Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:

Feb. 16

The Washington Post on Guantanamo Bay

If the Guantánamo Bay detention facility were a person, it would be old enough to drink. Just over 21 years ago, U.S. authorities took the first detainees to the naval base in Cuba, stashing the suspects in a territory where, it was thought, they might be held without federal court oversight. This month, Majid Khan became the 746th detainee to be transferred out of the facility, to Belize, leaving 34 prisoners still locked up there, according to a New York Times count.

The transfer was a reminder of Gitmo’s persistence, despite three presidents’ efforts to close it, a vestige of a sad period in U.S. history. As its population dwindles, its continued existence is ever more irrational.

Establishing the prison was a terrible mistake that has proved impossible to undo. The Biden administration has gotten the country the closest it has ever been to shutting the facility, and the president can continue emptying the prison. But only to a point. Congress will have to take the last few steps to eliminate this enduring stain on the global reputation of the United States.

Created by the George W. Bush administration in the chaotic period after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Guantánamo took in its last prisoner in 2008. By the end of his presidency, even Mr. Bush was persuaded to favor closing the facility, based on the moral and strategic damage it had done to the United States. In his memoir, Mr. Bush said the prison was “a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies.”

Though the global war on terrorism has receded from most Americans’ minds, experts say that even now Gitmo’s continued existence serves as a recruiting tool among those who mean the country harm. Across the globe, it shows up in popular media as a symbol of injustice. Its existence opens the United States to charges of hypocrisy on human rights, suggesting the nation’s promotion of freedom and democracy abroad is a cynical pretext for engaging in self-interested global interventionism. Also, it’s expensive, costing roughly $13 million per prisoner in 2019. That is well more than 100 times what it costs to incarcerate someone in a U.S.-based supermax prison.

But once prisoners are stashed at Gitmo it is hard to move them out, in part because of unreasonable domestic U.S. opposition to relocating them, which culminated in 2010 with Congress barring the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to U.S. soil. Because of this, presidents long ago stopped adding people to the prison, opting instead to have allied forces hold detainees or to try high-value prisoners in federal court.

Gitmo will stop functioning eventually, if only because its inmates will die off. Nine have already died there. This is essentially the closure strategy the nation is pursuing, committing the country to perhaps decades more condemnation and shame. If preserving Guantánamo made the United States safer, there might be a credible argument to keep it open anyway. But it does not. That is true even if you accept the argument that the United States must maintain a facility to house terrorism suspects indefinitely; since the Supreme Court long ago brought the prison under the jurisdiction of American law, there is scant conceivable advantage to warehousing prisoners there rather than on the U.S. mainland.

Those who remain at Guantánamo fall into three groups. Twenty of them are detainees who a review board has determined are safe to transfer to other countries, as Mr. Khan was this month. Early on, this practice led to a substantial number returning to the battlefield in places such as Afghanistan. In recent years, the State Department has established security arrangements — such as monitoring and travel restrictions — preventing them from engaging in threatening behavior after leaving Guantánamo. The reengagement rate has plummeted. The Biden administration should move out those approved for transfer as soon as possible.

This requires sustained negotiations with countries who can be persuaded to accept former Gitmo detainees. Some go back to their countries of nationality, if U.S. authorities can make adequate security arrangements. Others, such as Mr. Khan, are sent to countries willing to take them as a humanitarian gesture — and as a favor to the United States — so long as American authorities find them homes and other essentials. The Biden administration should press forward.

Then there are 11 inmates who have been charged with or convicted of crimes, such as some of the men who perpetrated the Sept. 11 attacks. Rather than prosecuting them in federal court, the Bush administration and Congress created military commissions to try them. The commissions have failed. It has been nearly 11 years since the 9/11 defendants were arraigned, and their trial still has not begun, as the inevitable complexities of creating a brand-new, parallel legal system have taken time to work through. Rather than persisting with the commissions system, the Biden administration should seek justice in some other way.

The best alternative would be to try Guantánamo inmates in federal court. Prosecuting domestic as well as foreign terrorism suspects in federal court — including in cases against the Boston Marathon bomber, the Times Square bomber, the shoe bomber, the East Africa embassy bomber and one of the 9/11 plotters — has proved far more effective than critics had predicted. The conviction record in cases against “enemy combatants,” the class of detainee Gitmo was created to house, is near-perfect, and supermax prisons are safe places to lock them up — or, should they be sentenced to die, to execute them.

The Biden administration could also sidestep the commissions by seeking plea deals, securing admissions of guilt in return for life sentences. This would finally close the chapter on these cases. But, no matter what legal process inmates undergo, if Congress failed to lift its ban on transferring Guantánamo inmates to the United States, they would still have to serve their sentences in Gitmo.

The situation is similar with the third group of inmates in the prison, three men who have not been charged but whom the government deems too dangerous to transfer abroad. One of these men is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaida, whom the U.S. government accused of being a senior al-Qaeda leader — and tortured — in the wake of 9/11. Congress should allow them to be moved to a facility in the United States for as long as the government may lawfully hold them.

The Supreme Court has said these “law-of-war detainees” have the right to challenge their continued detention in federal court, and some have. Their challenges could get more persuasive as the United States winds down operations it began after 9/11, such as the war in Afghanistan. But that would be the case whether they were filing their habeas corpus petitions from Guantánamo Bay or the U.S. Penitentiary in Florence, Colorado.

On its own, the Biden administration could get the Guantánamo Bay prison population down to 14 by transferring overseas all those approved to be moved. This would make the facility’s continued existence only more absurd, underscoring what a waste of money and credibility it has become. At that point, Congress might be persuaded to end this national embarrassment once and for all.

ONLINE: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/02/16/guantanamo-bay-prison-facility-detainees/


Feb. 18

The New York Times on Ukraine’s needs a year after Putin’s invasion

A year since Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to invade Ukraine, the war is far from over. However bravely Ukrainians fight on, and however muddled the performance of Russia’s military, Ukraine cannot prevail without continued and substantial Western assistance. Since the invasion, that has swelled to over $150 billion in American and European spending, and the weapons supplied to Ukraine now include the latest Western tanks and antiaircraft systems.

The United States and its major allies have been steadfast in their resolve to support Ukraine in its fight, and their people have largely accepted the enormous cost. In the United States, the political resistance has been limited largely to a few voices on the far right and far left. But questions will become only more common as the war drags on. As Representative Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House, a Republican and a strong supporter of Ukraine, has warned, “There should be no blank check on anything.”

He’s right.

Outside Europe and the United States, support for the Ukrainian cause is much less solid, making efforts to punish Russia for its aggression less effective. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview recorded Saturday for “Meet the Press” that China is providing nonlethal aid to Russia and is “strongly considering providing lethal assistance to Russia.” Mr. Blinken expressed his “deep concern” to his Chinese counterpart.

To strengthen the alliance supporting Ukraine, as the second year of this terrible and unnecessary conflict begins, it is useful to examine why it is in the interest of the United States and other democracies to expend so much wealth, and to take so great a risk in confronting a nuclear power.

The first reason, and the one that prompted an immediate response from the West, is the moral and ethical obligation of the world’s democracies to help a nation whose freedom is threatened by an authoritarian power. National self-determination has long been a guiding principle of American foreign policy. Various U.S. administrations have honored it imperfectly, as is the case with so many guiding principles. But it remains valuable in finding a way forward. In sending an armored column toward Kyiv and seeking to overthrow its government, Mr. Putin clearly violated that principle, and threatens to return Europe to the instability of previous eras, when nations frequently invaded each other and altered the continent’s borders by force.

Russians might argue that the United States is hardly the innocent in its global dealings, whether invading Iraq on false pretenses, or covertly working to overthrow governments in, among others, Chile and Nicaragua. Certainly, there is much to criticize and debate in America’s foreign policy during and since the Cold War. There are also those, notably the political scientist John Mearsheimer, who further argue that the United States provoked Mr. Putin by failing to respect Russia’s national interests and, at one point, pushing to bring Ukraine (and Georgia) into NATO.

The wisdom of incorporating former Soviet bloc countries into NATO remains a topic of considerable disagreement among historians, but it is important to remember that it was not NATO that rushed to expand. Rather, many countries that had suffered Moscow’s repressive and often brutal control urgently sought the protections of the Western alliance against what they anticipated and feared would be a resurgence of Russian ambitions. As for Ukraine, the prospect of joining NATO anytime soon had dissipated long before the Russian invasion.

It was Ukrainians who rose up in the “Orange Revolution” against elections rigged to produce a pro-Russian outcome in 2004 and Ukrainians who took to the streets again in 2014 over President Viktor Yanukovich’s last-minute decision not to seek closer relations with the European Union. The danger Mr. Putin saw was not to Russia’s sphere of influence but to his personal sphere of power; a democratic, pro-Western Ukraine threatened to spread ideas that would directly challenge his monopoly on power. It is no coincidence that Mr. Putin’s growing aggressiveness toward the West developed in tandem with his growing authoritarianism at home. As his regime grew ever more repressive, his need for foreign threats, real or concocted, increased proportionately, to justify tightening the screws on domestic opposition.

In the end, nothing the United States or its allies have done or have failed to do in the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union even remotely justifies Mr. Putin’s attempt to bend Ukraine to his will by brute force. He has to be stopped, and Ukraine has to be allowed to choose a democratic, independent future. That is what U.S. leaders should stress in justifying continued support.

A conflict that ends with a stronger Ukraine will send a message that the United States does have the resolve and capability to help counter the excesses of autocrats and bullies. The Biden administration’s regular declarations of full support for Ukraine, even when military aspects of that support are under discussion, demonstrate that America has not, as Mr. Putin thought, forever lost its ability to lead. America’s readiness to stand up to Mr. Putin has united most of the world’s major democracies behind a common cause.

It is hard to imagine, for example, that without a strong commitment from Washington, Sweden or Finland would have applied to join a NATO that only three years ago President Emmanuel Macron of France described as “brain-dead” or that Germany would have agreed to send German tanks to repel Russia. And while key allies such as Britain, France, Germany, Poland and others may not match America’s level of support, they have shown a readiness to absorb far greater economic consequences stemming from sanctions on Russia.

Still, with so much uncertainty about the outcome on the battlefield, it remains unclear even what victory might mean for either side. A return to the dividing lines of a year ago would perpetuate tensions along more than 1,000 miles, and it is unlikely that Russians would ever renounce their claim to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula they’ve occupied since 2014 and regard as incontestably Russian land.

Only diplomacy can achieve anything resembling a viable peace settlement. Ultimately, that should be the goal of all support for Ukraine. It is the only way Russians can start to reverse their economic and social alienation from Europe and the only way Europeans can reaffirm the postwar order that brought them decades of relative stability, prosperity and security.

But serious diplomacy has a chance only if Russia accepts that it cannot bring Ukraine to its knees. And for that to happen, the United States and its allies cannot waver in their support.

ONLINE: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/18/opinion/ukraine-biden.html


Feb. 17

The Wall Street Journal on a coming defense spending boost from Europe

Vladimir Putin has thrown 97% of his army into Ukraine, U.K. officials said this week, and the Russian dictator is betting he can grind down the West’s will to resist. So it’s good news NATO members are rethinking their current defense commitments.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that the alliance would this summer revisit the pledge that members spend 2% of their economy on national defense. “What is obvious is that if it was right to commit to spend 2% in 2014,” Mr. Stoltenberg said, “it is even more right now.” The world is “more dangerous,” with a “full-fledged war going on” in Europe, plus terrorism and the threat from China. The 2% target ought to be not “a ceiling” but “a floor.”

Hear, hear. The median outlay for NATO members is 1.65% of GDP, according to data the alliance put out last year, and it’s no secret that some countries are slackers. The dishonor roll of more than a dozen countries includes Spain (a pitiful 1.01% estimated for 2022), Canada (1.27%), Denmark (1.39%), and Hungary (1.55%).

Germany and others have vowed to pick up the pace, but GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell noted at the Munich Security Conference Friday that while he appreciates “the rhetorical shift on this continent regarding defense,” he learned long ago in the U.S. Senate that “speeches are not policy.” The new NATO target ought to be at least 3%, while raising the current NATO benchmark that 20% of spending be on equipment.

That means more air defense, artillery, aircraft, ships and other hard power, not pensions or vanity procurement projects. Ukraine is burning through 6,000 artillery shells a day, and production lines are struggling to keep up. Donated air defenses are working hard against everything from drones to cruise missiles. Ukraine needs more tanks, but some like Spain’s Leopards have been mothballed for years and are in dubious shape.

The U.S. can also do more, especially as American defense spending has fallen to 3% of GDP, close to a post-Cold War low. Press reports say the Biden Administration is telling Ukraine it can’t offer long-range missiles for Himars rocket systems because the U.S. doesn’t have enough of them. That’s either an excuse or an indictment of America’s weapons stocks.

Russia’s invasion should have jolted the West out of its welfare-state reverie, but that will require spending more on hard defenses to deter Russia and other rogues.

ONLINE: https://www.wsj.com/articles/nato-defense-spending-europe-jens-stoltenberg-biden-administration-russia-ukraine-927b73bb


Feb. 21

The Los Angeles Times on SCOTUS and ethical standards

The U.S. Supreme Court is the pinnacle of the American judicial system, so one might assume that justices on the highest court in the land would be held to the highest possible ethical standards. In fact, they are exempt from a code of conduct that applies to other federal judges, though Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has said that they consult that code in assessing their ethical obligations.

That’s not good enough at a time when the court is facing a crisis of public confidence, with trust falling to a 50-year low even before justices overturned Roe vs. Wade in June. If the justices don’t act expeditiously on their own to establish a robust ethics code and meaningful enforcement measures, Congress will have good reason to step in.

Among other provisions, the Code of Conduct for United States Judges promulgated by the U.S. Judicial Conference says that a judge “should avoid Impropriety and the appearance of Impropriety in all activities.” But this code doesn’t formally apply to Supreme Court justices.

The justices are covered by statutes mandating financial disclosure and prohibiting them from participating in cases when their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” But there is no enforcement mechanism to guarantee that justices follow that requirement (other than the rarely used impeachment process). Nor are justices covered by the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act, a law that allows people to file complaints alleging that a federal judge has engaged in “conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts” such as accepting bribes or giving special treatment to friends or relatives.

Some experts in legal ethics believe that Justice Clarence Thomas should recuse himself from cases stemming from the 2020 presidential election because of the involvement of his wife, conservative activist Virginia Thomas, in efforts to overturn the results, including emailing two Arizona lawmakers urging them to choose their own slate of electors. We agree. But while a motion could be filed with the court asking Thomas to recuse from such cases, neither he nor the court would be obligated to respond to it.

In response to the Thomas controversy, several members of Congress — including California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla — wrote a letter last year urging Thomas to recuse himself from cases involving the election and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. They also asked that Roberts commit to creating a binding Code of Conduct for the high court that would include enforcement provisions and a requirement that justices explain their recusal decisions in writing.

So far the court hasn’t acted, despite a comment by Justice Elena Kagan in 2019 that Roberts was studying the question. The Washington Post reported earlier this month that the justices have discussed a possible code of conduct but haven’t reached a consensus.

If the court doesn’t act on its own, Congress seems increasingly willing to fill the vacuum. The Supreme Court Ethics Act, a bill introduced earlier this month, would require the U.S. Judicial Conference to adopt a Code of Conduct that would apply to Supreme Court justices and would require the court to appoint an Ethics Investigations Counsel who could probe public complaints about violations of the code. The bill also would obligate justices to explain why they recused from a case or denied a motion that they do so.

A more expansive bill, the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act, would have chief judges of federal appeals courts investigate complaints about possible misconduct by Supreme Court justices. Like the other bill, it would provide for a Supreme Court code of conduct (in this case adopted by the court itself) and require justices to explain their recusal decisions. But it also would ensure that requests for a justice to recuse would be reviewed by his or her colleagues.

The best outcome would be legislation combining the proposals. An ideal bill would require a code of conduct for the high court, establish the position of Ethics Investigation Counsel and empower other justices to review a colleague’s refusal to recuse.

Legislation wouldn’t be necessary, of course, if the court took the responsible action on its own to establish a code of ethics with mechanisms to enforce it.

Earlier this month the American Bar Assn. approved a resolution calling on the Supreme Court to adopt an ethics code “comparable to the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.” A report accompanying the resolution said: “The absence of a clearly articulated, binding code of ethics for the justices of the court imperils the legitimacy of the court.”

It’s understandable that Roberts and his colleagues might worry about micromanagement of the court by members of Congress. But he should be more concerned about maintaining the legitimacy of the high court. If the justices continue to dawdle, Congress will have little choice but to act.

ONLINE: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2023-02-21/all-judges-must-adhere-to-ethical-standards-yes-even-supreme-court-justices


Feb. 17

The Guardian on relations between the U.S. and China

In the closing years of the cold war, as relations between the Soviet Union and U.S. thawed, Ronald Reagan adopted a Russian proverb: trust, but verify. These days, with Sino-U.S. relations chilling rather than warming, there is precious little trust, and limited ability to read the other’s intentions accurately.

Relations were deteriorating long before the Chinese balloon floated into U.S. airspace and the military shot it down. Everyone knows that the U.S. spies on China and vice versa; it is also obvious, despite Beijing’s feigned outrage, that it would take swift action against a U.S. device appearing in its skies. Instead of promising jets are ready for action, countries would do better to reconsider what trade-offs they have made in security for convenience and cost – as with the Chinese cameras used by British police.

Much more concerning than the actual events was the reaction to them. The Biden administration stayed calm; less so Congress and the media. China decided to blame the U.S., and its defense secretary refused to take a call from his counterpart, Lloyd Austin. The cancellation of the U.S. secretary of state’s trip to China was inevitable but bad news, since the hope was that it would put a floor under relations. Antony Blinken may now meet his counterpart at the Munich security conference and Joe Biden has said he will speak to Xi Jinping to “get to the bottom” of the affair. But the trajectory is worrying.

The echoes of the past may appear unmistakable. Alongside tensions over intelligence gathering comes growing competition for allies and partners around the world. But the strife this time is between two countries that, notwithstanding their trade war, saw trade rise to almost $2bn every day of last year.

Yet if this much of a storm can be generated over one dirigible, recall the 2001 Hainan Island incident, when a U.S. surveillance plane and People’s Liberation Army fighter jet collided, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot and a 10-day standoff before the American crew were released. Now imagine that in the age of social media, conspiracy theories, amped-up nationalism and a vastly more confident China. It isn’t difficult: the U.S. and others have accused Chinese military aircraft of increasingly dangerous behavior in international airspace near its territory.

The best hope is currently to contain rather than reverse the deterioration in relations. The political climate in the U.S. will only become more charged as the 2024 election approaches. China’s years of untrammeled economic growth are well behind it; nationalism has been a useful alternative narrative for the party. And while it has somewhat reined in its diplomatic rhetoric, it refuses to recognize that its increasingly aggressive foreign policy is the primary cause of the militarization and tilt towards the U.S. in Asia which angers it.

All of this also poses a challenge for Britain and other powers, whose interests and values are aligned with, but certainly not identical to, Washington’s. The debate about how to characterize China continues in the U.S. and the U.K.. But the bigger problem than the objective differences and substantive disputes may be mutual distrust – the increasing conviction on each side (but especially Beijing’s) that the other is coming for them. China has become harder to read, and does not want to hear the U.S. But talking – and, indeed, intelligence-gathering – is essential, if only so that each may better understand the other. Distrust is all the more reason to verify.

ONLINE: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/feb/17/the-guardian-view-on-china-us-tensions-distrust-then-verify




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