August 1, 2014

McClatchy’s Misguided Definition of Terrorism

Screen Shot 2013-06-16 at 2.08.41 PMThis week, a journalist for McClatchy, Amina Ismail, asked White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in a news conference about the Boston bombings if civilian collateral deaths in Afghanistan make U.S. forces “terrorists” there too. When I first started seeing the reports of this, I had to seek out the original transcript of the exchange to get clarity and make sure I wasn’t misreading or misinterpreting Ms. Ismail’s question. Surely, I thought, a professional with sense enough to get a job with a reputable news service like McClatchy would have at lease the most basic of understandings of the concept of terrorism.

But after reviewing this reporter’s actual question, I find myself disappointed not only in her journalistic and intellectual capabilities, but also in McClatchy’s quality standards if this is who they chose to send to the White House on their behalf.

Ismail: “I send my deepest condolence to the victims and families in Boston. But President Obama said that what happened in Boston was an act of terrorism. I would like to ask, Do you consider the U.S. bombing on civilians in Afghanistan earlier this month that left 11 children and a woman killed a form of terrorism? Why or why not?”

I have no clue where Ismail was educated, but someone there evidently forgot to teach her what the concept of terrorism is all about – intent. If one’s intent is to instill terror within a civilian population, then we’re talking about true terrorism. However, if a nation’s armed forces are targeting another nation’s military or an insurgent force, even one that hides within civilian facilities and populations, that, by definition, is not terrorism.

Mr. Carney’s response was also concerning. Telling Ms. Ismail that he would need to get more information and refer her to the Defense Department when asked if the U.S. had committed an act of terrorism in Afghanistan was the wrong answer. The first response from any White House or U.S. government spokesman should have been an unequivocal “no.” The White House should not need to gather more information or check with the Pentagon to figure out whether the Obama administration uses terrorism as a strategy or tactic. I feel confident in speaking for Mr. Carney in saying that it does not, even without checking with the Pentagon.

What Mr. Carney may not have known off the top of his head when answering Ms. Ismail’s question at the news conference was that the air strike to which she was referring also killed six Taliban insurgents, including two senior Taliban leaders, Ali Khan and Gul Raouf, who the Afghan Interior Ministry itself confirmed had been leading attacks within Kunar Province northeast of the city of Jalalabad along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Sometimes our intelligence in the most remote parts of the world is wrong and such strikes may miss their intended targets. But this time those targets are confirmed to have been successfully eliminated in this air strike. Unfortunately for the civilians who were killed in the process, these insurgents and Taliban leaders chose to hide by embedding themselves around innocent civilians. This is a hallmark tactic of cowardly insurgents, who constantly remind us that they still have no regard for even the lives of their families and neighbors.

Those in positions of access and responsibility, like journalists covering the White House, especially when those journalists are sanctioned and employed by legitimate news services like McClatchy, should know better. Shame on this “journalist.” And if this is the type of “journalism” that McClatchy endorses now, then shame on them too.

Libya, Ghadafi, and the Concept of Policy

Much ado has been made lately about the U.S. “policy” toward Libya. But policy is an overarching concept, and it is intended to be applied categorically across the board. The notion of a foreign policy towards one particular country is a bit like saying we have a national tax policy for one individual American.

Policy should not be idiosyncratic. If the United States has a policy of intervening to stop genocide, then it should intervene to stop every genocide, or have a good explanation why it is not stopping a particular genocide if it is its policy to do so. Likewise, a U.S. policy of preventing foreign governments from murdering its citizens should result in U.S. action anywhere a government acts to commit murder against its own citizens.

This is ostensibly the policy basis of U.S. actions against Libya. The Libyan government was bombing and otherwise murdering its own citizens in an attempt to halt a rebellion and insurgency, and President Obama and NATO elected to intervene to stop it based on an alleged policy. If this is truly U.S. policy, however, then we should see similar interventions elsewhere. Surely Libya is not the only government to threaten or bomb its own citizens.

No one would deny that North Korea, for example, has one of the most brutal regimes it he world. The North Korean government is known to murder its citizens who try to escape into China, hoard donated food supplies while its people starve, and even operate concentration camps within the country for political prisoners and their families.

Murder of civilians, starving citizens, concentration camps… aren’t these all policy reasons we have used to justify foreign interventions before? Indeed. So why have we not put a no-fly zone over North Korea? Or Sudan? The Sudanese government is widely known to have supported genocide against its own citizens in Darfur by arming regional militias. So why were U.S. or NATO or any coalition’s fighter jets not taking out strategic targets in Sudan?

I don’t necessarily have definitive answers to these questions, and I actually do support military intervention against Libya (and would have against Sudan). Rather, my role here has been to try to bring some clarity to an often misappropriated term – policy. It can really serve to delegitimize U.S. actions and intentions if we misuse that concept, as we do so frequently. Claiming that we are intervening in Libya because we have a “policy” of military intervention when a government is murdering its citizens leads many to question why we are not intervening in other areas when other governments murder their citizens. And those questions are legitimate ones.

Instead, we should be honest with the world, and with ourselves. We are intervening in Libya because Ghadafi is a nuisance and we believe the world – and Libya – would be better off without him in power.

Defense Authorization Bill Needs Lame Duck Action

For 48 consecutive years the U.S. Congress has passed, and the President has signed, a defense authorization bill to authorize funding for new weapons systems, military research programs, troop pay raises, recruitment bonuses and other significant programs and benefits for America’s armed forces. This year, however, Congress may decide to go on an extended holiday vacation in mid-December rather than stick around to take up this important piece of annual legislation. The President, too, may decide to take off for warm, sunny Hawaii rather than stick around cold, dreary Washington to help strong-arm the bill through a weary Congress. But the work still needs to get done, and it needs to get done before anyone in Washington boards a plane for winter vacation.

Both parties are playing textbook political games with this legislation, and it needs to stop. If for the sake of just doing the right thing isn’t enough, then the fact that Americans can now see through the rhetoric-laden press statements and cheap tactical maneuvering should provide sufficient motivation. While Democratic leaders in the Senate have tried to delay striking a procedural deal with moderates as long as possible, hoping in the end to be able to blame those same moderates, Republicans have for days been holding all legislation hostage in order to coerce the Democrats into a deal on tax policy. In the end, anyone with a high school education will be able to recognize – and hopefully remember – the ridiculous games each party was willing to play while a ready-to-go defense bill sat collecting dust.

And while this circus plays out on Capitol Hill and in the media, the White House, too, continues to refuse to make any significant push on behalf of this important defense legislation. It is clear that tax cuts are currently everyone’s priority, but the prioritization of the START treaty by the White House, a bill that can still pass next year, over the defense authorization bill, which, in its current form, cannot pass next year, is quite baffling, especially given the immediate pay-off of many of the defense bill’s provisions – both literal and metaphorical.

Washington is in perpetual need of rethinking its priorities, but this is one point in time where that cliché is especially appropriate. If Congress and the President whisk themselves out of town for vacation without a defense bill having been passed and signed into law, they will deserve the public scorn that will surely follow. And if they skip town without a defense bill while trying to point fingers the whole way home, the public will see right though it.

Arms Sale to India Harming War on Terror Efforts?

This week, President Obama will visit India as part of a multi-nation tour of Asia’s democracies, including also Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea. While in India, President Obama is expected to discuss and possibly seal an important military aircraft deal that would provide India with military transport aircraft along with more fighter jets for India’s military arsenal. While this escalation of India’s military capability is seen as positive in terms of relations with China, whose rise the U.S. is trying to keep in check in the region by supporting the strengthening of its neighbors, it is perhaps an infinitely incomprehensible move in terms of relations with Pakistan and the ongoing War on Terror.

Pakistan is widely known to calculate its every strategic and tactical move according to the lingering threat its leaders see coming from its eastern border – India. The India factor in Pakistani politics and its security calculus pre-dates the War on Terror by many decades, but it’s a factor that rarely seems to play into Western analyses of Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Pakistan’s tolerance of the Taliban and al-Qaeda seems inexplicable to many in the West, especially given the nation’s public commitment to fighting the extremist elements within its borders and its close ties to and cooperation with the U.S. But a closer look at Pakistan’s longer-term calculus brings into sharper focus why it would continue to tolerate, and even perhaps surreptitiously support, these elements.

While Pakistan views the extremists within its borders as a moderate threat to the Pakistani regime, it also views those same extremists as a potential para-military force for use in a future conflict with India. India-Pakistan tensions are not only responsible for Pakistan’s tolerance of – and the ISI’s collaboration with – radical extremists, but it has also given rise to the introduction of nuclear weapons into those two severely under-developed nations. Along with the development of nuclear capability also comes the cultivation of a domestic nuclear scientific community, a valuable target for other nations seeking nuclear capability.

Pakistan is not a nation we need to be provoking by selling military transport aircraft and fighter jets to its sworn enemy next door. While this Indian arms sale may be seen as a one step forward with respect to growing Chinese influence, a perceived long-term threat, it is two steps back with respect to a more pressing national security problem – relations with Pakistan.