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International Security: We’re Doing it Wrong

Foreign Policy Blogs - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 17:25

UN soldiers provide water at a refugee camp in South Sudan. Photograph: Yna/EPA

Why it’s Time for the West to Lead a Rewrite of the International Security Playbook

Is a re-think of the Western-led international security enterprise needed to respond to a set of interrelated trends that have little to do with conflict between great states and far more to do with dysfunction within fragile states? The candid observer of global security trends might be inclined to respond in the affirmative given the mounting evidence that the West’s responses to vexing security challenges, especially those affecting fragile states, have yielded little positive results. In fact, in many instances, they have made matters worse.

Off-focus in an Age of Persistent Disruption

National security is the practice of protecting the state and its citizens against an assortment of threats through mixed-response statecraft, specifically, using the tools of diplomacy, defense and foreign aid. Conventional wisdom holds that the dominant and potentially most consequential threats to North America and Europe are bellicose nuclear armed rogue states like North Korea and Russia under Vladimir Putin, and of course, nuclear weapons aspirants like Iran. However, a national security orthodoxy centered on “rogues” and expressed in a grand strategy based on cold war logic is well off the mark given that today’s security landscape continues to be shaped to a far greater degree by the drivers of trends like mass migration, terrorism, and climate change than by great powers neo-colonialism.

Further, the West’s well-resourced military enterprise – led by the United States – cannot begin to mitigate, much less resolve, the root causes of the most consequential drivers of 21st century insecurity. In an era where great states conflict is most likely to be fought using the mechanism of finance and trade (e.g., sanctions) vs with destroyer squadrons and Army divisions, the convergence of political dysfunction, underdevelopment, and extremist ideologies, most now be recognized as the premier threat to international peace and stability.

An obsession with readily definable, deterable and trackable “rogues” is counter-productive in an era that is increasingly being defined by trends that have little to do with Putin and Khatami and everything to do with imploding states across the across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The toxic forces circulating within, and emanating from, failing states like Somalia, Sudan Yemen, Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, et al., continues to spill across regional borders, and increasingly into the West’s own bowls of prosperity in the forms of terror and mass migration, spiking angst, or at the very least, deep concern, from Albania to Sweden.

Fragile States Spillage – A New Normal

The up until recently under-reported exodus of Western, Northern and Eastern African youth from their tumultuous homelands into Libya (itself a failed state), and across the Mediterranean sea, is an example of fragile states spillage that has the potential to cause chronic social and economic pain across Western Europe. Many Southern European nations with their already sky-high unemployment rates, dismal growth numbers and stressed welfare systems are not prepared to absorb hundreds of thousands of young, low-skilled migrants. Given the worsening conditions across the MENA — to include the deepening desperation — the waves of migrants will be persistent and perhaps even more intense in the years to come.

There is even concern that violent extremist individuals might be mixed in with legitimate African refugees on any of the numerous illegally-operated ferries making the crossing.  The specter of stowaway terrorists amid persistent waves of unskilled foreigners landing penniless and hungry at Europe’s doorway is a stiff wind in the sails of European xenophobia generally, but islamophobia more specifically. One British columnist, in response to the migration crisis, called for “gunboats” to be used on refugees – and referred to the migrants as a “plague of feral humans.” Though this is hardly a representative sentiment of the vast majority of Europeans it does underscore the potential for a nationalistic backlash that could lead to minor or major political reordering across some of the most affected nations.

Fragile states spillage has precipitated a revolution in geo-security affairs that has come as a surprise to national security practitioners. Here, many now find that they are increasingly planning more foreign humanitarian assistance operations than war-fighting operations. But although each of the human insecurity-linked trends are by themselves problematic, some are more concerning than others due to the sheer scope of the problems and their exceedingly long resolution timelines. But perhaps the trend of most concern – one that is the most underappreciated and underreported – is one that should be the easiest to understand and most important to mitigate.

Young boys are usually recruited from within the locality, lured by money and a sense of purpose in fighting for the community [Al Jazeera Media Network & Reuters]

The Raw Materials of Terror

The youth bulge is a stage of development where a country reduces infant mortality but birthrates stay the same or increase. It is a trend that is compounding instability over large swathes of the MENA. In Sub-Saharan and North Africa about 40 percent of the population is under the age of fifteen, and almost 70 percent is under thirty years old. It’s not surprising, then, that there exists a tremendous imbalance between young men in need of meaningful employment and available jobs. Frustrated youth don’t have productive options to choose from, so many are compelled to leave their home countries, join a local illicit network (e.g., gangs), pledge to a terror group or resort to petty crime (the gateway to not-so-petty crime) to satisfy their unmet needs. The net outcome is that before age twenty, many young men become national liabilities versus national assets.

Boys with unmet psychological, spiritual and physical needs across the MENA are ripe for recruitment into violent religio-political groups like Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But this is not the narrative that the architects of the counterterrorism fight want to hear. It causes no small amount of dissonance to learn that the foot soldiers of terror (really, at-risk youth whose communities and countries have failed them) are not innately evil and that most are even be redeemable. However, the itch to be seen as doing something (normally that “something” is lethal) must be scratched in order to appease a fearful public which is largely not aware of the key ingredients of which the transnational “terrorism” concoction is composed.

The youth bulge and other drivers of national instability and insecurity cannot be responded to with the West’s security apparatus. There’s no denying that a robust set of traditional military and intelligence capabilities is needed to deter great states aggression as well as to eliminate bad guys who are imminent threats, however, hard power should be the lesser applied compound in the prescription designed to cure terrorism. Developmental and national capacity building goods and processes  (often referred to as soft power) aimed at improving affected population’s human security represent a way forward that is likely to achieve the best security results over the long term.

President Obama in his 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS) stated, “The use of force is not, however, the only tool at our disposal, and it is not the principal means of U.S. engagement abroad, nor always the most effective for the challenges we face.” Though the administration persistently promises that hard power is not the “principal means of U.S. engagement abroad,” one could be forgiven for being skeptical of this pronouncement after even a cursory review of the national security balance sheet.

Uncle Sam’s military expenditures come in at over twelve times the spending of diplomacy and foreign humanitarian and development programs (more precisely, $610 billion to $50 billion). Surely, the U.S. administration and Congress can do a better job of adjusting spending priorities so that there is a more reasonable balance between hard power spending and the soft power tools that can effectively address the drivers of expanding insecurity in key parts of the world.

A Smarter Approach

Smart Power is a concept first introduced by Joseph Nye (former Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Clinton) and centers on investing in alliances and institution building as a means to enhance stability and achieve sustainable security outcomes. When practiced wisely, it is inspired by American core values and informed by scholarly analysis of observable trends versus biases towards a familiar set of threats and trends. Nye shared in a Huffington Post article in 2007 that, “Though the Pentagon is the best trained and best resourced arm of the government, there are limits to what hard power can achieve on its own. Promoting democracy, human rights and development of civil society are not best handled with the barrel of a gun.”

For smart power to gain traction, conventional notions of national security must yield to a far broader, nuanced and fact-fueled understanding of threats to international security. New goals, doctrines and strategies together would form the basis of a new international security orthodoxy, which brings closer to its center human security concerns. The premise that international security can be preserved principally with conventional war prowess must be discredited and more balanced and sensible framework for understanding (and responding to) security threats be brought to the fore. A policy of strategic patience which resists reflexive kinetic responses and is expressed principally through conflict resolution and development efforts must be sold to the American public as the most prudent way forward.

Lastly, President Obama’s NSS states that the solution to the fragile states challenge “rests in bolstering the capacity of regional organizations, and the United Nation system, to help resolve disputes, build resilience to crises and shocks, strengthen governance, end extreme poverty.” Such an approach (clearly not yet fully implemented) is smart power manifest, where victories are harder to quantify, take a long time to achieve, but are ultimately more effective than costly and controversial approaches like the target lists centric counterterrorism program. It’s time for the international security playbook to be revamped so that a human security centered smart power approach becomes America’s grand strategy for leading the world into an increasingly tumultuous 21st century.

‘Team of Teams’: The new McChrystal book is good but a bit heavy on SEAL role

Foreign Policy - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 16:49


By Maj. Gen. David Fastabend, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense book reviewer

A book release with a more promising premise is hard to imagine: the inside story on the military’s elite Joint Special Operations Task Force adaptation in the War on Terror, reversing the outcome from failure to success. Moreover, the lessons learned from that experience can be applied to the leadership and management of any organization struggling to address the dynamic, complex environments of our globalized lives.

Up front, Stan McChrystal offers a vital caveat that all readers ignore at their peril: Team of Teams is not a war story. This is a leadership story and a management story, masterfully crafted and compellingly delivered by McChrystal with the assistance of two former Navy SEALs — David Silverman and Chris Fussell — and Tantum Collins, a Yale graduate currently studying at Cambridge.

The text is a tour de force of management theory over the past century. Beginning with Taylor’s work on efficiency and the foundation of scientific management, the authors establish the underpinnings of most legacy military and business organizations. Next there is a thorough treatment of complexity, carefully distinguishing it from mere complication, and how this phenomenon defeats most adherents to scientific management. The next transition is to resilience thinking, adaptability, and the important distinctions between team thinking and command thinking. Finally, there are key observations on how modern technology enables shared consciousness, greater transparency of decision-making and devolution of decision-making authority to lower levels. Anecdotes and vignettes mined from the authors’ military experiences and management studies weave through and connect the argument.

Team of Teams offers explicit and substantive prescriptions for what ails modern organizations. The argument is that the benefits of small, effective teams can be scaled up significantly through a network approach built on transparent decision-making and an “eyes-on / hands-off” devolution of decision authority to the lowest practical levels. The recommendations include the physical co-location of key stakeholder representatives and robust attention to liaison representation where that is not possible. Technology can be leveraged for large scale communication of context and intent to the “team of teams.” Most importantly, there is a unifying emphasis throughout on the human dimension of organizational behavior and culture.

GEN McChrystal argues compellingly that this is no “zero-defects” approach, and that leaders in a complex environment must be content with a 70% solution. I suspect Stan was significantly “hands-off” in his authorship role here, because 70% is how I would score the military perspective of Team of Teams. Granted — it is not a war story — but most military officers picking up this text will utter a short prayer: “Please God, don’t let this be about how SOF won the war. And if SOF has to win the war, please don’t let it be about how only the SEALs did it.”

Alas, such prayers go largely unanswered. There is no mention of the 160,000 non-SOF military members that shared the Iraqi battle space with JSOTF, or their complementary role as the admittedly non-cool, non-special team in the team of teams. Although there is grudging acknowledgement that there are non-Navy SOF elements, the SEALs overwhelm the narrative with extensive accounts of BUDS training, etc. In a world where the SEALs are painfully over-exposed, this will generate some anti-bodies in more experienced military readers. Such readers will also not find co-location of the joint and inter-governmental battle-staff, attention to LNO assignments, or extensive televideo conferencing of daily O&I meetings as ground-breaking innovations, as these have been standard practice in the conventional forces at least back to Army operations in Bosnia in the mid-90s.

In spite of the scope of this text as a management treatise, intriguing questions go unanswered. The enemy is portrayed as being superiorly adaptive and resilient, with scant explanation of how they achieved that. The role of their ideology as a substitute for directive command and control is unexplored. Although decision authority can be decentralized in an “eyes on / hands off” environment, accountability can not be decentralized — is this risk always acceptable? How does one navigate the treacherous tensions between authority and accountability?

Finally, the elephant in the room is that for all this adaptation and innovation the enemy they defeated has forced the evacuation of the old JSOTF base of operations at Balad, Iraq. Strategy still eats organization and process for breakfast. This omission of context particularly frustrates me because I witnessed GEN McChrystal’s personal and vital role in recognizing the Sunni revolt in Anbar Province and setting the strategic conditions in place that enabled a temporary window of stability in Iraq. The book would be improved if this exemplary, self-effacing leader was more hands-on in explaining the role of effective strategy — in the absence of which even teams of teams will flounder.

Notwithstanding these quibbles, Team of Teams slashes useful trails through the jungle of complexity that bewilders most modern organizations. It is a story worthy of a careful read and even more careful reflection.

David Fastabend is a retired Army officer who served as Multinational Forces Iraq C3 in 2006-2007 and Director of Strategy, Plans and Policy for the Army Staff 2007-2009.

‘Team of Teams’: Good on JSOC in Iraq, but not that much new for business types

Foreign Policy - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 16:39

By Gautam Mukunda
Best Defense book reviewer

Team of Teams, by General Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell, is essentially two books.

One is a Gladwell-esque attempt to relate a variety of stories, most familiar but some new, that are meant to illuminate different aspects of both the history of management thought and of the authors’ solution to the problem of how to make large bureaucratic organizations flexible and adaptive enough to succeed in the modern world.

The other is a description of how McChrystal and his team radically improved the performance of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq by transforming it from a rigid hierarchic structure to, in their term, a “team of teams.” JSOC’s new structure and method of operating allowed it to integrate intelligence more effectively and plan and launch operations much more quickly than it ever could have before, resulting in a series of (temporary) triumphs, culminating in the killing of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Team of Teams has some significant weaknesses, but its description of how a remarkably gifted leader transformed an organization in the most challenging of circumstances both adds to our understanding of the Iraq War and is likely to be helpful and occasionally inspiring for executives. It may be particularly useful for business leaders who are unlikely to read the academic research that has come to very similar conclusions, but who might instead be drawn to a story of organizational transformation under literal, not metaphoric, fire.

Many large organizations today struggle with exactly the problem McChrystal and his co-authors identify: the need to be far more agile, adaptable, responsive to information from the environment, and able to learn and innovate quickly in response to new, unanticipated, and rapidly-evolving threats than they would have had to be a generation ago. The solutions they identify, of breaking down organizational silos, building personal ties between members of different units within the organization to enable information flow and cooperation, and minimizing or eliminating leaders’ tendency to micromanage subordinates in favor of empowering people to make their own decisions whenever possible, are familiar, but also useful, powerful, and likely to be implementable by business leaders.

Team of Teams’ strongest effect is that it leaves me enormously impressed by McChrystal’s abilities. Few leaders could have stepped back from the war effort in Iraq and rethought some of the most basic assumptions about how the military should operate. Even fewer could have countered the tendency to throw more resources at the problem or optimize current processes instead of reinventing the organization wholesale. Even more impressive, of course, is that after McChrystal and his team diagnosed the problem they faced, they were able to successfully implement this radically new approach in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

Teams of Teams’ most useful aspects for executives are likely its concrete examples of how McChrystal and his team reformed JSOC, with analogues of many of those approaches available to business leaders. Their solutions may not be new, but few people can claim to have implemented such ideas so successfully or in such adverse conditions. Team of Teams’ suggestions are far from complete but they are, without question, useful, interesting, and often thought-provoking.

Team of Teams is far from flawless. It does not explain, for example, which circumstances that make its preferred organizational form preferable to traditional ones, or describe the advantages of the old form over the new one. It could have been strengthened by engaging more deeply with the management literature on the organizational forms it describes, particularly the work of Michael Tushman on ambidextrous organizations and Ranjay Gulati on disrupting organizational silos. It does not engage with the differences between militaries and businesses, nor does it offer advice to leaders with authority less absolute than McChrystal’s was on how to win over opponents.

The book also stumbles when its attention shifts from the military in general and Iraq in particular. Its stories of Frederick Taylor pioneering scientific management, for example, may be interesting to readers unfamiliar with them, but they are likely to be old for many, and they tend to distract from the book’s primary goal of explaining a different model of management. In some cases the authors’ relative unfamiliarity with business shows — their attribution of the financial crisis to a lack of supervision of junior employees in Wall Street firms by senior managers, for example, shallowly (and arguably mistakenly) analyzes a complex event of surpassing importance.

It also has a small number of factual and editorial errors. But these should not impede anyone from reading Team of Teams or taking its ideas about management seriously.

Despite its weaknesses, Team of Teams is valuable. Its most important advice for leaders, however, is likely to be the hardest for them to take. Information technology enables leaders to monitor their organization with unprecedented immediacy and fidelity. McChrystal and his co-authors acutely observe that this is a double-edged sword. Such transparency can be a huge asset when it allows leaders to learn about what their followers are doing, and when it allows followers to observe leaders and get general guidance from them. When it is used to enable leaders to micro-manage their followers instead, this transparency is an organizational bane. McChrystal’s description of his personal struggle with his controlling instincts (instincts shared by most leaders) is therefore likely to be particularly valuable to other leaders struggling to make the same organizational transformation.

Gautam Mukunda is an Assistant Professor at Harvard Business School and the author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter. He has published on leadership, military innovation, and the security and economic implications of advances in synthetic biology.


‘Team of Teams’: What Tom thinks

Foreign Policy - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 16:30


I liked the book more than either of these guys. I think it is one of the best things I have read about how the military needs to change to move from the Industrial Age to the Information Age.

I‘ve written a review that I am told is going to run in Marine Corps Gazette’ s June issue. When it does, I shall endeavor to run an excerpt and if possible a link to the whole thing.

New America/Thomas E. Ricks

The Telenovela That Wasn’t

Foreign Policy - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 16:06

MEXICO CITY — Carmen Aristegui is a likable hero for Mexico’s perennially embattled media. Given to little makeup or hairstyling, the 51-year-old radio personality has gained a reputation for her lack of pretension. A few weeks ago, I met her at the offices of her online newspaper, Aristegui Noticias, located in a run-down building in the unassuming Anzures district of Mexico City. The setting is more reminiscent of a basement start-up than the bureau of a celebrity broadcaster, whose radio show once regularly drew an average of 15 million listeners.

“I like to use the stairs, it’s the only exercise I get these days,” she explains by way of an apology for the sluggish elevator. After warmly greeting her news team, Aristegui leads the way to a closet-like back office.

There, over the buzz of a worn-out electric fan, she recounts the story of her dismissal in March from MVS Comunicaciones, the Mexican radio and satellite television provider. In Aristegui’s telling, it is a tale of government collusion. MVS, on the other hand, claims that it fired Aristegui and cancelled her popular morning radio program because she refused to accept the station’s new editorial guidelines. But she links her dismissal to her reporting on a major conflict-of-interest scandal with the president at its center.

Last November, Aristegui revealed that Grupo Higa, a major public contractor that won millions of dollars in state business, built a lavish home for the wife of President Enrique Peña Nieto. The investigation into the $7 million luxury mansion, dubbed the “White House” owing to its white interior and color-changing lighting system, sparked subsequent revelations about additional properties owned by Higa and used by the presidency’s inner circles.

“There was no business rationale to cancel the newscast except that MVS was under very strong political pressure, especially after the White House investigation,” says Aristegui from across the table. “It is obvious that the company used a pretext, and that this decision was very probably made by the government.”

She is now taking her fight to the courts. A Mexico City judge has ordered a hearing scheduled for May 12 to determine whether MVS violated its contract with the radio host, and if she should be reinstated. “When MVS refused to negotiate, it left me with no choice but to go to the courts,” she says. “This is not only about my journalistic work or my job. It is about freedom of expression and defending audiences’ right to information.”

The case has whipped up public opinion, turning Aristegui into Mexico’s latest martyr for press freedom. Her supporters across the country have joined six rights organizations to file so-called “amparos,” a Mexican legal procedure intended to protect human rights, in protest of her dismissal.

Her firing has also unleashed a wave of intrigue and conspiracy that would make House of Cards creator Beau Willimon proud. Some people assert that MVS let go of Aristegui to curry favor with the government ahead of an auction for broadcasters’ airwaves next year. Others suggest that the president demanded her dismissal out of fear that her promotion of MéxicoLeaks, a small whistle-blowing website, would give its investigations a higher profile, allowing revelations of more government scandals to reach national audiences. And there is even talk that MVS had lost an important ally against the government — the powerful telecoms mogul Carlos Slim — making the station more vulnerable to political pressure.

Critics say that a pervasive culture of self-censorship in Mexico’s broadcast media contributes to a lack of watchdog journalism in the country. The politically connected Televisa controls almost 70 percent of the broadcast television business, and media owners depend on concessions granted by a regulator that has historically been influenced by special interests. “The level of tolerance for journalism critical of the government is extremely low in Mexico because we don’t have a sufficiently developed democratic system,” Aristegui argues.

But a number of her former superiors and colleagues have criticized the beloved yet battle-prone journalist for her lack of regard for authority. Moreover, there is no proof implicating the government in Aristegui’s banishment from the airwaves. (As Salvador Camarena, Aristegui’s trusted former MVS colleague, admitted to me: “we have no smoking gun.”)

The commotion around Aristegui’s case highlights the government’s sinking credibility. Her no-frills style strikes a sharp contrast to the nattily-dressed, aloof Peña Nieto, whose perfectly coiffed hair was as much a talking point in his December 2012 election victory as his lofty reform promises. Almost three years later, he has made important economic strides. But he has yet to implement tough measures to crack down on corruption or assure Mexicans that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — once synonymous with greed and a lust for power — has changed its stripes.

Aristegui, meanwhile, has won huge admiration among anti-corruption crusaders and free speech advocates for her unflinching attacks against Mexico’s political elite. Over her 25-year career, she has uncovered a prostitution ring run by a party chiefa pedophile priest protected by a powerful Roman Catholic cardinal, and the alleged involvement of Televisa in a Central American drug-smuggling ring.

When Aristegui blew the lid off the “White House” story last November, the Peña Nieto government was already reeling from accusations of incompetence and corruption. The previous month, 43 students from the Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa in rural Mexico were allegedly murdered by a corrupt mayor in cahoots with criminal gangs. The scandal sparked an international outcry, not to mention massive protests against the government, whose gaffe-prone communication strategy made matters worse. “Carmen became the pebble in Peña Nieto’s shoe,” said Denise Dresser, a long-time collaborator of Aristegui’s and a former MVS pundit.

But the government isn’t the only institution Aristegui has antagonized, according to numerous interviews with her colleagues and former employers. In 2002, Aristegui hosted a radio show for the broadcasting company Grupo Imagen. But her boss at the time, Pedro Ferriz de Con, fired her over disagreements about the company’s editorial line: “She said terrible things about Imagen on-air during her time there. Imagine how the audience took it?” he said.

In another incident in 2008, W Radio, a joint-venture between Spain’s Grupo Prisa and Televisa, decided not to renew her contract. According to Daniel Moreno, her boss at the time, she arrived at the office late and refused to take commercial breaks, depriving the station of a vital source of revenue. As the bottom line suffered, the company presented her with new rules, Moreno said. But after months of negotiations, she backed out, claiming the station wanted to censor her.

In many of her spats with employers Aristegui has cried foul, turning up the political heat by implying that the powers that be have called for her head. According to Aristegui, Ferriz and businessman Alfonso Romo, a stakeholder in Imagen, had a personal vendetta against her because she exposed a sex scandal involving a highly respected and powerful religious order in Mexico. She also claims that she was dismissed from W Radio due to her criticism of the derisively named “Televisa Law” – a measure passed in 2006 that was widely interpreted as giving the powerful station privileges in gaining new broadcast concessions and expanding its market dominance. “On the program we had months of debate about this law, and it infuriated Televisa,” she said.

Perhaps all this should have sounded the alarm for MVS owner Joaquín Vargas Gómez when he hired her. But the tycoon was seduced by Aristegui’s massive viewership, and loaded her contract with deal sweeteners. This included an ethics code spelling out her editorial control over her show, an MVS ombudsman to safeguard audiences’ rights, and an independent arbitrator to intercede in editorial disputes between her and the company.

Yet Aristegui has a habit of repeating herself. In 2011, the firebrand journalist was let go after Felipe Calderón, the president at the time, called Vargas demanding that Aristegui apologize or be fired for reporting rumors he had a drinking problem. According to Aristegui, Vargas allegedly begged her to yield to the president’s request, saying that he was in the middle of negotiating with the government to hang onto a multi-million dollar broadcast concession. But Aristegui refused, choosing instead to publicize what happened. “Why should I have to equivocate and apologize, and accept the temper tantrum of a president?” she said at her office. Vargas later reinstated her after her huge fan base protested.

Aristegui claimed that the incident did not damage her relationship with Vargas, but that problems resurfaced with the White House investigation. She says he asked her not to air the report on her radio show (requesting her “understanding”). So she broke the story on her own website. MVS has not responded to the allegations.

In the months that followed the White House revelations, her reporting grew relentless, sparking an on-air showdown with her employer that led to her dismissal in March. “There was a loss of confidence in Carmen,” said Ezra Shabot, another journalist at MVS. “The owners felt that they were losing their space on the radio, that she was the owner of it.”

Tensions reached a climax when Aristegui announced on March 10 that her team of investigative journalists at MVS would help promote Méxicoleaks, a new digital tool founded by eight Mexican media outlets and civil society groups courting would-be whistleblowers to help expose state corruption.

Infuriated, MVS issued a series of news bulletins that appeared in the middle of Aristegui’s show, accusing her team of using the MVS brand name to endorse Méxicoleaks deceptively and illegally. It then fired two leading journalists on her investigative team, Daniel Lizárraga and Irving Huerta, both of whom were involved in the Méxicoleaks story.

Aristegui refused to accept their dismissal and picked a fight with the company on-air. “Instead of punishing them we should be rewarding them!” she said on her March 13 broadcast. MVS retaliated, declaring to its audiences it would not accept her “ultimatum,” and published new editorial guidelines on its website imposing restrictions on content.

On March 15, MVS said it would reinstate Lizárraga and Huerta if Aristegui accepted the new editorial rules. But she refused, and that evening received notification from MVS that her show had been cancelled. The next day, news of her firing and that of her 17-member team made headlines, sparking a public uproar.

Aristegui still has a column in the Mexican magazine Reforma and a show on CNN’s Spanish-language program version. But her supporters say that her exile from the airwaves has left a critical gap in the coverage of Mexican politics ahead of important mid-term congressional elections on June 7. The story has also been swept up into wider criticisms of Mexico’s shaky human rights record.

In the same breath that media reports have referenced Aristegui’s firing, they point out that attacks on reporters in Mexico are ticking upward. According to a March investigation by the British rights group Article 19, violence against members of the press rose 80 percent in the first two years of the Peña Nieto administration, relative to the six-year average of his predecessor. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also ranks Mexico among the world’s top 10 countries for journalist killings, and impunity in such cases is as high as 90 percent.

But the crux of the issues in the case of Carmen Aristegui appears to be less about the human rights tale than the slow — and often sporadic — slog toward political reform.

New legislation enacted last July has sought to bring fresh competition into Mexico’s stiflingly uncompetitive broadcast market. It has also created specialized tribunals for media and antitrust matters, helping to fast-track legal procedures. Aristegui’s supporters have utilized the newly formed telecommunications and broadcast courts to file complaints against MVS, claiming that the company’s actions breached the public’s right of access to information. Still, critics argue that these procedures could be bogged down in red tape and that the courts remain over-stretched, lacking both human and financial resources.

“These new legal tools are here to guarantee the rights of journalists and the Mexican people, but it is a big challenge for Mexico’s justice system,” says Aristegui, looking tired for the first time in our interview. Yet the crack in her armor is only momentary. Leaning forward to be heard over the raspy fan, she adds with characteristic zeal: “But it mustn’t drag on, every minute wasted is a minute that the Mexican people lose their right to critical information.”


White House Denies Assertions About Bin Laden Raid; Another Earthquake in Nepal; Blogger Killed in Bangladesh; Chinese Smartphones in India; Bomb Blast Kills 5 Afghans

Foreign Policy - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 15:13

White House denies journalist’s assertions on bin Laden raid

On Monday, the White House responded to a controversial report by journalist Seymour Hersh, dismissing it as “baseless” (CNN, RFE/RL). Hersh wrote in the London Review of Books on Sunday that the U.S. government secretly cooperated with Pakistani intelligence officials to kill bin Laden, and that top Pakistani Army intelligence officials knew about the raid. Ned Price, the White House National Security spokesman, said on Monday that “the notion that the operation that killed Osama Bin Ladin was anything but a unilateral U.S. mission is patently false.” He added: “As we said at the time, knowledge of this operation was confined to a very small circle of senior U.S. officials. The president decided early on not to inform any other government, including the Pakistani government, which was not notified until after the raid had occurred.” During the daily press briefing on Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest again dismissed the report, citing CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen’s comment that “what’s true in this story isn’t new, and what’s new in the story isn’t true” (CNN).

Pakistani PM, Officials Arrive in Kabul

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived in Kabul today for key talks on increasing cooperation between the neighboring countries in fighting militant groups (AP, Pajhwok, VOA). Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif and the head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Gen. Gizwan Akhtar are also part of the visiting delegation. This is the first time Sharif is visiting Kabul after the installation of the National UnitY Government, and the delegation is holding separate meetings with both Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.


Another earthquake in Nepal, India prepares aid

A second major earthquake hit Nepal on Tuesday, with dozens of deaths reported and thousands more injured. The U.S. Geological Survey assigned the new earthquake a preliminary magnitude of 7.3, compared to 7.8 assigned to the April 25 earthquake. (New York Times). Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with top Indian officials to monitor the situation. Modi’s office tweeted that he has “directed all concerned authorities to be on alert for carrying out rescue and relief operations, as required” (NDTV). Per initial reports, at least two people were killed by the earthquake in the Indian state of Bihar, which borders Nepal (Times of India). Tremors from the earthquake were felt as far away as Delhi, where Metro services were briefly suspended (India Today).


Atheist blogger killed in machete attack

Ananta Bijoy Das, a Bangladeshi atheist blogger, was murdered in the city of Sylhet in northeastern Bangladesh (The GuardianCNN). Das was hacked to death by four masked attackers with machetes, according to the police. This is the third such murder in Bangladesh this year. Das wrote blogs for the Mukto-Muno website, which used to be moderated by Avijit Roy, who was himself stabbed to death in February in Dhaka, the capital. While Kamrul Hasan, the commissioner of Sylhet police, declined to offer a motive for the attack, the previous two attacks have been attributed to Islamic militants opposed to the victims’ secular views.


Chinese smartphone makers eye Indian market

The New York Times reported on Monday that Chinese smartphone manufacturing companies are increasingly shifting their focus towards India (New York Times). The Chinese smartphone market has become more and more saturated, with 800 million smartphone users in the country. Fewer new buyers, coupled with a slowing economy, has diminished growth prospects within China. Instead, Chinese smartphone makers are targeting the Indian market, which is sized at $14.5 billion and rapidly growing. Indians are expected to buy 111 million smartphones in 2015 and 149 million in 2016. Chinese companies like Xiaomi, OnePlus, and Gionee are planning to set up research and development facilities in India.

Modi set to be first Indian PM to visit Mongolia

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit East Asia this week, and his meeting with President Xi Jinping of China in Beijing will be a highly anticipated event. Following his visit to China, Modi will also visit Mongolia on May 17, the first such visit by an Indian Prime Minister (Times of India). Noted South Asia scholar C. Raja Mohan argues that there is a strategic element to Modi’s Mongolia trip, as India and China compete for influence within each other’s neighborhoods (Indian Express).


Roadside bomb kills 5 civilians

A roadside bomb killed five civilians and wounded three others in Kandahar province on Tuesday (RFE/RL, TOLO). Samim Akhplwak, the spokesman for the provincial governor, said that two women and one child were wounded in the blast and that an investigation is underway to determine if it was an old mine or a bomb planted by the Taliban (AP). The Taliban have not yet claimed responsibility for the bomb, but Kandahar province is the staging ground for their insurgency.

Taliban, security forces battle in Herat

Skirmishes between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces in Herat province continued on Tuesday, as dozens of insurgents attacked a number of security checkpoints in the Shindand district (Pajhwok, TOLO). Abdul Rauf, a police spokesperson, said that 20 rebels were killed during the fighting, but other officials declined to give a count of casualties. On Saturday, Taliban insurgents attacked and gained control of Jawand district in western Badghis province. The recent uptick in fighting is attributed to the beginning of the Taliban’s spring offensive last month.

— Udit Banerjea and Emily Schneider

Edited by Peter Bergen

En Inde, des zones économiques très spéciales

Le Monde Diplomatique - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 15:08
Un an après son arrivée au pouvoir, en mai 2014, le premier ministre indien Narendra Modi continue d'ériger en modèle économique les recettes expérimentées dans l'Etat du Gujarat, qu'il a dirigé de 2001 à 2014 . Si son étoile commence à pâlir, le dirigeant du parti hindouiste Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a (...) / , , , , , , , , , - 2015/05

Insurrection dans les glaces

Le Monde Diplomatique - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 15:08
Ce saisissant roman prolétarien n'est pas une nouveauté , mais il est bon de saisir l'occasion d'une nouvelle publication pour revenir sur ce chef-d'œuvre d'un genre peu fréquenté, et parfois plus attachant par la thématique que par la grandeur littéraire. Avec Le Bateau-Usine, écrit en 1929, (...) / , , , , , , , , , , , , - 2015/05

Situation Report: Some Gulf allies roll into town; Iraq ground fire concerns; Special Ops to Japan; and more

Foreign Policy - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 13:22

By Paul McLeary with Ariel Robinson

Adding it up. It’s now been just over nine months since a U.S.-led coalition began pounding the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq from the air. And in that time, the mission, which one Pentagon wag then dubbed “Operation: Dude, That’s My Humvee?” has hit 6,278 targets — including 288 U.S. Humvees the Islamic militants snatched from the Iraqi Army. The whole thing has cost Washington over $2.3 billion ($8.6 million a day) to keep the rocks bouncing, and there’s no end in sight.

First things. In Iraq, which the White House says is its first priority, the Islamic State still holds the cities of Mosul and Fallujah, and appears poised to take control of the Baiji oil refinery. The refinery and the city of Ramadi remain “highly contested” Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren said Monday, and the fight could go either way.

Video of U.S. planes in action over Iraq. Those bombs just don’t appear out of nowhere. They’re dropped by American pilots flying aircraft in at times close proximity to Islamic State fighters, who are very happy to fire back. The group recently released a video of fighting in and around the Baiji refinery that showed U.S. attack aircraft taking sustained ground fire. (Start at the 3:35 mark.) In response to an email query about the ground fire, U.S. Air Force Capt. Andrew Caulk replied that “we don’t have a releasable number for surface-to-air fire (SAFIRE) events. While the ground fire in the video may seem severe, the picture looks very different from the air. Our pilots occasionally report ineffective small arms or anti-aircraft artillery fire.”

We’re coming! Soon-ish. In another sign that the Asia “rebalance” is still on despite the fact that the Middle East is burning, we found out Monday that American special operations forces are bringing some of their newest aircraft to Japan.

Just not until 2017.

Ten of the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command’s (AFSOC) 50 CV-22 tiltrotor Osprey aircraft are headed for Yokota airfield near Tokyo. The Pentagon announcement comes on the heels of Japan’s plans to spend $3 billion to buy 17 of the speedy V22 Osprey from the U.S.

While the U.S. Marine Corps already operates 24 Osprey from the Futenma base on Okinawa, the move expands the AFSOC footprint in the region, with the Air Force’s 353rd Special Operations Group having long operated out of Kadena Air base in Okinawa. But with U.S. operators based in South Korea and Okinawa, the deployment can be seen as effectively splitting the large geographic distance between the two, making quick relief of those special ops ground forces potentially pretty tough.

“This is another example of the challenge of SOF airlift (which really only exists to get ground SOF into and out of hostile areas) that is not collocated with the ground forces” it will support, emails David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel who now teaches at Georgetown University. “But that is the nature also of being in theater and subject to host nation political constraints. I would rather have them in Yokota than not in theater at all.”

Always. Be. Closing. Today marks the kickoff of the increasingly contentious two-day Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at Camp David, where President Barack Obama will host the leadership of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to talk through security issues. Originally billed by the White House as a sitdown among heads of state, there’s been some backsliding on the original hype. Saudi King Salman has already pulled out of the meeting, sending his 29 year-old defense minister instead. And Bahrain’s king has also declined to attend, sending his defense chief. The Pentagon confirmed Monday that Defense Secretary Ash Carter will also attend, but a spokesman declined to say who else from the department might be there. FP’s John Hudson outlines some of the tensions, and the uncertainty, over what will actually be accomplished over the next two days.

Say it ain’t so. It looks like all sorts of defense officials are pushing back against Seymour Hersh’s inflammatory story in the London Review of Books on Monday claiming that just about everything you’ve been told about the U.S. SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan is a lie. FP’s Sean Naylor catalogs the outrage.

It’s Situation Report time! Tell the kids to go draw a picture or “play the quiet game” for a few minutes while you scroll through your phone with us, won’t you? Let us know what’s on your mind at or on Twitter: @paulmcleary

Revolving door

“Porter Goss, a director of the CIA under the Bush administration, has been hired by Turkey’s government to lobby Congress on matters including counter-terrorism, energy-security, and stability in the the NATO-member’s region,” Bloomberg’s Isobel Finkel reports.


Hostilities continue in Yemen, where Houthi rebels and Saudi-led coalition forces “traded heavy artillery and rocket fire in border areas,” a day before the proposed humanitarian cease-fire is to take effect on Tuesday, according to Al-Jazeera. Many are skeptical of the deal: a group of 17 international aid agencies say five days is not enough to provide adequate humanitarian assistance, and Yemen’s Foreign Minister Riyad Yassin said he believed the Houthis “had no desire for a ceasefire deal.”


At a cybersecurity forum at George Washington University on Monday, chief of U.S. Cyber Command — and head of NSA — Adm. Michael Rogers said hackers (and other perpetrators of cyber attacks) will “pay the price,” for their actions. “What concerned me” Defense News quotes him as saying, “was, given the fact that this is a matter of public record, if we don’t publicly acknowledge it, if we don’t attribute it and if we don’t talk about what we’re going to do in response to the activity … I don’t want anyone watching thinking we have not tripped a red line.”


Israel will be buying four patrol boats from the marine division of Germany’s ThyssenKrupp to protect natural gas fields in the Mediterranean, The ticket price on the deal is approximately $480 million. ThyssenKrupp has also committed to around $181 million worth of reciprocal purchasing in Israel, AFP reports.


About 200 U.S. Army troops from the 3rd Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade (some of whom are also currently in western Ukraine) have kicked off a joint military exercise in Georgia with local forces after the U.S. shipped a company’s worth of heavily armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles across the Black Sea, Reuters reports. The purpose of the mission is to train a company of Georgian soldiers to be able to operate as part of NATO’s Response Force, a Pentagon official confirmed Monday.


It would appear that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi alive and well, according to reporting from The Daily Beast.  He continues to lead the group, a Defense Department spokesman said Monday, adding, “the U.S. military has no reason to believe he was injured in a coalition airstrike.”

Ceasefire in Yemen Set to Begin Tonight

Foreign Policy - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 13:19

Fighting continues in Yemen today with just hours to go before the implementation of a five-day ceasefire between Saudi and Houthi forces. The ceasefire is set to begin at 11 PM local time and will allow the delivery of critical humanitarian aid. “It is unclear how much longer Yemen’s remaining hospitals have before the lights go out,” Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East director told the Washington Post, stressing the need for fuel for generators and water supply pumps. Yesterday, Saudi Arabia struck a large munitions stockpile near Sanaa, setting off a chain of secondary explosions. Today more strikes have targeted Houthi positions in Sanaa and Aden, and Saudi Arabia has massed ground forces along Yemen’s northern border. A U.S. airstrike, believed to have been launched by a drone, hit the presidential residence in al-Mukalla, which was seized by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula last month.

President Obama is expected to discuss the situation in Yemen with Gulf diplomats later this week at a summit at Camp David. Human Rights Watch has called on President Obama to press Gulf nations to implement reforms to allow more political dissent. Obama said in an interview last month that “the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.” Those comments reportedly offended Gulf leaders and may have contributed to King Salman’s decision not to attend the summit in person.

European Union Presents Plan for Migrants to United Nations

The European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, presented a plan to stem the tide of migrants fleeing to Europe from Libya at the U.N. Security Council yesterday. Mogherini clarified potential actions to dismantle smuggling operations, saying “No one is thinking of bombing. I’m talking about a naval operation.” EU nations on the U.N. Security Council are drafting a resolution to authorize the use of force. “The crucial thing for the European Union is destroying the business model of the trafficking and smuggling organizations, making sure that vessels cannot be used again,” she said. “They sell hope, but instead of hope they deliver death.”


  • The Iraqi government has begun training and arming an initial class of more than 1,000 Sunni forces in Anbar province to combat the Islamic State.


  • Egyptian Justice Minister Mahfouz Saber has resigned after making controversial comments to a television station that the children of sanitation workers cannot become judges.


  • Mohamed Fahmy, whose trial by the Egyptian government for conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood while working as a journalist drew international condemnation, will sue Al Jazeera for damages.


  • A Swedish ship participating in an effort to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza has begun its voyage toward the Mediterranean carrying solar panels, medical equipment, and 13 people.


  • A prominent Kurdish general in the fight against the Islamic State was assassinated in a bomb attack on his motorcade near Kirkuk, Iraq.

-J. Dana Stuster


Do peace talks work?

Crisisgroup - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 10:11
On 11 May 2015, Jean-Marie Guéhenno joined MSNBC's The Cycle to discuss his newly published memoir The Fog of Peace.

Chinese State TV Anchor Learns the Danger of Wearing an Apple Watch

Foreign Policy - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 01:36

It’s almost axiomatic by now that Chinese bureaucrats of all stripes should be careful what they wear on their wrist. On May 5, a sharp-eyed Web user spotted a host on state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) wearing an Apple Watch on her left wrist while giving a news report that day. After the user posted screen shots of CCTV host Wang Yinqi and her expensive timepiece, the photos spread quickly on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, setting off a fervent debate about what counts as luxury and excess in contemporary China.

The photos initially attracted attention as an example of an ostentatious display; a spate of news articles and Weibo media posts on May 5 accused Wang of “showing off her wealth.” Some Weibo users chimed in to criticize Wang as well. “Official media should appear thrifty,” wrote one Weibo user, arguing that the image of official media and that of the government that controls it are closely related. More than one speculated without evidence that Wang, beautiful and in her mid-20s, might be mistress to a wealthy man.

Those claims are harsh (and unsubstantiated) – but the vitriol toward China’s reviled state broadcaster is more understandable. While CCTV has often served as an important mouthpiece for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s nationwide anti-corruption crackdown, now into its third year, the state broadcaster itself has been embroiled in several scandals during that time. In July 2014, authorities unexpectedly detained one of CCTV’s most outspoken hosts, Rui Chenggang. That same month, authorities held senior CCTV executive Guo Zhenxi for suspected bribery, and in August 2014 they detained Huang Haitao, a prominent CCTV deputy director, for alleged graft.

Expensive watches have become a symbol of corruption in China ever since August 2012, when netizens unearthed an image of provincial safety bureaucrat Yang Dacai smiling at the scene of a deadly traffic accident — and wearing a luxury timepiece likely beyond his modest means. Further images of Yang’s wrist-wear soon went viral on the Chinese web, sparking a grassroots campaign to oust him from office. It succeeded, and in September 2013, Yang was sentenced to 14 years in prison for corruption. Since then, party leaders have been careful either not to purchase luxury watches, or at least not to wear them in public.

Apple’s new watches are harder to categorize. The most expensive, retailing at up to $20,000 and called Apple Watch Edition, seems tailor-made for China’s still-massive luxe market; the priciest model sold out in China within two days of its offering. But lower-tier models can cost anywhere from $349 to $1,099, a similar price range as the iPhone 6, Apple’s newest smart phone model which after its Chinese release in October 2014 marked the first time more iPhones were sold in China than in the United States. In other words, while Apple watches aren’t cheap, neither are they out of reach for members of China’s giant urban middle class.

That may explain why most web users among the thousands of commenters refuted the notion that Wang’s timepiece was anything glamorous. “What’s wrong with wearing an Apple?” one Weibo user wrote. “It’s priced for the common people.” “A few hundred dollars for a watch, and they’re saying it’s ‘showing off wealth,’” wrote one user on May 6 in a popular comment. Yet another wrote in a popular comment, “When a couple hundred dollars is flaunting riches, it’s a beggar country indeed.”

There’s no question that, as a group, Weibo users, who mostly access the platform via smartphones, are more affluent than the country at large. But the online support for Wang (or at least, her timepiece) marks a turnabout from 2008, the year before Apple began selling its signature smart phone in China, when iPhones were the rare and much-coveted property of expats or overseas Chinese back for a stay in their homeland. Then again, according to World Bank statistics, in 2008, per-capita GDP in China was $3,414. In 2013, it was $6,807. That’s why Ms. Wang’s career is probably safe. As the ranks of China’s urban middle class and its elite continue to grow, the normalcy of even the newest and most expensive Apple products can be taken as a sign of the times.

Fair Use/Weibo

Ice, Ice Baby: Obama Gives Shell the Thumbs Up for Arctic Drilling

Foreign Policy - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 01:17

The Obama administration gave Royal Dutch Shell conditional approval Monday to begin drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic, a major triumph for a company that has seen the waters of the remote region as a tantalizing business opportunity for years.

The company will still need to receive approval from other regulatory agencies, but has plans to begin drilling in the Chukchi Sea this summer. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company plans to invest $1 billion in the Arctic project this year.

The decision is a major setback for environmentalists, who argue that drilling in the Arctic could pave the way for a major environmental disaster. Oil giants, including Shell and BP, have had major spills in recent years, including Shell of Nigeria spills in 2008 and 2009 that cost the company $84 million. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of crude oil on the Prince William Sound in Alaska.

The United States’s interest in the Arctic is not exclusive to drilling. The melting of the polar ice cap and opening of Arctic waterways means an increase in tourism, fishing, and mineral exploration. And for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, it means new waterways to patrol.

In 2013, the Defense Department released an Arctic Strategy report claiming that it was the Pentagon’s responsibility to ensure that the Arctic remains peaceful as human access to the region increases in coming years. Their security focus in the region, the report said, would range from resource extraction to national defense.

Last year, the Pentagon complemented that report with a climate change readiness roadmap to outline ways the Defense Department would work proactively to prepare for the national security implications climate change could have. That would include military responses to would need to respond to natural disasters sparked by climate change.

In the case of this Shell project, environmentalists are especially concerned because its remote location would make it difficult to mount a clean-up effort in the event of a spill. The closest Coast Guard station equipped to respond is more than 1,000 miles away.

A Shell spokesman, Curtis Smith, said in a statement that the approval of Shell’s project was “an important milestone and signals the confidence regulators have in our plan.”

But before operations can begin this summer, he said “it’s imperative that the remainder of our permits be practical, and delivered in a timely manner. In the meantime, we will continue to test and prepare our contractors, assets and contingency plans against the high bar stakeholders and regulators expect of an Arctic operator.”

Obama’s relationship with environmentalists has had its highs and lows.  As president, he has made strides on climate change but also advanced opportunities for offshore drilling — which activists vehemently oppose — as the United States continues to look for more domestic oil opportunities.

Just four months ago, his administration approved a measure to begin another offshore drilling project on the East Coast. But in February, when Congress passed legislation for Keystone XL pipeline, an $8 billion project to transport tar sands from Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf, Obama vetoed the measure. Lawmakers need his permission because the pipeline would cross the Canadian border, but he refuses to give it his approval until the State Department finishes reviewing the project.


White House Rejected Defense Treaty Proposal Ahead of Gulf Summit

Foreign Policy - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 01:05

A senior U.S. official said Monday the White House has rejected a proposal from Gulf nations to forge a common defense treaty with the United States. The revelation follows decisions by the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Bahrain to skip a summit organized by the White House this week — a move perceived by some as a snub to President Barack Obama.

U.S. and Gulf officials insist the lackluster attendance for this week’s Camp David summit is not the latest symptom of bad blood that may exist between Washington and its Gulf allies. But key members of the Gulf Cooperation Council had lobbied hard for the U.S. to agree to a defense pact ahead of the summit.

“We need something in writing. We need something institutionalized,” UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba told a Washington conference last week.

In a Monday conference call, Robert Malley, the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region, told reporters that the U.S. informed Gulf allies “weeks ago” that a defense treaty “was not possible.”

Despite that disagreement, Malley insisted Gulf allies came away largely satisfied following a meeting in Paris last Friday that was attended by foreign ministers of the six GCC nations and the U.S.  “Again, one of them reminded us that they would’ve liked a treaty, but beyond that there was no hint of dissatisfaction,” Malley said.

Hours later, the White House said that Saudi King Salman called Obama to “express his regret at not being able to travel to Washington this week.”

Last month, Obama invited GCC leaders to Washington after his administration secured a framework agreement with Iran to limit Tehran’s nuclear program. Gulf states worry that the potential deal — offering Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program — will provide Iran with an influx of cash to fund proxies and expand its regional ambitions in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon.

This week’s summit aimed to let the U.S. settle those nerves about the emerging deal and discuss regional security issues, including the takeover of Yemen by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia announced that the country’s monarch, King Salman, would not attend the summit, even though White House officials told reporters on Friday that he would be there.

Saudi officials denied that his absence amounts to a snub, and said the last-minute decision by King Salman to stay in Riyadh reflected his desire to monitor the cease-fire scheduled to begin Tuesday between the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Saudi-led coalition that has been launching airstrikes in the country. Omani and UAE officials cited health reasons for why their leaders could not attend the gathering.

Still, given the lack of star power at this week’s summit, expectations for a series of substantive breakthroughs between the parties are low.

During the White House conference call Monday, officials said a new announcement on joint military exercises was likely to come out of the meeting. But they stopped far short of confirming the summit would yield any big news or announcement for a new missile defense shield for the Sunni nations — a longtime U.S. priority in the region.

Despite that, regional experts have noted there are worse things than failing to come away with a major deliverable during a summit of Gulf monarchies, many of whom rank poorly when it comes to human rights, press freedoms, and corruption problems.

“I don’t think the U.S. should feel compelled to bend over backwards,” Frederic Wehrey, a Gulf expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told a roundtable of reporters on Monday. “I think we need to be very concerned about the reform angle.”

Getty Images

Has Kim Jong Un Ever Looked Happier Than in This Celebration of an SLBM Launch?

Foreign Policy - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 00:36

North Korean state media announced over the weekend that it had reached a major milestone in the country’s attempt to improve its missile capabilities: the successful firing of a submarine launched ballistic missile. The event was of course accompanied by the requisite release of triumphant photographs, including this gem, which has us wondering: Have you ever seen the supreme leader of North Korea look happier?

This undated picture released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 9, 2015 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un smiling while observing an underwater test-fire of a submarine-launched ballistic missile at an undisclosed location at sea. North Korea said May 9 it had successfully test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) — a technology that could eventually offer the nuclear-armed state a survivable second-strike capability. AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS REPUBLIC OF KOREA

Cigarette and binoculars in hand, hair ruffled by the ocean breeze, smoke-stained chompers on full display, Kim Jong Un is something of a study here in gleeful despotism basking in glow of his military’s latest advance. And it’s no surprise he’s happy in this photograph: The step forward of an SLBM is a major advance for North Korea, which has been rumored to be preparing an ocean-launched missile for several months.

Still, North Korean armed forces have a long way to go before they put these missiles aboard their submarines. The missile in question reportedly only traveled about 150 meters, and the test’s primary aim was to show the feasibility of the first, tricky step of putting a missile in the air from below the ocean’s surface. According to arms experts, the missile fired on Saturday bears a resemblance to the SS-N-6 “Serb” missile, which the Soviet Union used aboard some of its nuclear-armed submarines. It’s also unclear whether North Korea has perfected the process of sufficiently miniaturizing nuclear warheads to place atop a missile of this nature.

This test should be seen as an incremental step toward North Korea’s goal of strengthening its nuclear deterrent, and Kim is placing himself in the front and center of that project, positioning himself in the propaganda images released strangely close to the missile launch. It’s difficult to judge distance in this photograph, but it would certainly appear that Kim was either much too close for safety to an untested weapon or was photoshopped in after the fact.

An image obtained by Yonhap News Agency showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pointing at a ballistic missile believed to have been launched from underwater near Sinpo, on the northeast coast of North Korean, 09 May 2015. The KCNA, the North’s state media, said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watched the test-fire. EPA/KCNA SOUTH KOREA OUT

Other images show Kim observing the launch:

An image obtained by Yonhap News Agency showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un looking through a pair of binoculars at a ballistic missile (not in frame), believed to have been launched from underwater near Sinpo, on the northeast coast of North Korean, 09 May 2015. The KCNA, the North’s state media, said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watched the test-fire. EPA/KCNA SOUTH KOREA OUT

Also released were images of the missile’s launch:

An image released by North Korea’s Rodong Shinmun shows what Pyeongyang claims to be a ballistic missile being launched from a submarine in waters near the northeast coast of Sinpo on 09 May 2015. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the North’s state media, said the communist state successfully test-fired the submarine missile. EPA/RODONG SINMUN SOUTH KOREA

An image obtained by Yonhap News Agency show a ballistic missile believed to have been launched from underwater near Sinpo, on the northeast coast of North Korean, 09 May 2015. The KCNA, the North’s state media, said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watched the test-fire. EPA/KCNA SOUTH KOREA OUT

Obama Administration: Hersh Account of Bin Laden Raid ‘Patently False’

Foreign Policy - Mon, 11/05/2015 - 23:34

The May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden handed the White House one of its few major foreign policy successes, so it’s of little surprise that the Obama administration would push back on two new articles that allege that much of what the U.S. government told the world about the raid is false.

What’s interesting is just how strongly the administration — and its former officials — are denying the new claims.

In a rare on-the-record comment, CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani described the first article, written by Seymour Hersh and published Sunday in the London Review of Books, as “utter nonsense.”

Michael Morell, who was deputy director of the CIA at the time of the bin Laden raid, said he stopped reading Hersh’s article after finding “something wrong” in every sentence.

Hersh reported that the Pakistani government was holding the al Qaeda leader prisoner in the compound in Abbottabad where he was eventually killed. Hersh further reported that the CIA learned of bin Laden’s presence there not by tracking his courier, as the Obama administration has stated, but from “a senior Pakistani intelligence officer” eager to claim the $25 million reward, and that, contrary to the public version of events, the United States did not bury bin Laden at sea.

“It’s dead wrong — not even close to the truth,” said Morell, who details the events surrounding the raid in a chapter of his new book, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism — From al Qaida to ISIS. “We didn’t learn about Osama bin Laden from a Pakistani official that we paid $25 million to. We learned about his whereabouts from following the courier.”

Late Monday afternoon, in a follow-up article, NBC News reported that it had separately been told by two intelligence sources that a Pakistani “walk in” had told the United States where the al Qaeda leader was hiding.

Current and former U.S. officials insisted that was not the case.

“A walk in did not give up bin Laden’s location,” said a U.S. government official, speaking after the NBC News story had been published. “The U.S. found him the way we said we found him,” added the official, who requested anonymity so as to discuss sensitive intelligence issues.

Additionally, Morell said in an interview Monday, Hersh’s assertion that the Pakistanis had foreknowledge of and participated in the raid that Joint Special Operations Command conducted under CIA auspices to kill bin Laden in his compound is not true. A former senior member of SEAL Team 6, the unit at the heart of the Abbottabad raid, described Hersh’s article as “laughable,” adding that bin Laden was found through “some luck and some good eavesdropping.” The former Team 6 member also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Hersh for decades has gotten under the U.S. government’s skin. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the 1968 massacre — and cover-up — at My Lai during the Vietnam War. But his more recent reporting has come under harsh scrutiny, particularly his April 2014 article that a chemical attack in Syria widely attributed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad was in fact perpetrated by Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, in coordination with the Turkish government. Hersh’s latest article relies largely on the account of an anonymous source described as “a retired senior intelligence official who was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.” The other principal sources  are two anonymous “longtime consultants to the [U.S.] Special Operations Command, and retired Lt. Gen. Asad Durrani, who headed Pakistani’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency in the early 1990s.

Spokesmen for the National Security Council and the Defense Department each issued very similarly worded statements that flatly refuted Hersh’s article on the bin Laden raid.

“The notion that the operation that killed Osama bin Laden was anything but a unilateral U.S. mission is patently false,” said NSC spokesman Ned Price in an email. The Obama administration did not inform the Pakistani government until after the raid, Price said.

The Hersh article contained “too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions … to fact check each one,” said Pentagon spokesman Maj. Roger M. Cabiness II in an email. “We had been and continue to be partners with Pakistan in our joint effort to destroy al Qaeda, but this was a U.S. operation through and through.”

Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP

India Cracks Down on NGOs

Foreign Policy Blogs - Mon, 11/05/2015 - 22:17

German Ambassador to India, Michael Steiner (L) listens to Dr. Hubert Lienhard (R), Chairman of the Asia-Pacific Committee of German Business (APA), speaking during a joint news conference in New Delhi, India, 11 July 2014. MONEY SHARMA—EPA

Charities and citizen advocacy groups are having a tough time these days in some large developing countries. Both Russia and China have increasingly tightened restrictions on their activities, as well as other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Now it is India’s turn, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government announced on April 27 the cancellation of registrations for close to 9,000 foreign-funded NGOs, citing the failure of the NGOs to file returns. Tensions between foreign NGOs and the Indian government have long existed, although some fear under Modi’s watch oversight of NGOs is increasing.

Some NGOs have been placed on a “watch list,” rumored to include such well-known NGOs as the Climate Work Foundation, the Danish International Development Agency,  Greenpeace, Hivos, Mercy Corps, and the Sierra Club. Other NGOs have had their bank accounts frozen.  Among those targeted is the Ford Foundation, based in New York, which currently funds programs in India to promote livelihood among the poor, advocacy for economic and social rights, good governance, and women’s reproductive health.  Since starting its operation in 1952 under Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, the foundation has funded some $508 million. These programs are now required to receive permission from India’s home affairs ministry before any money gets transferred to recipients.

Many link the crackdown on Ford’s activities to their support of human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, who has fought for the rights of victims of the 2002 riots in Gujarat — during which Modi acted as chief minister of Gujarat. The riots followed the torching of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, which killed 59 people. Hindu mobs then attacked Muslims, resulting in the death of over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Given his Hindu nationalist background, Mr. Modi stands accused of failing to quell the violence against Muslims in 2002, and has recently been criticised for his silence on several anti-Muslim incidents taking place since he assumed power.

In March, the Gujarat government condemned the funding by Ford of a trust to support the victims, accusing Ford of interfering in the “internal affairs” of India and “of abetting communal disharmony.” Some analysts attribute the move as an attempt by the Modi government to appease Sangh Parivar, the coalition of right-wing Hindu nationalist groups, started by members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who support Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Last June, a report by India’s Intelligence Bureau leaked to the media accused Ford, Greenpeace, and Hivos of hindering India’s growth through their active opposition to nuclear, mining and power projects.

While registrations for close to 9,000 NGOs have been cancelled, by some estimates there are 3.2 million NGOs operating in India, of which some 40,000 are registered. An attempt by the Modi government to clean up the registration process is needed, as well as more transparency, but the effort should not turn into a witch hunt to target specific groups, such as those who are trying to protect the environment or fight for human rights. The German Ambassador to India, Micheal Steiner, recently added his concerns at an event in Delhi, stating “NGOs are doing impressive work in India,” adding, “I think the fundamental approach should be to support their work.”  U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma went further, warning of a “potential chilling effect” should the Modi government continue to crackdown on NGOs.

While scrutiny of the activities of NGOs is certainly necessary and justifiable, any perceived bias against those NGOs operating in the environmental or human rights space risks driving many NGOs out and making it difficult for those that remain to operate effectively. Should the Modi government chose to impose new regulations on the operations of all NGOs, this will likely slow the operations of the many NGOs who are having a favorable impact on the quality of life in India.

International NGOs, such as the Danish International Development Agency, the Ford Foundation, Greenpeace, and Mercy Corps, operate across many countries and regions, and with constraints on their funding, must choose among worthy nations.  In making that choice of where to deploy funding and resources, two key factors are local operating conditions and how effective that capital can be deployed to produce real change. Should international NGOs decide India’s operating conditions are too onerous, and efforts to produce real change too distant, it will be up to the Indian government to fill the void with effective programs of its own, lest the Indian populace suffer.

Climate Change: A Generational Challenge

Foreign Policy Blogs - Mon, 11/05/2015 - 22:15

The vast majority of scientists agree that human activity has significantly increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — most dramatically since the 1970s. Yet, global warming skeptics and ill-informed elected officials continue to dismiss this broad scientific consensus. As a generational challenge, climate change seems to be victim to a failure of communication. It is badly in need of a framework to help reduce the gap between what is understood by the scientific community, and what the public and policymakers need to know.

Susan Joy Hassol, a climate change communicator, analyst, and author who has been making climate science accessible for 25 years. Director of Climate Communication, Susan helps scientists communicate more effectively and provides information to policymakers, journalists, and others. She has authored and edited numerous reports, written an HBO documentary, and appeared on national media. In her recent talk, ClimateTalk: Science & Solution, given at a TEDx event, Susan discusses how a resolution of the climate communication failure is essential to unleash our ability to solve the climate problem. 

I had a chance to catch up with Susan during her visit to speak at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) our discussion:

Climate change. Would you say it is the most important challenge we face this century?

Oh, yes. Left unchecked it’s an existential threat to civilization. It’s the mother of all challenges, in that by tackling climate change, we’d also address a range of other challenges like job creation, health issues, social equity, environmental protection and security concerns.

But just because it’s the most important challenge doesn’t mean it’s the most daunting. We have almost everything we need to solve it: the technologies, the policies, and recent polls show that there’s broad public support across political lines for climate action. It won’t be easy, but nothing important ever is. It will be quite cheap, though, compared to the consequences of inaction.

Is the challenge in tackling and generating action on climate change largely a communications failure?

Communications failures are major obstacles to action. They range from language confusion, both inadvertent and deliberate, to the disinformation campaign designed to sow doubt about the science, to the way the media handle climate – the minimal coverage, the undue airtime given to contrarian views, and a general failure to connect the dots between what we’re experiencing and the human influence on climate.

But while these failures have been obstacles to action, they’re not insurmountable. There are ways forward.

What do you see as the top hurdles in bridging the gap between science and policy action with regards to climate change?

The top hurdles include the partisan ideological divide – the “toxic tribalism” that has infected the climate issue, and the disinformation campaign that deliberately muddies the waters – and they’re not unrelated. It’s hard to get sufficient policies enacted in the U.S. when the leadership of one political party still largely denies the science. The disinformation campaign fuels that denial. And the scarcity of media coverage is a hurdle because people tend to prioritize what’s “trending,” so climate change just doesn’t reach high priority status for most people.

Ten years from now — and realistically speaking — do you see concrete, substantive action happening on climate change? What is your hope?

It depends on whether we can achieve the political breakthroughs necessary. It’s not primarily a problem of science or technology. It’s primarily a political problem. If we can summon the leadership and political will to bridge the ideological divide and agree on solutions that provide wide-ranging benefits, it’s my hope that in ten years we’ll be well on our way to changing our trajectory and ensuring our future. We can do this.

Are there any angles that the discourse on climate change is not leveraging? Ideology and faith, for instance?

Some people are working diligently in those arenas. For example, Bob Inglis is engaging his fellow conservatives and Katharine Hayhoe is reaching out to her fellow evangelical Christians. And how about Pope Francis! Not only is he engaging the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, he makes a moral case for climate action that reaches many others too.

This is where the critical importance of trusted messengers comes in. People are much more likely to accept an idea when they hear it from someone with whom they connect on values. So there’s an important role for identifying and promoting trusted sources for various audiences.

If you could, how would you solve climate change?

I would implement globally all the policies and technologies we can already see working in various places. These would include properly pricing all energy sources to include all of their real costs to society; instituting strong energy efficiency standards on everything that uses energy, from cars to appliances; removing all subsidies from carbon-based fuels; and instating policies that encourage the use of renewable energy. To do all this, I’d draw on the talents of brilliant people who are making these things happen in cities, states, and countries around the world now.

How can the public — especially the younger generations — effectively engage and drive action around climate change?

I think becoming politically engaged on all levels – your university, city, state, and region – is key to driving action. Each college or town can serve as a laboratory for what works and can be an example for others to follow. You can let your political leaders know that climate change is a top priority issue that will determine your vote. Young people can pursue careers in clean energy and other avenues that use science, technology, and policies to ensure a healthy future. And for all of us, it’s time to raise the profile of climate change – to bring it to the front burner.

Follow Elly on twitter @EllyRostoum

China Tops U.S. as Biggest Oil Importer

Foreign Policy - Mon, 11/05/2015 - 22:09

The world passed a milestone of sorts last month, as China finally surpassed the United States as the top global importer of crude oil. But what really matters for Beijing — and the world — is less the volume of Chinese imports than where that oil is coming from.

In that sense, China’s continued and, indeed, deepening reliance on volatile regions of the world for energy supplies, especially the Middle East, points to continued security vulnerabilities for Beijing for decades to come. That’s true despite efforts to diversify where China gets its energy from, and breakneck efforts by Chinese leaders to transform the country into a true maritime power.

In April, Reuters reported, China imported a record 7.4 million barrels of oil a day, just nipping the 7.2 million barrels a day imported by the United States, long the world’s oil glutton. By most accounts, that marked the first time China has imported more oil than the United States. By other measures, including net imports of all petroleum products, China had already elbowed its way into first place in late 2013.

Regardless of the exact timing, the emergence of China as the top crude importer is unlikely to be a one-off event. Oil production is still booming in the United States, reducing import dependence to levels last seen when President Richard Nixon was scandal-free. China, in contrast, continues to consume more oil despite an economic slowdown and efforts to shift the economy away from heavy industry and more toward services.

More important than the 7 million barrels is the fact that Chinese dependence on overseas oil, and especially on oil from the Middle East, has only grown in recent years. In 2007, according to Chinese customs data scoured by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, China imported 3.2 million barrels a day with 1.46 million barrels, or 46 percent, coming from the Middle East. In 2014, even before the recent record, China imported an average of 6.1 million barrels of oil a day. Of that, more than 52 percent — or 3.2 million barrels — came from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq.

In other words, despite years of effort to source more energy from places like Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, and Russia, China gets more oil today from the Middle East than all the oil it imported just a few years ago.

Those diversification efforts “will help stem the rate of growth of dependence on Middle East oil, but they don’t change the fundamentals,” said Bruce Jones, director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution and author of The Risk Pivot. “China will remain heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil and gas for 30 or 40 years at least.”

In practical terms, that makes China acutely vulnerable to fallout from any energy-supply disruptions in the Middle East, without being able to do much about it. Earlier this month, for example, Iranian ships detained a cargo ship passing through the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil-transit chokepoint. That prompted the U.S. Navy to escort some ships through the passage for a few days; now the Navy is just monitoring sea-lane security there. A recent study on Chinese naval operations concluded that “regional conflict is the most likely and most dangerous threat to sea-lane security.”

China has spent years trying to build a blue-water navy that could operate far from home. Since 2008 it has maintained a long-distance anti-piracy patrol off the coast of Somalia precisely to help limit the threat that pirates pose to shipping. But despite heroic efforts, including the launch of its first aircraft carrier and a rapid naval modernization, China is still decades away from matching U.S. naval capacities, which leaves it hostage to regional instability.

“There is a fundamental asymmetry between China’s reliance on Middle East oil supply, and its very minimal capacity to do anything to contain or mitigate political risk in the region,” Jones said.

More broadly, the strategic nightmare that has haunted Chinese leaders for two decades shows no sign of going away.

Former Chinese President Hu Jintao first fully articulated in 2003 what has become known as the “Malacca Dilemma.” That laid out Chinese fears that some unnamed power — such as the United States — could use its dominance at sea to blockade the narrow-but-critical sea lane in the Strait of Malacca near Singapore, through which about three-quarters of Chinese oil imports pass. Continued economic growth is the central pillar of legitimacy for China’s leadership; any serious and sustained energy-supply disruption would strike at the underpinnings of Beijing’s hold on power.

The “Malacca Dilemma” is behind some of China’s highest-profile diplomatic moves, from closer energy ties with Russia to the construction of a New Silk Road across Central Asia and a Maritime Silk Road across the Indian Ocean. But as the latest oil-import numbers show, those initiatives will likely only trim China’s vulnerability at the margins, without being able to address for at least a generation the existential worry that’s part and parcel of the country’s miraculous economic transformation.

Ultimately, China’s deep and continued reliance on energy imports, and especially crude from some of the most unstable parts of the world, will likely push Beijing to ramp up its diplomatic and military engagement not just in Africa or the Indian Ocean but in the broader Middle East. For a United States anxious to escape that morass and complete its own pivot to Asia, that might not be such unwelcome news.

Photo credit: FRANS CASPERS/Flickr

Chinese Conspiracy Theorists of the World, Unite!

Foreign Policy - Mon, 11/05/2015 - 21:52

HONG KONG — The People’s Commune resides not on a utopian farm in the Chinese heartland, but on the second floor of a shabby building in Causeway Bay, one of Hong Kong’s busiest and most neon-packed shopping areas. Wedged between two watch stores offering timepieces costing tens of thousands of dollars and a money exchange joint, the narrow entryway leading up to the shop is plastered with adverts for its top offerings: coffee, baby formula, and banned books.

It’s an unlikely combination, but one logical for its appeal to the store’s patrons, mostly mainland tourists on shopping sprees. 19.1 million mainlanders, or more than 2.5 times Hong Kong’s resident population of seven million, visited the former British colony as tourists in 2014. Many are looking for things they can’t get at home, or at least not as cheaply. Gucci handbags, cosmetics, and safe baby food make the list, but so does something more risqué: books that Chinese authorities have deemed ideologically unfit.

On the day I visited in early May the little shop was mostly deserted. Two clerks chatted behind the cashier, while a lone customer, an African man, pecked away on his laptop in a corner. The place was not much of a coffee shop — three tiny tables cramped behind a book display case was the extent of its ambitions. The room felt so tight it wasn’t clear where an espresso machine would fit. In its entirety, the store was at most 1,000 square feet, but it was filled to the brim with books.

To browse the wares on offer in People’s Commune is to wade into the unpredictable swamp of political rumors about top-level Chinese politics. All kinds of colorful critters flourish outside the control of the Communist Party. Much of it is bunk; even an adventurous reader would be well-advised to keep careful mental distance from titles like Hu Jintao’s Unsuccessful Suicide, Li Keqiang’s Imminent Resignation, or The Conspiracy to Overthrow Xi Jinping in Five Years. (Hu is China’s former president; Li is its current premier, Xi its current president.)

The sordid and salacious seem to sell particularly well. When I asked the clerk about the types of book favored by the store’s clientele, she pointed to a bestsellers list near the door. Among this month’s leaders was the purported autobiography of Shen Bing, a beautiful presenter at China Central Television (CCTV), who is thought to be a mistress of Zhou Yongkang, the former security czar now being prosecuted for corruption. The account is probably not authentic — it would be virtually impossible for Shen to have written it in 2014, while she was under investigation for the Zhou case. But the combination of sex, fame, and power evidently proved irresistible to many mainland Chinese buyers, whose exposure to an accounting of Zhou’s misdeeds is mostly limited to terse, carefully vetted state media releases.

Hong Kong publishing houses are only too happy to fill the information void that mainland state control creates, churning out a steady supply of books and magazines about the Chinese leadership that usually make no attempt to substantiate any claims beyond throwaway references to “well-placed sources in Beijing.” Street newsstands often peddle the political drama pieces as well, jamming the glum faces of somewhat sinister-looking Chinese men in suits next to porn and Japanese anime.

But I’d not come in search of steamy liaisons and failed coups; I was looking for a memoir by Li Rui, a 98-year old retired Communist Party official now known as one of the party’s harshest internal critics. Li’s book represents a slice of the Hong Kong banned-book genre that offers real value: memoirs by bona fide eyewitnesses to history. One of the best-known examples is Prisoner of the State, a memoir by late, deposed Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang. The reformist Zhao was once among China’s most powerful men, but he made the mistake of openly sympathizing with student protesters amassed in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and spent almost two decades under house arrest. Prisoner of the State is based on tapes of his conversations with friends that had been smuggled out of China. Similarly, Li’s book, Li Rui’s Oral Account of Past Events, is based on a series of interviews and conversations from the early 2000s.

Li’s life is the stuff of legend. Born in 1917 to a merchant family, the still-idealistic Li landed in Yan’an, the “red capital” of China, in the 1940s. The communists had caught a breather in Yan’an after their epic Long March to escape from the ruling Nationalists, who launched a series of “encirclement campaigns” to exterminate the fledgling party. At Yan’an, Li became a newspaper editor and grew close to many of the communist leaders who would go on to govern China, but also had his first taste of the party’s wrath when he spent a year in detention over suspicion of being a Nationalist spy.

After the Communist Party won the Chinese civil war in 1949, Li was charged with directing the country’s (then non-existent) hydroelectric projects, and also served as Mao Zedong’s secretary for a few brief months in 1958. In 1959, Li was purged and sent to labor camp, and spent almost two decades in political wilderness, including six years in solitary confinement at the infamous Qincheng prison, which has held many Chinese notables. In 1978, after Deng Xiaoping came to power, Li was rehabilitated and tapped to be the deputy head of central organization department, the organ that is, essentially, the human resources branch for the party, which now has over 85 million members. Li was tasked with building a pipeline of younger cadres, and the men who would later take top posts in the party, like former President Jiang Zemin, Hu, and Xi all had personal contacts with Li while he evaluated party members for promotion.

Mao was “ruthless,” according to Li, who Li claims did not care about the death of millions during the disastrous Great Leap Forward, which amounted to a “mistake that Communist party made that was unprecedented in human history.” Li also painted Jiang in a negative light; after Li recommended Jiang for posts at key junctures of Jiang’s career, Jiang repeatedly sought Li’s advice and support throughout the 1980’s, but “acted like a stranger” after he becaming party secretary. Li had similar experiences with Hu, who ignored Li’s letters and advice after he ascended the throne. Li had woefully little to say about Xi, probably partly because Xi’s father was a close friend of his, but Li has continued to call for the party to institute democratic process to “save itself.”

As a bona fide party elder, Li has also emerged as a leading voice for political reform. After being sidelined once again after 1989 for criticizing the decision to use force against student protesters on Tiananmen Square, Li began to write extensively on his personal brushes with power, dealings with powerful men, and his having borne witness to the corruptive nature of power. His ripe old age, Yan’an credentials and past contributions to the party have protected him from anything worse than gentle warnings. Li gripes in the closing words to his memoir that his figurative “sons and grandsons in the party are now trying to rein me in.”

Li’s book made international news when his daughter, Li Nanyang, sued Chinese customs for confiscating 50 copies of the book when she tried to cross the border from Hong Kong into mainland China. In an opinion piece about the case, the staunch party-advocate Global Times dismissed Ms. Li’s actions as “divorced from China’s reality,” but acknowledged that bringing one or two banned books into China for one’s own enjoyment is a common, albeit “controversial,” practice. There is little chance that Ms. Li will have her day in court, and she probably does not expect to. If her goal was to call further attention to the informational wall China has built around its citizens, then she has already succeeded.

Since banned books are widely available in Hong Kong at bookstores and newsstands, probability dictates that a fair number of them must have seeped through the porous customs check into China. But a valuable and weighty memoir like Li’s is apparently rarer contraband than the frivolity and smut that’s mostly on offer in Hong Kong. For mainland Chinese readers, flipping through banned books is like peering through a looking glass to a strange world. But what they see seldom takes them any closer to the truth.

Image via Flickr/credit: I’m Goldfish