Day: September 12, 2012

In Weapons Advocacy as in Health, Prevention is Better Than Cure

A heavily attended side-event today was the Norwegian Red Cross‘ panel discussion “Looking Back to Look Forward: The Cluster Munitions Convention and What it Means for Limiting the Impact of Other Weapons Systems.”

Richard Moyes, coordinator of the International Network Against Explosive Weapons, presented a compelling address about the importance of regulating the use of explosives in populated areas, and putting the burden of proof on states to document the humanitarian costs of the weapons they use in conflict zones. University of Sheffield’s Noel Sharkey presented on the dangers of trends toward increasingly autonomous weaponry. And Peter Herby, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Arms Unit, had a clear message for delegates and NGOs that tied together these specific calls for action: states need to do more to properly review the humanitarian acceptability of weapons – cyber-weapons, non-lethal incapacitants, autonomous weapons, nano-weapons, bio-weapons and others – before they are widely deployed.

States have long been required to do so under Article 36 of the first 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, but according to Herby as few as 12 signatory governments have established mechanisms for actually reviewing new weapons before they are deployed. And nor is there any independent body responsible for overseeing those reviews, as exists other areas of global governance. More typically, weapons development proceeds apace until some outcry from civil society, as is now beginning to happen in the case of autonomous weapons.

But this outcry is often too slow in coming: civil society has historically been likelier to condemn weapons already in widespread use than new weapons whose effects are uncertain. The reason is simple: it’s much easier to conduct ‘remedial’ campaigns on issues where widespread humanitarian harms have already been documented, as a combination of testimonial and statistical evidence of a problem is often a prerequisite for creating a sense of urgency around an issue. Thus campaigns against landmines, cluster munitions, incendiaries and explosive violence have emerged in recent years only after decades of mounting and evident civilian harms.

Nonetheless, as Herby emphasized today, “prevention is better than a cure.” And as he pointed out, pre-emptive bans are not unheard of nor necessarily infeasible: two important examples are the ban on exploding bullets promulgated by Russia in the nineteenth century at the behest of military specialists; and the ban on blinding lasers negotiated in 1995, before the widespread deployment of these weapons. In the case of nuclear weapons in particular, Herby said:

“The only option is prevention. This is an area in which we need to make efforts because remediation will be too late.”

Richard Moyes of Article36.org, an NGO dedicated to humanitarian disarmament, echoed Herby’s sentiments regarding nuclear weapons in a response to an ICAN representative’s query on how to move forward to a nuclear ban:

“You can feel a sense of momentum already in that direction, a fairly clear concept of a treaty prohibition on nuclear weapons is starting to take holds in a number of people’s minds. I think we can take confidence from the CCM that we can learn from communities that worked together on that. And I think we can learn from the overall standard-setting initiatives here as well, that we need to take it into our own hands to establish the standards we want to see in the world, not sit beholden to those who hold over our heads weapons capable of killing thousands of people in an unacceptable way. We as a community can start to address that, states without nuclear weapons can start to address that, we don’t need to wait to have nuclear armed states on board to articulate a treaty prohibition on these weapons. We need to make clear those weapons of mass destruction need to go the same way as chemical and biological weapons, landmines and clusters, subject to a straightforward prohibition on their use, stockpiling and production.”

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Foreign Policy to the Fore: Is Romney Below the Bar?

U.S. Consulate in Benghazi 9/12/2012

I heard Dan Drezner in the car on NPR yesterday talking about whether foreign policy might matter in this election. And, last night and today, with the events in Egypt and Libya, he may be more right than even he anticipated.

We may have an incident, in the wake of the 11th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, that will shape the contours of the election and have wider repercussions for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Politically, does it constitute a disqualifying moment for Mitt Romney?
Like Dan, I’ve been of the mind that foreign policy doesn’t matter for most Americans in this election, and that barring a crisis, Mitt Romney only minimally needed to be seen as above the bar to serve as commander in chief. Foreign policy might affect the election on the margins with military families in key swing states.

As Dan suggested in recent posts, Romney did himself even more damage in recent months and during the convention in which he unnecessarily antagonized our closest allies on his foreign tour and then failed to mention our troops in Afghanistan during his convention speech.

Both actions, somewhat minor at the time, may now be overshadowed by Romney’s ill-timed and intemperate rush to blame the Obama administration for apologizing for actions by private actors in the U.S. that might have outraged Muslims (namely a bizarre and crude anti-Muslim propaganda “film” by a mysterious person who claimed Jewish, American, and Israeli roots who appeared to be none of those things). Never mind that the so-called “apology” was a tweet issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo at a time before the protesters’ attacks were launched where the embassy sought to defuse a volatile situation. Never mind that the Obama administration quickly distanced itself from this tweet.

All of this would have been small beer had it not been for the tragic events that unfolded over the night that took the life of U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, who was killed by a mob apparently outraged by the same film (or, what may have been an pre-planned attack by Islamists taking advantage of the moment to exact revenge for a recent assassination in Yemen).

All of these events remain murky (here’s a timeline) so what’s the sensible thing for a presidential candidate to do in the face of incomplete information? Well, most Republicans issued outrage about the loss of life of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans. Senator John McCain, for example, along with Senators Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman issued a statement: “We are anguished and outraged by the death of four citizens of the United States.” Most politicians said something along the lines of President Obama who said that there was “no justification” for the kinds of violence that had occurred in the wake of publicity of the film.

So what did Romney do? Romney issued a statement last night blaming the Obama Administration for what he called a “disgraceful” apology, that is the tweet by the embassy in Cairo:

I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.

Then, this morning, Romney doubled down with a press conference sandwiched in between Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks and the President’s. By this time, it was clear that the events had escalated in the region and between the time Romney issued his first statement and today, the Obama administration had rejected that so-called apology and, more importantly, our Ambassador in Libya and three other Americans were now dead.

Romney’s statement to rally our country at a potentially perilous moment went like this:

“It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values.”

“America will not tolerate attacks against our citizens and against our embassies. We’ll defend, also, our constitutional rights of speech and assembly and religion.” 

“Apology for America’s values is never the right course.”

The reaction by many in the media as well as a number of establishment Republicans is that this statement was unseemly and ill-timed political opportunism, especially since the situation is dangerous and as we mourn the loss of life (look at my Twitter feed for today for a long list of detractors like Peggy Noonan, David Frum, Ed Rogers, Joe Scarborough, Nick Burns, even Romney flak John Sununu).

Ben Smith captured a number of off the record reactions by Republicans that were scathing (“Bungle… utter disaster…not ready for prime time… not presidential… Lehman moment.” It is certainly too soon to elevate this moment to be more than it is, but the swift condemnation by both the media and many Republican insiders could redound upon those handful of undecideds for whom presidential candidates must at least meet a basic threshold of competency.

Beyond the politics, with the situation in the Middle East and Afghanistan especially volatile, the next 24 to 48 hours may determine whether or not this moment is more consequential in terms of U.S. interests in the region. While the Libyan government has repudiated these attacks, Egypt’s leader Mohamed Morsi was slow to condemn them. Let’s hope the situation settles down and this doesn’t become a bigger issue.

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Anti-American Violence in the Middle East: Agency, Morality, Politics, and (a) Flim

Note: this started out as “Morning Linkage” but quickly became an extended comment. I apologize for the poor proofing.

Four Americans, including US ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in the extremist Islamist attack on the American consulate in Libya, Hayes Brown has a good, quick, overview of the circumstances surrounding the attacks in Libya and Egypt. As he concludes:

Finally, the relationship between the United States and the Egyptian and Libyan governments will likely hinge on the response of their leadership. The Libyan government, including President Mohammed el-Megarif, has swiftly condemned the attack. Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Kieb has said that Libya is “determined to take action against those who murdered Amb. Stevens & other innocent people.” President Morsy of Egypt has yet to issue a statement on the assault on the U.S. Embassy.

James Joyner weighs in at The National Interest, where he criticizes the (since repudiated and, it seems, removed) statement by the US embassy in Cairo:

While the instincts to emphasize America’s tradition of religious inclusiveness and to try to head off violent reactions are laudatory, the statement is offensive on its own terms and simply outrageous in light of the assaults on American sovereign soil and the death of American diplomats that followed. 

In point of fact, making a movie commenting on the sexual proclivities of someone who died some fourteen hundred years ago in no way constitutes “incitement” under any meaningful use of the term. 

More importantly, the United States government has no business whatsoever condemning the exercise of free speech, the most fundamental of civil liberties, by a member of the citizenry that employs and finances it. While the First Amendment right to free speech is subject to certain time, place and manner restrictions, the fact that it might “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” is decidedly not among them.

James is wading into difficult terrain. I suspect the the inflection point for debate in the US commentariat will be between those who view recent events through the prism of “right-wing Christian extremists attempt to incite violence” and “right-wing Islamist extremists kill Americans over exercise of free speech.” So, after praising the Obama administration for its earlier handling of Terry Jones’ religious hatred, he puts it this way:

To be sure, Terry Jones’s bigotry is hardest type of speech to defend. It has no obvious redeeming value and is specifically intended to be offensive. But we’re a country that recognizes the right of citizens to burn our flag in protest, understanding that the very fact that doing so outrages so many Americans demonstrates how powerful a form of speech it is. 

The fact that the words of some backwoods Florida preacher with a tiny congregation can spark murder and mayhem in Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya is a powerful indictment of the immaturity of those civil societies. Islam has endured for more than a millennium, and its followers constitute more than a fifth of humanity; surely, it can withstand the insults of a half-wit.

Blake Hounshell preemptively condemns the politicization of these events:

This is, obviously, a terrible tragedy and a shocking turn of events on a day when Americans mourned those killed 11 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001. Stevens was by all accounts a popular diplomat, having established the U.S. presence in Benghazi during the war and been an avid supporter of the opposition. Here’s a video introducing him to Libyans. 

What makes the deaths all the more tragic is that they will inevitably become politicized. On Tuesday, conservative websites were highly critical of a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that came ahead of a protest where demonstrators breached the embassy’s walls in a moment reminiscent of 1979 in Iran. Liz Cheney and the Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee joined in, accusing the administration of issuing an “apology” for a bizarre and mysterious film attacking the Prophet Mohammed that served as a pretext for the protests. And the Romney campaign issued its own statement. Wednesday will likely bring more finger-pointing

 I have only a few things to add.

First, we should not efface the agency of anyone involved. For Terry Jones and his ilk, provoking violence is a feature, not a bug, of attacking Islam. They believe that Western Civilization in general, and the United States in particular, is already at war with Islam. This war takes many forms, but all involve unanswered or inadequately answered Islamic aggression: from terrorist attacks to “stealth Sharia” to the subversion of the US government by pro-Islamists and ‘useful idiots’ alike. Forcing a confrontation is the best way to advance the cause of ‘waking up’ Americans to this war and thereby bringing about more aggressive US policy.

None of this, however, makes those who storm US consulates and murder any less culpable for their actions. They are not irrational man-children. They engage in their own “forcing mechanisms” designed to further their own causes — that of anti-Americanism, opposition to their own governments, and of transnational Islamism. And yes, their “forcing mechanism” involves killing people, which is far more morally repugnant than engaging in offensive speech, drawing offensive cartoons, and making films. Indeed, the storming of the US consulates and the murder of Americans has more in common, as (im)moral actions, with those of Michael Page than with Terry Jones.

We should be sophisticated enough, I submit, to recognize that anti-Islamic extremists and militant jihadists want some of the same things: they want to polarize politics along religious lines. This is a dangerous and reprehensible goal. At the same time, the particular means at stake in this specific action-reaction chain are morally distinguishable.  In short, both frames contain truth and neither should be allowed to triumph over the other.

Second, Blake and others are right to note the ongoing dangers reflected in these events. This cannot be emphasized enough: there are individuals and movements, both in the United States and the Middle East, who aim to collapse multiple sites of difference, conflict, and cooperation into a single pivot point: the ‘American-led West’ against ‘Islam.’ What we’re seeing now in the fallout of the attacks is what has been going on for a long time: numerous officials, regimes, movements, and individuals struggling to advance or avoid this kind of polarization.

The politics of this struggle are hazardous for everyone involved. We have seen, and will continue to see, US allies and partners say and do things we find offensive or, at the least, play poorly in American domestic politics. Some of these statements and actions will involve political calculation or miscalculation. Others will reflect underlying divergence from American values and goals. But they need to be judged through the prism of the politics of political survival — as carried out by officials trying to balance competing demands and constituencies. Thus, one hopes that not only the Obama Administration, but responsible US politicians, heed Blake’s sage advice:

The Obama administration must tread delicately during this heated political season. This crude film — which “portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, pedophile and fraud,” as the Wall Street Journal put it — may have been obscure before, but it’s not anymore. Afghan President Karzai has already issued a statement condemning the movie — but not the embassy attacks. Radical Islamist groups and countries like Iran will be looking to exploit the situation, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere. I suspect this won’t be the last time somebody tries to breach the walls of a U.S. facility abroad this year. And there will inevitably be questions about the intelligence warnings and the lack of security in Benghazi and Cairo, to say nothing of the broader concerns raised about America’s relationship with these new “democracies.” But the White House needs to be smart and above all careful — it can’t let its response be dictated by the exigencies of the election back home.

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