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The Plight of Samantha Power Interventionalists

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There’s a tendency to say there are three groups of foreign policy actors in American politics: cruise missile liberals, neoconservatives, and isolationists. But in the last decade, Samantha Power has tried to carve out a niche between the people reluctant to use any force and the cruise missile liberals like Michael O’Hanlon and some people at TNR who have dreams of intervening militarily literally everywhere.

McClatchy had a good summary of Power’s position on foreign policy:

Yet to dub Power an interventionist is to miss the nuance of the mission she began as a 22-year-old war correspondent in Yugoslavia, then nurtured through Harvard Law School and turns in think tanks, academia and as an author and columnist.

“The United States should not frame its policy options in terms of doing nothing or unilaterally sending in the Marines,” Power wrote in her book “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” for which she won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize. “America’s leadership will be indispensable in encouraging U.S. allies and regional and international institutions to step up their commitments and capacities.”

Power called Clinton administration officials to account for not doing more to save lives in Bosnia and Rwanda in the mid-1990s. She didn’t support the 2003 invasion of Iraq, criticizing the unilateral U.S. approach and questioning the Bush administration’s concern for Iraqis’ welfare.

In a 2006 commencement speech for Santa Clara University School of Law, Power said her life’s work was driven by a sense of obligation “to demand that our representatives are attentive to the human consequences of their decision making.” She advised the students to “let reason be your tool, but let justice be your cause.”

I was in college during the run up to the Iraq war and I’ve constantly regretted not being more informed (my own version of Iraq war guilt, I suppose, those I would characterize mine as a sin of omission rather than commission). The clearest and most persusaive theory I identified in since then was Samantha Power’s, adequately summarized here.

As a tentative supporter of actions in Libya, I’ve felt caught in the crossfire between those who would want to go in harder and those that are (in my opinion) overly reluctant to use military force. It’s clear the nation-building plan hasn’t worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. If this intervention leads to a stalemate, sending in the Army to do COIN will not be cost effective. But that doesn’t mean the world has to have let Gaddafi’s army have his way with Benghazi either. (Tom Ricks’ post today was good on along those lines).

I’d like to point out one other inconsistency in critics of any action in Libya: that we are simultaneously involved in a Libyan civil war (16.5 million results on google) and also that the Libyan rebels only have 1,000 trained soldiers and some of them are less than savory characters. My favorite such phrasing was during his press briefing today by US Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz saying ““But I don’t think we’re at a point where we can make a judgment that this is a 100 percent kosher, so to speak, group.”

Moreover, doesn’t that this is a civil war with one side drastically under armed and out manned make this worse? Tienanmen Square was a human tragedy, but I would add that the reign of the Khmer Rouge was worse. There are real humanitarian crises going on across the Arab world. It seems pretty clear none are as of yet rising to what Gaddafi credibly threatened against Benghazi. That does not take away the serious, humanitarian suffering of those in Bahrain, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and elsewhere. But the constant arguing that the responses are uneven ignores that geopolitical circumstances really are different in those countries. Maybe the US could say or do more elsewhere; that’s certainly possible (even probable in the case of action in the Ivory Coast). But that’s not a compelling argument against US action in Libya (even if this particular version of action isn’t the wisest course – I’m no military specialist here).

I don’t find this persuasive – does anyone think the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide is implicated in any way by what ideology the Tutsis slaughtered had. It’s easy to highlight the pro-peace Tutsis, but I’m sure there were less than savory factions too. The people being murdered by the governments of Yemen and Syria to date are not all adherents to western liberal thought.

Benghazi has roughly 750,ooo to one million people, making it the size of roughly Portland Oregon. Gaddafi had pledged no mercy shortly before the no fly zone has been implemented; since then all he has done is do things like shell a hospital.

Is the US intervention perfect? No, and there are real ways it could go seriously awry. Will the west basically have to leave Libya before everything is settled? Sure. Will post-intervention aide to Libya be underfunded? Sadly, there’s no doubt. Should the US be making more efficient interventions overseas (the omnipresent example of anti-malaria tents)? Absolutely. It’s a mark against us that we don’t.

But are things at least somewhat better than they would have been? I think so. To use a domestic analogy, we are willing to have police intervene domestically to stop a murderer, but we’re less willing to spend as much to intervene against more pernicious but endemic harms such as high-fructose corn syrup, asthma in the inner city, or accidents while driving (not to directly compare any of them – just that they are somewhat endemic). And this is (in theory) the kind of intervention the US should be doing, as Power laid out.

From the NYT review of her 2003 book:

The same Washington, of course, is a place of defeatism, inertia, selfishness and cowardice. Warnings pass up the chain and disappear. Intelligence is gathered and then ignored or denied. The will of the executive remains steadfastly opposed to intervention; its guiding assumption is that the cost of stopping genocide is great, while the political cost of ignoring it is next to nil. President Bush the elder comes off as a stone-hearted prisoner to business interests, President Clinton as an amoral narcissist. Perhaps nobody looks worse than former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, on whose watch both Bosnia and Rwanda self-destructed. ”When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk,” Power writes, ”it has a duty to act.” She objects not only to the fact that the United States declines to intervene militarily in genocidal conflicts, but also that frequently it declines to do anything — even to rebuke perpetrators publicly.

This does not mean the United States should fix everything wrong with a country, or that being at the nexus of an access of evil justifies lies about the war. It means that protecting Benghazi through international institutions is a legitimate US interest.

In short, I wish that more critics would be aware Power was a critic of the Iraq invasion and is not some cruise missile liberal. I know a lot of those type of liberals are really annoying. And they’re predictably bandwagon-ing here. That doesn’t mean everyone involved thinks that way.


UN Human Rights Council to Investigate Iran: What it Means

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The U.N. Human Rights Council agreed on Thursday to a U.S.-backed proposal to establish a U.N. human rights investigator for Iran, the first in a decade.

The 47-member Geneva forum approved the resolution by 22 votes in favour, 7 against and 14 abstentions, its president, Thai Ambassador Sihasak Phuangketkeow, announced.

The resolution, the text of which is here, essentially will just allow a credible report on human rights abuses in Iran. It will not be enforced actively by the UN – effectively it is a ‘name and shame’ operation.

I. Internal Effects

In her recent book, Mobilizing for Human Rights, Beth Simmons framed the chances of political mobilization as a function of how much citizens value a right versus the chance they have of achieving their goal. In fact, for Simmons, human rights treaties are primarily about the relations between a state and its society, not between states (as in traditional reciprocal treaties – we won’t charge your companies tariffs if you won’t charge ours, etc. ).

Simmons argues that even if regimes choose not to enforce human rights treaties, the consequences of signing them locally can be profound as citizens are exposed to different concepts of rights; this is even more true in an even more connected world, given the omnipresence of social media. And while Simmons was referring to treaties, a special investigator (or Rapporteur) may have that same sort of effect – which is why the Iranian regime feared and fought this resolution.

What does this mean for Iran? Potentially a direct shot in the arm of the reform movement. But it’s worth noting these things only go so far as people take them. The United States tortured under George W. Bush and hasn’t prosecuted anyone for it because there’s no political will to do so. Sometimes exposure to rights treaties takes time to manifest (if it ever does at all). It’s entirely possible greater exposure of abuses in Iran won’t enlarge the size or resolve of the movement because the population of Iran already values these rights as much as they could possibly ever. But I doubt that – these rights are too basic and too many people are being repressed.

Indeed, (in an extraordinary statement) the Iranian delegation to the HRC itself did not all take itself seriously:

“The human rights team at the HRC session is an entirely political team and is not very familiar with human rights topics,” said a member of the Iranian delegation on condition of anonymity. “All efforts are focused on attacking the U.S. If they had asked the experts accompanying the delegation, they could have drafted better statements. But they don’t trust anyone other than themselves.”

We should be loathe of making grandiose predictions because of one lone Rapporteur, but today is certainly a better day than yesterday for the reform movement in Iran.

II. External Effects

There are uses for that though. One is that it cements Iran’s status as a semi-pariah state. (This is an ad-hoc category, so don’t look too much into that term. I would consider North Korea a full fledged pariah state in the analogy.) One such good sign is who voted for this resolution: Brazil did, after years of supporting extensively oppressive regimes, including being one of the first countries to recognize the fraudulent elections of Ahmadinejad. It’s unclear if this is in any way a result of Obama’s recent visit, but it is surely a welcome change in approach.

This also may be an instance where the Saudi-Iranian escalation in relations happened at an opportune moment – one group Iran looked to for support was the Organization of Islamic Countries, but with basically no allies left in the Islamic world (hard to see Arab countries, Turkey, or Indonesia riding to Iran’s defense right now) and countries being scared of seen supporting that repression, it’s not surprising the cavalry never came.

According to attending diplomats, the Iranian delegation’s lobby efforts have not been limited to Geneva. A diplomat who asked for anonymity said that Iranian authorities have dispatched several delegations to other countries prior to the session in order to ascertain their vote. One of the reasons Iran is seeing less cooperation this year despite its lobbying efforts is the Middle East developments from Libya to Bahrain. Some countries are afraid that as the human rights situation deteriorates and change appears inevitable in those countries, association with Iran may give any state siding with it a bad image.

As it turns out, Iran ignoring the supposedly toothless UN Human Rights High Commissioner may have antagonized countries.This underscores why the procedures can be helpful in the long run, even if incredibly frustrating on an ongoing basis:

Another point that has further caused Iran’s isolation is Iran’s lack of cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms. Out of more than 80 communications to Iran by the different UN special procedures, only 8 have been answered. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also spoken up about Iran’s lack of attention to the different requests raised by different human rights resolutions. Since 2005, Iran has prevented the presence of UN special rapporteurs in Iran and the 14 March report of the UN Secretary General indicates that dozens of people have been executed secretly by the Iranian government. According to a diplomat from an African nation, the Iranian government has portrayed such an image of itself that supporting Iran appears as a liability for other countries.

Lastly, it’s yet to be seen what this will do, but this is an example of what happens when you have an administration that takes international diplomacy seriously instead of just whining that the council isn’t doing this on its own. Diplomacy takes work.

“The new human rights body started on a very weak footing without the U.S. leadership,” Dokhi Fassihian, the Director of Washington-based Democracy Coalition Project that oversees the implementation of multilateral human rights strategies through the United Nations, told IPS. But Obama administration’s initiative against Iran indicated that things would change, he added.

Written by John Whitehouse

March 24, 2011 at 11:06 am

There’s No Easy Answer on Consistency in Foreign Policy

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Jumping off Eugene Robinson, Matt Yglesias sees that Arab dictators are using fighting Gaddafi as a means to deflect attention from their own crackdowns. He continues:

This is why it’s so nuts for intervention enthusiasts to dismiss out of hand the obvious concerns that have been raised about US-subsidized regimes in Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia attacking un-armed protestors even as we intervene militarily in Libya to halt repression. There’s an obvious question as to what, in reality, American policy in the Arab world is. Is this part of a policy of boosting democratic change in the region, or is it part of a policy of bolstering the position of the Persian Gulf dictators who are important clients of American arms manufacturers?

This is not a new or unforeseen problem either. The Second Additional Procotol to the Geneva Conventions foresaw this; it applies to non-international armed conflicts, but specifically does “not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature.”  From the very drafting of the Geneva Conventions it was foreseen that countries would suppress riots, even democratically justified ones.

In fact, the Protocol only applies when “armed forces [of the country] and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol.”

Firing on protesters is morally repugnant. In their actions, the governments of Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and more almost certainly committed violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

And yet, facing an entire region under the control (as Yglesias notes) of an armed dissident group is a legally different situation (provided the Benghazi rebels implemented the Protocol; I have no idea if this was the case). Without going too much into the geopolitical aspects (of which I am not an expert) there are justifications for treating the events in Libya more seriously, especially as Gaddafi went on the offensive. In any event, now that foreign countries are involved, it is now subject to Protocol I, not Protocol II

Quick point on geopolitics: as Juan Cole and others say, it’s clear that Gaddafi is more a threat regionally if unchecked, even if Benghazi itself may not be. By contrast, the biggest cash crop in Yemen is probably US aid to fight Al Qaeda. Someone else will get that when Saleh is gone.(And eventually he will be).

Yglesias is understating just how little influence the United States has on the Gulf States as a matter of policy: an addict can’t tell a drug dealer how to live his life, and neither can the United States really change much in Bahrain:

For the United States, the intervention is a slap in the face. On Saturday, March 12, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Bahrain, where he called for real reforms to the country’s political system and criticized “baby steps,” which he said would be insufficient to defuse the crisis. The Saudis were called in within a few hours of Gates’s departure, however, showing their disdain for his efforts to reach a negotiated solution. By acting so soon after Gates’s visit, Saudi Arabia has made the United States look at best irrelevant to events in Bahrain, and from the Shiite opposition’s point of view, even complicit in the Saudi military intervention.

. . .

The crown prince is well aware that the Saudi intervention only makes a negotiated solution to this crisis more challenging, so it is difficult to imagine that he invited the Saudis into Bahrain. The more liberal Khalifas, such as the crown prince, know very well that the only way out of the crisis is to obtain the resignation of the prime minister and some of the more extreme Sunni ministers.

However, the prime minister — with whom Gates did not meet with during his weekend visit — does not appear to have any intention of resigning and is the most likely figure behind the invitation to the Saudis to intervene. Although details are still sketchy, he is likely joining with the Saudi king to pass the message to the United States that he is in charge and no one can tell him what to do. Furthermore, it signals that the Saudis agree with Bahrain’s conservatives that the Shiite must be reined in rather than negotiated with, even at the cost of telling the United States to kiss off.

The Bahrain charge implicating Gates in the crackdown is prevalent on Twitter and elsewhere online. Despite the fact that there’s no evidence (Wikileaks anyone?) that Gates actually meant for this to happen – indeed, it just makes the US look worse to have him implicated. Sec. Clinton did condemn the Bahraini government, but the message was muddled because of the worrying influence of Iran. It seems clear in the Gulf the Saudis and Iran are competing regionally by having a race to the bottom in terms of autocracy. How can the US break that cycle? Condemning crackdowns isn’t going to do it, that’s for sure. No matter how strong the language is. By contrast, events in Africa are more malleable. Should the United States let Benghazi burn because there’s no clear path to reform in Bahrain? That seems excessive.

And seriously, does anyone anywhere think the United States can dictate anything to Saudi Arabia on how to treat any of it’s people? Seriously? If we haven’t done so by now I don’t think it’s happening.

Back to Yemen, does anyone think more active involvement on the ground from the United States would help? I agree wholly with Gregory Johnsen that the U.S. should be more noticeably condemning violence in Yemen, but that’s relatively minor compared to talk of intervention and what have you.  The range of opinions on Yemen goes from “wait and see” to “call for him to leave, then wait and see”.

The US, the UK, and the EU are not the bad guys here, but their combined policy and public posturing could have been much wiser and much more proactive.  As it was, the US has consistently been behind the curve in Yemen, making reactive statements that lead many to believe it will never part with Salih because of his support on AQAP.  But make no mistake the responsibility for yesterday’s deaths falls on the shoulders of the Yemeni government.

Following yesterday’s attack President Obama strongly condemned the violence, but stopped short of calling for President Salih to step down.  I hope that privately the US is pressuring him to leave, but most sources suggest that this is not the case.  The US is too concerned about what will happen with AQAP if Salih leaves.

(I think this is a mistake and the longer Salih stays and the more the US is seen to be supporting him, the worse the AQAP problem will eventually be.  My opinion, however, has been dismissed.)

Obama did make a mistake here. But even if he didn’t, there would still be a discrepancy in policy compared to Libya. That’s a result of different (though similar) geopolitical situations.

But this is why the categorical imperative is a bad guide to foreign policy, or even policy in general. In the face of a laundry list of bad policies, you can’t fix everything at once, but you ought to try to move in the right direction. It’s easier to do that in Libya because the United States has a giant military, Britain and France are embarrassed (for Libya and Tunisia respectively), Gaddafi is a regional pariah who if left uncheck with billions could very well threaten progress in Egypt and Tunisia,  and the UN resolution sets clear limits at least on the type of force that will be employed.

It’d feel lovely to have the same policy every time an Arab revolt happens, but circumstances are so different in every country that it’s virtually impossible to do that.

Moreover, I’d argue that the United States should do more small-scale humanitarian interventions and less giant train wreck operations that are one in a million for turning out right. Bosnia and Kosovo weren’t perfect operations, but they were somewhat successful and actually led to tribunals. The NYT this weekend editorialized for more peacekeepers in the Ivory Coast. That’d be a great start. There’s a lot of work to do in the Sudan that requires constant U.S. engagement. Do that too.

In conclusion, I’d argue that instead of bemoaning the lack of consistency like Immanuel Kant when someone interrupted his daily routine, we should argue for what the United States ought do. On that, there’s plenty to be done. I don’t know that I’m right on anything (seriously, this could all backfire spectacularly.) But I’m not convinced by people basically concern trolling foreign policy because they have a deadline. That’s not a luxury or burden the State Department has.

Oh, and read Tom Ricks because he’s far smarter than I am.

Answering Rhetorical Questions on Libya

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Andrew Sullivan asks a whole bunch of questions without actually waiting around for answers:

The president’s speech was disturbingly empty. There are, it appears, only two reasons the US is going to war, without any Congressional vote, or any real public debate. The first is that the US  cannot stand idly by while atrocities take place. Yet we have done nothing in Burma or the Congo and are actively supporting governments in Yemen and Bahrain that are doing almost exactly – if less noisily – what Qaddafi is doing. Obama made no attempt to reconcile these inconsistencies because, one suspects, there is no rational reconciliation to be made.

Secondly, the president argued that the ghastly violence in Libya is destabilizing the region, and threatening world peace. Really? More than Qaddafi’s meddling throughout Africa for years? More than the brutal repression in Iran? And even if it is destabilizing, Libya is not, according to the Obama administration itself, a “vital national interest”. So why should the US go to war over this?

None of this makes any sense, except as an emotional response to an emergency.

Instead of seriously exploring possible rational explanations for the questions he raises (even if he disagrees with those reasons), Sullivan just calls the President an emotional wreck. This, of course, coming from someone so enraptured by the Iranian protests that he demanded his blog change color to show solidarity, as if that alone would mean one thing at all to any person anywhere  in the world.

So here’s the answer to Sullivan’s questions:

Yes, Libya is really destabilizing the region. Apparently even though he’s been live blogging this for weeks, Sullivan has missed the ongoing refugee nightmare, particularly on the Tunisian border. This is a serious problem that very much does destabilize the region.

And yes, it destabilizes it in a more acute and immediate manner than the repression Iranian protests (which, though tragic and against international norms, was an internal matter) or “meddling” – which is just vague enough that I really don’t know what Sullivan is referring to. Was Lockerbie “meddling”? I have no idea. Is Sullivan referring to the Libyan conflict with Chad that actually did involve French troops and American supplies at one point? I have no idea. Is Sullivan referring to the Libyan-Egyptian war in 1977 that would have destabilized the region had Gaddafi not retreated? I have no idea. Is Sullivan referring to Gaddafi supporting dictators like Idi Amin or Jean-Bedel Bokassa and if so how would that add up to regional instability rather than instability without a nation-state? I have no idea. Sullivan only refers to Africa.

If you want to argue the President is being overly emotional, perhaps one should thoroughly explain your objection instead of being, dare I say, overly emotional.  The best interpretation of his remarks is if he’s referring to Gaddafi’s participation in the Uganda-Tanzanian war, and if that’s the case I would certainly say the United Nations should have intervened, and in a post-Cold War world someone clearly would intervene. The Security Council did not even issue a resolution over the conflict – obviously that would not be true today.

But one thing is certainly clear: Tanzania counter attacked Uganda not to save the Ugandans from Gaddafi’s ally Imin, but rather for it’s own security purposes:

On 12 October 1978, Uganda invaded Tanzania in an effort to annex the Kagera region, but in February 1979, Tanzania counter-attacked with the help of Ugandan insurgents, overrunning Kampala, installing Milton Obote as President, and forcing Idi Amin to flee Uganda. After several months of occupation, Tanzanian forces withdrew from Uganda. Tanzania used force only once it had been attacked by Uganda and it succeeded in halting the systematic murder of thousands more people. As in India’s intervention in East Pakistan, humanitarian considerations seemed to have played an important role, but here again, its own security considerations took priority.

Were that to happen today there’s no doubt there would be international backing against that sort of invasion. Why not then? Probably because Julius Nyerere led Tanzania in the nonalignment movement. (Not to mention that Nyerere was no saint, having supported a coup in the Seychelles). In the politics of the time, the reluctance to intervene made sense, even for the Carter Administration. But it would not hold up today.

Point being this: Uganda-Tanzania That’s not what’s happening here, but if Sullivan is looking to this as an example of hypocrisy (and who knows what he’s referring to), well, he’s ignoring a lot of context.

What we do know is that the situation in Libya has deteriorated to such a point where imminent actions, clearly threatened by Gaddafi would overwhelm the region with refugees. In a situation like this, that destabilization is the main causus belli, but likewise the international community should also generally reinforce that killing your own people is actually against international norms too. That those norms are only enforced by force when regional stability is threatened does not mean that they are not violations of international norms.

One last point: none this is to defend the actual war planning or lack thereof. This is purely contesting the jus ad bello, not the jus in bello. (That is, decision to go to war, not the conduct within the war itself.)

Sullivan is so convinced the Libya is Iraq that he’s not even aware of, much less investigating, any differences in approach or scale. I wish Obama would do more to sell this action – a speech to Congress would be a must – but objectively judging his actions, Sullivan is the one being overly emotional, not the President.

As a footnote, someone needs to have Sullivan read relevant parts of US Code regarding United Nations Security Council authorizations.


Written by John Whitehouse

March 18, 2011 at 7:54 pm

[Follow-up] The Decline and Fall of Liberty: Cell Phone Data and the Courts

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John writes about the increased use of cell phone data in criminal proceedings and related civil liberties issues.  Although the legal issues are vast and interesting, upon reading my thoughts immediately went to Nokia and Siemens facilitating the Iranian government’s crackdown on protesters:

[Reported in 2008] Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN), a joint venture between the Finnish cell-phone giant Nokia and German powerhouse Siemens, delivered what is known as a monitoring center to Irantelecom, Iran’s state-owned telephone company.

When this news broke, humanitarian concerns were immediately raised.


Sure enough, just a few months later, this network was used by the Iranian government to crackdown on protesters.* Naturally, this issue didn’t receive too much attention.  But, it does raise some questions about privacy and security, especially given the prominence of these two cell phone providers in the United States.

Consumers called for a boycott of Nokia and Siemens, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere.  So, enjoy being spied on by your cell phone (err, I mean, Decepticon).

[*I want to be fair to Nokia & Siemens.  Accordingly, here is a link to their response to these allegations.  In short, they said everything they did was legal.  Frankly, I don’t really put too much stock into their justifications.  It’d be better if they just said their true reason — money.]

Written by Angelo

July 6, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Posted in Law

Tagged with , ,

Dana Milbank Is A Nincompoop

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During Tuesday’s press conference, the president called on Nico Pitney from the Huffington Post.  This was somewhat prearranged in that the White House had asked Pitney to attend the press conference with a question directly from an Iranian.  They had no foreknowledge of the specific selection, nor did they prescreen in any way.

Here’s what Milbank had to say about that:

Pitney asked his arranged question. Reporters looked at one another in amazement at the stagecraft they were witnessing. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel grinned at the surprised TV correspondents in the first row.
The use of planted questioners is a no-no at presidential news conferences, because it sends a message to the world — Iran included — that the American press isn’t as free as advertised. But yesterday wasn’t so much a news conference as it was a taping of a new daytime drama, “The Obama Show.”

Pitney asked his arranged question. Reporters looked at one another in amazement at the stagecraft they were witnessing. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel grinned at the surprised TV correspondents in the first row.

The use of planted questioners is a no-no at presidential news conferences, because it sends a message to the world — Iran included — that the American press isn’t as free as advertised. But yesterday wasn’t so much a news conference as it was a taping of a new daytime drama, “The Obama Show.”

To an extent, I agree with Milbank.  Planting questioners, who ask favorable or prearranged questions is a no-no and should be frowned upon.  Sort of like what the Bush Administration did with Jeff Gannon, a gay prostitute turned White House press corps pro-administration questioner.

But, Milbank misses the notion of distinctions.  You see, while mainstream news outlets were too busy mucking up their coverage of Iran, Pitney was doing a superb job.  This is in part why the White House tapped him.  In this case, giving an Iranian citizen an opportunity to ask a question to the President is not the same as sticking someone in the corps to ask a favorable question.  To the contrary, it’s an example of being over inclusive.

Milbank is wrong in his analysis. Maybe he’s just jealous that the Iranian posed a better question to the President than most White House reporters are able to muster.  The question was actually quite challenging.

Compare the question Pitney chose:

Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad? And if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn’t that a betrayal of what the demonstrators there are working towards?

With one of the members of the corps that sits near the front:

In your opening remarks, sir, you were — you said about Iran that you were appalled and outraged. What took you so long to say those words?

I rest my case.

Written by Angelo

June 25, 2009 at 1:19 pm

Of Fake Twitters and Real Ambassadors

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Charles Brown at Undiplomatic speculates that some recent (within the past day or so) rallies in Iran may be government traps, since Mousavi reportedly did not call for them and the government was ready.

Is this true? I have no idea. But it underscores the fluid situation in the country and the importance of caution in being an amplifier. That said, it’s also important for sources like Sullivan, Pitney, etc. to convey what is going on there.

That said, if these are traps, there’s not much that can be done. As much as we may identify with protestors in America, this is still the Iranians’ fight.

And it is a fight for them. It seems the action now is on crackdowns in the street, and any move the Assembly of Experts may take against Khamanei.

Meanwhile, in America, people are still talking about what Obama said yesterday at the presser. That does not matter much in Iran. It’s biggest impact will be in forming international coalitions around Iran. In that sense, it’s very noteworthy today that the US reinstated ambassadors to both Syria and Venezuela. Regarding Syria:

With little sign of talks with Iran or of progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, Syria offers Obama a chance of making some diplomatic progress in the region. In recent years Israel and Syria, who never signed a peace deal after the 1967 war, have been exploring a settlement.

The US would like to have Syria deny access across its borders to foreign fighters seeking entry into Iraq. Closer ties with the US might also counter Damascus’s relationship with Iran; the two have a mutual defence treaty.

“It’s a reflection of Syria being a pivotal country in terms of achieving a comprehensive peace in the region,” one senior official told the New York Times. “There is a lot of work to do in the region for which Syria can play a role. For that it helps to have a fully staffed embassy.”

It certainly seems that the result of the uprising in Iran is that negotiations with Iran will go nowhere – at least anytime soon.

Matt Yglesias explains:

The hope behind an engagement strategy was that the Supreme Leader might be inclined to side with the more pragmatic actors inside the system—guys like former president Rafsanjani and former prime minister Mousavi. With those people, and most of the Iranian elites of their ilk, now in open opposition to the regime, any crackdown would almost by definition entail the sidelining of the people who might be interested in a deal. Iran would essentially be in the hands of the most hardline figures, people who just don’t seem interested in improving relations with other countries. Under the circumstances, the whole subject of American engagement may well wind up being moot.

Reihan Salaam wants Obama to embrace his “inner Neocon”:

Obama, like Reagan, is a master at linking American interests to the greater international good. Whether he likes it or not, his engagement strategy with Iran has been revealed as a hollow hope, one that rested on an overoptimistic interpretation of Iranian intentions. As former Bush foreign policy adviser Peter Feaver has explained, Iran is far more likely to negotiate from a position of weakness than of strength. Rather than reassure the Iranians with a wink and a nod that we’re ready to do business, President Obama should be building an international coalition to isolate a recalcitrant Iran as thoroughly as the the West once isolated apartheid-era South Africa. Bush, to the chagrin of the neocons, could never pull this off. But Obama can.

If building a coalition against a state threatening to build a nuke that almost no one wants to have a nuke is being a Neocon, we’re all Neocons now. The push against Neocons was against the push for diplomacy of any kind and using tools of war quicker. For instance, Hans Blix and the inspectors in Iraq were from, technically, an international coalition – the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission. And that coalition was putting pressure on Iraq, but Bush, Cheney and others thought that only regime change would be sufficient for the ends they desired.

Diplomacy is not limited to direct negotiations, with everything else being acts of a Neocon. Regarding Iran: If direct negotiations won’t work, getting states like Venezuela and Syria into closer positions with America to put pressure on Iran is less of being a Neocon – and more of Nixon going to China to put pressure on the USSR. If Kissinger – the ultimate realist – is now a Neocon … we all are.

Written by John Whitehouse

June 24, 2009 at 5:39 pm