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The Rosett Report

War Weary — Really?

September 8th, 2013 - 2:40 am

“You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terrors — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

                          — Winston Churchill, House of Commons, May 13, 1940

With the Syria debate spiraling into confusion over what the president really wants to do, and whether he really wants to do it, we are hearing a lot right now about how war weary Americans are. Leading from in front in this talk is President Obama himself. On August 31, in the same statement in which he announced his decision that the U.S. “should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” he went on to say, “I know well that we are weary of war. We’ve ended one war in Iraq. We’re ending another in Afghanistan.”

He then handed the issue to Congress, left for Sweden and Russia, and upon return, in his weekly address, sounded the same note of fatigue: “I know that the American people are weary after a decade of war, even as the war in Iraq has ended, and the war in Afghanistan is winding down.”

But is war weariness really the problem? America these days has a volunteer military. They and their families have borne the real burdens of war, with almost 7,000 killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many more injured. But, as Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson points out, the heroes who have been fighting for us are a small sliver of the American population — which now numbers more than 313 million. Samuelson gets it right on this: “For most Americans the constant combat has imposed no burdens, required no sacrifices and involved no disruptions.” He further notes that the financial cost of the two wars, while substantial, has been dwarfed over the same period by the American economy’s output of goods and services — by his calculation, based on figures of the Congressional Budget Office, war spending equaled nine-tenths of one percent of American production. There was no war tax. There has been no rationing.

Samuelson then draws inferences with which I disagree, saying that “these foreign military forays were a waste and in many respects have done more harm than good.”  But he’s quite right that if most Americans are tired and frustrated, it is for reasons other than war.

What’s wearying is the constant message from on-high that America no longer seeks to win its wars; merely to end them. What’s exhausting is the bath of euphemisms, from “overseas contingency operations” to “violent extremists” to “workplace violence.” To this we can add the grinding daily worries that come with a troubled economy, weak job market, and a growing thicket of regulations that no one seems able to contain or even keep track of. But that is not war weariness. That’s a problem of government intruding into every aspect of life, curtailing freedom at home while deflating the vision of America as a proud bulwark of freedom abroad.

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So Much for the UN Charade in Syria…

August 30th, 2013 - 11:25 pm

If there’s one favor Russia and China have done for us all lately, it’s been to reduce the United Nations to glaring irrelevance in the Syria conflict. Due to these two, there has been no Security Council resolution proposing to deal with Syria, and it looks like there won’t be. Repeated emergency meetings and draft resolutions have all arrived at a big nothing.

Why is that helpful? Because it removes the fig leaf assumption that the UN is on the job, ergo something is being done.  Too often, when terrible events start to build, the UN becomes the go-to place for relays of special envoys, Security Council resolutions, and grand pronouncements by senior international civil servants. Money is spent, statements are issued, diplomatic huddles take place, crash meetings are called, and in a cloud of bureaucratic palaver, the can gets kicked down the road. Erstwhile leaders of the free world can delay any real decisions, because they have deflected the problem to the UN. Meanwhile, on the ground, the troubles keep boiling over.

Examples range from the 1994 decision of Kofi Annan, then head of UN peacekeeping, to ignore the warnings of his own man in the field about the imminent Rwanda genocide; to the pronouncements of the UN’s top diplomats that the Oil-for-Food program in Iraq was one of the UN’s stellar achievements; to the assurances of Annan in 2006, as secretary-general, that his secret negotiator was hard at work arranging the return of two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah (ultimately, Israel was left to redeem their mortal remains in exchange for releasing living terrorists). The UN over the past seven years has imposed a series of sanctions resolutions on Iran and North Korea, meant to stop their rogue nuclear projects — with much fanfare and no success. The list goes on. The point is, the UN promises things it cannot deliver, and while those promises are invoked as remedies, or signs of action, people suffer and die, and the problems grow.

In the case of Syria, when the March, 2011 rebellion met with violence that mushroomed into mass carnage, civil war, the use of heavy weapons, and chemical weapons, by the regime, and the emergence of Islamist elements including al Qaeda affiliates among the opposition, it was easier for the U.S. and its allies to hang back and watch — because the UN was, in theory, on the job.

Thus did we see the resurrection in February, 2012, of the retired former secretary-general Kofi Annan, brought in as special joint envoy of the UN and Arab League to try to broker peace in Syria. It was a move obviously doomed from the start , but Annan spent almost half a year jetting around from Geneva to Damascus to Tehran to UN headquarters in New York, before he finally resigned in frustration. Meanwhile, the death toll in Syria kept rising, and the odds of any decent resolution kept falling. Annan was replaced by an old member of his UN inner circle, the current special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi — an Algerian whose angle on the Middle East is pretty well summed up by his 2004 comment labeling the policies of the democratic state of Israel as “the big poison” in the region.

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Out of Syria come reports alleging the worst chemical weapons attack yet. From the United Nations and the U.S. come the stock promises “to investigate this as soon as possible” (the UN) and “do our due diligence and get all the facts and determine what steps need to be taken” (the U.S.).

Fine — investigating, with due diligence, is a good move. Unless, of course, it amounts chiefly to a way of looking responsive while ducking the issue — defaulting to investigation not as a basis for effective action, but as a substitute for it.

Is anyone serious about actually stopping the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons?

The Obama administration has already investigated previous reports of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, and in a June press briefing stated that American intelligence services assessed with “high confidence” that yes, indeed, the government of Syria had used chemical weapons. OK, but as reports roll in of a new attack, on the biggest scale yet… now what?

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Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, one of the big what-ifs focused on the al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, which for years had been cranking out operatives while the U.S. — apart from the missiles of 1998 — pretty much watched and let it happen. What if those training camps had been stopped much sooner? What if the U.S. superpower had bestirred itself much earlier to shut the whole thing down? What if … ? Or, to put it another way, if only…

That old scene comes often to mind these days, with reference to Iran’s continuing nuclear bomb program. But the specific context that brings me to it this week is a report released August 7, by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, on Iran’s partner in proliferation — North Korea. Bearing the modest title, “Recent Doubling of Floor Space at North Korean Gas Centrifuge Plant,”  this report details some of the latest activity at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex, as observed by satellite. The news is that the building there which houses a centrifuge plant for uranium enrichment “is now covered by an extended roof that is roughly twice the size of the previous one.” The ISIS report is careful to stress that there are plenty of unknowns, including what exactly is going on under that massively expanded roof, and whether North Korea has secretly built similar facilities elsewhere. But this roof is one of the latest in a long series of signs suggesting that North Korea, along with its plutonium-based nuclear bomb program, is on its way to a uranium-based nuclear arsenal as well. That would be neatly compatible with Iran’s uranium-based push toward nuclear weapons. All of which is very bad news, in view of North Korea’s record of peddling proliferation for decades, whether missiles to Iran, or a copy of the entire Yongbyon nuclear reactor to Syria.

What’s doubly alarming is how very ho-hum this has all become. Yes, of course, when North Korea actually sends up a ballistic missile or conducts a nuclear test, it makes headlines, and there are hasty consultations and pronouncements and maybe another round of sanctions. Who can forget President Obama in April, 2009, in response to a North Korean long-range missile test, declaring: “rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” But North Korea has by now conducted three nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013. These have been punctuated  by the unveiling in 2010 of the Yongbyon uranium centrifuge plant (the one that now has a roof twice the original size), by ballistic missile tests (as North Korea works toward weapons that will put the U.S. in range), by the discovery of a copy of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor built with North Korean help on the Euphrates River in Syria (destroyed by an Israeli air strike in 2007), and by threats — pernicious, even if currently hollow — to launch nuclear strikes on Washington and U.S. bases in the Pacific.

The pattern by now is that every so often North Korea generates a lot of international hoopla with its more spectacular rogue moves toward making, honing and selling the technology and kit for weapons of mass obliteration. But then the hoopla dies down, and North Korea carries right on with the next step. North Korea’s regime has just doubled the size of its uranium centrifuge plant at Yongbyon, and the story makes page A10 of the New York Times. A big yawn. Not nearly as interesting as, say, North Korea’s young tyrant Kim Jong Un summoning basketball celebrity Dennis Rodman for a bout of dining and drinking in Pyongyang.

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The UN’s Millennium Development Flop

August 7th, 2013 - 2:47 am

At the United Nations, America’s new ambassador, Samantha Power, reported for duty on Monday. In remarks just before presenting her credentials, Power listed some of the top items on her UN to-do list, including working together “to alleviate global poverty.”

Let’s hope Power takes a look at a new study of UN development efforts,  which the UN has declined to release — though it was done by one of the UN’s own staffers, Howard Steven Friedman, a statistician with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).  Friedman took a look at the results of the UN’s centerpiece development scheme, the UN Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs. Launched with great fanfare by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000, the MDGs were supposed to speed the the world toward an array of specific development targets set by the UN for the year 2015, including reducing disease and hunger, and halving extreme poverty. The UN, on its MDG web site, boasts that these UN targets “have galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest.”

But UN-galvanized efforts do not necessarily translate into the promised results. Friedman’s bombshell finding is that the Millennium Development Goals have made virtually no difference in the pace of development.

So, small wonder that the UN chose not to release his study — claiming, among other objections, that Friedman’s report does not count because he did it while on sabbatical. U.S. News & World Report has a good rundown of the saga, headlined “United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals Did Not Accelerate Progress.”

Fortunately, Friedman’s study was published independently, and U.S. News & World Report has done us all the favor of providing a link; you can find it here, both the abstract and the full report. Unlike the UN public relations machine, Friedman took the sensible tack of looking not just at the years since the program began, but at the longer-term overall trajectory of the development indicators involved, from 1992-2008 — starting eight years before the UN kicked off its global MDGs, through the eighth year of the program. He found that “the data show clearly that the activities following the MDG Declaration did not provide an acceleration in most of the development goals.”

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Disarming is not a word you’d normally associate with the government of Iran. But the context here is the United Nations, so normal is not exactly a word that applies either — especially not in the case of Iran’s affinity for UN bodies officially tasked with promoting disarmament (of which the UN has many, all of which have failed to disarm such rogue states as North Korea, Syria, Iran…).

Thus do we arrive at the moment when, fresh from presiding at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, Iran is now campaigning for a post as rapporteur  of the UN committee on Disarmament and International Security.

It’s all outrageous. But let’s get specific. What’s the difference between those two posts?

Well, the Conference on Disarmament meets at the UN complex in Geneva, and while heading it might sound quite special — and in the case of Iran, quite monstrous — it  is largely a formality. The Conference meets for periodic sessions, and during those meetings the presidency rotates alphabetically, every four weeks, through all 65 members of the Conference. This ensures that not only does Iran get a turn every so often as president but so do such aficionados of peace and disarmament as Russia, China, Belarus, Cuba, North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe. Fortunately, the Conference has been gridlocked for years, so apart from sporadically exalting heavily militarized dictatorships with the title of president, and providing a lot of delegates with access to the shopping and banking facilities of Switzerland, nothing much gets done.

By contrast, the UN committee on disarmament offers more diplomatic heft. Convening at the UN’s headquarters in New York, it is one the six main committees of the UN General Assembly, on which all 193 member states of the UN are represented. Dubbed the First Committee, this group, as described on its web site, “considers all disarmament and international security matters within the scope of the Charter,” and  concerns itself with taking positions on everything from principles of cooperation on global peace and security, to “the regulation of armaments.” The rapporteur reports on the doings of this committee, and rapporteurs serve for a full year. According to Reuters, Iran is competing against Kuwait to serve as disarmament committee rapporteur for the UN’s next annual session, a term that would start this October, for the 68th General Assembly, 2013-2014.

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Remember the Free Market?

July 26th, 2013 - 2:10 am

Hard to believe these days, but just a generation or so ago the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union was hailed as a victory for capitalism. In the 20th century’s brutal war of ideas, central planning had lost, and the free market had won. Or so it seemed. But that’s not how it’s working out among the developed nations. Instead, government meddling in the economies has grown and grown, and with it — lo and behold — so has this persistent problem of unemployment, especially among the young.

This has produced endless discussion centered on the idea that yet more government meddling is needed to “create jobs.” Thus did the head of the United Nations International Labor Organization, Guy Ryder, lament to the world last week that unemployment among the G-20 industrialized nations remains at “unacceptably high levels.” Under the headline “Ambitious job creation policies needed to tackle unemployment in G20 countries,” the UN press office crammed a sampling of Ryder’s remarks into a press release, including such mattress filler as:

Experience suggests that high employment levels and inclusive growth can be achieved through a well-designed combination of supportive macroeconomic policies and employment, labour market and social protection policies that are designed to spread the benefits of growth.

Translation: he is urging lots more government, tuning, fiddling, regulating, redistributing (and, by implication, taxing). Which is a great way to choke the life out of individual incentives, creativity and opportunity to genuinely create those elusive jobs.

What’s gone missing entirely from this discussion is the idea that when government leaves people free to choose for themselves, in free markets, the process of voluntary exchange creates wealth — and, yes, jobs. Actually, not only does it generate jobs, but it gives a lot more people a lot more choice about what kind of jobs they prefer to take — since only in a perfectly gray and dormant economy is a “job” an utterly standard, interchangeable unit.

Apparently oblivious to the irony, the ILO chief delivered his remarks in Moscow — capital of a 20th century experiment in state-run job creation that went to such extremes that, having deprived generations of freedom and taken the lives of scores of millions, it finally collapsed — replete with such grim jokes as “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” No, I’m not saying that from Moscow the head of the ILO was advocating a return to communism. But he was talking about yet more steps in that general direction; the state as the grand arbiter of who needs what, and which tradeoffs constitute some uniform pursuit of happiness. It’s not a good direction to take.

There’s a time-tested better way. Remember the free market?


With an impeccable instinct for venerating murderous thugs, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has now added to its Memory of the World Register the writings of Cuba’s Ernesto “Che” Guevara. That means that the documents generated by Che during his bloody career will now be treated as historical treasures, protected and cared for with the help of UNESCO. What’s next? The teachings of Stalin and Pol Pot?

For those who know nothing about Che except that he wore a beret, smoked cigars and continues to turn up as a splash of radical chic on t-shirts and adolescent wall posters, UNESCO’s move might sound reasonable. But if you bother to learn anything about who Che really was, or what he did, that impression curdles fast. Writing on Slate in 2004, author Paul Berman gave an excellent summary of Che’s character and career:

Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution’s first firing squads. He founded Cuba’s “labor camp” system — the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents and AIDS victims.

Berman went on to say, “The modern-day cult of Che blinds us not just to the past but also to the present … I wonder if people who stand up to cheer a hagiography of Che Guevara … will ever give a damn about the oppressed people of Cuba — will ever lift a finger on behalf of the Cuban liberals and dissidents.”

Well, not at UNESCO they won’t.  Che’s works were nominated for UNESCO’s special attentions by Cuba and Bolivia, and to be added to the UNESCO Register the nomination had to be endorsed by UNESCO’s director-general, Irina Bokova. You might suppose that as a former Bulgarian government functionary, from the days when Bulgaria orbited the Soviet Union, Bokova would be aware of the horrors behind Che’s radical “cool.” But Bokova appears to suffer from a longstanding infatuation with Cuba’s repressive regime. Just last November she dropped by Havana to sing the praises of Cuba’s educational system — either oblivious or indifferent to the censorship and dreary ideological  indoctrination that are the hallmarks of Cuban schooling.

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Yes, folks, it’s about time for the United Nations to produce its next slate of candidates for election to 14 of the 47 member seats on the UN’s Geneva-based Human Rights Council. Not that the UN seems in a hurry to advertise the candidates, but Geneva-based UN Watch has the scoop. So, guess who’s in the running…

A) Cuba

B) Saudi Arabia

C) China

D) Russia

E) Chad

F) Vietnam

G) All of the Above (plus maybe Syria and Iran, though these have yet to be confirmed)

A no-brainer, I know. It’s obviously G, and in the spirit of the UN brand of human rights diversity, we might well ask what kind of bigotry is at work that the UN has failed to flatter North Korea with a place on this list. Of course, there are other candidates as well. Countries such as France, the UK, Latvia, Mexico and Morocco are also among the contenders. And in an election process that allocates seats by quota to regional groups, there are actually more candidates than seats for some of the regions — meaning that when the General Assembly votes on these candidates this November, there will actually be a bit of competition.

But it’s a good bet that some of the human rights abusers listed above will end up on the council. Even for those who don’t win seats, the UN’s mechanisms provide a wealth of opportunities to weigh in as erstwhile authorities on human rights, regardless of what’s going on back home in the dungeons, the gulag… or perhaps in Evin prison. Here’s a choice example of UN Human Rights Council deliberations: Iran weighing in at the Human Rights Council just two months ago to praise — of course — Cuba “for its real commitment to human rights.” (Iran Statement on Cuba — UN Human Rights Council — May 2013 ).

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The press has been scrambling this weekend to keep up with the fortunes of Egypt’s Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. First it looked like he’d been named as interim prime minister of Egypt. Then it turned out it wasn’t a done deal. Whichever way that goes, the renewed spotlight on ElBaradei is inspiring comments about his erstwhile democratic credentials — for instance, The Washington Post web site has an item referring to Elbaradei’s “democratic idealism” and his “democratic credibility.”

Democratic? Really?

ElBaradei has two main credentials. He worked at the United Nations for almost 30 years, capping that career with his stint from 1997-2009 as director-general of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. And in 2005, together with the IAEA, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Neither of these provides any evidence of democratic principles. The Nobel Prize is a famous label, but it has been given to such a wide and utterly contradictory range of winners — from terrorist Yasser Arafat to Chinese democratic dissident Liu Xiaobo — that it could mean almost anything. The winner defines the prize, not the prize the winner. In the case of ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize committee, consisting of five members of the Norwegian parliament, picked a UN official during a year in which the UN, beset by the Oil-for-Food scandal in Iraq, badly wanted a boost. It’s hard to find any other reason why at that juncture the Nobel committee was suddenly inspired to celebrate ElBaradei and the agency he ran “for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes.” ElBaradei’s tenure as head of the IAEA had already spanned Pakistan’s nuclear breakout in 1998 as well as signs (which he preferred to ignore) of Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program; and in 2006, the year after he got his Nobel, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.

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