The Challenge Of Iranian Repression

The aftermath of what is generally believed to be a dishonest election in Iran has prompted political debate throughout the United States. President Obama professes concern that substantial American condemnation of Tehran’s repression would be seen as “interference,” and has made only slight mention of the massive violations of human rights, and that only after widespread criticism. Republicans see this as weakness, and question the President’s commitment to democratic principles.

The Iranian government has indeed played on Western sensitivity to its allegations of interference, issuing broad and unsubstantiated charges of U.S. and British influence. The tactic appears to have kept the White House at bay, to the consternation of numerous Americans who have been deeply disturbed at the graphic scenes of outright murder of innocent civilians at the hands of the Tehran regime’s enforcers. Critics have compared the President’s minimal response to the international failure to address Nazi actions towards the Jews in the 1930’s, the lack of response to Soviet actions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, and China’s 1989 use of tanks against its own youth in Tiananmen Square. Each of those foreign policy errors had severe repercussions, and continue to haunt the western conscience.

The dilemma is particularly acute for Obama. Having run on the theme of change and empowerment, it is difficult to justify his successful bid for widespread support of women and college students, with his failure to respond to the blatant and violent oppression of those two groups by Iran. In addition to his domestic audience, the President’s position must be difficult to swallow by Israelis, who have been criticized by his administration for domestic policies that are far less controversial.

Mr. Obama correctly notes that the Iranians are a proud people, who resent western actions that occurred almost a half century ago. But a growing number of critics are concerned that the Administration’s obsession with real or imagined U.S. past errors, most of which occurred decades ago, places America in the distressing position of having its own chief executive as its severest critic. They point to the President’s friendliness with the Castro regime in Cuba and Chavez in Venezuela, as hypocritical, cynical, and, indeed, anti-American. Even those who concur with the President’s determination to work within the confines of the United Nations must be disturbed that Mr. Obama fails to condemn the regimes that he has chosen to broaden relations with, such as those in Iran and Cuba, in their complete refusal to abide by the United Nations Charter.

Congressional critics of the President’s determination to broaden relations with the Muslim world question whether this goal justifies ignoring history. In his Cairo address, Mr. Obama essentially delivered an apologia for American actions. As most objective observers have noted, the U.S. has been far more helpful than harmful to Muslims and Islamic states. From the Suez crisis in 1956, when America opposed its own wartime allies the UK and France in favor of Egypt, to its defense of Muslims in Bosnia, and its assistance to Afghanistan in repulsing the USSR during the 1980s, America has been an ally to the Muslim world. What is the President apologizing for?

Conclusion: Do our principles of freedom and human rights end at our own border? This is the central question raised by Mr. Obama’s stance on Iran. The American people deserve a response.


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CHARTER SCHOOLS

 

            Parents across the nation have made it clear that there is widespread dissatisfaction with traditional public schools.  Disappointing academic scores, low graduation levels and in-school crime are among a myriad of problems that plague this least successful function of government.  Massive infusions of cash have done little to address the problem.  Many families with available resources have voted with their feet, sending their children to private academies and religious-based schools.

            A key response to this challenge has been the formation of “charter” schools.  The National Education Association defines these institutions as “Publicly funded elementary or secondary schools that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each school’s charter.”  The concept, according to the US Charter Schools Association, may have originated in the 1970s when a New England educator suggested that small groups of teachers be given contracts to explore new ideas.  Over 4,000 charter schools have been established in forty states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.   

Charters can be tailored to the specific needs of a local community, thus avoiding the “cookie-cutter” approach of general public schools.  The “charter,” according to the U.S. Charter School Association, is a “performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success.”  According to the USCA, charter schools were formed to: increase opportunities for access to quality learning for all; create choices; provide accountability; encourage innovation; promote parent and community involvement; and leverage broad educational opportunity. These institutions are accountable to a sponsor—generally, a state or local school board or similar body—and must successfully fulfill their mandate within a fixed period of time, usually a three-to-five year period.  The Center for Education Reform notes that charter schools are judged on how well they perform.  This, of course, differs sharply from regular public schools. 

The essential question is, of course, how well charter schools actually work.  In general, parental satisfaction with charters appears to be higher than in regular public schools.  More innovation was also seen to arise from charters than traditional public schools—and this innovation has a “spillover” effect on the general public school system.  The Center for Education Reform’s August 2001 report summarized 65 research studies performed on charter schools.  The report noted that most charters, particularly those that had matured, moderately outperformed traditional public schools in academic achievement.  Perhaps most tellingly, however, the rate of improvement in charters also exceeded that of regular public schools.

While charter schools are public schools, they have made teachers’ unions nervous, despite official support for the concept.  The American Federation of Teachers states that it “strongly supports charter schools.”  In fact, former AFT President Albert Shanker was one of the first to endorse the concept.  However, while not openly condemning the charter school concept, the current AFT, and large local affiliates such as New York’s United Federation of Teachers, frequently notes that test scores are not that much different in charter schools.  More to the point, however, is AFT President Randy Weingarten’s concern, expressed in her April 23, 2009 statement, that charters may be “a wedge for privatization” of public schools…[that could] eviscerate teacher voice.”

CONCLUSION:  In America’s public schools, everyone—teachers, principals, administrators, janitors, who enters a school building has a contract that guarantees a specific reward for the effort they put in.  Everyone, that is, except the students.  Charter schools attempt to provide students with a guarantee of quality education.  


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RUSSIA IN THE ARCTIC

 

            The Cold War may be over, but a chilly conflict is brewing in the icy realm of the Arctic.  Moscow has claimed a huge swath of the Arctic region as its own territory, and has made it clear that it is not hesitant to use military force to defend its position.  These moves occurred in the wake of two Russian expeditions, one to the Mendeleyev underwater chain in 2005, and, in 2007, to the Lomonosov ridge, in which a flag was planted 14,000 feet underwater on August 2 of that year as a symbol of Russian claims.

            The move is far more than symbolic.  Vast deposits of oil and natural gas are within the contested region, along with an extraordinary treasure trove of other raw materials.  Russian oceanographer Vladislav Lavin says that plans to develop the rich Leningradskoye field include use of a manned nuclear-powered submarine.

Moscow alleges that the North Pole is an extension of its continental shelf, which, under the Law of the Sea Treaty, may give it rights over the resources found there.  Under the Treaty, nations have rights to natural resources present on or beneath the sea floor up to 200 nautical miles beyond their shoreline.  This gives the US, Canada, Russia Norway and Denmark claims to the Arctic’s resources. Further rights to claim up to 350 nautical miles from the shoreline for those areas that can be proven to be an extension of the continental shelf are provided, if appropriate documentation is provided to the United Nations. While several nations  (including the U.S.A., Canada, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Russia) have long made claims or border on various parts of the north polar region, only Moscow has demonstrated a uniquely military aggressiveness in doing so, and the worst may be yet to come.  The Lomonosov Ridge, depending on the evidence, could be within the rights of Russia, Greenland or Norway.  Over the years, there have been numerous claims and conferences, such as the Greenland Sovereignty Conference in May of 2008, to address the issue.  Until now, however, the threat of militarizing the disagreement has been kept in check.  

According to Ria Novosti, Russia is establishing a dedicated force “To protect its political and economic interests in the Arctic,” although the article maintained that the nation does not plan to militarize the region. However, it goes on to note that the military will be deployed.  The force, which will be called the Arctic Group of Forces, will be under the aegis of the Russian Federal Security Service.   Ria Novosti notes that the RFSS’s former chief “is a strong proponent of an aggressive state policy in the Arctic,” and that Russian strategic bombers have been carrying out patrols over the region.  Moscow’s policy statement, “Principles for Russian Politics in the Arctic in the Period 2020 and in a Further Perspective” maintains that the nation will establish a “general purpose military force” in the area.  Moscow’s lead in naval icebreakers could give it a decisive edge in any armed conflict. 

In response to Moscow’s looming militarization, Canadian forces have stepped up training for and activities in the region, completing an exercise entitled “Operation Nunalivut” in April.  Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon stressed, on March 11, that Canada is “an Arctic Power” and will defend its interests.  American naval exercises are also ongoing.  In March, Two Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarines, USS Helena and USS Annapolis, participated in an Arctic training exercise.

Conclusion: As oil resources continue to dwindle, the Arctic’s role as a potential flashpoint continues to grow.


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TEXAS, TEA, & THE TENTH AMENDMENT

 

            There are seminal moments in American History that all recognize as the start of a major change in the course of the nation.  The shots fired at Lexington & Concord, the attack on Fort Sumter, the speech by Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial are primary examples of these paradigm-changing events. Will the unprecedented activities of April, 2009 someday be recognized as a pivotal point in the course of the U.S. government?

            Similar to other epoch-making incidents, there is debate about the scope and nature of the April ’09 activities.  Depending on the source, there were between 800 and 2,000 “Tea Party” demonstrations across the United States, (named in memory of the pre-revolutionary war patriots who dumped British tea in Boston Harbor to fight taxes) held to protest what the participants believed was an unhealthy and unconstitutional increase in federal power, at the expense of both individual citizens as well as state governments.  The gatherings were held in large cities and small towns, in both “red” and “blue” states, and generally drew more participants than expected.  Attendees were both young and old, including a fair number of individuals who, in numerous interviews, stated that they had never previously participated in a demonstration, and never expected to do so.  In New York City, for example, with a population that has for the most part favored an “activist” federal government, an extraordinary turnout of 12,500 surprised even the local organizers. The Tea Parties had no central sponsorship, and although individual Republican politicians in some cases participated, were not the product of either the Democratic or Republican parties.

            Though not closely coordinated, the themes of the numerous Tea Parties were remarkably similar: an extensive unease with the unprecedented increase in federal spending and power, anger at the prospect of increased taxes, and concern with the abrupt alteration in foreign policy.  In a nation that has, at times, not been very historically-minded, the protestors carried Revolutionary War “Betsy Ross” and “Don’t Tread On Me” flags.  Speakers decried the growth of the federal government’s power, and what they perceived to be White House and Congressional policies that ignored the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (the portion of the bill of rights that reads:  The powers not designated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively.”)

            Despite the extraordinary turnout, media coverage was remarkably schizophrenic, an indicator of the increasingly partisan press in the U.S.  Talk radio and Fox News provided extensive coverage;  newspapers and most broadcast media downplayed the event, and, in some cases, even seemed to ridicule it.  In a remarkable turn of events, the Obama Administration refused to comment, responding to inquiries by stating that “The White House takes no note of these events.”

            But not all the protests of April were confined to the streets.  In Texas, for example, Governor Rick Perry announced his support for Texas House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 50, introduced by state representatives Brendon Creighton, Leo Berman, Bryan Hughes, Dan Gettis and Ryan Guillen.  The measure notes that the powers granted to the state government under the Tenth Amendment have been violated by recent actions of the federal government.    HCR 50 also proclaims that recent moves by Washington violate Section 4, Article IV, of the Constitution, (“The United States shall guarantee to every state in the Union of States a Republican form of government…”) and the Ninth Amendment (The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”)

            Conclusion: It is undeniable that a sizeable and growing portion of the U.S. population is deeply concerned over the unprecedented growth in federal power and the radical change in foreign policy. 


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The Department of Homeland Security’s Report

On “Rightwing Extremism”

 

            On April 7, 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report entitled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic & Political Climate Fuels Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.”

            The key findings of the report are summarized in the initial paragraph: 

            “The DHS/Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) has no specific information that rightwing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence, but rightwing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues.  The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president presents unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.” 

 The report lists no evidence that any “rightwing” organization is considering any unlawful acts, but provides a recital of miscellaneous prior incidents, with no tangible ties to “rightwing” politics. The Report goes on to note that:    

“Returning veterans possess combat skills and experience that are attractive to rightwing extremists.  DHS/I&A is concerned that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.”

In addition to citing returning veterans as a potential terrorist threat, the report also states that the threat may include “groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.”

Again, the Report lists no evidence of any kind to back up this concern.  Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security’s own civil rights division was distressed, perhaps over the apparently unfounded and unsupported allegations raised.  Despite internal concern over the serious shortcomings of the Report, the document was released. 

The report has sparked outrage from, among others, Democratic and Republican elected officials and veterans.  American Legion Commander David Rehbein, in his April 13 response to the Report, called it “Incomplete…and politically-biased.”  The veteran leader noted that under the criteria cited in the document, union workers concerned about the impact of immigration on their jobs would also be considered a terrorist threat.  Pete Hoekstra, the senior Republican serving on the House Intelligence Committee, formally requested the Ombudsman for the Director of National Intelligence to investigate the DHS Report based on its “political bias.”

Perhaps the most telling response came from Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, a Democrat and Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Rep. Thompson wrote directly to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on April 14, stating that “This report appears to raise significant issues involving the privacy and civil liberties of many Americans—including war veterans…I am disappointed and surprised that the Department would allow this report to be disseminated to its state, local and tribal partners in its present form…I am dumbfounded that I&A released this report.”

In response to the widespread, bipartisan criticism of the report, Secretary Napolitano issued a vague statement denying that DHS monitors political beliefs, and pledging to meet with the American Legion Commander.

Conclusion: Our review of The Department of Homeland Security Report, as well as Secretary Napolitano’s subsequent statement, did not uncover any evidence for its controversial allegations.  The responses from Democratic, Republican, and veteran leaders, and their concerns over political bias and the questionable process which led to the publication of this document, require serious consideration from the highest levels of the Obama Administration.


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PIRACY IN THE 21ST CENTURY

 

            The romantic notion of peg-legged buccaneers sailing the Caribbean in tall-masted ships, perhaps under the authority of an English or Spanish monarch, no longer describes the reality of piracy.  Today’s pirates answer to no sovereign, and now menace the Indian Ocean, the Somali and Nigerian coasts, the Strait of Malacca, and the waters off Southeast Asia and Singapore.  They pose an expensive and dangerous threat to international shipping.  Since 90% of the world’s cargo travels across international waters, the threat of piracy is a major problem for almost everyone on the planet.

            The United Nations defines piracy as: (a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed (i) on the high seas against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board…(ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State; (b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a private ship or aircraft; (c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described …

            Modern piracy exploded onto the world scene in the latter part of the twentieth century.  The problem began to accelerate in the 1970s, and became epidemic by the middle of the next decade.  In 1983, Sweden presented a study to the United Nations which termed the increase in piracy “alarming.”  The International Maritime Organization notes that between 1984 and 1999, 1,587 pirate attacks were reported, many with disturbing amounts of violence.

            The law firm of Countryman & McDaniel have cited four reasons for the rise of piracy in the post World War II era. First, technological advances have given the pirates new ways of mounting surprise attacks—and then escaping from them.  Second, in the aftermath of the end of the cold war, the world’s navies have been reduced in size.  Third, decisions by former colonies not to keep up ties with their former mother countries, and their inability to afford their own adequate naval forces;  fourth, a lack of determination to view piracy as a serious issue. 

            According to author John Burnett, a pirate attack survivor who wrote a book entitled “Dangerous Waters” about his experience, the modern pirate may be a guerilla fighter, a member of a rogue military unit, or a former sailor enlisted by an organized crime enterprise.

            The Russian Navy website describes the typical pirate attack: “Technically, the methods used are the same as described in novels.  A fast craft—a launch or small vessel—comes along a merchant or a fishing ship and boards it.  If the ship is small or shallow-drafted, like a tanker, one can simply jump aboard it.  If the ship is large, the pirates use ropes with hooks or anchors.  To prevent the crew from hosing the pirates down with water and to intimidate them, the pirates fire at the vessel using assault rifles and grenade launchers.  An attack takes an average of 10 to 20 minutes. During this time the pirates either seize the vessel, or abandon the attempt.  As soon as the pirates climb aboard the deck, the ship is practically in their hands:  a civilian seaman will not be able to resist an armed attacker.”  The goal may be to seize an entire ship, or its cargo, or the personal belongings of the sailors.  Hostage taking is also a major activity.  According to Russian sources, the Somali town of Eyl is the main base of pirate operations.

            The Somali coast, particularly the Gulf of Aden, has become a major theater of operations for pirates.  Up to 20,000 vessels sail through each year.  Somalia, lacking a functioning government or an organized military, presents an ideal location for pirate activity.  Four or five main gangs in Somalia, with about a thousand members, serve as an ideal breeding ground for pirate recruits. 

            In December, an anti-piracy resolution was unanimously adopted by the United Nations Security Council, allowing international naval forces to patrol the region.  In January of 2009, the Combined Maritime Forces was established as Combined Task Force 151 specifically for counter-piracy operations.  Naval ships and assets from more than twenty nations are involved, and U.S. Rear Admiral McKnight was named Commander.  Operations include the deterrence of piracy, drug smuggling and weapons trafficking. The USS Boxer assumed the role of flagship.  According to US Navy Vice admiral Gortney, the Somali-based pirates come from a clan based on the northern coast of Somalia.  “The problem of piracy started ashore,” the admiral noted during a Pentagon press conference.  “It’s because there is no rule of law.  There isn’t a government.  There isn’t economic stability.  There isn’t a court system that will hold these criminals responsible for their actions.” 

Conclusion: Piracy is a significant threat to international commerce and maritime safety.  Until lawless regions are tamed, this problem will continue to plague shipping. 


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How Great is the Military Threat Posed by China?

        To the surprise of most Americans, the world’s largest military belongs to neither the United States nor Russia. That distinction rests with China.  Beijing’s armed might is not restricted strictly to numbers.  Over the past decade, it has made rapid strides in quality, as well. According to the recently released U.S. Department of Defense report on the Chinese military,

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) [PLA is the general term for all Chinese armed forces]is pursuing comprehensive transformation from a mass army designed for protracted wars of attrition on its territory to one capable of fighting and winning short-duration, high-intensity conflicts along its periphery against high-tech adversaries – an approach that China refers to as preparing for “local wars under conditions of informatization.” The pace and scope of China’s military transformation have increased in recent years, fueled by acquisition of advanced foreign weapons, continued high rates of investment in its domestic defense and science and technology industries, and far-reaching organizational and doctrinal reforms of the armed forces. China’s ability to sustain military power at a distance remains limited, but its armed forces continue to develop and field disruptive military technologies, including those for anti-access/area-denial, as well as for nuclear, space, and cyber warfare, that are changing regional military balances and that have implications beyond the Asia-Pacific region.”

In fact, Beijing’s military may be behind one of the greatest espionage assaults ever recorded.  The computers of American and other governments have been repeatedly subjected to infiltration.  Further evidence of China’s rapidly developing capabilities can be seen in its successful destruction of a satellite in space, giving the nation a true ASAT (anti satellite) capability.

This rapid construction of a vast and powerful 21st century military has been financed by an unprecedented leap in funding. According to published reports, Beijing will spend twice as much in 2009 for its armed forces as it did just four years ago, a percentage increase that wasn’t matched by either the USA or the USSR even at the height of the cold war. The escalation of China’s military budget is not a recent development. For two decades, Beijing has had double-digit percentage increases in its military spending, even surpassing its impressive internal economic growth. Even the large sums reported may not be the whole story. Most analysts believe that significant unreported funds have been committed for military spending.

The results of this quantum leap in spending and modernization has seen increased investment in domestic military production and foreign acquisitions.  It  has accelerated modernization in each military service, as evidenced by:

·       New generations of survivable nuclear armed ballistic missiles, both land- and sea-based;

·       Domestic production of advanced short- and medium-range conventionally armed ballistic missiles,  and associated weaponry;

·       Advanced Russian aircraft and precision weaponry for the air and naval air forces;

·       Domestic development of the multi-role F-10 fighter aircraft;

·       Advanced Russian and domestic versions of modern guided-missile destroyers (DDGs), frigates, and amphibious landing craft;

·       Modern, long-range, and mobile air defense systems; and,

·       Programs to increase professionalism and quality of life for military personnel.

 

China’s geostrategic strength is tempered by the presence of several powerful nations on its periphery.  While currently enjoying warm relations with northern neighbor Russia, the historical antagonism between the two powers is not totally forgotten.  The world’s most populous democracy, India, rests on Beijing’s southern border.  That nation is also developing an advanced military capability and has conflicting interests with China.  Vietnam has had clashes with China. And then there is Japan.  While Japan still has its peace constitution, the island nation has formidable naval forces and could rapidly develop further military power if threatened. Additionally, internal fissures with the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang Uygur continue to cause headaches to the Beijing leadership.

Conclusion

China clearly has the potential capability to be the most formidable foe the United States has ever faced, and has goals that are diametrically opposed to American interests.   There are worrisome developments in its increasingly cooperative relations with Russia, and its continued emphasis on retaking Taiwan.  The exceptionally belligerent attitude of its naval forces towards American naval vessels is a major concern.  Chinese submarines and missiles have clearly compromised the safety of U.S. Carrier groups and other naval ships in international waters. Should American defense spending decline, Asian nations will be motivated to tilt towards China’s will. However, should U.S. resolve and military capability remain strong, China will have far less motivation to engage in rash or aggressive action. 


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