The Update

Location: Virginia, United States

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Columbia’s International Relations and Domestic Challenges – July 20th – Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

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Yesterday’s event dealt with a subject that is oftentimes overlooked by the U.S. media. The Columbian Peace Process was the topic of debate, and more specifically, the new Law for Justice and Peace. The law has been debated for two years now, and has gained the support of 70% of the Columbian population. An unprecedented law for Columbia, it seeks to dismantle the Autodefensas Unidas de Columbia (AUC), a large paramilitary force, by offering reduced sentences to those who hand over their weapons. The process has been very successful so far. However, a handful of people – particularly human rights groups – are up in arms (no pun intended) with this legislation. They feel the law doesn’t sufficiently punish those guilty of human rights violations. I witnessed this debate firsthand yesterday, which gave me an opportunity to solidify my own opinion.

First, it’s necessary to examine the history of the AUC. Initially, it was a private force sanctioned by the government to protect civilians from rebel guerillas. In certain parts of the country that lacked any government presence, locals united to form small bands as means of self-defense. After serving this purpose for nearly two decades, the paramilitary bands began changing. Wealthy individuals, particularly those with drug ties, took over existing forces and began using them to protect their own interests. Finally, in 1989, the AUC lost its government sanction.

This colorful history brings an interesting challenge to the peace process. The AUC militants can be seen as both heroes and criminals. In one sense, the government owes them thanks for noble service, but in another, the militants deserve punishment for later crimes. In light of this, the Columbian government has to examine cases on an individual bases, realizing that not all of the AUC members are hardened criminals. All of the current militants have participated in an illegal organization, but not all of them are guilty of equal crimes. Clearly, the problem is more complex than many realize.

Second, those who lobby to have AUC members punished more severely need to look at the significance of the current demobilization. Ultimately, thousands of lives are being saved. However, this demobilization will not continue unless the troops continue to get something in return. Can anyone really think that guerillas will surrender their weapons and cease hostilities if surrender will lead to lifelong incarceration? Many of the militants deserve harsher punishments than they will receive, I don’t deny that. However, in the end, this concession seems a fair price to pay for the rewards of peace throughout Columbia.

In closing, I’d like to make one final point. Before condemning the new Columbian law over technicalities, we in the United States need to take a good look in the mirror. In the U.S., we have a witness protection program that is very similar to what Columbia is trying to achieve. Yet, no human rights groups seem bothered by the fact that we release criminals in exchange for information. If Human Rights Watch doesn’t mind our own system, how can they be so critical of the Columbians? Finally, since Columbia’s violence is fueled primarily by drug trade, one could criticize the U.S. and Europe for purchasing the majority of the drugs. People in the U.S. are providing the money for the AUC’s guns. Hence, Americans should worry about solving our part of the problem, and if we’re not going to help the Columbian government, we should at least get out of its way.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Future of the Coast Guard: A View from the Top – July 18th - Heritage Foundation

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Today’s event featured U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thomas H. Collins. The Admiral is an animated speaker and spoke passionately about the future of the Coast Guard he currently commands. Admiral Collins stressed the idea that the Coast Guard is successfully adapting to the post-9/11 world. The USCG has increased the resources devoted to homeland security by more than 20% since 9/11. Several changes have also been made, including an alteration of Notice of Arrival (NOA) policy. Previously, all incoming ships were required to submit a NOA within 24 hrs. of reaching a U.S. port. Now the notice must be submitted 96 hrs. prior to arrival. This provides more than enough time for a ship to be processed in the agency’s intelligence database. Any suspicious vessel will then be monitored more closely. Thus, the Coast Guard is moving in the right direction. In the words of Admiral Collins, “We have a sense of urgency about this . . . the stakes are high and we’re not going to fail in this.” The Admiral realizes that security risks cannot be eliminated, but he is committed to mitigating these risks substantially. I strongly support him in this effort.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Senate Armed Services Committee: Military Justice and Detention Policy in the War on Terror – July 14th

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Today’s hearing gave me my first opportunity to see Senators Ted Kennedy, John McCain, and my own senator from VA - John Warner. While Senator Warner was in and out of the meeting and didn’t get too involved, Senators Kennedy and McCain took a more active role. Noticeably absent from the hearing was New York’s Senator Hillary Clinton. This was a shame, but probably for the best. I used to play third base in high school and the Senator would have been well within range. Don’t get me wrong; I have great respect for the Senator’s office. I just think she belongs to a special class of people who deserve to have fruit thrown at them.

Several themes emerged in today’s event. There was unanimous agreement that Gitmo is a valuable tool in the war on terror. It was also pointed out that the base is in a prime location. However, the senators were alarmed by the fact that no terrorists from Gitmo have been prosecuted yet. A large portion of the hearing was spent debating whether or not Congressional action would speed things along. While several of the senators believed such action would be beneficial, the witnesses from the military disagreed.

Personally, I was most intrigued by a different debate. Senator McCain was extremely concerned with the morality of certain interrogation techniques. He believes, for example, that the use of dogs during interrogation is unethical and not in accord with the Geneva Convention. Senator Levin also questioned the use of certain tactics. Interestingly, the military panel agreed that several methods currently practiced at Guantanamo are in violation of the Convention. However, the officers were quick to point out that neither the Taliban nor Al-Qaeda falls under the parameters of Geneva. Al-Qaeda troops don’t wear a uniform, nor do they themselves follow the guidelines of the Convention; they don’t conduct war according to the accepted standards. Though the Taliban was affiliated with the former Afghan government, because they too constantly violate rule of war, they are not subject to Geneva protections.

I was glad to hear the military make this statement so boldly. Their remarks illustrated a very important distinction between a soldier and a terrorist. Soldiers shoot enemy soldiers, but terrorists target civilians. Hence, we shouldn’t be expected to give terrorists the same treatment we offer to enemy soldiers. Please don’t think I’m advocating torture or anything like it. Terrorists are still human; they have rights and they deserve humane treatment. However, I don’t think we need to handle them as gently as we do traditional combatants.

Senator’s McCain and Levin still objected to the use of “un-Geneva-like” methods. Both senators felt it would unfair to our own troops to use such harsh interrogation techniques. They believe our enemies will see the way we treat the terrorists, and they will subject our troops to the same treatment. I do not believe this is a valid argument. We need to remember that we’re fighting a war against terrorists. They have already brutally abused and killed POWs, as well as civilian hostages, and they clearly have no regard for human rights or rules of war. This fact will not change, even if US policy does. Negotiating with terrorists has proven fruitless. I believe we need to stand firm and refuse unnecessary concessions. Terrorists deserve humane treatment, but their rights as prisoners do not equal those of traditional enemy soldiers.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

House Armed Services Committee: CNOOC and Unocal – July 13th

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After failing to gain admittance into today’s House Armed Services Committee Hearing, due to lengthy lines, I have reason to be thankful for modern technology. Thanks to the House website, I was able to listen in on the hearing. It was a very lively event.

Of the four witnesses who testified, only one was a supporter of China’s move to buy Unocal. CATO institute’s Jerry Taylor forcefully argued that China’s purchase of Unocal would pose no threat to the US. His colleagues disagreed, and they argued with equal vigor. The event turned into a very heated debate, with a few of the Congressman making some rather unkind references to Mr. Taylor and the CATO institute.

In his initial testimony, Taylor indicated that Japan took action similar to China’s current move, back in the ‘80s. Though the media cried wolf, nothing ever came of it. Congressman Curt Weldon responded by pointing to Japan’s actions during WWII - they used our equipment against us. Weldon argued that we need to make sure this doesn’t happen with our oil. R. James Woolsey (former CIA Director) agreed with Weldon. He reminded the audience that we are still in the middle of a war against terror. Terrorists could strike at our oil supply and significantly increase its scarcity and cost. Thus, we should be hesitant to sell US oil to China. Also opposed to CNOOC’s purchase of Unocal was witness Frank J. Gaffney. He asserted that Chinese academics believe war with the US is inevitable. Hence, they shouldn’t be getting our oil.

Taylor did seem to have one supporter in Congressman Vic Snyder of Arkansas. Rep. Snyder made a very interesting observation. He claimed, ‘If you call someone an enemy, often they become an enemy.’ Congressman Snyder believes we are not yet an enemy of China; but if we continue to use such rhetoric, that situation might take a turn for the worse.

As for myself, I’m not prepared to come down on either side yet. I recognize good arguments on both sides. There is certainly a danger of China threatening Taiwan, and thereby the US. However, I don’t believe we should treat them as an enemy unless they actually are. It also seems unfair to condemn the Chinese for expanding their military or bettering their economy when the US is guilty of both. I am very much against double-standards. If the US has a right to expand and look out for its interests, I don’t think we have a right to deprive other nations of that same right without sufficient cause. The question at hand is whether we do have sufficient cause.

Pentagon Tour - July 12th

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Yesterday’s tour of the Pentagon was a forceful reminder of the events of 9/11, and the heightened security which has ensued. During the tour there were numerous references to the terrorist attack. We were told the names and ages of the youngest and oldest victims of that day, and shown the flight path of the hijacked aircraft. The soldier who conducted our tour told us of the dedication of the workers who rebuilt the structure in less than a year. Our guide made the event as interesting as he could – considering the fact that we were touring a big office building – and told a few interesting stories. At the beginning of the tour, one of my colleagues suggested that if the tour got too boring, we could lose our little yellow tour passes and see what happens. Fortunately it didn’t come to that - although it would have been interesting to see the security forces in action.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Meeting with Congressman Connie Mack's Staff - July 8th

Meeting with Congressman Connie Mack’s legislative assistants was an interesting opportunity. Though we couldn’t speak directly with the Congressman, his assistants were extremely knowledgeable. My fellow interns and I asked questions ranging from CAFTA to Immigration. The assistants informed us of the Congressman’s position on the different issues, and then made predictions of how upcoming votes would turn out. At one point, the conversation even turned to the approaching college football season! The Congressman’s staffers wrapped things up by giving us some valuable information for getting jobs on the Hill. They echoed a common D.C. theme: "it’s all about networking."

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Thoughts on London - July 9th

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Yesterday London was struck by four timed bombs. American hearts go out to our brethren across the Lake. Meanwhile, as investigators work to learn more about the attacks, we can at least make a few initial observations.

The attacks were allegedly staged by al-Qaeda – they’ve publicly taken credit for them anyway. The explosions were closely timed and definitely share this characteristic with the 9-11 attacks. If al-Qaeda is responsible, then Coalition forces have been given a clear message that the group is still alive and well. And, regardless of whether al-Qaeda is responsible, we still see that the War on Terror is far from over. Perhaps this will silence the demands for a quick withdrawal of our troops from Iraq. In any case, it gives us sufficient cause to step back and examine the war’s progress thus far.

For the time being, though, we face an interesting problem. How should we respond to this latest dose of terrorism? Here in the US, we’ve seen somewhat tighter security on the metro. More police are patrolling the metro stations, and we’re also seeing a lot of German shepherds sniffing around. Still, are these measures enough? Quite frankly, I don’t think the steps so far have made us any safer. It still wouldn’t be very difficult for a terrorist to hop on the metro, plant a bomb and slip away without anyone noticing. This being said, are even greater security measures justified? I’m not sure that would be in our best interest right now.

After all, a terrorist is in business not so much to kill or wound as to spread fear. The odds of being a direct victim of terrorism are still far smaller than the odds of being injured in a car accident, but a terrorist doesn’t want us to think about that. Ultimately, terrorists have an agenda. Their political or religious aims are achieved by convincing the individual that he or she could be the next victim. If enough people are driven to a state of panic, they can be coaxed into yielding to the terrorists’ demands. Thus, we are very much engaged in a psychological battle. Is there a danger of being killed by a suicide bomber on the metro? Yes. But there are many other more feasible dangers we face every day without thinking twice. For example we could be caught up in an armed robbery, run over by a drunk driver, or involved in some kind of natural disaster at almost any time. It’s simply a fact of life that there are many unpredictable events over which we have no control. Thus, we need to realize exactly what the terrorists are trying to do - they want to get inside our heads.

In my opinion, the increased security measures taken so far can help us win the mental battle. Even if they don’t actually deter or thwart terrorist activity, they are beneficial, because they give the civilian populace a greater sense of security. However, if we take even greater steps in security – like metal detectors – which would theoretically make our subways and buses safer, we might actually be catering to the terrorists. A security measure of this type would be very impractical in terms of cost in time and money. While it might make our public transportation safer, it would significantly reduce the number of people utilizing our facilities. This would be perceived as a victory for the terrorists. They will have succeeded in disrupting our day-to-day activities. I believe this would be further motivation for terrorism, insofar as it sends the message that the savage targeting of innocents yields results.

To wrap things up, I believe we should commend Londoners for their “stoicism,” as Prime Minister Blair has put it. A day after the attacks people were back in the subways and on the buses. Maintaining this phlegmatic mindset is essential to the defeat of terrorism. Londoners have realized that terrorists will succeed only if we let them. The rest of us should follow suit.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review: China and Space – The Unmentionables - July 7th - Heritage Foundation

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Today it was back to Heritage for another great lunch. We also attended a lecture beforehand. Due to a mix-up regarding the location of the event, I missed the first of the two panels. Thus, my remarks will deal only with the second panel.

Panel number two dealt with the issue of weapons in Space. In a rare event – at least at Heritage – the two panelists had very different opinions on the subject. Michael Krepon, who spoke first, argued against the militarization of space. Essentially, we would be opening Pandora’s Box. We already have a substantial lead over China in the space arena, and we don’t need to start an arm’s race in Space. No country has attacked a rival’s satellite yet, since all states equipped with satellites realize their own dependence on them. Ultimately, the US has the most to lose as far as satellite capability. To introduce Space as a new theater of war would be to shoot ourselves in the foot.

Mr. Baker Spring spoke next, and came to a different conclusion. He believes Space is already weaponized, since nuclear weapons are guided by satellites. He also supposes that a US Space program would serve as a deterrent, rather than starting an arms race. The current US naval policy is “reassurance through dominance.” Mr. Spring believes this policy will also work in Space

Personally, I side with Mr. Krepon. I can’t see China sitting quietly while we launch a program to put weapons in Space. They will perceive our move as a threat and will start a similar program. If the situation were reversed, does anyone think that the US would sit idly?! Also, even if we have progressed much further in Space technology so far, as Mr. Krepon pointed out, it doesn’t take much to shoot down a satellite. China – or any country with the ability to launch a satellite – can do so with ease. We also might want to look back to the development of the nuclear bomb. At that time the US was the only nation with such capabilities, but it didn’t take long for Russia to catch up. Granted, we should be prepared to strike at an enemy’s satellites if our own are attacked, but I don’t think we want to deal with the consequences of being the first to shoot.