pipe dream that if we just wait long enough, the North will collapse. With its economy growing at a steady 3 percent annually over the last decade, that’s just not going to happen. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Listen To Carter: “Listen to North Korea”

"Listen to North Korea..."
Plenty of talking heads are claiming that North Korea’s reasons for the recent revelations of secret uranium enrichment facilities and artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island are somehow mysterious.

Internal power struggles, a desire to show that the heir apparent is cut from the same cloth as his father, and a desire to extort concessions have all been raised as possible reasons – but it’s telling that no one has yet gotten (or appeared interested in getting) the North Korean side of the story.

Instead, the drums are being beaten loudly, although for what, it’s not quite clear. No country or coalition wants, or could really win another war on the Peninsula; and sanctions, the world’s go-to option for dealing with North Korea have proven useless to prevent their development of considerable conventional and nuclear capacity, and only serve to starve the population and provide a platform for the military regime in power to maintain its hold over the people.

But there’s one voice in the wilderness that should be listened to, and that’s coming from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. His letter to the Washington Post is well worth reading in its entirety, but in a nutshell, his message is simple.

North Korea wants bilateral talks with America to further “their desire to develop a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and a permanent cease-fire.” We should give them what they want – not because of their recent actions, but because it’s the right thing to do for long-term stability in the region.

The North is not going to suddenly collapse. That the single largest Communist republic fell in the 1990’s belies that fact that a host of others continued marching merrily on. China, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea – all these countries have a much different set of demographics and geography than the Soviet Union did, and all are very much alive and well, despite varying levels of engagement with the U.S. and participation in the world economy.

Barring a collapse that simply won’t happen, the alternatives are:  
1.      To maintain the status quo; a nation of starving millions, with a powerful arsenal, poised between a pair of Asian economic powerhouses.
2.      Remove sanctions, establish trade, and take advantage of the excellent opportunities inherent in such a policy, while ignoring, for the time being, the nature of the government in power.

What advantages? Consider access to cheap North Korean labor, and the ability to connect South Korea directly with European and Russian markets via a high-speed rail connection through the North. The tracks for just such a line extend as far as the Kaesong Industrial Complex, located just north of the DMZ, where North Korea workers under South Korean management already manufacture a variety of products.

What does North Korea want? The same thing most people and countries want – a little respect. If you (or your country) was labeled as “evil”, subjected to sanctions (imagine not being allowed in a grocery store or bank, having your credit cards frozen, etc) how would you feel? Believe it or not, North Koreans are only human, too.

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. When it comes to relations with North Korea (not to mention Cuba, Iran, and Myanmar) it’s high time for the United States to stop the insanity.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Scorched Earth & Fake Negotiations

Where in the world is 
Mullah Mansour?
Leveling entire villages to deny them to the enemy sounds like something out of the Middle Ages. And the idea that a clever rogue could dupe a powerful government into handing him sacks of treasure is a plot straight out of a 16th Century baroque adventure novel. But in fact, these are actual stories coming out of Afghanistan this week.

For several months, the U.S. and Afghanistan have been engaged in secret talks with Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the Taliban’s highest ranking commanders.

Or so they believed. It turns out that the man with whom they were engaged in face-to-face negotiations over a period of months was just an imposter who was busy extracting cash from his U.S. and Afghan counterparts in turn for continued negotiations and concessions.

Nobody’s sure who he is – a Taliban double-agent, a clever con man, or an operative from the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency). The only thing certain is who he isn’t: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour.

While this may sound a bit humorous on the surface, it also raises a very serious question. If U.S. intelligence can’t positively identify someone with whom their government is engaged in face-to-face negotiations, how on Earth are they capable of making positive identification of other Taliban leaders who they are targeting for assassination? It makes the term “suspected militants” a little, well, suspect. Who are we really killing with our drone-launched Hellfires, anyway?

Another issue that’s recently emerged in the on-going conflict is the scorched-earth policy that’s being conducted around Kandahar, where Coalition forces are systematically destroying almost all vacant buildings to eliminate hiding places for their opponents, and to avoid the possibility of encountering booby traps.

In Article 23 of the Hague Convention on the Laws of Land Warfare, it is especially forbidden “to destroy or seize the enemy’s property, unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war.”

Are the hundreds of homes destroyed since these operations began in September (along with orchards, outbuildings, walls and fences) truly critical to the outcome of the war, to the point that their destruction becomes an imperative demand of necessity?

Or are Coalition forces instead simply taking an easy (and illegal) way out to deprive their opponents of shelter and spare themselves the requirement to otherwise secure these buildings?

Villagers can be compensated, but only if their whereabouts are known and they have consented to the destruction. But according to the district governor, in the case of the village of Khosrow, where all 40 homes were leveled by a massive U.S. missile barrage: 
“We destroyed them without agreement because it was hard to find the people… and not just Khosrow, but many villages... we had to destroy them to make them safe.”

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Majority of Marines Surveyed are Unconcerned by Potential Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

The unique way that the Washington Post has chosen to spin the preliminary numbers on the as-yet unreleased report on the effects of a potential repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy is that:
…more than 70 percent of respondents said the effect of lifting the ban would be positive, mixed or nonexistent… (but) about 40 percent of the Marine Corps is concerned about lifting the ban…
This makes it sound like there’s something more significant going on here than (at most) a 9% difference in the poll results of Marines versus the other Services, a fact that can no doubt be attributed to the fact that the last 2 Commandants of the Corps have both stated publically that they oppose a repeal of DADT and their opinions carry a great deal of weight in the Corps, and in the press. But what the artfully arranged numbers don’t say can be summed up in a simple sentence:

The majority of Marines surveyed believe the effect of lifting the ban would be positive, mixed or nonexistent in their Corps.

So why is the new Commandant continuing to stonewall progress on repealing the discriminatory measure? Will the Corps really have more problems than the other Services if this policy is repealed? And is the war in Afghanistan a legitimate reason to delay repeal?

History gives us the answer to all three questions.

In 1949, Marine Corps Commandant General Clifton B. Cates was a leading advocate of segregation between whites and blacks. 
Changing national policy in this respect through the Armed Forces, is a dangerous path to pursue as it effects [sic] the ability of the Military Establishment to fulfill its mission. 
Sound familiar?

Commandant Cates found himself faced with the issue in a time of war also – the Marines were fighting their legendary battles in Korea at the time. But in order to establish “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin” and put the new policy  “into effect as rapidly as possible” as required President Truman’s Executive Order 9981, by 1952 the Marines were able to report to the Department of the Navy that they “had no segregated units and while integration had been gradual ‘it was believed to be an accomplished fact at this time.’” This stands in favorable comparison to the Army, which still had segregated units as late as 1954.

In the case of bringing women into an all-male Marine Corps, that too was accomplished during a time of war, and history paints a more enlightened picture of a proactive Marine Commandant acknowledging the advantages to utilizing American volunteers without regard to arbitrary distinguishing factors such as gender. The Marines accomplished their goal of bringing women into uniformed service years before the Army, where even the thousands of nurses in the Army Nurse Corps lacked full military status until almost 25 years later.

History shows that Commandants can effectively slow progress on changing discriminatory policies when they choose to, but it also demonstrates conclusively that once they embrace this type of change, the Corps succeeds in accomplishing the integration and utilization of formerly unwanted minorities more swiftly and smoothly than any other Service.

General Amos is an incredibly talented and gifted man who commands the respect of thousands of Marines, and whose words and actions carry significant weight both in and out of the Corps. Let’s also hope he (and the U.S. Senators who must vote on the repeal) are also students of history.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Tale of Two Stimulus Packages

Two years ago, China introduced a 600 billion dollar stimulus package that not only prevented the nation from being sucked into the global recession, but kept several other Pacific countries including Indonesia and Australia out of the crisis by facilitating massive purchases of commodities.

But besides 22 million more domestic jobs and a stabilized regional economy, China received something more tangible for its massive government investment. In fact, it’s gotten a lot of things, including 11,000 miles of High-Speed Rail (HSR) lines and new bullet-trains to service them. That accounts for just a fraction of the approximately 40% spent on infrastructure projects, which included new roads and airports, reconstruction projects in areas struck by natural disasters, the construction of low-cost housing, and around 5 billion in new “green” technology.

At the same time, the US was also attempting to shore up its economy – but did so by using 150 billion to provide each US taxpayer with an extra $300 in pocket money, and by spending another 700 billion bailing out a handful of large investment firms, banks, and automobile manufacturers. The result? A net loss of over 3 million jobs, the continued existence of a few large firms, and no appreciable improvement or expansion in the nation’s key infrastructure.

Now, the US Federal Reserve is firing another 600 billion dollar shot from the money gun at the US economy – which begs the question, what will it do for America? Sadly, the answer is “probably not much.” Few people understand exactly what the Fed is doing – certainly most articles in the mainstream media don’t explain it well. In the simplest terms, the Federal Reserve  has 2 primary methods it can use to stimulate the economy (and it can do this without Congressional or Presidential approval). The first method is to lower interest rates, which is supposed to incentivize people and businesses to borrow money to buy products (including homes and cars) and is expected to grow the economy by raising consumption. But in this case, they’d have to lower the Federal Funds Rate (the rate banks charge each other to loan funds between each other) below zero – it’s already at the lowest rate since 1954.

Instead, the Fed is using another the second approach, which is to literally print money and use it to buy back existing government debt from banks. This will have the effect, in theory, of putting more money into the banks at a rate below zero interest – which the banks can then lend out at rates even lower than the current record-low rates. In theory, this will encourage businesses and private citizens to borrow, borrow, borrow and spend, spend, spend.

Some might shake their head and wonder if that’s not exactly what got us into this mess in the first place – US over-consumption of consumer goods. And they’d be right to wonder. They should also be wondering what will happen if canny banks choose to sit on the money, or use it as a cushion to allow themselves to write off bad debt internally, or to invest it in speculative ventures for their own benefit.

What’s very unlikely to happen is that any of this money will show up in the form of reinforced bridges, upgraded airports, a new air traffic control system, high-speed rail linking major cities, new low-cost dwellings for the underprivileged, additional money for education and health or any other significant and tangible improvements to American infrastructure and human development.

Who will benefit from this latest attempt at stimulating the US economy? The domestic winners may be the upper and middle classes, those whose credit is sufficiently good to take advantage of any decrease in interest rates to buy up income-producing assets such as rental property. But the stimulus is unlikely to produce either jobs for any class of worker, nor provide greater access to loan funds for the lower class and those who are out of work, or have other blemishes on their credit. The losers are also the public at large that might have benefited from the second order effects of infrastructure improvements, along with the unemployed who might have been hired to build and service such projects. And of course, as the extra dollars drive inflation up, everyone will suffer higher costs for goods and services. Abroad, the short-term winners may be developing economies that enjoy infusions of investor cash as those able to borrow in the US seek foreign assets with higher returns to line their pockets. The losers, of course, will be those economies that find a weakening dollar drives the cost of their products up and lowers sales.

All in all, this represents an opportunity for the lucky few, and an opportunity lost for the country as a whole.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Style over Substance: Obama's Indonesian Address

The view from the cheap seats during President Obama’s speech at the University of Indonesia revealed a US preference for style over substance, insofar as Indonesia is concerned. The President’s use of Indonesian idioms throughout his smoothly delivered speech, and frequent references to his boyhood here clearly resonated with the crowd, which had been carefully screened and selected from numerous educational institutions throughout Indonesia and bussed to the speech site several hours earlier.

But his delivery of thoughts on his 3 key themes, development, democracy, and religion, were received without a great deal of applause. This may have had something to do with the fact that he made neither any concrete offers to aid Indonesia in the first area, nor asked the Indonesian people to assist America throughout the world with its unique positioning and experience relative to the latter two themes.

Contrast this to China, the target of Presidential asides such as “prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty.” That regional hegemon has just pledged $6.6 billion dollars of badly-needed aid to improve Indonesia’s strained infrastructure, but the United States, despite Obama’s characterization of America and Indonesia as being “neighbors across the Pacific” has offered no such tangible support. The US has offered the Indonesian government a $300 million dollar grant to acquire 2 more squadrons of US-made F-16 fighters, but Indonesian Air Force generals are still debating the long-term costs of maintenance, which they would be required to bear.

Likewise, though he touched on the foundering negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, calling for an “outcome that is just and in the interest of both sides… two states, living side by side in peace and security” he made no call for Indonesia to involve itself more deeply in the process, despite the fact that the country which boasts the greatest Muslim population in the world has a great deal of experience in negotiating difficult questions regarding emerging states, as evidenced by the relatively recent birth of Timor Leste, and the process that resulted in Aceh remaining a part of Indonesia, albeit with greatly extended autonomy in several areas of governance.

In the end, “Mas Obama” (literally, brother) gave the Indonesian people enough of what they wanted (a bit of nostalgic auld lang syne about chasing goats and water buffalos through the rice paddys) and nothing that they didn't (such as any mention of recent torture incidents by the Army in Papua) to make his visit a relatively successful one.

Still, there were plenty of lost opportunities here that have not been lost on the Indonesian people and press. Compared to India, where he spent 3 days, his less-than-24-hour trip was, well, less than 24 hours. He made no visit of either of the recent disaster sites, Mount Merapi or the Mentawai Islands, pledged no disaster relief funds, and committed to no major economic, military, or foreign policies, in stark contrast to India where he promised to support a bid for a seat on an expanded UN Security Council.

The Indonesian proverb “Gajah mati meninggalkan gadingnya, macan mati meninggalkan belangnya, manusia mati meninggalkan namanya” means that when the elephant is gone, it’s remembered for its tusks, the tiger for its stripes, but a man, only by his deeds. And at the end of the day, even a President is just a man, and only time can tell whether, with respect to Indonesia, Obama will be remembered as a man of action, or simply a well-loved brother who left home to make good in a foreign land.