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Monthly Archives: February 2009

Red light, green light

February 20th, 2009 - 6:09 pm

The WSJ asks whether the Obama administration, having agreed to participating in the preparations for the Durban Conference, otherwise known as the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, will attend the Conference itself. The previous conference, held in 2001, was criticized for attempting to equate Zionism with racism. These controversies ultimately led to the withdrawal of the US and Israeli delegations. As a consequence of this kerfuffle, the 2001 Durban Conference maintained its general tone but modified the final language into something less confrontational. Wikipedia notes:

In the end, the Conference delegates voted to reject the language that implicitly accused Israel of racism, and the document actually published contained no such language.

Several countries were unhappy with the final text’s approach to the subject, but all for different reasons. Syria and Iran were unhappy because their demands for the language about racism and Israel had been rejected by the Conference, the latter continuing its insistence that Israel was a racist state. Australia was unhappy with the process, observing that “far too much of the time at the conference [had been] consumed by bitter divisive exchanges on issues which have done nothing to advance the cause of combating racism”. Canada was also unhappy.[10]

The language of the final text was carefully drafted for balance. The word “diaspora” is used four times, and solely to refer to the African Diaspora. The document is at pains to main a cohesive identity for everyone of African heritage as a victim of slavery, even including those who may have more European than African ancestors. The “victim” or “victims” of racism and slavery (the two words occurring 90 times in the document) are defined in only the most general geographic terms.

Given this background, it was inevitable that Durban II would generate even more controversy. Reuters reported that the Obama administration had decided it would play, although the extent to which it would participate remained nebulous.


Mystery in the desert

February 19th, 2009 - 2:32 pm

Reuters says that IAEA inspectors are finding traces of graphite and uranium at a site alleged to have been a nuclear facility that was bombed by Israel in 2007. The ambiguous, almost teasing quality of the IAEA is consistent with the agency’s style. It never finds enough to convict but always enough to remain suspicious.

The first word that graphite particles had turned up came with the release of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s second report on Syria in three months. But U.N. officials familiar with it said the IAEA inquiry remained inconclusive.

Still, one senior U.N. official said the discovery of additional uranium traces was “significant.” That, together with graphite traces that are undergoing more tests, raised pressure on Damascus to provide evidence for its denials of wrongdoing.

The IAEA’s November report said the site bore features that would resemble those of an undeclared nuclear reactor.

But while there’s no doubt that IAEA will stay in business there are a number of unanswered questions about what the purpose of the mysterious facility was intended to have been. There are suggestions it was part of something else. In mid-2008 the Washington Post reported that the United States had asked it to broaden its search, “hinting that Damascus’s nuclear program might be bigger than the single alleged reactor destroyed by Israeli warplanes last year.” The Washington Post continued:

The absence of a clear fuel source for the reactor — as well as a fuel-reprocessing facility for extracting plutonium — has baffled experts who have studied the Syrian project. “It’s like having a car but not enough gas to run it,” said David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector in Iraq and the president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

Global Security summarizes the anomalous character of the facility. It alleges that based upon a review of literature before the strike, that neither the US nor any other major power suspected Damascus was up to anything. What it the Global Security article didn’t explain was the front-loaded response that was even more mystifying than the facility itself. Not only was the facility previously unknown, the response to it was unprecedented. Rather than embark on the well known Via Dolorosa of opaque diplomatic warnings, requests for IAEA investigation, sanctions, threatened military actions, attempted Security Council Resolutions — the process is well known to the readers, someone simply went and bombed it.


Tin foil hats

February 17th, 2009 - 7:34 pm

Although there is little reason to subscribe to conspiracy theories which suggest that the financial crisis was “manufactured” by partisan politicians and their financiers in order to win the 2008 election, two weaker narratives connecting politics and the financial crisis are a little more plausible.  One is holds that an economic system, already weak in the basics, may have been pushed over the edge by a financial play that got away in a kind of economic Chernobyl.  Most economists think that financial manipulation is unlikely to have brought down the economy to the extent that it fell. The second narrative holds that that whatever contributory effect political corruption had on the onset of the crisis, inappropriate linkages undoubtledly exist and should be eliminated on first principles. A series of stories have been detailing some of the dubious links between the evil bankers and our esteemed saviors.

Dan Riehl connects the dots between politicians and the Stanford Financial Group, now charged with an $8 billion fraud. The Politico notes that they gave substantial sums to the Democrats and about 1/10th as much to the Republicans.

Since 2000, R. Allen Stanford, the chief of the Stanford Financial Group in Houston, his wife and company gave $2.2 million in political contributions – $1.7 million to Democratic candidates and committees – according to Federal Election Commission records.

Now it is difficult to judge devils by the length of their pitchforks, but the length of the pitchforks is secondary to the existence of the devils themselves. And it is they who count. Political corruption disables the safety devices of our society. No matter how much regulation is in place, all of it is worthless if they have been shorted out by the watchdogs. So whatever version of conspiracy theory you subscribe or don’t subscribe to, it is still possible to believe that politics played a role in the current financial crisis. Corruption undid the gates, tied down the circuit breakers, disarmed the alarms. It opened the door to Whatever It Was that flashed past in the night. The shenanigans of the Stanford Financial Group are a sample. But the sample, by definition, is only a small taste of the pudding.

The greatest tragedy of the current meltdown is that it may not have been caused by mega-villains, who sat like a Doctor Evil on a mountaintop fortress planning to bring down the system, so much as a fire caused by a bunch of clowns who thought it was a good idea to leave on the gas in the oven before lighting up cigarettes. A Norwegian friend once told me this joke. “How do you sink a Norwegian submarine?” I said I didn’t know. “Swim down to it in diving gear and knock to open the door.” And he told it with a straight face too.

Beyond the Khyber

February 17th, 2009 - 12:50 pm

Christopher Flavelle at Slate describes the skyrocketing political and economic price of supplying Afghanistan. When it became clear that the US was going to shift the weight of its effort to that landlocked country, the market power of the countries which control the supply routes has increased dramatically. Flavelle describes “the ethical predicament now looming in Central Asia, where Obama may soon need to choose either funding a vicious dictator in Uzbekistan or hindering the mission in Afghanistan. Getting into bed with Uzbekistan could be Obama’s first ugly but necessary foreign-policy compromise.”

Uzbekistan’s human rights record is so odious that even the Bush administration—no pushover for world opinion—cut ties with it four years ago. … The final straw came in May 2005, when Uzbek security forces opened fire on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan, killing hundreds of civilians. The U.S. government joined others in publicly condemning the Uzbek regime, and Karimov responded by ordering U.S. troops out of the country. The last U.S. plane left that November, and with it American payments to the Karimov regime ceased, apparently ending one of the darker chapters in the story of America’s war on terror.

At least, until now. Washington is looking at renewing its relationship with a country that seemed untouchable four years ago. This will upset some of Obama’s liberal supporters—as it should. But the new administration may have no choice. Uzbekistan hasn’t changed, but the dynamics of the region have. First and most obvious, there’s a new administration in Washington. During his campaign, Obama promised to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The logistical consequences of the shift to the “good war” now have to be faced.  Amateurs it is said, think of war in terms of tactics, but professionals see it in terms of logistics. Nowhere may this be truer than in the question of supplying Afghanistan. But the logistical burdens occasioned by greater troop strength may be only the beginning of the true requirements of the Southwest Asian theater. The real center of gravity of Taliban/al-Qaeda strength is in Pakistan, which can only be indirectly pressured from its neighbor to the West and only at the cost of feeding the fire in Pakistan itself. It is an absurd situation in conventional military terms. US supplies must pass through the enemy heartland in order to do a 180 degree to turn to fight that same foe. If the true theater of conflict is Pakistan then the US faces a possible escalation of effort in the theater depending on contingent events. In which case the real load will be the requirements of supporting an effort, direct or indirect, within Pakistan. But that’s our supply line. Flavelle continues:


Notes from the underground

February 17th, 2009 - 12:44 am

The true hallmark of a radical is that ability to say something every listener intuitively knows is true but has never heard before. It is the ability to go to the root, which lies right at our feet; for ‘root’ is where the word itself is derived. Vaclav Klaus, the second president of the Czech Republic, is not a secular saint. He’s a politician, with his own history of scheming and compromise. But leaving the man aside, many of his ideas are derived from the secret literature of the longest running resistance movement in European history: the dialectical challenge to the totalitarianisms of the last century, the central pillar of which is Marxism. It is largely a secret history because a detailed account of the struggle against Communist totalitarianism would reverberate uncomfortably in the intellectual halls of the West.

To listen to Klaus is therefore to simultaneously hear echoes of the past and intimations of the future. For as Klaus notes in his recent speech about ‘Europeism’ which is excerpted after the “Read More”, some of the ideas which his generation fought so hard to defeat behind the Iron Curtain have found new and darker homes in the intellectual centers of Western Civilization; and now stride forward in their mutant forms into the public space. But while Klaus’ speech is ostensibly addressed to Europeans, it is really pitched at a wider audience. In the United States — and even the repressed and fundamentalist societies of the Middle East — an expanded state control over the individual is being increasingly pitched as the face of the future.  Klaus’ speech argues that it is no such novelty but an ancient and corrupted thing; that underneath the smooth production values, the cunning sound-bites and outwardly youthful appearances, the deceptive packaging of hope and change, this progressivism is nothing but freedom’s old enemy — and man’s.


The Middle East

February 15th, 2009 - 9:22 pm

US diplomatic efforts are afoot in the Middle East.  What they are intended to achieve is unclear, but the tone is unmistakeable: let’s make a deal.  Hillary Clinton is going to Egypt with a bag of money for reconstruction while John Kerry heads for Damascus.

“The secretary will be coming to Cairo on the second of March,” Aboul Gheit said. “We expect lots of commitments from everybody, lots of commitments for reconstruction.” The United States has already contributed nearly $60 million since the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza this winter, most of it going to international institutions on the ground in Gaza, including the United Nations and Red Cross. … The US is also eager to show its appreciation to Egypt for working to bring a cease-fire between the different parties and playing a high-profile role in addressing the conflict, according to observers.

No one knows what Kerry will say to Assad, but the press hints at what they may talk about: Hamas and Hezbollah and unspecified ‘other’ militants. By implication they will also talk about Israel, Lebanon and Iraq which is where all these proxies operate. A Reuters report on the Kerry trip describes the coordinated offensive to “engage”:

Kerry met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday, Jones said. Syria and the United States are on poor terms because of Damascus’ support for the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah.

Under Bush, Washington withdrew its ambassador in Damascus following the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and accused Syria of allowing Islamist fighters to infiltrate Iraq. Cooperation between Syria and Iran has also angered Washington.

That’s going to change to an extent still unknown. Each of the three shadow participants in this diplomatic dance — Israel, Lebanon and Iraq — the other parties, have recently passed or are nearing political milestones themselves. Israel and and Iraq have just finished crucial elections and Lebanon is heading for one. Each will want something to say about the deals that the Obama administration is preparing to make. Take Israel: they are fed up with diplomacy at the very moment Obama is enamored of it. Despite Netanyahu’s inability to build a coalition government, recent elections in Israel have widely been seen as a ‘shift to the right’. The Washington Post says

Israel’s election this week left doubts over who will become prime minister, but a clear majority of voters supported parties that regard military force, rather than peace talks, as the best way to safeguard the country.

The shift away from politicians who emphasize negotiations with Palestinians and the country’s Arab neighbors means that Israel’s right, after years in the political wilderness, is almost certain to be back in control no matter who forms the next government.

Meanwhile, in Lebanon, hundreds of thousands of people rallied to commemorate the fourth anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s assassination at the hands of what many believe to be Assad himself. The LA Times writes, “The rally on the fourth anniversary of the Sunni leader’s assassination came as Lebanese politicians launched campaigns for crucial parliamentary elections, which will pit the nation’s Western-backed coalition against the Hezbollah-led camp supported by Iran and Syria.” What they fear most is a sell-out to Damascus.


Stop in the name of love

February 14th, 2009 - 2:45 pm

It is to be sure, an unusual city for the Middle East, but the story goes that every Valentine’s Day in Beirut is like a holiday.  The event is advertised. Tables at restaurants become scarce. The travelers at some hotels might discover a complimentary gift from the management that may come in many forms, but always in pairs.

What is paired to Feb 14, 2009 is political change. The Associated Press reports that the Saudi King has sacked the powerful religious authorities who authorized the murder of media figures who they regarded as immoral — and appointed a woman deputy minister to government into the bargain. These acts are regarded by commentators as gigantic events in a culture war. It would be difficulty to think of a less apt moment to rival mighty legends of defiance than Valentine’s Day. But maybe in this most fascinating and ancient region of the world, perhaps nothing is more fitting than that red should also be the color of less bloodshed.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — The Saudi king on Saturday dismissed the chief of the religious police and a cleric who condoned killing the owners of TV networks that broadcast “immoral” content, signaling an effort to weaken the country’s hard-line Sunni establishment.

The shake-up — King Abdullah’s first since coming to power in August 2005 — included the appointment of a female deputy minister, the highest government position a Saudi woman has attained.

The king also changed the makeup of an influential body of religious scholars, for the first time giving more moderate Sunnis representation to the group whose duties include issuing the religious edicts known as fatwas. …

The changes came on Valentine’s Day, a busy time for the religious police, who are entrusted with ensuring that no one marks the banned holiday. Agents target shops selling gifts for the occasion, and items that are red or suggest the holiday are removed from the shelves. Some salesmen have been detained for days for infractions.

Perhaps the inhabitants of Beirut, recalling the French savants, knew something the Saudis are now discovering. “The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

The Obama administration finds a bomb in Iran

February 13th, 2009 - 9:13 am

[The following is a guest post from "TigerHawk," cross-posted here with permission from Richard, who is on the road. The story seems important, and has received scant attention in the media or blogosphere.]

Most political blog readers will remember the storm of controversy that erupted in early December 2007, when a new American “National Intelligence Assessment” claimed that Iran had stopped development of a nuclear weapon in 2003.  The New York Times wrote that “[rarely], if ever, has a single intelligence report so completely, so suddenly, and so surprisingly altered a foreign policy debate here.”  Blogs exploded.

Lefty blogs rejoiced.  At the Daily Kos diarists mocked Bush, Cheney, McCain, Romney, and Huckabee for having taken various hawkish positions on the subject.  The Booman Tribune claimed vindication, having “spent a lot of electrons over the last year writing to you about a committed and sustained misinformation campaign to suggest that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program.”  Crooks and Liars wrote that “[i]f it’s possible to make Bush look any stupider—the new NIE report on certainly Iran does.”  At the HuffPo, Jon Soltz declared “World War III plans stymied by National Intelligence Estimate.”  And so forth.  There are literally hundreds of similar posts.

So imagine my interest to see the Los Angeles Times report that the intelligence agencies have reversed themselves again; (bold emphasis added):

Little more than a year after U.S. spy agencies concluded that Iran had halted work on a nuclear weapon, the Obama administration has made it clear that it believes there is no question that Tehran is seeking the bomb.

In his news conference this week, President Obama went so far as to describe Iran’s “development of a nuclear weapon” before correcting himself to refer to its “pursuit” of weapons capability.

Obama’s nominee to serve as CIA director, Leon E. Panetta, left little doubt about his view last week when he testified on Capitol Hill. “From all the information I’ve seen” Panetta said, “I think there is no question that they are seeking that capability.”

The language reflects the extent to which senior U.S. officials now discount a National Intelligence Estimate issued in November 2007 that was instrumental in derailing U.S. and European efforts to pressure Iran to shut down its nuclear program.


Substantively, Iran hawks should rejoice.  The Obama administration is clearly going to great lengths to educate Congressional liberals and the public at large on the danger posed by Iran.  The point, presumably, is to dispose of the lefty canard that Iran is a fundamentally peaceful country caught in a security dilemma of American construct.  It also commits Obama to an aggressive (even if non-military) posture toward Iran, which is comforting to those of us who believe that we need a hardball, if nuanced, strategy for containing, deterring, and, if necessary, interdicting the Islamic Republic.

Procedurally, this episode is going to reinforce the view of conservatives that after Iraq, at least, the intelligence agencies undermined the Bush administration at each opportunity.  If there was “politicization” of intelligence during the Bush years, it cut against Bush policies more than it facilitated them.

Snarkily, we are waiting for all those lefty blogs to deliberate thoughtfully about whether the December 2007 report, which the Bushies nefariously “suppressed” for a year after its development, might have itself been the “intelligence failure.”  Perhaps it is important for a president to question the judgments of the bureaucracy.

Finally, we note that the LAT story appeared more than 36 hours ago with virtually no follow-up in the mainstream media or the blogosphere.  It seems like a pretty big story, and a heckuva lot more important than, for example, the ins-and-outs of Judd Gregg’s withdrawal.


February 13th, 2009 - 8:33 am

Commerce may be too busy to take the census, having to leave that onerous task to Rahm Emmanuel. But it’s not too busy to waive sanctions on a previously rejected request to have Boeing service the Syrian national airline. The business will be welcome at Boeing, but the focus must surely be on what the US will do for an encore? Forbes reports on the 747 servicing deal.

News emerged this week that the U.S. Department of Commerce has just approved a license allowing Boeing (nyse: BA – news – people ) to go ahead with major overhauls of two 747 jetliners belonging to Syria’s state-owned Syrian Arab Airlines. The administration itself has been coy on the subject. In response to my query, a Commerce spokesman e-mailed a statement that such license requests are granted on a case-by-case basis, and Commerce cannot comment on specific instances. More eagerly, Syria’s state news agency hustled out an announcement on Tuesday, Feb. 10, saying that the “U.S. Trade Department agrees to provide spare parts for rehabilitating Syrian Airlines.”

The lifting of sanctions doesn’t make much sense unless there is a diplomatic ‘iniative’ in the works. It’s a prelude to something, but the question is what. This month marks the anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s death and the return of Netanyahu to power in Israel. It also marks a period of a new Taliban upsurge in a country whose only alternative commercial link to the sea is via Teheran. On a whole slew of fronts there are possibilities — and the possibility for sellouts — galore in any equation that involves Syria and by extension, Iran and Israel. The only question is, in what chain of links does the Boeing deal fit?


“Like a fire bell in the night”

February 13th, 2009 - 3:44 am

Byron York describes the current battle over who controls the Census Bureau. Counting constituencies is one of the most sensitive undertakings in a political system. For centuries, and not just in the US, the question of how many belong what sides of the political fence has been key to determining legitimacy. In Lebanon’s confessional society, for example, there hasn’t been a census taken since 1932. In US history, the Missouri Compromise created an uneasy balance between free and slave states, but the balance did not survive as everyone knows.  Once a zero-sum game had been set up, it was only a matter of time before a winner-take-all showdown emerged. As the nation expanded, the Compromise began to fail as the balance between slave and free states threatened to tip decisively in one direction or the other. The aged Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1820 to John Holmes Monticello forsaw the weakness in the Compromise, with all the political balance of terror that it implied and knew that it threatened the Union as nothing else.

I thank you, dear Sir, for the copy you have been so kind as to send me of the letter to your constituents on the Missouri question. It is a perfect justification to them. I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant. But this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. …

I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it.