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.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Return of the Turk...

A old idea made new.
In 1770, the inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled to the court of Habsburg Empress, Maria Theresa, a remarkable device; an automaton that mimicked the appearance of an Ottoman Sultan seated at a chess table. This machine, the “Mechanical Turk” was able to play chess well enough to challenge experienced players, and continued to amaze audiences for 50 years before it was revealed that the machine’s ability to play chess was facilitated by a cleverly concealed human operator.

Now there’s a new “Mechanical Turk”, which works in much the same fashion, using human operators to perform tasks that, although seemingly as simple as moving a chess piece, are currently beyond the ability of computer programs to reliably perform.

What sort of tasks? Well, determining from a sentence whether the general sentiment of the text is positive, negative, mixed or neutral, or determining whether a particular image is relevant to text of a search query that revealed said picture in a website, and the significance of the same image in terms of size, placement, and quality on the same page.

Today’s Turk is a little-known application hosted by Amazon that allows businesses to post HITS (Human Intelligence Tasks) that an army of human workers (known as “Turkers”) can work remotely from their computers for compensation ranging from a few cents to several dollars per task.

On the surface, it’s an interesting idea – there is work to be found here – and with about 100,000 HITS available to be worked on a daily basis at an average value of perhaps 50 cents, there’s also money to be made, which has drawn an estimated 100,000 Turkers in 100+ countries (although many are based out of the US, and demographics suggest they are generally lower-income individuals.)

Because of the low pay and repetitive nature of much of the work, the Turk has been criticized as a sort of modern sweatshop, and certainly it’s not the most interesting sort of remote work that can be found on the internet, which includes everything from farming gold in World of Warcraft to selling designer clothes and shoes in Second Life.

On the other hand, anyone can get started Turking with just basic computer skills, a few easily accessible web tools - I used Google Translate to help with that task of determining the sentiment in sentences (which were written in German) – and some time on their hands.

That’s what I thought the strength of this approach to crowd-sourcing might be; a student in a boring class or a worker in an office job that requires them to be present but not necessarily busy might find the Turk to be both a welcome distraction and a means of extracting a little more monetary value from time spent glued to a seat by the demands of an antiquated approach to work or education.

To check it out, I set up an account (easy to do if you already shop with Amazon) and jumped in looking for HITS while sitting in a class of the aforementioned Neolithic style, then continued the exercise while stuck in a taxi in for a couple of hours in city traffic.

My experience was that tasks that pay well (for example, the German sentence sentiment exercise) actually involved a fairly significant degree of both work (translating, rating, etc.) and concentration, which made difficult to multi-task effectively between class participation and HIT completion (HITs have a specific timeframe, ranging from a few minutes to several hours for completion.) Tasks that pay lesser amounts, such as the “quality/relevance of pictures in webpages” HIT are quicker to complete, but still require some effort. Some people may find these tasks interesting, despite their repetitive nature – but I doubt anyone could happily make a living by Turking.

I also found the interface a bit clumsy, and many tasks required “qualification” tests which, while useful to the business in finding qualified Turkers, was annoying to the person who wanted to get right into doing some electronic drudge work. There was also a good number of tasks that appeared to be scammish in nature (requiring a website sign-up to complete the task) and HIT-spam, where a single job site posted 60 or 80 very similar HITS, which, due to the nature of the sort/filter tools available, forced the Turker to flip through several pages worth of undesirable HITS to find a more desirable source of employment.

These are strange complaints for a site associated with Amazon, but it turns out the association is very loose indeed – the Turk was originally designed by an Amazon employee to help the company find and eliminate duplicates in its own product description page, but expanded to become a crowd-sourcing tool which has been used for such tasks as finding missing persons, transcribing podcasts, generating blog content, and driving traffic to websites. Now, although Amazon hosts the site and takes a 10% commission off each job, it doesn’t actively monitor the service and refers people who complain to the company or individual who posted the offending HIT.

The bottom line? The Turk represents an interesting first effort at creating something that will be increasingly common in the future workplace; a market where content developers and “human intelligence” workers can find employment, on their own time and terms, capable of working remotely from anywhere on the planet, and potentially reducing pollution and congestion by allowing digital workers to earn their income from the comfort of their own homes. However, the current market lacks protections for the workers (in the form of stipulated minimum compensation) or protections for society, since many of the jobs offered are designed to skew perspectives of search results, etc. Is the website that pops to the top of your search queue really popular (and thus, presumably, a valuable source of your desired information) or has it attained that rank due to blind clicks by a mercenary army of Turkers?

The race should be on to develop a common global online market, where anyone from retail giants such as Amazon and Walmart to individuals sitting in their underwear in front of a laptop can offer their goods and services, accept compensation, and schedule delivery to any other citizen in the world; secure from spammers and scammers, with fair-trade wages and prices paid, and a feedback system in place to reward good performance and reveal poor performance. The pieces of such a system already exist – we have price comparison sites, online retailers, auction sites, and rating sites. But to tie them together in a simple, easy-to-use interface – that would be a parlor trick worthy of Wolfgang von Kempelen.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

War Crimes: Do US Drone Strikes Violate Article 25 of the Hague Convention?

Villagers comb through the rubble left after a 
US drone strike in Pakistan killed 18 people, 
including 10 women and children - but no 
Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters.
Article 25 of the Hague Convention on the Law of Land Warfare states “The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended is prohibited” and violation of this article is listed as a War Crime under Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Do American drone attacks on family compounds within Afghanistan and Pakistan, believed to be occupied by members of the Taliban violate Article 25? A focus on this question ignores some other key issues raised by the Drone War, including the legality of strikes executed by civilian employees of the US government (ie, the CIA) on US citizens and non-citizens, and whether an on-going air campaign where 1/3 of the casualties are civilian can be considered discriminate and proportional, but one has to begin somewhere.

So let’s start by considering the nature of the targets. In his book TALIBAN: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, Ahmed Rashid describes exactly what US Hellfire missiles slam into on a regular basis - “mud-brick homes plastered with more mud and straw… built behind high compound walls.”

It is difficult to imagine how such a building, located in a village full of civilians could be construed as being defended, especially against an unmanned aircraft flying 25,000 feet overhead. Adequate defense against such an attacker would have to consist of air-defense artillery or missiles with a sophisticated tracking system to locate and engage the small, quiet drones. 

Let's consider a couple of justifications that might possibly be made for what appears, on the surface, to be an egregious violation of the Laws of Land Warfare. First, someone might claim that the building wasn't the target - it was only a particular person or persons inside the building who were the targets, and the nature of the structure they were occupying was immaterial. But using that logic, such persons could be legitimately targeted anywhere, including schools, mosques, hospitals, and any other building.

It’s also possible someone could claim that just because there were people in the house who possessed guns, the building was “defended.” Such an argument rings hollow on several counts. First, inhabitants of Pakistan’s tribal areas are allowed to have weapons, precisely for the defense of their persons and property. Second, simply because the occupant of a building has a weapon, it doesn’t mean they will use it defensively. If approached by military or police forces they may choose to run away, to surrender, or to fight. Only in the latter case would the building become a “defended” position and thus merit bombardment.

So, it appears that in those cases where ground forces have approached a compound and been engaged by defensive fire from within, aerial bombardment (by drones or manned aircraft) would certainly be appropriate and legal. However, where no such evidence exists that a compound is defended exists, any bombardment, including drone strikes, would be a war crime and should be prosecuted as such.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hail to the Chief... Marisol Valles Garcia.

Marisol Valles Garcia,
Police Chief
If you haven’t heard of Marisol Valles Garcia, she’s a 20-year old college student who’s recently accepted the position of police chief in the town of Praxedis G. Guererro in the Juarez Valley. There are plenty of stories in the mainstream media about her, but most focus on the human interest story of her bravery in taking a post which no one else in the township of 8500 would consider.

We wanted to explore several deeper questions raised as Garcia takes the helm of a police force consisting of 10 men and 3 women (soon to be expanded with several more women) in Praxedis and begins her campaign to increase security by increasing community contact and focusing on prevention of crime through education in values and principles.

To do so, we began by contacting Dr. Ami Carpenter, a professor at the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies who has studied violent conflicts involving non-state armed actors (ANSAs) including the drug war in Mexico along with warlords in Africa and sectarian groups in Iraq.

Our first question was whether Garcia’s status as a woman and mother, and her preventative vice confrontational approach to crime-fighting makes her more or less likely to be killed than the traditional "tough-fisted" male police chief?

Carpenter replied that despite the media focus on the killings of police chiefs, mayors, and prosecutors, such individuals make up only 10-15% of the victims in the drug war;
…the vast majority of deaths are individuals "with links to the drug trade" as the popular saying goes, along with journalists and other civilians. Police who cooperate with one cartel are often targeted by its rival, and Valles Garcia does not seem interested in doing so…Still it does not help that this town has one highway over which Sinaloa and Juarez cartels are fighting.
However, Dr. Carpenter says that Garcia’s approach (not carrying a gun, focusing on reaching out to families) makes sense, because
…there is some research which indicates that security can increase even in dangerous communities when leaders refuse to side with one armed group over another and put resources towards protecting people of the community instead of 'defending' the borders of the town.
She also says that to properly understand whether Garcia’s gender and social status as a mother offers her any protection would require a better understanding of whether 
…the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels have any sort of 'pro-civilian' ethic; have they joined the public relations battle by making public statements decrying 'civilian deaths' as the La Familia cartel has? If so, the new chief may have some a layer of protection. She's not a civilian anymore, she's a legitimate target - but she might find some protection from continuing to cultivate a civilian-like image (young, college student, unarmed, non-threatening) if these particular cartels care about cultivating their own political image.
Our final question to Dr. Carpenter was whether the publicity that Chief Garcia is receiving helps or hurts her in terms of the probability that she will be killed by one of the cartels. The professor replied as follows:
This could go either way. If we presume that her strategy of protecting townspeople and staying out of the drug-war would have kept her below the cartels' radar screen, then the media coverage has actually hurt her. Now she's on the radar screen, and she's become a symbol of 'something' - the desperation of situation? The weakness of the Mexican state? The courage of one young woman?
Now the cartels know who she is, and perhaps their leadership are figuring out a strategy for dealing with her. They will be calculating the costs and benefits of killing her; is she worth more dead or alive? One (or both) might decide to kill her and frame the other cartel, to bring the inevitable retaliation of the Mexican federal police and Marines down on their rival. Or perhaps, thanks to the media coverage in the US, both organizations might calculate that killing her would lead to a public outcry in the US that would result in greater US involvement in the war.
A critical 'intervening variable' is the relationship between Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, (the head of the Sinaloa cartel) and Juarez cartel leadership. If lines of communication are secretly open at very high levels, both leaders might conclude that Marisol Valles Garcia should be off-limits to both cartels, because an enhanced military presence in Praxedis would be bad for business all around.  
Unfortunately the war is so bitter between these organizations though, that I don't see this as a possibility. That level of coordination might happen tacitly, without direct agreement, but I find it unlikely - when violence escalates between groups to the level it has between Juarez and Sinaloa (and also because Juarez is allied to the extremely violent and nihilistic Los Zetas, a group which Sinaloa has vowed to crush), suspicion, distrust and outright hatred of the other outweighs rational decision-making. Since each will assume that the other will use her instrumentally (killing her and framing the other cartel) then the 'rational' course of action is to beat their rival to the punch by killing her first.
Chief Garcia’s best hope at this point, says Dr. Carpenter, is not only sustained media coverage, but
…a strategy used in other violent conflicts to engage ANSAs and negotiate civilian protection. The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD) has negotiated similar agreements in Columbia, Sudan, Myanmar and Central African Republic. A similar strategy could work in Mexico, with Praxedis becoming a neutral zone if both cartels agreed to it. The political constraints for this type of strategy in Mexico are unfortunately very high. 
La Riposte has contacted the CHD to determine whether they are willing to engage in mediation in Praxedis, and will publish an update once the Centre has responded. Concerned readers are encouraged to contact CHD themselves, either by e-mail to or by SKYPE (andyhdcentre) to request that they take an interest in this situation as they previously have with conflicts in Africa and Southeast Asia. Readers wishing to help keep the media focused on Praxedis are also encourage to Tweet this post, re-post on Facebook, or send it in to your local newspaper’s editorial department for re-printing.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Doublespeak: Revealing the Magic

Among other interesting facts that Arika Okrent chronicles in her recent book “In the Land of Invented Languages” is that writer and “Basic English” advocate C.K. Ogden coined the term “word magic” for the phenomenon by which language can be used to conceal the true nature of things.

And perhaps there is no better example of this than the magic that was worked in 1949 when, with the stroke of a pen, America’s Department of War became our Department of Defense. Of course this was not the first time in history a nation had engaged in this sort of word magic – in 1935, Germany changed the name of the Kriegsamt (War Office) to Wehrmacht (defense power). Both of these exercises in wordplay have served to mask the actual nature of the operations these organizations engaged in, which have generally been offensive in nature, vice defensive.

But even the term “word magic” seems a bit contrived – perhaps a better way to describe it is as Orwellian doublespeak –“ language that deliberately disguises, distorts… making the truth less unpleasant, without denying its nature.”

In the military/industrial/political machine the doublespeak trickles down from the top. The expression in plain English - “innocent bystanders killed by our bombs” becomes the innocuous-sounding “collateral damage”, which sounds like the sort of thing that is probably covered by some sort of insurance policy.

“Torture”, which Merriam-Webster defines as “anguish of body or mind ; something that causes agony or pain; the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure” rightly evokes a visceral reaction in most people, quite unlike that formed by marrying up two unrelated intransitive verbs to form “enhanced interrogation”, whose combined meaning translates to  “to question formally and systematically in a manner designed to increase or improve value.”

What can be done? The first step any concerned citizen can take is to become aware of the pervasive nature of the problem - in America today, the doublespeak is hardly confined to the government. Is that really a “Value Meal” or is it “1400 calories of fats, carbohydrates and simple sugars which measurably increases your tendency toward obesity and risk of cardiac failure.”  Is it a “balanced mutual fund” or a “system by which brokers receive a substantial fixed commission in exchange for gambling with your money”?

Once aware of the phenomenon, whenever presented with a euphemism or label, one ought to mentally reduce it to a set of simple words that accurately describe the nature of the item in question; conversely, one should attempt to avoid using doublespeak whenever possible. Doing this represents the second step in combating doublespeak.

Spreading awareness of the problem through discussions with friends, tweets, posts, e-mail and other communications medium is the third step that any private citizen can undertake on their own. The final logical step would be to ultimately reform the government and corporate “word magicians” that attempt to use doublespeak to manipulate society on a daily basis, but this may be too intensive a challenge for any one person.

Still, change must begin sometime, and somewhere. If not now, when; if not within, where?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Afghan Sovereignty vs. U.S. Interests

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Bret Stephens claims that allowing the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government “risks turning Afghanistan into another Vietnam.” 

But it is worth noting that 3 decades after the US withdrawal from that Asian state, the country is unified, secure, enjoying 20+ years of strong economic growth, becoming a popular tourist destination, and is even a port of call for US warships operating in the area.

Stephens still assesses that the war in Afghanistan is imminently winnable, but it seems he’s neglected to read the recent headlines in his own paper, which show that as NATO forces shift their attentions to the South, the Taliban are quietly taking over provinces in the North. A much-vaunted offensive earlier against the small town of Marjah came to naught, so it’s hard to be optimistic about the current push to control Kandahar.

More disturbing than Mr. Stephens apparent naiveté regarding the conditions on the ground is the real basis for his opposition to negotiations;
What happens in the event that Mr. Karzai is prepared to accept terms unacceptable to the U.S., such as sharing power with Mullah Omar? Ultimately, we are in Afghanistan to defend core U.S. interests, not the whims of its capricious president. 
Ahh, yes, Mr. Stephens. When a puppet government fails to dance to the tune of its foreign master, what’s a beleaguered superpower to do? And what are these “core interests” that we are defending ? The survival of our Nation is hardly at stake; neither is our economic growth, or our national culture. And the argument that Afghanistan represents a security risk because it ostensibly trained the 9-11 terrorists is as trite now as it was a decade ago – the state where those hijackers obtained the training they needed to carry out the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon wasn’t Afghanistan – it was Florida.

Stephens believes the only way to proceed is to halt negotiations and deliver “a series of decisive military blows” that would ostensibly force the Taliban to end the war on U.S. terms. But why should the terms be set by America? Isn’t it an “International Security Assistance Force” that’s opposing the Talibs? Shouldn’t the terms be theirs? No and no. Any negotiations to end the war should take place between the primary actors; the current Afghan government and their Taliban opponents.

The U.S. and other international actors may attempt to shape those negotiations through political pressure on the Afghan government and through military pressure on the Taliban, but in the final analysis, any decision reached by those two parties, however distasteful it may be to the U.S. and its ISAF allies must be respected – or another blow against national sovereignty will have been resoundingly struck.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Commonwealth Games: Slumdogs vs. Millionaires

The recent controversy surrounding the preparations for the Commonwealth Games in India ignores the root of the problem; that there is a vastly different standard of living in the “core” regions of the West, and those of “periphery” states which, yes, include even large countries such as India.

His home destroyed to improve
 the ambiance for visitors.
Let’s consider housing. The real story, that of thousands of poor Indians being displaced as their slums were razed by bulldozers to make Commonwealth athlete and guest housing more presentable was hijacked by the steady stream of athletes boycotting the games because the housing and security (from accidents, crime, and disease) were not up to Western standards. But the housing, security, and healthcare available to those athletes, even under the worst circumstances, are an order of magnitude better than the majority of citizens in the host country are obliged to live with every day – and similarly considerably better than many citizens of visiting Commonwealth countries such as Bangladesh, Cameroon, Malaysia, and Nigeria.

Notably, the countries complaining about the conditions in New Delhi have nearly all been from the more privileged of the Commonwealth nations – those with predominantly white populations and high standards of living. The source of the problem can be seen by looking back at the start of the games – which were originally called the British Empire Games in 1930, and only took on their new and somewhat more egalitarian title in the 1960s. But the real problem is the dual standard that remains worldwide as a result of the colonial imperialism without which, there would be no games, and no problem.

Colonial possessions, including India were systematically exploited for resources, a trend that continues to this day, and there is some irony in the fact that a nation where so many still live in abject poverty would spend 7.5 billion dollars on an athletic event where the only common bond shared by most of the 54 member states is that they were colonized or had their indigenous population exploited by Great Britain for over a century. 

Perhaps these games will serve to highlight for the privileged upper-class of the world that the conditions under which they would not deign to live for a few weeks are the daily reality for billions of their fellow humans around the world who live on less than $1.25 per day. If that was the message people took from this, maybe these games would be worth the cost – but instead, the focus seems to be on the privileged athletes themselves – how shocking that they, who are blessed to play games for a living, should have to spend even a little time in the real world.

- Edward H. Carpenter

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Burning – Bad If A Church Does It, But OK for the US Government?

The New York Times reports that the Pentagon bought up nearly every copy of “Operation Dark Heart” from St. Martin’s Press, and then destroyed all the books “to protect secrets.” (The fact is noted in 3 paragraphs at the bottom of an unrelated post regarding the latest Afghan War casualties.) 

While a redacted edition is available in hardcover and in a Kindle edition proponents of free speech must certainly hope that one of the 100 uncensored copies which escaped the clutches of government censors and are now being sold for upwards of $2000 on the Internet, will soon be released in a full-text file by WikiLeaks or a similar organization. (One copy is owned by the NY Times, which originally published the "teaser" pages shown here.) 
And who paid for this egregious act of censorship? The American taxpayer, of course, to the tune of about $50,000 dollars. As Gabriel Schoenfeld remarked in a more detailed accounting by the Times, “There’s smart secrecy and stupid secrecy, and this whole episode sounds like stupid secrecy.” That's putting it mildly, Mr. Schoenfeld. 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Really, General?

David Feith’s ode to Odierno in the Wall Street Journal serves as a bully pulpit for the Army General to sing the praises of the “surge” of 2006, claiming that in today's Iraq sectarian violence is almost zero.”

Apparently the General failed to read the recent headlines, which show continuing violence throughout the country. According to the latest statistics, there are still an average of 4 deaths from gunfire and 8 deaths from bombings every day – 2798 so far in 2010.

An improvement from the height of the violence in 2006-2007 – but it’s hardly anything to crow about. And when General Odierno says of the continuing violence “Yes, there's still some terrorism but it's not insurgents anymore,” one has to wonder whom he thinks is responsible.

The General goes on to say that:
"In 2004, '05 [and] '06 you had an open insurgency against Iraq as a whole. It was many different groups fighting to really decide what Iraq's future will be. We're beyond that now—I think people know where Iraq is moving."
 Do we? Judging by the inability of Iraq’s elected politicians to form a government in 6 months, it would appear that Iraq is moving toward more violence, and the probable rise of a strong-man from the military – something that Odierno himself admits is a possibility. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Finland is Not in Asia, and Neither is Voldemort

Andrew Krepinevich’s latest opinion page in the Wall Street Journal misses the mark, and falls short to splash into the veritable sea of similar pieces regarding China’s designs in the Western Pacific.

He begins the article by invoking the spectre of the Cold War, but the “Finlandization” he describes is simply what all regional hegemons attempt to do with smaller neighbors – persuade them to support the hegemon’s foreign policy objectives.

If Krepinevich is to be believed, only the dubious advantage of the American military presence in Western Europe prevented this from becoming the lot of all European states. Ipso facto, a strong US military presence in Asia is the only way for America to prevent China from shaping the region’s foreign policy.

Unfortunately, the Western Pacific in 2010 is nothing like Western Europe in 1980. The US cannot provide a credible military advantage in this theater – even if it wasn’t bogged down in land wars elsewhere. The long-standing “cult of the carrier” has seen the American hare caught napping by the side of the road, long since passed by a slow and steady Chinese tortoise that has been willing to re-imagine naval warfare in the Western Pacific. While American Naval power was viewed in an expeditionary nature in the 1994 doctrine of “Forward… From the Sea”, China’s can very easily be condensed to “Fire… From the Shore.”

Lord Nelson opined in the Age of Sail that “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort” – acknowledging the superior firepower that shore-based weaponry could bring to bear on ships of the line. There’s nothing new under the sun, and technology has once again put the advantage firmly on shoreline – and this has implications that go far beyond China. Any country (or non-state actor) with a few million dollars in hand can purchase “missiles in a box” that will seriously challenge current expeditionary military capabilities – even those of regional hegemons such as the US, China, and Russia.

Krepinevich appears to acknowledge this fact in the middle of his article, yet makes no solid recommendations for changing the seemingly inevitable shift in military power. The remainder of the article has the obligatory China-bashing – they didn’t acknowledge North Korea’s role in sinking the Cheonan (we did, but took no real action to punish the alleged perpetrators) and characterizes the country as Voldemort – the root of the Navy’s concerns about “assured access”, but one that is not officially named in reports such as the current Quadrennial Defense Review. He closes by stating that:

Washington's longstanding allies and friends in the Western Pacific want a stable military balance in the region that will encourage Beijing to pursue its goals according to accepted international norms of behavior.

But there hasn’t been a balance of power in the Western Pacific since 1945 – the US has always been militarily predominant in this theater. The rise of Chinese military power is only now beginning to create a balance – and it is a balance that will inevitably shift to favor China – no surprise, as any test of military might in the waters immediately adjacent to the North American land mass would tend to favor the US.

It’s long past time to stop kvetching about the military aspect of China’s “peaceful rise” and acknowledge that rather than taking on the improbable challenge of matching their military, we should start laying the groundwork for bilateral cooperation in the defense sector – open ourselves to China as a true ally and partner, rather than continuing to regard them as Voldemort – the enemy least mentioned, but most feared.