My Op-Ed for the Busan Ilbo on the Paris Attacks: Korea should Not Overreact like the West did

This is a re-print, in English, of an editorial I wrote last month in the Busan Daily newspaper. Here is that Korean version.

BI contacted me, because I teach a course on terrorism at Pusan National University. As far as I can tell, it is one of the only such courses in Korea. So when the global reaction to Paris arrived in Korea, they asked me for a few thoughts. The most important point is: Don’t go bananas.

After the Paris attack, the Korean government is talking seriously about passing counter-terrorism (CT) laws and developing a domestic CT capability. This is wise, but there is a lot for Korea to learn from all the mistakes the West has made in the GWOT. By now it is pretty widely accepted that the US wildly over-reacted to the 9/11. The Iraq war especially helped create a helluva lot more terrorists than we were facing before, and ISIS would not exist without the invasion. Remember:

1. Modern democratic societies are pretty safe.

2. Some domestic crime and violence is part of the cost we pay for freedom and our open societies.

3. Flipping out about Muslims in our countries does no good; they’ll just turtle, rather than helping the security services.

So the big post-9/11 lesson from the West for Korea on jihadist terrorism: Keep it all in perspective. You are far more likely to be killed by lightning or your HDTV falling off the wall than a jihadi.

The full essay follows the jump:

Continue reading

Kim Ki Jong, likely a Nutball Lone Wolf ‘Terrorist’-wannabe, will have Zero Impact on US-Korea Relations

So it’s been a week since the US ambassador to Korea got attacked, and the consensus here is pretty much that he is a lonely nutball who drank too much Nork kool-aid. The South Korean police are investigating to see if he is connected to North Korea in any meaningful way. Apparently he went there a few times, but I find it highly unlikely that actually acted on orders or training he got in Pyongyang. The NK regime is not that suicidal, as an open attack on the US ambassador might well precipitate a US counter-strike.

I think it is pretty important to note that while lots of Koreans on the left are uncomfortable with the US presence and have even protested it (such as the candlelight vigils back in 2008), the mainstream Korean left does not call for anti-American violence or physical harm of Americans. The SK left may be too pro-Pyongyang – which is a big reason it keep losing elections; it really needs a Tony Blair/Bill Clinton-style centrist reformation – but its definitely not violent or revolutionary.

So forget about Kim – he’s likely more a loon than a revolutionary. Little will change.

The piece after the jump was originally written for the Lowy Interpreter here.

Continue reading

Iraq 10 Years Later (3): Why the Neocon Theory behind the War Failed

gulf_war_poster1The arguments below expand on my second recent JoongAng Daily op-ed on the Iraq war.

My first post on the Iraq War asked if academic IR had any responsibility to slow the march to war.

The second tried to formulate what the   neoconservative theory of the war was, because many of us, in retrospect of a conflict gone so badly, desperately want to un-remember that there really was a logic to the war, that it was at least somewhat intellectually defensible, and that a lot of us believed it. We may want to retroactively exculpate ourselves by suggesting it was just W the cowboy acting ridiculous, or a neocon hijacking of the policy process, or Halliburton oil imperialism, and all the other reasons so popular on the left. And some of that is true of course.

But it ducks the crucial point that the war was popular until it flew wildly off-the-rails, which in turn revealed the staggering incompetence of the Bush administration to act on the neocon logic the country had embraced by March 2003. In short, I argued that the Iraq invasion was not about WMD, preemption, or democracy, although that rationale was played up in the wake of the failure to find WMD. The real neocon goal was to scare the daylights out of the Arabs and their elites by punching one of their worst regimes in the face, thereby showing what was coming to rest of the region unless it cleaned up its act, i.e., crack down on salafism and liberalize so as to defuse the cultural extremism that lead to 9/11. (Read Ajami saying in January 2003 that the war is ‘to modernize the Arabs;’ that’s about as a good a pre-war summary of this logic as you’ll get.)

So what went wrong?

Continue reading

Iraq 10 Years Later (1): How Culpable is Academic International Relations?


I’ve been thinking a lot about the war this month. I’ll be teaching it in the next few weeks at school because of the decade anniversary (March 20). To my mind, it is the most important geopolitical event, for the US, possibly the planet, since the USSR’s collapse. It also pre-occupies me to this day, because I initially supported it, and didn’t really turn against it until 2008/09. I had students who told me, late in the war, that I was the only instructor they knew who still supported the invasion. Finally, I gave in, and accepted the by-then conventional wisdom that the war was a ‘fiasco.’ I will argue in my next post in a few days, that there was in fact an at least minimally defensible argument for the war, but the execution of it was so awful, disorganized, mismanaged, and incompetent, that any moral justification was lost in the sea of blood and torture we unleashed.

The whole episode became just shameful, and regularly teaching and conferencing with non-Americans these last few years has made this so painfully clear. My students particularly are just bewildered to the point of incredulity. Again and again, the basic thought behind the questions is, ‘what the hell happened to you people? 9/11 made you lose your minds there?’ *sigh* (NB: when Asians ask me about guns in the US, the ‘what the hell is wrong with you people?’ bafflement is the same.)

Hence, the post title purposefully implies that the invasion was a bad idea. But to be fair, that should be the first question: what, if any, arguments at this point can be mustered to defend the war? IR should try to answer this seriously, because I’m all but positive that the journalistic debate will be not be driven by the state of Iraq or US foreign policy today, but by the high personal reputational costs faced by so many pundits supportive of the war. It would not surprise me at all if folks like the Kagans, Krauthammer, or Thomas Friedman miraculously found that the war was worth it after all. McNamara-style mea culpas only happen at the end of a career (so I give Sullivan and Fukuyama credit for theirs on Iraq). But academic international relations (IR) should be more honest than that.

Continue reading

And now We Killed Awlaki’s Son, again a US Citizen, again without Due Process…


In the last two weeks, I got pulled into another round of the endless debate on the role of US forces in Korea, so I missed this yet further depressing story of the US government flirting with extra-judicial, not-really-very-oversighted killings in the field of Americans.

I worried a few weeks ago that the killing over Alwaki, a US citizen, without due process, had crossed yet another, and to my mind, major civil liberties threshold in the history of the war on terror.

And here we are again. As usual, Greenwald has all the depressing details that we would all rather not discuss. Among other things, he was an American. He was only 16. He was killed by accident. The government first tried to spin the boy as an older AQ fighter, but the most basic journalistic digging uncovered that as bogus. Wow. This is just appalling.

We really need to have the moral courage to say this to our own government. (I thought this is why we voted for Obama?) I used to really support the GWoT, and I concur that Islamism is clear challenge to Western liberalism that we must defeat, but this is just awful. If the government can just do this to multiple US citizens abroad, then doesn’t that set a terrible, terrible precedent? So who is beyond the pale, and what is the process (please tell us!) for making these sort of ‘hit-list’ determinations? The government didn’t even apologize or admit any regret as far as I know – for an accidental killing of a US, teenaged citizen. This can’t just go on and on like this. There must be some limit.

Note the problem is not the use of drones per se. Drones are simply a tool, and to the extent they limit the personal exposure of US forces, that is a good thing. However, it seem increasingly likely that, because drones limit US ‘transaction costs’ (i.e., the likelihood of US combat fatalities), drones tempt the administration to use forces in ways and places that would otherwise be politically impossible because of the possibility of US casualties. Unfortunately, this just reinforces the instincts of the imperial presidency unleashed by the war on terrorism. Certainly, the unregretted, accidental killing of a 16-year American should be proof of that.

Awlaki was an American Citizen & Entitled to Some Kind of Due Process – Updated


Everyone has an opinion on this; I thought this, this, this, and this were the best on the debate. It does appear that Awlaki was a genuinely dangerous nut-job, but Greenwald makes the obvious point that the government should demonstrate that. That is the whole point of due process, and no one really has any idea what the process was that allowed the president to unilaterally execute a citizen. As nasty as the guy may have been, he was an American (born in New Mexico in 1971). So this is a yet another civil liberties threshold crossed in the global war on terror (GWoT), and a fairly big one to my mind. (I am an American living abroad too. Have my rights just contracted? Can anyone really say?)

Like everyone, I have mixed feelings, because it does look like Awlaki was a huge threat, moving among openly-declared enemies of the US, and committed to attacking the West violently. I imagine this is why the outcry is so minimal. But he was an American citizen, and I can’t think of anything like this ever. Our government is now performing targeted killings of our own citizens? Wow. Where is the legal authority for that? Doesn’t that violate all sorts of basic protections enshrined in the Amendments to the Constitution? I am not a lawyer, but what possible ‘due process’ is there for this the pre-empts the Constitution? Obama and the National Security Council simply decreed him a threat? At the very least, please tell us how these determinations get made, and what processual checks there are so that this doesn’t devolve into a open-ended kill authority.

But even if we see the case file, I find this genuinely scary. The precedent this lays down, especially as it seems to be going uncontested in the US, is very unnerving. I was willing to swallow that the ‘targeted killing’ of OBL was within the pale, but citizenship is a crucial red-line in a world of states. At this point, who exactly can the president not order terminated? And do the Obama people really want to hand over such power to a possible tea-party president in the future?! Can one imagine Sarah Palin with clandestine, ‘targeted assassination’ authority? Isn’t that terrifying?

I find it a heartbreaking paradox of the GWoT that Awlaki’s father tried to sue the US government to stop it from killing his son. More generally, this whole mess shows how protracted warfare corrodes democracy (a lesson going all the way back to Thucydides) and why it is very important to stop the war on terror. American liberties are eroding under the strain of the 10 years of angry, frustrating conflict, and the reliance on drones, with few rules or agreed norms about their use, show the growing disregard for due process that semi-permanent conflict entrains.

This can be included with all the other GWoT misdeeds like torture, warrantless wiretaps, and indefinite detention. The domestic liberty costs of the GWoT now clearly outweigh the benefits. Killing a US citizen in what is basically an assassination is yet another red-line crossed that shows how we are forgetting ourselves and the whole liberal point of the GWoT to begin with. Why would anyone listen to the ‘freedom agenda’ or take Obama’s Nobel Prize seriously at this point? I wonder if the Nobel Committee would like to retract it now. Why even vote for Obama when he feels he has the authority to do even this? Honestly, I am not even sure McCain would have done this. Targeted  assassination, especially of the citizenry itself, is an astonishingly capacious read of executive power, and clearly not a power ever explicitly delegated by Congress. No wonder Cheney wants an apology. Obama is doing stuff not even W would have done.

The US has banned assassination since the 1970s because of misdeeds during the Vietnam war. So not only did the administration violate constitutional rights of a citizen, it also violated another statue. I saw J Toobin on CNN this week say basically that no administration has followed the assassination ban anyway, so that is not a real violation (!). Then Toobin argued that Obama’s likely defense is authority under the post-9/11 ‘Authorization for the Use of Military Force’ (AUMF), but that, with this killing now, no one really knows where that power ends. Toobin, who strikes me as a reasonably serious guy, looked genuinely troubled as he said this. What can a legal correspondent comment if the ‘law’ is this malleable? I had the sense Toobin wanted to protest, but American public opinion is so desensitized to rule-violation in the name of the GWoT, I think Toobin ducked so as not to look like he defended a terrorist. Also, read the AUMF closely; it targets the planners behind 9/11. But Awlaki wasn’t a part of the plot, even though he was sympathetic. If it was just because he was a rabble-rousing anti-American cleric, then a good chunk of clerisy of the Middle East would probably qualify…

So again my question is, what use of force does the Authorization not permit? Can the president order a hit like this on US soil? Bush already detained Jose Padilla unfairly and with no recourse for years. That the Obama administration doesn’t really know how to answer that became very clear in a CNN interview I saw with SecDef Leon Panetta. Asked if he was on firm legal ground, he only repeated, in worst manner of Bush evasiveness, that Awlaki was a threat and we had to take him out. Presumptive threat overthrows process: we’re all Cheneyites now.

Finally, I found it a particularly glaring contrast that Awlaki was assassinated in the same week that the American media got in a terrible huff about due process in Italy (Amanda Knox) and Iran (those two hikers). (Btw, America’s record of giving due process to foreigners arrested in the US is atrocious, so don’t be so indignant.) Knox and the hikers’ experiences were regularly described as brutal ‘ordeals,’ and their homecomings covered in great, chest-thumping detail. Yet here we hellfire our own citizens (another American was killed with Awlaki) without trial or public presentation of a detailed case… and no one says anything. We just believe what the government tells us about him. The government has flim-flammed so much in the GWoT though, that we really should demand more. Congress should lay down a framework as soon as possible for targeted killings in general, and for Americans especially; otherwise this could slide toward widespread, casual use, just as the torture regime spread from Guantanamo initially, into the entire US GWoT-detention system, because no one really knew what the ‘new rules’ were.


Read this on the limits of drone warfare.

Transformers 3 (1): “We will Kill them all in the name of Freedom” – Yikes!




In the name of freedom, we will kill them all!

– Optimus Prime (the protagonist in the clip above) updates the Bush Doctrine after a decade of war



Part 2 of this post is here.

I missed this over the summer, but the blu-ray just came out, and it’s a nasty, harsh, rah-rah militaristic mess. I won’t bother with the story. You already saw it and know how ridiculous it was. (Try here if you don’t.) I’ll only note that great actors like Malkovich, McDormand, Turturro, and Nemoy are complicit now in the militarization of American cinema, as is Buzz Aldrin (sooo embarrassing that was – wow). The Asian racism and gay jokes are a just as offensive (and painfully unfunny) as the black racism of the second one. And the new ‘Bay girl’ is even worse than Megan Fox, who at least had a grittiness. This one is just living plastic and skin-cream. Bay never misses a chance to promote emotionally debilitating lookism to young girls. (Even Bay’s female corpses must be hot. That must take a sexism award somewhere.)

No one captures the ups-and-downs for popular consumption of current American attitudes toward war as well as Michael Bay. Bay’s films obviously carry the moral weight and approval of the American Right. This is most clear when he guiltlessly references signature moments in US history like the collapse of the Trade Towers, the moon landing, or Challenger explosion. More leftish action directors like James Cameron or George Lucas would be relentlessly criticized were they to do that. Consider the Right’s response to Avatar and Star Wars III, compared to Transformers. But ‘America’s director,’ just like ‘America’s newsroom,’ can do this, because he is reliably nationalistic and pro-military. As Time put it, Bay has become the “CEO of Hollywood’s military-entertainment complex.”

As a result of Bay’s signature position as the filmic voice of the US populist-militarist right, no movies better capture the US emotional arc regarding the war on terror than his Transformers trilogy. As Americans have become more and more frustrated by an unwinnable war, more tolerant of brutality like torture, and less compromising, so has Bay. The films have become progressively more jingoistic, bitter, macho-sexist, and cruel. This is entertainment for the Tea-Party. In this most recent installment, there are even four battlefield-executions (!) in this Steven Spielberg (!) production based on a line of toys and aimed at young boys. But I guess that’s good stuff in the GOP primary these days.

The antagonists (the Decepticons) are nastier than usual, but the protagonists (the Autobots) are extraordinarily brutal for mainstream heroes, and Bay revels in it. The usual story about how the Decepticons are ‘evil’ is thrown in to provide a moral fig-leaf for the Autobots’ violence, but it’s a sham. Bay really wants to show us a vengeful bloodbath (the last hour), and here is where the Tea-Partier frustration and anger at the confusion over the GWoT’s course is most obvious. The film, like current the Tea Party-influenced GOP primary season, is filled with a deeply disturbing bloodlust for brutality. This is not a fun action film for the comfortable, amiable America of the 1990s (like Bay’s Armageddon). This is war carnage for a bitter America desensitized to vengeance and brutality after a decade of torture, confusion, wounded veterans, ‘ingratitude’ from Iraqis and Afghans at being ‘liberated,’ sky-rocketing costs, and global condemnation. T3 is wish-fulfillment for the people who hoo-rahed at OBL’s death: if only we could just go and kick the s— out of all them.

The Decepticons execute an Autobot made up to look like an old-man by shooting him in the back of the head. This came off so harsh, that a woman sitting next to me gasped and looked at her rather shocked boyfriend. When a Decepticon fighter crashes, the Autobots dismember the pilot alive to the jokingly-delivered line, ‘this is going to hurt.’ Holy c—! Sadism is hilarious? Kids are supposed to find that line humorous? At the end, Optimus Prime – remember, this is main good guy – kills one bad guy (Megatron), who had actually just assisted him, by hatcheting him unsuspectingly in the back of the head and them pulling out his entire brain stem, complete with arterial spray. Next the chief bad guy is dispatched after he is badly wounded and crawling on the ground begging for mercy. Nevertheless, Optimus Prime shot-guns him in the back at close range. Twice. And the camera lingers on his pained face as he’s being shot. Wow. WTH happened to Michael Bay (and Steven Spielberg)? Does Bay really expect us to endorse this kind of brutality as entertainment? Both antagonists are in morally compromised positions, yet the hero effectively executes them?! Are we supposed to cheer on the Autobots (allied with the US military in the film) when they brazenly disregard the rules of engagement (which makes liberal states’ use of force more trustworthy) and just execute people?