Saturday, November 29, 2008

And The List Grows

Obama has picked his National Security Advisor, retired General James L. Jones. According to the New York Times, Jones is considered a moderate and considers John McCain a good friend, while he has only met the President-Elect a handful of times. This appointment follows the appointment of Hilary Clinton to State and the announcement that Gates will be staying at the Pentagon. The NYT article brings up the point that Jones will most likely be serving as a mediator between the two with Gates being a hold-over from the current administration and Clinton being a vocal critic of this administration.

But as National Security Advisor, Jones will have the ear of the President more easily than Clinton will. The National Security Advisor works in the West Wing, while obviously Secretaries of State and Defense do not. This may create some tension between Clinton and Jones if they disagree on policy, which is very possible.

But Jones has an impressive history when it comes to foreign policy as he was supreme allied commander in Europe during the war in Bosnia and the American campaign in Kosovo. He lived in Paris for almost his entire childhood and is respected by both parties. And according to the NYT article, Jones had some success in some Israeli-Palestinian disputes, so he obviously can be effective and can lead people in the right direction.

Whether he can create a favorable relationship with a man he doesn't know very well to become one of Obama's top advisors is still to be seen. But hopefully, as Obama has little experience in foreign policy (as we all heard many times in the last election) he will be smart enough to listen to what Jones has to say.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Inevitable Collapse of the United States

Could the current global financial crisis, two wars, a coming credit crisis, polarized political parties and volatile fuel prices cause the United States to splinter into separate countries? Some tend to think so.

Igor Panarin, a professor at the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow sees the US breaking up into six countries in the near future, brought on by the financial crisis. What might the US look like post-split? Panarin envisions Texas as its own nation, the Pacific States, Atlantic/New England States, The Hispanic South, The Canadian North and the no-man's land of the Central US. I've taken the liberty of drawing out what such a place would look like. As you see, I've lumped Kentucky in with the Hispanic South. Here's a link to help you prepare for what's to come. Alaska would more than likely be "returned" to Russia, as it's just leased to us, anyway. Hawaii will just continue to be the land of rainbows.

Of course, I had to chuckle to myself when I read this article. I mean, this guy is calling out the US when Russia is having problems hanging on to its own territories? Though there is playful talk of Texas being its own country, no one believes it will ever happen. But what about Tatarstan? Chechnya? Dagestan? These all have serious separatist movements that could, at any time, cause trouble for the Russian state. More than likely this guy just likes to see his name in the headlines. But it does make for an interesting topic of conversation.

It's been a popular sentiment over the years that the end of the United States is nigh. Even though at this juncture in history is appears the the US is more politically divided than ever, it would take an issue of enormous proportions to strain the States enough to even consider breaking. What say you? Could the US ever split?

But, if you do decide to start a separatist movement, I know where you can get some advice.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Technology against Pirates

Incidences of piracy off of the Somali coast are threatening the safety of commercial ships increasingly. The pirates seem to be getting bolder and requesting higher ransoms. Two weeks ago, the Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star was hijacked and currently $25 million is being requested for its release. The ship is said to be carrying around $100 million worth of oil. The problem is that these commercial freighters have small crews, International Maritime law forbids commercial vessels to carry any weapons for self defense and they are thus easy prey for pirates who are equipped with small fast speedboats and only a hand full of weapons.
A report by the German navy caught my attention a few days ago that reported on a technological development that is now increasingly being considered by the owners of commercial shipping vessels to protect them from an attack by pirates. The International Defense Online Magazine also reports on this device, which is called the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD). Its was originally developed as a crowd control device and is also used by American warships to warn vessels approaching without permission, like a megaphone.  But the interesting part is that the LRAD also has an impact on the hearing, vision and overall well-being of people.  Thus, it serves s a non-lethal weapon.
The LRAD looks like a big loudspeaker, weighs about 40 pounds and is around 30 inches is diameter. It emits sound in a 30 degree beam at a high frequency that, at its maximum volume, permanently damages hearing and exceeds the normal human threshold of pain (120-140 dB) at a distance of one meter. At around 300 meters, its volume is around 90 dB. The sound also causes loss of balance and nausea. The device is used to transmit warnings and high pitched sound.
Recently, the LRAD has been used in the port of Basra and other places in Iraq for communication purposes and it has been used on cruise ships. The Seabourn Cruise Line had the device installed as part of its defense system and in 2005, it was activated to effectively counter a pirate attack 160 km off of the Somali coast. There have recently been new orders placed by the U.S. military to the manufacturer American Technology Corporation for force protection in the Middle East, especially Iraq. It is expected that commercial orders will follow soon, if the piracy activity stays at the current level.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer?

Love her or hate her, Senator Hillary Clinton is now one of the most recognizable faces in American politics. She knows how to act gracefully and she knows how to throw punches. She also knows how to rally the support of millions of Americans…but what about the support of the rest of the world? In the last few weeks, there has been anxious chatter concerning the nomination of Sen. Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State to the Obama administration. Though it is still unclear as to whether she will accept this position, many analysts on both the left and the right agree that she is qualified for the position.

However, many are concerned that the quarrelsome history and diverse ideologies of Obama and Clinton could undermine the administration’s cohesiveness on foreign policy, much like that of the Bush administration. After all, Senator Clinton did criticize Obama for his willingness to negotiate with leaders of Cuba and Iran. Also, during the primary election, Obama was quick to mention the Sen. Clinton had voted in support of the war in Iraq. In fact, Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, declares that appointing Senator Clinton would be a “downright betrayal” of those “who supported Obama during the campaign because of his early opposition to the war” and due to his persistent argument that “judgment is more important than experience.” Several political analysts assert that constructing a “team of rivals” such as this will not be conducive to the change that Obama promised during his campaign. Nonetheless, if the rumors are true and the Obama team does choose Clinton as the Secretary of State, there must be a reason. But what is it, exactly?

Some pundits suggest that Obama’s gesture is not as benevolent as it may seem. David Frum, one of Bush’s former speech writers, claims, “he's putting her into his Cabinet in order to control her” and that it is a “pretty impressive display of tough politics.” As the argument goes, as long as Hillary Clinton is working for an Obama administration, the less time she will have to work against him in 2012.

Perhaps, however, the Obama administration believes that she can play the role of team member as effectively as she did that of adversary. Lawrence Wilkerson, a chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, proposes that Senator Clinton and President-elect Barack Obama have the potential to be a “good team” as long as she was appointed to be a partner of the president and was not simply appointed in order to “neutralize” her. She is, after all, respected in the international community and has been known to take a harder line on foreign policy issues than Obama. Many suggest that they can form a “good cop/bad cop” relationship, which would allow them to make more international breakthroughs than either former President Bill Clinton or President Bush by utilizing “coercive diplomacy.” In order to not send mixed signals, however, Senator Clinton may need to tone down her rhetoric concerning key issues like nuclear Iran if she is actually appointed as Secretary of State.

Senator Clinton, nonetheless, is an ideal candidate for the position, since she is “competent, learns fast, knows how to work the diplomatic ropes and is unlikely to repeat any errors that she made in the past.” Even though they have had conflicts in the past, adding Senator Clinton to an Obama team does not mean that the Obama is diverging from the course he has outlined. Though it will be tricky, it is possible to maintain a functioning Cabinet of critics as opposed to only appointing “yes-men” (and women). Remember Lincoln?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Libya: Which Way Do We Go?

Since 2003, Libya and Col. Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gadhafi have been working feverishly to move back into the global community by renouncing, investigating, deporting, and punishing those within it's border that are or were responsible for terrorism. Moreover, in December of 2003, they agreed to reveal and end their WMD programs. (Without doubt, the seemingly unstoppable US military juggernaut that was crushing the Iraqi armed forces at the time played a large role in his behavior...after all, it certainly put credibility behind Bush's message of "If you're not with us, you're against us.")

Because of these "good faith" gestures, the US and its allies have begun the process of bringing Libya back in from the cold. In June 2006, the US removed Libya from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list, and in September of 2008, Condoleezza Rice visited Reagan's "mad dog of the Middle East" on his turf; this was the first American senior official to visit in 50 years.

Furthermore, the international community has also initiated relations through both commercial and governmental liaison. France has established a program to tie nuclear power generation to a desalinization unit. With this facility operational, Libya would have a solution to its largest problem: water scarcity. Also, as a somewhat recent emerger on the world oil production scene, Libya has established itself as a premier exporter of crude, refined petroleum, and natural gas to some powerful US allies: Italy, Spain, Germany, and France.

Certainly, Gadhafi's actions have been great for Libya. Libyans exist fairly well on a per capita earning of $12,400, and education, life expectancy, and population growth all seem to be on the rise. With all of this, some might view this former terrorist supporter (if not organizer) as wholly reformed. In the great words of ESPN's Lee Corso, "not so fact, my friends..."

Certainly, Libya has come a long way. In fact, it has met the benchmarks of the 2006 National Security Strategy in many ways. The NSS includes the following as three of its top four priorities...(
  • Strengthen alliances as to defeat global terrorism and work to prevent attacks against us and our friends
  • Work with others to defuse regional conflicts
  • Prevent enemies from threatening us, our allies, and our friends with WMD

Each of these ideas seems to fit rather well into the case of Libyan resurgence as a legit global player, but let us not forget the first, and most often mentioned portion of the National Security Strategy...

  1. Champion Aspirations for Human Dignity

Let's take a look at Libya's current rap-sheet:

Libya is a transit and destination location for the human trafficking of both men and women from the sub-Saharan and Asian locations for the purpose of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation. For failing to show improvement in investigating and prosecuting these acts, it is currently on the Tier 2 Watch List. Libya has ongoing (albeit dormant) territorial disputes with both Algeria and Chad. It also acts as a host to Chadian rebels from the Aozou region. Furthermore, it is on the radar of the Human Rights Watch for the incarceration of political prisoners, for failing to promote freedom of expression and assembly, and for torturing prisoners by means of clubbing, electro-shock, finger-breaking, and suffocation by plastic bag (and I thought those things had warning labels!!)

Does this contradiction in Libyan behavior put US policy makers in a bind? Are Ghadafi's reconciliations sufficient for the US and her allies to overlook human rights violations? If you ask me, I'd say...

"Libya, you have shown yourselves as a responsible nation, but we are concerned about the manner in which you view human dignity. Please continue to support the international quest to destroy terror networks, Your knowledge through participation in them is critical to our success. Also, your transparency about WMD is a tremendous example to other nations of the Middle East. In order to demonstrate our appreciation for this, we will support your mission to end human trafficking to and through your nation. We will also assist, as the French have, in solving your water scarcity concerns. For this, we ask that you continue to reform in terms of human rights. You have shown that you will change to become a more responsible global player, and we will reward you for that. You must continue to move in the right direction or we will cease aid to you and your people."

In other words, it took awhile, but the use of the stick with Libya eventually paid off. By using carrots, Libya can continue to evolve into a beacon of human dignity and global responsibility for northern Africa and the Middle East.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Food for Thought

When we sit down to stuff ourselves next week on Thanksgiving, we will reflect upon our good fortune to have the food in front of us. Yet, perhaps we should be more cautious of what exactly we will be gorging ourselves on. The US currently imports billions of dollars worth of food from foreign producers and manufacturers, and the government only inspects a small portion of that. There have been some initiatives to address this gaping hole in the US food supply, but so far the effort has not been enough to secure the nation's food supply.

This week, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it is opening offices across China to monitor and inspect food that is destined for US markets. The offices, opening in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, will be staffed by both American and Chinese officials who will not only inspect food, but also work with the Chinese to establish certification of products bound for consumption in America. This comes at the end of a widely publicized scandal involving the use of melamine in children’s formula that has reportedly killed four Chinese babies, left thousands of other children in the hospital, and led to recalls and import bans of Chinese products in Asia, Europe and the US.

Although the latest scandal has come out of China, there have been concerns coming from other nations as well. For instance, this summer tomatoes and jalapenos from Mexico were responsible for sickening over a thousand salsa-loving Americans. The concerns about food safety are as numerous as our trade partners. For this reason, the FDA has plans to open up a number of other offices in Latin America, Europe and India for the same type of monitoring as is going on in China.

Although these efforts have been couched in the issue of general food safety, much of this activity has been fueled by fears about attacks on the nation’s food supply. After 9/11, the government and the media began a long exercise of contemplating and addressing any and every possible aspect of infrastructure that could be vulnerable to a terrorist attack, and our food was one major worry. As a result, the FDA set up a number of programs, action plans and studies that fall under their Food Defense initiative. With only 1% of imported food being inspected by the FDA inside the nation’s borders as of 2007, the step to go directly to the producing country may be a good alternative.

Unfortunately, with only eighteen employees in Beijing, it will be impossible for US officials to effectively inspect all, or even a representative amount, of the products coming from China. Moreover, it highlights the problems in trying to secure any type of product imported into America. With a large, open economy like the US (which is also a net importer), it will be impossible to ensure the safety of products without slowing the flow of products to an inefficient level.

This leads to a number of questions: Is there a trade off between having an open economy and being secure? If so, which one should win out? Would people be willing to put up with delays and possibly higher prices associated with the extra time and effort that would go into a more thorough inspection process of our food supply? Would foreign suppliers and their governments feel like they were being singled out, or that our procedures were really put in place to be a non-trade barrier to their products? These questions, though tough to answer, will need to be addressed. Because, as those affect by the tainted food scandals of the recent past can attest, food imports can be an issue of life and death.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mummies--China is Getting Sexier

Archaeological findings in China may be the evidence that Uighur nationalists in the autonomous region of Xinjiang Uighur have been awaiting. Over the past few decades, more than 200 “well-preserved mummies” have been discovered in the western deserts of the region which could provide evidence to answer the question--who settled in western China and for how long has this region been a part of the Chinese empire? Mummies such as the “Loulan Beauty” and the “Cherchan Man” have been preserved for thousands of years and may provide the historical evidence necessary for the Uighurs to gain leverage in the struggle with the Chinese government. However, the Uighurs should not indulge in excitement too soon because it is highly unlikely that China’s government is willing to loosen its grip on the region just yet; after all, Xinjiang derives its wealth from vast minerals and oil deposits all of which are in China’s best interest to hang on to.
According to research provided by the Council on Foreign Relations, Xinjiang accounts for roughly a sixth of China and the region consists of twenty million people with the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people, making up nearly half of the population. The Uighurs claim that China’s presence in the region is imperialistic; however, the Chinese government refutes the claim by declaring that the area rightfully became a part of China in 1949 after The Communist Party took over the territory.
From studying the mummies, some scholars suggest that the region has been a historic “melting pot” that has attracted inhabitants from outside of Chinese territory, even from Europe and the west. In contrast, other theories imply that some of the mummies are from East Asia; however, these were not the oldest mummies excavated. The interpretations are inconclusive, and China’s government is devoting its efforts to keep it that way. Moreover, China has refused to allow scientists from outside of the country to conduct research on the mummies which is preventing advanced foreign scientists from getting their hands on them and deriving conclusions that do not favor China’s stance.
Although the scientists cannot offer definite information to the Uighurs or to China’s government, their mummy findings add a bit of mystery for those individuals who are fascinated with history.

A Call to Arms

As Reported through the New York Times New Service, the recently inconspicuous Muqtada al-Sadr has thrust himself back into focus by calling for an armed resistance against any agreement allowing the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. This proclamation comes as the probable vote by the Iraqi Parliament on a new, U.S. S.O.F.A nears. The cleric al-Sadar makes the clear demand of removing all occupying forces and denying access and/or the formation of bases for any foreign forces. Though having maintained a low profile in recent years, and perhaps waning in his political influence, al-Sadr's militant proclamation cannot be quickly dismissed.

To review: al-Sadr, a prominent Shi'a cleric, rose to power in the chaotic political vacuum following the collapse of the Hussein regime. In 2004, al-Sadr initiated an armed uprising, targeting U.S. forces as well as anti-Shi'a elements which at the time were freely operating with impunity. Al-Sadr's militants were a significant source of instability and effectively operated against U.S. forces. In late 2005, al-Sadr called for a "cease-fire" wherein unrestricted, offensive operations by his militant groups were curtailed. Since that point, the frequency and intensity of sectarian violence has lessened (perhaps as a function of al-Sadr's directive). However, from 2005 intermittent sectarian and insurgent fighting has been attributable to the cleric. Yet, his religious/political influence is such that he has necessitated political engagement via the Iraqi government in the ongoing attempts to reduce violence and increase political stability.

Therefore, al-Sadr's recent proclamation for a resumed armed resistance against U.S. forces must not be ignored. Al-Sadr is still a significant religious figure, has displayed a willingness to utilize violence, and as a result is still dangerous. His political base is comprised mainly of young militant men, who have also displayed their willingness to fight at the behest of al-Sadr. Additionally, the "cease-fire" period, wherein al-Sadr has maintained a lower profile, has enabled the cleric to stockpile an unknown (yet undeniably significant) quantity of arms and materiél. Consequently, this has substantially increased his capabilities to maneuver politically, conduct operations, disrupt the tenuous progress witnessed in the country, and perhaps once again incite sectarian violence.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hersman Reading

It has come to my attention that the Hersman reading is incomplete. Don't worry about it; read as much of the excerpt as you can, and read the Wittkopf.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Who's On First?

To keep the friendly debate on Russia going, I wish to respectfully disagree with anonymous with regards to power in Russia. Anonymous believes that fully recognizing Medvedev would increase his domestic image as a powerful president and would undermine Putin. Anonymous also made a historical comparison to post-Revolution Russia in 1917, when there were two power centers in Russia: the provisional government (run by Alexander Kerensky) and the Petrograd Soviet (controlled by Lenin). Anonymous believes that if we had thrown our weight behind Kerensky, we could have seriously eroded Lenin's influence.

While certainly a plausible counterfactual, I, as a fellow student of history, find the comparison to be seriously lacking. Comparing the power struggle in 1917 Russia to a struggle for power between Putin and Medvedev simply doesn't work. In 1917, Kerensky and Lenin had emerged from a country ravaged by both revolution and war and were both trying to consolidate their power. Today, however, Putin has already consolidated his power. He served as President for 8 years and is still the face of Russian politics. Putin was highly visible in both the August war in Georgia and in Russia's response to the financial crisis. I don't have an in with the siloviki in Russia nor am I an expert on Russia, but I haven't gotten the impression that Putin is going to ride off into the sunset anytime soon.

Furthermore, anonymous's assertion that the proposed constiutional change extending the Presidential term in Russia from four years to six years was to keep Putin from returning to power quickly is wrong in that, if passed, it will not affect Medvedev's current term but go into effect for the next President. The six-year term was recently approved by the lower house of the Russian parliament and is currently waiting to be approved by the upper house.

There seems to be no rational reason for Medvedev to extend the Russian Presidential term limit to six years less than one year into his own term. Perhaps he's merely paving the way for Putin to return to power. Although Putin has served the maximum of two consecutive terms, there is no constiutional barrier to running for a third non-consecutive term. Were Medvedev to suddenly vacate power call for another election, Russians could soon be chanting "12 more years!".

Response to the response...

I appreciate the fact that my last post on requiring ID for voting sparked some criticism. I realize this is a bit late, but I wanted to respond with some additional information that may be helpful for further understanding the details of this debate.

Delta Blue responded to my post by noting that most of the barriers I presented really boil down to voter apathy. While I agree that apathy is an issue within the voting population of this country, I do not agree that it is the only way to explain my comments. For further reference, please note this study presented at the American Political Science Association Annual Conference in September 2007. It looks at data compiled from the 2006 mid-term elections in California, New Mexico, and Washington. Specifically, the authors, Barreto, Nuño, and Sánchez, wanted to study how new requirements for voter ID would affect participation by minority voters, specifically Latino, Black, and Asian voters.

Data compiled for the study came as the states listed above were considering making changes to the way their citizens register and vote. All three states were planning to change voter identification requirements, and the authors wanted to look at how the new requirements would affect voter participation in the demographics listed above. The study found that race “impacts access to a driver’s license, as white voters are approximately 10% more likely to have this valid form of primary identification than non-whites. In addition to racial and ethnic minorities, foreign-born voters are also less likely to have a driver’s license. There also seems to be a socioeconomic bias associated with having a driver’s license, as those with higher educations and incomes are more likely to have this specific form of valid identification” (16). Requiring photo identification for voting excludes certain portions of the population, as the above evidence from the study demonstrates that non-white voters are empirically less likely to have photo identification compared to white voters. It also notes the socioeconomic bias, as wealthier voters are more likely to have a driver’s license.

Delta Blue also mentioned that multiple forms of ID are acceptable to prove one’s identity for the purpose of voting. The study explored the ability of voters to produce at least one additional form of identification besides a photo ID. “While Latinos and Blacks were not less likely to have a state driver’s license, Latinos, Blacks, Asians, and immigrants were all significantly less likely to have at least a driver’s license and one additional form of identification…Asians and Blacks were over 20% less likely to have two forms of identification, as compared to Whites, while Latinos were 13% less likely” (17). The authors go on to mention the difficulty in showing something as simple as a utility bill. If an individual does not own a home, that person may not receive utility bills, or if he or she does receive the bills, other members of the same household do not.

There are eight states that require photo ID in order to vote, and there are an additional sixteen that require some form of ID to vote, Kentucky being one of them. Why is it that less than half of the states in the US require ID because of fear of fraud? If this was a relevant fear, wouldn’t all states require some form of ID to vote?

The point I’m trying to make is that we purposely erect barriers to prevent people from voting. At one time voters were required to pay a poll tax to vote, at another voters had to prove they were literate. Now (in 24 states) we just require them to show some form of identification to vote. That may seem a simple request, especially to individuals like Delta Blue, who do not have any problems with providing the required ID. The problem is that we should find another way of helping people to fulfill the criteria we require. If a state requires a photo ID be shown to prove identity and reduce potential for fraud, then the state needs to provide photo IDs to all eligible voters free of charge (see Or, we should just simplify the process and do away with identification requirements like the 26 other states that do not make this distinction. Until we get to the point where states do offer IDs for free, then they cannot require them as a prerequisite to vote. Otherwise we continue to shut people out of what should be their right as citizens of a democratic nation.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mystery of the Missing Nuke

While this sounds like an installment of Encyclopedia Brown gone horribly wrong, recent reporting from the BBC suggests that in the late 1960's the US lost a nuke. Here's the story...

During the height of the Cold War, northern Greenland was of utmost strategic importance to the United States. If Russia was to launch an attack against the US, it would come from over the North Pole and thus over Greenland. The Americans installed an Air Force base in the small Greenlandish (that can't be right, can it?) village of Thule. This location allowed for monitoring of the skies for incoming missiles. B-52 bombers equipped with nukes flew constant missions around the base, prepared to fly to Moscow and strike in a moment's notice.

But one day one of those B-52s, strapped with four nuclear devices, experienced an equipment malfunction and crashed onto the ice below. The conventional explosives surrounding the nukes detonated without triggering the nukes themselves because the crew hadn't armed the bombs. With assistance from the Danes and Greenlanders, recovery missions came to a startling discovery- only three of the bombs could be accounted for. Conventional wisdom holds that when the plane crashed, one of the nukes, instead of fragmenting, lodged itself into the thick ice. Subsequent submarine missions turned up nothing.

From the article- William H Chambers, a former nuclear weapons designer at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory who once ran a team dealing with accidents, including the Thule crash. "There was disappointment in what you might call a failure to return all of the components," he told the BBC, explaining the logic behind the decision to abandon the search.
"It would be very difficult for anyone else to recover classified pieces if we couldn't find them."
The view was that no-one else would be able covertly to acquire the sensitive pieces and that the radioactive material would dissolve in such a large body of water, making it harmless.

Seemingly this has little relevance today, but it makes me wonder. How secure are the nuclear weapons of the world? States with nuclear weapons are the US, Russia, China, France, the UK, India, Pakistan and Israel. Looking at that list you have to deduce that Pakistan and possibly India are the worries. How safe are the warheads in Pakistan? That's a question of much debate and could be the subject of another post, but if the United States can have an accident and lose a nuke, how hard would it be for the Pakistani's to "misplace" one? A top priority of the Obama administration should be to secure Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

It's just a matter of time before we get here,though.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hey, you walk funny, you must be a terrorist...

One of the biggest obstacles in security surveillance has always been that the amount of collection far exceeds the amount of man power available for analysis. A camera may catch every move that happens in an airport but is the person watching that camera going to be able to go through all that videotape to pick out suspicious activity? Probably not. In response to this, technologies which can do some of the analysis for us are being developed. Much of this technology remains, for the moment, in laboratories. But Charles Cohen, the boss of Cybernet Systems, a firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is working for America’s Army Research Laboratory, says behaviour-recognition systems are getting good, and are already deployed at some security checkpoints.

Human gaits, for example, can provide a lot of information about people’s intentions. Correlating these movements with consequences, such as the throwing of a bomb, allows them to develop computer models that link posture and consequence reasonably reliably. The system can, for example, pick out a person in a crowd who is carrying a concealed package with the weight of a large explosives belt. According to Mr Morelli, the army plans to deploy the system at military checkpoints, on vehicles and at embassy perimeters.
Some intelligent surveillance systems are able to go beyond even this. Instead of merely learning what a threat looks like, they can learn the context in which behaviour is probably threatening. That people linger in places such as bus stops, for example, is normal. Loitering in a stairwell, however, is a rarer occurrence that may warrant examination by human security staff
As object- and motion-recognition technology improves, researchers are starting to focus on facial expressions and what they can reveal. The Human Factors Division of America’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for example, is running what it calls Project Hostile Intent. This boasts a system that scrutinises fleeting “micro-expressions”, easily missed by human eyes. Many flash for less than a tenth of a second and involve just a small portion of the face.
Terrorists are often trained to conceal emotions; micro-expressions, however, are largely involuntary. Even better, from the researchers’ point of view, conscious attempts to suppress facial expressions actually accentuate micro-expressions. Sharla Rausch, the director of the Human Factors Division, refers to this somewhat disturbingly as “micro-facial leakage”.
While all of this technology seems that it will create a safer environment in which it will be easier to spot terrorist in our midst, this raises a few questions about innocent civilians and their rights to be “awkward” at security checkpoints in public places like airports. For example, anyone who is nervous about flying or in a hurry to get through security because they are running late for a flight may seem anxious. Profiling is already an acceptable form of security screening in airports but with this new technology it seems that anyone acting in any way suspicious could be red flagged on a security tape. I’m a toe-walker, is this type of gait going to get me pulled out of line to be questioned by authorities? I also get very cold on planes, is the fact that I wear an oversized sweatshirt to fly even in august going to put me on the no-fly list?
A second concern is that expressions of emotion across cultures are different. An American expresses anxiety in a very different way from a citizen of India. Is the software going to be programmed to recognize cultural background and be able to adjust for those differences as well?
While I’m sure that authorities will have the final say, it seems that leaving the analysis to a computer could cut down on the leg work of having to sift through a plethora of surviellance but at what cost to the citizens it is trying to protect? The age old debate concerning security of civilians is how many of our civil liberties are we willing to concede so that order can be maintained. We already allow our bags to be searched, our shoes to be scanned, and our faces to be profiled. Will we now concede the rhythm of our gait as well as our expression of emotion in order to feel safe?

Tuesdays With the Taliban

The Washington Post reports that both President-Elect Obama and the top US/NATO commander in Iraq, General David McKiernan are at least receptive to the idea of negotiations with "reconcilable" elements of the Taliban. The Nir Rosen "embedded with the Taliban" article sheds some light on the pragmatic, less ideologically driven nature of some of the lower level Taliban fighters.

In my most recent policy memo for this class, I advised against such steps. My argument was that including the theocratic Taliban in Afghanistan's future in any way was contrary to the liberal values of the US and our NATO allies. I would add, of course, that the Taliban is directly responsible for the deaths of US soldiers and, through its Al Qaeda client, the deaths of 3,000 innocent US civilians on 9/11.

However, elements of the tribal groups involved in the Awakening in Iraq were also involved in the insurgency that had killed a substantial number of American soldiers, and that strategy was carried out with relatively little controversy. The fact that the negotiations would theoretically pit the practical lower level elements of the Taliban against the hardline upper reaches of the leadership structure, including Mullah Omar (this is NOT the Omar whom my name is an homage to), also changes the equation to a certain extent. Negotiations, then, might provide a way to divide and conquer the Taliban.

Furthermore, it's important to remember that Al Qaeda and bin Laden were the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and therefore should be the ultimate target of our wrath. If talks with Taliban underlings are able to pry Al Qaeda away from its patrons and further expose it, then they may prove to be desirable.

Ultimately, I remain skeptical of any sort of deal with the Taliban because it is simply a horribly odious organization. Given, however, the increasingly dire situation in Afghanistan and the region, drastic steps such as these may begin to seem more practical.

Monday, November 10, 2008

To Engage or not to Engage

Several weeks ago, one of our presentations argued for liberal engagement with Russia. With the collapse of Russia’s stock market and plummeting oil prices, Russia was ripe for rapprochement. If we (the West) bring Russia into the international system, it will be more encouraged to “play by the rules”. In light of recent events in Russia, a call for engagement now seems laughable. Russian aggression must be curtailed before it is allowed to again sit at the international table.

On Wednesday, November 5th, Russia announced a plan to “neutralize” the U.S. missile defense shield by moving short-range Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad in Russia’s Baltic Sea enclave. This was clearly a direct response to the deals reached last summer with Poland and the Czech Republic by the U.S., but curious that such a hard-line response so quickly followed the election of Barack Obama. Could this be the “international crisis” so prophetically predicted by Joe the Vice-President-elect a few weeks ago?

Probably not, but Russia’s buffoonery cannot be ignored. Obama could hold direct talks with Russia’s president, Dimitri Medvedev, but is he the true power broker in Russia?Rhymenoceros argued in an earlier post that continuing to treat Putin as the “decider” would only serve to bring further foreign policy mishaps with Russia. However, regardless of who holds the title of President in Russia, Putin’s influence in the country. He will not simply retreat if the United States “ignores” him. Attempting to prop up Medvedev against Putin would also be a failure. Furthermore, we see that Mr. Medvedev called for the Russian presidential term to be extended to six years from the current four. Many see Medvedev as a mere puppet simply holding the presidency until Prime Minister Putin, who served the maximum two consecutive terms as President, can reclaim his throne. Ignoring Putin will do nothing to improve the situation in Russia. As long as he remains the true power-broker in Russia, the road to rapprochement with Russia will go continue to go through Mr. Putin.

President-elect Obama would be wise to ponder the Russian question while wearing his realist shoes. Clearly, Russia is a self-interested state acting in its own interests. Russia seems to be using its windfall energy profits to expand its power and influence in the world, particularly in its former backyard. Its deployment of missiles in the Baltic shows that its security remains a top priority. Mr. Obama cannot ignore recent Russian aggression. If he seeks to unconditionally engage Russia, he will only strengthen its hand in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, Obama must play a strong hand with Russia if he is to dispel the doubts of his foreign policy mettle. Caving into Russia is not the foreign policy or national security tone Obama would like to or should set.

Bullying its neighbors in the Caucasus or impetuously deploying missiles in the Baltic will not bring Russia further into the international system. Quite the contrary, as further Russian aggression will only serve to further isolate itself from the global economy. If energy prices continue to fall, Russia could pay a severe toll in foregone economic benefits that further integration into the international system (i.e. WTO membership) could bring. Russia needs to look no further than its large and increasingly more prosperous neighbor to the South, China. While certainly not a bastion of liberalism itself, China has adopted a decidedly less-bellicose strategy than Russia, and has reaped enormous economic benefits.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The more we learn about the Russian military...

The less we have to fear. (For clarity, I obviously am not referring to their nuclear arsenal, which is mostly useless except as a suicide attack.)

It looks like Russia is having to outsource the building of their warships, including their aircraft carriers. Information Dissemination has something up about this.

From a financial point of view, this might make sense. However, from a security point of view, this sounds like the dumbest idea in a long time. What is to keep the builders from building small vulnerabilities that their home country could utilize? This would make Russia's buying from China particularly risky, as the two of them constantly vacillate between being best friends and fiercest rivals, and right now they're more the latter than the former. Moreover, Chinese firms are very susceptible to subtle pressure from the government. However, even buying from (NATO founding member) France would be a bad, bad idea. It would be so easy for the French to share those specs (and vulnerabilities) with any and all NATO countries--in fact, if war broke out, it would probably be mandatory.

Would there be any safeguards against this? Russia could try to go over the ship with a fine comb, or even completely redo the computer systems to prevent back-door access, but I would think something could be done that would not be fixable.

The New Red Threat?

Sure, we all know that China will in the future emerge as a booming economic power, if it is not one already.  Much is the result of homegrown productivity and innovation, but a lot of the economic development is also achieved through theft. This year has already seen multiple arrests of people in the U.S. suspected of espionage for the People's Republic of China, which is part of a series of arrests since the 1970s, when the first efforts of Chinese economic espionage in the U.S. were publicized.

The Chinese style of espionage is not as glamorous as that of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, where large bank deposits, dead drops and videotaping characterized everyday spycraft.  It is much more subtle.  The Chinese rely on the large number of expatriates in the U.S. for a steady flow of information, which are mainly lay spies.  These are students, academics, businessmen and scientists who work at U.S. research institutes and have access to sensitive information.  Often these "agents" come to the U.S. for professional reasons and only later find themselves with access to information the government needs.  Thus, they either act out of an own initiative or are approached and interviewed by intelligence officers when traveling back to the homeland.

Many cases never come to a conviction for espionage.  The reason is that the Chinese government does not usually offer monetary compensation for informants out of fear of leaving a paper trail.  Wen Ho Lee, an employee at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos lab, was charged with passing nuclear technology on to the Chinese, but eventually only convicted of tampering with computer files in 1999.  Katrina Leung (a Chinese triple agent- yes, this is a real thing - the FBI thought they had broken her allegiance to China, but she secretly fed them disinformation) inflicted serious harm by passing classified information on to the Chinese, but her case was eventually abandoned for "prosecutorial misconduct." 

Most of these cases that have surfaced in recent years involved information on U.S. weapons and military technology because, according to the U.S. intelligence community, China is working hard to improve its Air Force, Navy and overall defense technology.  Targets are U.S. government as well as private research and development facilities. Collection is facilitated by the often insufficient security measures in private enterprises and contracting companies.

The U.S. counterintelligence community seems aware of the threat, but also needs to become aware that is a new kind of espionage, more clandestine, unorganized  and subtle than during the Cold War.  Paired with the constant threat that nuclear weapon technology may fall into the wrong hands, not only those of the Chinese, but also those of terrorist groups, this is a grave national security concern. 

Sports: Diplomatic Tool or Spark for Conflict?

In a city where “east” and “west” still conjures up old wounds and feelings of separation, the Berlin Eisbären hockey team is forging new connections. The former East Berlin Stasi hockey team has won three national championships in the last four years. With its new stadium opening up practically on the old border separating the city, many fans view it as a sign of putting the years of separation behind them.

The story is an example of how sports can transcend long-lived divisions in and between societies. Sports diplomacy has been an interesting aspect of international relations dating all the way back to the first Olympics. The US and China engaged in historic games of table tennis in 1971, ushering in “ping pong diplomacy” between the communist and capitalist rivals. Moreover, India and Pakistan have carried out a tradition of “cricket diplomacy” for years, and have just announced that the 2009 games will still be played even in the face of security fears and continued tension between the two nations.

The connection between sports and diplomacy seems obvious after some consideration. In sports, people have to work together. Competition is encouraged, but within the rules and regulations of the game. And, at its best, both teams live up to an ideal of sportsmanship in which they play hard but respect their competitors.

But what about when the competition gets out of control? Most people have seen or heard reports of how drunk and angry soccer fans have caused mayhem after matches. And every few years comes the story of American sports fans- often college students- engaging in acts of violence and vandalism after a game, resulting in the use of riot police.

Usually these are isolated incidents, quickly controlled by local police. However, there have been cases of sports fanning the flames of conflict instead of mitigating differences. The “Football Wars” between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 are one such case. Rising tensions between the two states stemmed from a flow of immigrants from El Salvador into Honduras. As economic problems worsened, many Hondurans blamed the immigrants. The Honduran government finally kicked out the immigrants from El Salvador. As the two countries became entwined in an increasingly tense conflict, qualifying matches between the two nations began for the World Cup. After the matches, violence erupted from both sets of fans. Although the conflict between El Salvador and Honduras went much deeper than sports, the ultra-nationalist sentiments of the clashing fans gave the war its name.

More often than not, sports matches between adversarial nations have helped ease the tensions and provide an opportunity for good will and positive public diplomacy. Examples like the Football Wars are much less common than that of the experience between the US and China and India and Pakistan. But it does bring up interesting questions about the role that sports, media, and national identity and loyalty has in diplomacy and international relations. How important are these factors in looking at a nation’s national interest and security? Though an elite few in government are probably most important in making decisions in this arena, in democracies like the US public opinion also matters. Did the historic table tennis matches between the US and China have an affect on Americans that helped ease their fears about rapprochement with China? Do these programs really make a difference in the relationship between countries? The State Department seems to think so, since it began its Sports Diplomacy initiative. US athletes are meeting with sports enthusiasts in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia to forge closer ties. Although programs like these will certainly not hold the answers to solving the differences between nations, perhaps they can help mitigate some tensions, which should be in the interest of all nations involved.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

When Obama Meets Putin

When George Bush looked him the eye, he caught a glimpse of his soul. When John McCain gave it try, he saw the three letters K-G-B. It's now Barrack Obama's turn to do better. Vladimir Putin and his Russia have consistently befuddled U.S. policy makers. The roller-coaster relationship between Russia and United States over the last 8 years is evidence of no guiding principles or strategy on the part of either side.

In 2000, two fresh faces came to power in Washington and Moscow. Both squandered opportunities to put their countries on firm footing for the future. Mr. Bush's unilateralism produced backlash on the world stage and plagued his presidency with poor approval ratings. In Russia, Mr. Putin's belligerence was met with applause and soaring approval. Yet corruption persists, media freedoms have been rolled back, and political opposition has been consistently persecuted. This is not the way of the future for Russia - just as unilateralism is not the way of the future for the United States.

So, in 2008 two fresh faces can once again be seen in Washington and Moscow. As America turns the page on the Bush presidency, it is time for the U.S. to also turn the page on its relationship with Vladimir Putin. There's a new president in Russia and even though his name is harder to pronounce for most Americans (ask Hillary Clinton), Dimitri Medvedev doesn’t appear near as problematic as Putin.

He is lawyer by training and it has shown in his policy objectives as president. He has appointed an anti-corruption tsar to fight what he calls "legal nihilism" which threatens Russia's economic growth. He has espoused respect for international law as the foremost aspect of Russian foreign policy. Though many never expected it, Medvedev has also stood up to Mr. Putin in spite of the latter's still considerable power. When Putin's loose lips sank the stock market in Russia in July, President Medvedev was quick to criticize the government's meddling in small and medium sized businesses. He went so far as to say government agencies were creating legal nightmares for businesses.

This is not intended to whitewash Medvedev's role in the invasion of Georgia. Power transitions in Russia have never been easy, but if the press and U.S. policy makers insist on treating Mr. Putin as the 'decider' then sadly, we will only have more of the same roller-coaster relationship.

Mr. Obama will have the chance to look Putin in the eyes without a doubt. If he is smart, that's all he will do. It's time for both Washington and Moscow to change course. The last time the United States hesitated on who to support, Russia experienced a flow of dictators. Now is no time to repeat that mistake of 1917. Obama and Medvedev, represent much more liberal visions for their countries than their predecessors. We face significant issues ranging from NATO expansion and missile defense, to energy policies and a nuclear Iran. These issues will not solve themselves simply because of new presidents. However, it’s time to close the book on the disappointments of the last 8 years.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Response to the ID for Voting Post

This post struck a nerve with me because I have a problem with every single reason MrsBulbous gave for people not voting. S/he wrote that $20 may be too much to shell out for a driver's license, or that someone may not be able to make it to the polls due to work requirements or lack of transportation. All three of these actually fall into one category: apathy. If a voter doesn't care for any of the candidates, has seriously thought about the election and decided not to vote, that isn't apathy, that's being a conscientious objector. But claiming all the other excuses is simply apathy.

Here's why: You can show a driver's license as ID at the polls, but you don't have to show a driver's license. You can show a passport, a social security card, or other forms of ID. Passports cost money, that's true, but social security cards don't, and every American citizen should have one. When you apply for driver's license you can't just walk in and ask for one, you have to show proof of citizenship which means a social security card and/or birth certificate. Neither of these things cost money unless you need to get a copy. And even if you don't want to carry around your birth certificate or social security card, then you can apply for a state-issued photo ID, which costs less than a driver's license, about $12. Elections only happen once every two years, so if $12 is too much to spend in one go, then someone could save $.50 a month for the two years before the next election and would be able to get that ID. Does that seem ridiculous? Yes, but it all depends on how much someone values their right to vote.

As for registering to vote at the County Clerk's office, well, registering can now be done online. Forms can be printed, filled out, and sent in and so no one has to actually go to the office. If someone doesn't have a computer at home, libraries provide free Internet access. And if someone can't make it to the library, you can call you local clerk's office and they can send you the forms to register. And while they are sending registration forms, they can also send the applications for absentee ballots, which solves the other problems. If getting to the polls is a problem because of transport issues or work issues, then someone can vote via absentee ballot. Many states allow early voting either at the clerks office or via absentee ballot without needing an excuse, so a lot of people can take that route for pure convenience. But for those who do have an excuse, they can get an absentee ballot in almost all states. Kentucky, for example, doesn't allow just anyone to vote by absentee ballot, but as long as you have a reason you may. Having to work or not having transport are valid excuses for absentee ballots. And any boss that tries to discipline you for taking too long at the polls could have a lawsuit on his or her hands.

So again, all the excuses listed are simply apathy. There are ways around them, but it depends on how much effort someone is willing to put in. It doesn't take much, just a few phone calls or few clicks on a computer, but to some people that is too much. They just don't feel like it. Or if someone can't spare the $10 or $20 for an ID, then it's easy to tell what their right to vote is worth to them: less than $10.

Personally I think my right to vote is worth much more than $10, much more than $20, and much more than the extra effort that I may have to put in so that my voice may be heard. It is every American's right to vote, but nowhere is it written that enacting that right has to be as easy as pie. It's been less than 100 years since women were allowed to vote, and when this country was first founded, only white male land owners were able to vote. So yes, claiming any reason not to make it to the polls is nothing but apathy. So what if it takes a little extra effort. Isn't it worth it?


This post was inspired by a conversation with a taxi driver from Somalia. I asked him where he was from and then asked what he felt about the pirates off the coast of Somalia. He replied that these people were not pirates, but fishermen who were doing all they could to make a living and feed their families. I thought I would do a little research on the pirates and find out who they really are.

It seems that at least some of these pirates are former fishermen. When a country is not providing for its citizens and they are unable to provide for their families or themselves, then people are going to resort to illegal means. Unfortunately, not having work or food and having a boat is a dangerous combination. These pirates are getting tens of thousands of dollars for hijacking ships and are spending it on drinking and prostitutes in towns that used to be sleepy fishing villages. The pirates are controlling the Gulf of Aden--the only way to gain entrance to the Suez canal and the rest of the Somali coastline. NATO ships are there to ensure that UN food aid will make it to the country without being hijacked by pirates. The EU, France, the Netherlands, and Canada have all provided ships at one time or another to help with piracy. The problem is that Somalia is essentially a failed state and is controlled by tribes and militias and they see piracy as the easiest way to make money in the country.

No matter how many boats NATO or the EU sends to ensure the delivery of food, the piracy will not stop as long as Somalis feel that it is the only way to provide for their families. It would be extremely costly and difficult to secure all of the international waters off the coast of Somalia and there would still be the "pirate towns" on the coast where ships that were hijacked are taken. To solve the piracy problem, the deeper issues need to be addressed: a failed state, starvation, and the lack of national power that could deter people from taking these actions.

It seems that my Somali taxi driver was right about one thing--some of these people are fisherman (or used to be) and are doing what they can do to make some money. I'm not quite so sure that its as cut and dry as he made it sound, but I don't think patrolling the waters is going to help the problem that the people are resorting to piracy to make some money--if they can't hijack ships anymore, maybe they will start shipping arms or drugs, or doing something else illegal to make their money.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Can I see some ID?

In the spirit of Election Day, I’d like to air some thoughts about American democracy. As a nation, we tout the ideals of the democratic process and the freedoms to speak as we wish about candidates, the freedom of the press to write articles and distribute news to the public that is not always complimentary about political candidates. We have access to many forms of information that allow us to make informed decisions about who we vote for and why. But even with this wealth of information and resources, there are still many Americans who do not vote. Why?

Sometimes, American citizens do not vote because they feel ambivalent for one reason or another. Perhaps they don’t support either candidate running for a particular office and would prefer not to vote at all. Or maybe they just have too many other things to do, and don’t feel they have the time to stop at the polls and wait in line to cast a vote. Or perhaps it’s for another reason entirely.

It’s interesting that as part of the process of elections in this country, there are barriers that the more privileged classes of Americans don’t think about when they think about elections. In order to vote, citizens have to register, which usually takes place through a county clerk’s office, and many times people can register at the time they get a driver’s license. That license actually enables you to vote, as many polling stations require a photo ID as a security measure. The state of Kentucky requires identification at polling stations, which can include “Driver’s license, Social Security card, credit card, or another form of ID containing both picture and signature."

Since the Department of Homeland Security initiated new measures to protect American citizens from threats of terror, the price for obtaining photo identification has gone up significantly. In the state of Kentucky prior to 9/11, an individual could obtain a drivers license or state-issued photo ID for around $8 (or $9 if you wanted to support organ donation). Now, the price is around $20, which may not be much for some people, but for those working in jobs paying only minimum wage with families to support, often relying on public transportation to get to and from those jobs, $20 is a lot of money.

My point is this: is American democracy truly as representative as we claim? Is the poorer segment of the American electorate underrepresented as a whole because of the different barriers we put up to “secure” the electoral process? notes that “in reaction to the recent emphasis on election fraud, many states have passed or are considering legislation to require that voters produce both a picture ID and can prove that they are in fact citizens of the United States. However, such policies may have the effect of preventing otherwise eligible voters from voting.” Some individuals may not be able to afford photo IDs, for others it’s their inability to get to and from polling stations because of unreliable transport (public or private). For still others, they simply do not have the ability to take off from work in order to fulfill their civic duty. So how representative is this democratic government we support and tout worldwide?

Truly, voting is a privilege in this country, and it is one that should not be taken for granted. Minorities of all types face discrimination at the polls, both directly and indirectly. As Americans, we need to ask why someone isn’t voting; is it because of ambivalence toward the current campaign, or is it something more basic to an individual’s human rights and basic needs. There is often more at stake than we realize.

Pandamonium!!!!!!11 Has Hell Frozen Over... Again?

China announced a series of goodwill gestures towards Taiwan.  First, China has offered up the ultimate diplomatic gesture:  two pandas.  During the Cold War, China used to make a habit of sending important dignitaries away with pandas; China usually loans the pandas rather than donates them.  However, Taiwan gets to keep two of their very own!!  Besides pandas, they are lifting the ban on Chinese tourists traveling to Taiwan.  Lastly, China will exempt more than ten types of fruit from import tariffs levied on Taiwan, while increasing the number of types it allows in from the island from twelve to eighteen. 

These gestures emerged on the final day that Taiwanese opposition leader, Lien Chan, visited the mainland.  Lien Chan is the first Nationalist leader to make the trip since the party was driven off the Chinese mainland in 1949 by the Communist party following the Chinese civil war.

So what does this all mean?  Has China turned over a new leaf?  After the Olympics and their involvement in African development, is this just one more act to prove to the international community that they are not all bad?  I would love to say yes, but we have to first take a closer look...

Since 1992, China has tried to give pandas to Taiwan ten different times.  Thus, this isn't the first time hell has frozen over.  So why hasn't Taiwan accepted the diplomatic gift?  The Taiwanese are fearful that the gesture is tied to a downgrade of the island's sovereignty.  This fear is valid, due to China's extreme opposition to Taiwanese sovereignty.  

Perhaps  if China wants to prove to the international community that they have in fact turned over a new leaf, acknowledging Taiwan's sovereignty might just be the first step.  Although, who wouldn't want a panda, they're so cute and cuddly!    

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Another Type of Financial Crisis?

The Washington Post recently published an article highlighting that the global system of financial constraints on suspected terrorist organizations and their financiers may be in trouble. Apparently, the UN blacklist program aimed at freezing the assets of suspected terrorist groups has been eroding due to both national and regional laws that challenge the legality of the restrictions.

There are a number of reasons why states are failing to monitor and restrict financial activities of those groups on the UN blacklist. One issue seems to be that the UN program has no mechanism to allow for individuals or organizations that are on the list to contest their placement. As a result, some groups have gone to regional and state authorities to have courts overturn governments’ participation in the program. Some of the targeted individuals have even petitioned the European Court of Human Rights to have restrictions removed in European Banks. Slowly, these types of challenges are chipping away at the UN programs what was supposed to ensure worldwide coordination in restricting terrorist financing.

The United States has its own list, longer than the UN version, that it provides to other countries in an effort to have them take action to stop financial transaction on their soil. The drawback of this technique is that the US has no way to enforce its recommendations in other jurisdictions.

The difficulty of coordinating these efforts highlights the problems that come in trying to get the world community to act in unison. Although many of the countries highlighted in the article understand the need to track and cut off the funds used by extremist groups, there are many national and regional differences in laws and in who is considered a terrorist. The European Court of Justice and other national courts in Europe may soon rule that the UN blacklist violates human rights. Furthermore, some states that were unhappy with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 have used this as a reason not to support the UN or US programs against terrorist financing. Some also accuse the US of using its own list as a political tool, blacklisting individuals who are opponents to governments that the US has close ties to- such as in Saudi Arabia. The differences in interpreting human rights law, as well as the distrust among states, means that the barriers to effective coordination on this issue will not be easily overcome.

In addition to all of this, some experts do not really believe that these types of programs are effective because groups like Al Qaida know they can be tracked through mainstream financial markets. They point out that many terrorist attacks may not take large amounts of cash that would need to be transferred through the banking system. Consequently, groups have turned to a cash-based system to move smaller amounts of money from person to person. This system, called hawala or hundi, relies on personal connection to transfer funds across borders. It is an old method and is not only used by terrorists, but by money launderers, and regular individuals who do not understand or feel comfortable using modern banks. If these experts are right, the hawala system will most definitely make tracking terrorist finance networks much more difficult, with or without an international blacklist.