Archive for November, 2011

November 28, 2011

Elections and Civilian Protection: Voting in the DRC and its aftermath

I have another post up at UN Dispatch. This time, on the elections in the DR Congo. Feel free to read here.

In my initial draft, I had a bit more of a focus on the sanctions that the UNSC currently has in place on the DR Congo, which are due to expire at the end of the month. That got nixed in the editorial process to focus solely on the elections, which makes sense. But I’m including the cut paragraphs here, as I a) still rather like them, and b) think it’s important to remember that these sanctions exist and are in place for a reason.

As mentioned earlier, the UN Security Council has a close eye on the outcome of the elections. The UNSC has had a multitude of sanctions in place on the DRC since 2003, when it imposed an arms embargo on the state. Resolution 1493’s initial arms embargo has subsequently been strengthened and supplemented with accompanying travel and financial freezes on those spreading violence throughout the Congo, as well as modified to only affect non-governmental entities and individuals operating in the eastern areas of the DRC. These measures have been renewed every year since their implementation, with the expiration for 2010’s re-upping due to expire on November 30, 2011.

It is more than likely that the provisions of the Security Council’s sanctions will be upheld before the week expires. The next few days after the election concludes, including the announcement of the results, are crucial in determining whether an explosion of violence is imminent. The odds are higher than many are comfortable with that the likely top two vote-getters, incumbent Joseph Kabila and opposition leader Etienne Tsvangrai, will claim fraud in the event of a loss. In such an instance, the absolute last thing that the Democratic Republic of the Congo needs is a new influx of small-arms. Arms dealers work with enough impunity already within Congo’s borders, despite the best efforts of the MONUSCO peacekeeping force, the largest in the world. The arms embargo and other provisions must remain in place for at least another six months, until the effects of this election are truly known.

Despite the wishes of many international observers and advocates of democracy, elections are not the hard and fast endpoint of violence within states that have had a history of conflict. Armed resistance groups are no less of a threat in the aftermath of an election, but have the potential to thrive in the chaos of a contested result.

Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to violence in the DRC, though.

November 28, 2011

The Results are In: Syria is Kind of Horrifying

Back in March, the United Nations Human Rights Council authorized a fact-finding mission to the Syrian Arab Republic to determine the extent of the alleged human rights violations taking place within its borders. The results of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria have been released, in the form of a 39-page document submitted to the UNHRC. What has been given is both broad in scope and grim in nature.

I’m attempting to read through the entire thing and pull out key pieces but it’s becoming apparent as I read through that it’s impossible to pick out ‘the worst part’. They’re all ‘the worst part’. Mark Goldberg has a write-up on some of the low-lights here. But you really just need to read the report for yourself.

I will say, one section really caught my eye and made me read it more than once to truly grasp the enormity of what it was saying. A good number of the over 200 interviews granted to complete this report were given by defected members of the Syrian security forces. This is an excerpt:

“The protesters called for freedom. They carried olive branches and marched with their children. We were ordered to either disperse the crowd or eliminate everybody, including children. The orders were to fire in the air and immediately after to shoot at people. No time was allowed between one action and the other”

The report serves to make a few things abundantly clear. President Al Assad has in the past asserted that the Syrian Arab Republic was “facing a great conspiracy” at the hands of “imperialist forces”. There is absolutely no way to construe this report other than an utter takedown of the fallacy in that statement. The commission was set up by the UN Human Rights Council, which just three years ago was seen as a pawn for the very tyrants they were meant to be investigating. In launching the commission, the President of the HRC set-up a panel of three experts: Brazilian professor Paulo Pinheiro, serving as Chairman; the Commissioner of the UNRWA Karen Abuzayd; and the Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women Yakin Ertürk. These three are hardly the face of the Imperial West and any attempt to spin them as such will and should be promptly laughed at.

It also comes on the heels of the UN Commission Against Torture speaking out against Syrian abuses:

“Among [the reports] are cases of torture and ill-treatment of detainees; rife or systematic attacks against civilian population, including the killing of peaceful demonstrators and the use of excessive of force against them; and the persecutions of human rights defenders and activists,” said Claudio Grossman, who currently heads the 10-member panel.

“Of particular concern are reports referring to children who have suffered torture and mutilation while detained; as well as cases of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; arbitrary detention by police forces and the military; and enforced and involuntary disappearances,” he stressed.

There has yet to be word from the Russian Federation on how this report will change their views in the Security Council. The Arab League finally slapped sanctions on Syria, which many are saying will have a much sharper impact than previous US and EU sanctions have in the past. The sanctions include:

  • Cutting off transactions with the Syrian central bank
  • Halting funding by Arab governments for projects in Syria
  • A ban on senior Syrian officials travelling to other Arab countries
  • A freeze on assets related to President Bashar al-Assad’s government

Iraq and Lebanon abstained on the vote, which under Arab League rules allows them to opt out of the sanctions. Whether they will participate or not is still unclear. Russia, however, seems unmoved by this show of regional disdain towards al-Assad. Having met with Arab League envoys, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Russia still seeks “compromise, without ultimatums” in solving the crisis. I’m hoping that this report and the atrocities it lists changes the tune of Vitaly Churkin in the Security Council, but I’m not holding my breath just yet.

November 23, 2011

Blurb: I took a feat in dual-wielding blogs

If you don’t get the subject line’s reference, that’s fine. More power to you for being far less nerdy than I am. In any case, what I meant to say is that my work will no longer solely be appearing on this blog. As of this morning, I’m also writing posts on UN Dispatch.

My first post, on last night’s GOP debate and the importance of what wasn’t said, can be found here. Huge thanks go to Mark Goldberg, the editor, for asking me to write for them. Further thanks also go out to Allie Carter, for convincing me to start writing in the first place, and Ben Rosner, for staying on my case in the early days and making sure I didn’t give up. Fear not, I will continue to write here, as I have full editorial control here, and certain idiosyncracies, like this post’s title are a better fit for this format. So yes. Be sure to read me over there, too.

November 22, 2011

Syria and Russia: Together against the world

In a post a few days ago, I speculated on when we would hear the Russian Federation finally say “Do svedanya” to Bashar al-Assad and allow for action in the United Nations. Today contained both a glimmer of hope for the prospect of that occurring and a curbstomp to the face of that chance.

Hope first. The Third Committee of the GA today had before it a draft resolution on Syrian human rights abuses initially drafted by several European states. The revised version can be found here. As noted in my previous post, several Arab states were thought likely to join on as sponsors, and that they did. Saudi Arabia, Morocco Bahrain, Jordan and Qatar were all original sponsors of the draft; during this morning’s debate, Kuwait joined on as well. Several states expressed hesitancy to support the draft, primarily those in the Non-Aligned Movement and led by Cuba, due to its singling out one state in particular’s rights abuses. The term “country-specific resolution” was thrown around a lot, as well as pleas to utilize the Universal Periodic Review process in the Human Rights Council rather than GA3 to deal with human rights. It’s worth noting that the loudest voices prior to the vote were those who have either had human rights charges level against them by the body or were extremely likely to.

The Syrian delegate, in attempting to fend off the measure, stated that the end goal of the Arab Spring is to bring about a “new Middle East, to be led by Israel”, which would then launch a new wave of ethnic cleansing. So there’s that. In the end, despite speeches by the DPRK and Iran against the measure, the final vote was recorded as 122 in favor, 13 opposed, and 41 abstentions. Among the abstentions were Yemen and Lebanon, but as has been noted on Twitter, not a single Arab state voted against the proposal, not even Sudan. Also abstaining were the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, which raised several eyebrows.

Following the vote, much was made of the twin abstentions of the PRC and Russia, calling to mind the twin veto in October in the Security Council. Several articles and blog posts went so far as to call the move a potential shift in the Security Council, which is the spectre of hope I discussed at the start of the post. And here comes the curbstomping.

Following the vote, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin spoke to Kuwait New Agency (KUNA), and had this to say:

“It’s a completely different situation. This does not mean that our position in the Security Council has changed. It does not change our position vis-a-vis the Security Council, that I can tell you,” Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told KUNA following the vote.

Churkin was responding to diplomats who said the overwhelming vote in the Assembly’s Social Committee earlier today on a Syria resolution and the Arab position in Cairo and Rabat would open the door to the possibility of revisiting the Syrian issue in the Security Council in the future.

That certainly was a flush of cold water. While beaten, the sliver of hope is not quite dead yet. While the League of Arab States continues to dither on whether or not Syria is fully suspended and facing sanctions, its member states seem to be indicating quite clearly that what is happening in Syria is unacceptable. Churkin’s statement was in the abstract, however, and not in reference to specific draft resolutions or proposals on the table. We may still yet see a condemnation of Syria’s actions in the Security Council, with the potential of “further actions”. But anything beyond that will require the Arab League to take the first step and/or Russia to stand aside. Considering Russian intransigence and the fact that five days have passed since the Arab League gave a three day extension on its ultimatum, it’s unclear which is less likely at the moment.

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November 21, 2011

Surprise, GOP! Turns out the UN actually likes human rights. Who knew?

Tomorrow night, after an much-maligned showing two weeks ago, the Republican candidates for President are giving it another shot. That’s right, it’s time for another “foreign policy debate” between the Nine Who Would Be King (or Queen in the case of Representative Bachmann). There are sure to be some insane things said on the stage at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall come Tuesday but one thing is certain to unite all of the office-seekers: a near pathological revulsion for the work, and for some the concept, of the United Nations. The Washington Post had an apt couple of paragraphs on the issue:

“Bashing the United Nations seldom fails as an applause line for Republican presidential candidates.

Mitt Romney says the U.N. too often becomes a forum for tyrants when it should promote democracy and human rights. Newt Gingrich pledges to take on the U.N.’s “absurdities.” Herman Cain says he would change some of its rules. Rick Perry says he would consider pulling the United States out of the U.N. altogether.”

I’d like to point out that Speaker Gingrich’s animosity is particularly impressive, considering his past history of supporting the need for the United Nations, co-chairing a panel in 2006 with recommendations on how to improve the body without utterly destroying it.  UN Dispatch has a great piece on the former Speaker’s love for the UN. But I digress.

If you were to believe the hype, the United Nations is a larger hive of scum and villainy than Mos Eisley spaceport in Star Wars, where a cadre of despots and tyrants sit twirling their mustaches and plotting ways to defame the United States. Counter to the narratives that are spun and deployed by the Republican candidates and their campaigns, the United Nations works frequently to promote human rights and shine light on the darkest corners of the world. Lest they forget, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a product of the United Nations. The Human Rights Council, once derided as toothless and spurned by the United States to the point of not seeking a seat on the initial balloting, has grown to the point of issuing strong statements of condemnation against the very regimes it once sought to protect and is seen by the Obama Administration as a critical tool in the United States’ foreign policy toolbox.

Earlier today, the Third Committee of the General Assembly: Social, Cultural, and Humanitarian  took up three draft resolutions, under their agenda item 69(c): Human rights situations and reports of special rapporteurs and representatives. These three drafts focused on human rights abuses in Myanmar, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Resolutions on the last of the three’s systematic violations of human rights norms have become almost an annual occurrence, and this year’s rebuke comes hot on the heels of the General Assembly voting to condemn the state for its role in an alleged plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the United Nations. The full text of the resolution on Iran can be found here.

“Those drafts are nice, but there’s no way that the world is actually growing more intolerant of human rights. Give me something concrete to prove that the UN as a whole actually supports human rights,” I hear you say. Fortunately, there are things like ‘numbers’ and ‘facts’ to assist us in making our case. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s Mission to the United Nations has helpfully broken down the votes of the last two year’s votes on these proposals into a helpful chart.

Votes in GA3

Compiled by the UK Mission to the UN (@UKUN_NewYork)

As you can see, all three resolutions passed by a sizable margin this year. It is true and deserves to be noted that there are an unfortunate number of abstentions on the proposals. However, if those countries that abstained truly wanted to scuttle the Iranian proposal, it would have been within their ability to cast their votes in the “no” column, rather than allowing it to pass. The Burmese and Korean votes had no such chance, with an overwhelming amount of support in their favor.  The vast majority of Member States in the Third Committee, composed of all 193 members of the UN, are in favor of states following the basic principles of human rights in dealing with their citizenry, and use the United Nations as a forum to express that support. The resolutions will now proceed to the General Assembly as a whole for approval.

Tomorrow night is sure to bring outlandish statements, and more than likely a few gaffes, but let’s not allow them to bring forward untruths. The fact is that the United Nations is not just the sum of its parts, but greater than them. As an institution it has been at the forefront of protecting human rights for decades. As a collection of states it has sought to greater and greater degrees over time push for the rights inherent in all peoples of this Earth. The numbers above aren’t the best, but they’re improving. And they signal a hope for the future. Here’s hoping that the GOP can read those stats the same way.

November 18, 2011

Commander Adama’s Simple Rules for ICS Protection

Normal morning, I log into Twitter and start to browse through my stream. I quickly came across an article posted by CNN’s Security Clearance blog. In it, the author reveals that the Federal government is investigating whether an Illinois water treatment plant’s burned out pump was caused by a cyberattack. “What the what?” says I, as I read further:

Joe Weiss, a noted cyber security expert, disclosed the possible cyber attack on his blog Thursday. Weiss said he had obtained a state government report, dated Nov. 10 and titled “Public Water District Cyber Intrusion,” which gave details of the alleged cyber attack culminating in the “burn out of a water pump.”

Such an attack would be noteworthy because, while cyber attacks on businesses are commonplace, attacks that penetrate industrial control systems and intentionally destroy equipment are virtually unknown in the U.S.

Well. This could be interesting. The protection of industrial control systems (ICS) has been a worry of cybersecurity analysts . What makes this story even more fascinating? Weiss claims that the “attack” came from somewhere within the territory of the Russian Federation.

My initial assumption that the attack was funneled in through some external source seems to have been proven wrong in these Washington Post and CNET articles on the topic. It turns out, the ICS in question was managed using software developed by an company that provides supervisory control and data acquisition. This company, unnamed in the articles due to the nature of the report the articles were based around, was itself was hacked several months earlier with dozens of users information and passwords absconded with. The power plant in question has been powering up and down remotely at random, the overall effect of which led to the burning out of a water pump.

So, first of all, whoa. Second, while an important event in the history of American cybersecurity, I don’t think that this is quite on the level of bad that I’m sure many will assign to it. Comparisons to the Stuxnet virus that struck Iran, targeting the programmable logic controllers in its uranium-spinning centrifuges, are inevitable to be sure. But the level of sophistication displayed here is nowhere near on the level of Stuxnet. That attack was clearly designed for a specific purpose, with a specific goal. The Illinois case is much more likely the result of a hacker who has obtained this information playing around with their new capabilities, leading to the burnout in question. If this was a state-based attack, I highly doubt that a single water station in Springfield would be their target.

Further, the two-step process displayed in this attack makes it all the more important, in my book, that proper cybersecurity measures are taken in the private sector. The intruder obtaining the passwords to the control systems certainly made the actual penetration of the system easier. Even with that advantage, though, the hacker should not have been able to gain the remote access that was required to utilize that data. Which brings me to the title of this piece.

In the mini-series that launched the revamped Battlestar: Galactica, the Cylons manage to take out the entirety of the Colonial Fleet, save the titular Battlestar, by deploying a virus across the networked Colonial system. What saved the Galactica, you ask? Commander Adama’s near fanatical resistance to having any networks on his ship’s computers. Period. He knew that computers were necessary, but he’d be damned if they were allowed to talk to each other. It even went so far that in a situation where the Galactica was forced to network its computers together or face destruction, the Commander had to think long and hard on the subject before allowing it. To his credit, the Cylons immediately launched a cyberattack once the networking was completed, so there you go.

Edward James Olmos can teach us a lot through his steely glare. The vast majority of ICS networks are actually very secure, so long as they aren’t connected to the Internet. I understand that remote access is sometimes necessary for the monitoring and management of vital processes when nobody is available in person. But monitoring and actually being able to control and update those systems should be on different networks, the latter of which goes nowhere near the public interwebs. Even those plants that are segregated face danger not from clever ways to sneak in through the vastness of the intertubes, but through the mistakes of those humans who are charged with maintaining and operating these systems. An earlier published Washington Times article concerned with hackers being able to open jail cells remotely was panned, but still holds some truths in its pages:

“But in our experience, there were often connections” to other networks or devices, which were in turn connected to the Internet, making them potentially accessible to hackers, [Teague Newman, Department of Homeland Security] said.

In some of the facilities the team visited for their research, guards had used the same computer that controls the prison’s security systems to check their personal email, exposing it directly to potential hackers, Mr. Teague said.

In many prisons, technical support staff would add connections to enable them to update the system’s software remotely after the ICS systems were installed by security specialists.

Also of concern: the use of flashdrives and portable hard drives. We all have looked from our flashdrive to a computer and thought “Eh, whatever” before plugging it in. Doing so with a system that controls vital elements of key infrastructure, though? That’s insanely risky, even if you are the sort who runs ZoneAlarm on your personal PC. It’s highly likely that Stuxnet itself was first introduced into the Iranian nuclear plants through not through breaking through a firewall in a case of extreme hackery, but through getting passed along until some schmuck stuck his thumbdrive somewhere it doesn’t belong. If we’re actually serious about making sure that Richard Clarke’s declaring that cyberwar is the biggest threat that our country faces is false, we really should start acting like it. For our inspiration, I think we should look no further than the Old Man himself.

Put the Flash Drive DOWN

The face of pure badassery

In that vein, Congress is looking for bipartisan solutions in troubled times, and I think I have one for them. This could be a simple insert into any of the pending cybersecurity legislation on the Hill, or a quick bill to pass. Congress: we should mandate that all workers who interact with ICS should be forced to wear wristbands that read “WWCAD?” or “What would Commander Adama Do?” The picture at left should also be hung in all Federally regulated sites that use ICS to manage their daily affairs. You can thank me later, Congress. You can thank me later.

November 17, 2011

At what point do we hear “Do Svidanjia, Assad”?

Things are getting very interesting in Syria. Whether that would be “good interesting” or “bad interesting” all depends on where you come down on the prospect of civil war, the continuation or dissolution of the Assad regime, and the merits of the Responsibility to Protect. Which is to say that the member-states of the United Nations Security Council is going to be making some very interesting choices soon from the point of view of the Syrian government and protestors.

What is apparent is that things are managing to get even uglier in Syria. Months of protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad have until recently only to months of repression and slaughter by the Syrian government. Yesterday was the bloodiest day of the crackdown yet, with over 90 killed according to observers, adding to the over 3,500 killed since March according to the UN. Despite insisting throughout this period that Assad is sure to survive the ongoing uprising, prognosticators on the future of the state have gotten a few surprises in recent days. These events both make the possibility of the United Nations stepping both more likely and far more remote.

Tilting the balance in favor of intervention is the unprecedented levels of regional isolation the Syrian Arab Republic is currently feeling. While the Arab League has gained a reputation for empty promises and vague gestures of condemnation towards recalcitrant members, on Sunday the League threatened to suspend Syria’s membership and levy sanctions should the violence not stop and a League drafted proposal to monitor the ceasefire not be enacted. Syria attempted to forestall this conclusion by calling an emergency session, but was quickly rebuffed by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. As of yesterday, Syria has been suspended from the League of Arab States, and has been given a deadline of three days to halt the violence and place the terms of the agreement into affect before sanctions are enacted. Doing themselves no favors, following the announcement of the Arab League decision on Sunday, pro-Assad protesters took to the streets, looting and burning several embassies along the way, causing even greater international condemnation.

As Max Fisher of The Atlantic notes, however, this is no longer a simple case of unarmed protesters being massacred in the streets – civil war is brewing. Armed conflict is most certainly on the rise in Syria, as defectors turn from the Syrian Army in greater numbers, and groups like the Free Syrian Army begin to coalesce. Just yesterday, the FSA launched an attack on a compound belonging to Air Force Intelligence, known for their use of torture in interrogations.  As you can see in the video below, civilians are no longer allowing tanks to move through Syrian cities unhindered.

China has even come out in favor of the Arab League’s machinations, a testimony to its commitment to supporting regional organizations, even when they reach decisions that Beijing may personally be uncomfortable with:

“China supports the AL’s efforts to end the crisis in Syria and has called on concerned parties to implement the Arab League’s resolution at an early date and in a substantial and appropriate way. … Concerned parties should make concerted efforts and the international community should create favorable conditions for the implementation process.”

With this reversal from its earlier position of non-interference, the door may be reopened to bringing the issue of Syria before the Security Council. An earlier push led by the United Kingdom and France ended in a twin veto by China and Russia in October, placing the situation on the back burner since then. Following the Arab League’s threat, sanctions may be on the table again, opposed to the relatively simple condemnation of violence with the threat of sanctions that was considered previously.

This still leaves one very large obstacle, however: The Russian Federation.

Despite the pleas of the Syrian National Council, who met with Russian Foreign Minister and former UN Ambassador Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, Russia seems determined to support Assad. Lavrov went so far as to call the activity in Syria akin to a civil war earlier today, while maintaining Russia’s position on keeping Assad in power:

“If some opposition representatives, with support from some foreign countries, declare that dialogue can begin only after President Assad goes, then the Arab League initiative becomes worthless and meaningless,” Lavrov said.

His statement speaks strongly to Russia’s concerns about intervention in civil wars, which Moscow tends to view as purely internal affairs. A rising death count won’t soon sway the Kremlin to act; to be completely candid, it’s highly doubtful that if the winner of this year’s Confucius Peace Prize were in Assad’s position that we would not see tanks in St. Petersburg.

Aside from ideological differences over sovereignty, and concerns about losing another foothold of influence in the region, the Russian Federation has many Legitimate Business Interests in place in the Syrian Arab Republic. Russia cancelled $73M worth of debt Syria owed from the days of the Soviet Union, freeing up Bashar to buy even more arms. According to Amnesty International, roughly 10% of Russia’s annual sale of arms goes to Syria; this would presumably include both light and heavy weapons, though the exact amount is difficult to determine, due to Russia’s reluctance to publish the exact dollar or ruble amounts of its weapons dealings. In either case, a sanctions regime against Syria would come at a time where Damascus is most willing to pay through the nose for Russian armaments.

Mark Goldberg at UN Dispatch notes that present day Syria is getting more and more like Libya, circa February this year. As the violence rises and the international community solidifies against Assad, the likelihood of the beginning of intervening, maybe not militarily but at least the issuing of a presidential statement, rises. This may be true, particularly in the event that a draft presidential statement is circulated merely condemning the violence without making a firm statement on President Assad stepping down. The comparison also marks a potential argument against the likelihood of concerted action. Russia’s argument since the moment the first NATO missile struck Libyan territory has been that the alliance has reached far beyond its mandate to use force, and that the eventual regime change that has since transpired was illegal in nature. By raising the spectre that the Russian Federation could be hoodwinked into abstaining on another critical vote under Chapter VII, the odds that Ambassador Vitaly Churkin push back, and hard, against any firm resolution on the matter grows.

The same would hold true of even getting to the nine votes from the Council needed to take action. Resolution 1973 contained the use of force authorization, but the door to that was opened with the unanimous adoption of Resolution 1970. Let’s assume that a British/French draft is tabled with heavy international sanctions against the Assad regime, along the same lines as the European Union’s, modeled after 1970. We have the three permanent Western powers in favor, along with the two WEOG seats, Germany and Portugal, and most likely Colombia as well. Lebanon will be firmly against the move, China potentially abstaining depending on the Arab League’s reaction. Nigeria, Gabon, and Bosnia and Herzegovina would likely be persuaded to go along with the draft as they were in October.  That just barely gets you to nine, allowing the West to act over the concerns of South Africa, Brazil and India. This still leaves Russia in play, however.

What would it take for Russia to reverse itself on Syria, allowing for at the very least an abstention from vetoing a new draft? Heightened isolation of the Assad regime may or may not help Moscow change its tune. A new Human Rights Council report on Syria is due out in the coming weeks. A negative report, which it is almost sure to be, may spur action taken by the HRC, along the same lines of that which prompted Libya’s expulsion from the body.

Also, a new diplomatic move in the General Assembly of all places may open the door for Russia to at least abstain on a condemnation of violence by the full Security Council. The GA, acting in lieu of the Security Council as is their right under the Charter when it is not discussing a matter of international peace and security, is preparing to table a resolution condemning Syria for its violence. Further, the sponsors of this draft include the usual European suspects, but is all the more remarkable for being potentially co-sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar. The full text of it can be found here. A strong vote in first the General Assembly’s Third Committee: Social, Cultural, and Humanitarian, then the full Assembly, would provide an ample smokescreen to allow for Russia to abstain on a condemnation of violence or at the very least a presidential statement in the UNSC.

What it all boils down to, however, is whether these, in the eyes of many, compelling arguments will persuade the Russian Federation to, if not act, not actively stand in the way of action being taken. The veto system was designed to prevent national interests from being over-ridden by the UNSC, this is the way it has always been and will likely always be. But it is quickly becoming clear that one way or another Assad is not going to end his days as the ruler of Syria. The next government will remember who stood behind Bashar al-Assad to his last and treat that state accordingly, and I highly doubt that Russia’s best efforts at mediation so far, as seen in this draft resolution circulated in August, will win them many accolades. Truly, it’s in Russia’s national interest to say “do svidanjia” to Bashar sooner rather than later.

November 8, 2011

Memo to Richard Clarke: China does not have a “US Internet On/Off” switch

Gulliver, of the Inkspots blog, tweet earlier today an article published in the Boston Globe. In said article, Richard Clarke, also known as the Man Who Knew Too Much in the pre-September 11 days, predictor of the bin Laden attacks and ignored by the Administration, has a few recommendations about the readiness of our nation’s digital defenses. I was excited, until I saw the headline: Cyber weaknesses should deter US from waging war


Clarke said if he was advising the president he would warn against attacking other countries because so many of them — including China, North Korea, Iran and Russia — could retaliate by launching devastating cyberattacks that could destroy power grids, banking networks or transportation systems.

The U.S. military, he said, is entirely dependent on computer systems and could end up in a future conflict in which troops trot out onto a battlefield “and nothing works.”

Clarke said a good national security adviser would tell the president that the U.S. might be able to blow up a nuclear plant somewhere, or a terrorist training center somewhere, but a number of countries could strike back with a cyberattack and “the entire us economic system could be crashed in retaliation … because we can’t defend it today.”

“I really don’t know to what extent the weapon systems that have been developed over the last 10 years have been penetrated, to what extent the chips are compromised, to what extent the code is compromised,” Clarke said. “I can’t assure you that as you go to war with a cybersecurity-conscious, cybersecurity-capable enemy that any of our stuff is going to work.”

Oh my stars and garters. First of all, usual disclaimers that these are my personal opinions, not those of anyone I may be employed by. Now. Do I really need to explain to Mr. Clarke why his statement makes no sense? The use of computers has made our armed forces more mobile, agile, and accurate. It has not made them deadlier in my opinion. In fact, taking away the ability of our systems to, say, precisely pinpoint a target would probably be the dumbest thing an enemy could do. It’s not like we’ve lost the ability to just carpetbomb areas into submission, it’s just something that we honestly prefer not to do these days.

Also, it sounds like Mr. Clarke is vastly inflating the capabilities of the states he lists. Yes, China and Russia were called out recently for hacking into our systems to gain access to sensitive data for economic gain. But if you honestly think that there aren’t white hats on our side doing the same thing, then your dream world sounds like a lovely place to visit. Espionage is something that exists and always will exist so long as there are secrets that need to be protected. Why do you think we even have a Central Intelligence Agency?

But seriously. If the United States or one of our allies were to strike against an Iranian nuclear plant, which I am by the by not in favor of, I am extremely skeptical that Iran’s first thought will be “shut down the Interwebs in the U.S.” As Dan Trombly points out, Iran’s proxy capabilities are much more impressive than anything it has in the digital domain, and further, the entirety of the cybercapability we’ve seen from them has been in regards to domestic communication, not widespread hacking into infrastructure. China using it’s legion of “Netizen hackers” to counterbalance the offensive edge that we so clearly have on them would make sense and is the most credible of the states Clarke lists, but the PRC is light-years away from having that ability, no matter how lacking our defenses are.

Cyber-capabilities are impressive. Nobody is denying that fact. The hype around them though is stunning. I love science-fiction as much as the next person, and the future is in fact awesome as I find myself thinking every day. But the wild-mass guessing that goes into attempting to predict the full abilities that can and will be brought to bear in a conflict is more than a little ridiculous. The way that many writers and analysts put it, there’s a switch somewhere in various states that can be flipped in the event of war, where the various Trojan horses and malware on American systems can suddenly shut. down. everything. I can assure you that any use of cyberconflict in the coming years will look nothing like that. Disrupting communications, sending out false information and corrupting data, various levels of enhanced espionage, that’s what’s facing us, not preventing bombs from deploying or somehow crashing the US economy.

Further, this is a huge pet-peeve of mine, the acting like any instance of a cyber or digital attack would be completely beyond the conventional norms of warfare and that the US has absolutely no past models to draw on. Bull. Saying that we shouldn’t attack a country because they might retaliate against our digital infrastructure is akin to saying that we shouldn’t attack them because any of our assets may in turn be targeted. Which would make no sense, because that is how war is conducted: you strike, you attempt to block the oncoming counterstrike. If your defenses are lagging in one point? Then you build them up, but that doesn’t mean that your weakpoint completely negates your offensive capabilities. There are plenty of reasons to not launch a military strike, but concern over our computer networks is not one of them. Mr. Clarke needs to take it down a notch; advocating for more robust defense is fine, but hyperbole just weakens your arguments.

November 1, 2011

There is literally nobody in the Senate I don’t hate right now

So yesterday I cobbled together a piece on the US withdrawal of funds from UNESCO and why I thought it was a horrible idea in terms of diminishing US soft power. Well, it turns out the domestic political situation surrounding that choice is even worse than I thought. I hit Congress pretty hard, but assumed that it was mostly Republicans who would come out in support of the law as it stands. In the words of Chuck Testa, nope. As reported by Josh Rogin in Foreign Policy:

Will senior Senate Democrats intervene on behalf of the U.S. role in international organizations? Not likely. Democratic senators told The Cable they either support cutting funds to U.N. organizations that grant membership to the Palestinians, or at least don’t plan to do anything about it.

“We’ve put a very clear marker down in terms of what would be the result if there was an effort to prematurely declare a Palestinian state and [the administration] is implementing what they said they would do,” said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). “It was the right thing to do and they should be implementing it.”

Levin said that he hoped U.S. retaliatory action would slow down the Palestinian drive for recognition, and maintained that the United States would increase its influence by carrying through on its threats. The vote in UNESCO’s General Conference was 107 to 14 in favor of Palestinian membership, with 52 abstentions.

Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told The Cable today he was fine with the cutting off of funds to UNESCO.

“That’s what the law requires. It’s been there for 20 years and whether I support it or not, that’s the law,” he said.

That’s…about the opposite of the answer that I was hoping to hear from these two, Democratic Senators with a long history of working with global organizations and advocating a robust US role. You’d think that after their combined time in the Senate, the house of Congress that actually does get something of a say in foreign policy matters Constitutionally, that they would see that defunding UNESCO and potentially other international institutions represents a step backwards in the projection of American power. I guess not though.

I suppose that it’s understandable to wish that more organizations worked like the Senate, where one voice out of a hundred can grind things to a halt and cut off the flow of funds until they get their way. Also understandable how working in the Senate can lead to only viewing these UN bodies in light of the will of the whole on Palestinian statehood, while managing to block out every other thing that they’re working on that benefits the United States. My respect for the Senate as institution is plummeting by the second.

It’s both slightly comforting and infuriating to hear from the same report that Hill staffers on both sides of the are frustrated that the Obama Administration doesn’t have a way to work around the law or solve the crisis. So rather than offering up legislation to solve the issue that an earlier Congress created, we have Congressional offices hoping that the President can find a way to circumvent them. Right.

November 1, 2011

The past is always better in hindsight

W. Jonathan Rue put forward a little thought challenge to the readers of Gunpowder and Lead, after reading Stephan Walt’s latest piece in The National Interest.  One paragraph in particular piqued his interest, re-posted here, emphasis added by him:

The United States has been the dominant world power since 1945, and U.S. leaders have long sought to preserve that privileged position. They understood, as did most Americans, that primacy brought important benefits. It made other states less likely to threaten America or its vital interests directly. By dampening great-power competition and giving Washington the capacity to shape regional balances of power, primacy contributed to a more tranquil international environment. That tranquility fostered global prosperity; investors and traders operate with greater confidence when there is less danger of war. Primacy also gave the United States the ability to work for positive ends: promoting human rights and slowing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It may be lonely at the top, but Americans have found the view compelling.

Rather than biasing us with his thoughts, the readers were asked to consider two questions:

1. Does primacy actually foster a more tranquil global environment?

2. Given that primacy nests so well within American exceptionalism, will it be possible to abandon this endeavor? In other words, can Americans accept the idea of not being on top?

Short answer: no and yes.

Walt’s statement in the above paragraph understands tranquility in the idea that we haven’t had a resurgence of wars between the Great Powers since the ending of World War II and that America itself has remained safe from attack by these states. The military might displayed by the United States in the years between then and now has played a part in tamping down the rise of revisionist states with the actual power to shape their will like Japan and Germany did in the 1930s and early 1940s. However, the idea that American primacy in that regard has allowed for a more tranquil period than would have existed otherwise is mistaken.

Walt is correct that trade and economic growth are more feasible in times of peace and global prosperity has been on the rise since 1945. I would say though that a much larger portion of the calm that Walt writes about owes to the traditional powers being broken and battered by the effects of the war and being unable, and unwilling, to launch new struggles against each other. I would give more credit for Europe healing to the threat of the Soviet Union to its East and to the rise of what would become the European Union. The United States’ primacy gave breathing room for Western Europe to rebuild without the USSR engulfing it, but its own trust-building measures did far more to restore the battered continent to its traditional place in the world. Linking economies in the European Coal and Steel Commission and refusing to return to struggles that had been playing out for centuries is what gave the United States customers for its goods and partners in the international community, a self-chosen peace that the United States’ military primacy fostered without birthing.

American primacy also allowed for the rewriting of the rules of international finance through the Bretton Woods system, with none able or willing to challenge the ideas of capitalism set forward. Those accords gave birth to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and laid the foundation for the World Trade Organization, the last of which has given states a venue for the recourse of trade disputes unlike any the world has ever known before. Trade-based wars, wars based on the ending of access to materials and goods, have new mechanisms that allow their prevention, and while we are almost certain to see their resurgence in the future, it won’t be because America has fallen in the ranks of nation-states. American primacy has given the world the tools to reduce conflict and expand trade and growth, but those tools are no longer solely directed by the United States.

Further, conflict did not vanish in the age of American primacy, and to call this period tranquil is to ignore any conflict that the United States has not directly been involved in and many that we have been involved in through proxy. The ability to shape regional balances that Walt stresses were not calm and quiet discussions and diplomatic efforts but often bloody affairs as we waged shadow wars against the Soviets, allowing for all hell to break loose after the collapse of the Communist empire, unleashing the ethnic and civil strife that first and second world money had propped up. Total US hegemony in this sense has been a negative factor, as in a more complex world, outside the scope of Cold War tensions, long-held grudges have led to the intrastate wars that make up the majority of conflict today, in turn disturbing any sense of tranquility that allow some semblance of growth in many of these states. Only now, after twenty odd years, are many of the states of Africa beginning to show signs of improvement.

Middle Powers, and those destined for Greatness, most certainly didn’t lay down their arms against each other during this period. Iran and Iraq pulverized each other for almost a decade, the USSR and China fought several border skirmishes, as did China and India. India and Pakistan have fought three wars in this timeframe, all on the watch of the United States. The tranquility that Walt espouses is true if and only if you ignore any parts of the world that aren’t ensconced firmly within the borders of the Global North.

As for the second point, talking about any sort of American decline is political suicide for our elected officials. America can and must be the best with no questions or exceptions. To challenge the idea, though, that Americans will never be able to accept a diminished place in the world, I suggest looking at the United Kingdom. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the UK was the owner of the largest empire in the world and undisputed master of the seas. Today, they hover between Middle and Great Power status, but are still an integral part of the international community. The British people, more over, don’t clamor for a return to the old ways, to conquering their way back to the top. If these former lords of the Earth can accept decline, who is to say that Americans will never be able to accept it.

The alternative is far worse, in my opinion. The opposite of accepting change is to struggle against it, even when it goes against the rest of the world. While this may be a noble idea when set down in fiction, in reality this often leads to revisionist policies and discontent mutterings of what once was. These mutterings have a way of becoming a roar and then a whimper as the rest of the international community rallies together to put down the oppressor.

I don’t fall into the camp of those who believe that American decline is inevitable. Nor do I advocate for a loss of American standing in the world; as an American I am well aware of the privileged place I hold in comparison to the vast majority of the world’s people. That said, the idea that the United States one day may not be the undisputed most powerful nation on Earth, existing on a planet with several co-equals, does not keep me up at night. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, the United States will never fall so much as saunter slowly downward at worst. The yearning for a time when the United States was the clear and unchallenged master of the Earth is pretty ridiculous in light of the fact that even when we have been totally on top, there are too many factors to attribute the world’s successes to our dominance and we don’t really seem to be on the edge of some precipice into obscurity. The simple fact remains that the United States’ economic potential and geopolitical location will continue to grant this country an important, if not reigning, position in the world, with more than enough clout and ability to make the world move.