Focal Points Blog

‘Aspirational’ vs. ‘Operational’ Military Budget Cutting

Quiz: Who said this? “Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China.”

And this: “As we learned last year, you don’t necessarily need a billion-dollar guided missile destroyer to chase down and deal with a bunch of teenage pirates wielding AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.”

And this: “Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?”

Would you believe, the current Secretary of Defense?

Such musings have led him to mount the most serious effort to restrain his own budget of any Defense Secretary since the post-Cold War period. He deserves credit for this.

But look at what he said when asked about his carrier talking point: “I may want to change things, but I’m not crazy. I’m not going to cut a carrier, okay?”

So what we seem to have is an “Aspirational Gates,” who wants to cut weapons systems we don’t need, and an “Operational Gates,” who knows he needs to keep such aspirations in bounds.

What the Operational Gates isn’t doing is cutting his budget. The $100 billion he wants to cut is a lot less than it sounds, because:

  • It’s spread over five years.
  • All but $7 billion of it will be “done” after he is likely no longer around to see that it actually is done.
  • Most importantly, his plan is to shift any savings to other programs within his own budget.

And, the longest unbroken surge in military spending in U.S. history will continue. Gates’ plan to slow its rate of growth is being redefined as budget cutting.

But since, as he has also mentioned, we are spending nearly as much on the military as the rest of the world put together. And since we are seriously in need of money, we need to do better than this.

Today the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget releases its blueprint for $75 billion in cuts that can be made safely–increasing Gates’ plans for military cuts next year by a factor of 10.

The Aspirational Gates could really get behind this.

Israel v. Palestine Brings Out the Jewish in Me

Fooled you! It’s not what you think. Far be it from me to justify Israel’s oppression of Palestine by trotting out the tired “they shoot rockets at Israel” argument. Half-Jewish in descent, but raised in another religion, I know little about Judaism. But there’s no denying that I can “feel” it inside me.

I’m also prone to the Jewish self-loathing that afflicts many of us. For example, the heightened interior life — a.k.a., neurosis — to which many Jews seemed privy to me when I was young struck me as “uncool.” Thus I’ve long wondered if the outsized anger with which I respond to how Israel treats Palestine was a variation of that syndrome.

Then I had an epiphany (insert hosannas by celestial choir of indeterminate denomination here). I realized it wasn’t self-loathing I was experiencing but that other syndrome known to reflective Jews. You know, the one where we expect more from Jews than from others. How can we treat Palestinians like they’re animals? Of course, that line of thinking is not only vanity, but the flip side of a thought process that leads the “chosen people” — Israel and its American supporters — to justify subjugating the members of another race and religion.

Where Does the Administration Get Off Calling Missile Defense “Proven”?

At the Union of Concerned Scientists blog All Things Nuclear, David Wright writes that:

“the Obama administration’s approach to missile defense has been particularly disappointing — and is potentially dangerous. Originally the administration said it would require missile defenses to be ‘proven,’ . . . So it was surprising when (a) the administration’s Ballistic Missile Defense . . . Review stated that ‘The United States is currently protected against limited ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] attacks,’ and (b) the President called the Aegis missile defense system ‘proven’ in the announcement of his proposed European system in September 2009.”

“Neither of these statements are [sic] true in any meaningful sense. Neither the Aegis system nor the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system fielded in Alaska and California has been subjected to realistic tests against the kind of attacks and under the conditions you would expect in the real-world.”

Wright goes into more detail.

The Pentagon is using sleight of hand: it is defining the “threat” very narrowly. [It] has defined a “limited missile attack” as an attack by a limited number of missiles, and by missiles that have no countermeasures. . . . But it makes no sense to assume that North Korea, Iran, or any other country would spend years developing a long-range missile to hit the U.S. . . . and not have some of its aerospace engineers also design countermeasures that would make the missiles effective against [U.S. missile defense. After all] effective decoys and other countermeasures can be built with less sophisticated technology than is needed for a long-range missile and nuclear warhead. [Emphasis added.]

Then Wright demonstrates the threat that hyping missile defense can pose to national security.

First, if military and political leaders believe they have defensive capabilities that they do not in fact have, that can lead them to make bad decisions. For example, if [they mistakenly believe that] they have effective anti-missile systems it may encourage them to take aggressive actions that are in fact likely to make another country launch missiles at them.

[Second] the claim that Aegis is “proven” has led officials to believe the U.S. should buy and deploy many hundreds of Aegis interceptors before they have actually been shown to be effective.

Wright sums up:

It would be ironic if the administration’s real steps to reduce nuclear threats to the United States were derailed . . . by its pursuit of a system with known shortcomings that has yet to undergo realistic testing.

Serial Denialists and the State of Permanent War

Two months ago, I wrote that the Obama administration and the U.S. command in Afghanistan faced an “Iraq 2006 moment” in the second half of 2010 – a collapse of domestic political support for a failed war paralleling the political crisis in Bush’s Iraq War in 2006. Now comes Republican Congressman Frank Wolf to make that parallel with 2006 eerily precise.

Wolf published a letter to President Obama last week calling for the immediate establishment of an “Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group.” It would be the son of the Iraq Study Group. Wolf is the Congressman who authored the legislation in 2005 creating the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group to come up with fresh ideas for that failing war. The Wolf proposal came nearly a year after American public had turned against the war decisively in January 2005, when support for the war fell to 39 percent.

The U.S. public had withdrawn its support because it had become obvious that the war was a failure. The Bush administration had overthrown the Saddam Hussein regime only to unleash a violent Sunni-Shi’a sectarian power struggle that the U.S. military couldn’t control. Even worse, the U.S. military presence was objectively supporting one side in that power struggle by building up a clearly sectarian military and police sector, even as it pretended by the honest broker between Sunni and Shi’a.

By 2006 it had become apparent even to the political elite that the war was failing and that something had to be done. But for war supporters like Wolf, the idea was not to find a way out of a criminally stupid war but to tweak the war strategy so that the administration could rebuild public support for it.

The problem with the Baker-Hamilton group was not that it didn’t have the information it needed to call for end to the U.S. war. Bob Woodward’s The War Within reveals that the commander of all U.S. ground forces in Iraq, Pete Chiarelli, told the Iraq Study Group that the sectarian character of the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi government was the primary problem. And the officer in charge of training the Iraqi army, Gen. Martin Dempsey, told the group that, without Sunni-Shi’a reconciliation, “[T]here are not enough troops in the world to provide security.”

Elementary logic would have suggested that with Sunni-Sh’ia reconciliation there would be no need for U.S. troops and that without it, U.S. troops would be unable to change the situation. Either way, the U.S. military presence was irrelevant to the future of Iraq. After nearly four years of fighting, with enormous casualties on both sides, the U.S. military had succeeded only in helping Iran consolidate Shi’a rule in Iraq.

Nevertheless the Study Group’s report went along with an indefinite continuation of the U.S. military role in Iraq.

Now we have the same nightmare of a stupid war that the political class can’t bring itself to end.

Wolf says he’s been talking with retired figures in the national security elite, who tell him that “our Afghanistan policy is adrift.” And he warns of a “palpable shift in the nation’s mood and in the halls of Congress” on the war. He notes that 62 percent of the American public in a July 2010 poll said the war is “going badly.”

So now Wolf proposes the same kind of bipartisan study group that he says helped rebuild support for the Iraq war to come up with “fresh strategies” for the war in Afghanistan. Wolf makes no effort to hide his hope to “reinvigorate national confidence in how America can be successful” in Afghanistan.

Wolf is the poster child for the deep denial on U.S. wars practiced by a very large segment of the political elite. On one hand, his proposal is the clearest evidence of the desperation that has overtaken Washington about the palpable failure of Obama’s war. But on the other hand, Wolf suggests that all we need is a group of “respected” war supporters to offer a new strategy for the Afghan War to be back on the road to victory again.

This refusal to face up to reality that the United States cannot succeed in Afghanistan, despite all the evidence to the contrary, suggests that something much deeper is going on here. Wolf and his fellow deniers in the political elite are not just refusing to give up on the specific war in Afghanistan. They are doing it because they are desperately clinging to the broader system of global military hegemony which impels the U.S. national security state to continue that war.

In his latest book, Washington Rules, historian Andrew Bacevich points to this largely un-discussed aspect of recent U.S. wars. The “Washington rules” to which the title refers are the basic principles of U.S. global policy that have been required beliefs for entrance into the U.S. political elite ever since the United States became a superpower. The three rules are U.S. global military presence, global projection of U.S. military power and the use of that power in one conflict after another.

Bacevich suggests that personal and institutional interests bind the U.S. political elite and national security bureaucrats to that system of global military dominance. The politicians and bureaucrats will continue to insist on those principles, he writes, because they “deliver profit, power and privilege to a long list of beneficiaries: elected and appointed officials, corporate executives and corporate lobbyists, admirals and generals, functionaries staffing the national security apparatus, media personalities and policy intellectuals from universities and research organizations.”

That description of the problem provides a key to understanding the otherwise puzzling serial denial by the political elite on Iraq and Afghanistan. It won’t do much good for anti-war people to demand an end to the war in Afghanistan unless they are also demanding an end to the underlying system that has now produced quasi-permanent American war.

First posted at the Seminal.

“No Mosque in My Backyard” Syndrome and the Perils of Lukewarm Tolerance

American mosque“Across Nation, Mosque Projects Meet Opposition,” read a recent New York Times headline. The article appeared shortly after the Times ran a few pieces about angry opposition to a Muslim cultural facility proposed by Cordoba House at Ground Zero. (That plan is not for a mosque, as it has been inaccurately described, but a combined arts, cultural, recreational, and prayer space.)

What does opposition to the Ground Zero proposal have to do with aversion to mosques elsewhere in America? Quite a lot, I think.

The surface rationale offered by conservatives (and others, including the ADL) who balk at the Ground Zero proposal is that it would be “insensitive” to family members of Sept. 11th victims. Sarah Palin, for instance, tried to pretend that the issue was not one of freedom of religion (tellingly, so did Abe Foxman of the ADL). She focused on the idea that it was a “stab in the heart” to the victims’ families.

Let’s leave aside for a moment this notion that all Sept. 11th families have allowed bin Laden to warp their view of all Muslims. Let’s also leave aside the idea that the law and everyone else’s freedoms should be held hostage to the prejudices of a few traumatized people.

The gist of the argument, as Palin explained to “peace-seeking” Muslims, is that a “mosque” is fine—really, it is—just not here at Ground Zero.

So imagine the surprise when it turns out that conservative politicians and religious leaders are railing against mosque plans across the country. As the Times notes, “In all of the recent conflicts, opponents have said their problem is Islam itself.”

Recruiting various “former” Muslims and hectoring practicing Muslims, conservatives are running around selectively quoting from their newfound translations of the Qur’an and invoking the term “Shariah law” to whip up the fears and prejudices of their base.

On Friday, a dozen right-wing Christians in Connecticut harassed mosque-goers last Friday by yelling “Islam is a Lie” and “Jesus hates Muslims” through their bullhorns; one protester pushed kids around with his placard.

This phenomenon belies the facile and transparent assertion that opposition to the Ground Zero mosque is motivated by concern for Sept.11th families. Conservatives have simply cloaked their own prejudices in the garbs of the traumatized.

In light of the vitriolic opposition to the Ground Zero proposal, and in light of conservatives’ true motives for that opposition, burgeoning anti-Muslim bigotry was inevitable.

Take Rick Lazio, the New York Republican candidate for governor. He loudly claimed that the Ground Zero site is a “security” threat. The idea that the most conspicuous Muslim site in the entire country would pose a security threat can only be described as stupid, but that is beside the point: it reinforces the idea that where there are Muslims, there is danger. Where there is smoke, there is fire.

Within that framework, it is only natural that others across the country would ask themselves why they should have to put with mosques in their own neighborhoods. Why would Muslims in Kansas or Ohio or anywhere else be less dangerous than the ones in New York? Why should the good citizens of these states be more exposed to the Muslim threat than people in New York City?

This is precisely why it is false to draw an imaginary line between the idea that a Muslim presence is acceptable, but just not at Ground Zero, and the idea that a Muslim presence is unacceptable, period.

The former argument plays into the latter. It rests on the infectious idea that American Muslims need to be treated as a threat, viewed through the prism of terrorism, and tolerated only to the extent dictated by some vague sense of political correctness.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about the Times article is its reference to a study in January by scholars at the University of North Carolina and Duke University. That report, based on a two-year study, says that American mosques actually help prevent radicalism.

That’s probably not going to stop conservatives such as the angry mob in Connecticut.

But for those of us who have not descended to the level of animals, it underscores the point that treating the Muslim community as the enemy is counter-productive.

How Much Less Revolutionary Could the Revolutionary Guard Be?

Revolutionary Guardsman at Friday prayer“A senior Iranian intelligence official, presumably from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ intelligence wing, was heard in an audio file outlining the IRGC’s involvement in dealing with the opposition before and after the June 12 election last year,” writes Arash Aramesh at InsideIRAN. He was giving “a private speech . . . to a number of high-ranking clerics and state officials in the northeastern city of Mashhad, sometime after the June 12 election.” More:

In this speech, which has become an internet sensation in Iranian political circles, General Moshfegh brags about IRGC’s ability to influence matters of the most sensitive nature such as presidential and parliamentary elections. Moshfegh admitted that the IRGC shut down all SMS [text messaging, etc.] services in Iran on election day last year in order to prevent supporters of Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi from communicating with each other.

It’s high time their name was changed from Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to Islamic Guardians of the Status Quo. For that matter, strip them of “Islamic,” too. Any organization that practices torture, rape, and killing defiles a religion. In fact, since their activities are countenanced by the Supreme Leader and are thus de facto state policy, Islamic leaders elsewhere should consider issuing a fatwa calling for Tehran to remove “Islamic” from the Islamic Republic.

Tehran and IRGC ostensibly act in the name of Mohammed, but, like al Qaeda et al, they succeed only in defiling Islam in ways even worse than the Vatican’s casual attitude towards pedophilia does Catholicism.

Whose Nukes Are You Calling Loose?

On Saturday, in an article titled Russia accuses U.S. of loose weapons control, Reuters reported that “The Russian Foreign Ministry said on its web site the United States had been in breach of several arms-related treaties including the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) and a treaty on conventional weapons.”

Cited in the “long list of what it called irregularities [were] a U.S. failure to provide information on ballistic missiles trials. The Foreign Ministry also alleged that some 1,500 sources of ionizing radiation were lost in the U.S. between 1996 and 2001.”

Perhaps most insulting, “The ministry also said secret information from the U.S. Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory had ended up at the hands of a drug dealing gang in 2006.”

Does this sound exactly like one of the scenarios the United States has long feared unfolding in Russia or what?

After the Soviet Union disbanded, the security of its nuclear weapons and materials became cause for concern, not only because of a new lack of centralized oversight, but because it was thought that a sudden lack of job security for those in the nuclear industry might tempt them to smuggle nuclear weapons parts and material out of facilities and sell them to the Russian mob. In 1992 Congress passed the Nunn-Lugar act, sponsored by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, which created the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program for the stated purpose of securing and dismantling weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union states.

The results have been dramatic. Among myriad other measures, over 6,000 nuclear warheads have been dismantled. But many American conservatives think that by allowing the Americans to do the bulk of securing its nuclear weapons, Russia is thus able to spend whatever funds it might have spent on nuclear security to build advanced conventional weapons.

Whether or not this accurately describes Russian thinking or whether, in fact, they’re just grateful for the help, Russians still can’t help but be offended by constant references in the U.S. press and in national security circles to the danger of loose nukes winding up in the hands of terrorists. The Russian allegations may have been made in response to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee delaying a ratification vote on the new START. But they may also just be sick and tired of hearing the United States media and national security continually sounding the alarm over loose nukes, a term that has almost entirely come to be synonymous with Russia’s nuclear weapons program.

The implication is that Russian security forces are unable to control both the mob in their country and Islamist elements who might seek to buy nukes from the mob. Perhaps Americans should bear in mind that every reference to loose nukes is (whether they deserve it or not) a slap in the face to the Russians.

Burma’s Ethnics: Score One for the Good, er, No-So-Bad Guys

Revolutionary movements have lost their luster. Their leaders will never be romanticized again as the likes of Trotsky and Che Guevara once were. Since the onset of the Information Age, it’s impossible to tune out the tendency of revolutionaries to resort to violent excesses that sometimes equal or exceed the forces against which they rebel.

Near Burma’s eastern border of Thailand, the Karen ethnic group has long resisted what it calls the three A’s — annihilation, absorption, and assimilation — by Burma’s junta. In fact, over 60 years in duration, it’s the world’s longest-running war for independence — or its most extended exercise in futility. Some background from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago:

The Karens, as well as other ethnic groups, actually arrived in Burma before the majority group known as the Burmans (as opposed to the Burmese, all the citizens of Burma). But, in the sixteenth century, the Burmans conquered most of Burma and proceeded to impose their will on the ethnics.

But the modern “origins of the ethnic hatred. . . can be traced back to the Anglo-Burmese wars,” writes Benedict Rogers in his 2004 book World Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma’s Karen People. The Karens assisted the British in their efforts to conquer the Burmans. The British, in turn, allowed them a measure of autonomy (in part, also, because they were too far-flung to rule). The ethnics’ first taste of freedom was an ironic byproduct of British colonialism.

During World War II, Burmese forces joined the invading Japanese in mercilessly attacking the Karens, who feared they were destined for genocide. But the Allies turned the tide on the Japanese and the Karens helped drive them out. The Karens hoped that they would be rewarded with statehood, but during the war Mountbatten of Burma had authorized a secret deal with the Burmans that left the Karens out in the cold.

Once Burma was granted its independence, the Karens sought to co-exist with the government. But, in 1949, General Ne Win, later the leader of the coup that installed junta rule, led militias on a rampage of Karen territory. In response, the Karen National Union (KNU) emerged to fight for the rights of the Karens and the establishment of Kawthoolei, the state around which their dreams revolve.

In recent years the disintegration of ceasefire talks has been a pretext for junta offensives against the Karens. Others include a perceived need on the part of the junta to engage in wholesale destruction of Karen villages to make room for large dam-building projects, as well as relocation of the capital from Yangon (Rangoon). . . . As of today, hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities have been forcibly relocated by the Burmese army, their villages burned to the ground. Tens of thousands have fled across the border to Thailand. Meanwhile, the army not only tortures and executes those villagers suspected of working with the insurgent groups, but forces others to labor as porters.

Adding insult to injury, the army uses children as soldiers, seeds the Karen territory with land mines, and then forces Karen people to act as mine-sweepers by traversing the terrain ahead of the army. As in Cambodia, citizens missing a leg, or parts of one, are common in the Karen regions.

But neither is the KNLA (the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the KNU) blameless. It too has been known to lay mines and use child soldiers. Also, according to Phil Thornton in his 2006 book, Restless Souls: Rebels, Refugees, Medics and Misfits on the Thai-Burma Border, one of its officers told him that because it can’t afford to feed them, the KNLA often kills prisoners on the spot.

That said, it’s still hard not to root for them, especially since as Burmese exile publication Mizzima reports Thursday, they’re “strongly supported by local people.” In fact, recently the KNLA had “in advance received information of junta troop movements in the Paikyone area” from their people. As a result . . .

Karen rebels in a 15-member squad equipped with only automatic rifles and the rain [Like that touch? -- RW] ambushed a government battalion with more than 100 troops on Tuesday, killing nine junta soldiers including the force’s deputy commander and wounding 14 others. . . .

“There was heavy rain and creeks were flooded with torrents of water,” [a spokesperson said]. “We took position and posted lookouts, then ambushed them.” . . . The ambush resulted in the second heaviest loss this year for junta forces in their battle against the KNU. . . . In a clash on a highway [on May 10] the junta lost 13 soldiers and 20 were wounded.

What keeps the vastly outnumbered KNLA fighting? Would you believe . . . Sylvester Stallone? From my piece again:

Moviegoers were exposed to the plight of the Karens last year if they saw the fourth installment of Rambo, which was set in Burma (though filmed, in part, in Thailand). Sylvester Stallone demonstrated just how universal contempt for the junta had become, especially after it obstructed aid to [Cyclone] Nargis survivors. When John Rambo killed off 236 of its soldiers, objections were raised to one of the highest body counts of any action movie ever, but not to who was killed. Understandably, the film was reported to have boosted the morale of Karen freedom fighters who viewed it.

Whatever the effect of Sylvester Stallone on the Karen insurgency, the point is that the KNLA and its supporters draw inspiration from not only Hollywood attention and coverage by the media but also by new media. In June Mizzima reported:

Footage of clashes between Karen rebels and the Burmese Army posted on You Tube has become a hit with the Burmese online community. The video was recorded during running battles between government troops . . . and the Karen National Liberation Army’s (KNLA) 3rd Brigade. . . . While You Tube was banned in Burma and internet speeds were still at dial-up-level quality, some people have still managed to download the footage using proxy servers. . . .

Thai-Burmese border town Mae Sot based blogger Dr. Lun Swe examined the impact that Web 2.0 and other new media was having on the Burmese opposition community and those living in exile. “The role of new media is a playing crucial role in our pro-democracy movement,” he said. “The quickest way to post Burma-related news on the internet is on blogs at home and abroad.”

Use of the new media has increased since the 2007 “saffron revolution”, when monks led nationwide demonstrations, as the Web was one of the only sources of unregulated news and information.

Here’s the video:

For more, insert “Myanamar 8888″ into YouTube’s search box. 8888 is an allusion to the day, August 8, 1988, that students protests erupted in Burma only to be brutally suppressed by the junta, with thousands killed. Myanmar 8888′s videos are of a piece with the citizens armed with small video-cameras who filmed the 2007 Saffron Revolution. Their footage was smuggled out of the country and broadcast back into Burma via satellite, as seen in the 2009 documentary Burma VJ (highly recommended). We’re also familiar with this phenomenon from Iran’s Green Revolution.

In 1992 a junta official told Benedict Rogers, “In 10 years all Karens will be dead. If you want to see a Karen, you will have to go to a museum in Rangoon.” Eighteen years later the Karen are still fighting to prevent the three “A”s of annihilation, absorption, and assimilation. But absent international pressure on the junta to cease and desist its systematic destruction of the Karen and other Burma ethnics, they might not be around in 28 years.

Has Incoming Colombian President Santos Inherited a “Captured State”?

Presidents Uribe and SantosOn Saturday August 7, 2010, former defense minister Juan Manual Santos will be sworn in as Colombia’s next president, surrounded by an estimated 380,000 members of the police and military and an array of foreign dignitaries. If all goes according to plan, one of those dignitaries will be Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa. However, Santos’ initial efforts at rapprochement with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, also invited to the inauguration, were nipped in the bud by sitting president Alvaro Uribe, whose dramatic accusations on July 21 of Venezuelan government tolerance of the FARC (including key leaders) in its territory led to a complete rupture in diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Uribe’s legacy will no doubt be contested for some time. His admirers claim that he finally broke the back of the guerrillas, reigned in the paramilitaries through a demobilization program, and has made the country a safer place to live overall. Some go so far to say that Colombia is now in a post-conflict situation.

That would not be the view, however, of the country’s estimated 4.5 million internally displaced persons or the Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities being pushed off their land by right-wing paramilitaries (now conveniently called “criminal gangs at the service of narco-trafficking”) to make way for large-scale economic projects like the monoculture of palm oil and commercial gold mining or those in the squalid urban areas where crime has always been rampant. (And it is worth noting that even in cities like Medellín, crime is on the rise again.)

According to Uribe’s critics (myself among them), his eight-year legacy includes:

  • An estimated 16,000 politically-motivated killings, including 4,000 by the “demobilized” paramilitaries.
  • A doubling in the number of annual killings by the Colombian security forces, including a “false positives” scandal in which more than 2,000 poor Colombians were presented as guerrillas killed in combat.
  • The second highest number of internally displaced persons in the world (the Sudan is first) with ethnic minorities disproportionately affected and with over 40 displaced leaders killed in recent years for advocating for their rights.
  • A total of one – just one – paramilitary leader convicted as a result of the Justice and Peace Law.
  • A scandal that Washington-based human rights groups call “Worse than Watergate,” in which the notorious DAS security agency was spying on everyone from the children of human rights activists to Constitutional Court judges – and eavesdropping in on the Court’s confidential sessions and sabotaging their activities, including by trying to link them to terrorist groups.
  • A complete lack of respect of judicial autonomy and full support for continued impunity for human rights violators.
  • Increased inequality, poverty, and unemployment.

Moreover, the more than one-hundred local, regional and national politicians under investigation for links to paramilitaries (commonly known as the “para-politicos scandal”) has revealed the extent to which the right-wing paramilitaries, allied with drug traffickers and other local mafias, have infiltrated the Colombian state. During Uribe’s government, these illegal forces (be they paras, guerrillas or from among various bands of criminals) allied with local political and economic elites have consolidated territorial control in resource-rich and other strategic areas of the country.

In short, Juan Manual Santos has inherited what some Colombian analysts call a “captured state” and those forces remain at the center of his own base of political support. As a result, many assume that a Santos administration means continuity – more of the same but perhaps with a gentler face. It is true that Santos appears to be more even-tempered and has a less confrontational style than Uribe. However, there are other, incipient positive signs of change.

The cabinet that Santos has pulled together is composed largely of technocrats and is seen as representing a more modern Colombia, in contrast to Uribe’s ties to traditional landed elites.

He has also included two widely-respected individuals – Juan Camilo Restrepo as Minister of Agriculture and Maria Angela Holguín as Minister of Foreign Affairs – who are considered critics of the Uribe government (and Uribe has made clear his displeasure with their incorporation into the cabinet). Restrepo was an outspoken critic of a subsidy program that gave large amounts of money to wealthy landowners rather than the small-scale farmers who were allegedly the intended beneficiaries (some would claim that was the plan all along), while Holguín resigned as Colombian Ambassador to the United Nations, complaining that President Uribe filled her staff with sons of his own political allies.

Holguín and Santos are already moving foreign policy in a new direction. As noted, the government-elect has sought to improve relations with Ecuador and Venezuela, both of which have complicated border issues with Colombia. The soon-to-be foreign minister and vice president both already visited Ecuador and full relations should be restored with that country soon. Venezuela will now take more time, but as a former Colombian ambassador in Caracas, Hoguín should be well suited to moving talks forward after the Venezuelan elections. Early indications are that the new government will seek to play a more collaborative and less ideological role in regional forums.

On the domestic front, the most promising policy change is a new focus on land reform. The Santos administration plans to launch an ambitious program to redistribute land and provide land titles to small farmers. Widely respected academic Alejandro Reyes is in charge of a strategy to redistribute land to the displaced population. This is the first government in some time to attempt to tackle head on the land issue – which is at the heart of the problem of political violence – and if it moves forward as announced, it will deserve credit for doing so, even from those otherwise critical of the right-wing presidency.

The ability to carry out such a land reform program, however, faces two fundamental obstacles. First, while the government does have a significant amount of land in its hands to redistribute, much of it is now occupied by agro-business and others who are not likely to relinquish control easily. And at least a quarter, if not more, of the land abandoned by the displaced population is now in the hand of third parties backed by the “new criminal gangs.” As Colombia’s history and recent murders of defenders of victims’ rights make clear, any effort to deal with the land issue will no doubt lead to significant conflict and violence.

Second, the Santos government has stated that agriculture is to be the engine of economic growth in the coming years and that growth is to be based on an agricultural export-led model that inevitably favors large land-owners. The government is also banking on increased foreign investment in natural resources, including in indigenous and Afro-Colombian lands that should be protected by law. In short, overall agricultural and economic policies will continue to favor the economic and landed elite at the expense of the rights of small farmers and marginalized minorities.

In the end, there will likely be more continuity than change with the Santos government and some fear that the kinder, gentler approach will serve to mask the ongoing problems listed above. However, any movement away from the hard-line, authoritarian practices of the Uribe government is welcome. For its part, the Obama administration should take advantage of the change in government to broaden bilateral relations beyond the nearly myopic focus on drugs and security. Most importantly, it should put promoting human rights in Colombia at the center of its policies toward that country until measurable improvements are made, first and foremost in confronting the countries’ legacy of impunity that will be passed from one president to the next on Saturday.

Attempts by Petraeus to Turn Soldiers Into Boy Scouts Disingenuous at Best

Be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. That’s the Boy Scout Law. Add be a good guest, stamp out corruption, walk rather than drive, improve governance, and fight the bad guys, and you will have the new code of conduct for counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan.

All together, there are twenty-four precepts in the counterinsurgency guidelines that General Petraeus issued to the troops on August 1. In addition to the ones mentioned above, they include securing the population, acting as a team, partnering with the Afghan Army, and doling out dollars carefully.

In theory, there is something new about these guidelines, which claim to take the general principles of the Army’s counterinsurgency field manual and apply them to the specific situation in Afghanistan. In actuality, the word Afghan has merely replaced the more generic “host-nation,” which, between 2006 and 2008, was almost always understood as Iraq. Like President Obama, Petraeus is toeing the line on Afghanistan. On the one hand, he is staunchly defending the current strategy against a growing number of critics who say we are losing the war. On the other hand, as the most recent code of conduct exemplifies, he is churning out new directives on the operational end of things to ensure his soldiers and everyone else that he is doing something to turn the tide of a failing war.

It is unlikely that this latest set of directives will do anything to improve the situation in Afghanistan. What they do instead is reveal just how disconnected and unrealistic the counterinsurgency strategy there really is. In terms of personal conduct, Petraeus is asking soldiers to behave themselves nobly, as some but probably not most soldiers naturally would. Let’s face it. Most people don’t join the army because they want to be good guests in a foreign country and drink tea with their enemies. The rank-and-file’s recent backlash against courageous restraint is just the most complicated and pressing example of the clash between the character that counterinsurgency demands and the character that defines conventional military culture.

On top of that, the new directives ask soldiers to advance wildly ambitious structural reforms that even the most experienced of statesmen have not been able to achieve in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Warning against putting money in the wrong hands, the code of conduct reminds soldiers, “We are who we fund.” I suppose that makes us both the Pakistani government to which we just promised another five hundred million dollars and the Iraqi government officials who pocketed the nine billion dollars we gave them from oil revenue we controlled during the occupation.

I’m not so sure the higher-ups are in a position to give the rank-and-file any advice on this one. Reading over the twenty-four guidelines is like reading the to-do list of Beaver Cleaver who also just happens to be Superman who also just happens to have a passion for fighting corruption and implementing good governance. The problem here is not just that counterinsurgency expects too much from soldiers. It’s that it expects too much from anyone involved in counterinsurgency—civil or military, American or Afghani. Whether practiced by a soldier or a state official, by a native or a foreigner, no individual code of conduct is going to bring about the huge changes in society that are necessary for counterinsurgency to be effective. This latest set of directives just underscores the absurd chasm between America’s enormously ambitious goals in Afghanistan and the embarrassingly simplistic and hokey conception of how to achieve them.

When I was in the Girl Scouts, they used to tell us to “always leave a place cleaner than you found it.” No matter how many codes of conduct Petraeus writes, when the US finally withdraws, Afghanistan will probably be even dirtier than before.

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