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Monthly Archives: January 2010

State of Confusion

January 28th, 2010 - 10:30 pm

President Barack Obama, in his first State of the Union address, told us a lot about the state of Obama. But did he clarify anything important about the state of America?

These are fascinating and freighted times. There is a real revolt going on against big, big, big and bigger government. There is a real debate finally coming into view over the character and working principles of this country — which were largely sidelined amid the techno-twitter and polymorphous “Yes we can” of the 2008 campaign. And there are real dangers to this country, and our democratic allies — which no amount of Obama’s “engagement” over the past year has done anything to solve.

This was — as Obama likes to say — “the moment” to ackowledge this scene, and talk about what it means and where it goes. The real State of the Union.

Instead, what sticks in my mind is that the president put more gusto into castigating the Supreme Court than he did into addressing the clear and present danger of Iran’s terror-sponsoring mullahs and their nuclear bomb program. The justices were chewed out, seated as a captive audience right in front of the president, while he lambasted them, asked Congress to follow up, and the crowd behind them rose to applaud.

For Iran’s rulers, the treatment was rather more disinterested. Obama mentioned Iran’s bomb program near the end of his 70-minute speech, describing them as “more isolated,” because they are “violating international agreements.” If they ”continue to ignore their obligations” they will “face growing consequences.”

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Rap-onomics: Keynes vs. Hayek

January 26th, 2010 - 10:22 pm

Worried about “stimulus” spending? Wondering how to explain the hangovers brewing in the Fed’s punch bowl? Policy-wonked out over economic debates that make no common sense?

Film director John Papola and George Mason University economist Russell Roberts have put together a rap video, in which John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek go head to head over government spending vs. the free market, during a night on the town. Worth checking out, here it is: “Fear the Boom and Bust.”

Goofy at the UN?

January 23rd, 2010 - 9:29 pm

“Indispensable, if imperfect,” is how President Obama’s envoy to the United Nations, Susan Rice, has described the UN. If you accept the “indispensable” part of that phrase (and after years of watching the UN in action, I don’t), that still leaves the question of just how “imperfect” the UN has become. Since the advent of Obama’s presidency, the U.S. has been ever more willing to tolerate the imperfections. Oversight by the U.S. Mission appears to have pretty much dried up, U.S. security interests get no real traction at the UN Security Council, U.S. tax dollars keep gushing in, and America keeps trying to place at the center of its foreign policy an institution where the majority would rather spend time and U.S. tax dollars on projects such as outlawing free speech and enlisting quack science to control the world economy in the name of fine-tuning the weather to the second decimal point.

Could it be that one of the imperfections aggravating this process is the performance of Ambassador Rice herself?

So argues Richard Grenell, a former spokesman of the U.S. Mission to the UN, who served under four ambassadors during the Bush administration. Grenell makes a compelling case — which caught my eye thanks to a post on NRO’s Corner by Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation. Schaefer highlights some of Grenell’s arguments, and concludes that “it appears that not even Ambassador Rice takes the U.N. seriously enough to try to make it work.” In Grenell’s article itself, worth reading in full — “Where Has Susan Rice, Our UN Ambassador, Been This Past Year?”  – we get quite a tour of the lapses, failings and sheer irresponsibility of current U.S. administration dealings with the UN. He notes there is no more effort to control the UN’s sky-rocketing budget (which dips into U.S. wallets for roughly one-quarter of its funding), and no evident follow-up to matters symbolized by such items as $200,000 spent by a UN agency on renovating a guest house. He also points out that the old red-white-and-blue colors of the web site for the U.S. Mission to the UN have been transformed under Rice to UN blue, with a big UN logo (and a little American flag).

But the main thrust of Grenell’s piece is that Rice herself, despite all her talk about the importance of the UN, has been largely awol from Turtle Bay. She commutes between her penthouse in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and Washington, D.C. — where Grenell says she has the largest office and staff of any U.S. ambassador in UN history. She has been missing at many Security Council meetings on important issues, including some on Iran, as well as the recent vote to add more UN peacekeepers in Haiti.  But she finds time to go “regularly” to White House social functions, including holiday parties and the White House Halloween Party, for which she dressed up in a Walt Disney “Goofy” costume.

I’m sure the Goofy costume was all in good fun, and Grenell says Rice is the life of the party. But his article might just leave you wondering if Americans would be better off with Goofy himself representing America at the UN.

In the post on Haiti below, I mentioned that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was planning to visit the stricken country on Sunday — but it seemed that instead of going there himself, Ban could do more for Haiti by using his special UN plane to send sacks of rice in his place.

Scrap that. Looks like Ban would have been kinder to just keep both himself and his plane at home — and turn over his celebrity landing slot at Port-au-Prince to medical flights for outfits such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders). In a bulletin this morning, MSF reports that yesterday it sent a plane loaded with a field hospital and medical staff to Haiti – but the plane was not allowed to land. Instead, it was re-routed to Dominican Republic.

Meanwhile, at a makeshift hospital tent in Haiti, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, found himself the only doctor available Friday night to care for wounded patients – after doctors and nurses brought in as part of the relief effort left the scene, escorted by UN peacekeeping personnel. Something of a debate seems to be going on among CNN, relief works and UN authorities over who decided the medical team should leave its patients — here’s the story if you want to make your own guess about what happened.

No question that this is a horrendously difficult situation. But the arrival of the UN Secretary-General at this moment of need seems a strange priority, for the UN, and for the overall relief effort. If the resources are available to provide a landing slot for his plane, transport him around on the ground and provide for his security, wouldn’t all that be better spent ensuring that MSF staff and supplies could arrive at speed, and relief doctors on the ground do not find themselves compelled to abandon overnight the patients they are trying to save?

Haiti: U.S. Sends Help, UN Wants Money

January 15th, 2010 - 8:52 pm

First, in making a comment on the United Nations and Haiti, let’s note that among the scores of thousands, or possibly hundreds of thousands of people killed in Haiti by the earthquake on Tuesday were dozens of UN staff, with some 150 still unaccounted for as of Thursday. The scene is one of devastating loss of life.

All the more reason for competent handling of help for Haiti, and of the enormous ruin there. For this kind of thing, the UN record is, unfortunately, abysmal. Recall the UN response to the 2004 tsunami in Asia, in which the UN humanitarian coordinator at the time, Jan Egeland, accused countries such as the U.S. of being “stingy,” and promised UN transparency in the handling of the funds that poured in by the billions. About a year later, a series of in-depth investigative reports by the Financial Times found minimal UN transparency, lots of UN stonewalling, and as far as the funds could be tracked at all, it appeared that the UN, having received a flood of relief money, was slow on the scene, and had been spending about one-third of every dollar raised on overhead. The real champions of relief were the U.S. military, and private aid groups. (UN “reform” since then has consisted of a lot of talk about reform, a lot more bureaucracy, a lot more money for the UN, and, if possible, even less transparency.)

In Haiti, the UN has been reporting that it has some personnel working on the ground, and is preparing to mobilize more. But the basic picture so far is that once again the American military is shouldering the chief burden of immediate relief. The UN’s clearest activity to date has been to call for money to start pouring into the UN — with a “flash appeal” today for $562 million.

Ban Ki-moon is now planning to visit Haiti on Sunday to show “solidarity” with the Haitian people. That might be more useful were Ban not quite so clueless. One of the latest inanities to roll from Ban’s lips is that the colossal toll in Haiti shows the need to close the “technology gap” for developing nations.

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Leadership UN-Style: Here Comes Yemen

January 10th, 2010 - 11:28 pm

This isn’t news they’ve been covering in Topeka…or Washington…or New York…though given President Obama’s preference for treating the UN as a pillar of U.S. foreign policy, it seems like someone ought to notice.

So here it is: Over at the UN, 2010 brings another of those hallmark handoffs.  This one involves the biggest voting bloc of member states in the UN General Assembly, the Group of 77 – which was founded in 1964 as a group of 77 developing countries, but has since grown to include 129 member states plus the Palestinian Authority. That amounts to more than 2/3 the total votes of the UN’s 192 member General Assembly — the outfit which has recently brought us everything from the Durban Review conference (starring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) to the UN “Human Rights” Council, to the 2009 annual opening starring Muammar Qaddafi, Hugo Chavez and Ahmadinejad; to demands for billions/trillions/whatever in “climate change” compensation. The common denominator of the G-77 is supposed to be that these are “developing” countries. In their various ways, they all are — but some are developing their economies,  while others have proved more adept at developing mayhem, carnage, grotesque repression and major terrorist groups.

For 2009, chairmanship of the G-77 was held by — what else? — Sudan. So how does the G-77 propose to follow an act like that? You guessed it from the headline. The new G-77 chairman for the calendar year 2010 is …drumroll please … Yemen.

Yes, Yemen, where the underwear bomber got his bomb training; where bombers of the U.S.S. Cole just somehow couldn’t be kept in prison; where al Qaeda is on a roll; where the ruler since 1978, President Ali Abdullah Saleh wants lots more aid from the U.S. but favors “dialogue” with the in-country al Qaeda contingent.

It’s not as if the G-77 includes no better candidates. Were normal development the actual aim, the group does have members who might have something useful to contribute, such as India, Chile or Botswana. But no. To a roster of chairmanships held over the past decade by, among others, Iran, Venezuela, Pakistan and Sudan, we can now add Yemen. Chosen, no less, by “acclamation” (scroll down in this G-77 “Ministerial Declaration” to the final item, #81). That items follows, in the same document, item #80, in which the assembled ministers “expressed their deep appreciation to the Republic of Sudan for its able leadership … excellent work…tireless efforts… for 2009.”

Yemen as chair of the G-77 does make a good match, in its way, with the current president of the UN General Assembly itself, Ali Treki of Qaddafi’s Libya. As spectacle, the UN has the makings of another lively year. As a pillar of U.S. foreign policy, well, you can draw your own conclusions…

Homeland Security: With Talent Like This…

January 4th, 2010 - 1:51 am

Uh-oh.

From the Homeland Security system that “worked,” we now have word that Secretary Janet Napolitano is mobilizing a broad response to the underwear bomber. As part of this security “review,” Napolitano is dispatching her deputy, Jane Holl Lute, “on a broad international outreach effort” to review security procedures with “leaders from major international airports in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and South America.”

Who is Jane Holl Lute? Or, more precisely, what kind of hands-on experience is presumed to qualify Lute for the serious responsibility of serving as the #2 official at Homeland Security?

Why, the United Nations, of course. Before joining the Obama Department of Homeland Security, Lute worked for six years as an assistant-secretary-general in the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations. During that stretch, UN peacekeeping expanded at speed, and so did the related procurement corruption and peacekeeper sex scandals.

Here’s a Washington Post article from 2007, “U.N. Finds Fraud, Mismanagement in Peacekeeping,” which details some of the peacekeeping corruption uncovered by a special UN task force (which the UN has since dissolved). The task force reported findings of “multiple instances of fraud, corruption, waste and mismanagement at U.N. headquarters and peacekeeping missions.” These included 10 “significant instances of fraud and corruption with an aggregate value of $610 million.”

On the sex-scandal front, Jane Holl Lute was one of the senior UN officials who promised “zero tolerance” of UN peacekeepers sexually exploiting people (in some cases, children) they were sent to protect. Here’s a post from 2008, with a link to her zero-tolerance promise in 2007 — as well as to details that surfaced the following year about allegations of continuing sexual exploitation, gang rape and whatnot by UN peacekeepers in Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti and Sudan. 

None of this is to accuse Lute herself of corruption, or of indifference to the rape of minors. The problem, rather, concerns the questions all this raises about her management skills. She held a senior slot in which she repeatedly either made excuses or promised to clean things up; but the fraud and sex scandals rolled on.

Lute had a long career before that, of course. Immediately prior to joining the UN, she worked as chief operating officer of Ted Turner’s UN Foundation; before that she served on the National Security Council, and in the U.S. Army. But the big fat credential here, the stand-out item you’ll find in her Homeland Security bio, is her experience in UN peacekeeping.

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When President Barack Obama finally spoke up about the Christmas Day terrorist attack on an airliner bound for Detroit, one of the most staggering phrases to roll from his lips was ”isolated extremist.”

This was three full days after the attack. By that time the “isolated extremist” himself, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had already told U.S. authorities that he’d trained with al-Qaeda bomb-makers in Yemen. The father of the “isolated extremist” had warned U.S. officials weeks earlier that his son might be consorting with terrorists. U.S. intelligence had already been tracking a “Nigerian” who was so very un-isolated that the makings of a plot could be discerned even before his identity had been discovered.

Obama didn’t need a top secret briefing to learn all this. If, as his aides told us, he was “monitoring” the situation before he spoke in public, he could have picked up most of it on the Drudge Report, or merely by bothering to read the morning papers. The chief systemic failure here is a president whose world view defaults to the idea that there is no Islamist war on America — just the odd flareup when an “isolated extremist” picks up a gun and shoots dead 13 people at Fort Hood, or tries to blow a plane out of the sky by detonating a bomb in his underwear.

If Obama meant to suggest only that Abdulmutallab was “isolated” at the moment when, inflight, pants aflame, he was jumped by his fellow passengers, that still doesn’t wash. For the president even to imply that Abdulmutallab was acting solo, and for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to put out the same line the day before (as she did, “Right now, we have no indication that it’s part of anything larger”) amounts to either willfully misleading the American public, or a mindset too engulfed in slop to think straight about the most vital matters of U.S. security. (More on this is my Forbes column this week: “Not So Isolated, and More Than Extremist.”)

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