Tag Archives: al qaeda

A country-by-country look at Trump’s immigration executive order

Yazidi women in both Syria and Iraq have suffered greatly at the hands of ISIS — but they will be caught up in Trump-era restrictions on refugees all the same. (Reuters)

There’s a neighborhood in Los Angeles, commonly known as Tehrangeles, that is home to up to a half-million Persian Americans, most of whom fled Iran after the 1979 Islamic republic or who are their second-generation children and third-generation grandchildren, all of them American citizens. 

The neighborhood runs along Westwood Boulevard, and it is home to some of the wealthiest Angelinos. But under the executive action that US president Donald Trump signed Friday afternoon, their relatives in Iran will have a much more difficult time visiting them in Los Angeles (or elsewhere in the United States). The impact of the order, over the weekend, proved far deeper than originally imagined last week when drafts of the order circulated widely in the media.

The ban attempts to accomplish at least five different actions, all of which began to take effect immediately on Friday:

  • First, the order institutes a ban for 90 days on immigrants from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya.
  • Secondly, the ban initially seemed to include even US permanent residents with valid green cards with citizenship from those seven countries (though the Department of Homeland Security was walking that back on Sunday, after reports that presidential adviser and former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon initially overruled DHS objections Friday). But it also includes citizens of third countries with dual citizenship (which presents its own problems and which the White House does not seem to be walking back).
  • Third, it institutes a 120-day freeze on all refugees into the United States from anywhere across the globe and an indefinite ban for all refugees from Syria.
  • Fourth, it places a cap of 50,000 on all refugees for 2017 — that’s far less than nearly 85,000 refugees who were admitted to the United States in 2016, though it’s not markedly less than the nearly 55,000 refugees admitted in 2011 (the lowest point of the Obama administration) and it’s more than the roughly 25,000 to 30,000 refugees admitted in 2002 and 2003 during the Bush administration.
  • Fifth, and finally, when the United States once again permits refugees, it purports to prioritize admitting those refugees ‘when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution.’ It’s widely assumed that this is a back-door approach to prioritizing Christian refugees. More on that below.

In practice, it’s already incredibly difficult to get a visa of any variety if you are coming from one of those countries, with a few exceptions. But formalizing the list is both overbroad (it captures mostly innocent travelers and refugees) and underbroad (it doesn’t include potential terrorists from other countries), and experts believe it will hurt US citizens, US businesses and bona fide refugees who otherwise might have expected asylum in the United States. On Sunday, many Republican leaders, including Arizona senator John McCain admitted as such:

Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism. At this very moment, American troops are fighting side-by-side with our Iraqi partners to defeat ISIL. But this executive order bans Iraqi pilots from coming to military bases in Arizona to fight our common enemies. Our most important allies in the fight against ISIL are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred. This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.

On the campaign trail, Trump initially called for a ban on all Muslims from entering the country; when experts responded that such a broad-based religious test would be unconstitutional, Trump said he would instead extend the ban on the basis of nationality.

Friday’s executive action looks like the first step of institutionalizing the de facto Muslim ban that Trump originally promised (thought it would on its face be blatantly unconstitutional).

Of course, as many commentators have noted, the list doesn’t contain the countries that match the nationalities of the September 2001 hijackers — mostly Saudi Arabia. But it doesn’t contain Lebanon, though Hezbollah fighters have aligned with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war. It doesn’t include Egypt, which is the most populous Muslim country in north Africa and home to one of the Sept. 2001 terrorists. Nor does it include Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Nor Pakistan nor Afghanistan, where US troops fought to eradicate forms of hardline Taliban government and where US troops ultimately tracked and killed Osama bin Laden.

This isn’t a call to add more countries to the list, of course, which would be even more self-defeating as US policy. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Bannon and Trump, anticipating this criticism, will use it to justify a second round of countries.

In the meanwhile, the diplomatic fallout is only just beginning (and certainly will intensify — Monday is the first full business day after we’ve read the actual text of Friday’s executive order). Already, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, citing the obligations of international law under the Geneva Conventions, disavowed the ban. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau used it as an opportunity to showcase his country’s openness to immigration and welcomed the refugees to Canada. Even Theresa May, the British prime minister who shared a stage with Trump in Washington on Friday afternoon, distanced herself from the ban, and British foreign minister Boris Johnson called it ‘divisive.’

But the most direct impact will be felt in relations with the seven countries directly affected by the ban, and there are already indications that the United States will suffer a strategic, diplomatic and possible economic price for Trump’s hasty unilateral executive order.  Continue reading A country-by-country look at Trump’s immigration executive order

One chart that explains Obama era Middle East policy

BoA ChartChart credit to Bank of America.

Within a half-century, the most important fact of the Obama administration might well be that it presided over an energy boom that de-linked, for the first time in many decades, US dependence on Middle Eastern oil and foreign policy.USflagIran Flag Icon

No other fact more explains the deal, inked with the Islamic Republic of Iran, that brings Iran ever closer into the international community — and no other fact brings together so neatly the often contradictory aspects of US president Barack Obama’s policy in the Middle East today.

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RELATED: Winners and losers in the Iran nuclear deal

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With the exception of a small peak in the mid-1980s, when prices tanked after the oil shocks of the 1970s, US imports of foreign oil are lower than ever — and that’s a critical component to understanding Tuesday’s deal between the P5+1 and Iran. Thanks, in part, to the shale oil and fracking revolutions, US oil reserves are at their highest levels than at any point since 1975. Bank of America’s chart (pictured above) shows that US dependence on foreign oil — net imports as a percentage of consumption — dropped to 26.5% by the end of 2014.

Making sense of the Obama administration’s Mideast contradictions

One of the sharpest criticisms of the Obama administration is that it has no overweening strategy for the region. On the surface, the contradictions are legion. To take just three examples: Continue reading One chart that explains Obama era Middle East policy

After US torture report, how to enshrine ‘never again’?


Gul Rahman (pictured above), an Afghan citizen arrested by US officials in Pakistan in October 2002, froze to his death on the floor of a prison in US captivity just a month later, stripped half-naked and chained to a wall in a secret ‘black site’ operated by the US Central Intelligence Agency in Kabul. USflag

That’s one of several revelations from the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report respecting the CIA’s use of torture techniques in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks and throughout two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the duration of the presidency of George W. Bush.

The techniques used by CIA interrogators, as outlined in the report, are more gruesome than previously reported, though I can’t imagine that it surprises anyone. It’s not completely unrealistic, for example, that interrogators could have waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times or that officials ‘rectally force-fed’ a suspect or conducted rectal searches that amounted to sexual assault. Vox has a look at the 16 most outrageous CIA abuses, and the Daily Beast has a similar look at the excesses described in the report, and there’s not much to add to it. The report speaks for itself — there’s not a particularly partisan way to spin ‘rectal rehydration.’

Like Bagram and Abu Ghraib and My Lai, the Kabul black site, known as the ‘Salt Pit,’ will become another byword for US hypocrisy, a new example of how American brutality abroad triumphed over the legal, moral and democratic ideals upon which the United States claims to hold sacred. In fact, the abuses that took place at the ‘Salt Pit’ make the prisoner abuses within the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib seem like a trip to summer camp.

Though the report redacts the role of other countries, responsibility for the shameful actions aren’t solely for the United States alone to bear, despite international calls, including from UN special rapporteur on counter terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, for the United States to prosecute the perpetrators of the worst CIA violations. But countries like Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Thailand, Egypt and many, many others (their roles not always clear from the redacted report) were happy to host CIA ‘black sites,’ sometimes at a price, where most of the alleged torture took place. It’s a reminder that, of course, the world’s a messy place and our allies, many of which are longstanding or emerging democracies themselves, are happy to be silent partners in the darker aspects of what’s been an often stabilizing US global presence.

The report’s release wasn’t even certain, given efforts by the CIA and the administration of Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, to prevent or redact much of the report. Over the weekend, US secretary of state John Kerry reportedly tried to delay the report’s release in a phone conversation with the chair of the intelligence committee, Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein of California. The CIA itself has even admitted that CIA personnel spied on Senate staffers throughout the five-year process of investigating and writing today’s 6,000-page report, for which only a redacted 480-page executive summary was released. The efforts have brought together an odd-bedfellows coalition of officials, including Feinstein, who otherwise holds hawkish views with respect to the Obama administration’s anti-terrorism efforts abroad, and Republican senators, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom have taken hard lines in favor of American interventionism in Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere.

The refrain that we hear over and over again is that the report’s release will help ensure that the CIA abuses of the 2000s (call them ‘enhanced interrogation’ or torture) won’t happen again.

But there’s really no guarantee that it won’t. Continue reading After US torture report, how to enshrine ‘never again’?

What’s the factual basis for killing Awlaki?


Though we don’t necessarily know incredibly much more about the US government’s factual basis for the targeted killing in September 2011 of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, the release of an Obama administration memo earlier today by a federal appeals court sheds new light on the administration’s legal rationale:USflag

A federal appeals court in New York on Monday made public a redacted version of a 2010 Justice Department memo that signed off on the targeted killing of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, without a trial, following Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. The memo, signed by David Barron, who was then the acting head of the department’s Office of Legal Counsel and is now a federal appeals court judge in Boston, concluded that it would be lawful to target Mr. Awlaki for killing if his capture was not feasible. Intelligence analysts had concluded that Mr. Awlaki was an operational terrorist.

The Obama administration fought the disclosure, initially refusing to confirm or deny the memo’s existence. In January 2013, a Federal District Court judge ruled that it could keep the memo secret. But in April, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that portions of the memo containing legal analysis — but not those compiling the evidence against Mr. Awlaki — must be made public.

The memo argues that 18 U.S.C. § 1119, which addresses the foreign killing of US nationals, must incorporate the public authority exception, and it further argues that the exception permits either the US Department of Defense and/or the US Central Intelligence Agency to carry out the contemplated operation against Awlaki. 

The memo also argues that Awlaki’s US citizenship doesn’t preclude DoD or CIA action, citing Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the 2004 Supreme Court ruling that, subject to certain due process requirements, permits the detention of a US citizen as an ‘enemy combatant.’

Sharper legal minds will parse the contents of the memo, parts of which were redacted, and it presents many obviously difficult questions:

  • Even if the US military is justified in killing Awlaki under the public authority exception, the CIA’s justification is a lot more controversial because it’s a US government agency, not the military. The heavy redactions in the memo, as it relates to the CIA, make the Justice Department’s rationale unclear.
  • The US government’s statutory basis for targeting Awlaki lies in the  Authorization to Use Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF), originally enacted in 2001, which authorizes efforts not only against al-Qaeda, but also against forces  ‘associated with’ al-Qaeda, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The argument is that this as true in Yemen (which, the Justice Department attorneys admit, is ‘far from the most active theater of combat’ between the United States and al-Qaeda.’) as it is in Afghanistan or anywhere in the world that al-Qaeda and ‘associated forces’ operate. But that broad global-battlefield interpretation isn’t universally accepted, even among many members of the US Congress that enacted the AUMF.
  • The memo contemplates that Awlaki’s US citizenship bestows some protections, even in Yemen, under the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and the Fourth Amendment. As regards the Fifth Amendment, the memo again points to Hamdi, which uses a Mathews v. Eldridge balancing test. In a scenario where a US citizen/enemy combatant poses a continued and imminent threat, the Justice Department attorneys argue that the public interest far outweighs the private interest of guaranteeing due process. Though the memo also acknowledges that Awlaki’s targeting constitutes a ‘seizure’ under the Fourth Amendment, the memo again points to the ‘reasonableness’ balancing tests elucidated by the Supreme Court in prior rulings on the constitutionality of seizures.

Nevertheless, the true heart of this case isn’t necessarily the black-letter legal reasoning, fascinating and controversial though it may be. Throughout the memo, the Justice Department attorneys essentially assume Awlaki’s guilt as fact. That’s fine, because no one was asking the Office of Legal Counsel to assess Awlaki’s guilt. But it’s one thing to argue that the AUMF applies in full force to the US government’s ability to target enemy combatants who are US citizens, and it’s quite another thing to argue that Awlaki was an enemy combatant in the first place.

Even if you are willing to defer to the Obama administration’s interpretation on all of the issues of the law involved — the applicability of the AUMF, the applicability of the public authority exception, the non-applicability of the Fifth Amendment, the Fourth Amendment or any mitigating factors that accrue on the basis of US citizenship — we still don’t know how the US government determines how a US citizen can be lawfully targeted for legal force.

The most relevant question, still unanswered, is how the US government concluded that Awlaki crossed the line from ‘preacher spewing noxious opinions’ to ‘operational al-Qaeda militant.’

First, what specific actions did Awlaki take that caused him to be enemy combatant?

Secondly, on the basis of what evidence did the US government determine that Awlaki was an enemy combatant?  

Finally, does anything about the process that the US government deployed in targeting Awlaki meet any kind of standards for due process, let alone those typically granted to US citizens under the Fifth Amendment?

On all three questions, we don’t know the answer because the Obama administration won’t release any information. Until and unless it does, the evidentiary standard for assassinating a US citizen abroad seems to be ‘when high-level government officials  conclude it.’ Continue reading What’s the factual basis for killing Awlaki?

Why is Syria holding a presidential election in the middle of a civil war?


It’s always been somewhat baffling to me why authoritarian rulers and dictators go through the motions of sham elections. Syria Flag Icon

The voters inside the country know better than anyone else that the elections aren’t a real choice, and in many cases, boycotting the vote or voting for the ‘wrong’ candidate, if a choice is even permitted, can carry perilous results.

International observers aren’t really fooled, either. With the proven work of folks like the National Democratic Institute and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, there’s a 21st century international standard for free and fair elections, and the NDA, OSCE and other similar groups have a thoroughgoing process for certifying the sanctity of elections in developing democracies.

Furthermore, in the world of social media and 24-hour news, it’s harder to carry out the kind of widespread fraud. That doesn’t mean elections are perfect. In Venezuela, the collapse of the state, governing institutions and chavismo mean that a totally fair election is almost impossible. But there’s nonetheless a limit — even with a decade’s worth of dirty tricks, Nicolás Maduro managed only a narrow win in April 2013, for example.

So why is Syrian president Bashar al-Assad pushing forward with an election on June 3?

In case you were wondering about the outcome, here’s a chart of every presidential election in Syria since Hafez al-Assad came to power in a military coup in 1971:


In each of the prior ‘elections,’ Syrian voters were presented with a yes-or-no choice on the incumbent, either Hafez al-Assad or, since his death in 2000, his son, Bashar al-Assad.  Continue reading Why is Syria holding a presidential election in the middle of a civil war?

Afghanistan hopes for calm as key presidential election approaches


Though there’s a long list of world elections approaching between now and the end of May — from Europe to India to South Africa — none of them will have nearly as direct an influence on US foreign policy as the presidential election in a small central Asian country of just 31 million people. afghanistan flag

On April 5, Afghanistan will hold only its third presidential election to select a successor to Hamid Karzai, who’s held the office since December 2001 and who is barred from seeking a third term under the country’s new constitution. By far, the largest challenge for Afghanistan’s new president secure will be to secure the country upon the US troop drawdown that’s expected to be complete by the end of 2014. Continue reading Afghanistan hopes for calm as key presidential election approaches

Will the US respect Yemeni parliament’s vote on drone attacks?

yemen graffiti drones

In a speech just four years ago, US admiral Mike Mullen, then chair of the joint chiefs of staff, outlined the US government’s approach to Yemen in an address to the US Naval War College.  By 2010, Yemen, which lies on the southwestern edge of the Arabian peninsula, had become an increasingly worrying front in US global efforts to confront Islamic terrorism:USflagyemen flag

Mullen said people ask him often if the United States is going to send troops to the nation. “The answer is we have no plans to do that, and we shouldn’t forget this is a sovereign country,” he said. “Sovereign countries get to vote on who comes in their country and who doesn’t.”

In what is the first vote of its kind, Yemen’s parliament voted on Sunday for a halt to US-initiated drone strikes that locals say killed more than a dozen civilians in a wedding party on December 11 — the attack, which took place in the central Yemeni province of al-Baydaa, is just one of many strikes in 2013, and it’s not the first one to have resulted in civilians deaths.  But the attack attracted widespread condemnation from both inside Yemen and internationally, leading to Sunday’s unanimous parliamentary vote.

In light of the ‘Mullen doctrine,’ you might expect the United States to pause its drone strikes on the country, right?

Wrong. The parliamentary vote wasn’t binding on the Yemeni government, and Yemen’s parliamentary powers pale in comparison to those of the president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, vice president between 1994 and 2012 and the hand-picked successor to Yemen’s longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Yemeni ruling party, the General People’s Congress (المؤتمر الشعبي العام‎, Al-Mo’tamar Ash-Sha’abiy Al-‘Aam), which itself controls 238 of the 301 seats in Yemen’s Majlis al-Nuwaab (House of Representatives).

Yemen, alongside Tunisia and Egypt, was among the vanguard of countries where the so-called Arab Spring peaked — though Saleh held on through mass protests in January and February 2011 against corruption and economic mismanagement, an assassination attempt in July 2011 left him severely injured and burned.  But the stage-managed transition from Saleh to Hadi has barely addressed the long-standing complaints of the Arab Spring protestors, let alone the more fundamental regional divides that have long plagued Yemen, which emerged as two quasi-independent states in 1918 out of the collapse of the Ottoman empire.

Meanwhile, the US government denies that the December 11 drone strike killed anyone but ‘militants,’ despite evidence to the contrary and a deluge of protest across the Arab world.  Even the United Nations is now calling on the United States to provide answers about the error. 

As Adam Baron, a reporter based in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a wrote last week in Foreign Policy,

The exact nature of the error is still a matter of speculation. It was hard not to wonder if the wedding convoy was mistaken for something more sinister — that someone in the bowels of the U.S. intelligence community concluded that vehicles carrying heavily armed wedding guests were actually an al Qaeda convoy. Some tribal contacts said that there were high-ranking militants near the site of the strike, and a Yemeni official briefed on security matters told me a vehicle hit in the attack had been linked to a prominent local al Qaeda leader. Either way, any “suspected militants” present were surrounded by civilian bystanders.

Nonetheless, the United States seems unlikely to swerve from its low-grade war against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  The drones will continue — and they will, in all likelihood, continue to kill innocent civilians, each of which has the potential to drive everyday Yemenis closer to AQAP and away from the United States.  Just last week, when AQAP attacked Yemen’s defense ministry, it also accidentally struck people in a hospital inside the ministry — and its leaders were fast to apologize for the error in targeting the hospital and agreed to pay ‘blood money’ to the relatives of those killed in the attack.

How did we get to the point where al-Qaeda seems more accountable than the Obama administration for civilian deaths in Yemen?


Jeremy Scahill’s tour de force about the covert and clandestine operations of both the Obama administration and the administration of George W. Bush, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, calls into question the legality of much of the basis for the notion that the executive branch can claim the entire world is essentially the ‘battlefield’ for the global war on terror.  In particular, the Obama administration’s record in Yemen alone remains troubling.

Abdulrazaq Al-Jamal, an expert specializing in Al-Qaeda affairs, summarized the Yemeni argument against the US strikes in an interview earlier this week with the Yemen Times, arguing that the US drone strikes are illegal, that they encourage  AQAP and they expose Yemen’s own government as a failure:

I think there is no difference between the raid that targeted the wedding convoy in Ra’ada and the previous raids that targeted Al-Qaeda and any Yemeni [citizens]. American [spying] and shelling, in principle, is wrong because it kills illegally and without trial. I cannot differentiate between strikes that target Al-Qaeda members and strikes that [might] target citizens because these strikes are [made outside of the legal system]. I disagree with those who differentiate between them because it is a violation of Yemeni sovereignty to kill [any Yemeni citizens, be they Al-Qaeda members or not]….

I don’t think that American drones are [stopping tribes from] protecting Al-Qaeda members as [drones] may cause several tribes to [actually] join Al-Qaeda. I think that if American drones continue to violate Yemen’s sovereignty and kill civilians, the tribes will not only protect Al-Qaeda affiliates but will join Al-Qaeda themselves.  Seeking help from American drones [instead of handling Al-Qaeda itself] proves that the Yemeni government is a failed one.

Saleh, and now Hadi, have played a wily game of rope-a-dope with the United States in the post-9/11 era, seeking ever more funding and training for forces to fight ‘terrorism,’ while routinely deploying those forces in furtherance of pushing back against internal regionalists.  Most recently, that means the Shiite Houthi rebellion that began in the mid-2000s in northeastern Yemen, but it also includes forces to maintain tentative control over south Yemen, a wide swatch of country that includes not only the southern shore and the key port of Aden, but also the eastern half of Yemen that borders Oman.  Saleh, who came to power in north Yemen in 1978, only managed to unify the two parts of Yemen in 1990, and even then, fought a civil war in 1994 and continual unrest thereafter.  As AQAP grew in Yemen, south Yemen has become a territorial stronghold in a country where local power still runs on largely tribal lines, and the line between tribal leader and militant leader is often dazzlingly blurred.  While Yemen is also split on religious lines (around 45% to 50% of the country belongs to the Zaydi Shi’a sect and around 50% to 55% of the country is Sunni) Yemen’s Shiites are clustered in the northwestern corner of the country.

US meddling comes at a delicate time for Yemen, whose leaders are working on a new agreement to grant self-rule powers to the autonomous south in a move toward a more federal Yemen.  The powerful Yemeni Socialist Party (الحزب الاشتراكي اليمني, Al-Hizb Al-Ishtiraki Al-Yamani), which controlled south Yemen during its period of independence through 1990, opposes the latest effort, and it continues to support a two-region state, not the six-region state that Hadi and the current Yemen government supports.  If an agreement can be reached, Yemenis will vote in a constitutional referendum in February 2014.   Continue reading Will the US respect Yemeni parliament’s vote on drone attacks?

Kerry’s forceful remarks on Syria fail to explain why Assad’s to blame


U.S. secretary of state John Kerry this afternoon emerged with some strong remarks about the unfolding international situation with respect to Syria, where chemical weapons were unleashed last Wednesday upon civilians in Ghouta in the eastern outskirts of Damascus and that killed up to 1,300 people.USflagSyria Flag Icon freesyria

Max Fisher at The Washington Post writes that Kerry’s remarks amounted to a ‘war speech,’ that the Obama administration has all but decided to respond to the chemical attack with air strikes.  I don’t disagree with that assessment, but the oddest thing about Kerry’s seven minutes on Syria was how much of it he spent arguing that the attacks were real — consider the following exchange:

Last night, after speaking with foreign ministers from around the world about the gravity of this situation, I went back and I watched the videos — the videos that anybody can watch in the social media, and I watched them one more gut-wrenching time. It is really hard to express in words the the human suffering that they lay out before us.  As a father, I can’t get the image out of my head of a man who held up his dead child, wailing while chaos swirled around him, the images of entire families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or even a visible wound, bodies contorting in spasms, human suffering that we can never ignore or forget. Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass.  What is before us today is real, and it is compelling.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of John Kerry (pictured above) — he’s had a strong start at State and that follows a generally impeccable senatorial record of thoughtful engagement on foreign affairs.  But with all due respect, I certainly hope the chief diplomat of the United States of America is spending more time reviewing the intelligence that the U.S., British and French governments allegedly have that implicates the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the chemical attack than watching shock footage on YouTube.

No one is arguing that the attack was contrived or fabricated — it’s a horrific slaughter that deserves a united and firm response from the international community conveying that the use of chemical weapons to kill civilians, including women and children, is unacceptable.  What remains at issue is determining who was responsible for the attack, and that’s why it was odd to watch Kerry spend more time knocking down a straw-man argument than explaining why the U.S. government is so sure that Assad was responsible for the attack.  Earlier today, Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), who has clashed with both pro-Assad and anti-Assad forces, said that he doesn’t believe Assad is responsible for the attacks.  It’s a real question, and the U.S. media and the rest of the world should demand an answer.

What’s staggering is that, with all signs pointing to U.S. and British military poised to launch some kind of strike against Assad, the Obama administration still hasn’t made the case for why it believes that Assad — and not anti-Assad extremists looking to draw the international community into Syria’s two-year civil war — is to blame.  As many commentators have written, the timing of last week’s attack is incredibly suspicious, given that U.N. weapons inspectors were in Damascus during the attacks and that Assad has generally been gaining ground against the opposition, and there’s plenty of reason why the more radical elements among the anti-Assad opposition want to provoke the world’s ire against Assad.

It’s generally undisputed that Assad has stockpiled chemical weapons in the past, while we don’t know if any rebel group of the opposition now have access to them.  But that’s hardly a smoking gun.

The fact that Assad denied U.N. experts to inspect the scene for five days (and then allowed only 90 minutes of access today) is highly suspicious.  But in a court of law in the United States, that would amount to circumstantial evidence.  Remember that Saddam Hussein hedged over whether he had weapons of mass destruction in 2002 and 2003 mostly because he wanted to deter neighboring Iran.  Moreover, I can think of a half-dozen reasons why the Assad regime might hesitate to allow United Nations inspectors into the affected area.  (If Assad wasn’t actually responsible for the chemical attack, do you think he has enough control to guarantee the safety of U.N. inspectors from anti-Assad rebels?)

The international community deserves more from the United States, given its track record of failed intelligence over the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (notably nuclear weapons) in Iraq in 2003.  That ‘slam dunk’ intelligence justified an eight-year military effort that catalyzed massive amounts of violence in Iraq.  New revelations this morning from Foreign Policy detailing the U.S. government’s complicity and acquiescence in the use of chemical weapons by then-ally Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war against Iran in the 1980s only underscore the troublesome record that the United States has accrued on this issue. Continue reading Kerry’s forceful remarks on Syria fail to explain why Assad’s to blame

U.S. says ‘very little doubt’ Assad responsible for Syrian chemical warfare, preps possible intervention


The international response to last Wednesday’s chemical warfare attack on the outskirts of Damascus is fast congealing, with U.S., British and French intelligence all pointing to the regime of Bashar al-Assad as the culprit.USflagfreesyria Syria Flag Icon

An official in the administration of U.S. president Barack Obama said Sunday morning that there’s ‘very little doubt’ that Assad perpetrated the attack.  French president François Hollande said earlier today that there was ‘a body of evidence indicating that the August 21 attack was chemical in nature, and that everything led to the belief that the Syrian regime was responsible for this unspeakable act.’

Obama and U.K. prime minister David Cameron have discussed the possibility of some form of military intervention, according to The Guardian and other news sources.  Meanwhile, the Syrian regime, under pressure from its Russian and Iranian allies, has agreed to allow U.N. weapons experts to inspect the site of the attacks.  In a sour irony, U.N. inspectors were already in Damascus earlier this week when the attack occurred for the purpose of determining the extent of potential chemical warfare earlier this spring.

The outset burden on Western governments is to connect the dots to make clear why they believe Assad is responsible — a decade ago, U.S. and British intelligence claimed they had a ‘slam dunk’ case that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction,  launching a unilateral attack on what turned out to be incorrect intelligence.  If anything, there’s ample evidence in the revelations about PRISM and the Internet snooping by the U.S. National Security Agency that we shouldn’t necessarily take the governments of even liberal democracy at their word.

Remember that the timing of the chemical attacks is incredibly suspicious — Assad’s forces are generally winning via-à-vis the opposition forces in Syria, so it’s not incredibly clear why Assad would order a chemical attack now, especially under the noses of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors.  But given the Obama administration’s position that use of chemical weapons is a ‘red line’ that, if crossed, will merit an international response, there’s every reason for opposition forces to use a small-scale attack to try to draw U.S. and European power against Assad, and other radical Sunni elements sympathetic to both the anti-Assad forces and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda are more than happy to bait the West into intervening in the Syrian civil war.   But while it’s generally accepted that Assad has access to chemical weapons, it’s far less clear that any of the disparate rebel groups have them or have access to them.

Even if Assad is guilty of what amounts to a war crime, there’s still reason to tread lightly.  If Assad is responsible, he should face a wide berth of sanction under international law — those might include further tightening economic and diplomatic sanctions against Assad, his inner circle and the Syrian military, action sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons or destroy his ability to deploy them in the future (including a no-fly zone), a fully empowered U.N. peacekeeping force, and an indictment from the International Criminal Court against Assad and the top military or other Syrian officials directly responsible for the chemical attack.

But even though U.S. defense secretary Chuck Hagel is preparing for ‘all contingencies,’ and U.S. warships in the eastern Mediterranean are already positioning for a potential attack, the international community can still respond in an affirmative way short of immediate U.S.-led military action.  Moreover, if Assad were removed tomorrow, Syria would still face a power vacuum, the potential for even more intense fighting between Shi’a/Alawite and Sunni Muslims within Syria and jockeying among various opposition groups, which range from secular Assad opponents to very conservative Islamic fundamentalists.  Those are just the known potential downsides for Syria — the unknown consequences and the potential adverse reaction in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East are more reason to tread lightly.

The next week is likely to bring even louder calls for the United States and/or the United Nations to act. To do something.

But the challenge for the Obama administration is that foreign policymaking in real time is very difficult, while political soundbytes are as easy as they are worthless.  There’s obviously a role for U.S. and international leadership to register a stand for human rights and against crimes of humanity.  But don’t trust anyone — in the United Kingdom, in the United States, in the Middle East — who has a ‘clear’ answer in mind for how the international community should now respond.

Don’t let hawks like U.S. senator John McCain convince you otherwise — the response to the latest turn in Syria’s conflict is more complicated than the polar choice of ‘doing nothing’ and launching a U.S.-led attack on Syria, guns-a-blazin’.  Given the U.S. history of intervention in the Middle East, and the horrific sectarian violence that followed the U.S.-led removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it would be less controversial for the United Nations — not the United States — to take the lead in the organizing the international response.  Also don’t let liberal interventionists try to convince you that the United States should act immediately in order to avoid a Rwanda-style genocide in the Middle East.  Though the international community largely stood aside while 800,000 Tustis were hacked to death by Hutus in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, they welcomed the belated French intervention that served to provide relief and refuge to the genocidaires themselves.

Obama wisely treads softly in wake of Syrian chemical attack


In the aftermath of what now seems like a devastating and lethal chemical-weapons attack against thousands of civilians on the outskirts of Damascus early Wednesday, U.S. president Barack Obama is treading lightly on the evolving turn in the Syrian civil war — at least until we know more about the circumstances of the attack.USflagfreesyria Syria Flag Icon

In an interview today with CNN, Obama measured his words very carefully about what action he believes the United States or the international community can or should take in the wake of what amounts to a violation of international law:

Asked about claims by anti-regime activists in Syria that Bashar al-Assad’s government used chemical weapons in an attack that was said to have killed more than 1,300 people, Obama responded that officials are “right now gathering information” and that “what we’ve seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern.”

“It is very troublesome,” the president stressed.  Obama said U.S. officials are pushing “to prompt better action” from the United Nations, and are calling on the Syrian government to allow an investigation of the site of the alleged attack outside Damascus.

“We don’t expect cooperation (from the Syrian government), given their past history,” Obama conceded.  He quickly followed up with a warning, however, that “core national interests” of the U.S. are now involved in Syria’s civil war, “both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.”

His words are certain to disappoint both neoconservatives on the U.S. right and liberal interventionists on the U.S. left (many of which populate key roles within his administration) who see the attack as a clear violation of international law and an invitation for an aggressive response from the international community.  Already, U.S. senator John McCain is renewing calls for U.S. military intervention in Syria.

But there’s good reason for caution, and although it’s politically easier to make bold statements at a time of international crisis, Obama’s statement on Friday wisely reflects the ambiguity that we still know very little about the Syrian civil war, the anti-Assad opposition, the chemical attack itself and the potential unintended consequences of a more muscular U.S. or European response.

No one is comfortable to sit idly by when a thousand civilians have been gassed to death.  But in a world where human rights activists and conservative hawks alike are quick to pass judgment on the Obama administration’s reaction, it’s worth taking a moment to applaud Obama’s restraint.

We still don’t yet know who is responsible for the chemical attack nor do we actually know exactly what the attack agent was (reports indicate it was perhaps sarin, mustard gas or chlorine gas, though we won’t know until soil samples and other evidence is examined).  Although British foreign minister William Hague has gone further than the Obama administration in blaming Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad for the attack, the public evidence does not point to the clear conclusion that Hague has drawn.  It’s widely accepted that Assad has access to chemical weapons, but after nearly two years of open civil war, it is not impossible for some of those weapons to have fallen into opposition hands — or worse. 

The timing, most of all, is incredibly odd, as BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner and others have noted.  If anything, Assad has been winning the civil war and reclaiming ground from the opposition.  The opposition’s repeated attempts to form a unified front against Assad have been mixed at best.  Meanwhile, a United Nations weapons inspection team was in Damascus this week to determine the extent of chemical warfare during the war.  It seems incredibly unlikely that Assad, who’s gained the upper hand, would launch a chemical weapons attack the very week when UN inspectors are merely kilometers away.  Allegations of previous chemical attacks stem from March and April — this is the first chemical attack in four months.

That opens the uncomfortable door to the notion that radical elements within the opposition, which ranges from secular Assad opponents to radical Sunni jihadists and al-Qaeda sympathizers, could have unleashed the attack.  Knowing that it is losing, the chemical attack might have been a false-flag gambit designed to inflame international opinion against Assad, especially given the position that Obama has taken that chemical weapon use is a ‘red line’ that will merit international action.  But it could be radical Islamic elements unassociated with the opposition, and it could be rogue elements of the Syrian army.

So far, Assad has refused to allow U.N. inspectors to examine the scene, which is an unacceptable response.  Even Assad’s allies like Russia are calling on him to allow U.N. access, and the longer Assad hesitates, the guiltier his regime looks.

But even if Assad was responsible for the attack — the worst chemical warfare since Iraqi president Saddam Hussein unleashed chemical weapons in the 1980s against his own people and on the battlefield against Iran — there’s still reason to tread lightly. Continue reading Obama wisely treads softly in wake of Syrian chemical attack

Questions on the U.S. war on terror, Obama’s big speech and its effect on world politics


There’s a lot to unpack from the wide-ranging speech that U.S. president Barack Obama gave this afternoon on the United States and its ongoing military action to combat terror organizations.USflag

I got the sense that Obama’s been anxious to make this speech for some time and to make the terms of debate over targeted attacks from unmanned aircraft — ‘drones’ — public.  The speech itself came after U.S. attorney general Eric Holder admitted in a letter for the first time that U.S. drones killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, as well as three other U.S. citizens accidentally.  It’s important to recall, furthermore, that Obama only first publicly acknowledged the drone strikes in Pakistan last year during an online chat.

It’s far beyond my blog’s realm to delve far into the speech in specificity — Benjamin Wittes has already done that in a series of blog posts (here and here) at Lawfare that are more articulate than anything I could produce in such a short time frame.  But when the president of the United States delivers a wide-ranging address on the U.S. war on terror, it has so many effects on world politics that it’s impossible not to think about how policy may change in the remaining years of the Obama administration.

Those policy decisions are incredibly relevant to international law and politics, but also in the domestic politics of two dozen countries — Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and so on.

What I do have, however, are a lot of questions that remain following the speech — perhaps even more than I had before I watched the speech.

  • Associated forces.  Obama mentioned al-Qaeda’s ‘associated forces’ four times, but what exactly is an associated force?  The lack of any meaningful definition lingered awkwardly with every mention.  In many ways, this goes to the heart of the legal issue with the drone strikes in places like Yemen and Somalia, and whether they’re even authorized under the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF).  Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) share a name, and key links, but it’s really difficult for me to believe that impoverished radical Yemenis or Tuaregs are really so associated with the original iteration of al-Qaeda that Osama bin Laden led in 2001. Somalia’s al-Shabab is often described as a home-grown al-Qaeda, but is it an associated person? It’s even more doubtful than AQAP and AQIM.  Hamas and al-Qaeda are certainly mutually sympathetic and may well have mutual ties over the past two decades, but does that make Hamas an associated force?  In the same way, the Taliban in Afghanistan is not affiliated with the Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (i.e., the Pakistani Taliban), but they’ve been a particular target of the Obama administration’s drone strikes in Pakistan — so much so that drone strikes were a top issue in Pakistan’s recent national elections.  So there’s a real question as to whether those actions legal — if those targets aren’t associated forces, the targets aren’t subject to the use of military force under the AUMF.
  • The precision of future drone strikes.  Obama has committed to more judicial use of drone strikes that have, as Obama admitted, killed civilians in the past, and though he didn’t exactly outline it in his speech, it’s reported that the U.S. military will take over some of the role that the Central Intelligence Agency has played in the drone strikes in recent years.  Nonetheless, the CIA has been reported to have used so-called ‘signature strikes,’ which target young men who live in areas known to be dominated by radical terrorist groups, though the strikes aren’t based on specific identification or intelligence that ties the targets to clear engagement against the United States.  Obama didn’t mention ‘signature strikes’ today.  But he argued that the use of drones is ‘heavily constrained’ and further bound ‘by consultations with partners’ and ‘respect for state sovereignty,’ and that drone strikes are only waged against terrorists ‘who pose a continuing and imminent threat’ when there are not other governments ‘capable of addressing’ that threat,’ and only when there’s a ‘near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.’  That’s a much higher standard than what’s been reported in the past.  So was Obama describing past policy on drone strikes or future policy? What do assurances of more precision in the future mean when we don’t know the level of care with which the drone strikes have been effected in the past?
  • The oversight of future drone strikes.  It’s also unclear how the Obama administration believes oversight should be handled.  Obama, in his speech, noted that he’s asked his administration to review proposals for extending oversight on drone strikes, and he outlined several options, including something similar to the FISA courts that authorize electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens in the fight against terrorism.  But he’s in year five of his administration — shouldn’t this be something that his administration has already considered?  Will his administration be able to enact a system in time for Obama’s successor?  Will it even be based in statute so that it’s binding on future administrations?  All of this is unclear. Continue reading Questions on the U.S. war on terror, Obama’s big speech and its effect on world politics

More about Pakistan’s ‘milestone’ and a preview of its upcoming May 11 elections


Last weekend, Pakistan’s prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf heralded the completion of the first full government in Pakistan’s history since partition from India and independence in 1947.Pakistan Flag Icon

Today, Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari (pictured above) announced that new elections for Pakistan’s National Assembly (ایوان زیریں پاکستان‎), the lower house of the Majlis-e-Shoora ( مجلس شوریٰ‎)Pakistan’s parliament, will be held on May 11.

Before jumping into an analysis of Pakistan’s upcoming election, let’s first debunk a few myths.

While the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP, پاکستان پیپلز پارٹی‎) deserves some credit in crawling to the five-year finish line and therefore, the end of its term, it’s far from clear that Pakistan has approached anything like a mature democracy, despite Ashraf’s claims that democracy is here to stay for Pakistan. There are reasons to believe that the winner of the May 11 elections might not be as lucky as the previous government, so self-congratulation is quite premature.

Moreover, most decision-making power for truly life-and-death issues lies in the hands of either Pakistan’s military or the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and even then, their power doesn’t extend entirely throughout the entire country — it’s especially weak in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along Pakistan’s northwestern border with Afghanistan.

But it still means that the chief of army staff since 2007 (and director general of the ISI from 2004 to 2007), Ashfaq Kayani (pictured below), is more powerful than Ashraf or even Zardari, even as he’s tried to institute military reforms to reduce the military’s direct role in politics and has pledged to keep the military from interfering in the May elections.  His current term as chief of army staff expires in November 2013.


The PPP came to power after elections in February 2008, following the end of a nine-year military rule by Pakistani general Pervez Musharraf.  Those elections followed the return and subsequent assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who had returned to Pakistan in late 2007 following Musharraf’s National Reconciliation Ordinance (which attempted to provide a blanket immunity against former political leaders with respect to corruption) in order to run in the upcoming elections.

Ashraf (pictured below) has been prime minister for less than a year, taking over after a showdown among Pakistan’s Supreme Court, on the one hand, and Zardari and former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gillani, on the other hand, over corruption charges.  Zardari, Pakistan’s president and the Bhutto’s widower, became Pakistan’s president in September 2008, and remains the key power broker within the PPP, though his official power is waning after 2010 constitutional reforms transferred much of the power of the presidency to the prime minister.  Zardari’s term will end in September 2013.


In his address to Pakistanis on Saturday night, Ashraf admitted that the government has not been able to ‘provide rivers of milk honey,’ but it’s nonetheless attempted to tackle the myriad problems of the predominantly Muslim country of 180 million people, the world’s sixth-most populous.

Those problems include some of the world’s worst corruption (which is very much a bipartisan endeavor in Pakistan), and they include continuous military tension with India, which most recently flared up last month.

Pakistan’s economy has slowed from the Musharraf years, in part due to the abandonment of privatization in favor of a more corporatist state capitalism model championed by Gillani’s government.  More now than ever, relatively weak economic growth plagues Pakistan, even in light of rapid inflation. Furthermore, the PPP government hasn’t made incredible progress on any of the country’s longstanding development issues, including uneven access to water and electricity, widespread poverty, widespread unemployment, illiteracy and poor health care.

That’s all before you come to the issue of global terrorism and Pakistan’s role in harboring some of the world’s most determined Islamic radicals — it was a compound in Abbottabad, remember, where U.S. forces ambushed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

So, no, there’s not much ‘milk and honey’ these days in Pakistan — it ranked as the 13th most failed state in the Fund for Peace’s failed state index in 2012.

Despite a shaky foundation for respecting democratically elected governments, Pakistan features relatively robust political activity that breaks down on a heavily regional basis, and the PPP is far from assured of winning a second consecutive term in office. Continue reading More about Pakistan’s ‘milestone’ and a preview of its upcoming May 11 elections

U.S. justice department memo justifies targeted killings of U.S. citizens abroad

In 2002 and 2003, assistant U.S. attorney general John Yoo, at the U.S. department of justice, authored now-infamous ‘torture memos’ providing legal justification for ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques, which the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush would proceed to employ against ‘unlawful combatants,’ and in violation of the Geneva Conventions, according to many legal scholars (outside the Bush administration, at least).USflagPakistan Flag Iconsomaliayemen flag

Although we don’t know who wrote it or when it was written, there’s some parallelism in the ‘white paper’ from the justice department of U.S. president Barack Obama, made public today by NBC News, offering up the legal justification for the targeted killing of U.S. citizens who are senior operational leaders of al Qaeda or an associated force of al Qaeda.

Kudos to NBC News for obtaining the memo, which requires that any such U.S. citizen must be an ‘imminent’ threat, capture of the U.S. citizen must be ‘infeasible,’ and the strike must be conducted according to ‘law of war principles.’  Each of those is defined in a manner that’s not exactly narrow — for example, as Michael Isikoff at NBC notes:

“The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.

Instead, it says, an “informed, high-level” official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.” The memo does not define “recently” or “activities.”

The United States, first under the Bush administration, but at a vastly accelerated pace under the Obama administration, has used unmanned drones to attack targets in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan (to say nothing of what we don’t know about their use in more conventional military theaters, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya over the past decade) — it seems reasonable to believe that drones could soon be used in Afghanistan after U.S. troops leave that country next year, and U.S. capability for drone use in Mali or elsewhere in north Africa would likewise not be a difficult task.

The leaked memo comes day before Congressional hearings on John Brennan’s appointment as Obama’s new director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

There’s not much I can add to what others have already said about the Obama administration memo, though it may well come to define this administration’s unique ‘addition’ to the expanding nature of executive power in the United States, to the detriment of U.S. constitutional civil liberties and even international law.

In September 2011, the United States attacked two U.S. citizens, Anwar Awlaki and Samir Khan, in a drone attack in Yemen and, more perhaps troubling, killed Awlaki’s 16-year old son, Abdulrahman, also a U.S. citizen, in a subsequent attack.

Glenn Greenwald, writing for The Guardian in a long and thoughtful takedown of the leaked memo, takes special offense with the lack of due process for accused targets:

The core distortion of the War on Terror under both Bush and Obama is the Orwellian practice of equating government accusations of terrorism with proof of guilt. One constantly hears US government defenders referring to “terrorists” when what they actually mean is: those accused by the government of terrorism. This entire memo is grounded in this deceit….

This ensures that huge numbers of citizens – those who spend little time thinking about such things and/or authoritarians who assume all government claims are true – will instinctively justify what is being done here on the ground that we must kill the Terrorists or joining al-Qaida means you should be killed. That’s the “reasoning” process that has driven the War on Terror since it commenced: if the US government simply asserts without evidence or trial that someone is a terrorist, then they are assumed to be, and they can then be punished as such – with indefinite imprisonment or death.

In contrast, Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union has written a quick reaction that’s subdued in contrast to Greenwald’s response:

My colleagues will have more to say about the white paper soon, but my initial reaction is that the paper only underscores the irresponsible extravagance of the government’s central claim. Even if the Obama administration is convinced of its own fundamental trustworthiness, the power this white paper sets out will be available to every future president—and every “informed high-level official” (!)—in every future conflict. As I said to Isikoff, that’s truly a chilling thought.

Although the memo itself could well stand as an important turning point in the Obama administration’s controversial justification for executing U.S. citizens without due process, what seems even clearer is that as Obama’s second term unfolds, we can expect the continuation and proliferation of the use of drone attacks.  Given the zeal with which U.S. policymakers are apparently pursuing U.S. citizens in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, it seems certain that the Obama administration is even more audacious in its approach to the protection of non-U.S. citizens.

Will Wilkinson at The Economist has recently argued that the Obama administration’s drone program as a whole fails the Kantian principle of ‘universal law’ — i.e., that the United States might not enjoy being on the receiving end of its own logic:

The question Americans need to put to ourselves is whether we would mind if China or Russia or Iran or Pakistan were to be guided by the Obama administration’s sketchy rulebook in their drone campaigns. Bomb-dropping remote-controlled planes will soon be commonplace. What if, by another country’s reasonable lights, America’s drone attacks count as terrorism? What if, according to the general principles implicitly governing the Obama administration’s own drone campaign, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue turns out to be a legitimate target for another country’s drones? Were we to will Mr Obama’s rules of engagement as universal law, a la Kant, would we find ourselves in harm’s way? I suspect we would.

As such, stunning as today’s news is, it’s worth pausing to consider the effects on each of the three countries where the Obama administration is known to be operating drones — as critics note, the drone attacks could ultimately backfire on long-term U.S. interests by antagonizing Muslims outside the United States and potentially radicalizing non-U.S. citizens into supporting more radical forms of terrorism against the United States in the future.

Continue reading U.S. justice department memo justifies targeted killings of U.S. citizens abroad

Who ‘wins’ in the fight about the Toulouse shootings?

To say that French president Nicolas Sarkozy will try to use the Toulouse shootings to his advantage in the presidential race is fairly coals-to-Newcastle (or, if you will, coals-to-Nantes).

Although his campaign is already trying to fake the high road by accusing rivals of taking advantage of the incident for political gain, Sarkozy himself has managed to sound a message of national unity and calm, on the whole, which should be the first job of any head of state in the aftermath of a tragic event. That’s to be applauded.  

But politically, it’s a fluid situation, and while it’s already impacting the presidential race (and it was impossible for such a large event not to impact the race), it’s not clear to me that it’s a win for Sarkozy, even if the gunman does turn out to have ties — real or aspirational — to al-Qaeda.

In a world where Front national candidate Marine Le Pen will continue to deploy over-the-top rhetoric in arguing that the way to stop future shootings like those that occurred Monday is to ban French immigrants and treat Muslims with suspicion, and where Sarkozy wants to be seen to rise above petty politics by playing the statesman, Sarkozy may well have to lay off the immigration rhetoric that he’s used to such great effect in the past few weeks — thereby giving up (for now) the one tool that’s helped him claw his way back into contention for the first-round lead.

While Sarkozy may try to use the incident to paint himself as a stronger candidate on terrorism — I have no doubt that Sarkozy’s tough talk will be more convincing than Hollande’s — I’m still not so sure that will be such a clear win.

If it is true that French security forces have known about the gunman for “a long time,” and if Parti socialiste candidate François Hollande has any fiery pluck as a candidate, he should soon be asking why Sarkozy’s government let the suspect shoot three Muslim soldiers and then, days later, three Jewish schoolchildren and one parent, before going after him — and then taking the better part of a day to apprehend the gunman.