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Monthly Archives: April 2012

I’m against atrocities. I’m against genocide. I’d bet you are too.

So why is it somehow so troubling that President Barack Obama, citing a “core national interest” and “core moral responsibility” of the United States, has now ordered into existence an inter-agency Atrocities Prevention Board?

The name alone is not a good sign. With its implication of bureaucrats battling evil, it sounds like satire. An outtake, perhaps, from Graham Greene’s novel, Ministry of Fear, or Washington’s variation on Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. In editorializing last week on this new Atrocities Prevention Board, the Wall Street Journal rightly warned its readers that “this is not an item from the Onion.”

Nor is the format promising. At least once per month, and more often in times of emergency, the Atrocities Prevention Board, or APB, will convene representatives of State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, USAID, the Joint Staff, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA, and the Office of the Vice President to hammer out “the development and implementation of atrocity prevention and response policy.” The White House is calling this approach “whole of government,” and no doubt everyone will have something to toss into the pot. But if this pileup is now to become yet another piece of entrenched federal bureaucracy, it sounds like a formula for steering policy to the same lowest-common-denominator level as the average National Intelligence Estimate. (I can only guess that they omitted the Post Office and the Department of Transportation because the former is going out of business, and the latter doesn’t answer its phones.) Whether that means the entire exercise will be irrelevant, or actively dangerous, remains to be seen.

Nor, if you have reservations about the priorities of Obama’s National Security adviser Samantha Power, does it augur well that she is heading this new board — becoming, as some have already dubbed her, the administration’s Atrocities Czar. As James Gibney astutely notes on Bloomberg, “Can the Atrocities Prevention Board Define ‘Atrocity‘”? Gibney asks, is it an atrocity that a vast majority of Egyptian married women have undergone genital mutilation? Is it an atrocity when an Israeli missile goes astray and kills a Palestinian family? Is it an atrocity when the Japanese government fails to regulate its nuclear plants, and people die. He asks, “Just where does one draw the line?”

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Doing the Airport Shuffle

April 28th, 2012 - 11:58 pm

I’ve just returned from a meeting of the free-market Mont Pelerin Society in Morocco, the first time this laissez-faire group has met in the Arab world.  The meeting itself was fascinating, and I’ll have more to say about that. But for the moment, a comment on the trip home, which left me yearning — not for the first time — for more private sector ingenuity not only in foreign lands, but at American airports.

I can remember a time when going to the airport was enjoyable. Incredible as it now seems, I used to look forward to it. Arriving at the airport was a prelude to adventure, or a welcoming portal for returning home. You often had to wait in lines, but you were not required to surrender an inordinate measure of human dignity. There wasn’t all that much reason to wonder if someone had mistaken you and your fellow travelers for a herd of cattle. These days, it’s all too common to exit the airport feeling like you’ve just escaped from the chain gang.

The specific airport I went through on this trip was New York’s JFK, though it would be unfair to focus solely on JFK when much the same goes on at every major U.S. airport I’m familiar with. In this instance, I got lucky on the immigration line, which for U.S. citizens, though not for hapless foreigners, was mercifully short. But I was foolish enough to require a connecting flight. For that, in the perpetual hodge-podge-cum-construction-site that is Kennedy Airport, it is necessary to exit one terminal and go through security clearance in another. Apparently it is a matter of continuing surprise to the Transportation Security Administration that airplane passengers turn up in the numbers they do; either that, or the TSA calculates cost-efficiency with a lot more regard for its own convenience than that of the folks who spend millions of man hours every year juggling their carry-on luggage in its lines.

Note — I’m not protesting the wholesale imposition of security checks, though many good articles have been written by now on how the TSA might better spend its resources zeroing in on the likeliest threats, and less on frisking pre-teens and great-grandmothers. I’m simply wondering if, given the TSA’s general approach to security, there might be ways to make it less absurdly onerous for the passengers the federal government is presumably trying to serve.

Clearing security in this instance meant joining a queue that stretched the length of the terminal’s main hall, and then inching along to the place where tickets and identification were checked. There, the real line began — with the preliminary line feeding into one of those zig-zag rope corrals in which you become part of a big rectangle packed solidly with humanity, shuffling first one direction, then reversing course, winding toward the actual security check.

After 45 minutes of that, you finally arrive at the tubs. Those would be the grimy plastic tubs, stacked in somewhat random locations near the x-ray machine conveyor belt, which you are expected to pry loose, align on the belt, fill with your belongings and steer into the x-ray machine — while moving along at a reasonable clip (on this occasion, someone’s carry-on bag jammed at the entrance to the x-ray; the passenger had already walked through the checkpoint, and it took a while for the nearest, yawning security official to notice and stroll over to clear the conveyor belt).

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UNESCO Romances Riyadh

April 23rd, 2012 - 9:11 pm

As if any more reasons were needed for the U.S. to pull out of UNESCO altogether,  it appears that UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova is now celebrating Saudi Arabia as an exemplar of “dialogue” and “building a culture of peace.” Bokova has just dropped in on Riyadh, where — according to the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) — she decorated the Saudi king with a gold medal, which KUNA describes as UNESCO’s “highest honorary recognition award.” Also in attendance, according to KUNA, were “elite of UNESCO’s ambassadors,” including envoys of  Germany, Brazil, Poland, France, and — now we get to the real UNESCO elite — “Palestine” and Zimbabwe.

I’m not yet sure  what to make of this report of a UNESCO gold medal bestowed by Bokova in Riyadh. On the UNESCO web site, I’m not seeing any mention of it — though perhaps such news will turn up. The UNESCO web site does, however, carry a series of reports on Bokova’s adventures these past few days in Saudi Arabia, including her praise of Saudi science labs, educational ambitions, and a miasma of UN jargon about peace, renewable this and sustainable that. And Saudi Arabia figures large right now at UNESCO. Bokova’s visit to Riyadh follows her opening last week of a three-day Saudi cultural event at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris.

All this follows Bokova’s lengthy visit in March to the U.S., part of a UNESCO self-advertising blitz in which Bokova has been campaigning for the U.S. to overturn its own law in order to restore the funding UNESCO lost last year due to its own folly in admitting the Palestinian Authority despite warnings from the U.S., and a red light from the UN Security Council.

What’s the common denominator of Bokova’s visits to Saudi Arabia and the U.S.? How should we understand this romancing of both the democratic U.S. and repressive Saudi Arabia? What principle does UNESCO steer by?

These countries have one big thing in common: Pots of money. Bokova runs a UN organization substantially hostile to U.S. values and interests, headquartered in Paris and top-heavy with well-paid officials accustomed to fat perquisites, comfortable lifestyles, and often vague responsibilities. That takes a lot of money, and she appears to be pursuing that money, whatever it takes, and wherever it takes her. The best response for the U.S. would be to pull out of UNESCO entirely, wave good-bye (again) and wish UNESCO’s director general and her flock of “elite” ambassadors a grand old time pursuing dialogue, peace and sustainable cash in Riyadh.

China’s “Precious Treasure”

April 22nd, 2012 - 9:56 pm

Wire services are reporting that China’s senior official for foreign policy, Dai Bingguo, was effusing Sunday about a relationship he described as China’s “precious treasure.”

What would that treasure be? Why, “The traditional friendship between China and North Korea,” which State Councilor Dai described to a visiting senior North Korean official, Kim Yong-il, as “a precious treasure for our two parties, two countries and our peoples.”

Lest that sound like some sort of ancient Asian bond, tracking back to the misty beginnings of recorded time, let us note that the two parties involved are both products of the 20th century’s monstrous romance with communism, each of these parties wielding monopoly rule over its respective “People’s Republic.” And the two People’s Republics concerned — the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — only came into being as such in the late 1940s. Whatever the deeper connections among the actual populations, what Dai was celebrating is a mutually reinforcing partnership of repression and mischief-making at the top, in which China’s regime supports North Korea’s, and North Korea’s regime makes trouble for democracies from South Korea to Japan to America to Israel (recall the nuclear reactor Syria was building with North Korean help, until the Israeli Air Force destroyed it in 2007).

Yes, China went along with the United Nations Security Council on April 16 in giving North Korea a harmless slap over its latest missile launch (the Security Council condemned, deplored, etc., but did nothing likely to stop the next North Korean missile launch, or nuclear test). But Dai laid it on thick this past Sunday in publicly assuring North Korea there are no hard feelings. Not only is the relationship apparently one of Beijing’s real gems, but, praising North Korea’s new tyrant, Kim Jong Un, Dai went on to assure his North Korean guest that “China is willing to work with North Korea to take friendly cooperation to new heights.”  (At any rate, that’s the Reuters translation from the Chinese. The AFP translates the statement as China planning to “push friendly and cooperative China-North Korean relations to a new level.” … Take your pick).

Just a little something to remember, next time Washington diplomats describe China as a valuable ally in dealing with North Korea.

Guess Who’s Buying Flowers for Pyongyang

April 15th, 2012 - 3:06 am

At the best of times, North Korea’s regime ranks among the most vile on the planet, and this past week has not been the best of times. The totalitarian Kim dynasty carries on, and on, from grandfather to father to son — a brutal regime sustained by proliferation, extortion, and counterfeiting rackets abroad, and grotesque repression at home. This is the regime that targeted an estimated one million or more North Koreans for death by famine in the 1990s, and continues to eradicate dissent by means of such atrocities as incarcerating hundreds of thousands of people in Stalinist prison camps, as described in the recently updated report on “The Hidden Gulag.”

With the late Kim Jong Il now exalted as “general secretary for eternity,” his son, new ruler Kim Jong Un, has just reaffirmed the regime’s “military first” policy, and celebrated the advent of the 100th birthday of Kim Junior’s dead totalitarian grandfather, Kim Il Sung, by conducting a ballistic missile test — which North Korea’s propaganda organs dutifully translated for us as being an attempted satellite launch. There are signs that another North Korean nuclear test may be right around the bend, and this one may be uranium-based, which would be potentially more helpful to North Korea’s business pals in Iran than North Korea’s previous plutonium-based tests, in 2006 and 2009. North Korea’s regime collaborates with Syria and Iran on weapons development. And for its record of kidnapping alone — many of its victims never returned or even fully accounted for — North Korea deserves to be put back on the U.S. government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Yet, even beyond Tehran and Damascus, Pyongyang’s regime has its fans, and receives its share of tribute, including floral wreaths and letters, which the state’s Korean Central News Agency loves to report. For instance, KCNA tells us this week that the communist parties of Peru and Norway sent delegates, bearing gifts, to celebrate the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung (what the gifts are, KCNA does not explain).

Curious to see who else was sending tribute to the Kim dynasty during this fraught week, I was scrolling through the KCNA site, and lo! What to my wondering eyes should appear but a KCNA report that on Friday — the same day as the missile test (which United Nations sanctions forbid) — “The dear respected Kim Jong Un received congratulatory letters from the offices of the World Food Programme and the United Nations Development Programme.”

Congratulatory letters? For what?

KCNA does not elaborate. To be fair, we can reasonably assume that the World Food Program and UNDP were not congratulating Kim on the missile launch (which was in any event not a successful launch, though such are the hazards of missile tests). And, of course, this is a report from KCNA, a state propaganda organ, prone to such paroxysms as its description Friday of Kim Jong Un as “a great statesman of literary and military accomplishments, who is possessed of outstanding wisdom, distinguished leadership ability, matchless pluck and noble revolutionary comradeship.” It would be unwise to trust entirely to KCNA’s reports.

Except I can find no account of either the World Food Program or the UNDP hustling to deny any such congratulatory letters. If they would like to do so, I would cheerfully write that up. In the meantime, here they are, both these august UN agencies,  described by KCNA as orbiting the firmament of Kim Jong Un, the man of matchless pluck and noble revolutionary comradeship. Were they perhaps congratulating him on pioneering a third generation of totalitarian dynastic rule in North Korea? Or applauding the accomplishments of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, in founding this family enterprise?

It gets worse. Scrolling further down the KCNA roster of Friday’s doings in North Korea, there’s a more detailed account of UNDP “staff members” laying “a floral basket before the equestrian statues of President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il.” Apparently, after the UNDP staffers laid the floral basket before the statues of the two dead totalitarians, they “paid tribute,” according to KCNA.

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Kofi Annan’s Rendezvous with Tehran

April 10th, 2012 - 1:42 am

The United Nations and the Arab League recently added a new layer of trouble to the agony and dangers of the Middle East by appointing as their joint special envoy to Syria none other than former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The charitable view: Annan’s appointment represented the triumph of amnesia over experience. During the heyday of Annan’s signature UN scandal — the Oil-for-Food program for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — I spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether Annan was corrupt or simply incompetent and indifferent to his own failures. Given the staggering dimensions of the graft-permeated, multi-billion dollar trainwreck of the Iraq relief program for which Annan was the chief administrator, there was really no third way, apart from perhaps some mix of crookedness and ineptitude. And given that the UN’s own “independent inquiry” into the program reported finding no evidence of corrupt dealings by Annan, we must consider him officially exonerated on that front; this leaves the conclusion that he was long ago promoted far beyond his real level of competence. Indeed, the UN’s own probe reached findings that he had done a lousy job: he had failed to provide “adequate oversight” of his handpicked staff; he had failed to ensure the basic aims of the sanctions on Iraq; and his performance “fell short of the standards that the United Nations Organization should strive to maintain.”

The less generous explanation of the current UN-Arab League choice of Annan as envoy is that no one really expected him to produce a decent resolution in Syria. One has to wonder if the aim was to be seen as doing something, while buying time for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to slam a lid back on the heaving dissent imperiling his regime.

Annan has a terrible record when it comes to dealing with crises. For some specifics, here’s a link to my recent article, co-authored with Jonathan Schanzer, for The New Republic: “It’s Time to Add Syria to Kofi Annan’s List of Failures.” In a neat summing up of Annan’s efforts to date, the Washington Post editorialized on Monday that “Mr. Annan and his backers have merely provided cover for Mr. Assad to go on slaughtering his own people.”

And, sorry to report, but for the next stage of his mission, having visited with Assad and called in at Beijing and Moscow, Annan is reportedly planning this Wednesday to drop in on Tehran. Watch out. Iran’s regime, along with its usual terrorist and illicit nuclear ventures, has been abetting Assad’s efforts to murder Syrians back into submission. And, hit by tightening U.S. and European sanctions, Iran’s regime is also looking for ways to buy time on its own account, for its bomb program and its evolving schemes for ducking sanctions.

So what will Annan do while in Tehran? What might he offer his hosts? He’s been coy. But there are a few things we do know. It’s clear that Iran’s rulers are looking forward to his visit. Iranian news services began announcing it while Annan himself was still denying plans to go there. Since Annan’s UN-loaned spokesman confirmed that he has an appointment with Tehran, Iranian media outlets have been enthusing about his impending visit — here’s Iran’s “independent” Fars News Agency account stressing “Iran’s support for Annan’s peace plan.” Here’s the Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA, sounding a similar note.

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UNESCO’s Comedy Central Caper

April 1st, 2012 - 3:53 am

April Fool’s Day seems a fitting frame for this tale, in which TV’s Comedy Central lampooned the U.S. last month for defunding UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — after UNESCO’s nose-thumbing decision last fall to grant membership to the Palestinian Authority. Promising an “epic” expose, The Daily Show’s host, Jon Stewart, dispatched comedian John Oliver to produce a story about the big bad U.S. versus good little UNESCO. Oliver dug all the way to an interview with a UNESCO flack (or maybe the UNESCO flack dug all the way to John Oliver), who mentioned that when the U.S. pulled its funding of more than $78 million per year from UNESCO, the impoverished West African country of Gabon stepped up to pledge $2 million in solidarity with UNESCO. So, the doughty Oliver flew to Gabon, to deliver a report from the field on the generosity of the Gabonese government, and the presumed horrors that will now afflict the world if America continues to deprive Paris-based UNESCO of great stacks of U.S. tax dollars.

As comedy, it was all very entertaining: satire wrapped around the come-hither implication that beneath the laugh lies a poignant and serious piece of reportage. Noting the praise showered upon The Daily Show’s UNESCO report by an array of “journalistic outlets,” a writer for the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, extolled the special powers of comedy writers “who take the time to understand the inside baseball” and “in the search for absurdity” see with eagle eyes the “real world consequences.”

Except, as a piece of reporting, The Daily Show’s UNESCO “epic” was a complete joke. It was UNESCO propaganda, masquerading as satire, masquerading as reporting. It had everything to do with slick repackaging of UNESCO’s own self-serving “talking points,” and almost nothing to do with the real world. This was fantasy UNESCO, and, for that matter, fantasy Gabon, all dolled up for the Comedy Central set — please check your dictators, terrorists, and spendthrift feather-bedding international bureaucrats at the door.

If Oliver actually went to Gabon at all — and from the scenery, it appears he did — there is no evidence he asked anyone there a single informed question. Oliver did not deign to inform his audience that Gabon is one of the largest oil producers in Africa, an unfree country plundered for years by the same dynastic government whose President Ali Bongo Ondimba pledged $2 million to UNESCO (and at the same UNESCO meeting, got a four-year seat on its executive board). Oliver did not mention that a Gabonese civic group had written to UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova, asking her to refuse the money, because Gabon’s people need it more. (Nor did Oliver wonder how it is that the poor little government of Gabon was able to come up with $6.5 million last year to purchase the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s mansion in Washington, apparently for use as a residence by Gabon’s ambassador).

For that matter, Oliver failed to note that UNESCO’s executive board recently reaffirmed a seat for Syria’s bloody dictatorship on its human rights committee, or that UNESCO’s board voted to host a $3 million self-aggrandizing prize donated by the longtime dictator of Equatorial Guinea. He also forgot to note that UNESCO spends most of its budget on its own staff, travel and operating expenses; likes to bask in business class air travel; that more than half its staffers are based in Paris; and, in the UN cosmos of overlapping, redundant and often dysfunctional bureaucracies, a great many of its ventures (“climate education,” for instance) are duplicated by other agencies. Or perhaps he simply never bothered to find out?

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