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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Long ago and far away, when the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos fell in the Philippines, the dictator’s wife, Imelda, became an object of global ridicule for her extravagant wardrobe — especially her shoes. She had 2,700 pairs of shoes. When the Marcoses fled Manila for refuge in Hawaii, in February of 1986, Imelda left her shoes. They ended up on display in Malacanang Palace, symbols of the excess with which dictators live the high life while beggaring their people.

Back then, I was working for a newspaper out of Hong Kong, and during a trip to Manila I paid a visit to the Imelda shoe display. It was indeed staggering for its profligacy, but what also made an impression was Imelda’s gaudy taste. An ex-beauty queen, she went for the frothy, flashy, and overdone. A lot of it was the kind of stuff that wouldn’t have passed muster in the salons of the world’s intellectual and cultured jet set. One of the trophy exhibits in the collection was a pair of light-up disco heels. Critics perusing the collection did not spend time praising her taste. They focused on the ruinous rule behind the extravagance.

Which brings us to Syria, where today’s first lady, Asma al-Assad, has also become famous for her shoes. Her style, however, is very different from Imelda’s. Asma is cosmopolitan, born and schooled in London, a study in understated yet costly elegance. She’s young, she’s slender and for her footwear she favors shoes by French designer Christian Louboutin. Asma and her shoes turned up in 2009 in a Huffington Post spread on “Our favorite Asma looks.” The shoes were demurely hinted at in last month’s Vogue profile on “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert” — along with her simple necklace of Chanel agates, and her Louboutin silk handbag.

Plus, in at least four languages she’s capable of producing an endless stream of multicultural psychobabble about art, culture, politics, society, and her dedication to cultivating a sustainable future for Syrian youth. Look around on YouTube, and you can see her speaking in Paris, switching between English and French to discuss the role of the museum in the city; or tastefully dressed down for an outing in Syria among the common folk. On March 18, she was the patroness and keynote speaker at a conference in Damascus of the Harvard Arab Alumni Association. And it would appear she has anonymous fans so devoted that they maintain and neatly update a Facebook page for her, where someone has taken the trouble to ensure that the current carnage in Syria does not intrude on the posts — dedicated exclusively in recent days to such matters as water projects and honoring the mothers of Syria (though reality does seem to seeping in by way of some of the comments).

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Guess who’s now rumored to be planning a trip this spring to North Korea? This time it’s not just Jimmy Carter (again), but Yonhap News Agency reports he may have in tow such elders of the Quisling Community as Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, and … well, here’s the story.

What Would We Do Without the Arab League?

March 24th, 2011 - 12:32 am

Little publicized fact: Right up until the Arab League suspended Libya’s participation, due to Gaddafi’s highly visible slaughter of his own people, which country held the annually rotating presidency of the Arab League? Why, Libya. It was Muammar Gaddafi who played host to the Arab League’s summit last March, welcoming the worthies in lavish style to a gathering attended by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

That tells us something about the character of the Arab League, a club of 21 Arab states plus the Palestinian Authority. Among its more moderate members are such countries as Morocco, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. Among its — shall we say — more troubled and troubling members are Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Saudi Arabia. Founded in 1945, the Arab League has been on balance one of the modern world’s most enduring clubs of despots. Its abiding preoccupation, apart from a lot of internal squabbling, has been blaming the miseries caused by its own despotisms on the sole full-fledged and enduring democracy in the region — which is Israel.

None of that would suggest the Arab League is well-equipped to guide the Arab world into a democratic era. For the most part, it does not represent the people of its member states, but their oppressors.

But President Barack Obama, in his zeal to abdicate U.S. world leadership, has been looking to regional hubs of power to chart the way. When protests erupted into outright popular rebellion in Libya last month, and Gaddafi responded with slaughter, Obama dithered. Calls for action coming from within the U.S., or even from Europe, did not sway him. What finally galvanized him was a March 12 call from the Arab League for a no-fly zone over Libya. Out of that came the March 17 UN Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya, with its muddy mandate not to remove Gaddafi, but for “protection of civilians.”  More on that in my article for NRO on “Libya’s Backseat Drivers.” This is a UN resolution tailored to the sensitivities of the Arab League (which, conveniently enough, coincide with some of the worst instincts of the Obama administration). The Arab League figures large, by name, in the resolution itself, and was credited by U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice as the inspiration for this resolution. Obama, in his peripatetic issuing of statements following this resolution — from the White House, from Brazil, from Chile, etc. — implied there would be Arab “partners” sharing the cost and responsibilities of this intervention the Arab League had called for in Libya.

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Libya: Preemptive Collateral Damage

March 18th, 2011 - 10:06 pm

Will the multilateral razzle-dazzle of the latest UN resolution on Libya spare President Barack Obama the rigors of the political-correctness police? Don’t bet on it.

Enforcement of the no-fly zone hasn’t even begun (at least not that I’ve seen reported). But already, Amnesty International is warning “all parties,” not just Libyan, but “any other forces that may become involved in the conflict” — that would include you, all you French and British and American types —  to “respect fully the laws of war.” This includes putting “the protection of civilians above any other considerations.”

OK, sounds good. Sounds a lot like Obama himself, who said on Friday that there will be no use of force beyond the “well-defined goal” of “the protection of civilians in Libya.”  I have no doubt that members of the U.S. military will strive to protect civilians, even if it puts their own lives and limbs at greater risk. In Iraq and Afghanistan, they have already been doing that for years.

But in practice, “protection of civilians” is not always the most easily defined of goals — not in a war zone where non-uniformed fighters on both sides mingle among the population, and not in a country still permeated with security goons long accustomed to doing their dirty work in the shadows. During the weeks of delay involved in the multilateral pow-wows preceding Thursday’s UN resolution authorizing restricted use of force (airstrikes, OK; but no ground troops), Gaddafi has had time to rally his forces, and deploy not only his mercenaries, but some substantial remnant of his security apparatus. He has not only tanks and aircraft, but goons on the ground. Technology may allow this UN coalition to engage in precision strikes — but knowing exactly who is being targeted is not always easy. In a perfect world, the UN-authorized coalition would deliver a series of long-distance or high altitude precision strikes, knock out Gaddafi’s planes and heavy weapons with no collateral damage to civilians, and the rebels would then –also with no collateral damage — roll up Gaddafi.

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Monday evening at the United Nations, the same trend-setting General Assembly that elected a Libyan Gaddafi loyalist as its 2009-2010 president rolled out the red carpet for another landmark moment in UN creativity: Turning the UN General Assembly chamber into the venue for a commercial movie premiere. And not just any movie, but Julian Schnabel’s “Miral” — apparently the very latest in Israel-trashing pro-Palestinian personal journeys.

Not that this epic event deviated much from the day-job thrust of the General Assembly. The GA default mode, reliably directed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, is to savage Israel and exalt the Palestinians — while ignoring such Palestinian peccadilloes as suicide-bombing and knife-wielding terrorism. But most days the General Assembly is short on the kind of stardust that makes bigotry look chic. Most of the UN delegates who peddle this approach to world peace just don’t have the glitz of Hollywood celebrities. The UN General Assembly rarely projects the glamor of the big screen — annual speeches from the Burmese junta and stage appearances by Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad notwithstanding.

Well… move over, Syria and Cuba. Monday evening’s U.S. premiere of “Miral” finally brought to the UN General Assembly chamber such heavyweights of global diplomacy as Sean Penn, Robert DeNiro, Josh Brolin and Vanessa Redgrave. Also on hand  was the the movie’s director, Julian Schnabel, and his Palestinian girlfriend, Rula Jebreal — who inspired the movie.

Both the Israeli delegation to the UN and the American Jewish Committee protested UN plans to host this event. That did nothing to sway the current General Assembly president, Switzerland’s Joseph Deiss. The Los Angeles Times reports that a few months ago Schnabel “arranged a private viewing of the movie” for Deiss, hoping that Deiss would arrange a screening at the UN. And indeed Deiss did, including a post-screening panel discussion moderated by Dan Rather (you remember him — the guy CBS finally unloaded after his “60 Minutes” Bush-trashing spectacular, based on documents he couldn’t authenticate).

All this is a fascinating use of UN facilities, for which American taxpayers foot at least 22% of the bill. If General Assembly President Deiss is now turning the Assembly’s chamber into a venue for commercial movie premieres, it would at least seem fitting that he arrange for the UN to charge fees for the publicity — and remit those to the UN’s donors, the biggest of which are the U.S. and Japan. Otherwise, we have arrived at an arrangement in which the Swiss president of the UN General Assembly is commandeering UN facilities, graced with the UN logo, to promote commercial ventures of his choosing, all on the tab of folks such as hard-working Americans and the currently very hard-hit Japanese. That this Swiss diplomat’s preferences evidently tilt toward Palestinian propaganda does not improve the situation.

If Deiss insists on using the UN General Assembly chamber to screen commercial movies, perhaps a more equitable system should be introduced — reflecting not his personal selections based on his private viewings, but the tastes of the general public. Just re-designate the General Assembly chamber as a movie hall, and open up bidding for its commercial use. If the UN isn’t willing to turn over the proceeds to member states, it could perhaps use them to help pay for the current $2 billion renovation of UN headquarters in New York — for which U.S. taxpayers are, as usual, getting stuck with the biggest share of the bill.

Or maybe there are other uses to which the General Assembly chamber might also be profitably devoted — circus acts, dog shows, pie-eating contests and international yodeling competitions. Once it’s accepted practice that the president of the General Assembly may employ the facilities of the world’s leading multilateral body for whatever purposes of publicity or propaganda he might fancy, there’s no limit to the possibilities. This is something that members of the 112th Congress, now debating whether to keep pouring billions of U.S. tax dollars into the UN, might want to consider — now that the UN General Assembly has made its March 14 debut as Manhattan’s newest movie theater.

How the United Nations Can Help Japan

March 12th, 2011 - 12:17 am

Utterly undeserved hell is being visited upon Japan. Aftershocks continue from the monster quake. The tsunami has devastated the northeast coast. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes, thousands are missing, and hundreds are already reported dead. Japanese officials fear a meltdown at the quake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

And now, here comes the United Nations, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon voicing sorrow and promising, as summed up by a UN press release, that “the UN would do all it could to mobilize humanitarian assistance and disaster risk reduction teams as soon as possible.” This comes with the usual UN offers of staff on standby and inventories of high-energy biscuits.

Here’s the real favor the UN could do for Japan: Back off.

There’s no need to doubt the sorrow of Ban and his colleagues, or the good intentions of many members of the UN staff. But the UN’s history of dealing with disaster relief is, itself, a saga of disaster. In the relief operation for the tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in December, 2004, the UN trumpeted itself as the only outfit fit to lead and coordinate such an effort. As events actually played out, it was the U.S. Navy that arrived first to do the emergency heavy lifting, while the UN was still getting organized. In collecting funds for the multi-billion dollar relief effort, the UN promised complete transparency, but with its usual welter of confusion, delays, obfuscation and bureaucracy, the UN delivered nothing of the kind. A Financial Times investigation a year later found that as much as one-third of the tsunami relief funds were swallowed by “salaries and administrative overheads” — roughly triple the cost of relief provided more swiftly and efficiently by private charities. Similar problems have dogged one UN relief effort after another, from cyclone relief money effectively handed over to pad the pockets of Burmese officials, to the lavish “love boat” and staggering overhead involved in Haitian earthquake relief efforts.

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Here we go again. After horrific scenes of slaughter by Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, the United Nations Human Rights Council finally got around to suspending Libya from a membership it should never have been given in the first place.

Now, as candidates declare themselves for this year’s election to seats coming open on the Human Rights Council, Syria wants a seat. We learn this not because the U.S. Mission to the UN has publicly flagged this outrage — they haven’t. We learn it because UN Watch in Geneva has been keeping an eye on the list of candidates, squirreled away several layers deep on the UN General Assembly web site. UN Watch has just sent out a press release on this latest travesty, which as I write this is not yet posted on their web site, but probably soon will be.

The upshot is that the 47 seats on the UN Human Rights Council are allocated on the basis of geographic groupings of member states — a method that has nothing to do with human rights, though plenty to do with UN politics — and with four seats coming open for the “Asian States,” there are currently just three candidates: India, the Philippines and Syria. Barring a strong campaign by the likes of the U.S. to do something about this, and unless some other candidates enter the list (preferably countries where the governments actually respects human rights), Syria looks like a shoe-in.

Syria, under the dynastic despotism of the Assads — first father, now son — is one of the world’s worst human rights abusers, not to mention a state sponsor of terrorism, and a government caught out in 2007 building a secret nuclear reactor with the help of North Korea (a problem solved thanks only to a strike in 2007 by the air force of Israel — the democracy the UN Human Rights Council spends most of its time condemning).

The UN General Assembly is due to vote on the new candidates for the Human Rights Council in May. Whole rafts of eminent diplomats are now busy distancing themselves from the Qaddafi regime they so recently embraced. Great. So, what are they doing to block Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria?

While Libyans battle over ending Moammar Gaddafi’s 42-year tyranny, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has been itching to provide his services as a broker.  Libya’s rebels have nixed this — they want Gaddafi gone, not “mediated” with. Such Western heavyweights as the U.S. and France have dismissed the idea. Yet it keeps coming back. The Arab League says it is studying Chavez’s proposal. On Friday, Venezuela’s foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, said that Gaddafi’s beleaguered government had authorized Venezuela to pick a number of “friendly countries” to take part in a Chavez-led “dialogue” to negotiate a way out of Libya’s conflict.

Why is Chavez so interested? What’s this really about, and what’s in it for Chavez?

There’s been a lot of speculation about this — should Chavez mediate in Libya? Could he? Here’s a roundup from The Week; and here’s a Friday article from Al Jazeera, “Chavez gambles on Gaddafi Diplomacy.” Some wonder if Chavez is trying to help his pal, Gaddafi, whom, as Al Jazeera notes, he has called “one of the great leaders of this century.” Some suggest Chavez is gambling on scoring a diplomatic coup, willing to risk failure in hope of bolstering his own image. Where most seem to agree is that a Chavez-brokered deal might give Gaddafi a face-saving way to hightail it out of Libya, perhaps to Venezuela. That possibility seems broadly accepted as a good thing. “Let Gadhafi pitch his tent on one of the beautiful islands off of Venezuela’s Caribbean coast,” advises the Christian Science Monitor.

I’m speculating here — but I think Chavez’s offer is all about arranging for Gaddafi to make an orderly exit to Venezuela, should he decide to turn tail and run. Beware. That is a terrible prospect.

There may be a case for providing Gaddafi with some sort of exit route, if it will help save Libyan lives — though what he deserves is justice at the hands of the Libyans whose country and lives he ruined over the course of more than four decades of nightmare rule. But if Gaddafi does end up pitching a retirement tent in exile, one of the last places the “international community” should allow him to go is Venezuela.

The problem is that even a dethroned and exiled Gaddafi will not be harmless. Gaddafi may sound like a lunatic, and in some ways he sure qualifies. But he is also a manipulative thug, wily and ruthless enough to have subjugated an entire nation for more than two generations, while running terror networks and fostering such grotesques as Liberia’s Charles Taylor. Gaddafi is experienced in techniques for surviving U.S. and UN sanctions, squirreling away billions in plundered national oil wealth, and haggling over how much blood money will buy rehabilitation in the diplomatic salons of the West. Gaddafi is seasoned in methods of covertly assembling a nuclear weapons program, having ordered one up from the A.Q. Khan network in the 1990s, and taken it remarkably far before he was caught red-handed and agreed in late 2003 to surrender his WMD kit to the U.S., for fear of suffering the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

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