Spying on Allies

According to a new report by the Wall Street Journal, the National Security Agency was listening in on the communications of Israeli leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during the Iranian nuclear program talks. It had been known that the United States was monitoring Netanyahu’s telephone calls, but the report contends that the surveillance was much broader than initially suspected, and included communications between Netanyahu and members of the US Congress.

The US government believed Netanyahu was actively trying to undermine the conclusion of any agreement between the United States and Iran. According to Netanyahu, the agreement, which was concluded in July, would undermine Israeli national security by creating a pathway for Iran to expand its nuclear weapons program. The United States and its allies—the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, and the European Union—contended that the agreement would slow Iran’s nuclear progress and included measures to re-impose sanctions if Iran was found to be in violation of the agreement.

In response to the Wall Street Journal report, Israel’s Minister of Intelligence, Yisrael Katz, issued a statement claiming that “Israel does not spy on the US., and we expect that our great friend the US will treat us in similar fashion.” Members of Congress have not yet response to the report., suggesting they may have been aware of the NSA’s activities.

What do you think? Was the United States justified in listening in on the communications of Israeli leaders during the Iranian nuclear negotiations? Under what conditions would such action be justified? When would it not be justified? Why?

Has Boko Haram Been Defeated?

In an interview with the BBC, Muhammadu Buhari, the President of Nigeria, asserted that Nigeria had “technically won the war” against the terrorist organization Boko Haram in the country. According to Buhari, Boko Haram could no longer mount “conventional attacks” against security forces or population centers in Nigeria, and had been reduced to relying on roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices to carry out attacks.

Since its founding in 2002, Boko Haram has carried out dozens of attacks, primarily against soft targets, in Nigeria and across Western Africa. In April 2014, the group was catapulted into international headlines when it kidnapped 276 girls from a school in Chibok, in northern Nigeria, sparing the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. While more than 50 were ultimately able to escape, more than 200 others remain missing and are believed to have been married off or sold into slavery. According to many observers, that event was critical to the defeat of President Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign for reelection in 2015.

What do you think? Has Boko Haram been defeated? How is success against an organization like Boko Haram to be measured? And how would you advise President Buhari to deal with the group?

Human Rights in War

A new report by Amnesty International contends that Russia may have committed war crimes when it launched an airstrike on a market in Syria last week. According to the report, Russia may have killed as many as 200 civilians since it began using its air power to strike rebel forces in Syria last November. Amnesty International accuses Russia of using cluster munitions—bombs that carry dozens of bomblets—during its airstrikes. Amnesty avoids calling Russian attacks purposeful, suggesting that targets may have been based on faulty intelligence.

Russia responded, stating that the report was “groundless” and “full of lies,” and denies they have used cluster munitions in Syria. The Russian government also pointed out that US airstrikes have also resulted in civilian casualties, most notably in Afghanistan, where a US airstrike accidentally targeted a medical facility run by the non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders, killing at least 19 people.

Yet the legality of Russia’s actions in Syria are less than clear. The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits the use, transfer, and stockpile of cluster bombs by countries that have ratified the convention. While 107 countries have ratified the agreement, countries that have the largest stockpile of such weapons—including Russia, China, the United States, Israel, Pakistan, India, and Brazil—have refused to do so and are thus not subject to the agreement’s provisions. Similarly, the Rome Statute and Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions prohibit the deliberate or indiscriminate targeting of civilians in war. But making the case that Russia deliberately targeted civilians—rather than aiming for a military target but accidentally striking civilians—is a difficult claim to substantiate, and one that Amnesty did not make in the report.

What do you think? Has Russia violated international humanitarian law during its airstrikes in Syria? Has the United States violated international humanitarian law in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan? And if so, what can be or should be done to prevent such violations by Russia or the United States in the future?

Promoting Tolerance and Political Change…. Through Music?

As the rhetoric surrounding the status of Syrian refugees in the United States and Europe continues to intensify, a handful of people are turning to music as a tool to attempt to bring a more civil tone to the discussions. At its final summit of the year, the European Union’s meeting of Heads of State reached agreement on efforts to increase border security, dedicating more than $300 million to expand funding for security at border crossings and establishing an EU “rapid-reaction force” to respond to refugee influxes. The government of Denmark came under sharp scrutiny last week for a proposal to seize assets of asylum-seekers in order to pay for their upkeep,  a plan which critics decry as echoing Nazi seizure of the jewelry belonging to the Jewish victims of concentration camps. And the United States, Republican President candidate Donald Trump continues to promote his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States—a proposal which, according to a Fox News poll, receives support from a narrow majority of voters.

A music video released last week by a Syrian-American hip-hop artist in New York seeks to draw attention to the plight of refugees. The video by Akram Shibly covers Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams, reworking the lyrics and includes a call to action by viewers. Shibly’s goal is to get viewers to tweet @taylorswift13 using the hashtag #DearTaylor, hoping that Swift will use her celebrity status to change the discourse and welcome refugees to the United States.

What do you think? Would such a grassroots campaign to create a more welcoming environment for Syrian refugees in the United States be successful? Is Shibly correct to target a celebrity like Taylor Swift rather than politicians or elected officials? What conditions are necessary to ensure civil society can affect the political discourse around accepting refuges? Why?

Global Implications of Rising Interest Rates in the United States

Markets around the world are watching the United States Federal Reserve Bank and its anticipated move to increase interest rates in the United States this afternoon. The Fed is widely expected to increase interest rates by .25 points today. For seven years, interest rates in the United States have been kept near zero in an effort to stimulate the economy. While inflation remains well below the Fed’s two percent target and unemployment is falling, albeit slowly, markets are watching for the Fed’s statement to signal whether it will continue to increase rates in 2016.

The US Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee sets national monetary policy, largely by setting its benchmark interest rate on which many other interest rates in the country are based. But the interest rate has wide-ranging implications for the global economy. An increase in the Fed rate would likely result in an increase in the value of the US dollar relative to other global currencies, making US exports less competitive abroad. Because oil is priced in US dollars, an increase in the value of the dollar could make oil more expensive for other countries by increasing its price relative to local currency values. It would increase the cost of borrowing for both private individuals and countries.

What do you think? What are the likely impact of an increase in interest rates in the United States on the US economy and economies around the world? Should the Fed increase interest rates? Why?

Addressing Global Climate Change in Paris

The international community yesterday agreed to an historic international agreement to address global climate change, concluding a two-week meeting in Paris. Representatives from 195 countries agreed to commit all countries to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as part of an effort to keep global temperatures from exceeding a 2 degree Celsius target that scientists say could be catastrophic.  The scope of the agreement is particularly impressive, as previous agreement had exempted developing countries, including India and China, from mandatory reductions. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the agreement as “truly a historic moment. For the first time, we have a truly universal agreement on climate change, one of the most crucial problems on earth.” President Obama described the agreement as “a turning point for the world.”

The agreement includes a wide range of initiatives and commitments, including efforts to curb deforestation, mobilization of funding for sustainable energy production, mechanisms to ensure transparency, and regular updating on progress in achieving the goals by individual countries. But Republican Presidential candidates were quick to dismiss the deal, and many said that they would seek to overturn US commitments if they were elected. Environmentalists were also quick to criticize the agreement, arguing it doesn’t go far enough quickly enough to prevent a sharp increase in global temperatures.

What do you think? Do you support the climate change agreement that came out of the COP21 Paris climate talks? Why? Do you think it will be effective in curbing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing global change? Why?

Banning Immigration to Fight Terrorism?

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump sparked controversy this week when he argued that the United States should ban immigration by Muslims, calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Many key officials in the Republican Party—and in particular from most of Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination—were quick to jump on his comments. But Trump’s supporters widely supported his position.

While Trump asserts that the ban is necessary to protect the United States from further terrorist attacks, many security officials warned that such a ban could play in to recruiting messages by the Islamic State and others, thus undermining US national security. A statement by the Pentagon Press Secretary, Peter Cook, observed that,

There are, as I said before, there are Muslims serving patriotically in the U.S. military today, as there are people of many faiths. I’m not aware of any particular new training as a result of this. We’ll check and see if there are Muslims specifically serving in those particular areas that you mentioned. But I would just make the larger point that — that we don’t have — the United States doesn’t have any issue, and certainly the Department of Defense, anything that creates tensions and creates the notion that the United States is at odds with the Muslim faith and Islam would be counterproductive to our efforts right now, and totally contrary to our values….We have troops serving that follow the Muslim faith. And, again, without wading into politics, anything that tries to bolster, if you will, the ISIL narrative that the United States is somehow at war with Islam is contrary to our values and contrary to our national security.

What do you think? Should the United States take steps to prevent Muslims from entering the United States, as Trump suggests? Or might such moves undermine US national security, as Cook argues?