JFP 5/31: NYT walks back Obama praise on sig strikes; Rep. Schiff seeks sunset of AUMF
Just Foreign Policy News, May 31, 2013
NYT walks back Obama praise on sig strikes; Rep. Schiff seeks sunset of AUMF
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I) Actions and Featured Articles
*Action: Send Robert Naiman to Yemen
Just Foreign Policy's Robert Naiman is planning to join a Code Pink peace delegation to Yemen June 11-18, helping to raise the profile of Yemeni demands to repatriate Yemenis from Guantanamo and end US drone strikes. You can support this peace mission here:
*Action: Cessez le Feu! Don't Let France Kill the Syria Peace Talks
France said it will oppose the Syria peace conference if Iran is invited. But for peace talks to have a chance to end the war, all the parties involved in the conflict have to be there. Excluding Iran would likely condemn the peace talks to failure. Tell Washington: for peace talks to work, everyone has to be there.
1) Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the House intelligence committee, is working on a bill to "sunset" the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force passed after the 9/11 attacks, the legal justification cited for drone strikes outside of Afghanistan, Spencer Ackerman reports for Wired. [It has been reported that Rep. Barbara Lee may introduce an amendment with similar intent - sunset the AUMF to coincide with the end of U.S. "combat" in Afghanistan - on the upcoming House consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act. It has also been reported that Sen. Rand Paul may introduce legislation to formally repeal the Iraq AUMF, which could serve as an important precedent - JFP.]
2) Writing for the New York Times, editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal acknowledges that an NYT report on May 27 that "For now, officials said, 'signature strikes' targeting groups of unidentified armed men presumed to be extremists will continue in the Pakistani tribal areas," contradicts the impression given by a New York Times editorial praising President Obama's speech indicating that signature strikes were ending. [In fact, New York Times reporting had long forecast that Pakistan would be an exception of uncertain duration to whatever reforms of the drone strike policy the Obama Administration was planning to announce - JFP.] The president's speech did not signal a specific, immediate change in the administration's policy on signature strikes - just a promise that they will decline over time, Rosenthal writes.
3) Instead of being authorized for any "significant threat to U.S. interests," drone strikes will now be used only in cases of a "continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons," the New York Times reports. They would also be limited to cases with a "near certainty" of avoiding civilian casualties. The CIA drone strike program in Pakistan will be reviewed every six months to determine if it is ready to be moved to military control. Administration officials suggest that the transfer of the Pakistan drone program may coincide with the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014.
4) House Defense lawmakers are debating whether to change the rules of war for U.S. counterterrorism operations as part of the Defense Authorization bill for 2014, The Hill reports. Changes would require President Obama and the Pentagon to review all groups or individuals now characterized as "associated forces" who can be targeted with drone strikes under the current rules. The review would require the Pentagon to specifically lay out whether those groups or individuals are directly tied to al Qaeda operations, and if they are engaged with ongoing or future terror plots against the US or its allies. Some sources said the language will be included in the draft authorization bill to be considered next week by the House Armed Services Committee, but a spokesman for panel chairman Rep. Buck McKeon disputed this. [It would be interesting to know what McKeon's argument would be for opposing this modest reform - requiring the Pentagon to report whether targeted groups a directly tied to Al Qaeda and are engaged with plots against the US - JFP.]
5) The framework presented by Obama on drone strikes leaves many questions unanswered, write NYU law professors Ryan Goodman and Sarah Knuckey at Esquire. The administration lost the trust of many when the White Paper revealed an incredibly perverted definition of "imminence." When the President states that the new rules will protect the lives of "non-combatants," we want to assume that those words retain their ordinary meaning. Until the White House releases the legal memos that explain its understanding of such terms and its legal justification for the drone program more broadly, there is reason to remain deeply skeptical.
6) There is a battle going on at the World Bank over its "Doing Business" report, writes Mark Weisbrot at the Guardian. The report has a built-in bias against regulations such as employment protections; necessary taxation; health, safety and environmental regulation. The fact that the Bank gives higher marks for "fewer restrictions on permits for construction" means it ignores the safety and environmental concerns that can contribute to disasters such as last month's Bangladesh factory collapse. There is evidence that countries have deregulated in harmful ways in order to get a better ranking.
7) The neocons' call to supply the rebels with heavier weapons, with or without the cover of a no-fly zone, should be resisted, argues The Nation in an editorial. Syria is awash in arms, and there is no way to ensure that more sophisticated US weapons would not wind up in the hands of extremists. Washington has no legal basis for waging war on Syria, direct or indirect. The Assad regime has not attacked, nor does it pose an imminent threat to, the United States. But the US can take useful actions: increase humanitarian aid; restrain Assad through Russia, China, and Iran while pressing Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to restrain their military support for the rebels; restrain Israel from provoking war with Hezbollah.
8) The National Iranian American Council praised the Obama Administration's decision to lift sanctions on consumer communication tools. Sanctions have prevented companies from selling laptops, cell phones, or modems to Iran. They have blocked services like satellite Internet, website hosting, and VPNs for Iranians. Sanctions even made it illegal for Iranians to download basic software and security updates. "At a time when broad sanctions are causing many Iranians to seriously question whether the U.S. is aiming at them or their government, this is a very important gesture," said Jamal Abdi of NIAC. "This also shows that sanctions that hurt ordinary Iranians can be lifted if we press policymakers and work with them to find solutions," Abdi said. "Serious issues remain to be addressed, including sanctions that are preventing medicine from reaching ordinary Iranians, and we look forward to progress on this front."
9) The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York is considering a case that economist Joe Stiglitz says pits the interests of a very small group of creditors against those of entire countries, the Los Angeles Times reports. New York hedge fund Elliott Associates, known as a "vulture fund" in developing countries, is seeking to force Argentina to pay on repurchased debts that were holdouts from an agreed debt restructuring. Global anti-poverty groups are worried. They fear that if the court allows the holdouts to get more than those who negotiated it will create a powerful incentive for bondholders to refuse to negotiate when the next sovereign default arises. That could make it hard for nations facing economic crises to escape crushing debt loads, said Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA. Unable to restructure debt, these countries would be required to use money otherwise dedicated for social services, education or public health to pay bondholders. That opinion is shared by the U.S. Justice Department. It filed a brief arguing a court ruling for the vulture funds "threatens core U.S. policy regarding international debt restructuring."
1) Congressman Preps Bill to End Terror War Authority
Spencer Ackerman, Wired, 05.23.135:35 PM
In the wake of President Obama's big speech about restraining the war on terrorism, a member of the House intelligence committee is working on a bill to undo the basic authorities to wage it.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is preparing a piece of legislation that would "sunset" the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), a foundational law passed in the days after the 9/11. "The current AUMF is outdated and straining at the edges to justify the use of force outside the war theater," Schiff tells Danger Room.
Repealing the AUMF would be the boldest restriction of presidential war powers since 9/11. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have relied on the document to authorize everything from the warrantless electronic surveillance of American citizens to drone strikes against al-Qaida offshoots that did not exist on 9/11. Getting rid of it is certain to invite fierce opposition from more bellicose members of Congress, who have repeatedly demagogued efforts to roll back any post-9/11 wartime authority, let alone the most important one.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the only legislator to vote against the authorization in 2001, has long fought unsuccessfully to repeal the AUMF. But Schiff is a moderate, not a firebreathing liberal, and while sunsetting the AUMF is sure to be a big legislative challenge, even conservative legislators like Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are raising fundamental questions about the merits of a never-ending war.
Schiff thinks that the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014 ought to occasion the end of the AUMF, and his bill would use the Afghanistan drawdown as a hinge point. He openly admits to being unsure whether Congress should pass a follow-on piece of legislation allowing the president a limited version of his war powers, or what those post-Afghanistan powers might appropriately be.
The U.S.'s counterterrorism "architecture is becoming increasingly unsustainable," Schiff says, "but I have only a less clear idea of what should follow." Schiff, a moderate, is still in the early drafting stage of the bill and doesn't yet have a timeline for introducing it. But the animating idea behind it is that Obama ought to come back to Congress to outline what war powers are necessary, so legislators can go on record blessing or rejecting the next phase of the war on terrorism.
Shortly after the GOP win in the 2010 midterm elections, the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), argued that it was time for a new version. Since the short 2001 AUMF only authorizes military action against those responsible for 9/11, McKeon contended, the administration lacked legal authority to combat the contemporary versions of al-Qaida in places like Yemen and East Africa. He noted that only half of his colleagues had served in Congress long enough to ever vote on the open-ended war that two administrations have asked them to support.
The Obama administration wasted little time in telling McKeon's committee it wasn't interested in revisiting the AUMF. The 2001 AUMF was "sufficient to address the existing threats that I've seen," Jeh Johnson, then the Pentagon's senior lawyer, testified in March 2011.
Formally, Johnson didn't really explain how a law that was about avenging 9/11 actually allowed Obama to take military action against, say, al-Shebab. But Johnson didn't make the administration's real reasons for opposing the AUMF explicit. It was worried that congressional Republicans would write a bill expanding presidential authority to attack terrorist groups unrelated to al-Qaida, something that would expand a global war that the administration was internally growing skeptical about.
Obama made that position explicit in his speech at the National Defense University - as well as endorsing, for the first time, the eventual repeal of a law he has relied heavily on throughout his presidency.
"I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF's mandate," Obama said. "And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end."
That's a position that may not sit well with the U.S. military. During a Senate hearing last week, generals from the Joint Staff and senior Pentagon civilians argued that the AUMF was a necessary law that should remain in place - unchanged. The position satisfied neither Democratic and Independent critics who saw it as a blank check for war nor Republican critics who considered it too restrictive to fight 2013-era terrorism.
One of them is McKeon, the first legislator who proposed reexamining the AUMF. Repealing it outright doesn't sit well with him - and probably many other congressional Republicans and some Democrats.
"The chairman is far from convinced that's the direction we need to go," says an aide to McKeon's committee. "We need to reaffirm our authority with respect to those [al-Qaida] affiliated groups." What's more, Obama's willingness to "ultimately repeal" the AUMF runs right smack into his codification of a more limited counterterrorism war lasting for years. At the National Defense University, Obama simultaneously talked about a longer war and removing his own authorities for waging it.
Schiff sees all this tension - on the Hill and within the administration - as an opportunity. "There's probably bipartisan support for the idea that the existing AUMF is ill-suited to the nature of the threats we face now," he says. But there's "probably bipartisan opposition to what would come after," both from the left and right. Schiff thinks that disagreement means a congressional debate about the future of presidential authority against terrorism is overdue. He intends to kickstart one.
2) The 'Signature Strikes' Program
Andrew Rosenthal, New York Times, May 29, 2013, 3:33 pm
[Rosenthal is the Times’s editorial page editor.]
Toward the end of a May 27 article in The Times about President Obama's speech in which, among other things, he mentioned setting new standards for ordering drone strikes against non-Americans, there was this rather disturbing paragraph:
"Even as he set new standards, a debate broke out about what they actually meant and what would actually change. For now, officials said, 'signature strikes' targeting groups of unidentified armed men presumed to be extremists will continue in the Pakistani tribal areas."
As Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, those two sentences seem to contradict the entire tenor of Mr. Obama's speech, and of a letter to Congress from Attorney General Eric Holder.
Both men seemed to be saying that the administration would stop using unmanned drones to kill targets merely suspected, due to their location or their actions, of a link to Al Qaeda or another terrorist organization. Who were, say, just congregating in places where people who don't like the United States congregate. Those strikes have resulted in untold civilian casualties that have poisoned America's relationship with Yemen and Pakistan.
Mr. Obama talked at some length about civilian casualties, and also said that the need to use drone strikes against "forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces" will disappear once American forces withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
Mr. Holder was even more specific, saying that the standards applied to strikes against American citizens would be applied to all orders to kill suspected terrorists who cannot be captured or otherwise neutralized. Targets, he said, must pose "a continuing, imminent threat to Americans."
We took that as a very positive step in our editorial on the speech. But so what to make of that paragraph in the May 27 article?
I asked the White House. What I got in response was part of a background briefing given after the president's speech that repeated the language about how the need for signature strikes will fade after the withdrawal.
The official who gave the briefing said: "Given the two principal changing circumstances in our effort against terrorism - the winding down of the war in Afghanistan and the demise of Al Qaeda core - the need for the types of strikes that we've taken generally over the course of the last several years will be reduced over time."
When I asked for more clarification, a senior administration official emphasized that the president wants to see the number of strikes reduced even before the withdrawal.
But I guess Glenn Greenwald was right. The president's speech did not signal a specific, immediate change in the administration's policy on signature strikes - just a promise that they will decline over time. That's a shame.
3) In Terror Shift, Obama Took a Long Path
Peter Baker, New York Times, May 27, 2013
Ultimately, the president and his team decided to tighten the standard for striking targets outside overt war zones. Instead of being authorized for any "significant threat to U.S. interests," drone strikes would be used only in cases of a "continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons." They would also be limited to cases with a "near certainty" of avoiding civilian casualties.
The C.I.A.'s opposition to shifting responsibility for drones entirely to the Pentagon resulted in a compromise: There would be a transition period for the program in Pakistan, which would be reviewed every six months to determine if it was ready to be moved to military control. Administration officials suggest that the transfer of the Pakistan drone program may coincide with the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014.
All of that was codified in a Presidential Policy Guidance that remains classified.
Mr. Obama's eventual speech, at 59 minutes one of the longest of his presidency other than a State of the Union address, reflected the process that developed it. Even as he set new standards, a debate broke out about what they actually meant and what would actually change. For now, officials said, "signature strikes" targeting groups of unidentified armed men presumed to be extremists will continue in the Pakistani tribal areas.
4) Defense lawmakers consider changing rules of terror war
Carlo Muñoz, The Hill, 05/31/13 06:00 AM ET
House Defense lawmakers are debating whether to change the rules of war for U.S. counterterrorism operations as part of the Defense Authorization bill for 2014.
According to draft language obtained by The Hill, the changes would require President Obama and the Pentagon to review all groups or individuals now characterized as "associated forces" under the current rules.
Individuals or groups with cursory ties to al Qaeda are now considered "associated forces," and can be targeted in drone strikes just like members of terrorist cells or people with direct links to al Qaeda.
The review mandated by the draft language would require the Pentagon to specifically lay out whether those groups or individuals are directly tied to al Qaeda operations, and if they are engaged with ongoing or future terror plots against the United States or its allies.
Those pushing to change the rules argue the current definition of associated forces gives U.S. military and intelligence agencies far too much leeway in determining who can and cannot be targeted by U.S. forces in counterterrorism "kill/capture" missions, which include drone strikes and attacks like the Seal Team Six mission that killed Osama bin Laden.
Some sources said the language will be included in the draft authorization bill to be considered next week by the House Armed Services Committee, something a spokesman for the panel's chairmen disputed.
The proposed changes do "not accurately reflect the chairman's mark," Claude Chafin, spokesman for panel chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Thursday.
5) What Obama's New Killing Rules Don't Tell You
Ryan Goodman and Sarah Knuckey, Esquire, May 24, 2013
[Goodman is Professor of Law at NYU, where he serves as Co-Chair of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. Knuckey is Director of the Project on Extrajudicial Executions at NYU Law, and a Special Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions.]
In a landmark speech on counterterrorism yesterday, President Obama outlined rules for the conduct of lethal operations abroad. The speech itself may mark a turning point as the president tries to steer the country away from "perpetual war," and toward a counterterrorism policy that better balances security and rights. The administration also published written rules for the use of lethal force, an important response to years of criticism of the administration's secretive killing program. Many hoped this moment would herald a new era of transparency. To be sure, these steps bring clarity to some issues. But, the framework he presented also raises some troubling questions and leaves important older questions completely unanswered.
Where do the rules apply? The new rules apply only to operations conducted outside "areas of active hostilities." A lot turns on the definition of that geographic boundary. For all we know, the administration may define parts of Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere as a zone of hostilities. The administration, however, doesn't tell you how it decides when and where places of active hostilities exist. And wherever such zones exist, the new rules are irrelevant. In short, it is possible that the "new" rules may leave completely untouched some of the most significant parts of the existing drone program.
Signature strikes: in or out? Some suggest that the new rules put an end to controversial signature strikes, carried out based on patterns of behavior assumed to indicate militancy. The new rules do finally rebut reports (sourced originally to anonymous government officials) that "all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants." Yet there is no clarity at all about what actual "signatures" were used, or might still be in use. Nothing in the new rules requires that the government kill only named targets, and nothing in the rules prohibits behavior-based targeting. On the contrary, senior administration officials, hours before the President's speech, suggested that signature strikes will continue but perhaps decrease "over time."
Whether to capture or kill?: One of the rules, already known from the leaked Department of Justice white paper is that the government may kill only when "capture is not feasible." This phrase begs the question: at what price is capture considered infeasible? The answer, according to the government, is clearly not limited to situations in which it is physically impossible to apprehend an individual. The rule apparently includes situations in which it is not possible to capture the individual without significant risks to U.S. forces or to nearby civilians. The President's speech was at its most persuasive in explaining those types of concerns.
His remarks however failed to address a nagging concern, and may have needlessly aggravated it. The concern, raised in recent books by Daniel Klaidman and Mark Mazzetti, is that Obama turned to drone strikes as the tactic of choice once the apprehension and detention of international terrorists became a political "briar patch" for the administration. In his speech, the President suggested that wrapped up in the definition of feasibility are concerns about the political fallout from ground forces capturing an individual. The President appeared to suggest that he may consider capture "foreclosed" - that is, off the table - when that option would result in a public "backlash" among local populations or spark international tensions. We trust the President is not actually saying that when apprehending an individual is politically costly, that person might instead be killed. But his speech missed an opportunity to dismiss such frequently voiced concerns once and for all.
Killed but not "specifically" targeted: In its belated acknowledgement that the US has killed four American citizens since 2009, the administration gave us another novel turn of phrase: "not specifically targeted." This is carefully crafted, but highly opaque wording. The government says that one American, Anwar al-Aulaqi, was "specifically targeted and killed." The other three, it says, were "not specifically targeted" but no explanation whatsoever is given for their deaths. Were these Americans purposely or knowingly killed in signature strikes? Were they intentional or accidental collateral damage in a strike on some other target? Or killed by mistake? We just don't know, and this raises significant questions not just about the targeting of Americans, but of the thousands of others killed.
Senior operational leaders, or any terrorist? In an important piece, McClatchy reporter Jonathan Landay accurately notes that the new rules do not limit force to senior operational leaders, although this limit appeared in numerous prior government statements and the much discussed White Paper. The new rules are at odds with some popular assumptions that only high-level leaders are targeted. The written rules indicate instead that any member of a terrorist group carrying out attacks is targetable. This revelation appears consistent with past findings that only 2 percent of killings have been of "high-level" militants, and that the vast majority of strikes have killed low-level fighters. The administration thus appears to be taking a more explicitly expansive approach to its kill list.
Threats to U.S. persons and the end of bargaining chip strikes? What or whom does a terrorist have to threaten to make them targetable by the U.S. government? The new rules say that the government will kill only to "prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons." This would seem to rule out U.S. attacks carried out at the request of Pakistan or Yemen and involvement in other countries' purely domestic insurgencies, attacks sometimes called "side-payment strikes" or "goodwill strikes." However, a "reservation" at the end of the written rules states that the President can still take action to protect U.S. allies – does this leave open future strikes carried out for other countries? And given reports indicating that such strikes have taken place in the past, should we now assume that the administration has decided to completely forgo all such tactics?
When can civilians be killed? The rules set out a strict test: strikes will take place only when there is a "near certainty" that civilians will not be injured or killed. This is far stricter than the traditional test in armed conflict, which permits civilian deaths proportionate to a military advantage. Officials suggested that this test may have existed "for the last several years." However, the demanding test is difficult to reconcile with specific allegations of civilian harm, such as the 2009 Al-Majala strike in which 21 children were reportedly killed, or numerous individual reports of civilian harm in Pakistan. To fulfill its transparency and accountability commitments, the administration must now answer the specific allegations.
Still no clarity about key terms: "associated forces" and "imminence." The administration has received much criticism for its "elongated" imminence concept. Its position that it can kill "associated forces" of al-Qa'ida has also been a key point of controversy because the government has never adequately defined who these forces are. Although many anticipated increased transparency on these points, little was offered, and we still don't meaningfully know how these categories are being applied or defined.
The President deserves considerable credit for publicly addressing the nation about the administration's targeting operations abroad, and for releasing written criteria for killing. But important doubts and questions remain. His administration lost the trust of many when the White Paper revealed an incredibly perverted definition of "imminence" - one that almost defines the concept by its opposite. Accordingly, when the President states that the new rules will respect the "sovereignty" of foreign nations and protect the lives of "non-combatants" - we want to assume that those words retain their ordinary meaning. However - and until the White House releases the legal memos that explain its understanding of such terms and its legal justification for the drone program more broadly - there is reason to remain deeply skeptical. Indeed, without those documents and with the questions left open by the President's speech, it remains impossible for the public to, in the President's words: "make informed decisions and hold the Executive Branch accountable."
6) IMF and World Bank are losing clout in developing countries
Developing nations are organising within the IMF and World Bank to counter their neoliberal policies
Mark Weisbrot, The Guardian, Thursday 30 May 2013
There is a battle going on within and outside the World Bank right now over its flagship Doing Business report and index. This may not appear to be exactly a household issue, but the fight is a very significant one for a number of reasons.
The index ranks countries according to the "ease of doing business", including such things as starting a business, enforcement of contracts, paying taxes and other indicators. It has been under attack for years because it has a built-in bias against many regulations that people who care about the progress of humanity might see as important: employment protections; necessary taxation; health, safety and environmental regulation; and of course most state-led development policies.
As noted recently, the fact that the Bank gives higher marks for "fewer restrictions on permits for construction" means it ignores the safety and environmental concerns that can contribute to disasters such as last month's Bangladesh factory collapse.
There is evidence that countries have deregulated in harmful ways in order to get a better ranking. And despite years of controversy and a 2008 internal evaluation critical of the index, the Bank still uses it as a criterion for lending to low-income countries.
Now comes Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank since last July, appointing a panel to evaluate Doing Business. Never mind that he chose the South African finance minister, Trevor Manuel, well-trusted in neoliberal circles, to head it. Or that the panel did not contain a single member from the numerous, and in some cases quite large, civil society organisations critical of the index. Important people are worried.
Dan Runde of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies describes the concerns of Washington's foreign policy establishment rather nakedly: "Doing Business was incubated with strong support from the Bush administration through contributions to the methodology from USAid, funding from USAid, and political support from state and treasury … "Because the World Bank should be a force multiplier of American influence in the world, Republicans supported (and rightly so) the renewal of the general capital increase of the World Bank … the US should be expected to retain its 'big seat' at the table and exercise that influence with Jim Kim and bring in allied shareholders in favour of strengthening Doing Business."
The financial press has inaccurately portrayed the fight as "China seeks to water down key World Bank report" – the headline of the Financial Times's report on the controversy. But China is just one of many countries, and a latecomer at that, which have opposed the index within the Bank. Opposition has come from Brazil, Argentina, India and other developing countries.
And that is perhaps the greatest significance of this fight: developing countries are beginning to organise within the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in order to change policies. These two institutions have been controlled by Washington, with varying amounts of input from other rich countries, since their founding nearly seven decades ago. Many of their policies have been harmful to developing countries. But in contrast to the World Trade Organisation – where developing countries form blocs and fight for their interests – the world's majority has mostly let the rich countries run the show in the IMF and World Bank.
Jim Yong Kim is an anomaly at the World Bank: the first president with real, positive development experience after more than six decades of bankers at the helm (with a couple of war criminals thrown in). It remains to be seen how much he can change the institution. But it's a good sign that developing countries are beginning to put up a fight.
7) Why Arming Syria's Rebels Is Still a Bad Idea
"Humanitarian" intervention would only deepen the humanitarian disaster.
Editorial, The Nation, May 8, 2013 online/May 27, 2013 print
Ultimatums rarely make for artful diplomacy; in this case, it gave an opening to the neocon hawks. The same armchair warriors who relied on phony WMD claims to drive us into Iraq - William Kristol, Robert Kagan and others - started pounding the war drums again. They did so even amid uncertainty over nearly everything having to do with the chemical weapons reports: not simply whether they were used, but who - rebels or regime - may have used them.
Alarmingly, liberal interventionists have also begun talking up military action. Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning in the Obama State Department, led the charge in a bellicose Washington Post column comparing the president's cautious response to the latest allegations to the Clinton administration's fumbling over genocide in Rwanda. That "shameful moment" for America, she said, arose from Clinton's reluctance to clearly acknowledge that genocide was taking place; such an admission would have compelled intervention. Now, she argued, Obama is repeating the dodge because, like Clinton, he wants to avoid war. Slaughter was joined by The New York Times's Bill Keller, who urged the administration "to assert control of the arming and training of rebels."
Neither the neocons nor the liberal interventionists seem aware of the deep divide in the Muslim and Arab world over this conflict, and they seem unconcerned that there is no legal justification for intervention. Apparently, it is enough that the United States is, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once boasted, "the indispensable nation." All that matters to the armchair warriors is Washington's fragile "credibility," which is apparently endangered whether a conflict involves an ally or an enemy, a near neighbor or a distant land.
Perhaps recognizing the foolishness of declaring red lines, the president has recently displayed a sensible caution that others would do well to emulate (and that includes Israel, whose recent airstrikes have dangerously increased the chances of a regionwide conflagration). Given the terrible costs of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian fratricide, Obama is surely right not to rush into another Middle East conflict.
The lessons of those previous wars are particularly relevant. As Syria specialist Joshua Landis has argued, the country has many parallels to Iraq. Like Iraq, Syria is rife with sectarian, ethnic and class divisions. As with the Iraqi Baath Party under Saddam Hussein, when a minority built around kinship and sect ruled over a Shiite majority, so in Syria a minority of Alawites, allied with other minorities, has ruled over a restive Sunni majority.
The Syrian conflict has become more sectarian in part because of the influence of Turkey and the Sunni Gulf monarchies, bent on weakening Iran's alliance with Assad. Despite Washington's efforts to cobble together a united and more secular opposition, the rebels remain fragmented, with hardline Islamists - many of them openly avowing their allegiance to Al Qaeda - providing the fiercest and most effective fighters. The violence will continue if the regime falls; already chaos, criminality and warlordism beset the "liberated" areas. Even more ominous, the conflict is spreading. Lebanon's formidable Hezbollah militia is now openly supporting the Assad regime, even as Lebanese Sunnis rally to the rebel flags. Like Turkey, Jordan is straining under a massive refugee burden, and its monarchy is despised by a deep-rooted Islamist opposition. Meanwhile, Iraq's Al Qaeda affiliate, having solidified an alliance with its extremist Sunni brethren across the border in Syria, is girding for renewed rebellion against the increasingly oppressive and sectarian Shiite regime in Baghdad.
So far, not even the neocons are arguing for a US invasion or occupation of Syria. But their call to supply the rebels with heavier weapons, with or without the cover of a no-fly zone, should be resisted. Syria is awash in arms, and there is no way to ensure that more sophisticated US weapons would not wind up in the hands of extremists. We should be sobered by our experience in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda was born amid the mujahedeen we armed to fight the Soviet Union. To control the skies of Syria, the United States would have to attack radar installations, anti-aircraft sites and air bases in the face of Russian, Chinese and Iranian objections. Unlike in Libya, these targets are located not in the desert but in cities and suburbs, where the possibility of civilian casualties is far greater.
Washington has no legal basis for waging war on Syria, direct or indirect. The Assad regime has not attacked, nor does it pose an imminent threat to, the United States. There is no UN resolution that can be stretched to provide even the flimsiest cover for armed intervention, as was done for Libya. Liberal interventionists suggest that the humanitarian tragedy provides justification for war, but that flies in the face of international law.
Fortunately, the American people, tired of wasting lives and resources on misadventures abroad, oppose even arming the Syrian rebels. That mirrors public opinion among our European allies and in the Arab world, which has seen quite enough of the freedom delivered by American bombs and missiles.
The horrors in Syria can't be ignored, however. In fact, the United States can take useful actions. Obama should press Congress and the UN Security Council to increase humanitarian aid to the rapidly growing refugee population in neighboring countries as well as to those starving inside Syria. He should re-engage Russia and China - and, through them, Iran - to restrain Assad, while using Washington's considerable influence with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to restrain their military support for the rebels - especially for jihadi extremists. (The recent agreement between Russia and the United States to hold an international conference on Syria is a hopeful move in that direction.) And Obama should restrain Israel from provoking war with Hezbollah. It seems unlikely now, but Syria's combatants will eventually grow weary of battle; as they do, Washington must work closely with regional powers to set up a power-sharing arrangement.
The last thing Obama should do is commit the United States to overthrow the Assad regime. We could win that battle, as we did in Iraq - but, again, we would surely lose its violent aftermath. And we would be responsible for deepening the humanitarian disaster with our "humanitarian" intervention.
8) NIAC Applauds Lifting of Communications Sanctions for Iranians
Press Release, NIAC, Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Washington, DC - NIAC applauds the Obama Administration's anticipated decision to lift sanctions on consumer communication tools for the Iranian people tomorrow. This long sought action will help ensure sanctions do not block important consumer communication hardware, software, and services for ordinary Iranians. NIAC commends the organizations and individuals in the Iranian-American community who worked tirelessly on this issue over the past four years.
"Lifting these sanctions is an extremely positive step," said NIAC Policy Director Jamal Abdi. "There was no better example of sanctions that undermined human rights and civil society efforts of Iranians, and helped the regime."
Sanctions on communications tools in Iran have been in place since before social media, text messaging, and cell phones were an everyday part of life. They have prevented companies from selling laptops, cell phones, or modems to Iran, which has fueled a major black market for these goods. They have blocked services like satellite Internet, website hosting, and VPNs for Iranians. And the sanctions even made it illegal for Iranians to download basic software and security updates, which left many vulnerable to malware and cyber intrusions by the government.
"Iranians have been squeezed between a repressive government on one side and crippling sanctions on the other," said Abdi. "Now the U.S. is taking steps to ensure that, as Iran's government cracks down on Internet access and SMS, sanctions will no longer block cell phones, software, and hardware."
The sanctions were felt most acutely four years ago, at the height of Iran's green movement protests. The world was galvanized by cell phone videos and reports of abuses coming from inside of Iran, and SMS and other communications tools were being used to help organize massive demonstrations. Yet all of those tools were under U.S. sanctions. Some limited actions were taken by the Obama Administration to ease sanctions on basic, freely available software, and to license other tools in 2010. But until now, most of these items have been largely blocked.
In recent years, as sanctions ratcheted up, the enforcement of these restrictions became even more severe. In 2012, there were several reports of Apple Stores discriminating against Iranian Americans by blocking them from buying iPhones or iPads. Apple employees claimed to have done so because, under the sanctions, it was illegal for anybody to travel with or send cellphones or laptops to Iran. Recently, companies like Samsung started blocking Iranians from accessing their mobile app stores. And even online games like World of Warcraft and online dating sites were cut off for users with Iranian IP addresses because of sanctions.
"At a time when broad sanctions are causing many Iranians to seriously question whether the U.S. is aiming at them or their government, this is a very important gesture," said Abdi. "Steps like this can go a long way to demonstrate that we stand with the Iranian people."
"This also shows that sanctions that hurt ordinary Iranians can be lifted if we press policymakers and work with them to find solutions," Abdi said. "Serious issues remain to be addressed, including sanctions that are preventing medicine from reaching ordinary Iranians, and we look forward to progress on this front."
9) Bondholders spark U.S. legal drama over Argentine debt
A crucial ruling is expected on payment for group of holdouts that refused to settle with Argentina after it defaulted on nearly $100 billion in debt in 2002.
Ken Bensinger, Los Angeles Times, May 27, 2013, 5:47 p.m.
Collection agencies profit by buying up old debt, chasing borrowers for payment and, when all else fails, using the courts to recover as much as they can.
It's a business model polished and perfected over decades of litigation. But what if the deadbeat is a sovereign nation of 40 million people whose fiery president has sworn never to pay?
That question now faces the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, which has become an unlikely referee in a high-stakes grudge match pitting Wall Street investors against Argentina.
At its heart, the case tests the power of U.S. courts to force other countries to honor their debts. The outcome could hinder the ability of other struggling nations - including Greece and Cyprus - to renegotiate their commitments, potentially saddling them with crushing obligations they can't escape.
In the button-down world of international finance, the proceedings have been nothing short of a barnburner. Each side has hired celebrity lawyers, traded insults and engaged in some bare-knuckle tactics, including the attempted seizure of an Argentine naval frigate by bondholders.
Now years of squabbling may be reaching a boiling point: A crucial ruling is expected as early as this week.
"The implications are huge," economist and Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz said. "This court is balancing the interests of very small groups of creditors against those of entire countries."
Though little-known in the U.S., the case is a cause celebre in Argentina, where the long battle has taken an economic toll on the nation.
At issue is nearly $100 billion in debt that Argentina defaulted on in early 2002 after a prolonged recession and a currency crisis. It was the largest sovereign default in history.
The nation eventually was able to restructure more than 92% of that debt by persuading investors to exchange old bonds for new ones worth about two-thirds less. Bolstered by an economic boom in recent years, Argentina has kept current on the new obligations to what are called the exchange bondholders.
But much of the remaining debt was snapped up at a discount by bargain-hunting investors, who took Argentina to court and demanded full value.
Leading the charge was New York hedge fund Elliott Associates, which has found a lucrative niche forcing debtor nations through litigation to pay up. The firm has won huge judgments against Peru, Republic of the Congo and other poor countries. In the developing world, such investors are dubbed vulture funds.
Frustrated after half a decade of litigation, Elliott and other holdouts tried a novel legal strategy. They argued that under a provision of its debt contracts, Argentina could no longer make payments to the bondholders who had settled unless it also paid the holdouts.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa agreed. In November, the appeals court upheld the ruling and is now considering how to force payment and how much the holdouts should receive. Experts said the court could oblige Argentina to pay in full, match the deal it gave the exchange bondholders or offer something in between.
The appellate judges also are weighing whether to uphold an injunction Griesa put on Argentina's bank, Bank of New York Mellon, that bars it from paying exchange bondholders unless holdouts also are paid. If that's upheld, Argentina will be required to fork over something or be held in contempt.
Global anti-poverty groups are also worried. They fear that if the court allows the holdouts to get more than the exchange bondholders it will create a powerful incentive for bondholders to refuse to negotiate when the next sovereign default arises.
That could make it hard for nations facing economic crises to escape crushing debt loads, said Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA, an anti-poverty group that advocates sovereign debt cancellation. Unable to restructure debt, these countries would be required to use money otherwise dedicated for social services, education or public health to pay bondholders.
"Any precedent set here goes way beyond Argentina," said LeCompte, noting that lawsuits mimicking Elliott's tactic have been filed against other countries in recent months. "This will likely have the most far reaching impact on global poverty of any ruling in our lifetime."
That opinion is shared by some influential observers, including the U.S. Justice Department. It filed a brief arguing the ruling "threatens core U.S. policy regarding international debt restructuring."
No matter the outcome of the appeal, a petition to the Supreme Court is likely.
Many believe the case has helped focus attention on the shortcomings of the international sovereign debt system.
"We've created a totally dysfunctional sovereign debt market," Stiglitz said. "Whether or not you like what Argentina has done, this is a question of equity."
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