James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Mailbag: UN Human Rights Council on Syria, Herman Cain on Afghanistan

by James M. Lindsay
May 18, 2011

An Austrian Post employee sorts letters in Vienna. (Leonhard Foeger/courtesy Reuters)

An Austrian Post employee sorts letters in Vienna. (Leonhard Foeger/courtesy Reuters)

The White House just announced that it has imposed financial sanctions on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and six other Syrian officials. Any assets they have in U.S. banks and financial institutions are now frozen. (Why they would have any assets in U.S. institutions after the United States froze $30 billion in Libyan assets is another question.) The sanctions won’t change much, but they are better than saying nothing while Syrian police and military forces kill their fellow citizens.

Speaking of Syria, in last week’s post on The World Next Week podcast I noted that Syria had dropped out of the running for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. I then threw in a rhetorical flourish:Now let’s see if the UN Human Rights Council and the broader UN can bring themselves to condemn the Assad regime’s repression and mass murder.” Peggy Hicks wrote to say, “not so fast my friend”:

In fact, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a strong resolution “unequivocally condemning” Syria’s use of lethal violence against peaceful protesters on April 29. In addition, it requested the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate the ongoing abuses. That office has pulled together an experienced and expert team to undertake that investigation, and they are beginning work soon. The next key step will be whether Syrian authorities allow the investigation team to enter the country (the HRC resolution also calls for Syria to fully cooperate with the investigation). The real gap at this stage is at the UN Security Council, which has been briefed on the situation in Syria but failed to even make a public statement on the violence, due in particular to opposition by Russia and China.

Thanks for pointing out the UNHRC’s statement, Peggy. At least I got the part about the broader UN right. Don’t hold your breath, though, waiting for the Security Council to take any meaningful action on Syria. Beijing and Moscow show zero interest in letting that happen.

On the Abbottabad raid, Vic Livingston thinks:

There certainly are big holes in the ever-changing account of what did or did not really happen, almost as if to cast doubt on the narrative, and the decision to conduct this operation when Obama was told there was only a “55 to 45″ chance that Bin Laden was really there. Perhaps CFR should do a story about the amazing capabilities of U.S. signals intelligence, and how it was that intel could not definitively ID Bin Laden for POTUS. And the contention that Bin Laden emails could get through to Al Qaeda outposts without detection—that’s an unstated indictment of U.S. telecom surveillance capabilities. It’s just not credible; U.S. “sigint” is better than that.

I wouldn’t make much of changing early news reports. They call newspapers the “first draft of history” for a reason; they have to be revised. Officials and reporters all rush to get a story out and claims inevitably get walked back or rewritten. I noted in last week’s Friday File that William Saletan argues that the Abbottabad raid probably was less of a gamble than the White House has suggested. Even if true, I wouldn’t read anything nefarious into it. We all like to re-tell stories in ways that make us look good. So if the White House did exaggerate its doubts about what the SEALs would find when they dropped out of their stealth helicopters, it would just show that they are human. And on the “sigint” question, the story has not been that U.S. intelligence assets never intercepted messages from bin Laden. Rather, it has been that U.S. intelligence analysts could not pinpoint the location where emails were being sent fast enough so they could track the senders. Bin Laden’s couriers apparently practiced good “tradecraft.” They used flash drives and sent their messages from random internet cafés. In that respect, they were like criminals on TV shows who are smart enough to call from random pay phones and to cut calls short so that the police cannot trace them.

Finally, Ericules took exception to my point that Herman Cain “needs to come up with a policy on Afghanistan.” You might recall that Cain passed on a chance at the GOP debate in Greenville, South Carolina to share his thoughts on America’s role in Afghanistan, saying “At this point, I don’t know all the facts.” Ericules writes:

Cain’s answer on Afghanistan was one of the most honest and honorable answers a politician has ever gave. He does not have classified information. Any other answer he would of gave could make him look dishonest if he does contrary in the future. Just look at Obama. He said he was getting troops out while running then sends in tens of thousands once in office.

Two things. First, Obama did not reverse course on Afghanistan. He said throughout the 2008 campaign that he intended to send more troops to Afghanistan. He said he would withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. He has kept that promise. All U.S. combat troops left by last August, and the remaining U.S. troops are on schedule to be gone by this December. Second, I am happy to agree that Cain’s answer was honest and honorable. My point is that it is not politically sustainable. American voters expect candidates to take positions on big issues. And the claim that Cain can’t decide what U.S. policy should be in Afghanistan until he has access to classified information won’t withstand scrutiny. To begin with, we are awash with information about what is happening in Afghanistan. Just try here, here, or here. That is one of the great virtues of living in a free and open society. Beyond that, debates about what to do in foreign policy seldom turn on facts buried in a file labeled “Top Secret.” Instead, they turn on judgments about which policies are going to work, whether they are worth the cost if they do, and what priority any one issue should be given when measured against all the other demands on the U.S. government.

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  • Posted by Tony Shahnami

    Regarding Syrian, mullahs from Iran are supporting the Bashar Assad government financially and with boots on the ground. So the sanctions will not impact syrians greatly.
    Regarding Afghanistan,
    Pakistan and Karzai government need to come to a realistic arrangement cooperating with US on all the issues dealing with talibans on either side of the border.

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