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Misreading China: The Harm of Ignoring Human Rights

March 17th, 2014 - 6:35 pm

On Wednesday First Lady Michelle Obama heads to China, reportedly on a mission to charm the Chinese government. She will be traveling without the president, but with her two daughters and her mother.

As Reuters describes it:

U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama is expected to steer clear of controversial issues such as human rights when she visits China this week but her trip could help advance a top item on her husband’s foreign policy agenda: deepening Washington’s ties with Beijing.

The article goes on to cite someone who worked as an aide to former First Lady Laura Bush, praising the prospects of this ethics-lite excursion, noting that it will be good optics, and play well in China, to have Michelle Obama meet with China’s first lady, drop by schools, take the kids to visit the Terra Cotta warriors, and so forth. The message is that by declining to rock the boat, Michelle will be honoring her motto of “do no harm.”

While the intentions here may be good, this is a terrible misreading of China, of international politics and of America’s vital place in the world. China is one of the world’s worst violators of human rights, and its government holds sway over more than 1.3 billion people — more than one-sixth of humanity. For just one of the latest cases in the news, see the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial on “Death in Chinese Custody,” about a human rights advocate, Cao Shunli, who last September tried to fly to a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. She never made it out of the Beijing airport. She was arrested, she was denied medical treatment as her health failed, and she died in custody. For more information on the system that killed her, reports are so legion that it’s hard to know where to begin — but one place would be the State Department’s latest country report on human rights practices in China, which talks about the coercion, repression, censorship, enforced disappearances, torture, coerced confessions, discrimination and more.

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Truth, Lies and Iranian Weapons Shipments

March 8th, 2014 - 11:23 pm

For Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif, it had to be an awkward moment. There he is, the “moderate” face of Iran, fluent in English, educated in the U.S., jetting around the world telling everyone that Iran will never give up its nuclear facilities — but don’t worry because Iran’s nuclear program is “nothing but peaceful.”

And then the Israelis go and fracture Zarif’s “nothing but peaceful” narrative by interdicting yet another of those big illicit Iranian weapons shipments. On March 5, Israeli commandos board a freighter in the Red Sea, which is heading for Port Sudan after taking on cargo at ports including Iran’s Bandar Abbas.

Onboard they find crates of Syrian-made M-302 rockets, hidden by bags of made-in-Iran cement. They release statements and videos, showing the rockets and explaining that they had been tracking this shipment for months — as the rockets were flown from Damascus to Tehran, transported to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, and loaded onto the freighter, a Panama-flagged ship called the Klos C. The Israelis say these rockets were meant to be smuggled overland from Sudan across Sinai and into Gaza, where they would have provided Palestinian terrorists with a game-changing range covering almost all of Israel.

That doesn’t sound peaceful at all. Even worse for Zarif, it comes just as AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is wrapping up its annual meeting in Washington — where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just given a speech warning about the dangerous, aggressive agenda of Iran (read Bridget Johnson’s report here). It illustrates the point.

So, what does Zarif do? He does what any adept and loyal servant of  a despotic, predatory and terror-sponsoring regime would do. He sets a propaganda backfire. He sends out a snide message over Twitter, in which he implies that the weapons seizure is fiction, saying: “An Iranian ship carrying arms for Gaza. Captured just in time for the annual AIPAC anti Iran campaign. Amazing Coincidence! Or same failed lies.”

This is agitprop so raw that it’s worthy of North Korea. But it has the intended effect. The BBC jumps right on it, with an article headlined, “Iran’s Zarif says Israel lying about Gaza rocket ship.”  In Beirut, The Daily Star hangs a story on it. Agence France-Presse trumpets it: “Iran says Israel fabricated Gaza claim” — adding yet more statements from Zarif that the story of a weapons shipment “is a lie.”

The real issue here is that Zarif, erstwhile moderate, is telling a bald lie in order to deflect attention from a real Iranian shipment of deadly weapons  – as well as distract from such matters as whether he knew anything about this smuggling operation (having met with Syria’s President Assad and others in Damascus while this weapons smuggling operation was underway). Or is he a foreign minister and nuclear negotiator who is so out of touch with the realities of his own regime that he believes his own propaganda?

Zarif’s glib inversion of truth and lies ought to give great pause to the U.S. and its European bargaining partners, who are haggling with Zarif over Iran’s nuclear program. For more on that, on Zarif’s fascinating itinerary these past few months, and on the weapons-carrying ship itself (which is quite real), here’s my column on “The Amazing Coincidences of Javad Zarif.”

A few more items on this weapons seizure. First, about the timing. It was the Iranians who dispatched that illicit cargo of weaponry on a timetable that put it square in Israel’s sights just as the AIPAC meeting was wrapping up in Washington. Presumably the Iranians did not expect to get caught. Hard luck.

Second, it was not only Israel which had that Iranian weapons shipment in its sights.The U.S. was also tracking those Syrian-made Iranian-smuggled rockets, working with the Israelis. In a talk with the press on the evening of March 5, after the news broke about the Israeli intercept of the Klos C, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters: “The United States and Israel have had routine communications about this issue through intelligence and military channels, as well as through our national security advisors…. Throughout this time, our intelligence and military activities were closely coordinated with our Israeli counterparts who ultimately chose to take the lead in interdicting the shipment of illicit arms.”

A reporter then asked the real question — the big question — about Zarif and his Tehran bosses: “How can you continue to have nuclear negotiations with them when it looks like they’re actively continuing to sponsor terrorism against Israel?”

Unfortunately, it seems the Obama administration finds that no obstacle to trying to cut a nuclear deal with an Iranian regime whose chief negotiator is either grossly mendacious or utterly delusional (take your pick).

Read the relevant excerpt from the press exchange with Carney on the next page.

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If You Like Crimea, You Can Keep Crimea

March 1st, 2014 - 12:25 am

Garry Kasparov sums it up, in a tweet posted by PJM’s Bryan Preston: “Dictators like Putin don’t ask why use power. They ask why not.”

That’s the bottom line for understanding what is happening as gunmen take over the airports and set up check points in Crimea. Reportedly these are well-armed soldiers without military insignia, but there’s little doubt that they are there in service of the Kremlin. This is an ethnic-Russian-majority region of Ukraine, a place long primed for trouble. In 1783, Catherine the Great wrested Crimea from the Turks. In 1954, during the Soviet era, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic gave Crimea as a Potemkin fraternal gift to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the borders suddenly mattered, and newly liberated Ukraine was in possession of Crimea, complete with the seaside resort of Yalta, the regional capital of Simferopol, and the port of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Twenty years ago, while working for the Wall Street Journal in Moscow, I made a trip to Crimea to look in on a volatile power play then going on there. A local politician loyal to Kiev had pushed through legislation creating the post of a Crimean presidency — hoping that if he ran for the post and won, he would acquire enough autonomy to somehow balance the conflicting pulls of Moscow and Kiev. He lost, to a pro-Russian candidate, Yuri Meshkov. Part of the local color in Simferopol during that election was Meshkov’s campaign base, the clubhouse for the local Society of Afghanistan Veterans — where pro-Russian veterans in  combat fatigues sat around drinking imported American beer. The scene then was a powder keg. But it did not go off. Russia was weak, and in the early years of what was then presumed to be the New World Order, America, victor of the Cold War, was a highly credible force. Perhaps it also made a difference that not so long before, in 1991, the U.S. had led a coalition to war in order to beat back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of  Kuwait.

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Not a single North Korean athlete qualified for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. That was no obstacle, however, to North Korea’s titular head of state and president of its “parliament,” Kim Yong Nam, leading a delegation of North Korean officials to the Olympics. According to North Korea’s state mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, they were seen off at the Pyongyang airport on Feb. 5 by  ”a suite” of fellow North Korean officials, as well as the Russian ambassador to North Korea.

Once in Russia, Kim Yong Nam and his suite appear to have fashioned their own athletics-free Olympic program of sorts, stopping en route in Vladivostok to meet with the local governor, and in Moscow to meet with various officials, including the chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament), Putin ally Valentina Ivanovna Matvienko.

But those were just the qualifying heats. Then it was on to the main event in Sochi, where Kim Yong Nam and his team went for the gold — with Kim starring in North Korea’s domestic TV broadcast of the opening ceremony, and meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (who sent his “sincere regard” to North Korea’s young tyrant Kim Jong Un), as well as with China’s President Xi Jinping, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and the presidents of Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Armenia. For photos, and further details, North Korea Leadership Watch has an excellent rundown.

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In Praise and Memory of Barry Rubin

February 5th, 2014 - 9:21 pm

When Barry Rubin passed away on Feb. 3, the best tributes came from those who had known him well. PJ Media’s Dave Swindle wrote one of them, and has been compiling some of the others, including Roger Simon’s moving account of Barry Rubin: Conscience of the White City.

I did not know Barry well. I met him in person only once, a few years ago, for a chat in Washington over a cup of tea. But for more than 10 years I was in touch with him, by email, occasionally by phone, and by way of reading his clear and prolific writing on the ways of tyranny and power, particularly in the Middle East. I am feeling the loss of him so keenly that I would like to add a few words.

Barry was not only smart, and wise in the ways of politics and power. He was also gracious; generous with his knowledge, and his time. Back around 2003, I began reading Barry’s online bulletins on the Middle East. They made so much sense that I wrote to him, with questions about some of the more baffling complexities on which U.S. policy seemed endlessly to run aground. Barry replied. He always replied. He always made sense. From time to time, over the years — usually when I was trying to puzzle out something while on a deadline — we also spoke by phone. He always made time, he always returned a message or a call, he always brought clarity to the picture.

How he found time for such things, I don’t know. He wrote so prolifically — and his writing was so packed with information and insights — that I cannot begin to claim I was able to keep up with it all. Together with his wife, Judith Colp Rubin, Barry published a political biography of Yasir Arafat, in 2003, which was an invaluable resource — explaining in depth and detail how Arafat, “the man who did more than anyone else to champion and advance the Palestinian cause, also inflicted years of unnecessary suffering on his people, delaying any beneficial redress of their grievances or solutions to their problems.” Another of his books, The Truth About Syria, published in 2007, is crammed with insights into the Assad regime’s longtime belief  that “the only way to navigate around the country’s limitations has been to export unrest to the rest of the region, whether through terrorism, military action, occupation, or the spread of radical ideologies.” (As Dave Swindle reports, Barry recently decided to offer 13 of his books, free, online, The Truth About Syria among them. You can find them here.)

And, as readers of PJ Media know, while Barry worked on subjects that were deadly serious, he had a lively sense of humor. Amid the insights into tyrants and terrorists and the madhouse of  Middle East diplomacy, he savored the comic side of life. In 2011, he turned a ghastly encounter with international air travel into an entertaining tale of “Escape from the Planet of the Airlines” — in which he chronicled the logistics of trying to fly from Washington to Israel with his wife, son, four suitcases, a guitar and three cats.

When Barry told PJ Media readers in 2012 that he had been diagnosed with cancer, I sent him a note. He must have been flooded with messages at that point, and he was embarking on a mortal struggle. But, as always, he sent back a kind and gracious reply. Publicly, he went on writing, indefatigably sharing his insights, offering up truths about the mortal struggles of the Middle East. His passing is a great loss.

You remember Baroness Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy? She’s the one who just can’t stop smiling at Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif. Here they are in Geneva together last October, beaming at each other as they prepare for Iran nuclear talks (from which Tehran’s rulers emerged celebrating the surrender to Iran of world powers and claiming they had an “inalienable right” to enrich uranium).

This week a friend sends news of Ashton’s latest performance. It seems that on Monday Her Ladyship issued a statement marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, in which she managed to make no mention whatsoever of the Jews. As the Jerusalem Post reports, in an editorial headlined “Ashton’s Lapse,”  Ashton referred to the Jews who died — six million of them murdered by the Nazis quite specifically because they were Jews — as “victims” and “fellow citizens.” But not as Jews. The Jerusalem Post calls this a “mind-boggling omission,” quite likely pleasing to the likes of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but a watering-down of history.

Quite right. Here’s Ashton’s statement, all 121 words of it — a tribute to generic victims of yesteryear, sanitized of any reference that might offend anti-Semites by reminding the world of the mass atrocities committed in the name of their particular brand of bigotry. It’s hard to know whether Ashton did this deliberately, or is simply such an inept and banal functionary that by sheer accident she ends up sounding like a sly anti-Semite. Either way, is this really the face the EU wishes to present to the world? How horrifying.

The United Nations cultural agency has disgraced itself again, deciding at the last minute to postpone an exhibition of the 3,500-year relationship of the Jewish people to the Holy Land. This exhibition, co-sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was due to open this past Monday at the Paris headquarters of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). But last week 22 Arab states sent a letter to UNESCO’s secretariat, protesting that this exhibition could endanger the “peace process.” (French text of the letter here, courtesy of UN Watch).

UNESCO’s secretariat — namely, its director-general, Irina Bokova — could have replied that any peace process that could be remotely endangered by a display of the long history of  Jewish ties to the Holy Land is no peace process at all.

Bokova could have told the Arab states that UNESCO has no interest in trying to delegitimize the state of Israel at their behest, which is what this UNESCO delay is really all about. Bokova could have proclaimed that anti-Semitism has no place at the UN, and for any of UNESCO’s member states to insinuate it into the agenda is a jarring affront at a cultural agency dedicated, in the words of its motto (condensed from UNESCO’s charter and amended for political correctness), to “building peace in the minds of men and women.” She could have added that it is thug politics for many of UNESCO’s member states to employ the cultural agency as a vehicle for passing round after round of resolutions singling out Israel as a target of UNESCO condemnations. Bokova could have shown backbone and leadership by giving her blessing to the exhibition, “People, Book, Land — The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land,” and insisting that it open on schedule. She could have turned up to celebrate it as an important element in the history of the Middle East, a genuine contribution to any real hope of peace.

Instead, UNESCO’s secretariat put out a press release last Friday, announcing that in the context of the Arab protest, “regrettably, UNESCO had to postpone the inauguration of the exhibition.” The press release went on to attribute this decision to UNESCO’s “relentless efforts to achieve consensus between Member States on all issues falling within UNESCO’s educational, scientific, and cultural mandate.”

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Instructing Iran in Terrorist Etiquette

January 15th, 2014 - 1:34 am

In Washington, the Obama administration is running interference for Tehran. President Obama has been threatening that if Congress passes a new sanctions bill, he will veto it, rather than risk upsetting Iranian officials to the point where they walk away from the bargaining table in Geneva.

Iran’s senior officials suffer from no such delicacy toward the U.S. On Tuesday, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani gloated on Twitter that in the recent Geneva agreement, “world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will.” Meanwhile, Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator at the Geneva talks, Javad Zarif, made a point while visiting Lebanon of going to lay a wreath on the grave of assassinated Hezbollah terrorist kingpin Imad Mugniyah. Lest anyone miss the moment, Zarif did this before a bevy of photographers, ensuring that his thumb-in-the-eye to the U.S. would make news.

The White House responded with a statement that deserves to be studied by generations of journalism students as a marvel of bureaucratic nothingness — condemning the deed, but effectively excusing Zarif himself, as if he were some well-meaning rube who didn’t quite understand the full implications of commemorating Mugniyah. It was not Zarif whom the White House condemned, nor was it the Tehran regime for which he stands. Rather, in a statement by a National Security Council spokeswoman, the White House condemned “the decision” to lay the wreath, adding that it ”sends the wrong message and will only exacerbate tensions in the region.”

There was more to the White House statement. But again, it pulled the punch. It was rich in damning adjectives and short on the real thrust of Zarif’s message. The White House deplored Mugniyah’s “inhumane violence” and responsibility for “heinous acts of terrorism that killed hundreds of innocent people, including Americans.” True, but this formulation skates close to implying the murdered Americans were collateral damage. Hardly. Hundreds of Americans were prime targets. As the New York Times recounts, until the massive al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “American officials considered Imad Mugniyah to be responsible for more U.S. deaths than any other terrorist.” They believed he was behind the 1983 bombings in Beirut of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks, which between them killed 258 Americans; as well as the kidnapping in the 1980s of scores of Americans; as well as the hijacking in 1985 of a TWA airliner and murder of one of the American passengers, Navy diver Robert Stethem.

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Dennis Rodman In the Court of Kim Jong Un

January 6th, 2014 - 11:36 pm

Self-appointed basketball envoy Dennis Rodman is back in North Korea, bringing with him a group of fellow former NBA stars to entertain North Korea’s young tyrant Kim Jong Un with an exhibition game on Kim’s birthday, this Wednesday. This is Rodman’s fourth visit to North Korea, where, having sampled some of the luxuries of young Kim’s lifestyle, Rodman has pronounced the totalitarian state to be “not that bad” and decided that Kim is his “friend for life.” It’s all part of what Rodman describes as his personal effort to “help the world.”

The real question about Rodman’s visits to North Korea is not why Rodman chooses to go there, but why the U.S. government continues to allow it. Rodman may believe he’s just going to hang with his buddy Kim, and make the world a better place. But it is quite likely that to Kim and his circle of the North Korean elite (at least those he has not yet ordered to be executed), Rodman’s visits look like a gift of tribute from America. There is precedent for this. Recall the basketball signed by former NBA star Michael Jordan, which former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright brought with her to Pyongyang in 2000 as a gift to Kim Jong Un’s late father, Kim Jong Il — also a basketball enthusiast. Albright was hoping to get a deal putting an end to North Korea’s missile habit. She got no deal. But Kim Jong Il did get the signed basketball, which North Korea’s government keeps on prominent display in its Hall of Trophies.

As for Rodman’s place in young Kim Jong Un’s collection of prizes, there is perhaps some insight to be gleaned from a report last year by North Korea’s state mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency. The occasion was Rodman’s first visit to North Korea, in late February, 2013 — a busy month for Kim, whose regime about two weeks earlier had conducted North Korea’s third nuclear test. Rodman arrived in Pyongyang with three Harlem Globetrotters. Mixing it up with North Korean basketball players, as the New York Daily News recounts,he treated Kim to an exhibition game — later praising Kim as an “awesome guy” and Kim’s tyrannical father and grandfather as “great leaders.”

As KCNA described the game, the stadium was packed not only with sports fans, but with “foreign diplomatic envoys, representatives of international bodies, military attaches and other foreign guests here with their families.” With a cast like that — note the specificity, that military attaches were among the honored guests — it wasn’t just the basketball game that was on display to these dignitaries. It was Kim himself, holding court, with the entertainment provided by the visiting Americans. As KCNA told it, both the players and the audience broke into “thunderous applause” — not over the game itself, but because they were “greatly excited to see the game together with Kim Jong Un.” Rodman’s role in this performance included going to “bow to Kim Jong Un” who then in lordly fashion let Rodman sit beside him.

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Iran, UN Authority on ‘Violent Extremism’

December 29th, 2013 - 12:38 am

The United Nations has yet to agree on a definition of terrorism. That makes it especially problematic for the UN to actually do much about terrorist groups, or UN member states that happen to sponsor them. But when it comes to homing in on “violent extremism,” the UN is on the case,  led this month by — of course — Iran. With a nod from the U.S.

Earlier this month, Iran introduced a resolution in the General Assembly on “A world against violence and violent extremism.” Coming from a country that the U.S. State Department has called the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, this was one of many resolutions the UN ought to file in a titanic trash bin labeled “Orwell Out-Takes.” Instead, the General Assembly on Dec. 18 approved it by consensus. That tells us the U.S., erstwhile leader of the free world, did not even call for a vote. Thus did Iran’s PressTV trumpet Iran’s success in persuading the UN, “overwhelmingly… to adopt a resolution based on President Hassan Rouhani’s proposals for a World Against Violent Extremism (WAVE).”

To be fair, while not actually making any attempt to vote against the resolution, the U.S. delegate did make a statement (scroll down to page 5). The UN’s notes on the meeting record that the U.S. delegate protested “the clear resurgence in recent years of Iran’s State-sponsored terrorism” and said Iran “must halt” this behavior. But that formulation out of the way, the U.S. delegate went on to say that Iran’s President Rouhani had outlined “peaceful aims” at the UN in September, and that the U.S. hoped that “his vision would soon be reflected in practical steps.”

Iran is taking practical steps, for sure — but not towards peace. These steps in recent weeks have included such moves as insisting on the “inalienable right” to enrich uranium, which ordinary mortals dwelling outside the diplomatic bubble might reasonably construe as yet another step toward nuclear weapons, by the world’s leading state sponsor of violent extremism terrorism.

In a similar vein, this Iran-sponsored UN resolution itself is a practical step in a profoundly troubling direction. Not only does it dignify Iran’s hypocrisy with the unanimous consent of the General Assembly. Amid a lot of blather about peace and mutual respect (this from the regime of “Death to Israel” and “Death to America”), there is a clause that simply uncouples terrorism from any specific sponsor or source. This is a resolution that calls for:

Reaffirming that violent extremism, in all its forms and manifestations, cannot and should not be associated with any religion, nationality, civilization or ethnic group…

What does that mean in practice? In the alternate universe of this Rouhani-flavored resolution, terrorism — “in all its forms and manifestations” — exists only as some atomized activity, not to be associated, for instance, with any particular country, or any background of any kind. By lights of this resolution, that would reflect “intolerance.” How very convenient a formulation for Iran’s regime, world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. How very dangerous for America and its allies to wave this along. How very…tolerant.