Sunday, August 25, 2013

Deconstructing the imminent Anglo-American bombing of Syria

President Obama stated on August 20, 2012 that, "We have been very clear to the Assad regime...that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of [chemical] weapons moving around or being utilized." Ever since this declaration, the Syrian government has been very careful to repeatedly deny claims that it has used chemical weapons. However, in June of this year the British and French governments claimed that Syria used sarin gas in attacks against rebels. Then on June 13, the United States stated it had “definitive proof" of the use of chemical weapons by Syria. Last Wednesday, several hundred people were killed in an alleged chemical weapons attack. Because of this latest attack, it now appears that that the American and British governments are planning a series of air strikes on Syria. But why are the US and UK getting more involved in the Syrian Civil War now? Does the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syria justify Western intervention? And why is it that the US can get away with using chemical weapons and not see a similar response from the international community?

I’m not entirely sure why the US and UK are getting more involved now, but I suspect it has little to do with the alleged use of chemical weapons. While the Asad regime has committed gross atrocities and crimes against the people of Syria, the West has largely turned a blind eye or delivered empty rhetoric. The West deliberately chose not to overtly intervene in Syria as it had in Libya and instead watched the destruction and brutality worsen. If the US and UK were unmotivated by the 100,000 people who have already died in the conflict, why are they all of a sudden taking a harder line towards Syria? In terms of numbers and overall destruction, the war has already taken its course and the rebels have essentially been defeated. Although the rebels received limited external support throughout the two-years of this conflict, why should the US get more involved on their side now? Is the US really getting involved to help out the rebels and Syrian people, or is it because the US wants to see the further destruction of Syrian society? The latter could definitely be possible, especially since the US has a penchant for destabilizing regimes in order to achieve its strategic aims (see here, here, and here for examples). I don’t buy for a second that the US is getting more involved for altruistic reasons, or because chemical weapons are some sort of “red-line” beyond which Syria must be attacked. Rather, the alleged use of chemical weapons is most probably an excuse to bomb Syria to achieve whatever the strategic objectives are for the US in this conflict. Guessing at what those strategic objectives are goes beyond the scope of my current discussion, but it is important to return to the question of how important chemical weapons are to the escalation of this conflict.

Chemical weapons, like nuclear and biological weapons, are considered weapons of mass destruction. There has been much debate about what constitutes weapons of mass destruction and whether or not the use of these weapons—how ever defined—is a collective red line for the international community. But why is the use of chemical weapons by Syria such a serious concern for the US? In terms of numbers, 1500 people have been killed by the alleged use of chemical weapons, which is just a fraction of the total number of people killed thus far in the conflict. If the opposition to the use of these weapons is not because of their high death toll, then could it possibly be for some moral concerns about the use of weapons of mass destruction?

This answer to this also seems unlikely, particularly since the US has used weapons of mass destruction in its most recent conflicts. The US used white phosphorus—a known chemical weapon—in the destruction of Fallujah. In addition, the US continues to use depleted uranium munitions, which have caused serious harm to civilian populations in Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq. If the US government believes in the extreme moral hazard of using chemical weapons, then perhaps the US should stop using chemical weapons too. Although there is an obvious difference between the use of sarin gas and white phosphorus, both are highly toxic agents and banned chemical weapons based on international treaties. None of these weapons should be used by any government, but for the US to object to their use while simultaneously using chemical weapons itself smacks of hypocrisy.

Just because these chemical agents should not be used, does that give the “international community” the right to intervene when they are used? The answer again depends on who is using the weapons and how the “international community” is defined. The “international community” is short for the US and its Allies, while only weapons of mass destruction used by Western enemies are not tolerated. This, of course, smacks of hypocrisy and lends any actions by the US and its Allies as suspect.

Whether you are a liberal interventionist or a neoconservative in America's foreign policy establishment, the latest calls for airstrikes perpetuate a common double standard in Western political actions. So while the US can use chemical weapons to further its strategic aims, any enemy country doing so “crosses a red-line.” When thinking about this coming intervention, we should again seriously weigh the pros and cons of intervention. If the Anglo-American bombing of Syria does take place, will this intervention lead to positive outcomes? Is it even possible, given the disorganization on the side of rebels and the fractious sectarian violence in the country? Will an Anglo-American intervention be beneficial for anyone involved? Or will it perpetuate a bloody civil war? I’m not entire sure what will happen, but I know it will be a lose-lose situation for the Syrian people. It is important that the people who are now advocating and supporting an Anglo-American intervention in Syria think seriously about the stakes involved and whether or not an intervention is actually worth it. After all, principled diplomacy is the best way out of conflicts and it has proven to be one of the most effective way to manage conflicts throughout modern history. Perhaps it's time for a serious Anglo-American diplomatic push, rather than negotiating through bombs raining down from the sky.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Information as a tool of Power

Knowledge is power. It is an elementary axiom instilled in school children the world over. Knowledge is created through an exchange of ideas and concepts through multiple mediums. A threat to this exchange of ideas is a direct challenge to the creation of new knowledge.

We are witnessing a very real challenge to the free exchange of ideas around the world with the revelations last week of a massive NSA spy network that essentially monitors all forms of communication. In short, the US government wants to know everything we do, think, and express at all times. Ostensibly it is to protect us from whatever bogeyman the government is currently after at any given moment, be it a courageous whistleblower or an alleged terrorist lurking in some half-forgotten cave in the middle of nowhere. But is it really about protection from bogeymen here and abroad, or does the government have alternative goals?

To be charitable, even if this massive amount of surveillance is a mixture of good intentions (security) and ulterior motives (power maximization), it is still an abridgment of fundamental rights that are a violation of the constitution and good consciousness. The US has decided to ignore all reasonable degrees of privacy in order to gain total information awareness. In this post, I would like to share some thoughts on this controversy and highlight some of the important questions that this latest fiasco raises.

To provide context, did a good job of summarizing what we’ve learned so far: 
On Thursday it was revealed that the NSA claims internally that it has been using a top-secret spying program called PRISM to gain direct access to personal data belonging to customers of top Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo. Many of those companies denied having this relationship with the NSA, but acknowledged, according to The New York Times, that they cooperated “at least a bit.
On Wednesday, Americans learned that the National Security Agency has been collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of the telecommunication giant Verizon.
On Friday we were told that President Obama had ordered his top national security and intelligence officers to construct an apparatus for globaly cyberattacks, which includes a list of targets overseas and potentially within the country. 
On Saturday it was disclosed that the NSA has a sophisticated tool for recording and analyzing the sources of its collected intelligence, a fact that gives the lie to the agency’s repeated assertions that it cannot keep track of all of the surveillance it performs on Americans’ communications.
What all of this demonstrates is that the US government is in the business of monopolizing information in order to use it for whatever means it deems appropriate. That means the government has the ability to access your private discussions with friends, families, business partners, employers, and others. It means the government has the potential for total knowledge awareness, knowing what you do, who you do it with, and at what time. But what if some other government got a hold of these massive data sets? As Conor Friedersdorf notes, "In the wrong hands, it could enable blackmail on a massive scale, widespread manipulation of U.S. politics, industrial espionage against American buisnesses;, [sic] and other mischief I can't even imagine." Is this something we the people should accept?

I think the answer is an unequivocal no. The government has no right to know everything. Privacy is a right that is not only enshrined in the fourth amendment of the US constitution, but is a fundamental right that all human beings deserve. Human beings deserve the right to know that our bodies and minds are our own, not to be surveilled or observed at the whims of others. This type of dragnet surveillance grossly infringes on our rights. This surveillance can be easily abused and, most probably, already has. To go pop culture, it reminds me of Enemy of the State, where spooks turned Will Smith’s life upside down because they thought he knew the wrong kind of secrets. Or in the Dark Knight when Lucius realizes that Batman has created a spy network that monitors everyone in Gotham and tenders his resignation because “this is a power no man should have.” I agree with Lucius that this is most certainly a power that no man – or government – should have, especially our own. Snowdon believes this so much that he has tendered his resignation from this alleged beacon of freedom and democracy to seek refuge in an alleged communist autocracy. Inverted reality, no? As the article in continued:
"Privacy is a deadly business. Psychologist tell us it is necessary for the development of personal independence. Artists, philosophers and scientists recognize its essential role in the birth of new ideas. And those who have gotten captured or killed for their political commitments worldwide, ever since someone stood outside of a tent and listened in on the conversation inside, know it is an essential condition for political freedom. Freedom is a value Americans love to claim they love."
I value freedom, privacy, and the desire to continue to exercise these rights. However, the NSA and other US spy agencies have developed a massive surveillance state in which the free exchange of ideas is being severely undermined. This is wrong and it is not in line with the values that America purports to hold. The construction of America’s authoritarian, corporatist state has been in the offing since 911, but a deep-seated disease has rotted away our political institutions and is undermining what is left of our “free” society. As Edward Snowdon noted, "I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things." Neither do I.

For further reading:
Everything you need to know about the NSA’s phone records scandal
By: Timothy B. Lee, 6-6-13 Washington Post

How Congress unknowingly legalized PRISM in 2007
By: Timothy B. Lee, 6-6-13 Washington Post

President Obama’s Dragnet
By: NY Times Editorial Board, 6-6-13 NY Times

U.S. Confirms That it Gathers Online Data Overseas
By: Charlie Savage, Edward Wyatt and Peter Baker, 6-6-13 NY Times

The National Security Agency: surveillance giant with eyes on America
By: Ewen MacAskill, Julian Borger and Glenn Greenwald, 6-6-13 The Guardian/UK

How to navigate the Internet around PRISM
By: Kris Holt, 6-9-13,

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Moving on From the News

I write this post during yet another transition in my life. As I go through the process of reinvention, I have decided to break old routines and make new ones. One routine that I will be doing away with during this transition is how I follow the news. Although I have closely followed the news for the past twelve-odd years or so, I’ve reached a saturation point where I no longer feel the need to be an active consumer of the news. 

During the time that I have been an active consumer of the news, I have learned a tremendous deal about the world, global affairs, and current events through reading, discussing, watching, and talking about the news. As a result, I feel satisfied with the ideas, opinions, and knowledge I have developed in this area. I have read widely and have been exposed to diverse opinions and ideas. I have shared many articles and have had numerous discussions with an array of people on any range of issues.

Through my discussions, one thing that has been consistent is that I have found many people who buy into whatever the “standard” narrative that is being disseminated by the mainstream media. The power of repetition and the prestige of certain mainstream news outlets – be they print media like the NY Times or news media like CNN – has the power to dictate the discourse on the airwaves. Consequently, the airwaves are saturated with a narrow field of topics, most of which are then looked at in a more careful and analytical way through alternative news sources (such as blogs or independent news organizations like DemocracyNow!). The really novel and innovative discussions are mostly only had on alternative news sources. Yet even with these sources the range of topics remains inadequate and incomplete. As human beings tend to talk about whatever is being talked about, and as our national and international discourse becomes increasingly homogenized through whatever information is being discussed over the dominant media outlets, our collective ability to look at a wider range of topics that deserve to be looked at remains limited. Consequently, it is only through a deeper analysis of topics – be they the environment, war and peace, or really anything else – is what is really needed. Hence I think this will be the next area that I will start to focus on more carefully.

One of the projects that I intend to start doing more of in lieu of following the news is writing. Although I have only infrequently updated my blog over the past decade or so, it is likely that I will begin to post here again more frequently. As I have several different projects in the works, posting may be infrequent at times, but I do hope to try and write here to share my thoughts on any subject that comes to mind. Feel free to read and comment on anything I write and I hope that you find it worthwhile.

I would like to end by noting that I’m not completely abandoning the news per se, as I still want to keep up with a general overview of what is going on in the news. However, I’m transitioning to a phase where it is unlikely I will be posting news articles anymore, or following the news that closely. While I do hope that the range of subjects and discussions in the news media increase over time, I will no longer be an active consumer of the news.