Monday, September 27, 2010

Walzer and the Topic of Omission

I wanted to discuss this topic and it application to the Walzer text before the class moved on to the strategy bit of the coursework. As I read through the book I was reminded of the concept of the sin of omission. This is an explicitly religious concept most closely associated with Catholicism, but I think it bears mentioning within the context of Walzer’s book and the larger, secular debate about just and unjust war. To commit a sin of omission is to choose inaction when you can do something or you ought to do something. St. Thomas Aquinas, who Walzer refers to early on in the book, writes in Summa Theologica, “Omission is directly opposed to justice, as stated above; because it is a non-fulfillment of a good of virtue.” Here we have an indication from one of the philosophical giants that freely choosing to not act stands counter to justice.

If it follows that an action can be categorized as either just or unjust, then a corresponding inaction is subject to the same appraisal. To use an example from the text, if the Indian government was justified in intervening on the part of the Bengalis to stop Pakistani violence, would a decision to not intervene be considered an unjust act? Walzer does not give the idea of omission much, if any attention. I consider this a shortcoming of his overall argument, particularly in regards to his take on insufferable, genocidal strife.

On the subject of interventions Walzer proposes a self-help test. This would provide a country with the ability to choose inaction and still be justified in doing so provided there was this political tenuousness, but Walzer closes this loophole. He writes that when the crimes against humanity are so profane “that it makes talk of community or self-determination or ‘arduous struggle’ seem cynical and irrelevant, that is, in case of enslavement or massacre,” (pg. 90) a country can and must act. He says later that massacres make self-help tests a non-issue. He explains further that militarily defeating perpetrators of such an act is “morally necessary” and that, “Any state capable of stopping the slaughter has a right, at least, to try to do so” (pg. 106-108).

So where does this leave the U.S. in terms of its conduct of foreign policy? Have we not pursued what is “morally necessary” in the past, and does that constitute an injustice? I speak most specifically with regard to Rwanda and Darfur, but our reluctance to get involved in the Balkans is also worth noting. I ask this question not to be preachy but instead to highlight one thing in particular: if you want to inject the moral precepts and concepts of justice into the foreign policy debate and debunk realism, this is an important issue of contention. Walzer seems to argue that deeming something politically intractable (a typical defense for staying out of Darfur) is not sufficient when dealing with genocide or massacre, but I found the text decidedly mute and at best vague on the topic of inaction.

As an intellectual exercise, talking about justice and war is certainly beneficial, and Walzer is to be praised for articulately taking on as much subject matter as he did. But in terms of national security policy, such ruminations inevitably inject vagueness into the decision making process. The three examples in the preceding paragraph were (or are) all nauseating and gruesome to confront, but hesitation on the part of policy makers to not beat back abject, organized violence outside of its own territory is, in many cases, the prudent decision. Many disagree (most prominently Samantha Power), and Walzer might be one of them, I just can’t get that from the text.

As a spinoff question: does the prospect of “justice after war” mitigate the immorality of inaction? I think the quick answer is yes, but I have not given it much thought.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


If we let people see that kind of thing, there would never again be any war. -Pentagon official explaining why the U.S. military censored footage from the Gulf War

In 2007, seasoned war reporters Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger embedded with Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne during their deployment to the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, which at the time was the deadliest place on earth for American soldiers. They documented Second Platoon's experience and were published in a sobering and excellent January 2008 Vanity Fair article which (in complete seriousness) should be required reading for all citizens of the United States.

During their time with Second Platoon, they also kept a video camera rolling and this past summer released a documentary titled RESTREPO, after the outpost Second Platoon built and defended during the length of their deployment. The film, which has been showing at the Kentucky Theater all week and will be released on DVD and Blue Ray on November 30, has been met with rave reviews and won the Sundance Film Festival's Best Documentary award this year. Here's a good Huffington Post article written in this past June about the film.

What's that? You don't think you'll watch the film? Why should you see this film, you ask? Because you are an American, that's why. You say this sort of stuff doesn't interest you? Good one. I can think of no better way to insult our soldiers than to say that. It's too graphic, too sad, war stuff bothers me. Please let me run and get you a tissue. Bothers you? The soldiers of Second Platoon lived 15 months what you'll see for a brief 90-minutes. Their friends were shot and killed as they watched on. They, now, today, as I write this, take sleeping pills, anti-depressants, have nightmares, feel injuries, run pictures through their minds... their experiences at OP RESTREPO will never leave them. And they did what they did, and what they continue to do, defending you. That's right, you.

You may think RESTREPO is just a film, but it's not. It's way more than a film or a movie. It is 90 minutes of reality for thousands of US soldiers who have fought and died since 2001 to protect our nation and our people. RESTREPO lives every moment in the minds of those who have seen combat and lost dear friends. It should stir emotions in you, it should hurt you... it is their reality, each and every day.

What does all this have to do with our National Security Policy class? It's simple. The disconnect between our public and our military is vast and tears at the very fabric of our country's foundation. Nothing could be more dangerous to our national security than to have an uninformed public who elects leadership that does not understand the costs and consequences of war. RESTREPO seeks to start to bridge that gap. The film is not political. You'll notice not one politician or diplomat is interviewed during the film, only the soldiers directly related to Second Platoon. RESTREPO is the soldier's experience alone, and thus, a window for the public to see the direct, real results of our country's policy actions, carried out everyday. Agree with the war or not, this film shows reality and leaves you to decide the rest.

Ernest Hemingway reminds us to "never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime."

If you read this post and do not subsequently take action to increase your understanding of what our soldiers go through in Afghanistan, then my friend, you are part of the problem. Plain and simple. The greatest threat to our national security is the ignorance and apathy of our people. Go see RESTREPO.

Friday, September 24, 2010

North Korean Déjà- Vu

While three blog entries in a row about North Korea may be a little much, I couldn’t help but feel inspired after seeing Team America’s Kim make an appearance and yet feel a little disappointed that Matt Damon was left out. Anyway, a different look at the predictability of North Korea’s actions has been laid out by Sung-Yoon Lee in Foreign Affairs. Lee points out the consistency of methods used by the North since Kim Il Sung emerged as the dictator for life in the early 1960s. The strategy goes like this: “lash out at its enemies when it perceives them to be weak or distracted (regional or world powers makes little difference), up the ante in the face of international condemnation (while blaming external scapegoats), and then negotiate for concessions in return for an illusory promise of peace.” Military and political brinkmanship have been tactics deployed at will to gain leverage with its rivals due to the North’s inability to compete economically.

Examples of North Korea’s game plan date back to 1968 when a 31 man commando team snuck into South Korea to assassinate President Park Chung Hee while the US concentrated on the ever increasing turmoil in Vietnam. The attempt failed but two days later the North captured a U.S. intelligence ship in international waters and held the crew captive for 11 months until the Johnson administration issued an apology. North Korea was internationally condemned throughout the 11 months, yet continued to send troops into the South and even shot down a U.S. Reconnaissance plane the following year. The lessons learned by North Korea in this sequence of events were that its provocations and attacks on the U.S. and South Korea would lead to the democratic regimes seeking to ease tensions.

In 1972, Kim demanded peace talks with the South for the first time since the Korean War in hopes of establishing an agreement to remove all U.S. troops from the South. This of course only came after the U.S. and China came together the previous year and was swiftly followed by more offensive operations against South Korea.

Fast forward to the next American war and the same pattern emerges. Long range missiles were test fired over Japan on July 4, 2006, followed by their first nuclear test. This led to further UN sanctions and a reversal of President Bush’s policy of financial pressure toward nuclear negotiations. North Korea promised to eradicate its nuclear arsenal and in return, the U.S. unfroze illicit funds, resumed food and fuel aid, and removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Now in 2010, the pattern persists. The Obama administration has its hands full and the North is hopeful for quick concessions after long range missile tests in 2009. The UN resolution passed in response to the Chenoan sinking pleased the North as it was very weakly worded and led Kim to suggest he would be willing to return to multilateral nuke talks. Foreign Affairs predicts that another missile demonstration should be on the way in the near future as the cycle of provocation, deception, and retreat continues. The U.S. would be wise to not follow the North around the merry-go-round this time. The Obama administration is showing that it has paid attention to the North’s playbook and will focus on strengthening financial sanctions, targeting it’s counterfeiting, money laundering, and other illicit activities instead. It should spotlight the North’s human rights violations, and I would also add that it should take several avenues of approach to increase the free flow of outside information to the general populace as we wait to see who will follow in Kim’s place.

Maintaining our defensive posture in South Korea, resisting the urge to be drawn into a military confrontation, encouraging the Chinese to pry open the doors for humanitarian aid to the North, and keeping the pressure on the government leadership should be the top priorities for now. The future of North Korea’s political leadership and stability is uncertain but if the past is any indication, the game plan will remain the same.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Oh Herro Status Quo

While we’re on the subject of North Korea I want to introduce the Economist's recent article to the debate. To save yourself the time reading it the bottom line is that following the Cheonan incident relations between North and South Korea worsened considerably, but the South Koreans are hinting a return to the “sunshine policy” of the old days by sending $8.5 million of aid north. I catch myself wondering what the hell is going on. And then I remember that this back-and-forth is what normal is.
In the last six months the North Koreans have sunk a South Korean ship; South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has proposed a “unification tax” to cover the expected astronomical costs of unifying the country once North Korea collapses (in the presumed near-future); North Korea’s Number Two told a gathering of the country’s military elite that the peninsula was on the ‘brink of war’ (since when has it not been?); President Myung-bak hinted at hopes to expand commercial ties with North Korea through the construction of a second industrial factory park; and last Wednesday the North proposed the first military talks in two years, the South pushed the date back to September 30th from the North’s suggestion of the 24th.
In August flash flooding displaced tens of thousands of people along the North Korea/China border. It is strange how floods and other similar disasters bring out the humanitarian in us all, while we get numb to and ignore after a bit “normal” day-to-day suffering. These floods are the backdrop to Seoul’s aid offer which Pyongyang has yet to respond to. The Christian Science Monitor seems to think that North Korea will accept the South’s offer since aid from China has not materialized.
Let’s assume that North Korea will indeed take South Korea’s offer of aid, which would then return that part of the status quo to its previous position (South Korean had frozen all government funds to the North in mid-May after the Cheonan kerfuffle). The Economist notes that there are more than just humanitarian concerns wrapped up in the idea of aid. Political and diplomatic considerations are also in play. Apparently Mr. Lee’s previously toughening stance toward the North has been weakened some by his party’s poor showing in the local elections in June. South Koreans may hate Kim Jung-Il, but aren’t exactly calling for war and “have no appetite for punishing” their northern kin.
And what is the role of China? Kim Jung-Il’s recent trip to China with his son resulted in rumors of his son’s rise to future Dearest Leader but not a word on aid to the flooded border area. The Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper cites a defector from the north as having said that the flood victims were expecting good news to come of Kim Jung-Il’s China trip. Upon his return the North Korean media (read: mouthpiece of the government) made no mention – indicating that whatever aid China offered fell way short of expectation. The Economist is interpreting China’s reluctance on aid as a coercive political maneuver, though they use kinder words. By remaining reluctant on aiding the North Koreans the Chinese are pushing Pyongyang toward the south for assistance. Big Brother is pushing little stepbrother to play nice(er) in order to be rewarded.
President Jimmy Carter (one of your options for rescue should you decide to visit North Korea and be asked not-so-nicely to stay for a while) recently published an op-ed in the New York Times. Carter gets the vibe from North Korea that they want to get back to the pre-March atmosphere and restart negotiations and discussions of denuclearization. I question this conclusion, especially because the North Korean leadership (not Mr. Kim, he was convieniently in China at the time) said that the six-party talks were like being “sentenced to death but not yet executed.” Not exactly a rousing endorsement of beginning the process anew.
If anything the status quo will be returned. In a way North Korea benefits from being seen as unpredictable. South Korea will continue to offer the north aid along with chastisements, the North Koreans will continue to play along and then act out just to prove they can and then play along some more. China will sit back and watch, only getting involved of the situation threatens to spill over. Despite talk of a “unification tax” South Korea would be unwise to hope for the North’s collapse anytime soon. Such an event would destabilize the region and could be a bigger threat to South Korea than Dearest Leader has ever been, even when he’s playing with his nuclear toys.

I guess all I have now is a question for the rest of you... do you think this whole North/South Korea situation will ever change in our lifetimes? Certainly something will happen when Kim Jung-Il bites the dust but there's no telling when that will happen (or if he's already a cyborg zombie). So, status quo forever?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Schelling, Scheonan & Schorpedoes

I did not want to be the first to post a blog, but as we are nearly a month into the semester and no one has yet to blog, it seems I was not the only one with that idea.Dramatics surrounding the sinking of the Cheonan have settled over the summer despite the oddly schizophrenic rhetoric coming out of Seoul. This week President Lee publicly expressed his hopes for reconciliation between North and South despite enraged calls for ramping up UN sanctions against Pyongyang just a few short months ago.

Amid the otherwise lull on the issue, Time Magazine in the August 30 issue quoted a SecDef slip of the tongue (or not if you are of the opinion that Gates is a deliberate man) regarding a possible motivation for the sinking. It was one that I have yet to hear. Who knows whether or not there is any intelligence to suggest there is any truth to the implication, but circumstances and the values surrounding the regime in North Korea made me think “hey, that makes some sense.” Maybe it is just the conspiracy junky in me, but the suggestion that the sinking of the Cheonan was some kind of military rite of passage for “Dear Leader’s” son and successor caught my attention.

If this were true—Junior set out (or was pushed) to prove to daddy that he is worthy of not only his unconditional love but also his throne and those shaft shades—then where does this “act of military provocation”, as South Korea’s Lee initially declared it, fall in the politics of violence: coercion or deterrence?

Coercion would require that the attack was meant to elicit a response. This is not limited to military reaction. It is unlikely that North Korea would want to bait South Korea into another Korean war. Kim Jong Il would be a fool to… never mind. There are also potential desired responses in the diplomatic arena. Dear Leader and his closest friends have been living off of a steady diet of nuclear hush money for some time now. The usual game is the DPRK starts talking about its nuclear program and then promises to make some concession on its desire to be taken serious as a nuclear power in exchange for some aid money (which buys a lot of Hennessy). Or more recently, American hostages are taken, forcing the US to give legitimacy to his authority by sending special envoys featuring former US presidents.

Sinking the Cheonan is a step up in that it involves more risk than the past attention seeking behavior. It is a risk to both compeller and compellee. The risk to North Korea is that South Korea and friends might respond in kind with violence—a capacity for which South Korea outweighs North Korea. The risk for South Korea entails a scenario where the violence escalates into another Korean war with China and the US play the puppeteer roles. World War III just so Generalissimo’s lil Cub Scout can earn his battle badge. Whether this little exercise was designed to incite war or appeasement depends on how sane one deems Kim to be.

Deterrence is much simpler in that it grants slightly more rationality to North Korean leadership—present and future. Simply, it was the first exercise of probable others asserting the heir-apparent’s military prowess to ensure that no one gets any ideas about Korean unification when Senior hands over power. Not to mention a “stay out of my back yard” warning for future military exercises in the area. Since the US denied a ROK request to include the USS George Washington for their posturing exercise near the original sinking site, I’d say this deterrence was at least moderately effective.

It all depends on motivation. The fact that no one seems to know the how the message was intended to be received is an indication that whether deterrence or compellence—the message failed. Or maybe the confused diplomatic fallout is a double win for North Korea. The lesson most in the US gleamed is that Kim Jong Il is irrational…or crazy—crazy like a fox.

The Time Magazine article titled it as “North Korea’s Mafia Moment” relating the corvette sinking to throwing a brick through a window. I would equate it more as the act of a petulant child who bites the neighbor kid to get the otherwise occupied parents to come running into the room. I suppose that is compellence in its most infantile form.