Photos of the Week: 10/24-10/30

Black bears in Florida, prayers for rain in Indonesia, Spain’s La Sagrada Família basilica enters its final phase of construction, Slipknot performs in California, the Halloween Dog Parade in New York, students in India celebrate the 60th birthday of Bill Gates, the aftermath of Hurricane Patricia in Mexico, Chewbacca under arrest in Ukraine, and much more.

European Lawmakers Vote in Support of Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden is still stuck in Russia more than two years after revealing that the U.S. government engaged in mass surveillance on tens millions of innocent Americans. If he returns to the United States he still faces the prospect of prison, unlike national-security officials who tortured or violated the law by secretly spying on their countrymen, or who have themselves leaked highly classified national-security information. President Obama shows no sign of granting him clemency to acknowledge the public service that he performed and civil-liberties violations he exposed.

Snowden may, however, have a future as a free man in Europe.

On Thursday, the European Parliament voted 285 to 281 to call on EU member states “to drop any criminal charges against Edward Snowden, grant him protection and consequently prevent extradition or rendition by third parties, in recognition of his status as whistle-blower and international human rights defender.”

The vote is not binding on any particular member state, all of which have extradition treaties with the United States. But it suggests that there is a measure of popular and elite support for the mass-surveillance truth-teller that would be a prerequisite were a European state to defy U.S. pressure and grant Snowden political asylum. “This is not a blow against the US Government, but an open hand extended by friends,” Snowden said in a statement on Twitter. “It is a chance to move forward.”

Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told The New York Times that Snowden faces felony charges and “should be returned to the U.S. as soon as possible, where he will be accorded full due process.” The felony in question, the Espionage Act, was one of the laws passed in 1917 amid the civil-liberties abrogations of World War I. Snowden’s lawyers have noted that he would be forbidden from arguing at trial that he acted in the public interest when passing the truth about the NSA to Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Barton Gellman. His detractors note that he passed on an unknown quantity of other secrets too, and that it’s possible that foreign spy agencies have seen them as a result.

Last year, in an article urging the Obama administration to grant Snowden clemency, I argued that leaks should go unpunished when satisfying a number of criteria that his met:

  • When the leak reveals lawbreaking by the U.S. government
  • When the leak reveals behavior deemed unconstitutional by multiple federal judges
  • When a presidential panel that reviews the leaked information recommends significant reforms
  • When the leak inspires multiple pieces of reform legislation in Congress
  • When the leak reveals that a high-ranking national-security official perjured himself before Congress
  • When the leak causes multiple members of Congress to express alarm at policies being carried out without their knowledge

Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua have previously offered Snowden asylum, but it is unclear if he could get to any of those countries without being intercepted by the United States.

Has China Discovered a Better Political System Than Democracy?

Since the collapse of several authoritarian regimes in the 1980s and 1990s—most notably the Soviet Union—conventional wisdom in political science has held that dictatorships inevitably democratize or stagnate. This wisdom has even been applied to China, where the Communist Party (CCP) has presided over 26 years of economic growth since violently suppressing protests at Tiananmen Square. In 2012, the political theorist and Tsinghua University philosophy professor Daniel A. Bell aroused controversy among many China-watchers for challenging this idea. In several op-eds published in prominent Western publications, Bell argued that China’s government, far from being an opaque tyranny, actually presented a “meritocratic” alternative to liberal, multiparty democracy. In a new book titled The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, Bell expands on that idea.


“I disagree with the view that there’s only one morally legitimate way of selecting leaders: one person, one vote,” Bell said at a recent debate hosted by ChinaFile at Asia Society in New York.

Bell is under no illusion that China has already perfected its political recipe, admitting that the ideal “China model” is still very theoretical. This involves a “vertical democratic meritocracy,” as he puts it, with open democratic elections at the local level, meritocratic assessment (like China’s civil-service exam) to choose top national leaders, and experimentation in the middle. In this system, local leaders—who handle relatively basic issues—are still accountable to voters. But national leaders, who must handle more complex issues and make tough decisions that may not be popular (like enacting serious climate-change measures), can be chosen based on experience and knowledge without American-style political gridlock or susceptibility to populist approval.

“This is the political ideal that has informed political reform in China over the past 30 years,” Bell said. “But there’s still a huge gap between the ideal and the practice. This ideal is reasonably good though, and can and should continue to inspire political reform in China in the future.”

Bell dismissed views that he’s an apologist for the CCP, saying that the ideal he writes about requires far more transparency, freedoms, and genuine local democracy than exist in China currently: “There’s a problem in China: There are constraints on free speech, people have visa problems, and that’s terrible. In this sense I’m a card-carrying liberal. I look forward to the day when China has much more political speech than it has.”

The Democracy Report

The breakneck economic growth that reigned for three decades in China has slowed. GDP, once guaranteed to exceed 8 percent each year, fell to 7.4 percent in 2014 and is expected to continue dropping. Meanwhile, China’s supply of cheap rural labor—essential to the country’s export-led growth model—is drying up and the overall population is rapidly aging. Social circumstances are also shifting, with young Chinese becoming more educated and nurturing aspirations that go beyond mere prosperity. Given these issues, Ash said, the CCP is facing major challenges in maintaining the “performance legitimacy” that’s kept it afloat for decades, and it faces an uphill battle in establishing a political model that bestows “procedural legitimacy.”

anti-corruption campaign is having an effective influence on reining in official graft and abuse of power. He suggested that the aggressive suppression of perceived threats to the CCP coincides with Xi’s turbulent and risky fight against corruption.

“I think once this corruption is dealt with, then I would expect the switch to a gradual openness,” Bell said. “And it’s a testable hypothesis. If in 20 years time China becomes more repressive, we see another Tiananmen Square, then I’m lost and I’ll change my views.”

This post appears courtesy of Asia Society.

If You’re Thinking About a Looming Naval-Warfare Showdown in the South China Sea …

2) “The U.S. Asserts Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea,” by Michael J. Green, Bonnie S. Glaser,Gregory B. Poling on the CSIS site. This is an informative Q-and-A feature on the latest developments and their implications. Sample, on why the U.S. Navy is conducting Freedom of Navigation exercises in this area to begin with:

FON operations are intended to challenge maritime claims that the United States considers excessive under international law…. This particular operation was intended to assert that the United States does not recognize a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea or any other maritime entitlements generated by reefs that were originally submerged but on which China has built artificial islands. It was not meant to challenge China’s claim to Subi Reef itself.

FON operations are not primarily about military deterrence or diplomatic messaging, though in a politically charged atmosphere like the South China Sea those play a role. At its root, FON operations are legal exercises to reinforce the United States’—and in this case the overwhelming majority of the international community’s—interpretations of international maritime law. They are a means to ensure that U.S. naval, coast guard, and civilian ships, and by extension those of all nations, maintain unrestricted access to their rights at sea.

A lot more to read there.

3) “Reckless, Dangerous, Irresponsible.” A report on the Chinese view. Sample:

“The action by the U.S. warship has threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, endangered the safety of personnel and facilities on the islands and damaged regional peace and stability,” said Lu Kang, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry. Kang urged the U.S. government to “correct its wrongdoing immediately” and to avoid further “dangerous and provocative actions.”

4) “After the show, time for U.S. destroyer to leave.” From a usually aggressive voice of the Chinese government, Global Times. Sample:

The Pentagon is obviously provoking China. It is time to test the wisdom and determination of the Chinese people.

We should stay calm. If we feel disgraced and utter some furious words, it will only make the US achieve its goal of irritating us.

5) “U.S. Not Provoking China.” A contrary view. Sample:

Whatever the protestations from Beijing and others, this will no doubt be just the first of many freedom of navigation operations in and around the Spratly Islands.


The right U.S. policy, in my view, is continuing to send ships through these traditionally international  sea lanes, as a reminder that China has not annexed them; but without gloating or chest-bumping China about it, an approach that has no record of having paid off. You’ll see more of the rationale in these articles.

Is It Really Better That Saddam’s Gone?

“Of course, you can’t say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015” and the rise of ISIS, said Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom and one of the leaders, with George W. Bush, of the drive to forcibly oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq. “But it’s important also to realize, one, that the Arab Spring which began in 2011 would also have had its impact on Iraq today, and two, ISIS actually came to prominence from a base in Syria and not in Iraq.”

Blair was speaking to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in an interview that aired Sunday, and while he apologized for the fact that “the intelligence we received was wrong” regarding Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, he maintained, as other decision-makers of that era (and their relatives) have, that removing Saddam was a good thing. “I find it hard to apologize for removing Saddam. I think, even from today in 2015, it is better that he’s not there than that he is there,” he said.

Saddam was a tyrant and an aggressor, but are Iraq and the region really better off without him? Consider just some of the consequences of the war that removed him.

The link between the Iraq War and the rise of ISIS has been well-established, though it is noteworthy to hear such an admission from one of the war’s architects. In his book Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, the Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick recounts how Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq—the group that became the Islamic State of Iraq, and then the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—traveled to Iraq from a base in Afghanistan and then built a terrorist network in the power vacuum created by Saddam’s fall and the U.S.-led purging of members of his Ba’ath party from the new Iraqi government. (It’s worth noting that, contrary to Blair’s claims, the origins of ISIS do in fact lie in Iraq, though the chaos created by the Syrian civil war helped it establish a base in that country as well.) Writes Warrick:

It was in this reordered Iraq that Zarqawi would find both freedom to maneuver and powerful allies willing and able to support his cause. Captains and sergeants who once served Saddam Hussein now enlisted in Zarqawi’s army, and some rose to leadership positions. Others offered safe houses, intelligence, cash, and weapons, including, investigators later concluded, the aerial munitions and artillery shells that provided the explosive force for Zarqawi’s biggest car bombs.

Many of the other consequences of Saddam’s removal, direct and indirect, are harder to trace. But the reordering of Iraq has contributed to the reordering of the region as a whole—in particular in its impact on the Syrian civil war, Iran’s influence, Kurdish nationalism, and sectarian politics in the Middle East.

For example, it was Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s first post-Saddam leader, who helped fan the flames of Syria’s civil war by providing aid to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the early days of the government’s suppression of opposition protests there. The New York Times flagged this development in 2011:

Mr. Maliki’s support for Mr. Assad has illustrated how much Iraq’s position in the Middle East has shifted toward an axis led by Iran. And it has also aggravated the fault line between Iraq’s Shiite majority, whose leaders have accepted Mr. Assad’s account that Al Qaeda is behind the uprising, and the Sunni minority, whose leaders have condemned the Syrian crackdown. …

Iraq and Syria have not had close relations for years, long before the American invasion. During the sectarian violence here that broke out after the invasion, Iraqi leaders blamed Syria for allowing suicide bombers and other militants to enter the country.

But Syria and Iran have had close ties, a factor in the recalibration of relations between Syria and Iraq. Last year, Iran pressured Mr. Assad into supporting Mr. Maliki for prime minister, which eventually helped him gain a second term. Since then, Mr. Maliki and Mr. Assad have strengthened relations, signing trade deals and increasing Syrian investment in Iraq.

This dynamic was one example of the growth of Iranian influence following the removal of Saddam, a key regional competitor who fought an eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s. In remarks to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2007, the former CIA analyst Paul Pillar described the Iraq War’s influence on Iran’s position in the Middle East:

Among [Iraq’s] neighbors, the largest winner has been Iran. The war has not only toppled the dictator who initiated an earlier war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians; it also has crippled what had been the largest regional counterweight to Iranian influence. … Tehran seems determined to exercise as much influence as it can inside Iraq as whatever process of political reconstruction there unfolds. It has been reaching out, and providing assistance to, a wide variety of Iraqi groups, not just its traditional allies such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Although some of this assistance may help to make trouble for U.S. forces, it is best understood as an effort by Tehran to throw out as many lines of influence as it can so that whenever the dust in Iraq finally settles, it will have a good chance of having the friendship of, or at least access to, whoever is in power.

Iranian influence is clearly visible in Iraq today, though the form it takes—Iranian generals openly directing the fight against ISIS—is perhaps not what Iran’s leaders had in mind back when Pillar delivered his testimony.

The Iraq War also opened a new chapter in the Kurdish bid for autonomy, as Frederic Wehrey and his coauthors explained for the Rand Corporation in 2010:

Increased Kurdish agitation in Syria, Turkey, and Iran is the war’s most pronounced and visible spillover effect. The 2003 invasion and the subsequent push by Iraqi Kurds for increased federalism has animated Kurdish activism in neighboring states, offering both inspiration and more-tangible support, such as a physical safe haven. Such events as the election of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani as Iraq’s president and the signing of the Transitional Administrative Law sparked celebratory rioting among Iranian Kurds and a serious uprising in Syria that left 40 dead. Violent Kurdish groups, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and the Free Life Party of (PJAK), have enjoyed increased sanctuary in post-invasion northern Iraq, posing new threats to domestic stability in Turkey and Iran.

The Kurds are now some of America’s most effective allies in the fight against ISIS, and have carved out more territory for themselves in both Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, however, the Kurdish drive for autonomy is stoking renewed violence in Turkey, where the government fought a decades-long civil war with the PKK that left tens of thousands dead.

There’s also the Iraq War’s toxic legacy of violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, which the Council on Foreign Relations has summarized:

Communal violence between Islam’s sects has been rare historically, with most of the deadly sectarian attacks directed by clerics or political leaders. Extremist groups, many of which are fostered by states, are the chief actors in sectarian killings today. …

Conflict and chaos have played a role in the reversion to basic sectarian identity. In Iraq, for instance, remnants of the Ba’athist regime employed Sunni rhetoric to mount a resistance to the rise of Shia power following the ouster of Saddam. Sunni fundamentalists, many inspired by al-Qaeda’s call to fight Americans, flocked to Iraq from Muslim countries, attacking coalition forces and many Shia civilians. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded al-Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq, evoked ancient anti-Shia fatwas, or religious rulings, to spark a civil war in hopes that the Shia majority would eventually capitulate in the face of Sunni extremist violence. The Shia community absorbed thousands of deaths before fighting back with their own sectarian militias.

Syria’s civil war, which exceeded the casualty toll of Iraq’s decade-long conflict in its first three years, has amplified sectarian tensions to unprecedented levels.

In human terms, the accounting is stark. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are estimated to have been killed in the violence unleashed in 2003, though the true number of deaths remains unknown. The continuing bloodshed in Iraq has contributed to the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, and the ascent of ISIS has exacerbated the outflow of refugees from Syria as well. “They are the forgotten casualties of the Iraq war. Fully one in six Iraqis (4.7 million people) fled or were forced from their homes following the U.S. led invasion in 2003, and most have not returned,” the International Rescue Committee writes. “Close to half are living in neighboring countries such as Jordan and Syria, while the remainder are uprooted within Iraq’s borders.” How would they answer the question of whether things are better now that Saddam’s gone?