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Monthly Archives: December 2012

Girding for 2013

December 30th, 2012 - 9:07 am

Saturday night found us driving along the Massachusetts Turnpike in a snowstorm — an experience that put me in mind of the current political climate, as traffic slowed to a crawl, snow covering the road markers, the horizon shrinking to a haze made up of a maddening bombardment of endless particles, which cumulatively were turning a pleasant trip into a humdinger of suspense and anxiety. We kept passing cars that had spun off the road, if not over a fiscal cliff then at least into ditches and guardrails — these accidents surrounded by flashing lights of authorities who had arrived to help, but were themselves creating fresh hazards, as the drivers who were sliding by turned to gawk. If there were snowplows in the vicinity, they were scarce where actually needed.

Writ large and often violent, so it’s gone with the 2012 leg of the grand political odyssey upon which, willy-nilly, we are all embarked. This was the year in which the Arab uprisings spawned a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, and led in Libya to the burning of a U.S.diplomatic post and the murder — the first in 30 years — of an American ambassador.  In Syria, where the U.S. has largely stood aside, leaving the conflict to be shaped by contingents of Sunni Islamists on one side, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the other, the carnage is now heading toward the two-year mark, with tens of thousands dead.  The year ends with such portents as Russian potentate Vladimir Putin avenging himself on human rights crusaders by banning Americans from adopting Russian orphans. Iran, swaddled in sanctions, continues to pursue nuclear weapons. Iran’s partner in proliferation, North Korea, having just conducted its most successful ballistic missile test yet, is now reported as ready to conduct its third nuclear test. Meanwhile, in Washington, the erstwhile colossal crisis of the hour is the so-called fiscal cliff — a scene that is dwarfed by the real perils of an American government expanding and spending at rates that invite not a fiscal cliff (if such it is), but an economic tsunami, with knock-on effects in foreign policy, because an America that cannot afford a strong defense is an America inviting attack.

So, where is this all going? Sometimes there are ways to make it safely through the storm, whether by being prepared to deal with bad roads, or in some cases changing course entirely. Usually, it helps to have a plan. Some possibilities for the year ahead:

1) Could 2013 be the year that Americans finally begin to recall the virtues of capitalism? This was a theme too much missing from a 2012 presidential race, in which there was plenty of wrangling over who might “create” how many jobs, and too little focus on how free markets give people the opportunity to create their own jobs, and in the process build a society of wealth and freedom. Will there come a point at which the growing burdens of regulations and taxes inspire enough Americans to rethink where this country is going, and decide they would rather be Free to Choose?

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Cold War Christmas Messages We Must Not Forget

December 25th, 2012 - 12:58 am

Too often these days, the Cold War is treated as ancient history — as something from a simpler age of the world. It ended years before the advent of the high-speed Internet, Google and Facebook. It ended a decade before the Sept. 11 Islamist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers in New York. It was a confrontation between the U.S. and the USSR, which sounds a lot simpler than the polyvalent landscape of 2012. Now we have the tumult of the Arab uprisings — mixing promise and menace; the Islamist terror webs probing for targets within our shores; Iran closing on nuclear weapons; North Korea testing nuclear bombs and long-range missiles; the rise of a militant China and a nationalist dictatorship in Russia; and economic debacles in the West that just keep compounding. What possible lessons could be gleaned from the Cold War to address the enormous complexities of our world today?

Actually, the Cold War, in the doing, was not simple at all. The Soviet Union had a home address at the Kremlin, but its nuclear-armed regime also worked through satellites, proxies, fronts, terrorists, propaganda and a Brezhnev doctrine that meant the formidable spread of a murderous totalitarian system — a system of revolutions that killed some 100 million people, by estimates of “The Black Book of Communism,” an overview of the horrors, published in 1999.

On the American side, just over 30 years ago, it was a dark scene. Saigon had fallen in 1975; the Soviets had rolled into Afghanistan in 1979, and were meddling heavily in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. In Poland, the Soviet satellite regime was trying to crushing the independent Solidarity trade union, which was challenging its lock on power. The Free World was rife with intellectuals, political pilgrims — useful idiots — who saw capitalism as the vice of a decadent West, and who, indifferent to facts,  looked for salvation to the Soviet Union.

That was the context in which Ronald Reagan took office. He took office determined to turn this around, and he took his message in a big way to the American people, and to the world. His first year in office, 1981, he delivered a Christmas message in which he laid out in detail the case against the brutalities of the Soviet-backed government of Poland, with its “killings, mass arrests and the setting up of concentration camps.” He spoke bluntly of the Soviet regime as “totalitarian” and he spoke about the importance of freedom:

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In the years that followed, despite the storms of protests and ridicule, he stood up to the Soviet Union. He deployed Pershing and Tomahawk missiles in Europe, he called the USSR the “evil empire.” He went to West Berlin and to the shock of many who favored diplomatic euphemisms over truth, he told Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, “Tear down this wall.”

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Jobs Galore! Guess Where…

December 23rd, 2012 - 12:40 am

America’s economy is a scary scene these days, with colossal government spending, borrowing and tax uncertainties looming like a tsunami heading for the beach. If there’s a disaster coming, where can a hard-working American run for succor? Well, as they say, follow the money — in this case, follow where some of your own tax dollars have been going. If you follow them to the United Nations, where America bankrolls roughly one-quarter of the UN’s system-wide budget, now estimated to exceed more than $30 billion per year, there appear to be jobs galore. And there’s not much need to worry that these will go away. The UN is a place where, for the most part, no matter how anti-American, anti-Semitic, depraved, insane, self-serving or merely pointless its use of its ample trove of other people’s money, the U.S. government just carries on forking over the cash.

The UN Secretariat alone lists pages of job openings, on its UN Careers portal,  seeking everything from a “stress counsellor,” to a senior photographer, to someone willing to labor from Paris in the cause of “cleaner and safer production.”  And that’s just the Secretariat. Currently the UN’s flagship agency, the UN Development Program, is listing 166 jobs worldwide, looking for everything from gender specialists to a “Climate Change Adaptation Specialist” willing to visit Burundi. Or, check out the international job openings at the UN’s agency dedicated exclusively to Palestinian refugees, UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East)  –  though of course this list does not reflect all job openings at UNRWA, which also employs nearly 30,000 local staff. Or, for yet another roster, here’s yet more of the UN job universe on a site called UNjobs.

Not that the UN will fill most of these jobs with Americans. Nor are the qualifications strictly a matter of what someone untutored in the UN system might regard as merit, at least to judge by the endless internal wrangles at the UN over favoritism, harassment, relatives of assorted officials and whatnot. But if you’re worried that a career in that quaint thing called the private sector is becoming a road to nowhere… well, the UN, with its jobs, per diems and benefits looks like it’s going to be one of the last places to feel the pinch. All you have to do is solve the mystery of how you get to the head of the queue.

Benghazi in Brief

December 18th, 2012 - 10:43 pm

So, the Accountability Review Board has produced its much-awaited report on Benghazi. The unclassified version of the document was featured briefly Tuesday evening on the home page of the State Department’s web site, but has now dropped to somewhere less prominent and harder to locate. Perhaps someone had second thoughts about putting it out front. You can find it here. The report confirms a number of things already obvious: There was no spontaneous mob, and security was “grossly inadequate.” The report concludes with a bureaucratic flourish that no one need be fired; while some State Department officials “demonstrated a lack of proactive leadership and management ability appropriate for the State Department’s senior ranks,” there was no finding of misconduct or willful dereliction of duties of a kind that might warrant “disciplinary action.”

In sum, don’t get your hopes up that you’ll learn all that much from this report, except that it is extremely difficult to get fired from the senior ranks of the State Department. This review does almost nothing to dispel the official haze which since the Sept. 11th attacks has hung over the broader scene in Benghazi, or the region. Blessedly, “the video” is not invoked. Though, neither is its repeated invocation by the administration explained. The “perpetrators” of the Benghazi attacks are in this account still faceless, pending the results of an FBI investigation; the attacks were part of a larger fog of a “fragmenting” and “devolving” al Qaeda, and a “growing diffuse range of terrorist and hostile actors.”

There is, however, an account now available that provides a far better picture of what really happened that day, and what’s been happening since. This is what they ought to be reading at the State Department, and anyplace else — including small town America — where folks are concerned about American security. It comes from my colleague, Thomas Joscelyn, writing for The Weekly Standard on “Al Qaeda Lives: The real story behind Benghazi and the other attacks of 9/11/12.”

I know, I know — the news of the hour is UN Ambassador Susan Rice. But there’s plenty of interesting commentary right now about Rice (including her own op-ed in the The Washington Post, where, under the headline “Why I Was Right to Withdraw,” she argues that it shouldn’t be about her). Let us move for a moment to one of the sideshows, where a small mystery all its own is taking shape — involving Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

UNESCO has been in an odd spot since its member states, in gleeful defiance of the official U.S. position, voted last year to admit the Palestinian Authority to full membership. This act, with which UNESCO greatly exceeded its brief as a UN agency by trying to unilaterally confer statehood on the Palestinians, resulted in UNESCO losing its U.S. funding, which was running about $78 million per year, or more than 22% of UNESCO’s core budget. The funding cut was not the preferred tactic of the Obama administration, which would like to continue bankrolling UNESCO regardless. Rather, the block of U.S. government money is required by U.S. laws, which forbid contributing to any part of the UN that tries to confer statehood on any group not fully equipped with the attributes of a state.

The head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, didn’t mind UNESCO admitting the Palestinians, but she was not at all pleased to have UNESCO lose more than $78 million per year in U.S. lucre. So, like many people who want money from Washington, she has been making more trips to Washington than one might otherwise suppose necessary. She has also dispatched an American UNESCO staffer, George Papagiannis, a former congressional aide to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, to serve as her liaison in Washington (well, officially he’s based in New York, but Washington is where he keeps turning up). UNESCO’s basic approach is that UNESCO wants American taxpayers’ money; but UNESCO is not about to reverse its admission of the Palestinian Authority. UNESCO would prefer to see America reverse its own laws. Will there perhaps be a waiver authority for President Obama slipped into some big spending bill? More on how this is now playing out in my column today at National Review Online on “Game Plan for the UNESCO Shakedown.”

Given that Bokova, in interviews and speeches, has been pushing for the resumption of U.S. funding for UNESCO (and, by implication, U.S. dismissal of its own laws), it seems worth keeping an eye out for her activities when she visits Washington. For her previous trips (at least those I’m aware of), it wasn’t that hard. Her travels to Washington last December, and again in March, were high profile. There were press releases and interviews and banquet speeches open to the press. For her September visit, there was a lot less fanfare, but she did appear in a photo at Washington’s Kennedy Center.

But this week, with a fresh push apparently in the works for the U.S. to resume funding UNESCO, Bokova embarked for Washington — and simply dropped off the public grid. UNESCO has confirmed that she is in Washington as I write this, but no one could (or would) say for quite how long, or where, or when she might be seeing whom. The only advance notice of her trip came not from UNESCO, but via the web site of a cultural organization called US/ICOMOS, (the U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites), which was advertising a $500-per-plate Benefit Gala of the 40th Anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, to be held December 12 in Washington, cocktails at 6:30 PM, dinner at 7:30 PM, with Bokova as guest of honor. I phoned before the event, and was told by the director of US/ICOMOS that the dinner was sold out, and closed to the press — and yes, indeed, Irina Bokova would be attending.

But on the UNESCO web site, I could find no mention of the director-general’s plans for this gala dinner in Washington on Dec. 12. There was plenty about her activities in Paris, her trip last month to Cuba, and so on. But nothing about her plans to visit Washington. No press release, no blurb. Zip.

I sent a query to the UNESCO press office in Paris, asking such routine questions as how long the director-general would be in Washington, when she was planning to arrive and depart, and whether she was planning any other events, such as meetings with lawmakers.

It took UNESCO’s Paris press office four days, during which I twice re-sent my questions, to provide an answer of sorts. The main purpose of her trip, they said, was the US/ICOMOS dinner on Dec. 12, and she had also scheduled meetings with the UN Foundation, the State Department, and “Other Institutes and foundations.” In semi-answer to my question about whether Bokova would be meeting with U.S. legislators or congressional staff, they said only that she was “exploring a range of meetings on Capitol Hill,” but no specifics were provided because “The schedule has not been finalized.” They did not say when Bokova would depart Washington, but they did mention that during her visit to the U.S. she would be attending the annual dinner of the UN Correspondents’ Association — which is held in New York, and scheduled this year for Dec. 19.

So, what business might UNESCO’s director-general be conducting, in Washington or beyond, between Dec. 12 and Dec. 19? Evidently at least some of it entailed a fair amount of preparatory work in Washington. Earlier this week, I emailed a question to UNESCO staffer Papagiannis, who serves as  her “liaison” in Washington, and got the reply that he was too busy ducking in and out of meetings to tell me anything.

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As the United Nations heads deeper into its Internet grab, a.k.a its 11-day telecom treaty conference, in Dubai, things aren’t going so well for America and the friends of freedom. The Hill reports that “A joint proposal  from the United States and Canada aimed at keeping Internet regulations out of a global telecommunications treaty failed to secure early approval from other countries on Tuesday” — though talks may continue along these lines.

This conference has been convened by a Geneva-based UN outfit called the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which for most of the world public is simply one more mysterious blob in the UN alphabet soup. To better understand the problem here, it might help to know that the makeup of the ITU pretty much mirrors that of the UN General Assembly — the UN body of 193 member states, dominated by the Iran-chaired Non-Aligned Movement and the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation, in which it is standard operating procedure that the U.S. and its democratic allies provide the bulk of the resources, and the thug regimes of the world decide how those resources should be used.

But let’s add to this some nitty-gritty, which largely escaped notice when it was first reported, in 2005, and since then seems to have slid right down the Memory Hole. While the getting and spending of the ITU usually attracts little notice, it did figure in the UN-authorized inquiry into the Oil-for-Food program in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The ITU was one of the UN agencies tasked to deliver humanitarian relief to the people of Iraq, in this case by way of developing the telecommunications system. This mission quickly got bogged down in Security Council concerns that Saddam would use a beefed-up telecom system for military purposes. But with funds flowing for the project, the ITU, undaunted by the realities, kept right on spending.

The result? As the Volcker inquiry reported, on Sept. 7, 2005: “While ITU spent less than $900,000 of Programme funds for humanitarian aid and services during the Programme, it spent more than $10 million in administrative costs.”

Even by wastrel standards of the UN, that’s spectacular: A 10-to-one ratio of administrative costs versus spending on the actual services. But that’s what happened when the UN tapped into Iraq’s oil sales, and the ITU, as part of that bonanza, tapped into a gusher of easy money. Has the ITU changed its ways? If so, it’s been more than modest about sharing the news. To the current concerns that this ITU treaty conference in Dubai may be seeking ways to regulate, tax and censor the Internet, we might also want to add the worry that there is a UN administrative apparatus here that needs to be kept as far as possible from filling its coffers courtesy of users of the Internet.