Sanction Your Friends, Not Your Enemies

 Posted by  Foreign Policy, Foreign Trade  Comments Off on Sanction Your Friends, Not Your Enemies
Nov 202013

There’s  a very interesting “Room for Debate” section on on the efficacy of economic sanctions.  I encourage you all to read it, but let me add my own take.

There are three pieces of “common knowledge” in the wider debate about sanctions:

  1. Economic Sanctions are a valuable and useful tool for encouraging good behavior or penalizing bad behavior.
  2. Economic Sanctions work better when they are multilateral; that is, the more countries that agree to the sanctions, the more powerful they will be.
  3. Economic Sanctions, if not implemented properly, harm the wrong people.

It turns out that none of these assertions are nearly as simple as they first appear. Continue reading »

The Good and Bad of Leaks

 Posted by  Disasters and Tragedies, Terrorism, The Media  Comments Off on The Good and Bad of Leaks
Oct 092013

Anonymous sources keep the government honest.

One of my favorite West Wing quotes is when CJ Craig, the fictional White House Press Secretary, discusses how leaks are a necessary part of governing:   “There is no group of people this large in the world that can keep a secret. I find it comforting. It’s how I know for sure the government isn’t covering up aliens in New Mexico.”  Leaks keep the government honest.  Without Deep Throat, we wouldn’t have known that Richard Nixon attempted election fraud.  (Which was the point of the Watergate break-in; to steal campaign documents from the DNC.)  Without the Pentagon Papers, it might have taken years to uncover the incompetence within the Pentagon, and dishonesty from the White House, that undercut our efforts in Vietnam.  Anonymous sources give the public necessary information about corruption and incompetence, and are the ultimate defense against the creation of secret conspiracies that would be against the public’s best interest.

But anonymous sources also ruin lives.

A classic-but-modern example of this is Richard Jewell.  Mr. Jewell was working as a security guard at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.  He spotted a suspicious bag, called it in, and started moving people away from it.  It turned out, that bag contained a bomb.  Mr. Jewell saved lives that day.

But then the FBI began to suspect that maybe he was involved in planting the bag in the first place, so that he could play the part of hero.  They never had any hard evidence of this–only a general profile gathered from Mr. Jewell’s work history that was similar to people who had done this in the past.  He was the FBI’s primary suspect for almost three months before he was officially cleared.  (The bomber turned out to be a right-wing anti-abortion activist; he was caught about a decade later.)

All of that would have been fine–except for that someone in the FBI leaked the fact that Mr. Jewell was a suspect to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  That anonymous source triggered every major news paper in the country–and many internationally–to dig into his past.  He received death threats, he became unemployable, he had the media stalk him and his family.  The FBI had absolutely no evidence linking Mr. Jewell to the bomb, and yet it destroyed his life in a very real way.  (Eventually he received an apology from the FBI, he settled a liable suit against several major news outlets, got a job as a Sheriff’s Deputy in Georgia, and died of diabetes a few years ago.)

So I like leaks.  I want people who work in government to tell dirty secrets to reporters.  But I also want those reporters to exercise restraint in what they publish.  The people do not have a “right” to know every last detail.  Reporters who fail to understand that have no place in the business.

The Merits of Inaction

 Posted by  Foreign Policy, Israel and Palestine, Middle East, Obama Administration, Terrorism  Comments Off on The Merits of Inaction
Jun 182013

There is a certain arrogance with being the world’s only superpower.  The United States can project military power anywhere on the globe in a way that no other country can.  That power is both a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is that we are able to defend American interests (both economic and strategic) and stop human rights violations wherever and whenever we need to.  The curse is that we are constantly tempted to do so… and often the best thing we can do is nothing at all.

Syria is, I believe, one such case.  In particular, in Syria there are basically four options on the table: Continue reading »


There are three “scandals” supposedly “rocking” the White House this week.  Really, I think it just goes to show how silly we all are.

The first, and oldest, of these scandals is Benghazi.  Four Americans were killed, including the Ambassador to Libya, when an Al Qaeda affiliate attacked a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya in September, 2012.  Since then, the conservative media has been pushing two separate lines of inquiry, seemingly in the hopes of embarrassing the president.  The first, and the legitimate one, is whether or not those lives could have been saved.  There have been numerous hearings on this, focusing on why various troops or planes were not called into Benghazi to assist that outpost during the attack; and while questions remain, it seems that the worst story that can be told is one of a lack of communication between the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon.

The second line of inquiry regarding Benghazi, and this one is just plain silly, is about the evolution of a set of talking points that UN Ambassador Susan Rice and others used in the days after the attacks to describe what was happening in public interviews to the American people.  The first version of those talking points speculated that while there might have been some connection to the ongoing protests in Cairo and Yemen over an anti-Muslim YouTube video, that it was likely that the attack in Benghazi was carried out by an Al Qaeda affiliate.  By the 12th and final version, all mention of Al Qaeda had been dropped–but not the mention of the ongoing protests.  And of course, it eventually turned out that the Cairo protests had nothing to do with it, and that Al Qaeda had been planning the attack for months–which means that Susan Rice and others gave wrong information in those first few post-attack interviews.

Continue reading »

Sympathy for the Dzhokhar

 Posted by  Book Related, Disasters and Tragedies, Terrorism  Comments Off on Sympathy for the Dzhokhar
Apr 232013

Apparently I have something in common with the nation’s latest terrorist; we both love going to the Midwest Grill, a Brazilian BBQ Restaurant in my (our?) neighborhood.  We were also both captains of our respective high school wrestling teams and members of the National Honor Society.  His friends from high school talked about him going out of his way to help out, giving rides home, and coming back to his high school to help out for wrestling practice after he had graduated–all things I can relate to.  For all those reasons–not to mention the fact that he only lived about a quarter mile from me–it’s really hard for me not to relate to him.

Which makes the events of the last week all that much more baffling for me.  How could this kid get so twisted that he placed two bombs in a crowd of people, shot a police officer in cold blood, and hijacked a car at gun-point?

I have nothing but sympathy for the friends and families of the victims.  The eight year old boy whose life was ended just as it was beginning.  The graduate student from China who loved living in Boston.  The  restaurant manager from the suburbs who never missed a marathon.  And the MIT officer who was the consummate policeman.

But it’s the bomber, suspect number two, the one who was just arraigned on federal charges from a hospital room yesterday… he’s the one whose story seems most familiar to me.  And yet he’s the one who maybe I will never understand.  Because for all the similarity, how could I understand what drove him to commit such an act of evil–an act that is so viscerally repellent to me I have trouble even watching the footage of it?

Understanding is especially difficult because human motives are never easily understood.  They are never so simple as we would like them to be.  It would be nice if there were a simple, clean, explanation for why he did it.  His evil brother made him do it.  His felt abandoned by his family.  He felt abandoned by his friends.  He fell in with a bad crowd.  He started listening to the wrong preachers.  He was depressed.  He was angry.  He was on drugs.  He was crazy.

But the truth is always more complicated.  The truth is some combination of some or all of those things–and more.  The truth is that human beings are extraordinarily intricate creatures who usually don’t fully know why we do what we do, and who rationalize our behavior after the fact to make ourselves feel better about what we’ve done.

The best we can do is to understand his actions and associations.  Did anyone help him or fund him or advise him?  What else were they planning on doing?  Did they commit any other crimes before the marathon?  Those are all important questions.

As for motive?  Why he did it?  As much as I would love to know… it’s a fool’s errand.

Finally, let me end by quoting Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of the Boston Archdiocese: “Forgiveness does not mean that we do not realize the heinousness of the crime.  But, in our hearts, when we are unable to forgive, we make ourselves a victim of our own hatred.”

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