War Presidency? 12/30/15

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

US imperial war presidency?  – by Mel Gurtov

The death of six US soldiers in Afghanistan on December 21 at the hands of a Taliban suicide bomber brings to 21 the number of US combat deaths there in 2015. Once again we must confront the question of national purpose in waging war without debate or declaration. Like all other battlefield deaths in the Middle East, the Obama administration rationalizes these latest as being part of “training, advising, and assisting,” not combat. But those are merely code words for direct interventions that Congress has not authorized since 2002, in clear violation of restrictions the War Powers Resolution of 1973 places on presidential power.

There will be plenty more casualties in the Middle East for years to come, and not just because of the seemingly permanent US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider two recent news items. According to a plan not yet formally approved, the Pentagon wants to create a worldwide string of “hubs” as staging areas for Special Operations forces to strike quickly against terrorists. Second, most members of Congress are unwilling to introduce and debate a bill authorizing the Obama administration’s use of force in the Middle East and beyond. Thus, there is no end in sight to the US at war, both because the Pentagon has found the perfect enemy and because no one in Congress is willing to stand up to it.

The Pentagon’s plan is to have a forward presence that, in the words of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, “will enable unilateral crisis response, counterterror operations, or strikes on high-value targets.” Not long ago the Pentagon’s mantra was “places, not bases,” so as to avoid all the political problems, as well as the monetary costs, associated with a permanent military presence on foreign soil. Now “places” evidently have been modified to “hubs” and “spokes,” Pentagon-speak for small-scale leased bases of the sort already in place all over Africa. Northern Iraq and southern Europe are being considered as additional hub sites.

Beltway Resistance

Not everyone is reportedly on board with the Pentagon’s plan. The State Department correctly sees it as a power grab that may actually harm US foreign policy. The plan works at cross-purposes with diplomacy, substituting the deployment and use of force for potential opportunities to engage governments and rival groups. More US military facilities, no matter their size, invite criticism in the host countries, may become targets of terror groups, and feed the hostile propaganda of militants. In our terrorism era, however, State has no chance to win this battle.

The last time anyone in Congress got serious about its war powers was last May, when Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) introduced legislation to authorize military force against the Islamic State, a step he believed would force debate on what an authorization for war should actually entail. “There is no doubt that our current offensive amounts to war,” said Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “Congress should take action both to authorize its prosecution and to set limits on that authorization so it may not be used by any future administration in a manner contrary to our intent.”

Schiff’s proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) would have limited military action against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) to three years, prohibited the use of US ground troops, and immediately terminated both the 2001 and 2002 congressional authorizations tied to the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War, removing two pillars of presidential authority claimed by President Obama as sufficient to go after IS. Neither Schiff’s resolution nor a similar one proposed in June by Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ever got to the floor of Congress.

Now, however, there is a twist from the previous story: the executive branch wants a new authorization, and it is Congress that is balking. Democrats fear being seen as weak on terrorism if they try to constrain the president while IS is around, and Republicans fear giving him control over what they regard as a weak-kneed strategy. The president is thus left free to do as he pleases in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, totally ignoring the War Powers Resolution and, as a lame duck, ignoring Congress too.

Bypassing Congress

The War Powers Resolution establishes the circumstances under which the president must consult with Congress and obtain an authorizing resolution to sustain a military operation beyond 60 days. Here are the relevant sections of the act:

SEC. 3. The President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situation where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, and after every such introduction shall consult regularly with the Congress until United States Armed Forces are no longer engaged in hostilities or have been removed from such situations.

SEC. 4. (a) In the absence of a declaration of war, in any case in which United States Armed Forces are introduced–

(1) into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances;

(2) into the territory, airspace or waters of a foreign nation, while equipped for combat, except for deployments which relate solely to supply, replacement, repair, or training of such forces; or

(3) in numbers which substantially enlarge United States Armed Forces equipped for combat already located in a foreign nation . . .

There is little doubt that President Obama violated the WPR by introducing and reintroducing US forces into “hostilities,” not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but also in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan. In Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 2,000 U.S. service personnel have died since Obama took office in January 2009.

Unfortunately, the academic notion of shared powers is something of a myth. Only in rare instances will Congress attempt to tie the president’s hands in a war situation—for instance, when the Boland Amendment prohibited intelligence agencies from supporting the overthrow of the Nicaraguan government in the 1980s and when Congress placed a six-month limit on President Reagan’s troop commitment in Lebanon in 1983. But those attempts mattered little. The Boland Amendment failed to prevent President Reagan’s National Security Council from secretly funneling money to the Nicaraguan contras. And Reagan pulled US troops from Lebanon after the disastrous attack on their barracks in Beirut.

In general, Congress simply defers to the president. Even the president’s most hostile critics will bend to his leadership when national security is believed (or said) to be at stake.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to support presidential war making. Today, some of them—for example Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)—are saying the president should have the authority to use “all means necessary” to defeat IS. In other words, they want to go beyond what Obama is asking under the authorization resolution. That’s the same mistake Congress made in 1964, in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, when it gave Lyndon Johnson a virtual blank check in Southeast Asia (“to take all necessary steps . . . to promote international peace and security”).

The WPR, in fact, has never been effective. No president has ever regarded it as a legitimate exercise of congressional authority in war. No president has been forced to abide by its key provision: obtain congressional approval of a troop deployment within 60 days or withdraw the troops. Only a few presidents (including Obama) have even acknowledged the resolution when planning military action abroad. All presidents have insisted that as commander-in-chief they have all the constitutional authority they need to make war. Thus, when Congress votes to authorize military action abroad, what it is really doing is legitimizing what the President has already decided to do—and would do even in the absence of Congressional authorization.

So the only difference between then and now is that Congress won’t bother to vote, or even debate, presidential war powers. Senator Kaine is apparently going to try again with his resolution. But even if his or Representative Schiff’s proposal were to pass, the president would not be prohibited from many forms of military intervention, all of which he is employing today: using “advisers,” CIA operatives, and special forces; transferring arms to friendly forces; conducting drone strikes; directing air strikes by non-US air forces; training other militaries; and supporting third countries or groups whose ground forces substitute for US forces that Congress would prohibit. Congress will thus be bypassed once again. And only a few members of Congress will likely speak out against the potential human and monetary costs associated with the Pentagon’s latest basing plan. Indeed, most members of Congress, not to mention most of the presidential candidates, will push for increased use of force abroad. Endless war, both undeclared and undebated, will thus remain a central feature of the next presidency.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Reality Check on China 11/18/15

Reality Check On China

by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Will the real China please stand up? In the US media, most stories about China raise questions that amount to threat-mongering. How can China’s “aggressiveness” in the South China Sea be stopped? Is China forming a new alliance with Putin’s Russia? Has China hacked its way into the most sensitive US industrial and military secrets? Is China on the verge of displacing the West from Africa and even Latin America? Are the Chinese about to become a military rival of the US in terms of naval and air power?

At the same time, we now see pictures of an historic meeting of the Chinese and Taiwanese presidents in Singapore, and of a trilateral get-together among Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean finance ministers in Peru to consider a free-trade agreement. The images of China that emerge from these diverse stories are clearly quite opposite.

China without question has a powerful new-found presence in world affairs. It is now one of the world’s great trading nations, and it has become the top trade partner with countries such as South Korea and Japan,

whose trade once was dominated by the US. China provides loans and grants to numerous developing countries, where its currency is slowly becoming a rival to the US dollar. In fact, according to one recent report, “The China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China now provide more loans to the [Asia-Pacific] region than the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank combined.”

But the Chinese leadership’s most important accomplishments may be in China. It has become the world’s foremost example of poverty reduction. It is a leader in solar and hydro energy technology. President Xi Jinping has taken aim at official corruption in the party and army, though not in his own family and inner circle.

Abroad, besides the diplomatic initiatives with Taiwan and Japan mentioned above, China has become the most active major power in Africa, dispensing loans and making investments that have contributed to public health, local employment in manufacturing, and transportation. The Chinese military is becoming an important part of UN peacekeeping operations, for the first time including those that involve combat. China’s voice at international conferences on climate change is influential, and its agreement with the Obama administration on reducing carbon emissions will be noteworthy if both sides follow through. Its influence in North Korea may be critical to any prospect of reaching a new agreement with Kim Jong-un on nuclear weapons.

China’s growing international impact is not (yet) equivalent to leadership. On some of the major international issues, such as the Middle East conflicts, the refugee crisis, military spending, human rights (religious, ethnic, political), development assistance that promotes human security and civil society, and Iran’s nuclear program, China follows the lead of others and has little to say, much less proposing pathbreaking ideas and practices.

The so-called China Model may be attractive to some developing-country leaders because aid is not conditioned on the austerity or structural adjustment demands of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But the essence of the model is support of the strong state, that is, centralized authority, and the quid pro quo of China’s aid and investment often is free rein for Chinese companies to extract valuable resources, notably minerals, food, and tropical forests. Little wonder that nongovernmental organizations, such as unions, environmental groups, and small business, are among the strongest critics of Chinese development assistance in (for example) Brazil, Peru, Sri Lanka, Niger, and Kazakhstan. We hear the charge of Chinese “neocolonialism” with increasing frequency.

The real China lies within—the one that, like any other large and dynamic country, has a wealth of problems as well as problems of wealth. An insecure leadership worries about challenges to its authority, hence is busy arresting lawyers, journalists, and activists while concentrating power around Xi Jinping. Environmental protection is weak: water quality is declining, forests are being destroyed, deserts are expanding, fires and floods are increasing, and threats to public health are multiplying, casting doubt on the much-touted GNP figures. Economic growth claims are further questionable because of weaknesses in the banking sector, state enterprises, and stock markets. The rich-poor gap and protests by workers and ethnic minorities reveal the limits of growth to quell popular dissatisfactions. Employment is a major challenge because of limited opportunities for university graduates and mounting numbers of rural migrants. China has just abandoned its one-child policy in urban areas, but that may be too little, too late to affect its ability to cope with a rapidly aging society and demands for skilled labor in coastal industries.

If we try to put all this together, what kind of China emerges?

China’s rise has not occasioned a new grand strategy or even a clear direction. What may appear to be aggressive Chinese moves abroad may have a less ominous context, including defensive reactions to others. For example, in the South China Sea, China’s land reclamation and port and airport construction in islands under its control, and its refusal to submit the territorial dispute to international arbitration, deserve criticism. But the US has helped raise the level of tension in those waters by announcing a “pivot” of US military power to Asia in 2011, conducting military surveillance flights and cruises close to Chinese territory, gaining military access points in the Philippines and Vietnam, sending ships on “show the flag” missions on the pretext of upholding freedom of the seas, and failing after all these years to sign and ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. So there is plenty of blame to go around, on that issue as on others.

The world today is extraordinarily insecure, and appears to me to be on the precipice of enormous upheaval. US-Russia relations have all the look of another Cold War. The refugee crisis in Europe has created the basis for a deadly right-wing reaction (Germany 1933, a European said the other day) as well as an uncontrollable humanitarian situation. The US has military forces in three Middle East countries on missions impossible. And we may already be beyond the tipping point in global warming. The last thing Americans, Chinese, and everyone else needs is blindness to the necessity (and opportunities) for cooperative engagement, and instead the tendency to see every move by the other as threatening.

When China’s President Xi Jinping asks for a “new type of great-power relationship” with the US, he wants recognition from Washington of China’s equal status, in keeping with his emphasis on strengthening the nation, overcoming past humiliations, and thus fulfilling the “China dream.” His historic meeting in Singapore with Taiwan’s president on November 6 may be interpreted not simply as a clever way to influence Taiwan’s upcoming elections or as a component of smile diplomacy, but as a message to the US and others that China can take care of its “core interests” peacefully and without foreign interference. The South China Sea dispute would fit that frame of reference. The current and future US president should evaluate Chinese actions with Xi Jinping’s notion in mind, even as it reserves the right to criticize. US-China differences will persist for some time, but they need not become the basis for dangerous miscalculations.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Facebook Reality 0/14/15

Manipulating Reality: Facebook Is Listening to You
by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

One thing we have become all too used to is that our reality can be manipulated to create the appearance of something else entirely. Invading another country is defensive, rigged elections are passed off as democracy in action, more guns (or more nuclear weapons) ensure the peace, trade and foreign investment increase jobs at home. Orwellian logic has become commonplace.

What I am reporting on here is another kind of manipulation: How Facebook and other social media use the information we for the most part unknowingly provide it—including even words we speak in the privacy of our own homes—to advertise products that we didn’t request and almost certainly don’t want, and pass data on to the government.

I am hardly the first to discover this extraordinary capability. A number of other people have expressed their astonishment and anger when they became aware that key words they used in Facebook and Twitter communication, such as messaging, location, and status, as well as in private conversations anywhere in their homes, were being picked up and almost instantly converted into ads. You mention a particular sport and a ticketing agency’s ad appears. You say you would love to drive a Lexus and up pops a Lexus ad. You talk about a vacation, and a Facebook ad refers you to a Hawaiian beach or a small Paris hotel that—lo and behold—you had actually mentioned just yesterday!

Is this paranoia? Is Facebook (or Instagram, Google, or Yahoo) capable of listening in on our conversations? Facebook readily admits that its business model relies on the data we enter or transmit online, that once we join the data essentially becomes Facebook’s property, and that (as Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has argued) most people don’t care all that much about their privacy anyway. Of course Facebook et al. defend their model by telling you they are merely responding to your wants, and that if you wish they can reduce (but not eliminate) advertising if you’ll simply check a list provided in their program settings. But as to actually listening in, Facebook contends that only you control the microphone, and (according to the head of Facebook security) you must give permission to Facebook to activate it. Does anyone recall being asked for permission?

You apparently can disable the microphone function in Windows or the Facebook mobile app on your smart phone or tablet. But does “off” actually mean completely off? Apparently not. My wife Jodi’s and my own experiences after we turned off the microphone on her computer say otherwise. Note that the ads appeared within seconds of our speaking.

Jodi made a remark about Robin Wright Penn, the actress. Ads for Sean Penn movies instantly appeared.
We discussed T-shirts for grandchildren. Ads for just such T-shirts appeared.
Jodi mentioned our unfinished Scrabble game. Immediately, an ad for the game Yahtzee came up.
Jodi was describing her appearance relevant to her age, such as laugh lines and gray hair, and an ad for Maybelline “Age Rewind” popped up.

So now you say, OK, but isn’t this snooping illegal, an invasion of privacy? There have been large-scale protests of Facebook’s smartphone snooping, but no policy change by Facebook as far as I’m aware. At a legal level, a Belgian study points out—and by the way, the Europeans are far more upset with and focused on Facebook’s shenanigans than are Americans—“opting out” of advertising is not the same as informed and direct consent. Moreover, Facebook does not ask for our consent to its acquiring data from other sources, for collecting location data provided in smart phones, for using photos or other data (such as “like”) entered by the user.

I think a fair reading of the Belgian report and Facebook’s most recent (2015) clarifications of policy is that Facebook may collect any and all information stemming from your use of Facebook and from the device you use to access Facebook. “Any information” means absolutely any data you enter, whether about yourself or third parties, and whether provided in writing, by voice, or in pictures. Even if you elect to terminate your Facebook account, it retains all the information you’ve provided.

There is an additional and even more pernicious issue: the gathering and use of social media data by U.S. government agencies, notably the National Security Agency (NSA). This practice, which Edward Snowden brought to light, includes the participation of Facebook, Apple, and several other technology companies in the NSA’s PRISM program to collect data directly from the companies rather than simply via the Internet.

This intrusion on privacy is now being contested by the European Union. In 2000, the EU accepted the U.S. proposal to establish a “Safe Harbor” program for transferring personal data collected in Europe by Facebook, Google, and Amazon to the U.S. That agreement was reevaluated by the European Court of Justice Advocate-General, who maintained that it violates Europeans’ basic rights. The A-G finds that the data can be “accessed by the NSA and by other United States security agencies in the course of a mass and indiscriminate surveillance.”

The ECJ has just upheld that opinion, declaring Safe Harbor invalid. The court’s ruling is that Safe Harbor “must be regarded as compromising the essence of the fundamental right to respect for private life.” It’s a big blow, though not necessarily a fatal one, to Facebook and others engaged in data transferring in Europe. The Europeans have been pressing these companies, especially Google and Amazon, on other issues as well, such as with anti-trust legislation. Ideally, the ECJ ruling and other European actions will embolden Americans to stage their own fight for greater privacy and more transparency in the way the technology giants conduct their business.

Does social media’s invasion of privacy bother you, or do you consider the loss of your privacy the price of socializing? How have you handled your privacy with your computer, phone, or tablet? Have you had the kinds of listening-in experiences I mentioned?

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Crossroads of the World 9/30/15

A Tale of Two Visitors
By Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

What a strange week it was: Pope Francis arriving in the east and President Xi Jinping arriving in the west. One had just come from preaching in Cuba in the wake of US-Cuba normalization of relations, which the Vatican was instrumental in arranging; the other had come from preaching order in China—in the markets, in the streets, and in the communist party—in the wake of mounting U.S. criticism of Chinese cyberattacks and human-rights violations. The pope offered a moral message linked to preservation of freedom, support for immigrants, and hopes to save the earth’s environment, while China’s president reassured the titans of U.S. technology and other businesses of his country’s economic strength. Profit or morality, obligations to growth versus obligations to people and the future—a quick description of the crossroads at which the world stands.

Francis is often praised for being humble, modest, and—as President Obama put it—for having “generosity of spirit.” While the Vatican can be as opaque as Zhongnanhai (Chinese Communist Party headquarters in Beijing), Francis clearly enjoys being with ordinary people and speaking on their behalf. Since being anointed pope, he has constantly spoken of the need to fight poverty, the links between poverty and environmental destruction, and the excesses of capitalism. Xi, a mysterious and secretive figure who struggles to present himself as a man of the people, is busy cracking down on lawyers, protesters, journalists, and other actual or potential troublemakers. To me this repression suggests an insecure leader determined above all to protect the party-state’s power. (The contrast may also reflect their different backgrounds—Francis, whose father emigrated from Italy to escape Mussolini; Xi, from a family within the communist party elite that was victimized by the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.)

Both men head a huge bureaucracy and seem determined to clean houses marked by major scandals. But Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has been accompanied by protection and promotion of the financial interests of his circle of family and friends. He punishes rivals and wields extraordinary control over all major policy levers.

It may seem silly to compare these two visitors, who come with such different leadership responsibilities and represent vastly different constituencies. Still, it is noteworthy that the pope received lavish attention everywhere he went, with enormous crowds and extraordinary media coverage. Xi Jinping, no match for Francis, was practically invisible while Francis was around; and when he did appear in public, protesters had to be kept at a distance from him. As Howard French observes, Chinese leaders have yet to master so-called soft power. Unlike the pope, who always comes across as a real person, with Xi “ … everything is scripted. There’s little give-and-take. Speeches are full of stock phrases.” Instead of getting hugs, Xi got considerable criticism for acts that at the least raise questions about China’s respect for basic human rights at home and uncompromising actions abroad (I’m thinking especially of repression in Tibet and unilateral moves—the Wall Street Journal called them instances of “Chinese aggression”—to assert China’s claims in the disputed South China Sea islands).

What did these two visitors accomplish? The pope, as expected, pushed a mostly progressive agenda that no doubt left Republican leaders gnashing their teeth. After all, as one close observer, Wen Stephenson, has written that Pope Francis “has embraced liberation theology, and its deep critique of structural economic injustice and oppression, with open arms.”
China’s leader probably paved the way for new high-tech deals and may for the time being have placated Obama by calling for a cooperative approach to cyber security. More significantly, Xi indicated that China, starting in 2017, would implement a cap-and-trade system to deal with carbon emissions from industry—the same idea Obama tried and failed to get Congressional agreement on in 2010. And at the U.N., Xi pledged $2 billion to aid the poorest countries, though it is unclear if the money will be in loans, grants, or debt relief.

Did either visitor leave an indelible mark on this country? Doubtful; but at least we may say of Francis that he impacted the lives of many individuals who were fortunate enough to see or hear him. His call for action on climate change, global poverty, and immigration was insistent and eloquent; it advanced the cause of environmental rights (which he identified as such in his speech at the U.N.) and social justice. President Xi did not bring a hopeful message; he came mainly to do business and vigorously defend Chinese policies. If the cap-and-trade plan on carbon emissions is faithfully implemented nationwide, it would be a worthy accomplishment. But that’s a big “if.” He and certain people along the Beltway would do well to heed the pope’s message in his speech to the U.S. Congress: “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.”

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Microscope on China 9/9/15

China’s insecurity,  by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Several developments in China over the past few weeks have shown us a country quite different from the one often portrayed by outsiders—an emerging superpower, with global economic reach and ambitions to challenge American predominance, at least in Asia. The real China, the one most familiar to its citizens, faces serious, long-term problems at home. In just the last few weeks these include a major industrial chemical explosion in Tianjian (just the latest in a string of industrial accidents), successive currency revaluations, a stock market crash, an anti-corruption campaign that has landed quite a few big names, and a widening net to catch lawyers and anyone else who speaks for human rights and the rule of law.

Every one of these developments has international implications, directly or indirectly. But we should mainly be concerned with their internal implications. What ties these problems together is that they expose China’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and underscore the leadership’s insecurity when it comes to dealing with them. Concern in the US, Japan, and elsewhere about China’s international ambitions diverts us from the reality that China’s leaders must cope with social, political, economic, and environmental problems on a scale that demands a significant share of the country’s resources and prestige. When toxic chemicals spread over a major city as the result of an entirely preventable accident and local government-private investor collusion; when tens, even hundreds of thousands of people lose their savings in a stock market crash; when members of the communist party elite are jailed while many more live a privileged life built on corruption and connections; when protesters and their lawyers risk all in efforts to right certain wrongs—not only do ordinary Chinese suffer. The system itself is under the microscope.

The leadership’s restrictions on media coverage of these events reflects full awareness in Xi Jinping’s inner circle that the party-state’s legitimacy—its right to rule without competition—is at stake. Power exercised in ways that convey greater concern about social “stability” than about people’s livelihoods risks unleashing mass anger, expressed not only in violent incidents directed at local authority but also in social media that even the public security bureau’s “great firewall” cannot completely shut down.

China’s leaders also understand that the danger to themselves lurks within their own ranks. Purges of thousands of officials at various levels of authority may make the system less corrupt, and may weed out people loyal to previous leaders. But purges probably also cause resentment among the bureaucratic survivors who see their careers and traditional ways of operating under assault.

In a political system that has established, transparent, and effective outlets for addressing injustice, these kinds of developments can be contained and resolved. But China, as many of its own intellectuals freely and forthrightly acknowledge, falls well short when it comes to providing such outlets. In fact, Xi Jinping’s administration is moving in the opposite direction, imposing further social controls to prevent citizens from organizing to create change. A primary example is the new national security law, which codifies and attempts to legitimize the crackdown that has been going on for some time, now labeled ideological and cultural “security.” One Chinese academic is quoted as saying that the law’s language is troubling for the obvious reason that it is so all-encompassing; the dragnet can be used (and is being used) to suppress independent voices of many kinds. (From a foreign policy standpoint, the law stretches “core interests” in new directions. Here I see the same kind of problem Americans often face when presidents arbitrarily identify “the national interest,” “vital interests,” and “national security.” Whatever the leader decides is “core” or “vital” becomes such, whether it’s the South China Sea islands or Iraq.)

Underscoring Xi’s sense of the communist party’s vulnerability is his assumption of powers that extend even beyond Chairman Mao’s. As Roderick MacFarquhar at Harvard has written, Xi not only heads the new Central National Security Commission in charge of implementing that law. He has taken over every important leadership position in the party and government: general secretary of the party and president of China, posts Xi assumed on taking power; the Central Military Commission; and “leading groups” in charge of economic reform, foreign affairs, Internet security, and information technology. Believing that the Soviet Union collapsed because “their ideals and conviction wavered,” and because no “real man” emerged to resist collapse, Xi is engaged in a Mao-like attempt to create a “China dream” and revive an ideology that no longer resonates among citizens. Very much in the Mao mold, Xi (to quote MacFarquhar) “has been forced to go negative, listing alien doctrines to be extirpated. According to a central Party document, there are six ‘false ideological trends, positions, and activities’ emanating from the West that are advocated by dissident Chinese: constitutional democracy; universal values; civil society; economic neoliberalism; Western-style journalism, challenging China’s principle that the media and the publishing system should be subject to Party discipline; and promoting historical nihilism, trying to undermine the history of the CCP by emphasizing the mistakes of the Maoist period.”

Thus, “the West” once again is China’s bogeyman, providing a convenient target whenever a lawyer or protesting farmer must be dragged from home. Promoting this kind of negative nationalism—that is, strong national feelings built on an external threat rather than internal pride—can only work for a while. The economy remains the key to popular loyalty, and right now it is faltering, with slower growth and declining exports. As one Chinese commentator observes: “Everyone understands that the economy is the biggest pillar of the Chinese government’s legitimacy to govern and win over popular sentiment,” said Chen Jieren, a well-known Beijing-based commentator on politics. “If the economy falters, the political power of the Chinese Communist Party will be confronted with more real challenges, social stability in China will be endangered tremendously, and Xi Jinping’s administration will suffer even more criticism.” China’s economy may well be fundamentally sound, as one expert writes. But “the economy” is not people, and as we all know, GDP and other macro figures can be quite misleading when it comes to issues of social inequities.

President Xi will soon visit Washington. President Obama can either press China hard on currency valuation, human rights, and cyberhacking, or he can engage in a dialogue of equals and pursue common ground on climate change, Iran, the South China Sea dispute, and North Korea. In choosing the latter course, Obama would be recognizing that Xi is plagued by domestic problems largely of his own making. US pressure on him now would not only be strongly resented; it would be quite counterproductive. Let the Chinese people determine the fate of what Xi Jinping calls the “China dream.”

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Global Security Issue 8/26/15

The number one global security issue? Climate change

by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

In recent years, US leaders finally categorized climate change as a global threat on the order of weapons of mass destruction. Since then, the bad news surrounding climate change has gotten considerably worse.

We are, as Eric Holthaus just wrote for Rolling Stone, at the point of no return. He offers many telltale signs, ecological and environmental, some familiar and others not.

But perhaps the most decisive finding is the rate of climatic change, “unprecedented for at least the past 1,000 years” according to five scientists with the Joint Global Change Research Institute, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in College Park, Maryland. Their study, like many others, urges immediate mitigating actions with the caution that even positive efforts will not have much impact before mid-century.

As he enters his last year of office, President Obama’s characterization of the threat posed by climate change has become quite dramatic and shrill. He told Coast Guard Academy graduates in May: “I am here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to national security, an immediate risk to our national security, and, make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country.”

Then, on August 2, introducing his plan to curb climate change and promote his clean power plan, he said that “no challenge poses a greater threat to our future, and to future generations, than a changing climate.”

There is good reason for linking climate change to international security. Climate change impacts every major international security issue, as Keith Johnson shows in a recent article for Foreign Policy.

In the South China Sea dispute, for example, the contested islands have the potential not only to yield significant amounts of oil and gas, but also to become inundated before very long. Hence China’s land reclamation project, which in the end may be a huge waste of time and money. Environmental refugees within countries and across borders have become commonplace. The looming fight over the Arctic’s resources as the ice melts; the worldwide water crisis, affecting every country whether wealthy or poor; the shift of weather patterns that will impact food supplies; the warming of oceans and the consequences for fishing—these and many more changes are in motion now, and all have serious potential for conflict between nations.

The sooner we understand the interconnection between climate change and security, the faster we can get our priorities straight. It’s not a matter of putting the other security issues on the back burner; it’s just that climate change is the most urgent matter for all species. As the President said, “we’re the last generation that can do something about it.” Other dangers will linger for a long time, but “there is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change.”

Will it take a climate catastrophe to mobilize legislators to action? Will John Kerry, having denounced the “tiny minority of shoddy scientists … and extreme ideologues” who question global warming, now do the right thing and reject the Keystone XL fracking plan? Will the Obama administration finally display leadership at the next international conference on global warming? Stay tuned.

I’m not optimistic; the time to act decisively is exceedingly short, and Obama’s maneuvering room on environmental issues is limited by the Republican Deniers and I’m No Scientists. But I believe each of us must do what we can and not let the daily bad news immobilize us. Let’s support organizations that have a proven track record on the environment, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Rainforest Alliance, and groups in your immediate area that are keeping the predators at bay.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Cloak of Secrecy 8/19/15

Consorting with the devil

by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Throughout the Cold War, and doubtless right down to the present, professional people with skills relevant to “national security” have been secretly recruited to work for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense. Universities are among those particularly targeted. Scholars and campus research centers have received CIA and DoD funding for conferences and publications, for collecting intelligence while abroad, and even for spying, all under cloak of secrecy.

Among the more notorious examples is the 1985 scandal at Harvard, in which the head of its Center for Middle Eastern Studies Center was found to have a financial contract with the CIA for research and conferences. He was forced to resign. Yale has had unusually close ties with the CIA dating back many years, contributing student recruits and directors.

Universities are hardly alone in having intelligence ties to government agencies. Foreign affairs specialists working at think tanks, living abroad, or serving in nongovernmental organizations are also prey. I was one of those people. In 1966, following my graduate education, I was hired by the RAND Corporation in California to work in a classified, DoD-sponsored project to assess “Viet Cong Motivation and Morale.” The project aimed at finding weaknesses in the enemy’s thinking that the US military could exploit through psychological warfare and bombing. I and others read field interviews with captured Vietnamese soldiers to try to discover what drove their dedication and willingness to fight no matter the hardships. Like some other of my RAND colleagues, I wound up concluding exactly the opposite of what the Pentagon funders of the project wanted, namely, that the “enemy” was us, and that Viet Cong motivation could not be overcome by napalm, Agent Orange, or carpet bombing (and in fact was heightened by such actions). The best US strategy, we concluded, was to get out of Vietnam. But most colleagues at RAND did not see things that way, and, the RAND-DoD partnership continued.

Telecommunication companies, starting with AT&T and Verizon, are also part of the intelligence network. Thanks to Edward Snowden, they are now known to have had a long and friendly relationship with the National Security Council under the NSC’s Special Source Operations. AT&T for over a decade (at least to 2013, perhaps still today) collaborated with the NSC in collecting billions of emails and wiretapping United Nations Internet communications. The companies received hundreds of millions of dollars for allowing the NSC to tap communications between foreigners and between US citizens and foreigners.

The latest revelation concerning those who “consort with the devil” concerns psychologists in the American Psychological Association. In utter disregard for professional ethics, a number of prominent psychologists worked closely with the CIA’s and the Pentagon’s torture programs in Afghanistan. They not only condoned but personally profited from torture, all in the name of supporting the US war effort. It was a case of first-class collusion, abuse of authority, and conflict of interest—and it went largely unnoticed until recently.

The report on the psychologists cited above finds that at every fork in the road, when choices had to be made about participation in the torture programs, they rationalized participation on the basis that the various torture tactics employed really didn’t amount to torture. Left unsaid was that some of the decision makers were under contract with the CIA or the Pentagon, or served on one of their advisory committees. Several of them used approval of participation in torture to then contract with the Pentagon or CIA for profitable work, including ways to improve interrogation techniques.

You would think that such unethical, indeed disgraceful behavior would warrant a complete overhaul of the APA’s ethics guidelines, dismissal from APA posts of those psychologists who participated in the torture programs, and public naming and shaming of others who were involved. But so far, despite not one but two major reports on the APA’s involvement the APA reportedly is merely considering what to do. As though the honorable thing to do is somehow unclear.

Private professionals working secretly on projects that enhance war making is a problem that is likely to get worse as opportunities outside government to pursue one’s chosen academic craft diminish. Anthropologists who can’t find tenure-track teaching positions are working for DoD in Afghanistan. Lawyers find government positions more lucrative than private practice—and then, as under George W. Bush, authorize torture and other illegalities. Think tank experts shill for the government in hopes of landing on the inside. All these people will, of course, vigorously assert their independence of mind, when in fact they have been coopted. The question then is, Who speaks for peace and what are the rewards for it?

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Adversarial Relations 7/22/15

The engagement critics

by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

One of the predictable outcomes of any US effort to reset relations with an adversary is that allies start whining about their vulnerability and demanding some sort of compensation for it. Thus, no sooner was the nuclear deal with Iran concluded than the Israelis, Saudis, and other Middle East partners criticize it as representing abandonment and emboldening Iran to become a stronger meddler in neighbors’ affairs. All sorts of dire predictions about horrendous consequences are already on record, clearly intended to influence the Obama administration to give these folks something for their pain—like money, arms (both of which they get in abundance), and especially new commitments.

When such demands are made, moreover, US allies know full well that they can count on support from hawks in Congress and think tanks who have been issuing warnings for many months about the nuclear deal. These are people who feast on threats. Now they are in full throttle, talking as though engaging Iran amounts to something just short of treason. The Middle East will come tumbling down: Iran’s Shiia allies will make trouble in the Occupied Territories, Yemen, and elsewhere; Syria will go down the drain; new turmoil will mark Iraq and Afghanistan. And of course in the end, the predictions insist, Iran will develop nuclear weapons, compelling an Israeli response.

The burden will be on Obama to resist these pressures. He knew from the outset of negotiations with Iran that reaching an agreement that had the ayatollah’s blessing was only half the battle, that the other half was at home and with Iran’s enemies in the Middle East. One well informed analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington argues that the Saudis and their friends will be especially insistent that the US “demonstrate its readiness to push back against Iran’s expansionism around the region. And the primary arena in which the Arab states wish to see that from the United States is in Syria.” But as this analyst goes on to say, Syria “is the one [place] where the current US president is least likely to undertake any more assertive action to counter Iran.” Let’s hope she’s right.

Critics of engaging Iran, and even supporters such as the analyst just quoted, make the common and dangerous error of putting their entire focus on Iran’s capacity for troublemaking. This, despite all the evidence that Israel and Saudi Arabia, among other US partners, are also guilty of troublemaking—and that Israel has never been pushed to open to inspection, much less reduce, its nuclear arsenal. Nor have the Sunni Arab partners, all autocracies, been pressed by the US to reform their political systems so as to be able to accommodate the many sources of inequity, which the Arab Spring evidently did not accomplish. Haven’t they ever heard of burden sharing? Failing to confront these realities leaves the US precisely where it is now: having to prove its “resolve” and its “leadership” by deepening its already steep, multi-front military involvement in the Middle East.

The administration should use the nuclear agreement as the opening wedge in a broader policy shift that seeks normalization of relations with Iran. Let Netanyahu and the Saudi princes rant; the US aim should be peace, security, and social justice for the peoples of the region, not satisfaction of other states’ destructive ambitions.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, and blogs at In the Human Interest.

What Khrushchev Thought 6/24/15

The Pentagon Slush Fund

By Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Back in 1959, President Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Khrushchev took a break from their summit and walked in the woods around Camp David. Khrushchev, in his memoirs, relates a conversation in which the president complains of how hard it is to resist the military’s demands for more money. Military leaders, said Eisenhower, invariably insist the US will fall behind the Soviet Union unless he gives them the money for this or that weapon system. “They keep grabbing for more, and I keep giving it to them.” He asked Khrushchev if that was also the case in the USSR. “It’s just the same,” said Khrushchev, who went on to describe virtually the same script. “Yes,” said the president, “that’s what I thought.”

Congress members are very much a part of the military-industrial complex, which is why someone long ago suggested that the more accurate term is MAGIC: the military-academic-governmental-industrial complex. Most people elected to Congress, and certainly any among them who serve on the armed services committee of either house, think two things when it comes to national security: the more weapons produced, the more secure we are; and the more money allocated to “national defense,” the better. These folks never met a weapons system they didn’t like. And when, in relatively lean times, they have to decide between social well being and the Pentagon’s wish list, well, they don’t have to think twice.

These days Congress members, mainly on the Republican side, are busy finding clever ways to hide stuffing the Pentagon’s stocking with strategically senseless, duplicative, exceedingly expensive weapons and related items. Remember sequestration in 2013? It was supposed to cap military and other spending in order to help bring the overall budget back to balance. Clearly, in the minds of the military-firsters, this effort was never meant to apply to the Pentagon, as evidenced by the much larger budget hit that social welfare programs took compared with the military, and by the little publicized Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is not subject to sequestration. Yes, military spending has gone down a bit over the last three years, but at over $600 billion (not counting veterans’ benefits and interest on the national debt from past wars), it’s around 54 percent of all US government discretionary spending and still close to 40 percent of global military spending.

All the whining in Congress and the Pentagon about how the US defense posture is undermined by sequestration and compels a leaner military is just so much theatrics—not just because the US military is bloated both in money and weapons, and continues to fight and prepare for wars on several fronts, but also because in Washington (including in the White House) the tricks are well known for giving the military everything it wants and then some. The fundamental problem isn’t budgetary, it’s US globalism.

Reporting on the “Pentagon slush fund,” the New York Times notes that the next military budget, as voted in the House of Representatives, will have a dozen more nuclear submarines at $8 billion apiece, a $348 billion modernization program for nuclear weapons over the coming decade, billions more for missile defense and faulty jet fighters, and, by the way, funding to maintain the Guantanamo prison-base in Cuba that the president had long ago promised to close down. US military leaders have not asked for all this money, and probably would prefer that more be allocated for conventional warfare and humanitarian missions such as in Nepal. But it’s hard to rein in the military big spenders in Congress, especially when they couch their check-writing in patriotism.

It’s funny: the Pentagon is forever complaining that China has no reason to keep increasing its military spending. It needs to look in the mirror.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Chinese Activities 6/17/15

The Looming US-China Crisis in the South China Sea

by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

The long-running, multi-party dispute over control of islets in the South China Sea (SCS) is worsening both in rhetoric and provocative activity. Meeting in late May at the Shangri-La Dialogue on regional security, US and Chinese defense officials sparred over responsibility for the increased tension, though they stopped short of issuing threats. In fact, all sides to the dispute say they want to avoid violence, prefer a diplomatic resolution, and support freedom of navigation.

Both the US and China insist that the dispute notwithstanding, their relationship overall is positive and enduring. But China, claiming indisputable sovereignty over the SCS, is backing its claim in ways that alarm the US and several Asian governments: construction of an air strip on the Spratly Islands, a land reclamation project that has artificially expanded its claimed territory, and most recently emplacement of two mobile artillery vehicles.

The Pentagon has responded by publicly discussing US options such as flyovers and navigation in Chinese-claimed air and sea space. A US navy surveillance aircraft has already challenged China’s sovereignty claim by overflying Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys, prompting a Chinese order (which the aircraft ignored) to leave the area. In the meantime, US military assistance to other claimants, including Vietnam and the Philippines, has enabled their coast guards to at least keep an eye on Chinese activities.

The US-China debate over the SCS would be a tempest in a teapot were it not for two other sources of contention. One is the gas and oil potential underneath the South China Sea, long subject to intense competition. The other is the friction arising from the different US and Chinese strategic postures in East Asia. The US deploys enormous air, naval, and nuclear power across the region. Rising China, one Chinese scholar writes, “is no longer susceptible to U.S. coercion or bullying. Under President Xi Jinping, the more confrontational stance Washington takes, the more assertive Beijing will become in response.”

The US “rebalancing” of forces in Asia since 2009, with emphasis on deploying additional naval power to the Pacific; its backing of Japan in Japan’s territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea; and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that aims to undercut China’s commercial as well as political success in Asia—these are among the US moves in Asia that have prompted Chinese pushback both economically and militarily. China’s gradual buildup in the SCS should be seen as part of that pushback. Its latest official strategy statement, issued (surely not coincidentally) on May 26, explicitly links “maritime military struggle” and “active defense” to the “provocative” actions and “meddling” of foreign parties in that area. The strategy statement conceives of a greatly increased role for the Chinese navy in “offshore waters defense.”

Although China’s declared position would seem to make the sovereignty issue nonnegotiable, that doesn’t rule out conflict management. Ownership can be separated from, and thereby detached from, political and economic issues. All sides might agree, for instance, not to object to others’ sovereignty claims and to freeze the situation on the ground, disallowing further construction and land reclamation, entry of vessels and weapons, and introduction of civil or military personnel.

Crafting a binding code of conduct is an option that seems to have support from China and the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). They agreed on the current version of the code, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, in November 2002. It commits the parties to resolving disputes by peaceful means, without using threats or force and in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The parties also “undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.” Unfortunately, what constitutes self-restraint and how actions would be handled constructively remain to be determined. Instead, the concerned Southeast Asian nations rely on multilateral trust-building efforts to ease tensions, while the Chinese prefer bilateral talks and, it seems clear, unilateral actions to strengthen their claim.

More formal legal avenues might also be utilized despite China’s objections, including the Philippines case before UNCLOS and recourse to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The US does not stand on firm ground, however, when it comes to international legal remedies. First, the UNCLOS, as a treaty, has been awaiting Senate approval since 1994! (Many, including Professor Jerome A. Cohen, a leading expert on international law, urge US ratification). Second, the US has a long record of ignoring adverse ICJ decisions. Third, since 1986, the US has rejected the court’s compulsory jurisdiction. The US could be a more effective actor here if it were more law-abiding—certainly more effective than by deploying forces to test China’s intentions.

All the parties, and especially Washington and Beijing, surely see the downside to continued tension, notably the retreat of US-China relations to Cold War-style tests of resolve. “Conflict is bad for business,” the new head of US Pacific forces is quoted as saying. It’s bad for many other things too, but countries have gone to war over far lesser stakes when clashing notions of self-righteousness and national security prevail over common sense.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Amazed Conservatives 5/6/15

The Iran framework: A case study in engagement

by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

We have every reason to celebrate the so-called framework agreement with Iran. It exemplifies the best of President Obama’s foreign policy, namely, engaging adversaries. Remember when candidate Obama’s argument for engagement during campaign 2008 was ridiculed by Hillary Clinton, among many others? Now Obama has two major engagement successes to crow about, leaving behind those who are quick to criticize the deals with Cuba and Iran as anything from foolish to treasonous. Needless to say, neither of those understandings is complete; the devil is always in the details, and there are plenty of them. But to reach this point after more than 35 years when other administrations have either failed to cut a deal or refused to try is nothing short of extraordinary. And in the case of Iran, the nuclear agreement comes at a crucial moment, not merely in terms of Iran’s nuclear-weapon potential but more broadly with respect to the chaotic shape of Middle East politics.

John Limbert was a political officer in the US embassy in Tehran when the nightmare hostage crisis unfolded in 1979. Out of his captivity has come a seminal guide, Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History (2009), which reflects his deep background in Persian studies and his commitment to dialogue and mutual understanding. His book examines several cases of crisis in Iran and then offers a number of guidelines to successfully negotiating with the Iranians. At a time when we are hearing loud criticisms of the nuclear deal and efforts by Congress members, and Israel, to undermine it, we should pay attention to what experts like Limbert have to say.

Limbert proposes fourteen negotiating lessons. I have selected seven of them, and added one of my own. Comparing the lessons with the framework just concluded allows us to see how effectively the two countries’ diplomats worked together.

Avoid legalisms; seek solutions based on “mutually agreeable standards” that Iran can claim as a victory. Having two MIT scientists who knew of one another discuss technicalities was a key to successful talks. That allowed many details of an accord to focus on science, not politics. As for claiming victory, while Secretary of State John Kerry and other US officials could cite major concessions by Iran, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif could boast that Iran will keep its centrifuges and nuclear enrichment program, its major nuclear research site at Fordo, and some of its uranium stockpile.

“Be aware of Iran’s historical greatness” and past grievances based on humiliations by foreign powers. President Obama, in an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and elsewhere, has shown his attentiveness to Iran’s history and culture. He has pointed to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s mention of Iran’s unhappy history with the US, and has made respectful comments about Iran’s greatness and right to acknowledgment as a major regional power. (The interview is a must-read: nytimes.com/2015/04/06/opinion/thomas-friedman-the-obama-doctrine-and-iran-interview.html.) Throughout the years of talks with Iran, its leaders have above all else demanded “respect,” i.e., justice and recognition of Iran’s legitimacy. The nuclear negotiations have provided that.

Clarify lines of authority: be sure to talk with the right people, but also present a common US position. This was a challenging lesson to follow inasmuch as the ayatollah deliberately kept in the background, letting his negotiators do their thing but without committing himself to the outcome. On the US side, Republican and others’ sniping presented obstacles for negotiators, in particular when 47 US senators signed a letter to the ayatollah warning that any agreement was subject to Congressional review. Nevertheless, the “right people” were evidently at the table and were able to craft an agreement that, on Iran’s side, the ayatollah did not negate and, on the US side, amazed even some conservative critics.

Understand Iranian interests. Obviously, removing the sanctions was essential to a deal, but not at any price. Iran’s insistence on keeping fuel rods at home and not shipped to Russia was essential face-saving, and US negotiators did not allow that position to halt the talks. Likewise on the centrifuges issue: The US negotiated down their number (from about 19,000 to 6,000), but Iran still has some 5,000 allowed to operate according to CIA director John O. Brennan.

Do not assume the Iranians are illogical, uncompromising, untrustworthy, duplicitous. US negotiators clearly did not. Hopefully, they kept in mind that many Iranians view Americans the same way.

Ignore hostile rhetoric and grandstanding; be businesslike and professional—and be willing to stay the course.

Remember that there were successful US-Iran talks in the past, for example in 2001-2002 over Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban.

Be ever-conscious of the politics of a deal—the fact that on each side, it must be sold to wary buyers and outright opponents who want to see it fail. This is why the “optics” of the deal are so important, with each side having a different narrative of the deal’s strengths so as to make it more attractive domestically. The message here: Don’t interpret public statements about the deal by the other side as backsliding with the intention to subvert it.

The nuclear deal with Iran, if it holds, could potentially open a new era in US relations with the Middle East. Though the Saudis, the Israelis, and some other supposed friends of the US will object, a cooperative US-Iran relationship is a critical piece in the overall puzzle to find a path to something resembling stability. We can see the outlines of cooperation with Iran in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Washington and Tehran have common interests. Simply put, Iran’s leaders feel threatened by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. To be sure, there are also places—Yemen, Israel/Palestine, Libya, and Syria—where the US and Iran are at odds. But if the nuclear deal can move forward, and termination of sanctions can lead to a fruitful economic relationship, the agenda of cooperation may expand and violence-by-proxy may greatly reduce. For the US, an end to one-sided relationships in the Middle East would be a blessing, with positive ramifications for Israel and others.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Status of India’s Women 4/29/15

India’s Shame, and the World’s

by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

A democracy is supposed to have the advantage of affording people of any social class, gender, or religious or ethnic group the opportunity to advance. In contrast with authoritarian political orders, democracies should be superior in their openness to change, to everyone’s participation in politics, and to equality before the law. In a word, democracies are based on the politics of hope and the virtues of transparency. Or so the theory goes.

India defies these expectations. Though it has democratic institutions and vigorous political competition, at least among elites, when it comes to human development and human security, India falls very short—embarrassingly so when compared with China. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which measures human development and reports annually on conditions in nearly all countries documents the comparison. Overall, among 177 countries for which data are available, India ranks 135th (in company with Tajikistan, Bhutan, and Cambodia), whereas China ranks 91st (along with Thailand, Armenia, and Fiji). In fact, there are very few categories of human development in which India does better on average than China, which surely explains why developing countries (and many Indian specialists!) looking for economic models are far more likely to choose China than India.

Statistically, among the most telling indicators of human development are those affecting children and women. Infant mortality is exceptionally high in India (44 percent, compared with China’s 12 percent), and life expectancy for children is lower than in the poorest African country. Poor nutrition and sanitation, and limited access to health care, are the observable reasons. Child labor in India, at 12 percent for ages 5 to 14, is also uncommonly high.

Equally shameful is the low status of India’s women, a fact recently brought home in two very different ways. One is the film (produced in Britain), India’s Daughter, which explores the culture of rape, based on the well publicized incident last December in which a young woman was gang-raped on a public bus in New Delhi. The woman died of her injuries, the rapists were not the least bit repentant, and the government has banned the film on the specious argument that it will encourage more such assaults. The low status of Indian women is also the key factor in their limited access to prenatal and other health care. As a result, they are, as the article puts it, dangerously underweight.

In short, India is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Never mind Sonia Gandhi and other successful Indian women. For the overwhelming majority of Indian women, degrading treatment, sexual violence, and last-in-line access to the means of well being are the norm. (China is hardly a model here, but the status of women is certainly higher in China than in India.)

India’s shame is also the world’s. The latest UN report on the status of women presents the first “Platform for Action” since the landmark 1995 international conference in Beijing. The report finds that although women have advanced globally by some measures, such as political office holding and education, violence against women is pervasive everywhere. In the words of the report:

“Recent global estimates show that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. While there is some variation across regions, all regions have unacceptably high rates of violence against women.”

In India, according to the UNDP, more women than men (54 percent to 51 percent) believe wife beating is justified. Though few countries can match the depth of violence against women that characterizes Indian society, global and regional averages suggest that violence, and acceptance by men and many women of its legitimacy, cut across income levels.

When it comes to preventing violence against women and girls, the UN ECOSOC report repeats all the well-known reforms that are needed—in law, education, community awareness, and police enforcement—but accepts that cultural norms run deep. Thus the report notes that “although States are increasingly recognizing the importance of prevention, very few have introduced long-term, coordinated and cross-cutting prevention strategies, with the vast majority reporting on short-term piecemeal activities.” This is bad news for women and girls everywhere, and nowhere more so than in India.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

The Umbrella Revolution ? 10/15/14

Hong Kong on the Brink – Umbrella Revolution or Tiananmen?

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

By Mel Gurtov

The tense situation in Hong Kong is at a critical juncture. The protesters have made plain that they are there to stay, though their numbers are dwindling. They are demanding that the Beijing-appointed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, resign. They want China to live up to its promise that elections in 2017 will be freely contested, not constrained by being limited to Beijing-approved candidates.

Hong Kong’s student leader Joshua Wong recently called for international support in forcing Beijing to participate in negotiations for universal suffrage. The British and American governments have expressed “concern” and sympathy for the demonstrators, but Beijing will easily deflect such “interference in China’s internal affairs,” as the criticism will be called. Already, as happened in June 1989, the Beijing press has seen “the hand of Western powers” in the demonstrations, insisting that the Western media invented the term “umbrella revolution” just as it invented “color revolution” and “jasmine revolution.” But, will the outcome be an “Umbrella Revolution” or another Tiananmen?

An ominous sign of a potential police crackdown is use of the word “chaos” in Renmin ribao (People’s Daily, the official newspaper) to describe Hong Kong events. “Chaos” (luan) was the word used in the spring of 1989 to signal the Beijing leadership’s unwillingness to let the protests at Tiananmen drag on indefinitely. The word has a particular resonance in China: Its tumultuous modern history is replete with failed efforts to unify the country and prevent the formation of secret political cliques and factions. In the lead up to the Tiananmen crackdown, top leaders signaled through the press that the students were causing chaos and that “turmoil” would not be tolerated. Although Premier Zhao Ziyang met with students in the square, earning 16 years under house arrest, supreme leader Deng Xiaoping convinced his colleagues that the demonstrations were a threat and had to be put down. Martial law followed.

Beijing is following the same script today. Editorials on October 1 and 3, 2014 in Renmin ribao’s online editions dwelled on the demonstrators’ “illegal assembly” and “absurd and crazy kidnapping” of law and order. The protesters are being called an “extremist opposition group” that is not only breaking the law but also threatening to disrupt years of prosperity and stability.

The editorials scoff at the protesters’ talk of democracy and freedom, saying, “freedom without order isn’t real freedom, and will lead to social disharmony and instability.” Far from suggesting a path to compromise, the editorials are a warning of potential use of force.

Beijing’s chief concern is the domino effect of lending legitimacy to the pro-democracy forces. Even if it does not concede on the election issue, it no doubt wants to avoid appearing weak in the face of a popular protest. Beijing knows people in Taiwan, Tibet, and other parts of its self-proclaimed realm are watching for signs of flexibility, and successful demonstrations in Hong Kong might be followed by more of the same elsewhere in China, just as happened in 1989.

While Beijing has apparently ruled out concessions, it has authorized Hong Kong’s executive secretary to meet with some students. But to meet does not signify when or what to negotiate. Finding a face-saving formula will be extremely difficult, particularly since the demonstrators have no leaders, no common program, and no agreed-upon end game. Should talks fail, or not be held, the opposition will face a choice: Go home, hang on and risk losing public support, or escalate pressure such as by seizing an official building or office.

Beijing will do whatever is “necessary” to bring the Hong Kong situation under control. But will this be another Tiananmen? Hong Kong’s people have numbers, drive, and access to information technologies not available in 1989. Beijing will not be able to erase the “umbrella revolution” from national memory or discourse; social and new media will widely broadcast even the smallest slip-ups. And if the students and others do go home, chances are they’ll be back another time—and another. If Beijing wants to save face in the long term, it should honor its commitment to free elections and not interfere in the nomination process or the outcome.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly, and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Apply the Brakes 10/8/14

Pull the E-Brake on Perpetual US War in the Middle East

By Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

The New York Times editorial board has finally awakened to Obama’s “strategy” in the “war” (as it is officially called now) against ISIS. It is essentially the same strategy that has guided literally hundreds of US military operations abroad since World War II: achieve the maximum objective with the minimum commitment of US power and prestige. Trouble is, the strategy just doesn’t work, mainly because the enemy won’t cooperate and friendly forces are either inept or unpopular (or both). Thus begins the slippery slope to wider and deeper involvement.

The Sept. 16, 2014 testimony of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is what got the Times’ attention: “If we got to the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I’ll recommend that to the president.” A day later on Sept. 17, the Army chief of staff, General Ray Odierno, chimed in: “You’ve got to have ground forces that are capable of going in and rooting [IS forces] out.” In short, Obama’s supposed commitment not to deploy US ground troops to combat in Iraq or Syria—“a profound mistake,” he said Sept. 7 on the NBC News program Meet the Press—is as firm as mud. As happened in Vietnam, there will be “advisers,” more and more of them, as it becomes plain that the mini-max strategy of relying on air power to “degrade and destroy” ISIS proves insufficient.

Even without Dempsey’s and Odierno’s remarks, the Times and others should have seen the handwriting on the wall: The widening of air targets from those originally announced (they were supposed to be limited to protecting threatened populations and US personnel); the increasing number of US advisers; the avoidance of a Congressional vote; the quick resort to air strikes in Syria without United Nations or Syrian authorization; the shift in categorizing the conflict from a “counterterrorism” operation to “war”; the shrill voices of pro-war Republicans and former military officers tied to defense contractors—all these suggested mission creep.

President Obama has followed in George W. Bush’s footsteps by indicating that the war against terrorism will extend well beyond his presidency. Recall Bush’s speech to West Point cadets in 2006: “The war began on my watch. But it’s going to end on your watch.” Now here is Obama on Sept. 12: “This [conflict] will be a problem for the next president, and probably the one after that.” At the UN on Sept. 23, Obama formally upgraded the “problem” of ISIS to an historic venture, saying it would determine, “whether the nations here today will be able to renew the purpose of the UN’s founding; and whether we will come together to reject the cancer of violent extremism.” He spoke as though announcing the start of World War III.

ISIS poses a serious threat to various governments in the Middle East, but it is not a national security threat to the United States. Though several governments are now said to be contributing to the US air strikes in Iraq and Syria, make no mistake: This is an American operation, just like the two Gulf Wars and Afghanistan. Take away US control and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and the others would actually have to defend themselves. Interviewed on “60 Minutes” last Sunday, Obama acknowledged US leadership of the war, but said that has always been the case and that—in an eerie echo of a famous Madeleine Albright remark—“we are the indispensable nation.”

In his Sept. 16 article in the Financial Times, the perceptive observer Ahmed Rashid has written that governments and publics throughout the Middle East, most certainly including those now being counted on to support the latest “coalition of the willing,” are deeply suspicious of and hateful toward the US. As much as they fear ISIS, Rashid writes, they don’t trust the US after watching it fumble and stumble in Iraq and Syria; and they worry about associating with the US and becoming a target of pro-ISIS groups in their own country. Professor Mark Katz, reporting about a conference he attended in Riyadh, adds to this picture in his Sept. 19 blog post: Influential people in the Arabian Gulf states tend to blame the US for the rise of ISIS, believe dealing with ISIS is therefore mainly a US responsibility, and point to other security issues that are equally important to them (such as the unstable situation in Yemen, Shi’a extremism, and of course the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.)

So, here are the bottom-line questions: Is it sensible, and in the US national interest, to support ever-deepening intervention in the Middle East? Does anyone believe a military solution to the ISIS advance is possible or desirable, particularly inasmuch as ISIS arose out of three civil wars (in Gaza, Syria and Iraq) that can only be resolved by political agreements? No and no. Our media may not get it fast enough. Regardless, Congress and the American public must swiftly pull the e-brake on the ISIS mission and perpetual US warmaking in the Middle East. Our national security and that of the next generation depend on it.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Short of Victory but.. 10/1/14

Scotland’s Vote and the Future of Civil Society
By Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Scotland’s vote for independence fell well short of victory. But pro-independence Scots will surely try again, just as the Quebec Sovereignty Movement has stayed optimistic over many years in its fight for independence. From a practical point of view, perhaps the Scots are better off staying in the United Kingdom. Independence would have raised difficult challenges concerning foreign and defense affairs, oil and the environment, among many others. Yet as we look around the world, we find that governments have become increasingly unable to placate widespread anger and demands for change. The sovereignty and decentralization envisioned by Scotland and Quebec is not just appealing, but a rational response of civil society to ineffective, unresponsive leaders.
What might have been the implications beyond Scotland if it had gained independence? Would the success have inspired others, much like the rapid diffusion of the Arab Spring? Would Scottish independence have prompted a similar movement in Wales? Might Catholics in Northern Ireland have raised demands for union with Ireland? What about Catalonia? Kurdistan? Tibet? Chechnya?
Secessions of parts of a state to form a new one generally are not well received by other countries. An independent Scotland—not to mention an independent Quebec, Kurdistan, or Tibet—does not have support from the US or any other major country, so far as I’m aware. Eastern Ukraine’s breakaway only has Russia’s support. The general assumption among policy makers is that backing another country’s breakup might come back to haunt their country.
Of course there are exceptions. The breakup of the USSR and the split of Sudan into North and South did not seem to arouse much disapproval. But the international approach to Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan is more typical: for all the ethnic, religious and political forces within those countries that are pulling them apart, and that might make the case for division into new countries, no one seems in favor. We might reasonably assume that governments are not concerned with the blowback of supporting secession more than they are with the empowerment of civil society.
We are on the threshold of a new era, the likes of which we haven’t seen since decolonization in Africa and Asia after World War II, in which attempts at breakaways will be more common. Popular dissatisfaction with government is rampant around the world, regardless of the political system. Demand (for services, satisfaction of grievances, regulations or deregulation) greatly exceeds what large centralized governments can supply. And the opportunities for people to display, communicate, and organize their dissatisfactions are also far greater than ever before. Many groups will demand not just greater local autonomy but the right to fully govern themselves.
This possibility should not be surprising. Americans, Chinese, Russians, French, Iraqis and many others are fast reaching the point where it is apparent that units of governing have become too large to accommodate the scope of the demands placed upon their national leaders. It’s no longer just a matter of ethnic or religious differences. Climate change and other large-scale environmental problems, rapidly growing rich-poor divides, unemployment, cross-border immigration, migrant workers, tainted food and water deficits, unmanageable public health crises—all these are creating serious protests that challenge the managerial abilities of governments. Central governing units need to be smaller if they are to be responsive, accountable and effective in the public interest.
“We are living in an era of unprecedented level of crises,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as a new General Assembly session opened in New York. For how long can these crises be contained or ignored? Will they be handled nonviolently? I’m old enough that it’s possible I won’t be around when these questions are answered. When they are, I can only hope the Scottish option is accepted as a reasonable alternative to terrible destructiveness. My grandchildren may one day be living in a country called Cascadia (the Pacific Northwest of the US and Canada), and that increasingly sounds like a good idea.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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