Opinion

Bernd Debusmann

The downside of arming Syrian rebels

Bernd Debusmann
Feb 23, 2012 15:42 UTC

As Syrian government forces bombard Homs and other cities with merciless brutality, day after day, calls for arming the opposition are becoming louder. But there is a powerful case for caution, and for thinking twice before good intentions pave the road to even worse hell in Syria.

Most importantly, potential armourers of the opposition need to find answers to a number of key questions. The following exchange at a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee in mid-February helps explain what is at stake.

Question: “What is the nature of the Syrian opposition? Who are they? How much of this is domestic? How much of it is foreign? What is the regional dynamic? Is al Qaeda involved?”

Answer: “The Free Syrian Army … is not unified. There’s an internal feud about who’s going to lead it. Complicating this … are neighborhood dynamics. We believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.”

The question came from Jim Webb, a Democratic Senator with a military background. The answer was from America’s spy chief, James Clapper, who added that extremists had infiltrated Syria’s motley opposition groups which, in many cases, may not be aware of the infiltration.

Betting on Syria’s Assad staying in power

Bernd Debusmann
Feb 11, 2012 17:39 UTC

In mid-December, the U.S. State Department’s point man on Syria, Frederic Hof, described the government of President Bashar al-Assad as ‘the equivalent of a dead man walking.” On February 6, President Barack Obama followed up by saying the fall of the regime was not a matter of if but of when.

He gave no timeline, unlike Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak who predicted months ago that the Assad regime would fall “within weeks.” Since that wishful thought, hundreds have died in ruthless government crackdowns on dissidents and the death toll in the 11-month uprising climbed past 5,000, according to the United Nations. Politicians now shy away from the risky business of predicting dates for an end to the widening conflict.

Not all bets are off, though. There are punters wagering money on the fall of the house of Assad on Intrade.com, a Dublin-based online exchange that allows traders to bet on politics and other current events. Like other markets, the exchange’s odds are based on the collective opinion of traders. On February 9, Intrade gave a 31% chance to Assad being out of office by the end of June and a 58% chance that he would be out by December 31, 2012.

More drones, more robots, more wars

Bernd Debusmann
Jan 31, 2012 15:44 UTC

Sometime in the next three decades, the U.S. military will be able to field robots that can make life-and-death decisions, operating without human supervision thanks to software and superfast computers.

But the technology to get to that point is running far ahead of considerations of the ethics of robotic warfare.

Or, as Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution scholar who has written widely on military robots has put it — technology grows at an exponential pace, human institutions at a linear, if not glacial, pace. That echoes an observation by the late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov that “science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

The dirtiest word on the campaign trail: Europe

Bernd Debusmann
Jan 20, 2012 16:36 UTC

Here we go again.

It’s an American election year which means a season to bash France, Europe and China as well as drawing attention to un-American skills by presidential hopefuls. Such as speaking in foreign tongues.

Mastering foreign languages is considered an asset in most parts of the world but clearly not in the United States, a fact highlighted by attack ads in the race for the nomination of a Republican candidate to run against President Barack Obama next November.

One television clip mocked Mitt Romney, the present frontrunner, for speaking French. Another featured Jon Huntsman, who dropped out of the contest this week, and suggested that his fluency in Mandarin meant that he subscribed to Chinese rather than American values.

American riddle: more guns, less violence?

Bernd Debusmann
Jan 6, 2012 15:29 UTC

Gun ownership in the United States is up. Violent crime is down. Is this a matter of cause and effect?

The question merits pondering on the January 8 anniversary of the Arizona mass shooting which killed six people, severely injured a member of congress, Gabrielle Giffords, and rekindled the seemingly endless on-and-off debate over gun regulations in the United States, the country with the greatest number of firearms in private hands.

Judging from the background checks gun dealers filed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), that number jumped by around 1.5 million in December, thanks partly to a spurt of buying around Christmas. For Arizona gun enthusiasts who left firearms out of their Christmas giving, gun shows in Tucson and Phoenix provide another shopping opportunity on the Giffords shooting anniversary.

Iran ramps up courtship of Latin America

Bernd Debusmann
Dec 30, 2011 14:07 UTC

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

For decades, American foreign policy on Latin America has gone through cycles of neglect and concern. It’s in a cycle of concern again, prompted by an Iranian campaign to make friends and influence people in the American backyard. Washington’s message to Iran’s Latin friends – don’t get too close – does not appear to impress them.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in unusually strong language, sounded the first warning on December 11: “I think if people want to flirt with Iran, they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them. And we hope that they will think twice.”

President Barack Obama followed up eight days later with a message focused on Venezuela, Iran beachhead in Latin America. Ties with Iran had not served the interests of Venezuela and its people, he said in an interview with a Venezuelan newspaper. “Sooner or later, Venezuela’s people will have to decide what possible advantage there is in having relations with a country that violates fundamental human rights and is isolated from most of the world.”

America’s unfulfilled promise to Iraqis

Bernd Debusmann
Dec 16, 2011 16:15 UTC

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

When Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency, he spoke eloquently about America‘s moral obligation to Iraqis working for U.S. forces in their country. “We must keep faith with Iraqis who kept faith with us,” he said in a 2007 campaign speech.

“One tragic outcome of this war is that the Iraqis who stand with America – the interpreters, embassy workers and subcontractors – are being targeted for assassination. Keeping this moral obligation is a key part of how we turn the page in Iraq. Because what’s at stake is bigger than the war – it’s our global leadership.”

The war Obama inherited from George W. Bush officially ended this week when U.S. soldiers rolled up the flag of military forces in Iraq in a low-key ceremony attended by U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. The remaining U.S. soldiers will be out by Dec. 31. They leave behind thousands of the faithful Iraqis Obama described on the campaign trail.

Goodbye to the myth of Iran’s “Mad Mullahs”?

Bernd Debusmann
Dec 9, 2011 18:25 UTC

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

After years of portraying Iran’s leaders as irrational actors driven by religious zeal, American neo-conservatives and their Israeli allies appear to be shelving the “mad mullah” argument used to underline the danger of Iran getting nuclear weapons. The mullahs are now seen as shrewd calculators of risk.

The change of tone was reflected in a report on Iran and the bomb by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Washington-based conservative think tank whose hawkish views influenced the decision-making on going to war in Iraq.

The report, published this week, is based on the assumption that sanctions and sabotage will fail and Iran will have a nuclear weapon by the time the next U.S. president takes office in 2013.

U.S. Congress, Communists and God

Bernd Debusmann
Nov 29, 2011 17:38 UTC

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

After the high-profile failure of a Congressional “supercommittee” to trim America‘s budget deficit, one could be forgiven to conclude that there’s nothing the divided House of Representatives can agree on. But that would be wrong.

Among the few topics on which Democrats and Republicans in the Republican-dominated House see eye-to-eye: the official motto of the United States is “In God We Trust”. That has been the case since 1956 but as the supercommittee wrangled with the thorny deficit problem, lawmakers found time to vote on a resolution reaffirming the motto. Why that reaffirmation was deemed necessary speaks volumes about congressional priorities and Washington‘s peculiar political climate.

According to two polls taken before the supercommittee failed to find a compromise, the American public’s faith in Congress stands at historic lows – a 9-percent approval rating according to a CBS/New York Times poll and 13 percent according to Gallup. In October, Gallup forecast that disenchantment with the people’s representatives would further deepen in the absence of agreement.

To curb piracy, bring on hired guns

Bernd Debusmann
Nov 18, 2011 16:04 UTC

By Bernd Debusmann

The views expressed are his own.

Better late than never. After years of debate, there is growing consensus among governments, major shipping companies and maritime organizations that armed private security guards are a potent deterrent to high-seas pirates. That view is certain to crimp a criminal business already showing signs of decline.

Numbers tell part of the story: In the first nine months of the year, Somali pirates attacked 199 ships, a hefty increase over 126 attacks in the corresponding period in 2010. But the number of ships they hijacked dropped from 35 in 2010 to 24 this year. Expressed differently, their success rate declined from 28 percent to 12 percent. Not a single vessel carrying armed guards was taken.

Which is why the United States and Britain changed policies on hired guns a few days apart in October. In the United States, the change was so quiet it almost escaped notice. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron said in a television interview his government was reversing opposition to armed guards on British-flagged vessels because “the fact that a bunch of pirates in Somalia are managing to hold to ransom the rest of the world … is a complete insult.”

  •