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Monthly Archives: January 2011

Egypt: Please, Not ElBaradei

January 30th, 2011 - 10:29 am

Freedom, justice, and prosperity for Egypt are devoutly to be wished. As is abundantly clear by now, the big question for the genuine democrats among the demonstrators, and a big question for the U.S., Israel, and other democracies, is how Egyptians might thread this needle without ending up with something even worse than Hosni Mubarak — the ossified dictator they’ve had for almost 30 years. On that score, as Iran’s regime and the Muslim Brotherhood applaud the protests, it is not at all reassuring to see former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei emerging as a potential leader of the opposition. Reuters carries one of the latest reports, dateline Cairo, on the Muslim Brotherhood backing ElBaradei as the man to negotiate with Egypt’s government on behalf of the demonstrators.

At a fast glance, ElBaradei might seem like an ideal candidate for the job. He’s Egyptian, cosmopolitan, with credentials that include years as the head of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, and the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. Since he retired from the IAEA in 2009, there have been reports that he might be interested in an Egyptian presidential run. The Mubarak government has just further burnished ElBaradei’s credentials by putting him under house arrest.

Beware. ElBaradei is no Aung San Suu Kyi. As head of the IAEA, ElBaradei often looked like a shill for Iran — repeatedly glossing over obvious signs of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, obfuscating the realities, and delaying action. In the Jerusalem Post, Caroline Glick gives a good rundown of how, in the U.S. effort to corral Iran’s nuclear program, ElBaradei was not part of the answer, but part of the problem. Glick also describes ElBaradei’s cozy relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood — progenitor of al-Qaeda and Hamas — quoting him as giving a recent interview to Der Spiegel in which he claimed the Muslim Brotherhood has “not committed any acts of violence in five decades.”

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State of the Future

January 26th, 2011 - 1:10 am

“He sought to sway his audience with rhetoric rather than specifics,” reports the Washington Post, trying to piece together what went on in the State of the Union address Tuesday evening.

I haven’t been drunk-blogging with the marvelous Vodkapundit (wish I had!), but I came away from from the evening’s televised exertions feeling dizzy nonetheless. This wasn’t a State of the Union address. It was a State of the Future. Whose future, I don’t know. But what a future it is! We’re way done with “Change is us” and “Yes we can.” We’ve left behind the era of shovel-ready jobs, which apparently didn’t do much for the infrastructure, because our country is now full of crumbling roads and bridges, and our infrastructure has been given a “D.” So we are going to redouble our efforts, and this time our government will “create jobs”(or save jobs?) that please the economy, and not the politicians. Because in the future, the government always does a better job of creating jobs than it did yesterday.

I’m sure the speech bears serious analysis, and will get plenty of it. But for tonight, forgive me — it’s been a long day. If I close my eyes and ask what the president outlined this evening, I get visions of 100,000 new (and unionized) engineering and science teachers criss-crossing rural America in windmill-powered, solar-paneled high-speed trains —  questing after the three doctors who will still be in private practice once ObamaCare really takes hold. And then this vision all starts to merge with those giant wall frescoes that sometimes bedecked vast and gloomy Soviet industrial plants, or the dusty Intourist pamphlets one used to find still scattered around unheated Kazakh and Ukrainian guesthouses in the early 1990s —  depicting legions of marching engineers and muscular peasant girls hoisting sickles and sheaves of wheat. On to the radiant future!

And I am confused about what time it is. Two years ago, this was our time, now was our moment. Now, after two years under President Obama, it is no longer our moment, but our “Sputnik moment.” A Sputnik moment is when you suddenly realize your enemy is way out ahead of you. So, when did we fall behind? Does this mean NASA can now forget the Middle East outreach business and carry on sending Americans into space? And why is our government making three-year plans to “double our exports by 2014″? I’m all for trade, but why the targets? Five-year plans, or three-year plans, are for planned economies. Shouldn’t it be the job of a capitalist government to keep the markets free and simply get out of the way and let the market — a.k.a. the choices of private individuals — determine what the volume of exports will be?

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In the world of diplomacy, the details of official gift giving can speak volumes. Recall that in 2009, President Barack Obama got off to an awkward start with the British when he sent back a bust of Winston Churchill that President Bush had kept on loan in the Oval Office. The British press took it as quite a snub. Obama then compounded the kerfuffle by bestowing upon the Queen of England an Ipod, and giving the visiting British prime minister a box of 25 movie classics on DVDs that won’t play on the British system.

Now, thanks to a recent State Department filing printed in the Federal Register, we have a list of gifts that Obama and his entourage received that same year, 2009, from foreign governments and donors around the world — all accepted on grounds that “non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and U.S. government.” Prominent among them are gifts from Saudi Arabia. In an article headlined “Obama entourage showered with Saudi gifts,” the AFP does the math and reports that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz gave Obama, his family, and members of his administration more than $300,000 worth of presents. These included a $132,000 ruby and diamond jewelry set and a $14,200 pearl necklace for Michelle Obama, thousands of dollars worth of jewelry for the Obama children, $34,500 worth of presents for Barack, and $108,245 worth of gifts for the White House staff.

Mind you, the Obamas and staff don’t get to keep these presents as personal property. That would be against the law. The gifts are turned over to the National Archives.

Nonetheless, these gifts were officially accepted, to avoid embarrassment. And one might suppose that in the minuets of diplomacy, a certain amount of thought went into the choosing of them. On those grounds, a friend took the time to look through the list — it’s fun to browse — and culled out the full roster of Saudi gifts. If the price tags reflect whom the Saudis value most, then for any tea-leaf, or maybe gold-leaf readers out there, here’s the curious hierarchy that emerges:

Michelle Obama: $146,200

The President: $34,500

The senior diplomatic interpreter, Gamal Helal: $23,400

White House “trip” director, Marvin Nicholson: $18,500

White House staff member (and former counsel to the 9/11 Commission), Peter Rundlet: $12,650

U.S. Charge in Riyadh, Peter Erdman: $12,000

National Security Council’s Puneet Talwar: $10,680

David Axelrod: $9,000

Rahm Emanuel: $8,485

Valerie Jarrett: $5,055

… and so on, down to…

The Kids: $3775 and $3,500

and finally, way down at the bottom, favored with nothing more than a  ”gold country plaque with display case,” the secretary of Defense, Robert Gates: $485

It’s a good bet that in Tehran and Pyongyang, officials will be poring with great interest over every detail in a lengthy piece in Sunday’s New York Times, all about the “digital trail” of the Stuxnet computer worm that crippled some of Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges: “Israel Tests on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay.

Iran and its uranium-enriching pal, North Korea, should be grateful to the Times for the gumshoe reporting put into trying to track exactly how a computer worm was used to set back the uranium-enrichment portion of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. I would assume Iranian intelligence has also been on the trail, but there are some sources that western reporters can more easily access, and some folks they can more readily interview, as you can infer from reading the article. If there is civility in international affairs, surely Ali Khamenei, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and their proliferation partner, Kim Jong Il, owe the Times a thank you note.

But if the broad picture painted by the Times is accurate (and there are gaps in the trail described), then surely there is another group of countries which for more wholesome reasons owe a profound thank you to Israel. Prominent among this crowd are the Middle East potentates, from the king of Saudi Arabia to the king of Bahrain to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, whose private pleadings — as made to U.S. officials and exposed by Wikileaks — were to do whatever it takes to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Or, as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia reportedly put it: “Cut off the head of the snake.”

Stuxnet hasn’t cut off the head, but it does appear to have given the snake a bad bout of indigestion. Civility suggests this would be a fitting moment for the Saudis to lead the way in sending Israel their fervent thanks. If that’s a bridge too far for Riyadh, then here’s another thought. Saudi Arabia hosts the headquarters of the Organization of the Islamic Conference — ringleader of the chronic pounding delivered to Israel at the United Nations. Surely the Saudis could use their clout to exhort the Iran-fearing members of the OIC to lay off Israel. Who else in the region are they depending on to stop an Iranian nuclear threat? The Palestinians of Hamas?

Parent #1 and Parent #2 — Who’s First?

January 8th, 2011 - 11:49 am

Ah, the law of unintended consequences, as our central authorities strive ever more mightily to blanch all meaning out of  the language — under the strange credo that the more incoherently “neutral” our communication, the happier we will all be.

At first I thought it was a spoof, when reports came out that U.S. passport application forms will no longer ask you to list your “mother” and “father” — and will instead ask for details of “parent one” and “parent two.” But no, it’s right there in a Dec. 22 State Department press release, with added detail from State in stories yesterday on Fox and in the Washington Post. According to the State Department, the aim of the new form, to be rolled out in February, is to “provide a gender neutral description of a child’s parents” and “recognition of different types of families.”

OK, it’s true these days that American citizens hail from many different types of families, and I can see a case for official bureaucracies acknowledging that reality. But instead of trying to cram everything into categories so generic as to eliminate such time-honored elements of the human experience as “mother” and “father,” couldn’t modern realities be better acknowledged by adding a category or two? Or allowing a space to explain?

As it is, in its zeal to become gender-and-parent neutral, the State Department has now introduced into the equation a form of numerical inequality. Which of two parents is #1? Which is #2? — with all the clear implication of rank this entails? For that matter, do we still live in an age of only two parents? I’ve lost track.

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New Year’s Leap of Faith

January 4th, 2011 - 1:03 am

With best wishes for a Happy New Year! I’m going to kick this one off on a personal note. I’m now on the mend, but spent the holidays knocked out by one of those bugs that drag on and on — nothing life threatening, but enough of a bother to focus my thoughts on what lies ahead for “health care.” I have dim memories of early childhood days, before “health care” and its attendant insurance became a prime obsession of the federal government. I swear I can dimly remember a time when going to see the doctor was pretty straightforward. If you got sick enough, you went. If you felt really awful the doctor even made house calls. Maybe the doctor even knew your name.

These days, even with much of ObamaCare yet to unfold (so we can find out what’s in it), to get sick is to enter a bureaucratic labyrinth in which your only real guide is whatever you can Google on the Internet (which the FCC now proposes to regulate on our behalf). I’m not talking here about life-threatening illness, fraught with deep and costly complexities — which is en route to a regulatory nightmare of its own. I’m talking about the simple stuff — the kind of bug where one day you’re feeling fine, the next day you’ve come down with something that leaves you living on toast and drugstore medication. When it’s still going on a week later, you decide it’s time to see a doctor and find out if he can prescribe a cure.

But to see a doctor, especially if you get sick outside the immediate range of your “primary care physician,” is no simple matter. Doctors aren’t just busy these days with taking care of patients. They are staggering under colossal loads of regulation, potential liability, and the ever more urgent priority of deciphering and complying with the government edicts, codes, demands, incentives and behavioral tweaks and stomps which are supposed to produce medical efficiency and justice for all.

I guess the really smart patients must be constantly booking a month or two ahead for any and all contingencies. But the rest of us, unable to foretell the exact date on which we will fall suddenly sick enough to want a doctor, make no such provisions. The fallbacks are to go to an emergency room — where you can wait for hours, tie up facilities intended for cases more desperate, and walk out with a four-figure bill, and then, even if you have a health plan which picks up part of the giant tab, you can spend months fielding a blizzard of unpredictable, inexplicable and randomly arriving bills for “co-pays.” Or you can go to one of those same-day-appointment clinics, where you can wait for a couple of hours until a nurse practitioner shoves a stack of prescriptions into your hand with the explanation that they don’t know what you’ve got, and there’s no telling when the lab tests might come back — but here’s an assortment of prescription drugs you can chug down as a cocktail on the chance that one of them might do the trick. If you feel worse, or the drugs themselves make you sick, you are advised to… see your doctor (but if you could do that, would you be at this clinic in the first place?), or go to an emergency room. If you try to call back, to check on test results perhaps, you discover that while the clinic has a direct line to its local billing department, and another direct line to its nationally centralized call center (Located in Florida? In Bangalore? In Manila? Who knows?), there is no way to actually place a direct call to the medical staff at the local clinic you’ve just been to. Short of physically going back over there, your only option is to put in a request that they call you, and then wait, and wait, and wait, until maybe they do.

OK… it could all be far worse. And with time and more federal intervention, it surely will be. But in the thick of this, late last month, while I lay pondering, among other things, the giant leap in our health insurance bill that followed the passage of Obamacare, I did have a small epiphany. It was this: In the matter of getting medical care, I used to have some general idea of how it worked. I have no idea anymore what really lies ahead. I have no idea how it is going to work. I do have a “primary care” physician right now who’s terrific, when I can get to him. But medical care has become such a political battleground that predicting its future feels like predicting the fate of Poland on the verge of World War II. Like the legislators who passed it, and the president who signed it, I have not read the entire 2000-or-so-page “Affordable Care Act.” Nor do I want to. The general mess is obvious, and I am not at all confident that reading it would do much to enlighten me about the exact effects on my life, or how to prepare for them. America’s economy is a vast, complicated, dynamic thing, and central planning ever more tightly imposed on the one-sixth of it that is the medical sector is bound to produce colossal waste and absurdities. But how exactly will that translate into what happens when you, the individual, get sick in the year 2016, or 2020? All I know for sure is, thinking about it makes me queasy all over again.

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