National Security

When Assad Dropped the Façade

It's hard to believe, but Bashar al-Assad once presented himself to the world as Syria's modernizer.

AP Photo/Gurinder Osan
AP Photo/Gurinder Osan Syrian President Bashar al-Assad I n 1994, Bashar al-Assad was appointed chairman of the Syrian Computer Society. It was the only official title he would hold before landing the country’s top job, president, in 2000, but the appointment seemed to speak volumes about the direction in which his country was headed. This was six months into President Bill Clinton’s first term, in the same year that Tony Blair was elected as the leader of Britain’s Labour Party. Modernization was all the rage. Bashar, the mustachioed Mr. Bean of the Assad family, had not expected to be groomed for politics. The Computer Society gig only rolled into his lap because of the death of his older brother Basil. But he was perfect for it. For the previous two years he’d been living off Sloane Street in West London, training as an ophthalmologist, wooing the beautiful, thoroughly modern British-Syrian Asma al-Akhras, who would go on to become his wife, and spending a huge amount of time...

John Kerry, the Most Progressive Pick for the State Department?

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Flickr/U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan Senator John Kerry and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzain in Kabul in 2009. T he optics of Susan Rice’s withdrawal from consideration for secretary of State are disheartening. Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post and Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio attributed racism and sexism to the campaign against Rice, with Marcus writing that “the attack had something to do with Rice’s gender, and her sharp elbows and sometimes sharper tongue,” while Fudge said “[ Republican senators ] have never called a male 'unqualified,' 'not bright,' 'not trustworthy,' …there is a clear sexism and racism that goes with these comments.” Given that foreign policy circles are among the worst in terms of gender diversity, Rice’s withdrawal from consideration is a tough blow for the representation of women and minorities in top leadership positions. Even so, John Kerry may be a better secretary of State for progressives when it comes to philosophical approaches to military...

Rice Takes Herself Out

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Here is the lead of The New York Times' two-column front-page story today: Washington—President Obama knew before he picked up the phone on Thursday afternoon what Susan E. Rice, his ambassador to the United Nations, was calling about: she wanted to take herself out of the running for secretary of state and spare him a fight. Really ? Are you kidding? I have no inside sources, but this just not how things work. Does Times reporter Landler truly think that President Obama left this decision to Rice? More likely, the president and his political strategists and vote counters have been agonizing for weeks about whether a good dogfight with Republicans over Rice’s confirmation would be a net plus or a net minus. Ultimately, they decided it was better to get someone else. If Obama really did leave this to Rice herself, he is even more of a wuss than his worst detractors contend. Landler continues in the second paragraph: By acceding to Ms Rice’s request, which she had conveyed to White...

Why Does Obama Want to Spend $8 Trillion on Defense?

United States Air Force
Washington is in a fiscal panic, yet surprisingly few people are asking an obvious question: Why in the world is the Obama administration proposing to spend $8 trillion on security over the next decade? Included in that giant sum is not just Pentagon spending, but also outlays for intelligence, homeland security, foreign aid, and diplomacy abroad. If the administration gets its way, security spending would account for a fifth of all government outlays over the next decade. Such spending would be roughly twice as great as all non-mandatory spending through 2022—a category that includes everything from NASA to Pell Grants and national parks. And—get this—around 40 cents of every dollar collected from individual income taxes over the next decade under the president's plan would go for security spending, according to White House estimates. That's a whole lot of defense for a country that, as of 2014 (when U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan), will be officially at peace and faces no...

Afghanistan Sketches

Victor Juhasz
*/ I n July 2011, equipped with his sketching tools, a camera, borrowed Kevlar, and Dragon Skin body armor, illustrator Victor Juhasz arrived in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to embed for three weeks with Major Shane Mendenhall and his medevac unit, the 1-52nd Arctic Dustoff out of Fairbanks, Alaska, as well as members of Alpha Company 7-101 from Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Juhasz had participated in the United States Air Force Art Program for several years, documenting in drawings various Air Force operations on bases around the U.S. and overseas. This independent trip, with extended time in a war zone, would give him a chance to do more. “Rendering planes in the sky or on the ground had not been what drew me to the program,” Juhasz writes. “I was looking to draw real people who happen to be warriors; to witness and create images both on the spot and back in the studio telling their stories.” Presented here is a sampling of his work and observations from his trip. Slideshow Afghanistan Sketches

Zero Dark Thirty's Morality Brigade

Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden movie doesn't endorse torture. 

(Rex Features via AP Images)
(AP Photo/Sony - Columbia Pictures) Z ero Dark Thirty doesn't even come out until next week, but Kathryn Bigelow's much-hailed movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden is already provoking outrage in some quarters for allegedly "glorifying"—OK, sometimes it's "celebrating"—torture. As all too bloody usual, the loudest howls are coming from people who haven't actually seen ZD30 , some of whom—yes, Andrew Sullivan, I mean you —really ought to know better. Ginning up controversies about movies without bothering to watch them first is really more Bill Donohue and the Catholic League's sort of thing, and does Sullivan want to be in that company? Since plenty of other folks apparently do, I hope you won't mind two cents from a lowly movie critic who admires the hell out of Zero Dark Thirty and isn't exactly big on vindicating Dick Cheney's world-view. There are really two separate arguments here, and people shouldn't confuse the two—though they already have. One is about factual accuracy,...

Why Are Chemical Weapons Different?

Mustard gas artillery shells in storage at a U.S. government facility in Pueblo, Colorado.
The civil war in Syria came back into the news the other day, when our government warned Bashar al-Assad that should he use chemical weapons against rebels and the population that surrounds them, he will have crossed a "red line." The consequences of the red-line-crossing were left unspoken. Perhaps military action on the rebels' side? An indictment in the International Criminal Court? We don't know, but it'll be bad. Dominic Tierney beat me to it , but this news raised something I've found troubling for a long time. If you order your own civilian population to be shot, burned to death, or cut to pieces with shrapnel, the international community will be very displeased. But if you order that population to be killed by means of poison gas, then that's much, much worse. But seldom do we ask why. So what is it that makes chemical weapons more morally abhorrent than guns or bombs? We often lump chemical weapons in with biological and nuclear weapons as "weapons of mass destruction," but...

They'll Be Back

Robots, as yet unarmed, created for the military by Boston Dynamics.
Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report raising alarms about the specter of "killer robots." The report urged that we develop an international treaty to prohibit the development of fully autonomous robotic weapons systems that can make their own decisions about when to use deadly force. So is that day coming any time soon? The Pentagon wants everyone to know it has no plans to allow robots to make decisions on when to fire weapons; Spencer Ackerman at Wired points us to this memo from Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter released two days after the HRW report, making clear that the DoD's policy is that robots don't get to pull the trigger without a human being making the decision (or in bureacratic-speak, "Autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force"). It seems obvious that we don't want a bunch of Terminators walking through our streets deciding...

The Gaza Cease-Fire: A Beginning, Not an End

Last week's successful negotiations will be a failure of leadership if they do not pave the way for an end to the occupation.

(Sipa via AP Images)
(Sipa via AP Images) A Palestinian girl is seen cleaning off debris from a chalkboard inside Al Shejaia school in Gaza City. The school was damaged when Israeli forces targeted a building next to it with an airstrike. T he political landscape of the Middle East has changed drastically over the past two years, but the successful negotiation of a cease-fire last week should have demonstrated that the support and active engagement of the United States is still essential if, in Secretary Hilary Clinton’s words, a “durable solution” is to be found. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has once again reasserted itself on the international agenda, it’s important to step back a bit and reaffirm that a durable solution not just to the current violence but to the conflict itself remains a key U.S. national-security interest. In the week leading up to Israel’s offensive, most of Washington had been consumed by the news of retired General David Petraeus’s resignation as CIA director because of the...

General Petraeus, Just Like Us

(Rex Features via AP Images)
The Petraeus affair would be ever so boring if it didn’t involve the resignation of the head of the CIA, the most celebrated general in recent history, the reputed inventor of modern warcraft, the man who got us out of Iraq, the backer of drones—need I go on? I know people are shocked, shocked, but—maybe because national security isn’t my beat—I’m more shocked that anyone is shocked. So an extremely important (and self-important) long-married man falls into bed with a woman who is writing his biography. Ho hum! It can’t be easier to imagine. Maybe it’s especially easy because I’m a journalist. When you’re writing about someone, you are interested in every detail, every little thing they have to say. It’s an amazingly intimate conversation—or rather, a long monologue with an absolutely rapt audience hanging on every word. You ask them everything about what they think, believe, or have done. I can easily see how that intense connection could become erotic—especially when it’s between a...

The Neocons' Long Game

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Pool, Win McNamee) President Barack Obama answers a question as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, October 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Florida. M ost of the snap polls taken after last night's foreign policy debate, the last before the November 6 election, gave the win the President Obama—if not an outright knockout then at least a TKO on points. But beyond the candidates themselves, the debate did have one clear loser: neoconservatives. During the many years Mitt Romney has been running for president, he's taken a number of fluid positions on foreign policy. In addition to reflecting Romney's character as an eager-to-please shape-shifter, the changing positions also represent a genuine—and growing—policy tension among foreign policy factions within the GOP establishment. Even though old school realists like Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft retain some influence, and more isolationist voices...

Obama's Total Knockout

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
(AP Photo/Pool-Win McNamee) Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, October 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Florida. S o far, the conventional wisdom for the presidential debates has been on target. Pundits correctly saw the first debate as an outstanding victory for Mitt Romney, and the second as basically a draw, with Barack Obama winning a small victory and stopping the bleeding of the previous engagement. For the final presidential debate—a bout over foreign policy, held in Boca Raton, Florida—the conventional wisdom is that Obama won, handily, but that Romney proved himself capable of taking over as commander-in-chief. I’m not so sure. It’s not that Romney performed poorly—he was mediocre from beginning to end—as much as it is that he already passed that plausibility test. It seems that in the excitement of the debate, pundits have forgotten that Romney’s image as a...

The Third Debate: New Topic, Same Empty Taste

(AP Photo/Mario Tama, Pool)
(AP Photo/David Goldman, File) President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney exchange views during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. B arack Obama and Mitt Romney will meet tonight to discuss foreign affairs, and there's one thing I can predict with near-certainty: This discussion will be just as vacuous as the rest of the campaign. Which is too bad, because on foreign policy, the president's own personal interests, beliefs, and biases matter much more than they do on domestic policy. An inordinate amount of time is spent during the campaign trying to pin down who the candidates are deep in their hearts, when in so many areas it doesn't matter at all. In the domestic realm, presidents are constrained by what Congress is willing to do and by their own party's priorities. Mitt Romney will seek to cut taxes, roll back regulations protecting the environment and workers' rights, cut...

The Last Debate

Expect Obama to try to focus on Osama bin Laden and the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Romney tries to steer things toward China.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
Planning on catching snippets of the final presidential debate tonight during time-outs on Monday Night Football? The game is tight, there are only two weeks left on the clock, and tonight is the last time that the candidates will face off in an attempt to connect with undecided voters. Here’s what to look out for after kick-off in Boca Raton. First of all, this is Mitt Romney’s final opportunity to differentiate himself from President Obama on matters of foreign policy and national security, the subject of tonight’s debate. This has been a struggle for the former Massachusetts governor. As many commentators have noted, Romney has cited few concrete differences between his foreign-policy vision and that of the president beyond calling for astronomically higher defense spending and saying he would not “apologize for America.“ Analyst Sanho Tree summarizes Romney’s approach: “Me too, but I'll be even more belligerent because Obama is a wimp.” The trick for Romney will be to seem...

"This Civil War, This Complicated Civil War"

A look at the ongoing conflict in Syria, and whether it's too late for a swift resolution to the growing tensions in the Middle East.

(AP Photo/ Manu Brabo)
(AP Photo/ Manu Brabo) Free Syrian Army fighters are seen in a storage room in the Karmal Jabl district of Aleppo Syria, Sunday, October 14, 2012. Rolls of fabric are seen on the ground. T he conflict in Syria has escalated significantly in recent weeks. After months of mounting tension between Turkey and the Assad regime, the Turkish parliament took the step of authorizing cross-border military operations into Syria. Both sides have since exchanged artillery fire. As the political and military crisis deepens, The Prospect spoke with Steven Cook , Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, about the nature of the conflict and the possibility of its resolution. Why has the Turkish government decided to escalate the conflict to this point? The question is whether the Turks have escalated or the Syrians have escalated. This all started when Syrian shells fell on the Turkish side of the border, killing Turkish civilians. The Turks had...

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