Saturday, June 04, 2005

Foreign Relations Watch

Koran Abuse Allegations. Keeping to the old "if it's bad news, release it late on a Friday afternoon" trick (as TYL notes), the Pentagon released information yesterday on five confirmed cases of intentional and unintentional abuse of the Koran by American guards at Guantanamo Bay. In a news conference, Brigadier General Jay W. Hood "acknowledg[ed] that soldiers and interrogators kicked the Muslim holy book, got copies wet, stood on a Koran during an interrogation and inadvertently sprayed urine on another copy," according to the Washington Post. Very similar accounts of Hood's news conference are in today's New York Times and LA Times.

It is heartening to know that the facts aren't as bad as some of the rumors about the level of abuse, and that those responsible for the infractions seem to have been disciplined appropriately. It is unfortunate, however, that the Pentagon seems to be doing all it can to keep coverage of the story as minimal as possible (I'm not sure the Friday night trick worked, since it is the headline of all five major national television news organizations this morning - but the big question is, will it still be around on Monday?). As Alan at The Yellow Line writes, "With so many in both America and around the world accusing the American government of committing horrible crimes, the Pentagon should be working hard to prove nothing is being covered up and everything is being done to ensure fair treatment of prisoners." Transparency and honesty are useful things when you're trying to rebuild our reputation with the world; stonewalling and deception, eh, not-so-much.

It Got Awkward, Didn't it? The Washington Post's Ann Scott Tyson and Robin Wright report on negotiations between the American and Uzbek governments for long-term US use of a military base in the former Soviet republic. The duo note that discussions were proceeding apace until last month's "brutal government crackdown on protest[ers]" that killed an undetermined number of people and sent thousands of refugees fleeing for the border. But now, the "Bush administration finds itself pursuing the strategic and geopolitical benefits of the Uzbekistan base even as it expresses deep concern about the country's political repression and worries about the risk of American troops caught in widening civil unrest."

Pentagon spokesmen called the Uzbek base (which has been used since 2001 on a temporary basis) "undeniably critical in supporting" combat and humanitarian missions in the region, but Tyson and Wright add that since the assault on civilians in Andjian, the State Department and Pentagon have undertaken a "high-level review of the military relationship and raised questions about whether, in the long run, 'Uzbekistan is the right place for us to be,' a senior State Department official said."

The Post offers more from Republican senators Sununu, McCain, and Graham, who visited Ukraine this week and spoke out strongly against the government for the crackdowns. Sununu said "I would not be comfortable making a long-term commitment" with Uzbekistan, while McCain noted "'We have a military interest in maintaining our base in that country,' but also in 'restricting our relations with brutal governments.'"

Clearly the United States should not disengage completely from Uzbekistan: our influence may be vital in bringing about democratic reforms there that would make actions like last month's unimaginable. I agree with the senators though - it is pretty unsettling to think about US troops based in a country whose government massacres its civilians (whether Uzbekistan or anywhere else).

Gulf Allies Get Slapped. Speaking of unsettling: yesterday the State Department named America's Persian Gulf allies Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia "as having among the world's worst records in halting human trafficking." The Gulf states find themselves in the company such paragons of global virtue as Burma, North Korea, Cuba, and Sudan in the fifth annual report on human trafficking. This year's report "said as many as 800,000 people, many of them women and children, are trafficked across international borders as sex workers and forced laborers in a modern-day slave trade."

The New York Times adds that the four countries could find themselves subject to economic sanctions if they don't improve their records on human trafficking. This is the first year that America's Middle Eastern allies have appeared in the report, a move "applauded" by human rights advocates, as the WP and LAT note.

As someone who has long been critical of America's "blind eye" to abuses perpetrated by our allies around the world (not to mention our own), I think this is a healthy step forward. I hope that the Administration will not use the report as a "paper tiger" and actually continues to press the Gulf States (and the others listed in the report) to make the necessary reforms. Secretary Rice was absolutely correct yesterday when she said "the United States has a particular duty to fight this scourge, because trafficking in persons is an affront to the principles of human dignity and liberty upon which this nation was founded."

Rummy Says "China, Be Good." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking at a conference of Asian-Pacific defense ministers in Singapore Saturday, offered a "blunt"/"candid"/"sharp" assessment of China's military spending, saying that a continued buildup "threatened the delicate security balance in Asia and called for an emphasis instead on political freedom and open markets."

As the New York Times notes, Rumsfeld's critique comes "as Washington's stance regarding Beijing appears to be growing more critical. The United States has accused China of manipulating the value of its currency, for example, in order to increase exports, and of exerting heavy-handed pressure on Taiwan. A joint warning from the American and Japanese defense and foreign ministers has rankled Chinese leaders, as has the Bush administration's insistence that Europe must not ease curbs on arms sales to China."

Rumsfeld told the conference that "China's defense expenditures are much higher than Chinese officials have publicly admitted. It is estimated that China's is the third-largest military budget in the world, and now the largest in Asia," warning that "China will need to embrace some form of open, representative government if it is to fully achieve the benefits to which its people aspire" and that American ties with India could strengthen at China's expense if China doesn't liberalize and draw down its military spending.

The speech "drew an immediate response from Cui Tiankai, director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Asia bureau, the top Chinese official at the conference," the LA Times reports. "Do you truly believe that China is under no threat whatsoever from any part of the world? And do you truly believe that the United States feels threatened by the so-called emergence of China?" Cui asked the US SecDef. The LAT reports that Rumsfeld replied "that he knew of no nation that menaced China and that the United States did not feel threatened by China's growing power."

Chinese sources quoted in the LA Times (which does an excellent job with this story) say that their country's missile buildup is intended to create a "credible deterrent" so that Taiwan will not declare independence, and that their military growth rate is in line with that of their economy (granted, not exactly a reassuring statement since their economy is still going gangbusters).

I'm not convinced that criticizing the Chinese for building up their military is a particularly good idea, for the simple reason that it might have the exact opposite effect from that which is intended. Chinese support is vital at the moment in the Bush Administration's multilateral North Korea strategy, and while I certainly think it's appropriate to continue calls for cultural, political and economic liberalization in the country, we have to remember to pick our battles cautiously (so that hopefully we don't have to pick them literally). In the long term, China will likely end up being a larger threat to American interests than North Korea ... but I'm much more concerned at present with Pyongyang's military endeavors than I am with Beijing's.


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