Browsing articles in "U.S. Foreign Policy"
Jan 24, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Need for Politics of Compassion


Protests supporting Edgar  Tamayo in the state of Morelos, Mexico. Source: AP.

Protests supporting Edgar
Tamayo in the state of Morelos, Mexico. Source: AP.

This Wednesday, Edgar Tamayo –a Mexican by birth– died through lethal injection in Texas. Texan authorities denied Edgar the right to use Mexico’s consular services and opposed to cancel such decision as advocated by the International Court of Justice and by Obama’s Administration. Whether Edgar was guilty or not for having killed a policeman, such issue reveals a deeper issue in the U.S. That of attaining inclusiveness. An important feature that any democratic polity bares is to cover all, if not most, of its societal groups under its umbrella of policies. Despite Martin Luther King’s fight to expand civil and political rights to African-Americans here, the first and most recent minority is not yet fully included in American policymaking –Hispanics.

In 1994, policeman Guy Gaddis, captured Edgar Tamayo for having committed robbery. Edgar tried to escape and shot officer Gaddis in the head. Twenty years after, he was charged with dead penalty and died. Indeed, anyone who bypasses the rule of law needs to be judged for his or her acts. Yet, what happens when the polities of a subnational unity, such as that of a local state, clash with those of the national unity which has adopted treaties protecting human rights? Well, in this case, we get a clash between a majority and a democratic polities.

The U.S., Mexico and other 174 countries have ratified the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of the United Nations. However, in 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled that the U.S. had breached its obligations by having detained 51 Mexican nationals and deprived them from consular assistance, such as the right to gain legal representation. Through its Embassy in Washington D.C., the Mexican government tried to influence such decision but the attempts were futile. The OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also tried but no echo resonated in Texas. With the hopes of having Edgar avoid the death penalty, citizens his hometown in the state of Morelos, congregated either to pray or protest his death.

Regardless of these appeals, the Governor of Texas, Rick Perry eloquently declared that this was not about racial discrimination but that of equality before the law. Through the State Department, the Obama Administration carefully cautioned the Governor that such measure could negatively impact the treatment of Americans abroad. This is of particular importance since there are around 1 million American expats living in Mexico. The administration condemned such action and called upon Congress to pass the Consular Notification Compliance Act. Whether the law passes or not, the lack of inclusion is more serious than what we might consider. As of 2011, nearly 60% of the inmates in the United States were minorities –blacks and Hispanics. However, both groups are only 28% of the American population and are greatly overrepresented in jail. Is it because racial profiling makes easier to catch criminals? Is it because poverty leads many steal to feed their families? Is it because resentment causes them to behave socially unacceptable? Or is it because the system simply does not offer them equal opportunities to thrive?

Whatever reasons you may want to attribute, the fact is that figures show the need for a better approach to this subject. A better and more inclusive approach or engaging in “politics of compassion” would be beneficial for the U.S. in different arenas. For starters, “politics of compassion” would be consistent with Martin Luther King’s calls for social justice. These new policies would also reinforce the core values of the American melting pot –no matter where you come from, this is the land where many come to make their dreams come true. First, Mexico and the U.S. are now deeply intertwined in several different dimensions: political, economic, trade-wise, social, among others. So, disregarding the rights of foreign nationals’ can foster resentment that can affect other areas of the bilateral relation. And second, the presence of Hispanics here is undeniable. True, some Hispanics are illegal and break the law. But this doesn’t make them undeserving of their human rights. If in a democracy all members are to abide by the rule, then they should also be equally incorporated. Whether documented or undocumented Hispanics, they constituted a reality in the states that can no longer be ignored. Such reality has already had a far-reaching impact. President Obama was voted in with and by the Hispanic support but he contradictorily paid back by increasing the number of Hispanics deportations. For now, it seems plausible that politics of compassion could drive the next presidential candidate into office.

May 7, 2013

A fog of War: Redux

Rubble in Damascus after an air strike (from The New York Times).

Rubble in Damascus after an air strike (from The New York Times).

The last days the international press has seen a flow of reports related to the alleged utilization of chemical weapons in Syria. However, the information has been contradictory, incomplete, or vague. Some sources say that Bashar Al-Assad’s government has used those weapons against the guerrilla. Others have suggested that it is the rebels who have recurred to them. There is no confirmation on any of those two sets of statements, but some people say that interviews with doctors in the field could be enough to sustain them. For the time being, the Obama administration has no incontrovertible evidence on the use of chemical weapons, and thus the red line that would propel some kind of action has not been yet crossed.

What has been mentioned in the news brings about the same questions that emerge in the prelude of what could become a foreign intervention to protect human rights of a threatened group or to prevent a government from becoming an international menace. Here are some of them: What kind of evidence is needed before a criminal or threatening situation can be confirmed? What kind of confirmation is needed before the option of foreign intervention can be brought to the table? When or why should U.S. interventions be backed by international support? In the case of Rwanda, the decision to act was taken until sufficient evidence had been accumulated to indicate that the massacre had occurred, once it was too late to do anything substantive. In the case of Iraq, photos shown as evidence of Saddam Hussein possessing nuclear weapons were misleading or plain lies. And in almost any single case in the last two decades when the U.S. has decided to act alone it has met the skepticism or disapproval from the international community.

The openness of those questions points out that when crises such as the current one in Syria appear bad decisions can be easily made. Decision-makers (from the analyst in a civilian intelligence agency up to the President) face a lot of uncertainty, hence risk, and are under severe stress. What they decide or suggest doing will have implications on the lives of many people in the country where the intervention might take place and on the lives of U.S. personnel who will participate in the operations. And there is always present the risk of failure, with its multi-faceted consequences: international embarrassment, loss of domestic popular support, attacks from the partisan opposition, or the deterioration of the crisis in the intervened country.

But maybe the most important question that also emerges in these contexts is what has been learned from previous experiences. An editorial in the New York Times urged the Obama administration not to be detained by past mistakes from taking decisive action in Syria. What could be added to that recommendation is that past mistakes should also inform current decision-making processes by teaching decision-makers how to work better under the somewhat normal uncertainty of war environments. In the following days we will see what, if any, are the lessons of U.S. interventions abroad over the last fifteen years.

Apr 14, 2013

Guantánamo Still

Protestors against Guantánamo in front of the White House (from El País).

Protestors against Guantánamo in front of the White House (from El País).

Yesterday it was informed that a clash between inmates and security forces in the Guantánamo Bay prison occurred. This was a response to the prisoners’ attempts to block security cameras, windows, and other means by which they could be surveilled. “Non-lethal” rounds of ammunition were shot, provoking no “serious injuries” to anyone. Detainees were moved to individual cells, expecting to impede any effort to coordinate further collective actions.

This confrontation happens within the context of a hunger strike that began in February this year in which participate some number between 43 (the official figure) and “the vast majority” (according to the lawyers of some of the detainees) of the 166 prisoners. This began as a protest of the inmates against what they saw as a breach in their privacy when, allegedly, guards entered their cells and seized personal objects, mistreating copies of the Quran in the process. Some detainees have been fed with liquids by force. By individually confining prisoners after yesterday’s clash, it is expected that the hunger strike also loses coordination and can finally be stopped.

Additionally, the fight occurred the day after the Washington Post informed that e-mails used by the defense of detainees had been illegally accessed and used by prosecutors of the prison’s court. For that reason, the trials will be delayed for two months, until security in communications is restored. This builds on other accusations of the government monitoring over prisoners and their lawyers, questioning the legitimacy of the ongoing trials for the detainees.

Needless to say, Guantánamo is one of the heaviest loads of the current U.S. administration. Not only because President Obama has failed to close the prison, as he promised he would do, but also because the continuation of its operations keeps bringing about very serious problems which touch on the commitment of the U.S. to the defense of human rights, the due process, and the rule of law. This further raises the already high concerns on the legitimacy the U.S. has to promote those values abroad. The clash between guards and prisoners of Guantánamo says nothing new. It is just a reminder that the problem is still there, and that not attending it not only maintains it existence, but worsens it.

Feb 27, 2013
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Is There an Emerging Military Drone Complex?

MQ-9 Reaper in Afghanistan

MQ-9 Reaper in Afghanistan (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

We often think about approaches toward security as a matter of government policy, set by those in executive or appointed positions and implemented by career civil servants at the Department of State, Department of Defense, or the many intelligence agencies. And to a certain extent, this is true. Look no further than Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Iran. Military engagements, by law, are initiated and led under executive authority. Strategic and diplomatic goals often change with administrations. Choices about resources — particularly funding priorities within the various bureaucracies for the military, intelligence, and foreign aid — all carry consequences and must be approved by the president, even if the budgets themselves are first passed by Congress. Policy, in a bureaucratic sense, begins at the top and flows downward.

Yet, it is equally true that policy choices are constrained, even manipulated, by forces that flow upward. This is most visible (and self-evident) in the world of domestic policy, where powerful lobbies combine with regular elections and grassroots mobilization to shape government behavior. But is the same true in foreign affairs? When Barak Obama entered office in 2009, and immediately recalibrated U.S. policy toward Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism, Iran, Israel, Russia, and a host of other issues, how many viewed those choices as anything other than a reflection of party ideology, or perhaps — cynically — derived from a reading of public opinion?

This frame adds to the intrigue surrounding Obama’s policy on military drones. Unlike every other significant area of security or diplomacy, Obama has not only continued his predecessor’s practice on targeted killings using unmanned aerial vehicles, he has escalated it in stunning fashion. For Democrats and liberals, the practice betrays the fundamental principles that they applaud elsewhere in Obama’s foreign policy approach. The New America Foundation keeps a running database of drone activity from 2004 to the present, with figures on strikes and casualties in Pakistan and Yemen. In a comprehensive report released last month, the Council on Foreign Relations also provided a detailed account of the evolution of drone policy and practice. The trend is clear. In only half the time, President Obama has approved seven times as many drone strikes in non-battlefield environments than President George W. Bush.

Much of the recent debate over Obama’s drone policy has centered around two primary issues: their tactical and strategic value in the field, and the concerns over accountability, oversight, and abuse. Do drones provide better operational flexibility and responsiveness? Do they achieve a strategic security objective? Does the combination of negligible risk to U.S. operators and distance from the destruction on the ground create a moral hazard? These are all worthy of exploration. But they each start from the basic premise that drone policy is, in fact, set at the highest levels of government for reasons that emerge from a traditional security calculus.

Here is a different question. Have the drone wars of recent years given birth to a drone lobby? And if so, is it possible that its influence has been magnified by domestic political events? There is little doubt that drone design and development has emerged as a lucrative niche within the broader industry of military contractors. Like any industry that survives off of government resources, it has a vested interest in advocating vigorously for continued funding and long-term commitments. Yet, unlike producers of other military hardware — tanks, planes, ships — drone manufacturers offer something that the military desperately needs: a highly efficient, comparatively inexpensive weapon in an era of shrinking budgets and force reductions. With the political environment as it is, DOD officials cannot rely upon typical funding or procurement strategies of the past. This, combined with what many assume will be an aversion to large-scale interventions for quite some time, has likely created a situation where the quintessential light-footprint weapon serves an even more useful budgetary purpose. Deficit politics, and the subsequent dysfunction we’ve seen with artificial crises and looming sequestration, have made drones an even more seductive weapon of choice, and perhaps emboldened the growing industry of producers to push for more contracts. For better or worse, the assumed benefits of drone warfare have hardened into conventional wisdom, fueled in part by economic and political considerations that begin far below executive-level decision-making.

I don’t mean to undersell the relevance of strategic debates over how to best address our evolving security challenges. In fact, that is exactly the topic of our upcoming issue in Democracy & Society (shameless plug…don’t miss the chance to submit a piece!). But it is important to remember that domestic political forces can influence foreign policymaking in unexpected ways, far beyond public opinion. As much as we like to think that policies on issues as vital as security begin and end with professional assessments from the experts, incentives matter. On a purely economic and political level, drones provide numerous benefits for a wide array of actors. That, unfortunately, can carry much more weight than the moral or strategic arguments that have thus far failed to gain much traction during Obama’s tenure in office.

Feb 21, 2013
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Reminder — Call for Papers: Reassessing Security Threats and the Future of Intervention

Interested in international security, terrorism, failed states, or the evolving policies toward all three? If so, check out Democracy & Society’s latest call for papers. We’re looking for creative and well-argued submissions on all of these topics. Much more info below. Don’t miss this chance to get involved!

D&S pic

Democracy & Society, Volume 10, Issue 2

We are seeking well-written, interesting submissions of 1500-2000 words on the themes below, including new publications, summaries and/or excerpts of recently completed research, and works in progress. Submissions for the issue are due Friday, March 1st. Please email all papers to Click here for a PDF version of this page.

Reassessing Security Threats and the Future of Intervention

World powers are reassessing exigent threats to international security. After a decade of aggressive approaches to terrorism and state-building, we are now debating the circumstances that demand external intervention. The form of intervention is changing as well, with new methods emerging for military engagement, development, and diplomacy. Are we moving toward a new consensus on what constitutes a security threat and how international actors respond to them, or are we in a period of uncertainty around these issues? What problems may emerge from “light footprint” approaches that use advanced technology and quick, targeted actions? Under what conditions are failed states security concerns that require external intervention? What are the implications for development efforts?

-       Shifting Tactics, or Priorities? The U.S. has taken a more restrained approach toward recent conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Mali, despite the presence of al-Qaeda-linked militants and other Islamist extremists. What does this say about the threat that these and similar groups still pose to the U.S. and its allies? Is terrorism still the highest security priority for Western powers, and if not, what is taking its place? How do we define security threats going forward, and what sort of policies or interventions do they demand?

–       Technology. As seen in Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen, targeted attacks using advanced technologies, such as drones, are a new option to address security threats. Are these isolated cases, or do they represent a new paradigm for the use of force? Do the potential costs associated with the use of drones and other advanced weapons outweigh the potential benefits from a “light footprint” approach? What are the dangers of waging war by remote control?

–       The Impact of State Failure on International Security. In 2003, former President George W. Bush said: “Failed states spread instability and terror that threatens us all.” Is that assessment still true today? If so, should intervening countries pursue political and economic goals of state-building or should they focus more narrowly on security? Which of these options would lead to better security outcomes, both for the intervening actors and the countries in question?

–       Civilians at War. What practical and moral questions arise from the expanded role of civilian actors in military engagements, such as the CIA and private contractors, who often conduct targeted killings without significant oversight and accountability? Is military outsourcing a wise policy, or are there negative consequences that we have failed to consider?

–       The Decentralization of Intervention? As the balance of power shifts throughout the international community, is there a vacuum of responsibility in responding to security threats? Is this leading to regional responses that are ad hoc, disorganized, or less effective? What are the implications for future interventions and development efforts?

Please email submissions to For additional information, please visit or contact Andrea Murta, Josh Linden, or Kate Krueger at

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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