To Syria, or not to Syria? That is the question…

As I watch with detached interest over the extended hand-wringing over what to do about Syria, I can’t help but think of Kosovo.

Just a little less than 11 years ago, I ended up in Kosovo through a string of rather odd events. Without going into boring detail, suffice it to say one day I was living in relative comfort in Germany, and the next I was scurrying out in sub-zero temperature in the wee hours the morning to … well, wee.

For those unfamiliar with the Kosovo War, here’s a little background information. This will give you a lot of the political background, but what’s important to remember that we, along with our NATO allies, went into Kosovo in 1999 to intervene in an ongoing civil war (sounding familiar yet?).

By the time I got to Camp Bondsteel in late 2002, although we were ramping down our activities there (with an eye toward moving on Iraq), it didn’t appear we had done much “delivering.”  Camp Bondsteel, then referred to as the biggest city in Kosovo, was run completely on oil generators. That’s because – more than four years after victory had been declared – the Kosovars got no more than four hours of electricity a day. No one knew when those four hours would come, of if they would come in one big chunk or in smaller chunks of anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more. This made it extremely difficult to live anything resembling a normal life, or at least what we know as normal. Legend had it that some contractor had been paid several million dollars to stand back up the electrical grid but the money had long since vanished with no functioning grid to replace it and it appeared no one was making a great effort to locate either.

And so, the Kosovars went about their daily business, hurriedly cooking dinner and doing other electric-centric activities whenever the opportunity presented itself.  Yes, some Kosovars, no doubt, had gas or oil generators as well, but as the U.S. Army was the largest employer in the area, the number of folks who could afford fuel were few in number. You see, the U.S. and U.N hired no Serbians (for obvious reasons), and at least KBR only hired one person per family/household. There were relatively few established businesses left; because of roads were in such bad repair and the weather so dismal, the largest cottage industry was the pressure washer car wash. It was nothing to see cars abandoned alongside the road; the locals would drive their cars until they ran out of gas, then return when they came up with enough money to refuel. I don’t recall seeing anything other than desolate hoop-ties there during my six-month tour, though I do recall pulling up beside a rather interesting homemade vehicle. Years of hardship had made these people nothing if not resourceful. I purchased three beautiful area rugs by flashlight that I still have and treasure to this day. I can only say luck was on my side.

I don’t necessarily get into the politics of these types of things, because I find the people far more interesting. However, even as not-much-of-a-student-of-history, even I can see the pattern Kosovo represents: with the exception of the Allied areas of Europe, pretty much every country we’ve gone in to “deliver” we’ve left them in the same or worse shape than we found them: Vietnam, the Philippines, Iraq, Somalia, Grenada, Afghanistan… you name it. So now we want to go into Syria to do … more of the same?

One could be encouraged that some members of Congress are pushing for a clear strategy, both in terms of engagement and exit. I am dubious of this, as I clearly remember the question being asked “How much will reconstruction in Iraq cost?” and the answer being “Nothing. They have significant oil reserves to fund their own reconstruction.”  And how many billions of dollars later is it still a barren wasteland, with untold volumes of antiquities lost for the ages (in some looters’ basements and vaults, no doubt)?

There is a part of me that tells me something must be done to help these people. However, I’m not at all convinced we are the ones to do it. Staring down the barrel of a 25% Reduction in Force in the Department of Defense over the next four years, and seeing what a war-weary force we have after a decade of war that yielded – at best – a net of zero, I can’t help but think that we may need to sit this one out. Let someone else handle it. Maybe this time we need to think about saving ourselves first. This might well be the first time in history when we aren’t in a position to help, or simply the first time we realize it. Either way, I hope our leadership will take a look a long look at history before making a final decision, or they we will be destined to repeat it.

And here, for your viewing pleasure, is an unclassified aerial photo of Camp Bondsteel, the largest city in Kosovo. Think about it.

Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo

Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo

Next week: Memories of the People of Kosovo

In the News…

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  – U. S. Constitution, First Amendment

The past few weeks have been interesting, to say the least.  For me, they have been thought-provoking.  Not being a professional journalist, I admit to only a cursory knowledge of protocol concerning the media and national security.  Current events have cured me of that.

The Associated Press and Fox News scandals are huge.  This is not like Umbrella-gate, which was ridiculous.  Even the IRS intrusion takes a back seat to this debacle.  The intrusion into the rights of the media to gather and report important information should concern us all.  Not because we finally have some conspiracy to pin on Obama, but because it is a possible infringement of rights.

Whenever there is a clash between an administration and the media, “national security” is at stake.  While national security has no official definition, we believe it to mean the protection and safety of our citizens and our secrets.  This safety is secured through economic, political, diplomatic, and military power.  In essence, each administration is allowed the freedom to determine what places “it” at risk.

So, let’s take on the Fox scandal first.  The national security in this case involved North Korea, and its plan to respond to U.N. sanctions with more nuclear tests.  The CIA, allegedly, learned this information from a source within North Korea.  James Rosen’s (Fox News contributor) story was reported online the same day that the top-secret report was revealed to a small group within the intelligence community.  Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a government advisor, was among that small group.  The FBI used security badge data, phone records, and email exchanges to tie the two men together.  The pair spoke/met on several occasions, even going so far as to use code names.  Kim was charged, in 2010, with disclosing national defense information.  Rosen, while not charged, has been labeled a “co-conspirator”.

This case is disturbing.  While I am no fan of Fox news, the labeling of Rosen as a co-conspirator is unacceptable.   The nature of a reporter’s job is to uncover information (whether a current administration likes it or not) and report it.  Rosen conspired to do nothing, but his job.  My issue here is with the administration.  When a trusted advisor chose to leak top-secret information, the Justice department should have dealt solely with him.  Rosen was well within his rights, as a reporter, to “solicit” information.  The ownership belongs to Kim.  My issue is not so much the investigation, but the attack on Rosen for reporting the news provided to him.

The AP story is a little more complex.  With the help of foreign intelligence agencies, an undercover informant infiltrated the leadership of al-Qaeda. “The spy in question infiltrated AQAP, retrieved its latest non-metalic underwear bomb and delivered it to U.S. authorities”.  Our government had hoped to be led to Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the bomb’s creator.  Officials claimed that the opportunity was destroyed and the informant was compromised when the story of the foiled plot was reported.  There are reports that AP sat on the story, for days, at the request of the CIA.  Once given clearance, the story ran.

This case disturbs me, as well, but for an entirely different reason.  For me, it is not open and shut.  True, the AP story never revealed the name of the informant, like Cheney’s office outed Valerie Plame.  But, it is possible that an opportunity to locate and/or capture al-Asiri was lost.  It appears as though John Brennan’s (then counter-terrorism advisor) “inside control” comments propelled the story and revealed the more intimate details of the plot.  If security was at risk, an explanation of how should have been provided, and the source of the leak addressed.

I am bothered that the MSM has become a way to turn a profit, making whistleblowers like Julian Assange necessary.  Security leaks are not new, and in fact, have become quite necessary.  Without unofficial accounts, we might be woefully uninformed, as conventional media has become more sensationalism than facts.  However, I am uncomfortable with the surveillance of media, by any administration.  I am equally uncomfortable with the public’s feeling of entitlement where news is concerned.  Around the clock news has encouraged this mentality.

This is a time to question.  Do we have a right to know all?  And, if we do, how soon should we learn it?  What constitutes a national security threat?  And, in cases where applicable, should a member of the press be held accountable for taking what was given?  How far are we willing to go in the name of fighting terrorism?  What is an appropriate balance between security and liberty?

Any administration using national security as justification for surveillance warrants investigation.  In the wake of 9/11, fear introduced us to warrantless wire taps, restrictions of individual rights, and unconstitutional imprisonment.  Rights of the people vs national security is a delicate balance.  We expect our rights to be uncontested.  Yet, we expect our government to keep us as safe.

Keeping our citizens safe is not an implied duty.  Our constitution gives that power to the government.  That being said, our constitution gives us power, as well.  The actions of the last two administrations set a dangerous precedent moving forward.  We have accepted infringement too many times in the past, without question, because we were afraid.   So, we must question.

And, we must DEMAND answers.

In the Congo, the UN takes the offense

File this under ‘things the UN should have done ten years ago’.

Two weeks ago the UN approved a ‘search and destroy’ unit for driving the rebels out of the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The UN Security Council plans on sending 2,000 or so troops to the Kivus to carry out targeted offensive operations and neutralize the various armed groups that operate with impunity in the region.

Some of you might be scratching your heads, thinking ‘A peacekeeping force making war?’ Maybe you feel that the UN has no business ‘hunting rebels’. You might also wonder why the army of the DRC doesn’t step up and ‘do the hunting’.

First, the FARDC, the army of the DRC, is almost as bad in some areas as the rebels themselves. It is still suffering from mismanagement and poor training, and in places in the Congo, the army has committed as many atrocities as the rebels have. The government in Kinshasa was more than happy to hear the news of the UN force, if only because it relieved the government from having to take care of the problem.

However, the only groups really upset with the news of the force were, you guessed it, the very rebels the unit is to hunt. Bisimwa, the current leader of the M23, said that peacekeepers would now be waging war on a population of citizens, and then scrambled to make sure that the M23 wouldn’t be on the ‘hit list’.

The FDLR was also upset. The FDLR decried the move by the UN as an act of war. The FDLR, some of you might know, is the same group that once perpetrated the genocide in Rwanda. The group has been terrorizing the eastern Congo now for 19 years.

I have little sympathy for the various rebel groups that have torn apart the Congo for the last 19 years. The international community has tried various things to work with the many rebels. Want a list? Tactics for the last 20 years go as follows: negotiated peace settlements, army integration, bargaining, telling them to stop killing/raping/torturing civilians, setting up the world’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping force, asking them to stop killing civilians, passing legislation at the US/EU state level to block funding for armed rebel movements, conflict mineral legislation, peace talks. That is just a short list of tactics the UN and the Congolese government have tried. The US and EU even recently cut funding to Rwanda, a notorious backer of rebel movements, to stop the violence. Nothing has worked.

Which is why Africanists were very excited to hear the news about the special unit. These rebels are mostly cowards, who have terrorized civilians, ruined lives, raped women, destroyed homes, used forced slave labor, turned children in to soldiers, and in the case of the FDLR, committed genocide. This force offers the best chance the global community has in putting a stop to the violence. Yes, the Congolese state needs legitimate government and state capacity.  Yes, this force might open up a gray area of ‘peacekeeping’. But it has become the only feasible option in a place where nothing else has worked. If it brings peace and security to the people of the Kivus, I am all for it. The number of ‘rebel movement’s is likely to drop, once there is a force that is standing against them.

Peace! Again! For how long?

So, the leaders of the east African states of Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC came together just yesterday and signed a peace deal- this makes the 7,000 one since the beginning of the war of 1996. Okay, 7,000 is a bit of an over exaggeration, but not by much. There was the peace deal that ended the 1996 conflict that saw Mobutu fall, there was a peace deal in 1998 that was suppose to see Rwanda GTFO of the DRC, there was the peace deal in 1999 that said the same thing. Then there were a few in the aughts- the most famous being the March 23, 2009 agreement between the DRC and the now defunct rebel movement the CNDP which recently fell apart leading the new M23 to take Goma and most of the Kivu region, before backing down just because they are such nice guys.

So, Kagame, the dictator (I mean president) of Rwanda once again agrees to stop interfering in the affairs of its much larger neighbor. The only problem is that this peace deal does nothing about the alphabet soup of rebel movements in the region, and does less than nothing to address the underlying causes of the conflict, which have everything to do with land rights, citizenship, and legitimate government.

What does this have to do with the US? Well, the DRC is the sight of the largest, most expensive peacekeeping mission on the planet- MONUSCO. And since the US pays a large part of the UN budget, US money is going to support the mission. However, the US also has a long history of protecting Rwanda and turning a blind eye to the illegitimate occupation of the DRC by Rwandan troops. The US on the Security Council, lead by Susan Rice, also blocks any and all attempts to hold Rwanda accountable for the crimes against humanity that Rwandan troops and Rwandan supported rebel movements commit in the Kivu regions.

This ‘peace deal’ won’t bring peace. Which is a shame. Seventeen years of war has taken its toll on the region. It will take pressure on Rwanda, and a push by MONUSCO to flush the rebel groups out of the jungles. It will also take the DRC government of Kabila to address the many issues that have been tearing the region apart. None of those are likely.


Climate Change is here: What is being done to mitigate future impacts?

Out of all the issues facing humanity, the greatest challenge by far is the rapidly changing climate. There is no longer any debate among countries or scientists on climate change. It is a fact that global warming is real. It is a fact that it is caused by anthropogenic fossil fuel use. Regardless of what certain media outlets may say, there is ‘scientific consensus’ that the Earth is warming and humanity is to blame. The debate is no longer ‘is it happening?’;  the debate now focuses on ‘who will pay for it?’

The most recent climate summit in Doha, Qatar showed the international community is far from coming to any consensus on what to do. In fact, the 12-day meeting held in 2012 saw a package of a ‘deal’, but this ‘Doha Climate Gateway’ just extended the life of the Kyoto Protocol. Basically, no one agreed to anything except “ride out Kyoto for a few more years.” The meeting saw fierce disagreement between economically developed states and developing states over financing of green energy and compensation for damages caused by climate change.  The conference chairman Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah was so frustrated with the entire process that at first he threatened to make all delegates stay as long as necessary to come to an agreement (to infinity if necessary), but instead decided to disregard any and all country objections by banging the gavel in closing and stating that the agreement was ‘so decided.’

Since there is little to no agreement on the international level, it has been left up to individual states to take steps to address climate change. In this area, there is progress. China, the largest emitter of CO2, has passed new laws regulating CO2 emissions and energy efficiency. Mexico has recently passed laws pledging to cut CO2 by 30%.  Other countries that have taken active steps to reduce the CO2 include the 27-member European Union, Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, El Salvador, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa, South Korea, the U.S., and Vietnam.  What we are seeing is that legislation is being driven by countries with emerging economies, perhaps because these areas tend to stand to lose the most when the full effects of climate change appear.

Back in 2010, the US was considering cap and trade legislation. While not perfect, this at least attempted to address climate change. It was in the middle of a recession and domestic politics took a turn for the worst, allowing climate change deniers to grab center stage after the midterms. It was left to US states such as California to pass their own legislation. Obama did what could be done at the federal level, such as requiring better fuel efficiency in vehicles. During his first term, the US public was firmly convinced that climate change was a UN backed conspiracy to take over something (like energy production). However, 2012 saw the US experience a terrible drought and Super-storm Sandy. The beginning of 2013 has seen massive winter storms bury the Northeast under snow. Americans now tend to believe in climate change and want something done about it. All eyes will be on Obama during the State of the Union to see how he addresses the changing climate and what the US plans to do to offset its impact. Investment in green energy seems to be Obama’s plan of action, but one can hope for legislation that limits the Co2 emissions of the US (second in the world, after China).

While there are signs that independently states around the globe are acting on climate change, it will take an international framework and agreement to offset the worst impacts and keep the global temperature to an acceptable level. The next international conference is in Warsaw, Poland in 2013. It is in our best interest as a species that more countries work to address the rising CO2 in the atmosphere, and that some stronger agreement on reducing and mitigating climate change can be reached. Otherwise, the future looks bleak.

For your viewing pleasure, the increase in global temperatures…

Stay tuned for a guest post from a bona fide aquatic biologist who will offer a shellfish perspective on climate change, highlighting how the changing climate is impacting the shellfish industry and local economies.

Why Obama Is Smart on Syria

For those of you who don’t know, Syria is rather tragic right now. Since the start of protests in January of 2011 to now, over 60,000 people have been killed, with over 700,000 displaced. Civil war is always a nasty affair, and the Syrian conflict is no different. Frustrations have run high on the United Nations Security Council, and there still exists an impasse between the US and Russia over humanitarian intervention. Obama has been criticized for not doing enough to stem the violence in Syria, unlike in Libya. However, Obama has approached Syria with the understanding that Syria is not Libya, or Egypt. Strong pressure from the White House and NATO action will not stop the tide of violence in the country and would only destabilize the region, as well as add a deep chill to already frosty US/Russia.

Obama has been far from indifferent on Syria. The administration has been approaching the conflict not with the ‘big stick’ of possible military intervention, but with diplomacy. In fact, just yesterday Vice President Joe Biden met with Syrian opposition leader Mouaz al-Khatib. Khatib also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Khatib expressed that the opposition was willing to sit and talk with Assad. The Russians and Americans were happy with this small bit of progress, but it is yet to see how Assad will respond.

The Obama approach to Syria highlights an important foreign policy strategy of the administration. Obama is a true liberal in the fact that he utilizes the United Nations Security Council for what it was intended- to handle the issues of international conflict. Obama subscribes to the idea that if it doesn’t directly impact US interests, it is best handled by the UN.  By allowing the UN to be the primary way that the US interacts with Syria, the administration participates in a global framework towards ending the violence. It also keeps Russia from too strongly misinterpreting US actions in the region. While the US has recognized the Syrian opposition as the legitimate government of Syria, Obama is not willing to commit the US to installing them in power. It is a wise decision. The conflict already shows signs of taking a sectarian turn in violence, and there are reports of al Qaeda backed groups taking control in regions of Syria. Add to it the recent attack by Israel against Syria, and the region is already on the brink of falling well past the point of no return. Diplomacy is the proper strategy here, as high rhetoric and use of military force would only make the situation worse.  Obama is wise to use the channels of diplomacy to support the rebels without applying force. Anything else would be a disaster.