Archive for September, 2012

Rare Earth Elements

Lower environmental standards and labor costs have shifted the production of rare earth elements to China- but at what price for the US? Once the leading producer of rare earth elements, the US now relies on China for its supply. This is problematic because China has been attempting to limit exports to the US. Rare earth elements are critical to a variety of military applications, including satellites, missile guidance systems, lasers and vehicle parts risking US national security.

The CRS report for Congress outlines multiple options the US has to reduce its reliance on Chinese rare earth minerals. I find that the best option is for the US to begin domestic production, but in an environmentally safe way. According to the report, though, building the infrastructure to begin producing may take up to 15 years, which means the US must take other steps in the status quo to hedge against China’s hold over the industry. Other options include stockpiling resources and forming alliances to diversify the supply source.



Film Review: Taxi to the Dark Side

Taxi to the Dark Side explores the evolution of torture techniques after the September 11 attack and the effects said techniques have on America’s global image. It documents torture used in Bagram in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. According to the documentary, hundreds of thousands of people have been detained and tortured in these facilities, while less than one percent of them have been found to have any terrorist connection.

Toward the end of the documentary, there was a discussion regarding the effectiveness of torture and multiple people were interviewed on the issue. John McCain, having been a prisoner of war himself, has spoken out against the torture used in detention facilities and has proposed multiple bills in Congress to limit the use of torture. In the documentary, he speaks of how torturing a detainee is rarely helpful. It usually leads to false information and it often times just emboldens the person to become more steadfast in their beliefs. A man who was detained in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay also spoke of the torture he endured in the facilities. Later found innocent, he commented that many detainees were not terrorists when they arrived, but terrorists when they left.

I agree with the position that torture is a counter-productive strategy. Not only do I believe torture to be morally wrong, but I also believe that using torture to attain information has negative implications for US security. First, most information that is attained during interviews that involve torture is false. Many detainees will just say what they think the interviewer wants them to say. When false information is used to make military decisions, it puts soldiers at first. Second, it reflects poorly on the US’s image. Many of the torture techniques that have been used in the past are inhumane. This prevents coalition building in many Middle Eastern countries, greatly hampering US soft power.


Palestine Lowers Sights at UN, Still Aggressive

One year after its failed bid at membership, the Palestinian National Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas will speak before the UNGA.  With attention in the region focused on the Arab Spring and Syria, Abbas’s speech will attempt to draw the international community’s attention back to the Palestinian question. It has not been confirmed, but it is likely that the PNA will petition the UNGA to upgrade its status from “observer entity” to “observer state,” a goal less lofty than the full membership they sought last year, but controversial nonetheless.  Whereas full membership requires the approval of the Security Council where the Permanent 5 can veto the proposal, this upgrade only requires a GA resolution, which under the “one state, one vote” system is a much easier task.

However, supposing that the PNA could successfully petition the GA, the situation is more complicated than a simple vote. Both the US and Israel have said that such a move would be a unilateral move and would ignore past promises for negotiation on this issue. This is an intriguing question concerning the nature of states: can states be declared by international authorities (see Israel, 1948), or are states determined by popular sovereignty and neighbor recognition? I think it is not inflammatory, though it may be controversial, to compare Palestine’s desire for statehood today with that of Israel to that of Israel post-WWII. The situations are by no means identical; the desire for a Jewish state involved more than cultural heritage and religious right, but the fear of mass persecution. The logic of that argument may be debated, but that is not what I seek to do here. Israel’s desire for a state was supported by the West, specifically the United States, and it was successful despite the regional controversies it created. Conversely, the PNA’s desires could be seen as coming out of Wilsonian self-determination, and yet it lacks US support and therefore it has been unable to achieve its goals. It would seem that the structure of the UN (specifically the Security Council) has prevented its actions from living up to its founding principles.

(Note: The article mentions that an upgrade in the PNA’s status would allow it to join “UN agencies such as the International Criminal Court, where Palestinian officials have claimed they could bring cases against Israel.”  Whatever one may think of international arbitrage, this statement needs clarification. The ICC is a distinct organization from the UN. Many states, such as the US as Israel, are UN members but not signatories to the ICC’s Rome Statute. The PNA has attempted to be under ICC juridiction, but the chief prosecutor declared that its status as as state was too ambiguous for the purposes of the court. Perhaps the UN status upgrade would legitimate the PNA’s claims to statehood and therefore allow them to join the ICC, but this would not be a direct cause of UN recognition, as the article suggests.)


Droning On

New York Times columnist Melissa Porges, in a recent article, argues that drone strikes are not an adequate tool for fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or abroad.  Her main argument is that drone attacks are ineffective because they do not allow US intelligence to get inside the heads of the enemy through interrogation. In recent years, while Guantanamo Bay remains open, the number of detainees brought in for questioning and holding have decreased drastically as the Obama administration turn increasingly to drones to combat Al Qaeda and terrorism. Borges believes that this strategy is dangerous in that it prevents the US from fully understanding Al Qaeda’s motives, operations, and execution.

The argument of Borges’ article is compelling, however, I disagree that the detaining of suspected terrorists is more effective than drone strikes. I believe that Guantanamo, water-boarding, and secret CIA prisons all marred the reputation of the Bush administration – especially in the International community, and continually raised a slew of legal and ethical questions. It seems wise that Obama would distance himself from this largely unpopular practice. Drone strikes, however, are far from a pretty solution to stopping terrorism since they create inevitable civilian casualties, and draw the ire of local populations and Governments (such as Afghanistan and Pakistan). Despite these drawbacks, drones are a decisive, fatal, and low human-cost method of fighting terrorists. While several drone strikes (such as the one which killed US-born Anwar Al Awlaki in Yemen) became controversial, the killing of combatants or civilians abroad will never, in my opinion, be as hotly contested by the American public as the deliberate and starkly anti-American use of torture to illicit information from detainees. Drones are also advantageous in that they can operate where conventional ground forces can not – and therefore keep Al Qaeda on the run at all times. Drones are far from perfect, but are the best alternative when the public will to fight is low and dangerous terrorists roam free.

– Daniel

Russian Debt Forgivness and a Less Influential China

Last week I wrote on how the Chinese have taken the role as sole guardian of North Korea. After I had finished that blog post the Russians announced that they would be forgiving a significant amount of North Korean debt. Along with that came news that they would be investing in the DPRK as well rendering my entire conclusion void.

It seems now that North Korea has become a much more secure state. Where they had to solely lean on China to ward of the United States and to receive aid they can now count on another power to back them. This will complicate things for the US government but not to a large extent. Russia will probably not tolerate any wild actions undertaken by the North Korean regime but will allow action to be taken against them.

All this seems to have changed is that North Korean reform or even collapse is no longer something that must happen. It may happen and the regime may change on, but that change will not come solely from China’s influence. Any major overhauls or changes to the system now will have to be a result of pressure from either both Russia and China or from a desire by the North Korean government. Still with new foreign money flowing in and a forgiven debt it’s unlikely the North Korean government will want to change.

Ryan Thompson

E.U. to consider capping crop-based biofuel production–should the U.S. do the same?

The EU is reportedly proposing a change to the Renewable Energy Directive that would cap crop-based biofuel production at 5% while placing more emphasis on advanced biofuel feedstocks. According to a statement made by EU Commissioner of Energy Günther Oettinger, these “non-food feedstocks” include waste or agricultural residues such as straw “that are not in competition with food, nor do they require additional land” (Voegele).

I think this change may be a result of this summer’s drought that drastically the supply of corn and therefore increasing food prices and leaving people hungry. This huge crop failure has rippled throughout the entire food chain and has left a dent in the global food system. Currently, roughly 35% of the global corn crop comes from the U.S. 10% of this corn crop is mandated for biofuels production, which many are arguing is a leading cause of increased food prices and therefore increased food insecurity. Lack of food in developing countries leads to political insecurity and increased conflict. I think a strong argument could be made that if the U.S. wants to increase its national security, it should look to the E.U. as an example and consider capping its crop-based biofuel production.


“Study: Biofuels Mandate Could Increase EU CO2 Emissions.” N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2012. <>.

Somalia’s New Leadership Already Under Attack.

Unrest prevails in Mogadishu, Somalia despite recent elections and the adoption of a provisional constitution to establish a new parliament to provide state governance, a nascent aspect in Somalia’s turbulent history. Members of an Islamist group in the region, Al-Shabab, admitted to being the mind behind the bombing of the Jazeera hotel where the newly instituted president attended a conference. This violent act served to convey the group’s disapproval of the new governmental structures in the country.

The present troops aiding the Somali government army are mainly orchestrated by the African Union. The United States has provided aid to the coalition for reinforcement. This is a right step forward taken by the U.S; working alongside an involved coalition instead of being at the reigns of the effort is the appropriate way to partake in detaining insurgency movements that are crowding the continent. The U.S’ involvement is necessary not exclusively to ensure stability in Somalia, but to assist concerted efforts to alleviate the threat that Islamist groups pose globally. Assistance from the U.S illustrates its persistence in supporting the state’s attempt to move towards less volatile ways and provides a support system for future efforts to combat Islamists attacks in the continent.



Whistleblower talks government waste in Iraq

Peter Van Burn, a retired foreign service officer who worked for the US state Department during the Iraq war, recently gave a talk about his new book ‘We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.’  and the atrocious government spending that took place by the US government during the war. Van Buren was in charge of reconstruction projects in Iraq and tells the account of negligent spending that went on that were supposed to help the Iraq people get back up on their feet but actually were just a cover to bolster the image of the US government in Iraq. For publicizing what went on over in Iraq the US government and chiefly the State Department tried to crucify him and strip him of his career and any entitlements he had until the nonprofit Government Accountability Project and American Civil Liberties Union stepped in and backed his story up.

For the US government this is a lesson learned that the negligent use of power has consequences and that wasteful spending will not be tolerated by the American people. Its infuriating to think that the money the American people thought was being used to help iraqi war victims out was actually carelessly being used and in some cases not even used at all on the Iraqi people. If anything this tells us that there need to be greater checks in place to monitor war time spending so that we know that funds are being  appropriated correctly and that we can limit the loss of financial security when we engage in war.


Your call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes

Everyone has things that are unique to only them-your voice being one of those things. We use our voices to talk to people we see everyday, to access accounts via telephone, or talk to telemarketers. The FBI, and other government or law officials, are increasingly using voice biometric identification for “identification and verification purposes.” A company called SpeechPro developed voice recognition software, called VoiceGrid Nation, which essentially collects voice data from new and already existing audio. Existing audio can include voicemail, 911 calls, or calls to your cable provider.

The extracted audio is being used in instances where audio may the the leading or sole evidence in a criminal case. SpeechPro claims that their technology and data is private and used for legitimate and moral causes. Examples where voice recognition has been used are prank calls, terrorist threat calls, fake emergency calls, or kidnappings. There is a “90% voice match to identification accuracy within 15 seconds,” with the technology.

The concern here is that while SpeechPro claims their system is being used for “noble” purposes, and it genuinely may be, it is technology that can easily be compromised. It is possible that people are recorded into a database without their knowledge. It is also a fine line between the wrong person using this data to exploit political officials or obtain secretive information.



Secretary Panetta and the East China Sea Dispute


U.S.Defense Secretary Leon Panetta shakes hands with China's Vice President Xi Jinping before meeting September 19 in Beijing, China. Panetta is on a three-nation tour of Japan, China and New Zealand.

This past Saturday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta returned from a weeklong trip around the Asia-Pacific region.  The timing and subject matter of the trip have been the subjects of extensive scrutiny and analysis in the foreign policy world, given the fragile and dynamic state of affairs in this corner of the world in recent months. Panetta’s journey follows Secretary of State Clinton’s trip to the Asia-Pacific last month and is his third to the region in the past year, illuminating just how serious the Obama administration is in pursuing a comprehensive ‘strategic pivot to Asia’ in coming years.

Secretary Panetta’s trip included stops in Japan, China, and New Zealand. Another flare-up between Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, however, soon came to dominate a substantial portion of the trip’s agenda and much of its press coverage. Tensions have been heightening in recent days as both Japan and the PRC have engaged in round after round of escalating naval and diplomatic brinksmanship over the desolate and isolated islands.  At stake are both national prestige and the potentially resource-rich waters surrounding the islands. Secretary Panetta

In sum, Secretary Panetta’s trip hit on several security concerns regarding the U.S.-China relationship. The immediate concern is Japan’s status as a treaty ally of the United States placing it under the security umbrella of the U.S. military. When taken in light of recent events in the East China Sea, this is a complicating factor due to the strong currents of Japanese-Chinese nationalism and the growing risk of conflict. While Panetta joined Secretary Clinton in calling on China to support a robust framework to resolve the gamut of maritime territorial disputes in the Pacific, the persistence of these issues and their refusal to subside in recent months suggests more needs to be done to ensure regional security. Right now, there is security dilemma gaining steam between China, the U.S. and its treaty allies (Japan, South Korea, Japan)and the ASEAN bloc over territorial claims in the Pacific Ocean. With the specter of mounting nationalism threatening to spin out of control and increasing risk of military miscalculation and/or accidents at sea, the risk of an entangling regional conflagration involving the U.S. is a real risk.  Compromise is desperately needed somewhere for the security of Asia-Pacific relations.

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-William Kyle

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