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Posts For: June 9, 2013

Why Do Academics Downplay Repression?

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)—the NGO of the Society of Friends or Quakers—won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, largely for its work with refugees, children, and prisoners of war during both World Wars I and II. The AFSC stayed neutral—a principle which it embraced strictly at the time—but by the 1970s, the AFSC had allowed leftism to trump pacifism. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the politicization of the AFSC and its moral unbearing than how it shilled for Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge—an episode discussed at length in Guenter Lewy’s Peace and Revolution, until evidence of that group’s murder of a million citizens became insurmountable. Why politics blinded AFSC officials to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge up until that group’s public exposure, however, is something that the Society of Friends has never adequately explained.

Another episode—albeit one not involving genocide—involves the many American foreign policy thinkers who were willing to give the Islamic Republic of Iran if not a pass on human rights prior to the 2009 post-election unrest than at least a blind eye. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen—who traveled to Iran and wrote many columns more critical of American policy than that of the Islamic Republic—only had his epiphany about the true rottenness of the Islamic Republic after he witnessed the 2009 unrest. Likewise, prior to 2009, anti-Iran sanctions activist Trita Parsi hardly even paid lip service to Iranians’ human rights and only after the elections did he decide he would no longer dine with Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In reality, however, there has been no substantive difference between the Islamic Republic pre-2009 and post-2009. Evin Prison might be full now, but it was not empty in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s. While many liberals and progressives mark 2009 as the turning point in their assessment of Iran, there has been little introspection as to why they were willing until then to give such a repressive government the benefit of the doubt.

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The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)—the NGO of the Society of Friends or Quakers—won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, largely for its work with refugees, children, and prisoners of war during both World Wars I and II. The AFSC stayed neutral—a principle which it embraced strictly at the time—but by the 1970s, the AFSC had allowed leftism to trump pacifism. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the politicization of the AFSC and its moral unbearing than how it shilled for Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge—an episode discussed at length in Guenter Lewy’s Peace and Revolution, until evidence of that group’s murder of a million citizens became insurmountable. Why politics blinded AFSC officials to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge up until that group’s public exposure, however, is something that the Society of Friends has never adequately explained.

Another episode—albeit one not involving genocide—involves the many American foreign policy thinkers who were willing to give the Islamic Republic of Iran if not a pass on human rights prior to the 2009 post-election unrest than at least a blind eye. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen—who traveled to Iran and wrote many columns more critical of American policy than that of the Islamic Republic—only had his epiphany about the true rottenness of the Islamic Republic after he witnessed the 2009 unrest. Likewise, prior to 2009, anti-Iran sanctions activist Trita Parsi hardly even paid lip service to Iranians’ human rights and only after the elections did he decide he would no longer dine with Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In reality, however, there has been no substantive difference between the Islamic Republic pre-2009 and post-2009. Evin Prison might be full now, but it was not empty in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s. While many liberals and progressives mark 2009 as the turning point in their assessment of Iran, there has been little introspection as to why they were willing until then to give such a repressive government the benefit of the doubt.

The current unrest in Turkey continues the pattern. The protests which have now spread to dozens of Turkish towns and cities have deeper roots than the destruction of a small urban park. Perhaps it’s understandable that so many former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey pooh-poohed the erosion of basic freedoms in Turkey; after all, so many used their Turkish connections as golden parachutes after their retirement from the Foreign Service or, perhaps they feel more nobly, as sources to fundraise for various think tanks or academic programs in which they now sit. Others say quite openly—in private—that the need for access or worries about family remaining in Turkey leads them to temper criticism of the AKP. Some Turks self-censor out of fear for their jobs, while others cravenly act as propagandists, providing cover for the Turkish government’s war on the press in exchange for privilege and access.

When political Islamism is added to the mix, too many are willing to dismiss the erosion of liberty in order to stay on the correct side of political correctness. Here, for example, are two Turkey analysts a week before the nationwide protests began lamenting how analysts—with special snark reserved for yours truly—might utilize news of Erdoğan’s war on beer to promote the narrative (which they believed false) that Erdoğan might be trying to impose his social will and Islamize secular Turkey. Since the protests erupted, there has not been subsequent introspection about why they were so anxious to dismiss a repression which so many Turks so clearly felt and which so many now protest against.

It is a tragedy that so many American officials and analysts equate acquiescence to the erosion of liberty with sophistication and prioritize heeling to conventional wisdom with open and honest analysis of data. Too many countries—Iran, Turkey, China, Iraqi Kurdistan and Russia—use access as leverage to temper the criticism of analysts and academics.

When it comes to Iran and Turkey, there is also the bubble factor: Many of those traveling to Tehran remain in relatively cosmopolitan northern Tehran rather than Islamshahr or the Western neighborhoods in which so many Revolutionary Guardsmen live. And when it comes to Turkey, there is nothing more corrosive to good analysis than those congressional delegations or tourists that might visit central Istanbul or Ankara, but never visit Sultanbeyli or Kayseri where few tourists venture but Islamism is on full display.

Let us hope that after Cambodia, Iran, and Turkey, those enjoying Western freedoms will understand how tenuous such freedoms are. Whether motivated by some perverse form of Communism as in Cambodia or by political Islam as in Iran or Turkey, or by some other ideology, it does not take much for politicians to grow impatient with resistance to their ideology or agenda. The Khmer Rouge made no secret of their disdain for democracy, but both Ayatollah Khomeini—in the months before his return to Iran—and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan understood how powerful the rhetoric of democracy could be when trying to achieve the opposite aim and so cultivated a coterie of useful idiots along the way.

Perhaps if there’s any lesson, therefore, the default position for analysts should be skepticism: Analysts of Turkey, Iran, Egypt, or anywhere else should always assume liberty to be under threat unless the governments’ actions prove the opposite. Nor should analysts ever acquiesce to constraints against individual freedoms in the name of religion.

Iran and, alas, Egypt may now be too far gone, but the Turkish Spring provides hope that liberals will fight for their rights. Let us hope that they will have as much support for the cause of liberty as their opponents did when they sought to roll back freedoms.

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NSA Leaker Is No Hero

That didn’t take long. The official who leaked top-secret information about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs to fight terrorism has now come forward in the pages of the Guardian to revel in his role “as one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers, alongside Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning.”

Edward Snowden is described as a 29-year-old high school dropout who worked (ironically) on computer security for the CIA before becoming a highly paid contractor at Booz Allen, making a reported $200,000 a year working for the National Security Agency in Hawaii. The Guardian story presents him as a martyr for some kind of libertarian world view: “In a note accompanying the first set of documents he provided, he wrote: ‘I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions’ but ‘I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant.’ ”

He claims he is willing to sacrifice a comfortable lifestyle in Hawaii “because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.” In reality, of course, the United States is the greatest champion of liberty the world has ever seen–this is, after all, the nation that defeated Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and has championed democracy from Libya to the Philippines, freeing untold millions from oppression.

But that’s not the only delusional aspect of Snowden’s justifications. It turns out he is not so willing to accept the consequences of his actions. On May 20, having downloaded all the Top Secret documents he intended to leak, he took a flight to Hong Kong, where he has been ensconced in a hotel room ever since. Why Hong Kong? According to the Guardian, “he chose the city because ‘they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent,’ and because he believed that it was one of the few places in the world that both could and would resist the dictates of the US government.”

In point of fact the latter justification is considerably more compelling than the former. One wonders if even someone as ignorant and delusional as Snowden could possibly imagine that Hong Kong–ruled by a Communist dictatorship in Beijing–is more of a haven of “free speech and political” dissent than is the United States, which happens to be one of the freest countries in the world. Freedom House rates Hong Kong as only “partly free,” and getting less so all the time, as Beijing consolidates its control over what was once a genuinely free British colony.

It is a cardinal irony that Snowden, a self-styled martyr to Internet freedom, has taken refuge in a country (China) that does more to restrict the Internet than any other major country and has far more intrusive electronic surveillance than anything the NSA could possibly dream up. If he thinks he can elude Chinese intelligence by typing in passwords with a bag over his head, he is deeply ignorant of how sophisticated the Chinese government is in tapping into cell phones and computers. They don’t even need physical access to download everything he has in his hard drive.

That the Guardian is glorifying this misguided and malevolent individual does him no favors: He needs to see a psychiatrist or a minister rather than to be granted access to the front pages of the world to blow some of the U.S. government’s most important intelligence-gathering activities.

The fact that the CIA and NSA employed him for years—and then allowed him to leave the country with Top Secret documents–suggests that major modifications are needed in their security procedures. The intelligence community has been mostly focused on checking out employees with overseas family or friends on the assumption that they are most likely to be compromised by foreign intelligence services. But Snowden, like Bradley Manning (and, for that matter, like Robert Hannsen, Aldrich Ames, the Walker family and other high-level spies), is a homegrown traitor who managed to escape the tightest security. It is time to readjust the assumptions on which U.S. counter-intelligence operates–and time, too, to make the most strenuous efforts to move Snowden out of China and bring him to justice for the serious crimes he has committed.

Far from striking a blow for political liberty and freedom of expression, he is unwittingly helping the most illiberal individuals in the world–jihadist terrorists–to more effectively attack us.

That didn’t take long. The official who leaked top-secret information about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs to fight terrorism has now come forward in the pages of the Guardian to revel in his role “as one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers, alongside Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning.”

Edward Snowden is described as a 29-year-old high school dropout who worked (ironically) on computer security for the CIA before becoming a highly paid contractor at Booz Allen, making a reported $200,000 a year working for the National Security Agency in Hawaii. The Guardian story presents him as a martyr for some kind of libertarian world view: “In a note accompanying the first set of documents he provided, he wrote: ‘I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions’ but ‘I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant.’ ”

He claims he is willing to sacrifice a comfortable lifestyle in Hawaii “because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.” In reality, of course, the United States is the greatest champion of liberty the world has ever seen–this is, after all, the nation that defeated Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and has championed democracy from Libya to the Philippines, freeing untold millions from oppression.

But that’s not the only delusional aspect of Snowden’s justifications. It turns out he is not so willing to accept the consequences of his actions. On May 20, having downloaded all the Top Secret documents he intended to leak, he took a flight to Hong Kong, where he has been ensconced in a hotel room ever since. Why Hong Kong? According to the Guardian, “he chose the city because ‘they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent,’ and because he believed that it was one of the few places in the world that both could and would resist the dictates of the US government.”

In point of fact the latter justification is considerably more compelling than the former. One wonders if even someone as ignorant and delusional as Snowden could possibly imagine that Hong Kong–ruled by a Communist dictatorship in Beijing–is more of a haven of “free speech and political” dissent than is the United States, which happens to be one of the freest countries in the world. Freedom House rates Hong Kong as only “partly free,” and getting less so all the time, as Beijing consolidates its control over what was once a genuinely free British colony.

It is a cardinal irony that Snowden, a self-styled martyr to Internet freedom, has taken refuge in a country (China) that does more to restrict the Internet than any other major country and has far more intrusive electronic surveillance than anything the NSA could possibly dream up. If he thinks he can elude Chinese intelligence by typing in passwords with a bag over his head, he is deeply ignorant of how sophisticated the Chinese government is in tapping into cell phones and computers. They don’t even need physical access to download everything he has in his hard drive.

That the Guardian is glorifying this misguided and malevolent individual does him no favors: He needs to see a psychiatrist or a minister rather than to be granted access to the front pages of the world to blow some of the U.S. government’s most important intelligence-gathering activities.

The fact that the CIA and NSA employed him for years—and then allowed him to leave the country with Top Secret documents–suggests that major modifications are needed in their security procedures. The intelligence community has been mostly focused on checking out employees with overseas family or friends on the assumption that they are most likely to be compromised by foreign intelligence services. But Snowden, like Bradley Manning (and, for that matter, like Robert Hannsen, Aldrich Ames, the Walker family and other high-level spies), is a homegrown traitor who managed to escape the tightest security. It is time to readjust the assumptions on which U.S. counter-intelligence operates–and time, too, to make the most strenuous efforts to move Snowden out of China and bring him to justice for the serious crimes he has committed.

Far from striking a blow for political liberty and freedom of expression, he is unwittingly helping the most illiberal individuals in the world–jihadist terrorists–to more effectively attack us.

Read Less

Why Do U.S. Embassies Bungle Twitter?

Back in September, as Egyptian rioters sought to attack the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, allegedly over a video depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light, the embassy tweeted out a note effectively condemning the controversial speech rather than those who would resort to violence against it. There followed confusion in both the embassy and the State Department about free speech, American values, and the appropriateness of apologies.

It would not be the last twitter controversy for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Two months ago, after Egyptian police arrested a satirist who had poked fun at the Islamist government, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted a link to a Jon Stewart episode in which the American comic condemned the arrest of his Egyptian equivalent. That evidently upset the Egyptian government even more. Rather than stand up once again for free speech, diplomats caved, and the embassy temporarily disabled its Twitter feed, deleting the offending tweet.

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Back in September, as Egyptian rioters sought to attack the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, allegedly over a video depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light, the embassy tweeted out a note effectively condemning the controversial speech rather than those who would resort to violence against it. There followed confusion in both the embassy and the State Department about free speech, American values, and the appropriateness of apologies.

It would not be the last twitter controversy for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Two months ago, after Egyptian police arrested a satirist who had poked fun at the Islamist government, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted a link to a Jon Stewart episode in which the American comic condemned the arrest of his Egyptian equivalent. That evidently upset the Egyptian government even more. Rather than stand up once again for free speech, diplomats caved, and the embassy temporarily disabled its Twitter feed, deleting the offending tweet.

Now it seems the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, is getting in on the act. Many Middle Eastern rulers incite anti-Americanism in order to bolster their own popularity, and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no different. After having precipitated a revolt through a combination of arrogance and undemocratic tendencies, Erdoğan sought to downplay the police violence by suggesting—falsely—that the United States is far more brutal in its alleged suppression of political protests.

In response to Erdoğan’s false claim that American police had killed 17 protestors breaking up Occupy Wall Street camps, the U.S. Embassy tweeted, “Reports related to the U.S. Occupy Wall Street movement are inaccurate. No U.S. deaths resulted from police actions in #OWS.”  The tweet signified how embassies should use Twitter: An instant response to correct a calumny.

It seems, however, that calling out Erdoğan for his outright lie was too undiplomatic for the embassy, which subsequently deleted the tweet. Alas, it seems that Ambassador Francis Ricciardone—infamous for his pro-Mubarak sycophancy while posted in Cairo—still confuses responsibility to protect America’s interests with ingratiation to foreign leaders.

It would be easy to blame technology for the embassies’ Twitter missteps, but it would be wrong. Twitter simply highlights in near-real time the State Department’s curious moral calculus. Perhaps it’s time for remedial education for America’s foreign servicemen and women: The lessons should not be hard: It neither is appropriate to apologize for free speech nor is violence in response to such speech ever justified. Nor should any ambassador hesitate when defending America against the rants of an anti-American ruler.

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