Spengler

Spengler

Time for a National Conversation About Why Starbucks Coffee Is Disgusting

March 19th, 2015 - 5:42 am
AP Image

AP Image

It’s time to have a national conversation about one of the most sensitive, controversial issues in American culture, the stain on our national honor: Coffee. American coffee is now and always has been revolting, and it behooves us to look deep into our souls to understand why we overpay for muck at Starbucks. There’s a sucker born every minute, and he’s almost certain to be American. We are boosters, enthusiasts, tent-evangelicals, fly-by-nighters, snake-oil salesmen and honky-tonkers as a people, and get swindled every time. Now, to tell a man that his coffee is disgusting is just a tad less offensive than explaining that his wife really is a shaved chimpanzee. Next to one’s spouse, nothing gets under our skin and into our soul like coffee. It’s the one thing we ingest daily for which there is no substitute, and without which the day hardly seems worth enduring. To get snookered over coffee is a sad thing to admit, but we have to start our great national dialogue somewhere. Back in 2003 I argued in dead seriousness that lousy coffee was a characteristic flaw of American culture:

Writing of English culture, the poet and critic T S Eliot famously described it as follows: “The reader must remind himself as the author has constantly to do, of how much is here embraced by the term culture. It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August [the start of the grouse shooting season], a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.”

After the fashion of Eliot, I have complied my own list of characteristic features of American culture [including] Burnt coffee at exorbitant prices. The most popular cafe chain, whose name decent people do not pronounce, burns its coffee beans to produce what Americans mistakenly believe is an authentic European taste. Proper coffee, by which of course I mean Italian coffee, is bittersweet, not burned. Americans evidently hate the wretched stuff because they drown its flavor in a flood of milk, in the so-called “latte”, something I never have observed an Italian request during many years of travel in that country. By contrast, Italians drink cappuccino, mixing a small amount of milk into the coffee and leaving a cap of foam. If Americans do not like it, why do they buy it at exorbitant prices? They do so precisely because the high price makes it a luxury, but an affordable one for secretaries and shopgirls.

I am now free to admit that the coffee chain to which I referred was Starbucks, which burns low-grade coffee beans in order to persuade its customers that they are drinking something sophisticated and European. Because the flavor is unpleasant, Americans saturate it with milk.

It’s time to address this national disgrace. The next time you meet a Starbucks barista, start a serious conversation: does he or she have no shame in foisting this fraud upon the American public? How can we as a people maintain our self-esteem if we pay top dollar for the excrescence of incinerated low-grade coffee beans? Take the time to have this important conversation and to save our national soul.

*****

Related at PJ Lifestyle: “The 3 Most Hilarious Comments Responding to Spengler’s Anti-Starbucks Rant

The Kingdom of Judea?

March 19th, 2015 - 5:14 am

Ha’aretz columnist Ravit Hecht had the following tantrum after Israel’s elections:

Israel is galloping toward an anti-democratic binational future saturated with hatred and racism….Israel will sink into international, academic and economic isolation…Israel will not be a liberal democracy but rather another failing state in the Middle East…Even though nearly half the people chose otherwise and flexed every muscle to create some hope for the continuation of the Zionist dream, the right-wing half, the settler and religious half, forced on us a nightmarish government in which a cynical racist like Lieberman might still be defense minister…The Israeli people don’t want peace — amid all the incitement they’re afraid. They don’t want to live in a liberal and democratic Western country. They want to live in the Kingdom of Judea, whose fate is known. This wish must not be honored.

Since Ms. Hecht raises the issue, I should like to say that there is a very good case for Israel to become a Jewish kingdom, that is, a constitutional monarchy that underpins parliamentary government. Just such a model was proposed by the great Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod. Prof. Wyschogrod wrote in 2010 in First Things magazine:

The crowning of an actual Davidic monarch today would require prophecy to select the proper person. In the absence of prophecy, this is impossible”and the sages of Israel declared almost two thousand years ago that prophecy was gone from Israel. Israel nonetheless can be declared a Davidic monarchy without a reigning king. This action would build into the self-understanding of the state of Israel the messianic hope of the Jewish people, while excluding a messianic interpretation of the present state of Israel.

The solution that I propose is by no means unusual for a constitutional monarchy. It is a common occurrence in monarchy that no king is present or that the present king cannot rule, for example, due to youth. In such situations, a regent is appointed as a placeholder for a king. Such a placeholder can either be appointed or elected. A regent safeguarding the Throne of David until such time that divine intervention identifies the rightful heir to the Davidic kingdom would thus assume the functions now performed by Israel’s president, the symbolic head of state.

It would be quite possible for Israel’s parliament to elect the regent who safeguards the throne just as it now elects Israel’s president. None of the other mechanisms of parliamentary democracy in Israel would need to change. What is important is not the specific mechanism by which the Israeli polity might choose a regent, but, rather, for Israel to understand itself as a monarchy, albeit one without a reigning king.

This would acknowledge God’s will that Israel be ruled by the House of David, and it would define the Jewish character of the Israeli state. If we concede that any constitutional constraints on popular sovereignty derive from an authority higher than the people, we must conclude that a constitution uniquely suited to a Jewish state should embody the political form through which this higher authority has been manifest in the Jewish concept of polity for the past three thousand years. To be a constitutionally Jewish state, Israel must understand itself as a monarchy temporarily without a king.

Such a constitutional monarchy is quite as compatible with modern parliamentary democracy as are the monarchies of Holland and England. But there would remain a fundamental difference between Israel and the European monarchies, which exist as a matter of historical happenstance. For Israel to establish its claim to be a Jewish state”the core issue of contention between Israel and many of its Muslim neighbors”it must do so in the unique way specified by the Bible and the undivided view of Jewish tradition.

Full disclosure: I solicited and edited Prof. Wyschogrod’s essay, one of his last (and in my view one of his best) before his retirement. I am a die-hard small-d democrat, but democracy itself is possible only in the presence of higher principles. In a Jewish state, it is possible to embody these principles in a royal stewardship for the House of David, for whose restoration devout Jews have prayed thrice daily for the past two thousand years.

Update: It’s disappointing to see qualified, sheepish support for Netanyahu from the likes of the Wall Street Journal, which today wrote: “But in the closing days Mr. Netanyahu played up that foreigners (read: President Obama) wanted him defeated, and he rejected statehood for Palestinians, reversing a position he had taken in 2009. The reversal gave the impression of opportunism, even desperation, but it also rallied conservative voters who had hinted at growing “Bibi fatigue” after his long tenure as premier.” Opportunism? On the contrary, Netanyahu finally told the truth. Concludes the Journal: “Israel’s raucous democracy is imperfect, like America’s, but it is the only reliable one in the bloody cauldron of the Middle East.”

Ha’aretz explains the discrepancy between the Israeli polls and the outcome as follows: “[Netanyahu] won this election by convincing over 200,000 voters who were planning to vote for Habayit Hayehudi, Shas, Kulanu and Yahad to change their minds in the last six days of the campaign.” Why did they switch? The answer is simple and obvious: Most of those small-party voters oppose a Palestinian state, and Netanyahu ruled out a Palestinian state on his watch a day before the election. Outside of the Eurocentric secular elite in Tel Aviv, most Israeli voters look at the chaos in the Muslim world and draw the obvious conclusion that a Palestinian State would be absorbed into the maelstrom of extremism surrounding it, and turn into an artillery platform for terrorists. Last July I argued in Tablet magazine that it’s not the settlers, but the “unsettlers” (ISIS and Iran) who have forced a one-state solution on Israel. Netanyahu went through the motions of diplomacy until Monday in order to maintain correct relations with Washington. That pushed the one-state vote out to minor parties. Once Netanyahu acknowledged the obvious, 200,000 minor party voters came back to Likud.

Netanyahu has decided, with some justification, that he might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. His disagreement with the Obama administration is not about the best way to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Obama administration views Iran as a positive force with benign motives: the Director of National Intelligence’s Threat Assessment speaks of “Iran’s intentions to dampen sectarianism, build responsive partners, and deescalate tensions with Saudi Arabia,” and dismisses Iran’s threat to regional stability as mere “secondary consequences” of its support for Shia communities. Iranian official propaganda quotes it with enthusiasm. And after the appointment of Robert Malley as the Middle East Coordinator for the White House–the man Obama kicked out of its 2008 campaign because of his close ties to Hamas–Netanyahu has little to lose in terms of good will.

We now read that the White House will abandon Israel to the wolves at the United Nations. The political damage to the Democrats will be extensive, but less than one might guess at first glance: the majority of American Jews will continue to choose liberal utopianism over Israeli security. Leftwing Jewish outlets like The Forward echo the cri de coeur  of the Israeli left: the “Zionist dream” of socialist equality and religious harmony is dead, and Bibi is its gravedigger. That corpse has been high for some some time, but no matter. The West is choking on its own illusions and hypocrisy; Israel once again may become an Asian nation.

Each for its own reasons, the world’s major powers have decided to accept Iran as a regional hegemon, I wrote March 4 in Asia Times, leaving Israel and the Sunni Arabs in isolated opposition. The global consensus on behalf of Iranian hegemony is now coming clearly into focus. Although the motivations of different players are highly diverse, there is a unifying factor driving the consensus: the Obama administration’s determination to achieve a strategic rapprochement with Tehran at any cost. America’s competitors are constrained to upgrade their relations with Iran in order to compete with Washington.

The Obama administration’s assessment of Iran’s intentions is so positive that Iranian official sources quote it in their own propaganda.  As Jeryl Bier observed at the Weekly Standard, the just-released Threat Assessment report of the director of National Intelligence makes no mention of Iran’s support for terrorism, in stark contrast to the explicit citation of Iranian terrorism in the three prior annual reports. The omission of Iran’s terrorist activities is noteworthy. What the report actually says is even more disturbing. It praises Iran with faint damn:

Despite Iran’s intentions to dampen sectarianism, build responsive partners, and deescalate tensions with Saudi Arabia, Iranian leaders—particularly within the security services—are pursuing policies with negative secondary consequences for regional stability and potentially for Iran. Iran’s actions to protect and empower Shia communities are fueling growing fears and sectarian responses.

Iran supposedly is doing its best to “dampen sectarianism, build responsive partners, and deescalate tensions with Saudi Arabia” — complete and utter falsehood. Iran is infiltrating Saudi Arabia’s Shi’te-majority Eastern Province (also its most oil rich) to agitate against Saudi control, and sponsored a coup against a Saudi-allied regime in Yemen. The report attributes nothing but good intentions to the Tehran regime, and worries only that its policies will have “negative secondary consequences” due to its (understandable, of course) efforts to “protect and power Shia communities.” Iran’s primary motivation, in the administration’s view, is to be a good neighbor and a fountain of good will. Neville Chamberlain never said such nice things about Hitler.

A sign of Saudi Arabia’s waning influence was Pakistan’s decision March 15 to refuse a Saudi request for Pakistani troops to deploy on its border with Yemen, now controlled by pro-Iranian Houthi rebels. A senior Pakistani official told the local press, “Pakistan would not rush to join the anti-Iran alliance that is being forged,” in the wake of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Saudi Arabia last week. “We cannot afford to involve ourselves in the disputes among the Muslim countries,” the official said, adding that Pakistan could spare no additional troops for Saudi Arabia.

That is a serious rebuff for Riyadh, which reportedly financed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program as a last-ditch guarantee of its own security. As Akhilesh Pillalamarri wrote March 12 in The Diplomat, “Pakistan may be Saudi Arabia’s best bet for a strong long-term security guarantee”:

Pakistan has long had a close relationship with Saudi Arabia and has been involved in protecting that country and the House of Saud. Pakistan has much friendlier relations with Iran than Saudi Arabia does, but ultimately it is more dependent on Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, for example, gave oil to Pakistan in 1998 to help Pakistan weather international sanctions against it for conducting a nuclear test. The Saudis also saved Nawaz Sharif after he was overthrown in a coup in 1999, and he is thus beholden to them.

Pakistan may have been Saudi Arabia’s best bet, but it is a bet that has not paid off. Pakistan is not beholden enough, it appears: Pakistan also is beholden to both the United States and China. The right question to ask is whether Washington intervened with Pakistan to block the Saudi proposal. And China, as I reported in my March 2 analysis, has decided that Iranian regional hegemony is the least bad alternative for the time being. China’s overriding concern is the security of its energy supplies, and it wants to avoid a full-dress Sunni-Shi’ite war in the region. Until early 2014 China thought it could rely on the United States to guarantee energy security in the Persian Gulf. With America’s strategic withdrawal from the region and the rise of ISIS, China has found itself without an American guarantee and without the resources to assert its own security interests. China’s shift towards Iran reflects these considerations.

Another issue for China, Paul Nash and Reza Akhlaghi wrote in the Diplomatic Courier March 16, is that “the rise of militant Sunni Islam is aligning China’s interests with Iran’s.” Nash and Akhlaghi argue:

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has thus emerged as a new component of the Chinese security calculus. Beijing is worried that the rise and spread of Sunni militant Islam so close to its borders, including neighboring former Soviet “Stan” countries of Central Asia, will kindle radical elements in Xinjiang. Sunni militant Islam also threatens to become a strategic and an ideological nightmare for China’s massive and unprecedented multi-billion dollar investments from Xinjiang westward across Central Asia, the linchpin of Beijing’s future vision of energy security and economic development. Sunni radicalism could hinder, if not derail, the realization of Beijing’s Silk Road Belt initiative, presenting a major obstacle to building out a vast overland transcontinental transportation and energy infrastructure.

In an effort to maintain stability in Xinjiang, China has set about strengthening ties with Turkey. But this is no easy task. According to a Pew Research Center poll published last July, Turkey has the most unfavorable view of China amongst the Middle Eastern countries surveyed, with 69 percent of Turks expressing a negative opinion of China, and 57 percent saying that China’s growing economy is not good for Turkey.

And so China gravitates increasingly towards Iran, which it believes can act as a buffer zone against the eastward advance of Sunni radical Islam.

Reality is a bit more complex: China envisions Turkey as a terminus for the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, but it also rankles at covert Turkish support for Chinese Uyghurs. Contrary to Nash and Akhlaghi, China will continue to balance relations between Iran on the one hand and the Saudis and Turks on the other, but it does not want to confront Iran at a moment when Iran provides an important counterweight to ISIS in Iraq, a growing source of Chinese oil imports.

If militant Sunni Islam is an important (if not dominant) concern for China, it is a primary concern for both India and Russia. Russia’s problems in the Caucasus lie with Sunni rather than Shi’ite Muslims. ISIS’ success has inspired copycat terrorists in Russia such as the Caucasus Emirate. An estimated 2,500 Muslims from Chechnya and elsewhere in the Caucasus have joined ISIS, and ISIS has declared its intention to “liberate” the Caucasus from Russian control. Russia warned the West a year ago that it would align with Iran to punish the West over the Ukraine conflict.

For India, an increase in Iran’s influence represents a distraction for its main opponent Pakistan, which is 80% Sunni and shares a border with Iran in fractious Baluchistan. India may not relish the prospect of Iran as a nuclear power, but it has no more sense of urgency about this than does Israel about North Korean nuclear weapons. China does not want a nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf, but it needs time to develop a policy response independent of the United States. Washington’s embrace of Tehran has made Iranian regional hegemony the path of least resistance. For the time being, it’s Iran’s show.

The Sino-American Comedy of Errors

March 16th, 2015 - 5:59 am

Now that Britain will join China’s Asia Infrastructure Bank — bringing “One Belt/One Road” to the English Channel–Americans should spent some time learning why China’s global economic outreach is so compelling to our closest ally. Below is a Nov. 14, 2014 piece cross-posted from Asia Times.

 

The Sino-American comedy of errors
By Spengler

BEIJING – Everything in tragedy happens for a reason, and the result always is sad; most things in comedy happen by accident and the outcome typically is happy. Sino-American relations are not destined for conflict, although that is possible. The misunderstandings that bedevil relations between the world’s two most powerful countries remain comedic rather than tragic. That probably is as good as it gets, for no amount of explanation will enable Chinese and Americans to make sense of each other.

Where the Chinese are defensive and cautious, the Americans tend to perceive them as aggressive; where the Chinese are expansive ambitious, the Americans ignore them altogether. The United States is a Pacific power accustomed to maritime dominance. To the extent that Americans focus on China’s foreign policy, it is to express alarm at China’s territorial claims on small uninhabited islands also claimed by Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Apart from some overheated and self-serving rhetoric from a few Chinese military leaders, though, the contested islands are of negligible importance in China’s scale of priorities. 
The issue may be moot by this writing: last week, China and Japan released a “Principled Agreement on Handling and Improving Bilateral Relations”, following meetings between Japan’s national security adviser, Shotaro Yachi, and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi. The document promises to “establish crisis management mechanisms to avoid contingencies” and to employ “dialogue and consultation”.

Neither Japan nor China had any interest in a military confrontation in the Pacific, although both sides employed the island disputes to play to their own nationalist constituencies. The Principled Agreement sends a signal that the Kabuki show had gone far enough.

A common American meme in response to supposed Chinese expansionism in the Pacific projected an Indian-Japanese military alliance to contain Chinese ambitions under US sponsorship. Although a few Indian nationalists enthused over the idea, it was an empty gesture from the outside. If India got into a scrap with China over disputed borders, for example, just what would Japan do to help?

The newly-elected Indian government under Narendra Modi never took the idea seriously. On the contrary, after President Xi Jinping’s recent state visit to India, Modi envisions Chinese investment in urgently needed infrastructure. Economics trumps petty concerns over borders in the mountainous wasteland that separates the world’s two most populous nations.

There also is a strategic dimension to the growing sense of agreement between China and India. From India’s vantage point, China’s support for Pakistan’s army is a concern, but it cuts both ways. Pakistan remains at perpetual risk of tipping over towards militant Islam, and the main guarantor of its stability is the army. China wants to strengthen the army as a bulwark against the Islamic radicals, who threaten China’s Xinjiang province as much as they do India, and that probably serves India’s interests as well as any Chinese policy might.

Chinese analysts are dumbfounded about the US response to what they view as a sideshow in the South China Sea and only tangentially concerned about India. They struggle to understand why a vastly improved relationship with Russia has emerged in response to US blundering in Ukraine.

As a matter of diplomatic principle, China does not like separatists because it has its own separatists to contend with, starting with the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. Washington thought that the Maidan Revolution in Kiev last year would take Crimea out of Russian control, and Russia responded by annexing the peninsula containing its main warm-water naval base.

When the West imposed sanctions on Russia in retaliation, Moscow moved eastwards – an obvious response, and one that strongly impacts Western power. Not only has Russia opened its gas reserve to China, but it has agreed to supply China with its most sophisticated military technology, including the formidable S-400 air defense system. Russia was reluctant to do so in the past given Chinese efforts to reverse-engineer Russian systems, but the Ukraine crisis changed that.

Western analysts, to be sure, now observe that the new Russian-Chinese rapprochement might be a challenge for the West. The New York Times devoted a front-page feature to the opinions of the usual suspects among Soviet watchers in its November 9 edition.

This was obvious months ago, and should have been obvious before the fact: the West merely threw B’rer Putin into the briar patch to his east. Of all the miscalculations in Western policy since World War II, this was perhaps the stupidest. The Chinese are left to scratch their heads about their unanticipated good luck.

It is wrong to speak of a Russian-Chinese alliance, to be sure, but there is a developing Sino-Russian condominium in Asia. The energy and defense deals between Moscow and Beijing are important in their own right, but they take on all the more importance in the context of what might be the most ambitious economic project in history: the New Silk Road. The Pacific holds little promise for China. Japan and South Korea are mature economies, customers as well as competitors of China.

Expansion in the Pacific simply has nothing to offer China’s economy. What China wants is to be impregnable within its own borders: it will spend generously to develop surface-to-ship missiles that can take out US aircraft carriers, hunter-killer submarines, and air defense systems.

China’s prospects are to the west and south: energy and minerals in Central Asia, food in Southeast Asia, warm-water ports on the Indian Ocean, a vast market, and access to world markets beyond. The network of rail, pipelines and telecommunications that China is building through the former Soviet republics and through Russia itself will terminate at the Mediterranean and provide a springboard for Chinese trade with Europe.

The whole Eurasian landmass is likely to become a Chinese economic zone, especially now that Russia is more amenable to Chinese terms. That the Americans would have helped bring this to fruition by tilting at windmills in Ukraine baffles the Chinese, but they are enjoying the result.

The economic impact of this is hard to fathom, but it is likely to extend Chinese influence westwards on a scale that the West simply hasn’t begun to imagine. It is not at all clear whether China has a clear idea of what the implications of the New Silk Road might be. The implosion of America’s geopolitical position has placed risks and opportunities at Beijing’s doorstep, to Beijing’s great surprise.

A year ago, Chinese officials privately reassured visitors that their country would “follow the lead of the dominant superpower” in matters relating to Middle East security, including Iran’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons. For the past several decades, China has allowed the US to look out for the Persian Gulf while it increased its dependency on Persian Gulf oil. By 2020, China expects to import 70% of its oil, and most of that will come from the Gulf.

The Chinese view has changed radically during the past few months, in part due to the collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi states and the rise of Islamic State. It is hard to find a Chinese specialist who still thinks that the US can stand surely for Persian Gulf security. Opinion is divided between those who think that America is merely incompetent and those who think that America deliberately wants to destabilize the Persian Gulf.

Now that the US is approaching self-sufficiency in energy resources, some senior Chinese analysts believe it wants to push the region into chaos in order to hurt China. One prominent Chinese analyst pointed out that Islamic State is led by Sunni officers trained by the United States during the 2007-2008 “surge” as well as elements of Saddam Hussein’s old army, and that this explains why IS has displayed such military and organizational competence.

The complaint is justified, to be sure: General David Petraeus helped train the 100,000-strong “Sunni Awakening” to create a balance of power against the Shi’ite majority regime that the US helped bring to power in 2006. How, the Chinese ask, could the Bush administration and Petraeus have been so stupid? To persuade the Chinese that they were indeed that stupid is a daunting task.

China’s attitude towards Washington has turned towards open contempt. Writing of the mid-term elections, the official daily newspaper Global Times intoned: “The lame-duck president will be further crippled ? he has done an insipid job, offering nearly nothing to his supporters. US society has grown tired of his banality.”

But the decline of American influence in the region from which China obtains most of its oil is not a happy event for Beijing.

China did not anticipate the end of the free ride from the Americans, and it isn’t sure what to do next. It has tried to maintain a balance among countries with whom it trades and who are hostile to each other. It has sold a great deal of conventional weapons to Iran, for example, and some older, less-sophisticated ballistic missiles.

But China has sold Saudi Arabia its top-of-the-line intermediate range missiles, giving the Saudis a “formidable deterrent capability” against Iran and other prospective adversaries. China obtains more oil from Saudi Arabia than any other country, although its imports from Iraq and Oman are growing faster. Because the latter two countries are closer to Iran, China wants to strike a balance.

Chinese opinion is divided about the implications of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons: some strategists believe that the balance of nuclear power in the region will suffice to prevent the use of such weapons, while others fear that a nuclear exchange in the Gulf might stop the flow of oil and bring down China’s economy. China has joined the P-5 plus 1 negotiations (involving the UN Security Council permanent five members plus Germany) on Iran’s nuclear status, but has not offered a policy independent of President Barack Obama’s.

Meanwhile the rise of Islamist extremism worries Beijing, as well it should. At least a hundred Uyghurs reportedly are fighting with Islamic State, presumably in order to acquire terrorist skills to bring back home to China. Chinese analysts have a very low opinion of the Obama administration’s approach to dealing with IS, but do not have an alternative policy. This is an issue of growing importance. Instability threatens the Silk Road project at several key notes.

China has no sympathy whatever for what analysts there like to call “political Islam”. America’s flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood – both from the Obama administration and from mainstream Republicans such as Senator John McCain – strikes the Chinese as incompetence, or worse. But China has no capability to go after the Islamists, except for a very limited deployment of marines off the coast of Somalia.

China’s policy-making is careful, conservative and consensus-driven. Its overriding concern is its own economy. The pace of transformation of the Middle East has surprised it, and it is trying to decide what to do next.

Its pro forma policy is to join the Iran talks, and offer to join the Quartet (the UN, the US, the European Union, and Russia) talks on the Israel-Palestine issue, but neither of these initiatives has much to do with its actual concerns.

What China will do in the future cannot be predicted. But it seems inevitable that China’s basic interests will lead it to far greater involvement in the region, all the more so as the US withdraws.

Air Castles in the Kaganate of Nuland

March 8th, 2015 - 9:30 pm
putin_3-9-15-1

(AP Photo/Sergei Karpukhin, Pool)

There is land of wonder where magic princes and princesses rescue humble folk from the malignant spells of wicked sorcerers. Call it the Kaganate of Nuland: I refer of course to Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland and her spouse Robert Kagan, respectively the source of the silliest statement on record about U.S. foreign policy (“F— the Europeans”) and the worst book on foreign policy in a generally dismal decade.

I reviewed Kagan’s awful tome when it appeared three years ago, with its fairy-tale thesis about the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy. “It is possible that in the Arab Spring we are seeing a continuation of the Third Wave, or perhaps even a fourth. The explosion of democracy is about to enter a fifth straight decade, the longest and broadest such expansion in history,” Kagan wrote. Nuland got her 15 minutes of fame when someone, presumably Russian intelligence, leaked her expletive-adorned 2013 conversation with America’s ambassador to Ukraine to YouTube.

Kagan and Nuland authentically believed that Ukraine’s Maidan Square overthrow of the Yanukovich government would inspire a democracy movement in Russia that eventually would depose Vladimir Putin, just as they believed that the Arab Spring heralded a great wave of democracy in the Middle East. Instead, Putin rose to the highest popularity ranking (at 86%) of his long and checkered career, and Russian hostility to America surpassed the levels of the Soviet era. “More than 80 percent of Russians now hold negative views of the United States, according to the independent Levada Center, a number that has more than doubled over the past year and that is by far the highest negative rating since the center started tracking those views in 1988,” the Washington Post reported March 9.

The Europeans — upon whose doorstep the Ukrainian mess has landed — are understandably aghast. Der Spiegel, Germany’s largest news organization, complained March 6 that Nuland and some other Americans want “regime change” in Moscow. I want regime change in Moscow, too; I also want the restoration of the Temple sacrifices in Jerusalem, but do not expect to get what I want anytime soon. For the foreseeable future we shall have to live with Putin, and promoting regime change is the equivalent of shooting spitballs at the zoo lion: It simply increases the likelihood that the zookeeper will get eaten.

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The Bidding War for Iran

February 24th, 2015 - 1:00 pm

The world now anticipates that the U.S. will reach a strategic agreement with Iran. Russia and China are responding by offering their own deals to Tehran. A possible game-changer is Russia’s offer of the Antey-2500 air defense system to Iran. After canceling the planned delivery of the older, shorter-range S-300 system in 2010, Russia has now escalated drastically by proposing to sell Iran a much more effective system. Western air forces have never engaged the Russian system, so we don’t know how exactly good it is. No-one I know in the military wants to find out; by Western estimates, the Russian systems are extremely good. It is possible that Russia’s unwelcome intervention might make Iran effectively impregnable from attack by Israel. The Antey-2500 can take down missiles as well as airplanes.

In addition, Russia is retaliating against the West’s stance on Ukraine. Russia has made it clear all along that it would respond to Western efforts to remove Crimea from Russia by making trouble in Iran, as Russia’s deputy foreign minister warned last March. Russia, unlike the U.S., views the world as a single chessboard: attack my position here, and I will hurt you somewhere else where you are not prepared. Putin isn’t crazy; he’s a Russian commander in the classic mold, forcing the burden of uncertainty onto his adversary, muddying the waters and leaving his opponent guessing. His countermoves on the global chessboard include a prospective alliance with China as well as mischief in the Persian Gulf. My conservative friends who urge us to “stand up to Putin” should take a cold, dispassionate look at the whole of the chessboard and anticipate moves of this sort; otherwise, the whole thing is a lot of beery blather. As I wrote recently, Israel takes the brunt of American policy blunders. What happens if Putin gives Iran the means to shoot down anything Israel (and a good deal of what the U.S.) might throw at it? No-one in Washington seems to ask such questions. I’ve been warning about such a development for the past five years (see “When the Cat’s Away, the Mice Kill Each Other,” Oct. 20, 2009).

China, which depends on Persian Gulf oil more than any other major economy, is watching these developments with alarm, as a Feb. 22 Xinhua commentary makes clear (hat tip: M.K. Bhadrakumar):

U.S. President Barack Obama, who admitted that Washington “brokered a deal to transition power in Ukraine” a year ago, has warned that a collapse in the peace process could push his country into approving deliveries of weapons to the East European country. Such a proposal is not only counterproductive, but also dangerous. Indeed, the Americans might be the only one poised to gain from the Ukraine crisis with both Europe and Russia being weakened, but they should be mindful that one who sees the crisis as a power game would only drag itself into the quagmire. By antagonizing Russia, for instance, Uncle Sam might lose a possible – and powerful – partner in its ongoing anti-terrorism drive in the Middle East.

That hardly needs translation: Beijing is worried about instability in the Persian Gulf, whose oil China needs more than any other major economy, and observes that Russia is in position to stir up instability in retaliation for Western intervention in Ukraine. Russia may be a second-rate power, but it still is a power in the Middle East, as well as the purveyor of game-changing military technologies.

China, meanwhile, is courting Iran. Visiting Tehran Feb. 15, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi “said that increasing relations with Iran is one of his country’s foreign policy priorities….Cooperation between Beijing and Tehran is of strategic importance and beyond bilateral relationship, Wang added. The Chinese foreign minister also said that the nuclear talks between Iran and the 5+1 group (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) have entered final phases and nothing should be done to prevent the talks to yield a result….Wang also expressed his country’s opposition to Western-led sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program.” China operates on the principal that one should keep one’s friends close and one’s enemies closer. It has sold a great deal of weapons to Iran, but sold much better weapons to Saudi Arabia, including top-of-the-line intermediate range missiles that give KSA “a formidable deterrence capability” against Iran, in the words of one Chinese analyst.

Now Beijing faces the prospect that Iran will become the dominant regional player with de facto help from the United States, and is trying to reposition itself as an Iranian ally — while Russia does the same thing. It’s a bidding war for the good graces of the craziest regime on earth.

Islamist criminal and terrorist networks overlap for a simple reason: both involve the same sort of individuals doing the same sort of things. European governments know this, because they operate in the common ground between crime and Jihad. Declarations by European officials to the effect that Jihadi terrorists are really violent criminals in search of a pretext are a particularly revolting sort of hypocrisy. Possibly the most disgusting thing I have read in a publication that purports to be mainstream is Andrew Higgins’ Copenhagen dispatch in the New York Times.

[Copenhagen terrorist Omar Abdel Hamid] Hussein’s journey from drug-addled street thug to self-proclaimed jihadist declaring loyalty to theIslamic State has stirred soul-searching in liberal-minded Denmark over whether Islam, in fact, was really a prime motivator for his violence, or merely served as a justifying cover for violent criminality.“This is a very difficult question to answer,” said Manu Sareen, the minister for integration and social affairs, who shortly before the attacks began a program to combat radicalization through outreach to parents, schools and other efforts.….

Often the attackers invoke Islam. But just as often, well before they had found religion, the professed jihadists built up long track records as violent criminals. Though many have become radicalized in prisons, they often seem determined to find an outlet for their violence.

Amedy Coulibaly, one of a trio of gunmen responsible for the killing rampage that terrorized Paris in January, similarly fit the bill, chalking up at least six arrests before his embrace of anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism led him to storm a kosher supermarket and kill four people.

“This is classic trajectory into jihadist terrorism in Europe,” said Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on jihadist movements at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. “There is not a single pathway, but this one is very worrying. They are misfits who find a solution to their problems in radical Islam.”

In embracing violence in the name of Islam, Mr. Hussein, a former member of a Copenhagen criminal gang called the Brothas, “substituted one subculture for another,” Mr. Hegghammer said, adding, “The easier it is for someone to plug into this radical Islamic subculture, the more radicalized misfits you are going to have. At the moment, it is very easy.”

Insulting and absurd as such statements are at face value, they represent a far more insidious form of hypocrisy. As every European government knows, petty criminals become enmeshed in Jihadist networks because they are the eyes and ears of European counter-terror agencies. Turning petty criminals into political informants is the oldest police procedure in the world. Writing in Asia Times Jan. 12, a European security official explained:

The practice of intelligence agencies through most of history has relied on the vulnerability of criminals in order to monitor threats to the state. Intelligence services rely on informants for information. It is more common in the cinema than in real life for security services to sucessfully infiltrate undercover operatives into terrorist organizations.

The security services tolerate a certain level of criminal operations in return for information on graver threats. That is not only the case in state security matters; consider the relationship of the FBI, for example, to the Boston gangster Whitey Bulger over many years.

Without revealing any sensitive information about sources and methods, it is possible to shed light on the events of the past week by reference to the John Le Carre novel A Most Wanted Man, released last year in a cinematic version.

The German counterterrorism authorities use a young Chechnyan refugee whose relationship to terrorism is ambiguous in order to entrap much larger prey. The debate between the Europeans and the CIA (portrayed cartoonishly by the anti-American Mr Le Carre) centers on whether to entrap a prominent Muslim religious figure with relationships to terrorist organizations and turn him to state service, or whether to neutralize him immediately.

A delicate balance between handlers and informants has kept Europe relatively safe for the past decade. The likes of the brothers Kouachi, the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, are typical of this delicate balance. They began as petty criminals and graduated to jihadist training in Yemen, all well known to the French authorities.

I do not know the specifics of the Kouachi case, but it is highly probable that Said and Cherif Kouachi were subject to regular monitoring by informants of the French government. The security services do not have powers of preemptive arrest. Unlike the security services of most Arab countries, they cannot indefinitely detain individuals who constitute a risk of future terrorist activity in advance of such activity.

Under the circumstances, the security services rely on networks of informants drawn in many cases from the criminal milieu. This has enabled French intelligence to preempt a number of terrorist attacks in the past. The disintegration of Syria and parts of Iraq during the past two years has overwhelmed the means by which intelligence services have coped with such threats in the past.

There’s more: Islamist terror and criminal networks overlap, for obvious reasons long known to every police official in Europe.  Human trafficking and smuggling require the same infrastructure and personnel whether the contraband is refugees, prostitutes or terrorists, or drugs or explosives. Proceeds from criminal activity finance terrorism. As I wrote in Asia Times back in 2006 (“Jihadis and Whores”):

 Islamist radicals (like the penny-a-marriage mullahs of Iran) are the world’s most prolific pimps. The same networks that move female flesh across borders also provide illegal passage for jihadis, and the proceeds of human trafficking often support Islamist terrorists. From Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur to Sarajevo to Tirana, the criminals who trade in women overlap with jihadist networks. Prostitutes serve the terror network in a number of capacities, including suicide bombing. The going rate for a Muslim woman who can pass for a European to carry a suicide bomb currently is more than US$100,000. The Persian prostitute is the camp follower of the jihadi, joined to him in a pact of national suicide.

The Europeans know all of this. It’s the stock in trade of their security services. In some cases, European police agencies may have “politicized” petty criminals by injecting them into Jihadist networks as informants. I will leave such matters to the novelists. But it is unlikely that intelligence blowback explains any of the recent terrorist operations, for the simple reason that Muslim criminals typically do not require the ministrations of the police to become politicized. The criminals and the terrorists share the same milieu, the same methods, the same personnel, and usually the same goals.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with blackmailing criminals to act as police informants. It is quicker and more effective than training undercover agents to infiltrate terrorist networks. But the radicalization of the Middle East in the wake of  state failures in a half-dozen countries has overwhelmed European security agencies. Once-cooperative police informants are electing to sacrifice themselves in Jihad. The first response of European governments is to lie, cover up, and deny that they knew anything about such things. If pressed, they will fall back on the secrecy of sources and methods. Investigative journalists: There’s a gold mine here.

GermanyunemployE

Er, maybe not.