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Monthly Archives: January 2012

“The government dole will rot your soul”

January 31st, 2012 - 10:48 pm

Just 46 more states, two conventions and nine more months till we get to go into the voting booths and mark the hanging chads — or whatever technological wizardry awaits us in this next election. I still remember, with disconcerting fondness, a report many years ago of a voting machine in Chicago that managed to fall out of a window on election day. For that matter, having lived in Chicago for a while in the late 1970s, I occasionally wonder if, with no effort on my part, I have continued voting there ever since.

Anyway, while I have enormous respect for the democratic process, right now this campaign year looks interminable. Take your comfort where you find it.

In that spirit, I’m going to take a break tonight from the debates about the debates, the perfidies of multilateral institutions and the horrors of assorted tyrants who do indeed have designs on our general well-being. This is a note about music. A few months ago, my husband came across the music of Stan Rogers, a Canadian folk singer. Rogers died young, in 1983, in an airplane fire. But during his short span, he  wrote some terrific songs, most of them about the sea-faring life. All by himself, he’s a reason to pay more attention to Canada (which has been looking better and better lately).

Stan Rogers  wrote a song — OK, there’s no getting away from politics — which, if you feel a certain affinity for ideas about individual rights and responsibilities, is immensely cheering. The lyrics include the phrase above, “The government dole will rot your soul,” and the toe-tapping line “I like being free and that makes me an idiot I suppose.” The title is “The Idiot.” It’s a treat — two minutes and 53 seconds well spent.

Cocaine Mysteries at the United Nations

January 28th, 2012 - 10:41 pm

To the many mysteries of the United Nations, we may now add the case of the curious cocaine shipment, which arrived recently in the UN mailroom in two sacks emblazoned with pale copies of the blue UN logo. Inside the sacks were 16 kilos of cocaine, hidden inside hollowed-out notebooks. UN security officials spotted the shipment and turned it over to the New York Police Department for investigation.

The first two mysteries are who sent the shipment, and who was meant to receive it. The sacks reportedly arrived via DHL, from Mexico, but UN officials say there was no sender listed, nor were the sacks addressed to anyone. Because the sacks looked like UN diplomatic pouches, DHL delivered them to the UN. But UN officials say “the two suspicious bags were not intended for the United Nations and were not UN diplomatic pouches.”

Rife with drugs though Mexico may be, it’s hard to chalk this up to some Mexican drug dealer simply losing track of his (or her) wares and, in a giddy moment, tossing 16 kilos of coke in two fake UN pouches and dropping them off at DHL with never a care about where they might end up. Depending on which account you go with, the street value was at least $440,000 (according to the LA Times) or maybe $2 million (according to Sky News). So what’s going on?

And then there’s the further mystery, as highlighted by Matthew Russell Lee of Inner-City Press at the UN’s Friday noon briefing: “Why, when the bags were discovered, there was no attempt to wait to see who might try to pick them up?”

The reply this question elicited from the UN spokesperson was the circular argument that since there was no address on the bags with the fake UN logo, they were not intended for the UN, and there was no point in waiting to see if someone would try to pick them up:

“There was no address, either addressee or from whom these bags had come– there was nothing; nothing. So it is rather odd to think, well you need to wait for someone, turn up when the bags were never intended to come here in the first place.”

We don’t yet know what was going on with these wayward sacks of cocaine. But what does seem clear is that UN authorities had strangely little interest in finding out.

‘The Tide of War’

January 25th, 2012 - 1:36 am

“The tide of war is receding,” or so President Obama keeps saying. He said it on June 22, 2011, talking about Afghanistan. He said it on Sept. 21, 2011, in his address to the annual opening of the UN General Assembly. He said it on Nov. 11, 2011, at Arlington Cemetery. He said it on Jan. 5, 2012, while announcing cuts in the U.S. military.

And on Tuesday night, in his State of the Union address, there it was again. Though this time Obama presented it less as an announcement than as the established context for his further remarks: “As the tide of war recedes… .”

If saying could make it so, this would all be a marvelous exercise. But there’s a dangerous muddle here, in which the gutting of U.S. defense and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from overseas theaters are confused with an end to war. If the metaphor here is to be one of ocean tides, then the extension of the metaphor is that we are being invited to spread out our well-padded entitlement programs and picnic on the beach — oblivious to the signs that the water is coming back. North Korea and Iran are still working on nuclear bombs and missiles. Iran, along with its ties to al Qaeda, continues to arm and support terrorist groups such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which in turn have networks well beyond the Middle East, including in Latin America — where Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad just completed yet another visit to his pals in Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Venezuela. China is busy with a massive military buildup. Russia is sending arms to Syria. And, with the U.S. nodding along, Egypt is on its way to Islamist rule. These are not developments that herald an imminent era of  peace. Neither is the plot alleged by Obama’s own Justice Department, in which Iran’s Quds Force planned to blow up the Saudi ambassador in a Washington restaurant, just last fall — sometime between Obama’s first two iterations about the receding tide of war, and the last three.

There’s something else that’s troubling about this “receding tide” formulation. Like that long and bending “arc of history” which Obama invoked while passively bearing “witness” in 2009 to the slaughter of Iranian protesters, this “tide” business implies that while the little folk might fret about the growing threats, the president walks hand in hand with some grand force of history which, catalyzed by his presence, will somehow sort it all out. It’s of a piece with Obama’s declaration when he became his party’s candidate in 2008 that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” In that same speech, he went on to say, “this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation … .” Whatever the talk of arcs and tides, America has enemies focused on the here and now. Are we really more secure?

… Check out salaries at the United Nations. According to the U.S. envoy for UN Management and Reform, Joseph Torsella, UN salaries average out to $119,000 per year, and at UN headquarters in New York they are on average 30% higher than U.S. federal salaries in Washington.

The UN hasn’t figured much in the Republican debates, but surely those are numbers that would resonate with average American voters — who pay the biggest share of the bill for these average UN salaries.

“Groundhog day, over and over again,” is how Ambassador John Bolton has described U.S. efforts to talk with Iran, saying all such talks achieve is to buy time for Iran to work on its nuclear weapons program. That was in 2009, and right he was. There were talks with Iran before that — in 2009 Michael Ledeen linked to a list of  more than 28 high-level U.S.-Iran meetings held from 2001-2008, under the Bush administration.  President Obama arrived in office with an extended hand, offering “mutual respect,” and yet more talking — recall the December 2009 flop in Geneva.

Yet, with tensions high over tougher sanctions on Iran, and Iran’s threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, here come the calls for Groundhog day, again. From Trita Parsi, with his knack for channeling policies that benefit Iran, not the U.S., comes an op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post, “How Obama should talk to Iran.” Parsi’s prescription is that the U.S. administration drop sanctions and shower Iran with (more) offers of respect: “Talk to everyone — and talk a lot.” Implying that Iran’s power structure is similar to that of the U.S. (by way of quoting an unnamed “prominent journalist” close to the foreign minister of Turkey to that effect), Parsi urges a “process” that would have U.S. officials engaging — respectfully, of course — in “sustained” palaver with a panoply of Iranian “power centers,” including “the supreme leader’s office, the parliament,the president’s circle of advisers, the National Security Council and influential clergymen.” Parsi would have the U.S. jabber away for however long it might take to build a “strong rapport” with Iran, in expectation that eventually the happy day would arrive on which Iran’s regime would have talked with so many U.S. officials, for so long, that Tehran would no longer feel the need to pursue nuclear weapons. (Of course, by then Iran’s regime would almost certainly have nuclear weapons — but let’s not be dissuaded by such tedious practical considerations…).

Also writing in the Washington Post, on “Steps to Defuse a Crisis,” David Ignatius more modestly suggests that the U.S. and Iran need a back channel for direct communication. For this purpose, he would like to volunteer CIA director Gen. David Petraeus, and the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Suleimani. Ignatius notes that “Some would argue Suleimani is the heart of the problem” — what with some U.S. officials believing he was probably aware of the Quds assassination plot that the Justice Department alleges was meant to blow up the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.  But Ignatius suggests that “precisely because Suleimani heads Iran’s most powerful intelligence network, messages through him would carry special weight.”

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How the UN Achieves Sustainable Peacekeeper Rape

January 11th, 2012 - 12:23 am

Year after year, since 2005, the United Nations has proclaimed its “zero-tolerance” policy for UN peacekeepers sexually exploiting or even raping the people they’re sent to protect. Year after year, the abuse continues. One of the more recent horrors took place last year in Haiti, when five UN peacekeepers allegedly pulled an 18-year-old Haitian into a UN base, pinned him down on a mattress, beat and raped him. Part of the scene, in which he screams for help while being assaulted, was caught on video.

Haiti’s president protested. The five peacekeepers, all from Uruguay, were sent home to face prosecution. Uruguay’s ambassador to the UN apologized. But now comes a report from ABC News — “Haiti Outrage: UN Soldiers from Sex Assault Video Freed.” ABC’s Brian Ross reports that the case has apparently stalled. It’s been put on “indefinite hold.” And a UN official has confirmed to ABC that the former peacekeepers have been turned loose. It seems the Uruguayan prosecution could not find the victim, though ABC’s Ross notes that his name and address are well known, “if there is any interest in finding him.”

It gets worse. ABC’s report includes an interview with a UN peacekeeping official, an American, Assistant Secretary-General Anthony Banbury. Asked if there’s any way to ensure that UN peacekeepers accused of sexual exploitation and assault will face justice, he simply admits, “Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t.” In an earlier incident, when more than 100 Sri Lankan peacekeepers in Haiti were expelled for sexually exploiting underage girls, there was no sign they were ever prosecuted. That’s been largely the way of it, as cases of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers have turned up again and again, in places such as the Congo, Bosnia, Cambodia, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Burundi, Haiti, and South Sudan.

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Ahmadinejad — Not Nearly Isolated Enough

January 7th, 2012 - 12:08 am

Coming to a hemisphere near you — Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is embarking on a visit to four countries in Latin America: Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador. Asked about this excursion at a Friday press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Ahmadinejad’s trip is a sign that Iran’s regime is “desperate for friends and flailing around in interesting places to find new friends.”

This inspired a rash of news stories playing up the desperation and isolation of Ahmadinejad & Co., and downplaying any real dangers Tehran’s Latin American hob-nobbing might pose to the U.S. The Associated Press reports, “Ahmadinejad Trip to Latin America a Sign of Desperation.” The New York Times, under a headline calling Ahmadinejad “Increasingly Isolated,” notes that on this trip Ahmadinejad is not visiting such hefty Latin American countries as Brazil, Argentina, Colombia or Mexico.

OK, thanks to a growing roster of sanctions pressed chiefly by the U.S. and EU, Ahmadinejad and his fellow thugs of the Iranian regime may be more isolated than they were a few years ago. But this trip hardly represents isolation and it certainly does not represent, as the State Department put it, “flailing around…to find new friends.” In Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Venezuela, Ahmadinejad is visiting old friends. As the New York Times notes, this is his sixth swing through Latin America. He has been making these visits about once a year since he became president of Iran in 2005. Add in the various visits that officials of his Latin hosts have made to Iran, and that’s a lot of hob-nobbing.

Lest anyone is tempted to dismiss Ahmadinejad’s  trip as chiefly an exercise in grandstanding and nose-thumbing — which is the tenor of much of the news coverage — let’s recall that almost two years ago, on the eve of retirement, former New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau went out of his way (literally — he stepped off his Manhattan home turf to deliver his message in Washington) to warn that Iran’s growing ties with Venezuela had the makings of the next Cuban missile crisis : “The Iranian nuclear and long-range missile threats and creeping Iranian influence in the Western hemisphere cannot be overlooked,” said Morgenthau.

True, Venezuela’s despotic Hugo Chavez may be ill, and Iran is facing tougher sanctions than a few years ago. But Iran is also closer to producing nuclear weapons, has continued developing missiles to deliver them, and continues to pursue its collision course with the interests and security of the free world — threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz; arming and training terrorists in Gaza, Lebanon and beyond; meddling amid the turmoil in Egypt and Libya; supporting al-Qaeda; and caught last  fall allegedly plotting the terrorist act of bombing a Washington restaurant to assassinate the Saudi ambassador.

Whatever difficulties Ahmadinejad might be running into, his brazen trip to Latin America means he is not nearly isolated enough.

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