Thursday, May 21, 2009

Obama eats his own words

Want to know what a contradiction sounds like when it comes out of a highly intelligent, eloquent lawyer? Watch or read President Obama's speech today on Guantanamo Bay Prison and the detainees held there.

To be fair, Obama delivered a detailed, well-prepared response to many of the recent falsehoods being spewed about this topic. The transcript reads like a well-balanced discussion by a professor. And he ought to be commended for many of the steps he's taken to uphold his commitment to close Gitmo and deal with its prisoners in a legal manner -- which were major campaign promises. (Some of these steps include banning torture, sticking to the closure of the prison, and reviewing every case.)

But a detailed and thoughtful argument does not necessarily mean a logical one.  

Obama says that each of the 240 remaining cases will fall into one of five categories: 
1. Try them in federal court under criminal laws.

2.  Cases that include "detainees who violate the laws of war and are, therefore, best tried through military commissions." But these commissions will be reformed to fall in line with the Constitution -- torture cannot be used as evidence, hearsay is more scrutinized, and greater rights for detainees to choose their counsel.

3. Those that are deemed innocent and will be released: "The courts have spoken. They have found that there is no legitimate reason to hold 21 of the people currently held at Guantanamo."

4. "The fourth category of cases involves detainees who we have determined can be transferred safely to another country. So far, our review team has approved 50 detainees for transfer." 

5. Those "who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people." The next quote is critical: 

"We're going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases, because evidence may be tainted, but who, nonetheless, pose a threat to the security of the United States... Examples of that threat include people who've received extensive explosives training at Al Qaida training camps or commanded Taliban troops in battle or expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States. Let me repeat, I am not going release individuals who endanger the American people."

A minute later, the president says, "But if we continue to make decisions within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes." And at three other points in the remarks, Obama stresses the importance of avoiding "fear-mongering" (his words) when discussing national security.

These two sets of quotes are, of course, a stark contradiction. But wait, there's more! A third set of incongruities: Obama spoke frequently about the need to uphold the rule of law and the values of the United States. The most instructive quote: "I took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution as commander-in-chief. And as a citizen, I know that we must never, ever turn our back on its enduring principles for expedient's sake."

I will simplify these three premises to make the fallacy more clear (contradiction in bold):
1. Rule of law will be upheld.
2. Appeals to fear are illegitimate means to make important decisions.
3. Some detainees will not be subject to the rule of law because Anericans should be afraid of the extraordinary security threat that they pose.

(I am not the only one that spotted this contradiction.)

One particular thing bothers me about this contradiction. As stated before, Barack Obama is a genuinely intelligent person trained in the art of logic. Thus, there is a reasonable chance that he knows, with a clear head, that he is rhetorically lying. There is no rational way that he can simultaneously uphold numbers 1, 2, and 3 above. So unless he has made a mistake, Obama is insincere about at least one of them. This bothers me. It ought to bother you. 

Leaving aside the extremely disappointing possibility that President Obama lied, there is the separate but (more) important problem of what to do about these detainees that continue to "pose a threat to the security of the United States." 

The solution: try to rehabilitate them and then let them go.   

First, the rehab step. Many of these prisoners are ideologically motivated and justify their violence through their religion. One way to change these motivations is to convince them to reinterpret their religion in a way that delegitimizes violence. It is performed by allowing religious scholars -- Islamic clerics in this case -- to argue with prisoners about doctrine. Rehab is a highly successful tool in Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and the US military in Iraq. (Here's a more detailed article on rehabilitation and its success.)

Second, whether or not rehab ultimately works, prisoners must be let go if they are not found guilty under the rule of law. This happens every day with people in the US prison system who have been trained with or have grown up within violent gangs, openly express hate toward other gangs or groups of people, or who could possibly kill Americans. Although they are effectively the same as Gitmo detainees, we would not claim that "they are at war with the United States." 

True, compared to the average citizen, these prisoners are more likely to commit a crime. But these are the sacrifices that we make in a system of law. Furthermore, if exceptions can be made for them, then they can be made for you.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Test for the Chinese Communist Party

Recently, the memoir of China's top leader during the 1989 Tiananmen protests was published. But this isn't just any book. 

Based on 30 hours of audio testimony by Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman from 1987-1989, the book details Zhao's opposition to the repression of protestors. He also expresses strong support for the democratic goals of the Tiananmen movement: "In fact, it is the Western parliamentary democratic system that has demonstrated the most vitality. It seems that this system is currently the best one available." Further, he says, "If we don't move toward this goal, it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China's market economy." (Full disclosure: I am waiting for the book to be shipped to me and have not read it. My evidence is based on reports of the publication.)

The English version of this book, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, is available in Hong Kong and will soon be sold in the US. The Chinese version will be released in China at the end of May. This is, of course, right before the 20th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square protests. Thus, it is particularly inconvenient for a CCP that is already sensitive to any mention of this issue in the media or among Chinese civil society.

This will be a test for China's leadership. At the very least, Zhao's memoir is going to foment discussion and reevaluation about the reasons and legitimacy of the Chinese government's use of the army to quell dissent in Beijing two decades ago. At the most, the memoir will raise questions about the need for more political freedom in China today. 

The CCP's response to this event can vary widely:

1) Suppression. At one extreme, the CCP could ban the sale of the book anywhere in China, tighten its internet surveillance on Tiananmen discussion, and ramp up its prosecution for mention of the subject. But since the book is coming directly from the former #1 man of the CCP, this option would seem particularly paranoid and contradictory. Such steps would also express a distrust in the Chinese people to handle Zhao's accounts. This could seriously risk marring the image -- and even the legitimacy -- of the CCP among its populace.

2) More of the same. The government could allow the book to be sold but continue its policy of prohibiting open conversation on the historical events. This seems the most likely option. Not only does it require the least amount of change in policy -- always an issue in a bureaucracy -- but it still hedges strongly against the Tiananmen issue becoming a larger social movement -- always a concern for the CCP in country frequently wrought by large protests in the past century. The CCP does not plan on significant political reform in the next five years -- the focus is economic and environmental. So this response to the book seems most in line with the Communist's plan. It wouldn't score any points with the international or domestic audiences, but it wouldn't lose any either. Least risk, least reward.   

3) Opportunism. The government could allow the sale of the memoir and then allow further civil society discussion on what Zhao's testimony means for the historical account of the Tiananmen incident. Further, the CCP could release a statement responding to the new information, thereby framing the issue in the public before other prominent voices could do so. This approach holds more risk but significantly more reward. On the one hand, allowing the public to begin discussing Tiananmen more openly could provide an opportunity for democratic forces within society to readily gain support for contemporary democratic demands, possibly escalating into another movement. On the other hand, if the CCP frames the issue first as being a primarily historic one, then it can gain in two ways: a) it could prevent escalation by implicitly setting limits to the discussion and b) the CCP can continue to associate itself with Zhao, who is highly respected among the Chinese people. Finally, this option would also score big points with the international community. (However, one could argue that China has more international influence today than it has since the 19th century doesn't need the boost in international leverage right now.) 

4) Pull out all the stops. Of course, the CCP could always use this as an opening to allow the sudden open conversation of democracy in current political reforms. Not only is this highly unlikely, but such a sudden transition and reversal of policy would be risky. This step could feasibly be taken in the next five years, but the first step ought to be sorting out the facts of history in a public conversation. 

As stated earlier, #2 is the most likely reaction as it falls in line with the Communist Party's current plan. I would be elated to be wrong and see #3 come out of the the government -- the people deserve some honesty on this historical matter and should be able to discuss their past openly. But the CCP has few interests in allowing Tiananmen to be discussed now. There really aren't any compelling political reasons for the CCP to act. They don't need a mandate to govern as long as they deliver a more prosperous and green economy. 

And let's all hope that we don't see #1. On the issue of Tiananmen, suppression of Zhao's book would, indeed, be a step back into history.   

Monday, May 11, 2009

Cold Winters

The EU recently signed an agreement with several countries to speed up the construction of the Nabucco gas pipe that will circumvent Ukraine and Russia. The goal is to both meet demand in the EU and reduce Russia's capabilities to cut off gas to shivering European countries in the dead of the Winter as it did this past season

Although meeting demand is an obvious imperative, the strategic goal of deleveraging Russia would require much more than Nabucco. According to the article, the pipeline will supply -- at best -- 5% of Europe's needs. This is compared to Russia's 20% slice of the EU's gas supply pie. So even if all 5% displaced Russian gas, Russian will remain in a strong position.

Furthermore, Nabucco won't be complete until 2014. Any advantage it might provide Europe is far-off at this point.

Seeing as global warming isn't working quite fast enough to reduce the EU's Winter gas demand by 20% in the next five years, the European Union would be wise to alter its strategy toward Russia. Together with the US, the EU needs to take away Russia's legitimate excuses. Namely, the implicit containment strategy of NATO and a missile shield in Eastern Europe. 

Obama's move to link the missile shield to Iran is smart. But in accepting new NATO members, Russia ought to be brought back into negotiations over new members through the NATO-Russia Council. (The first meeting since the Georgian war commences next week.)

Until Russia ceases to feel threatened by the West, it will continue to assert its privileged position as Gas King... and Europeans will suffer more cold winters. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Clinton Slips on an Easy Question

Last Friday, Secretary of State Clinton was asked if the State Department is taking a softer tone with Hugo Chavez (president of Venezuela). And if the US is doing this, then why?

And in her response (last question on this webpage), Clinton made a significant mistake: 
"So we’re going to try some different approaches. No illusions about who we’re dealing with or what the issues are. But I think it’s worth a try, because what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked very well. And, in fact, if you look at the gains, particularly in Latin America, that Iran is making and China is making, it’s quite disturbing. I mean, they are building very strong economic and political connections with a lot of these leaders. I don’t think that’s in our interest."
This was absolutely unneeded. There is no reason to -- on the record -- explicitly associate America's more cooperative posture toward Latin America with countering the "disturbing gains" that another country is making in the region. Briefly, here are some primary reasons for excluding such language:

1. First, it can be debated whether or not more cooperation (i.e. more aid and economic assistance) between China and countries in L. America is necessarily a bad thing.

2. Even if it were, it goes unsaid. Anybody who cares to know about US foreign policy knows that America would engage more readily with the world in order to have a greater degree of influence. It's implicit. And what is also implicit is that if America has more influence, then other countries necessarily have a lesser ratio of influence. 

3. Clinton herself -- as well as President Obama -- will openly agree that a healthy US relationship with China is and will continue to be one of the most important US foreign policy priorities. Publicly stating, then, that Chinese influence is "disturbing" is counter-productive. It both slaps China in the face and expresses a significant lack of trust of China. This is intensified when China is being compared to Iran, which is far more inflammatory in its rhetoric and deed than China.  

Ironically, Clinton ends her remarks with this: "My bottom line is: What’s best for America? How do we try to influence behavior that is more in our interest than not? And that’s how we’re looking at it."

I would turn the question back on her. Apparently, her behavior and her bottom line are misaligned.

Let's hope the Chinese overlook this one...