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Monthly Archives: April 2009

Sealed with a kiss

April 30th, 2009 - 7:46 am

The BBC reports that the suspects in the Hariri murder are off the hook as Hillary Clinton vowed never to “sell out” Lebanon in an AP article.

Four Lebanese generals held since 2005 over the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri have been freed. Their release comes hours after a UN court ruled there was not enough evidence to hold them.

Supporters of the generals, mainly from the pro-Syrian Hezbollah movement, fired guns into the air and set off fireworks to celebrate the ruling. The UN court was set up to investigate the bomb attack which killed Mr Hariri and 22 others in February 2005. The decision to free the generals comes less than two months before a finely-balanced legislative election that pits the pro-Syrian bloc against their pro-Western rivals, including Mr Hariri’s own political movement now led by his son.

The AP article hints that Hezbollah may gain on the anti-Syrian coalition in the next elections. “The June 7 vote could boost the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies, possibly paving the way for renewed Syrian influence over Lebanon,” as Hillary denied that the Obama policy of engagement was being conducted at Lebanon’s expense.

Clinton said she delivered a letter from Obama to Suleiman expressing strong support for a free, sovereign and independent Lebanon. She said U.S. attempts to engage Syria and Iran are not being done at the expense of that support.

“There is nothing that we would do in any way that would undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty,” Clinton said. “I want to assure any Lebanese citizen that the United States will never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon and the Lebanese people. You have been through too much and it is only right that you are given a chance to make your own decisions,” Clinton said.

Including, presumably, the chance to decide to accept Hezbollah’s dominance. Hillary Clinton has recently made statements assuring Iraq it would not abandon them — as a preface to announcing they would be on their own in two years . The Secretary of State’s denials that Lebanon has been sold out, must like the Iraqi assurances, been made to reassure those who believe they are being betrayed that they have nothing to worry about. Why they might think that is obvious. And perhaps in her fine lawyerly way, Hillary may be right. After all, worry and resignation are two distinct and separate words. As time goes by the people in the region will have the opportunity to juxtapose the sordid actions of the Obama administration with their lofty assurances. My guess is that any resemblance between the two will be purely coincidental.

The price of safety

April 30th, 2009 - 3:38 am

So does this mean that Barack Obama agrees me? Or do political circumstances only create the illusion? The LA Times reports that the President has acknowledged that voluntarily refusing to employ certain forms of coercive interrogation may make it harder to obtain intelligence from enemy captives. However, he is willing to pay the moral price.

In a strikingly defensive explanation of his stance on Bush-era anti-terrorism tactics, President Obama on Wednesday acknowledged for the first time that the harsh interrogation techniques he has banned might have yielded useful information, but that he was nonetheless willing to rule them out on moral grounds. …

He conceded that “it may be harder” to get information, but what “makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals, even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy.” …

Obama did not dispute Cheney’s assertions about the memos but appeared to try to blunt their potential impact by shifting the argument.

The assertion that the CIA’s methods worked doesn’t answer what Obama called the core question: “Could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these techniques?” Obama asked. “And it doesn’t answer the broader question: Are we safer as a consequence of having used these techniques?”

Having had to equivocate on the notion that coercive interrogation is useless, he is now asking the “broader question”. I think the honest answer to this question is that one always forgoes certain advantages by voluntarily restraining one’s self. In the past people understood this and righted the ship in other ways. The American way of compensating for self-imposed restrictions was to acquire a decisive overmatch in technology and material resources to offset the losses due to restraint. Precision guided weapons are an example of this. The US can now afford to largely renounce the tactic of area bombardment, so widely used in World War 2, because technology makes it possible to be equally if not more effective using highly advanced targeting systems. America is now able to fight a war of restraint, even in urban settings, because it can afford to be restrained.

But what one cannot do is cut back or constrain everything across the board because then there will be no way to compensate for the things you are giving up.
As I’ve repetitively argued, a person or a society is entitled to run any degree of physical risk it chooses in order to uphold its moral values. But never blindly; never without understanding the costs. Given that survival trumps magnanimity and restraint, it is important that policy makers never let things come the point where desperation dominates all considerations. The only way to be permanently or consistently restrained, as a practical matter, is to retain a very large margin over one’s foes. Only by maintaining an overwhelming superiority can a consensus on restraint be maintained. Once the President fritters away American superiority or allows it to become inferior, then the requirements of survival will almost certainly destroy any political support for restraint. Necessity knows no bounds.


Up, up and away

April 29th, 2009 - 4:04 pm

A 6’4″ Eric Hagerman says he dreads flying because there simply isn’t enough space in an economy class seat for his outsized frame. More importantly, he argues there isn’t enough space in it for the ‘average’ sized person.  The passenger can get into the space provided, but once there, he is practically immobile.

Most carriers fix their seats somewhere between a 31- and 34-inch pitch. Assuming a seat thickness of two inches, even the tightest spacing actually allows for 99th-percentile males to squeeze in. But once they’re in there, they can’t move. “Wiggle room,” Brauer says, “contributes to comfort in a very real way, but not in a way that is easily quantified.” For me to be able to cross my legs, I’d need 26.25 inches for my femurs, about five inches for my calves, plus two inches for the seat: a 33.25-inch pitch. That rarely happens.


The wizard war

April 28th, 2009 - 3:14 pm

MSNBC reprints an NYT article describing cyberattack and defense concepts that are either already in place or are being developed. Many of these concepts were apparently developed during the Bush Administration and their use and success is still highly classified. However, the cybermeasures which affected domestic information flows were canned because the Bush administration did not believe it had the “political capital” to carry it out. One of the most interesting nuggets in the article is reference to a kind of cyber-range, a simulation of the real world Internet, in which the effects of attack and defense could be observed.

When President George W. Bush ordered new ways to slow Iran’s progress toward a nuclear bomb last year, he approved a plan for an experimental covert program — its results still unclear — to bore into their computers and undermine the project.

And the Pentagon has commissioned military contractors to develop a highly classified replica of the Internet of the future. The goal is to simulate what it would take for adversaries to shut down the country’s power stations, telecommunications and aviation systems, or freeze the financial markets — in an effort to build better defenses against such attacks, as well as a new generation of online weapons.

Some of the information in the article will doubtless be familiar to people in the industry.  The US can activate microcode or sleeper software in hardware or systems that it has marketed abroad. Doubtless the Chinese, French and other vendors have been playing the same game too. So on the day or Der Tag, the trumpets will blow and all the virtual angels and demons will be summoned to battle,  not among the electrons — there is really no physical analogy for this — but in a truly abstract world, supported in by the physical layers but conceptually apart from it.


The Associated Press reported that an Air Force One type of aircraft was flown over New York city to update the file photograph that is used for publicity purposes. Instead of being a photo opportunity of the aircraft itself, the episode ended up taking a snapshot of the bureaucratic mind.

WASHINGTON (AP) — An administration official says a presidential Boeing 747 and a fighter jet flew low near ground zero in New York City Monday because the White House Military Office wanted to update its file photo of the president’s plane near the Statue of Liberty.

This official said the White House Military Office told the Federal Aviation Administration that it periodically updates file photos of Air Force One near national landmarks, like the statute in New York harbor and the Grand Canyon.

MSNBC reported New York City officials were told about the flight but were instructed not to tell the public about it. Photos of the the VC-25 were said to be taken from an F-16 chase plane. The photographic opportunity mission was said to be combined with an unspecified training mission to ‘save money’.

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Competing governments: Federalism revisited

April 27th, 2009 - 7:18 pm

Randy Barnett described his proposal to place ten Constitutional amendments at the center of the Tea Party movement to Michael Leahy and Glenn Reynolds at Pajamas TV. What seems interesting to me, apart from the proposals themselves, is the reaction they are likely to provoke among those who feel that the centralization of power with the Federal Government is something devoutly to be desired.

A trace of memory

April 27th, 2009 - 3:59 am

Napoleon Bonaparte once said that “history is a set of lies agreed upon.” Perhaps another, but subtly different way to express this ambiguity is to conclude that history is a narrative where all the accusations are true. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the record of torture during the Marcos regime. The academic Alfred McCoy estimates that the number of summary executions under Marcos fell somewhere between the numbers of “desaparecidos” in Argentina and Brazil. He has no estimate for the number of people tortured and only a sketchy idea of the torture infrastructure itself. Most of his attention is concentrated on the activities of Colonel Rolando Abadilla and Rodolfo Aguinaldo, I think in part because M2 (Abadilla’s outfit which McCoy calls MISG) was responsible for interrogating many in the Left who were picked up in Manila and his sources naturally focused on that. Off McCoy’s radar are the provincial interrogators and the chain of command above Abadilla, which is linked, I think, to the ultimate question of who killed Ninoy Aquino. But despite any quibbles I might have with McCoy, it’s fairly well established that people were tortured and killed under Marcos and I knew some of them personally.

But even as that was happening, I was also aware that the Communist Party, by far the largest force in the underground, was also engaged in deadly purges. I sheltered some who survived, two of them in my first and smallest safe house; a closet really, in the district of Sampaloc.  Though I didn’t know the scale of it then, they were apparently just the tip of the iceberg. A handy introduction into the parallel murder campaign of Jose Maria Sison can be gathered from this video. While it may be objected that the video is produced from the point of view of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, it must be fairly admitted that the charges leveled against the Communist Party are substantially true. In fact the widow of the former chief of its guerilla army filed a case against Supremo Sison for the murder of her husband. And I am informed, on good authority, that the Roman Catholic Church is compiling a better list of those killed by both sides.

Even after the fall of Marcos, the purge-killings by the Communists continued. The husband of a lady who now lives in Massachusetts, for example, was blinded and slowly cut to pieces in the mountain provinces for what reason I wot not, before he was killed. The Red hit squads grew increasingly bold and were openly going into meetings at which Sison’s communist rivals were speaking to mark them for subsequent liquidation.


Repel boarders

April 26th, 2009 - 9:47 pm

The headline tells half the story: Israeli guards aboard Italian cruise ship repel pirates off Somalian coast .

A German-Italian cruise ship with 1,500 people on board fended off a pirate attack far off the coast of Somalia on Saturday, in which the vessel’s private Israeli security force exchanged fire with the bandits and drove them off, the ship’s commander said yesterday. … Domenico Pellegrino, head of the cruise line, said Msc Cruises hired the Israelis because they were the best-trained security staff, the ANSA news agency reported. Security work aboard cruise ships is very popular among young Israelis just out of the army; the job is seen as a chance to save money and travel at the same time. Hundreds of veterans and reservists of elite Israel Defense Force units, including the naval commandos, are employed in security work on cruise ships and oil rigs in areas subject to pirate attacks.

The other half of the story is hidden in the BBC’s account. “Samantha Hendey from Durban, South Africa, told the BBC that her sister Tabitha Nicholson was on board the ship during the attack and the situation was ]pretty dramatic’. ‘She said that there were lots of passengers on deck watching it unfold and they even took action themselves by throwing chairs overboard, trying to hit the pirates,’ Samantha said.” While deck chairs are not exactly effective antiship weapons, the incident seems to suggest that while the Israeli security men were brave and professional, there was no inherent inhibition in the European, nor indeed the human genome, against self-defense. All it needed to awaken was leadership and example. Then the pirates beat a hasty retreat. If the pirates have been gaining against civilization of late, it probably has less to do with the timidity of peoples, who after all, are cut from the same genetic cloth as the hunter-gatherers of 10,000 BC, then with defects of politicians, who imagine themselves to be above it all.

Left to ourselves

April 26th, 2009 - 8:12 pm

Eli Saslow chronicles the slow decline of Greenwood, SC during the first 100 days of the Obama administration in the Washington Post. It’s a town with unemployment over 11%, with people unable to pay their bills, pay for heating. It’s a place where old ladies have only a box of grits in the cupboard.  It’s an story centered on the efforts of a city councilwoman that is without villains; but it is also one without transcendent heroes.

It was nobody’s fault, really, that councilwoman Edith Childs had such high expectations. She followed the election of Barack Obama with mounting expectation and rode the slow trajectory of disappointment to its still-plunging depths. Slowly it dawned on her that Obama had no box of magic tricks in his repertoire; that nothing that would stave off the relentless deluge of bills in the mailboxes of her constituents and slowly shrinking job base of her community.


Waltzing Matilda

April 26th, 2009 - 3:18 am

It was Anzac day yesterday and I thought I’d post an old Seekers rendition of Waltzing Matilda. The vocalist is Judith Durham.