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Posts For: April 15, 2014

Reports of a Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

The Open Source Center flags a report posted on a British blog purporting to show video of a new chemical weapons attack in Syria. From the blog:

While there’s been a number of small alleged chemical attacks reported in the months since the August 21st Sarin attack, this attack was unusual for a number of reasons.  First, earlier attacks have mostly (if not entirely) been on front-line positions with adult males being the victims, while in the Kafr Zita attack it appears children made up a significant number of victims.  Second, it’s a rare occasion both the government and opposition claim an attack took place, with the government claiming Jabhat al-Nusra launched the attack.  As reports claim a helicopter dropped the bomb, it seems highly unlikely Jabhat al-Nusra would have been operating a helicopter, unless they have a previously unheard of air-force the Syrian air defence system failed to detect. Syrian State TV felt confident enough to specify the type of agent used, “there is information that the terrorist Nusra Front released toxic chlorine… leading to the death of two people and causing more than 100 people to suffer from suffocation”.  Now, videos and photographs from Kafr Zita provides evidence of a second, failed chemical attack, on the night of April 12th, with the following video showing a container supposedly used in the attack.

On the original website, there are more photographs and explanations. That said, however, if the video linked above is accurate, then the logic of the explanation is sound, for as noxious as the Nusra Front might be, there is no indication that they would have helicopters from which to release chemical munitions. So much for the Russia-brokered breakthrough on chemical weapons disposal, or the contrition of the Assad regime in the wake of last summer’s apparent Sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus.

The Open Source Center flags a report posted on a British blog purporting to show video of a new chemical weapons attack in Syria. From the blog:

While there’s been a number of small alleged chemical attacks reported in the months since the August 21st Sarin attack, this attack was unusual for a number of reasons.  First, earlier attacks have mostly (if not entirely) been on front-line positions with adult males being the victims, while in the Kafr Zita attack it appears children made up a significant number of victims.  Second, it’s a rare occasion both the government and opposition claim an attack took place, with the government claiming Jabhat al-Nusra launched the attack.  As reports claim a helicopter dropped the bomb, it seems highly unlikely Jabhat al-Nusra would have been operating a helicopter, unless they have a previously unheard of air-force the Syrian air defence system failed to detect. Syrian State TV felt confident enough to specify the type of agent used, “there is information that the terrorist Nusra Front released toxic chlorine… leading to the death of two people and causing more than 100 people to suffer from suffocation”.  Now, videos and photographs from Kafr Zita provides evidence of a second, failed chemical attack, on the night of April 12th, with the following video showing a container supposedly used in the attack.

On the original website, there are more photographs and explanations. That said, however, if the video linked above is accurate, then the logic of the explanation is sound, for as noxious as the Nusra Front might be, there is no indication that they would have helicopters from which to release chemical munitions. So much for the Russia-brokered breakthrough on chemical weapons disposal, or the contrition of the Assad regime in the wake of last summer’s apparent Sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus.

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Will a Nuclear Japan be Obama’s Legacy?

Almost every recent second-term president, burdened by the record of his failures, has sought a “Hail Mary” foreign-policy success to define his legacy: Bill Clinton sought successfully to normalize ties with Vietnam, but also wanted to shake hands with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and broker a final peace deal between Israel, the Palestinians, and the broader Arab world. And for all of George W. Bush’s talk about a war on terrorism, he effectively let North Korea off the hook, removing it from the state sponsor of terrorism list, because Condoleezza Rice thought a North Korea break through could change her boss’s legacy. Ditto the rushed 2007 Annapolis conference, which, as process for the sake of process, symbolized everything wrong with the approach of Bush’s predecessors. Like Clinton, Obama is turning to Middle East peace and Iran to reverse a legacy marred by the troubled roll-out of the Affordable Healthcare Act (“Obamacare”), the failure of the reset in Russia, and chaos in Syria. In neither case, however, will Obama see success. Neither he nor Secretary of State John Kerry recognize that their rhetoric does not sound as insightful or brilliant to outsiders as it does to their own ears or to those of their sycophantic aides. When it comes to strategy, determination, or pursuit of pure national objectives, Obama is simply no match for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, or North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un.

And so most U.S. allies now recognize that they cannot trust the United States. In the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Southeast Asia, and East Asia, traditional American allies are increasingly concluding that they need a Plan B. Those Plan B’s could actually become Obama’s greatest foreign-policy legacy.

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Almost every recent second-term president, burdened by the record of his failures, has sought a “Hail Mary” foreign-policy success to define his legacy: Bill Clinton sought successfully to normalize ties with Vietnam, but also wanted to shake hands with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and broker a final peace deal between Israel, the Palestinians, and the broader Arab world. And for all of George W. Bush’s talk about a war on terrorism, he effectively let North Korea off the hook, removing it from the state sponsor of terrorism list, because Condoleezza Rice thought a North Korea break through could change her boss’s legacy. Ditto the rushed 2007 Annapolis conference, which, as process for the sake of process, symbolized everything wrong with the approach of Bush’s predecessors. Like Clinton, Obama is turning to Middle East peace and Iran to reverse a legacy marred by the troubled roll-out of the Affordable Healthcare Act (“Obamacare”), the failure of the reset in Russia, and chaos in Syria. In neither case, however, will Obama see success. Neither he nor Secretary of State John Kerry recognize that their rhetoric does not sound as insightful or brilliant to outsiders as it does to their own ears or to those of their sycophantic aides. When it comes to strategy, determination, or pursuit of pure national objectives, Obama is simply no match for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, or North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un.

And so most U.S. allies now recognize that they cannot trust the United States. In the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Southeast Asia, and East Asia, traditional American allies are increasingly concluding that they need a Plan B. Those Plan B’s could actually become Obama’s greatest foreign-policy legacy.

The notion of Japan armed with nuclear weapons might seem far-fetched or bizarre given that Japan remains to this day the only country against whom nuclear weapons were used. After World War II, the new Japanese constitution declared that its military would be for self-defense only. Regional states know, however, that if pushed too far—by a resurgent and aggressive China, an unstable and unpredictable North Korea, or a Cold War-fixated Russia—Japan could resort to a nuclear deterrent in order to protect itself. A number of other analysts have written openly about Japan’s nuclear option. Given how the American pivot to Asia has evaporated, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s acknowledgment that the American forces would scale back to pre-World War II levels, and the fact that the Japan-based carrier, the USS George Washington, will within a couple years need to be withdrawn for a multi-year refueling, it should become clear to Japan that any U.S. security guarantees are rhetorical and ephemeral rather than real. It should be hard for Japanese leaders not to conclude that if they want to defend their territory and people, the time is nearing when they will have to cross the nuclear weapons threshold.

How ironic it is that Obama campaigned on a nuclear zero option, but the weakness of his policies now convince states that they have little choice but to embrace nuclear weapons they once so disdained.

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Why Do Diplomats Tweet?

Whatever one’s opinion of Obama administration policies—and even on these pages there are different assessments—it is clear that President Obama and his administration have embraced social media far more than his predecessors.  During the 2012 campaign, journalists noted that Obama had an order of magnitude more Twitter followers than his challenger, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even if those counting deducted the millions of Obama’s fake followers.

Not only does the State Department tweet, but so does John Kerry. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweets constantly, even if at times nonsensically. While it’s all well and good to embrace the new communications tool, the technology is no substitute for substance.

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Whatever one’s opinion of Obama administration policies—and even on these pages there are different assessments—it is clear that President Obama and his administration have embraced social media far more than his predecessors.  During the 2012 campaign, journalists noted that Obama had an order of magnitude more Twitter followers than his challenger, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even if those counting deducted the millions of Obama’s fake followers.

Not only does the State Department tweet, but so does John Kerry. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweets constantly, even if at times nonsensically. While it’s all well and good to embrace the new communications tool, the technology is no substitute for substance.

Last month, the Public Diplomacy Council published an insightful interview with Laurence Pope, an experienced diplomat with long service in the Middle East. Pope was asked a long-overdue question with regard to the State Department’s Twitter outreach:

Q:  The Department has embraced the social media to re-shape public diplomacy and transform American diplomacy.  What contribution can it make?

POPE:  There is nothing wrong with the use of Twitter and Facebook and Zillow and Youtube and all the rest of it, but diplomacy requires speech on behalf of the state, and social media are individual expressions by definition.  This can easily create confusion —think for example of Susan Rice tweeting about the need to bomb Syria while the President was changing his mind about that.  I don’t know how many Facebook pages and Twitter accounts there are at the State Department —hundreds if not thousands.  When individuals speak through them, one of two things are true: either they are expressing American policy, in which case 140 characters is unlikely to be a useful way of doing so, or they aren’t, in which case their views may be interesting, but there is a risk of confusion… The Youtube videos newly minted ambassadors make are downright embarrassing.  They give an impression of proconsular self-regard which is in bad taste.  Diplomacy is premised on a world of sovereign states.  The State Department’s  fascination with social media suggests that it no longer thinks that is the world we live in, a strange notion for a foreign ministry.  

Just as diplomatic correspondents and the secretaries of state they cover err by seeming to conflate miles flown with success, so too does the State Department fail by believing tweets matter. Russian President Vladimir Putin must laugh when, against the backdrop of ordering the invasion of Crimea, he faced little more than a cavalcade of angry tweets from Power. The sad thing is that the State Department now spends millions on public diplomacy, Twitter, and translations of its Twitter feed without once asking what good its Twitter feed does. That is not to deny that outreach can be positive, but it’s silly to spend such money without ever establishing metrics by which to judge Twitter diplomacy—and sillier to treat new communications technology as a substitute for substance.

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A Pitiful Pulitzer Pick

The Pulitzer Prize board has just managed to do the impossible. It has awarded a prize that deserves to be spoken of in the same conversation with its risible 1932 award to the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty for articles whitewashing the evils of Stalinist Russia.

The award of the Public Service prize to the Washington Post and the Guardian for serving as a mouthpiece for Edward Snowden is an attempt by the journalistic establishment to put its stamp of approval on the actions of one of the most destructive traitors in U.S. history—a former NSA contractor who has done untold damage to American intelligence gathering efforts against Russia, China, Al Qaeda, and other essential targets by revealing some of the most secret information that the U.S. government possesses. As Politico notes, this prize is “certain to be interpreted as a vindication of the former government contractor’s efforts.”

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The Pulitzer Prize board has just managed to do the impossible. It has awarded a prize that deserves to be spoken of in the same conversation with its risible 1932 award to the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty for articles whitewashing the evils of Stalinist Russia.

The award of the Public Service prize to the Washington Post and the Guardian for serving as a mouthpiece for Edward Snowden is an attempt by the journalistic establishment to put its stamp of approval on the actions of one of the most destructive traitors in U.S. history—a former NSA contractor who has done untold damage to American intelligence gathering efforts against Russia, China, Al Qaeda, and other essential targets by revealing some of the most secret information that the U.S. government possesses. As Politico notes, this prize is “certain to be interpreted as a vindication of the former government contractor’s efforts.”

Certainly that’s how Snowden sees it. In a statement typical of his nauseating and entirely unearned self-righteousness—released, it should be noted, from his current exile as an honored guest of Vladimir Putin’s police state—Snowden said: “Today’s decision is a vindication for everyone who believes that the public has a role in government. We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognizes was work of vital public importance.”

Funny, if you didn’t know the context, you might think that Snowden is praising the efforts of dissidents in Russia who face jail terms or even death if they dare to tell the truth about how Putin represses dissent and mobilizes the public behind his dictatorial and expansionist agenda. But, no, of course Snowden wouldn’t dare to bite the hand that feeds him–even if that hand belongs to an increasingly repressive regime which labels as “traitor” anyone who dares question any aspect of the Kremlin’s agenda .

In reality, Snowden is heaping eye-rolling praise on his own efforts, and those of his journalistic collaborators, to cripple the legitimate and lawful intelligence gathering efforts of the NSA. The public, it goes without saying, had a role in government long before Edward Snowden came along. The public’s role in the U.S. government actually goes back to our Founding and has remained robust ever since. The public even has an important role in oversight of the intelligence community—a role assigned by our political system to Congress’s intelligence committees and the intelligence community’s in-house inspectors-general, not to twentysomething contractors with extreme an libertarian ideology and a messiah complex. 

For all his self-preening, Snowden did not actually disclose any activity by the NSA that was illegal or unauthorized; what he disclosed was wide-ranging collection efforts that had ample safeguards built in to prevent abuse. There is still no evidence that any of the intelligence-gathering activities of the NSA were directed for personal or political gain. 

Rather, these efforts have helped to keep the country safe from follow-on 9/11 attacks and other threats to our security. Now this important line of defense has been compromised, perhaps fatally, by Snowden’s illegal and unethical disclosures, most of which have focused not on intelligence gathering at home (which is admittedly controversial) but on intelligence gathering abroad in countries that regularly spy on the U.S. too—and which should not remotely be a cause for controversy unless you subscribe to Henry Stimson’s naïve and outdated conviction that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”

There is nothing remotely brave about publishing the most sensitive secrets of the U.S. government—an activity that is arguably protected by the First Amendment and that is unlikely ever to be prosecuted by a U.S. government which is rightly respectful of journalists’ rights. Nor is there anything remotely brave about disclosing those same secrets and then fleeing to exile in Russia rather than facing the consequences in a U.S. court. The word to describe such activities is not “brave” but, rather, “reprehensible.” And that is what the Pulitzer committee is rewarding.

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When Terrorists Tweet

My 1999 Ph.D. dissertation examined the introduction of the telegraph to 19th century Iran. At first, the Shah supported the telegraph: the wires made the Iranian government more efficient in a time of dwindling resources and power. Over the years, however, the opposition learned what a powerful tool the telegraph could be. The late-19th century was a time of battle for the new technology as both the government and opposition fought for the upper hand. Ultimately, the opposition won: the government lost its communications monopoly and the opposition was able to organize a mass movement culminating in a constitution revolution. There was a financial side to the technology as well: For much of the 19th century, Iran did not use paper money. It had done so once under the Mongols, but that experiment had failed. Caravans carried tons of coin over weeks in order to complete transactions. With the telegraph, however, various agents could complete trades in a matter of hours, with money changing hands not in Tehran but in London and St. Petersburg.

Twitter and other social media tools are the 21st century equivalent of that 19th century technology. They have empowered ordinary citizens in their fight for freedom and liberty against oppressive governments like those in Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Twitter was also a powerful tool, of course, in the Arab Spring protests that led to the ouster of dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Too often, however, Twitter is depicted as a panacea just as the telegraph once was 150 years ago. In the wrong hands Twitter can be used to undercut life and liberty as terrorists embrace the technology to raise funds and solicit support.

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My 1999 Ph.D. dissertation examined the introduction of the telegraph to 19th century Iran. At first, the Shah supported the telegraph: the wires made the Iranian government more efficient in a time of dwindling resources and power. Over the years, however, the opposition learned what a powerful tool the telegraph could be. The late-19th century was a time of battle for the new technology as both the government and opposition fought for the upper hand. Ultimately, the opposition won: the government lost its communications monopoly and the opposition was able to organize a mass movement culminating in a constitution revolution. There was a financial side to the technology as well: For much of the 19th century, Iran did not use paper money. It had done so once under the Mongols, but that experiment had failed. Caravans carried tons of coin over weeks in order to complete transactions. With the telegraph, however, various agents could complete trades in a matter of hours, with money changing hands not in Tehran but in London and St. Petersburg.

Twitter and other social media tools are the 21st century equivalent of that 19th century technology. They have empowered ordinary citizens in their fight for freedom and liberty against oppressive governments like those in Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Twitter was also a powerful tool, of course, in the Arab Spring protests that led to the ouster of dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Too often, however, Twitter is depicted as a panacea just as the telegraph once was 150 years ago. In the wrong hands Twitter can be used to undercut life and liberty as terrorists embrace the technology to raise funds and solicit support.

Alas, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are together showing how such technology can be used to kill rather than save helpless populations. Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaisani, who regularly uses Youtube to solicit funding for Al Qaeda-linked extremists in Syria, has now taken to Twitter to raise money for an Al Qaeda-style jihad. He is not shy about listing the Qatari and Turkish phone numbers to collect the pledges. That, of course, is simply further evidence that those two nominal U.S. allies are complicit in supporting terror.

(When I was in Syria in January, most everyone relied on Turkish cell phones, as it seemed that Turkey had bolstered its network’s power in order to cover more of northern Syria than it did before the conflict. Turkey therefore has good intelligence on almost everything occurring in that region of Syria, including the activities of the Nusra Front and the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham).

Al-Muhaisani’s feed is illuminating: According to this tweet, 650 Saudi riyals (about $175) buys 150 Kalashnikov bullets or 50 sniper bullets. Muhaisani’s official twitter account has almost 300,000 followers.

In the right hands, Twitter is a wonderful tool that threatens the autocratic monopoly over information and assembly. But, in the wrong hands, it enables terrorists to become more active and more lethal. The answer is not to ban the technology, but to monitor it closely. There is no need to tap it: Simply following it can provide an intelligence trove. Let us hope that the U.S. government and its counter-terror analysts will never be so gun shy, nor American diplomats too language-poor to tune into a source that is far more illuminating than so many of the classified cables that the likes of Edward Snowden dealt in.

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