« August 2008 | Blog Home Page | October 2008 »

September 30, 2008

What to Expect

Wondering what's coming down the line for the US and world economy? Tyler Cowen puts it about as succinctly as anyone I've seen yet:

The best case scenario: The bad banks continue to be bought up, there is no run on hedge funds next Tuesday, only mid-sized European banks fail, money market funds keep on buying commercial paper, and the Fed and Treasury continue to operate on a case-by-case basis. Since Congress doesn't have to vote for something called "a bailout," it can give Paulson and Bernanke more operational freedom than they would have otherwise had. The American economy is in recession for two years and unemployment does not rise above eight or nine percent.

The worst case scenario: Credit markets freeze up within the next week and many businesses cannot meet their payrolls. Margin calls cannot be met and the NYSE shuts down for a week. Hardly anyone can get a mortgage so most home prices end up undefined rather than low. There is an emergency de facto nationalization of banks to keep the payments system moving. The Paulson plan is seen as a lost paradise. There is no one to buy up the busted hedge funds, so government and the taxpayer end up holding the bag. The quasi-nationalized banks are asked to serve political ends and it proves hard to recapitalize them in private hands. In the very worst case scenario, the Chinese bubble bursts too.

I still think some version of the best case scenario is more plausible, but I wish I could tell you I am sure.

I'm not worried too much about China yet. But if the Chinese bubble bursts too, that would be very, very bad, because the Chinese market and Chinese capital will be crucial to any global rebound.

U.S.-Russian Priorities

Writing in the National Interest, William Hill observes that "we need to identify more clearly the most important American interests in our relationship with Russia."

I think the political climate in the U.S. makes this kind of rational calculation all but impossible. When both John McCain and Barack Obama loudly proclaim their support for Georgia's membership in NATO, it's obvious that there's zero appetite for making any serious concessions to Russia. To Washington, there is no discernible difference to U.S. security between halting nuclear proliferation and defending Georgia.

Now, John McCain has a fairly robust record of anti-Russian rhetoric and his chief foreign policy advisor co-owns a lobbying firm that's been paid by the government of Georgia, so his unyielding stance on this is not a surprise. But it's bizarre to hear Barack Obama insist that we need Russian cooperation on halting nuclear proliferation and battling terrorism, while out of the other side of his mouth he insists that we admit Georgia into NATO.

In the real world, you can't get something for nothing.

Reasons to Worry from Antiquity

India and China are often talked about in the same breath as a consequence of their massive size, rapidly growing economies, and ancient civilizations. Among the less desirable traits that they share, however, is a massive gender imbalance. Cultural preferences for boys in both countries lead to selective abortions and infanticides that have left both countries with far more men than women: China with 118 males for every 100 females and India with 108.

Massive problems might result. Huge numbers of men in both societies will inevitably go unwed, making them more likely to turn to crime, become substance abusers, or participate in human trafficking. Single men with no prospects for marriage are also prime candidate for extremist groups, which, perhaps not coincidentally, are on the rise in both China and India today.

This problem has been festering for years; what brings it to mind today is a sobering essay by Jonathan Gottschall that was in the Boston Globe this weekend on the Iliad and the Odyssey, of all things.

The constant warfare and tenuous existence of Homer's day might have been a direct consequence of the gender imbalance that evidently characterized Greek society at that time - and are historically trademarks of most other societies with the same affliction.

Anthropologists, historians, and others, it seems, are beginning to recognize that Homer's classics are more informative about Greek society in Homer's day than originally thought. The political organization, agricultural patterns, and general tone and tenor of life captured in the poems jive well with what we know about the time period from other sources.

One of the most prominent features of society, which the authors argue gives them much of their tragic feel, is the relative scarcity of women:

Patterns of violence in Homer are intriguingly consistent with societies on the anthropological record known to have suffered from acute shortages of women. While Homeric men did not take multiple wives, they hoarded and guarded slave women who they treated as their sexual property. These women were mainly captured in raids of neighboring towns, and they appear frequently in Homer. In the poems, Odysseus is mentioned as having 50 slave women, and it is slave women who bear most of King Priam's 62 children. For every slave woman working a rich man's loom and sharing his bed, some less fortunate or formidable man lacks a wife.

The result is a society all but consumed by competition between men for women. The war for Troy, after all, was fought for Helen, and most of the smaller battles along the way were as well.

The whole culture may have been transformed by this scarcity, the author argue:

And understanding Homer's own society gives us a new perspective on the oppressive miasma of fatalism and pessimism that pervades "The Iliad" and, to a lesser but still palpable extent, "The Odyssey." While even the fiercest fighters understand that peace is desirable, they feel doomed to endless conflict. As Odysseus says, "Zeus has given us [the Greeks] the fate of winding down our lives in hateful war, from youth until we perish, each of us." A shortage of women helps to explain more about Homeric society than its relentless violence. It may also shed light on the origins of a tragic and pessimistic worldview, a pantheon of gods deranged by petty vanities, and a people's resignation to the inevitability of "hateful war."

So the Iliad and the Odyssey might not just be clues to the past. The epics might also be a disturbing look at one aspect of Asia's future as well.

(h/t: Arts and Letters Daily)

Tories Still Ahead; Bloc Fighting Back in Quebec

As the Canadian election campaign enters its last two weeks, polls show that support for Mr. Harper's Conservative Party is still strong. The latest Harris-Decima poll came out today :

Canada-wide: Tories at 36%, Liberals at 26%, NDP at 19%, Greens at 9%;
Quebec: Bloc at 35%, Tories at 26%, Liberals at 21%, NDP at 13%, Greens at 5%.

In Quebec, the three latest Harris-Decima polls gave the Bloc between 35% and 39%. Also, a new Léger Marketing Quebec poll also released today reported Bloc support at 33%, with the Tories second at 26%. Finally, a survey of 7 competitive ridings shows that the Bloc could actually retake 2 Tory seats that it lost in 2006.

Seeing how poll numbers have been moving in the last few day, democraticSPACE updated its seat projection today:

Tories at 140 seats
Liberals at 82 seats
Bloc at 49 seats
NDP at 35 seats

Wednesday night will be a big night for party leaders as they face off in the French debate (English debate will follow Thursday night). For Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, this may be the last opportunity to turn around his floundering campaign.

As support for the Tories recede in Quebec, the battleground that will decide whether or not Mr. Harper's party is worthy of a majority government will be Ontario.

September 29, 2008

McCain on the Threat from Iran

I found this to be one of the more illuminating exchanges during Friday's debate on foreign policy:

LEHRER: Senator McCain, what is your reading on the threat to Iran right now to the security of the United States?

MCCAIN: My reading of the threat from Iran is that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is an existential threat to the State of Israel and to other countries in the region because the other countries in the region will feel compelling requirement to acquire nuclear weapons as well.

McCain didn't actually address the question - the threat to the United States - until the end his two minute answer, saying that Iran supports anti-American insurgent elements inside Iraq.

I guess he hasn't heard of the looming Iranian EMP threat.

September 26, 2008

Macro and Micro Foreign Policy

After watching tonight's debate between Senators Obama and McCain, I couldn't help but feel as if we were watching two men argue over the obvious distinctions in their foreign policy positions, rather than the finer and more nuanced differences that may ultimately define their actions abroad. Leaving the political analysis aside, I think both senators did a decent job of articulating their macro-vision of the world, while regrettably failing to truly distinguish their foreign policy platforms from one another.

Senator Obama seemingly attacked the Kirkpatrick Doctrine of supporting non-ideological and more malleable authoritarians over totalitarian regimes that conflict with the interests of the United States. He referred to Pervez Musharraf as "our" dictator; chiding President Bush's Pakistani policy as a 20th Century approach to bilateral relations. But if Senator Obama really believes this, why would he approve of targeted attacks in Pakistan; the same kind of attacks approved by President Musharraf? Would American troops be exchanging fire with Pakistani troops today were "our" dictator still at the helm there?

Senator Obama did manage to express his foreign policy rationale, and rather well, actually. Speaking on the American presence in Iraq, Obama said "we have weakened our capacity to project power around the world." There's a fine argument to be made here, but it'll be interesting to see if Obama can come up with stronger details to substantiate that reasonable view on Iraq. Does the senator, for instance, want the United States to mirror the activities of China in Africa and Latin America, as he appeared to hint at this evening? What would that entail? Would he advocate the use of American forces in equally contentious and sectarian regions if done so in the name of American security? It’s clear that he wants a stronger presence in Afghanistan, but beyond that, his tactical approach remains vague.

Senator McCain encountered his own micro-dilemmas tonight. He forcefully and compellingly painted Senator Obama as the "Yeah, but" choice on Iraq, while his own position came across as forward looking and optimistic. McCain successfully linked failed and failing states to the promulgation of global terrorism, but he had missteps on the finer details of this fine point. He referred to pre-Musharraf Pakistan--a clear stumbling block for both gentlemen this evening--as a "failed state," which isn't entirely accurate. McCain still insists that Iraq is the central front in the greater war on terrorism, while Obama continues to insist that the true front is in Afghanistan. Both men stuck to somewhat parochial and partisan lines on the origins of the global terror threat. Obama--looking to reroute the focus away from Iraq--believes that a very specific cabal of radical criminals attacked the United States in 2001. McCain, focusing on a "central" front, continues to argue for a global war on terrorism; something greater than a mere band of extremists tucked away in the mountains of Waziristan.

But both men do agree that al-Qaeda is the gravest threat facing the American people today (Obama said as much). They both, clearly, believe in an active and--when appropriate--unilateral America in the conflict against terror and extremism. I get the impression that each candidate would agree that failed states serve as incubators of extremism, but neither has truly outlined what they would do differently to confront this. Winning in Iraq, while certainly a worthwhile expectation, doesn't accomplish this alone. Neither does withdrawal. If Senator Obama wants to see more discretion, who does he propose we target in that discretionary unilateralism? If Senator McCain believes Iraq is the central point in a broader strategy, what does he think about the spillover theory in teetering regimes such as Yemen’s?

Both of these gentlemen are good at macro arguments on Iraq and Afghanistan, but they get a failing grade when it comes down to the details. Both explained why current American behavior abroad is either faulty or noble, yet neither has outlined their endgame. We know how both senators would approach the war on their first day in office, but we don't yet know where they see the world on their last. Adventurism overseas can be explained to the American people if objectives are made clear. The candidate who accomplishes this may win the foreign policy debate in 2008.

What Everyone Should Be Talking About Today

This is stunning:

Israel gave serious thought this spring to launching a military strike on Iran's nuclear sites but was told by President George W Bush that he would not support it and did not expect to revise that view for the rest of his presidency, senior European diplomatic sources have told the Guardian.

The then prime minister, Ehud Olmert, used the occasion of Bush's trip to Israel for the 60th anniversary of the state's founding to raise the issue in a one-on-one meeting on May 14, the sources said. "He took it [the refusal of a US green light] as where they were at the moment, and that the US position was unlikely to change as long as Bush was in office", they added.

First, of course, the obligatory caution: this story is poorly sourced, and could be wrong.

But, assuming the editors of the Guardian know what they're doing and there is reason to believe this is true, this story changes all of the conventional wisdom about the Middle East.

First, evidently the US administration actually is exerting a restraining influence over Israel. Not many people seriously thought that.

Second, Israel is far more convinced of the seriousness of Iran's nuclear program than anyone else thought. They would have risked a serious retaliatory strike in order to undertake the aerial raid.

Third, the US invasion of Iraq has oddly constrained Israeli actions. Later in the article, it is explained that Israel could have attacked Iran without US approval - if only the US didn't control Iraq's airspace, which lies between Israel and Iran.

Fourth, solving the Iranian nuclear problem is going to be a lot harder than either presidential candidate lets on, or perhaps appreciates. They've gotten far enough to bring Israel to advocate war, yet the options are so bad that the Bush administration ruled out an attack. That does not leave a lot of room to maneuver for whoever inherits this situation.

French Lend Confidence to Afghan Mission

Le Figaro reported Monday on a vote of confidence by the French National Assembly on the continuation of France's involvement in Afghanistan under NATO. A constitutional reform, pushed by President Sarkozy and supported by the right-wing majority of the UMP (Sarkozy's party), took place last summer. The measure forces the French executive to submit any military operations lasting more than 4 months to the National Assembly. In a way, this reform is very similar to the infamous 'War Powers Act' voted by the US Congress in 1973.

The vote was easily won by PM François Fillion, at a total of 343 votes to 210. The main opposition party, the left-wing Socialist Party (204 seats out of 577), voted in a bloc against the motion, although its former leader, Lionel Jospin, endorsed the mission with former President Jacques Chirac in 2001.

Furthermore, after the recent deaths of 10 French soldiers in Afghanistan, the motion includes a financial package aimed at sending 100 more elite soldiers and various military equipment.

The Socialist Party's goal is to bolster its popularity by riding on the wave of French opposition to the war. A recent poll showed that 62% of the French now support a withdrawal from Afghanistan. After suffering crippling defeats in municipal elections last year, will the UMP be able to regain control of the political agenda despite its support for the war? As the French tune in to the Socialist Party's convention in November - during which it will elect a new leader - we will soon see if it's able to capitalize on this opposition.

September 25, 2008

What Might Iran Do?

Clifford May at National Review picks up on a topic I raised yesterday about the nature of the Iranian threat to the U.S. He writes that "the conventional wisdom holds that while Iran may represent an existential threat to Israel, America is not in imminent peril."

Seems about right to me. But May goes onto argue that Iran may launch an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) weapon against the U.S. as a prelude to smuggling a nuclear weapon into a U.S. port and blowing it (and us) up.

Well... sure. They might do that. Just as a corrupt Russian military establishment might hand over some functional nuclear weapons to al Qaeda. Just as a belligerent North Korean leadership might start a war with South Korea. Just as a rogue intelligence officer in any nation that has WMD might abscond with some Anthrax and start mailing letters.

Welcome to life. Bad things might happen.

The mere existence of uncertainty doesn't tell us anything at all. The question, of course, is how to navigate a country through uncertainty.

On this most crucial point, May says nothing. Well, not nothing. He does remind us (as he does with metronomic regularity) that in the 1930s, the British appeased Hitler, and look what happened.

The obvious implication of the Munich talk is that only a war against Iran would suffice to eliminate the threat of what might happen if Iran goes nuclear.

What's interesting to me is that while May devotes his considerable imagination to what might happen if Iran goes nuclear, he doesn't wield his creativity to offer us a taste of what might happen if we start another war in the Middle East.

For instance, might the Iranians retaliate by bombing American civilian targets, airlines, buildings, etc? Might Iran destabilize the Iraqi government and intensify efforts to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan? Might a military strike provoke an Iraqi Shia uprising in support of their Iranian coreligionists? Might Iran lob a few of its Shahabs at the Saudi oil fields? Might the resulting bloodshed in Iran lead its Western-leaning youth to despise America?

Might a posture that insists that America start wars on the basis of what might happen be, in the long run, more harmful than one that doesn't?

Clifford May might want to address that in his next column.

September 24, 2008

What Armed Development Means

Last month I had the problems of the relationship between the military and aid and development work on my mind. This past week, a daring British military operation in Afghanistan illustrates the possibilities that open up when the army gets involved in building power plants:

How do you move a 200-tonne hydroelectric turbine to a remote corner of Afghanistan? You can't fly it - there is no airstrip. There is a road, of sorts, but only in places and it is probably mined. Oh, and we have trucks, but they were made for the M1. They get testy in the sand.

This was the problem facing 16 Air Assault Brigade in Helmand this summer.

The troops successfully trundled the massive turbine up through the mountains to a remote village and fought their way back. A highly recommended read.

It's questionable how enduring the feat will be - whose to ensure that the Taliban doesn't find some way to sabotage or destroy the turbine once it's operational? Will the Afghan government be able to simply maintain and operate the installation? Was this the best use of scarce resources?

But at least an operation like this is an option when a high-quality army like that of the British is involved - something that would not be the case in most other countries.

Learning the Wrong Lessons

Clearly, once the dust has settled from the US financial sector meltdown, lessons will emerge. There's no shortage of suggestions now for what went wrong; eventually, people who know more about these things than me will be able to sift through them and figure out what should be done differently.

Unfortunately, a lot of people will probably learn the wrong lessons - or, more likely, use the recent events to justify whatever they were already doing.

Liu Mingkang, China's chief banking regulator, appears to be doing just that. In an interview in the Wall Street Journal, Liu takes comfort from the fact that China's banking sector is more tightly controlled than that in the US. China's stock markets shot up in the last couple years, and then came crashing down, but the banks were largely spared. Liu, unfortunately, credits intense government involvement:

"When China's capital markets went up . . . we called a meeting" of all the financial institutions, Mr. Liu says. The regulator told them: "'Keep away from capital markets. . . That's your task, and your mission.' Then we launched a huge campaign . . . to check their credit disbursement, and trace the money," to make sure banks weren't lending money to speculators, he explains.

Since 2003, Mr. Liu's ability to enforce this kind of directive has increased "thanks to the support given by Premier Wen Jiabao," he explains. "We dispatch people to each board meeting to be observers. We never said a single word, but we make notes and take notes. If we smell something wrong, through different channels, we can ask the board to recheck their thoughts. . . change their decisions and change their board members."

The comparison couldn't be worse. If the US has been on one end of the spectrum, with minimum supervision, then China is all the way on the other - the central government actually owns all of the major banks. And having such heavy-handed involvement may have prevented speculation and uncontrolled trading, but it has distorted the economy in a legion other, more damaging ways.

Just because the US financial model has some flaws, that doesn't mean that everything different is somehow better. China and other economies that are still developing their capital markets would do well to keep this in mind.

September 23, 2008

World to US: Drop Dead

So it seems that US leadership isn't dead - on the current financial crisis, it appears the US government is going to have to take care of things on its own.

Matt Eckel at Foreign Policy Watch has some uncharacteristically nationalistic angst as a result:

I understand that we haven't exactly been making friends and kissing babies over the last eight years, and I understand that schadenfreude would seem to dictate letting the United States stew in its own problems at the moment, but this is a global economy, and expecting our government to do all the financial heavy lifting (especially when we may actually end up bailing out foreign banks in order to maintain systemic integrity) is free-riding of a rather irritating kind

The flip side to this is not all bad - at least the US is firmly in the driver's seat in crafting a response, like it or not.

As Eckel too admits, I don't know enough about finance to have much useful to say on the details. But on the politics of it, there are clearly problems with the US crafting, and payinf for, a solution on its own to problems that are fundamentally global.

True, the proximate cause of the curren mess seems to have been faulty US regulations and oversight. But foreign citizens shared in the benefits when times were good, and look likely to share in the costs now that they're not.

That would have been a good argument for having in place some kind of standing international agreement or mechanism to deal with this current debacle.

But there was no mechanism of any place in kind at all, let alone an international one. So it looks like the US is going to have to suck it up and pay for this on its own unless the wizards at the Treasury can come up with something to lure in the rest of the world. If there's a good alternative out there, I haven't read about it.

But the mismatch in responsibilities, costs, and benefits across countries, as well as within them, seems like a pretty obvious place to look to fix things after this crisis is past and it's time to start reworking the system so it's less vulnerable. If I were a European, I don't know how comfortable I would be with my government sitting out the worst crisis of a generation and hoping the US Congress would figure things out on its own.

Who Should Stop Iran?

There seem to be two schools of thought emerging on the nature of the threat a nuclear Iran would pose.

The first, typified by this op-ed in the WSJ, posits a fairly grim but nonetheless conventional threat: a nuclear Iran is better situated to intimidate America's regional allies, threaten world oil supplies and possibly catalyzes a regional arms race.

The second, typified by this op-ed by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, suggests that Iran would actually use a nuclear weapon against Israel in pursuit of a second Holocaust (which would promptly be followed by a much, much larger bloodbath in Iran).

Even if you discount, as I do, the notion that Iran is suicidal, it seems clear that Iran poses an existential threat to the state of Israel. But it also seems clear that Iran, while extremely dangerous to our interests in the Middle East, does not pose an existential threat to the U.S.

The question that will urgently confront the next administration already saddled with two wars in the region is: should that distinction matter?

Thinking About the Long Term

Daniel Drezner asks an important question: "Is this the beginning of a norm shift in the global economy?"

He thinks not, yet (quoting verbatim):

It’s tempting to say yes, but I have my doubts. The last time the United States intervened on this scale in its own financial sector was the S&L bailout — and despite that intervention, financial globalization took off. The last time we’ve seen cordinated global interventions like this was the Asian financial crisis of a decade ago — and that intevention reinforced rather than retarded the privilege of private actors in the marketplace. In other words, massive interventions can take place without undecutting the ideological consensus that private actors should control the commading heights of the economy.

The good professor then goes on to make the true, but politically unpopular, point that the dollar and the US market are still outperforming most of the rest of the world.

He makes an important point. This isn't the first financial meltdown for the US, nor for the world. When the same thing has happened elsewhere, the real economy essentially shut down. That still could happen, but there's reason to believe it won't - unemployment, GDP growth, and inflation are all still somewhere between "not bad" and "ok." Like a good skyscraper, or a defense in football, the system so far is in bend-don't-break form.

Financial crises, like poverty, will always be with us - tulips in the 15th century, mortgage-backed securities today.

There is absolutely a need to figure out what is going on in the markets, fix it, and stop this particular crisis from happening again. But it's a bit early to start declaring the end of an era of free financial markets and capital flows. The flexibility of the system, the strength of the private sector, and, yes, the relative lightness of the government's role in normal times have all contributed to its ability to act as effectively as it has in these more interesting times. And these factors are some of what separates the US' current situation from the crises that brought so many developing countries to their knees throughout the 1990s.

Some Words of Wisdom from History

George Kennan was a smart guy, and he occasionally said very smart things:

In international, as in private, life what counts most is not really what happens to someone but how he bears what happens to him. For this reason almost everything depends from here on out on the manner in which we Americans bear what is unquestionably a major failure and disaster to our national fortunes. If we accept it with candor, with dignity, with a resolve to absorb its lessons and to make it good be redoubled and determined effort ... we need lose neither our self-confidence nor our allies nor our power for bargaining. But if we try to conceal from our own people or from our allies the full measure of our misfortune, or permit ourselves to seek relief in any actions of bluster or petulance or hysteria, we can easily find this crisis resolving into an irreparable deterioration of our world position - and of our confidence in ourselves.

(quoted in The Wise Men, by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas)

Kennan was responding to the entry of the Chinese into the Korean War, but his words bear repeating as the US financial system seems to teeter on the edge of either collapse or nearly complete nationalization. The country has stared down worse crises before, and will stare down worse crises again.

September 22, 2008

Canadian Contest: The Rhetoric Heats Up

It was a quiet weekend in the Canadian polling world. Only one poll was released over the weekend, from Harris-Decima. It shows the Tories at 39%, the Liberals at 23% and the NDP at 17%. In Quebec, the new poll shows that the Bloc remains ahead with support from 31% of likely voters. Followed behind them are the Tories at 25%. For the first time in years, the NDP is now the third party in Quebec, as it's 17% level of approval was just higher than the flunking Liberals.

democraticSPACE also updated its seat projections:

Tories at 144 seats (37,3%)
Liberals at 89 seats (25,6%)
Bloc at 41 seats (8,0%)
NDP at 33 seats (17,8%)

In Quebec:

Bloc at 41 seats (32,2%
Tories at 16 seats (26,0%)
Liberals at 16 seats (20,4%)
NDP at 1 seat (13,5%)

Yesterday, the campaign's rhetoric was turned up a notch. An unwritten rule of Canadian politics is that the parties do not (usually) campaign in the riding where the leader of another party is running. On Sunday, the Tories unleashed a full-scale assault in Gilles Duceppe's riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie (Montreal) by campaigning on a publicity truck accusing the Bloc of having costed $350 million in salaries since it's founding in 1990.

Most pundits and editorials in Quebec agree that this move could heavily backfire for the Conservatives, as this kind of aggressive, negative campaigning is not really what citizens are used to here. How does Mr. Harper's team come up with $350 million? Simple--They added up the House of Common salaries that Bloc MPs have received in income since 1990. Of course, the attack does not mention that this $350 nillion in salaries would have been paid regardless of the party affiliation of Quebec's MPs.

It remains to be seen if this hubristic behavior coming from the Tories will damage their Quebec campaign or not.

September 20, 2008

Terror in Pakistan (Updated Below)

(AP Photo/B.K.Bangash)

A suicide truck bombing has killed at least 40 people today in the Pakistani capital city of Islamabad.

The bombing occurred at the city's Marriott hotel, right near the home of Yousaf Raza Gilani, the nation's current prime minister. Counter-terror intelligence revealed that Islamic militants had likely been deployed all around the country to conduct joint attacks over the weekend. However, the government assumed the worst had passed with the constrictions of the Ramadan fast making an attack presumably less likely. So they thought.

The Daily Times reported yesterday on a madrassa suicide attack in the central Pakistan city of Quetta.

Al Jazeera has some excellent video on the scene of the attack. Senators Obama and McCain have both released statements.

Check in with us throughout the rest of the weekend for more updates and roundups on the situation as it develops.


Yet another suicide bomber has claimed six lives--three soldiers, three civilians--in northwest Pakistan.

I think Matt Yglesias makes a valid point. If a silver lining is to be found in all this, it may be that attacks such as these could have a unifying effect on the country.


The West reacts.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari:

"Terrorism is a cancer in Pakistan, we are determined, God willing, we will rid the country of this cancer," he said.

"I promise you that such actions by these cowards will not lower our resolve."


The death toll has risen to 53, including the life of Czech Republic ambassador Ivo Zdarek.

Pakistani blogger Faisal.K of Deadpan Thoughts put it rather succinctly: "So this is what living in Kabul feels like."

September 18, 2008

Their Brand Is Chaos

From the Tehran Times:

Iranian Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani on Wednesday condemned a proposal to deploy Arab forces in the Gaza Strip.

“This move is (aimed at) ensuring the security of Israel, not at restoring the rights of the oppressed Palestinian nation,” Larijani told an open session of parliament

A plan has been proposed by some Arab states, led by Egypt, to deploy Arab forces in the Gaza Strip, allegedly to end to clashes between rival Palestinian factions, mainly Hamas and Fatah.

Various Palestinian groups have vociferously rejected the idea, saying it is a new plot meant to perpetuate the Israeli occupation and undermine the Palestinian resistance.

Last week, Laijani had a telephone conversation with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya to discuss the issue.

Haniya criticized the Arab League for pursuing the interests of the Zionist regime rather than Palestine’s during the phone call.

Larijani--Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's most likely opponent in next year's presidential campaign--is sending two slightly obvious messages here to his would-be constituents: 1. as president, he will not allow the 'Zionists' to conspire against Muslims in Palestine, and 2. any act of unified, Arab aggression towards Iranian allies will not be tolerated.

Since its inception, the Islamic Republic has always been eager and willing to ferment chaos beyond their own borders. Such a joint-Arab action on the part of Arab states, theoretically, could lay the foundation for a regional defense force. Worse yet for Tehran, if said force proves itself adept at maintaining stability in the region, the model could then be applied elsewhere (Iraq, anyone?).

As long as Iran can keep regional focus on the Israelis, it makes their mischievous behavior in Palestine and beyond a little more tolerable. Hamas and PIJ, from an Arab state perspective, can target Israelis as much as they'd like. However, once those Iranian surrogates start exchanging fire with Arab forces in Gaza, the whole dynamic alters.

Think this is farfetched? Keep in mind, one of the driving forces behind last year's Annapolis conference was the regional concern over a more ambitious and hegemonic Iran. If Arab nations find the ability to join forces and address the Palestinian crisis, it might weaken Iran's standing in the Middle East.

Larijani, in not quite so many words, has given his full stamp of approval to chaos.

Hands Off Pakistan vs. Gloves Off

Daniel Larison argues that it is reckless to target terrorists inside Pakistan.

His basic premise is that the Pakistani state cannot absorb repeated violations of its sovereignty (in the form of U.S. drone attacks and ground incursions) and not collapse. And, further, that the collapse of Pakistan in order of magnitude is more dangerous to the U.S. than another 9/11-style massacre on U.S. soil.

So here's a question for Larison: what do we do?

Do we simply target al-Qaeda elements in Pakistan and leave the Taliban out of it (if such precision is even possible)? Do we revert to the 2003-2007 model of funneling money into Pakistan and hoping for the best?

Larison is surely right to warn of the dangers in pushing Pakistan to the breaking point. Yet Pakistan is harboring people with a demonstrated capacity to kill Americans on American soil. At what point does solicitousness for the regime in Pakistan cede to the priority of protecting Americans?

Updated Seat Projections in Canada

Here are the latest seat projections from democraticSPACE:

Tories at 150 seats (38,9%)
Liberals at 86 seats (25,5%)
Bloc at 40 seats (8%)
NDP at 30 seats (16,9%)
2 independents

155 seats are needed to form a majority in Canada's 308 seats House of Commons.

In Quebec (75 seats total):
Bloc at 40 (32,7%)
Tories at 17 (27,3%)
Liberals at 16 (19,7%)
NDP at 1 (12,5%)
1 independent

Lots of new polling numbers came out in the last few days.

Harris-Decima: Tories at 38%, Liberals at 28%, NDP at 15%, Greens at 10%. In Quebec, Bloc is at 33%, Tories at 25%, Liberals at 22%, NDP at 11%.

Léger Marketing in Quebec: Tories at 34%, Bloc at 32%, Liberals at 20%, NDP at 9%

Strategic Counsel poll of key swing ridings:
Quebec: Bloc at 31%, Tories at 26%, Liberals at 23%, NDP at 13%
Ontario: Tories at 35%, Liberals at 35%, NDP at 18%

As you can see, some of these numbers are contradictory. For the first time, a poll shows the Bloc actually trailing the Tories in Quebec. However, most polls, especially those targeting key swing ridings, show that Tory support is sagging in Quebec and Ontario. Stay tuned as more numbers will start coming in the next few days.

Comparative Observation

At the risk of committing an election time taboo, I must make a confession: I've become terribly bored with the U.S. election.

Don't get me wrong, I believe it to be the most significant presidential contest in decades. But the overall process--the sniping, the partisan back and forth, and the bland debates over gaffes and flubs--is becoming rather dull.

So, while I proudly support and applaud our system of governance, I've always found proportional systems like Israel's to be more fascinating as an outside observer. In order to be the executive you have to build a governable coalition. Build a bi-partisan coalition, and you water down your policy platform. Build a partisan coalition, and you automatically create a common enemy amongst your rivals. The idea, in part, is to create a strong, enduring coalition; one capable of forestalling a nationwide election for as long as possible.

Such is Tzipi Livni's current dilemma. Shmuel Rosner explains:

Theoretically speaking, she can form a coalition of the left, without Shas, and with Kadima, Labor, the dovish Meretz and the support of Arab parliament members. The leaders of Shas spent time in the opposition in the past, and don’t like the taste of it. If they believe that Livni’s narrow coalition can survive for a while, their appetite for new elections might cool down very quickly.

Of course, such a coalition will have its own downside. First of all, it’s not at all clear that all Kadima members will follow Livni into it. Second, it will establish her squarely as a left-wing leader–giving Binyamin Netanyahu the benefit of having all right wing voters to himself, while she has to split left-wing voters with Labor.

And this will also be a very limited coalition. With barely 60 members of Knesset in her camp–half the parliament–every politician will be king. Livni, the Ms. Clean of Israeli politics, will have to cave time and again to all kinds of demands and pressures as not to lose the coalition. It can’t last for very long–and it’s not clear if Livni wants to take this path. Bottom line: as Shas goes, so goes the coalition.

Good luck with that, Ms. Livni.

Al Qaeda Needs New IT Guys

With Wall Street's tailspin sucking up most of the news cycle, this tidbit, from Evan Kohlmann at the always-informative Counterterrorism Blog, was at least able to warm my heart:

For those who follow the workings of Al-Qaida's As-Sahab Media Foundation, it is no secret that As-Sahab has recently been suffering a series of embarrassing technical problems relating to the delayed publication of Al-Qaida's 9/11 seventh anniversary video, titled "Results of 7 Years of the Crusades."


Yet, a crippling network outage for Al-Qaida appears to have played a role in thwarting As-Sahab's efforts at completing the distribution process. One of the primary Internet discussion forums used by Al-Qaida and its global network of affiliates to distribute their propaganda and recruit supporters--known as "Al-Ekhlaas"--was suddenly knocked offline on approximately September 10. Next on the chopping block were a series of domains used by another competing extremist forum "Al-Hesbah."

After the terrorists got their servers in order, they accidentally sent out the wrong password, prompting a flood of annoyed posts on extremist websites throughout the scarier parts of the Internet.

September 17, 2008

Press Shows True Colors in Contradicting Polls

The race is definitely heating up in Canada. Flaming rants have come to pass from the leaders of the four major parties last week. Gilles Duceppe, from the Bloc Québécois, the Liberals' Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton of the New Democratic Party, have all campaigned hard to define PM Stephen Harper as a clone of American president George W. Bush, while Mr. Harper has attacked Mr. Dion by portraying him as a weak leader.

In Quebec, the Bloc insists that the recent Conservative cuts in cultural funding shows that Mr. Harper does not care about Quebec culture, although he has recently recognized, for the first time in Canadian history, that Quebec is a nation. Quebec artists groups, which have been known in the past for supporting Quebec's bid for independence, are now mostly campaigning for the Bloc (a minority is campaigning for the Liberals).

As far as polls are concerned, well, they are quite contradictory, depending on which press groups release them. On Tuesday, a Strategic Counsel poll released in the Globe & Mail showed that the Tories' lead has shrunk in targeted swing ridings in Ontario and Quebec. Keep in mind that the Globe & Mail is known for its support for the Liberal Party.

Today, a new Segma Unimarketing poll was released in the very federalist La Presse, a French-language newspaper in Quebec. It shows that the Tories are consolidating their lead everywhere in Canada, and most specifically in Ontario and Quebec. Keep in mind that La Presse is actively campaigning for the Tories in Quebec; some of its earlier polling numbers showed, as is true of this new one, higher Tory support than in other polls.

According to this poll, the numbers go as follows: Conservatives at 42%, Liberals at 23%, NDP at 16%. In Quebec, the Bloc's lead shrinks to 33%, followed closely by the Tories at 31%. The Liberals are long gone at 16%. These numbers would mean that the Tories could pick up as many as 10 seats from the Bloc in francophone ridings in Quebec, and up to as many as 20 seats from the Liberals in suburban Ontario.

So Segma Unimarketing projects that the Tories will get 173 seats, the Liberals 68, the Bloc 41 and the NDP 25. However, Segma's projection model does not include other regional polls, which are crucial for making accurate seat projections.

Specific regional polls are set to be released in both Quebec and Ontario this week. These will give us a much better idea of where the race is currently headed.

RealClearWorld Canadian Poll Averages

The U.S. and Pakistan: Back to the Stone Age

The news out of Pakistan today should certainly raise eyebrows:

Pakistan's military said today its forces had received orders to fire on US troops if they entered Pakistani territory, after a cross-border raid inflamed public opinion.

The country's civilian leaders, who have taken a tough line against militants, have insisted Pakistan must resolve the dispute with the US through diplomatic channels. But the military has taken a more robust line.

General Athar Abbas, an army spokesman, told the Associated Press that after a cross-border assault in the south Waziristan region earlier this month, the military told its field commanders to take action to prevent any similar raids.

This is a genuinely thorny situation where America's short-term interests (killing bin Laden and his top lieutenants before they strike the U.S. homeland again) are colliding with her long-term interests (keeping Pakistan stable and friendly).

It's useful, in this light, to consider the events of September 12, 2001.

On that day, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage placed a call to Pakistan's intelligence minister and Taliban supporter, General Mahmood who happened to be in Washington D.C. According to the 9/11 Commission, Armitage served notice to the government of Pakistan that its policies had to change. Fast:

Armitage gave Mahmood a list of seven "non-negotiable" demands, among them a requirement that Pakistan end its relationship with the Taliban and grant the U.S. territorial access to conduct operations against al Qaeda. According to the Commission's final report, "Pakistan made its decision swiftly. That afternoon, Secretary of State Powell announced at the beginning of an NSC meeting that Pakistani President Musharraf had agreed to every U.S. request for support in the war on terrorism.

It's interesting to note the tone of the exchange between the two nations suddenly thrust into cooperation. Armitage, in a Frontline interview, gives us a hint:

It was a very brief 15- or 20-minute meeting, where I presented [Mahmood] with the list, read it to him, and told him that this was not a negotiable list; it was all or nothing. He said that he knew how the president thought, and the president would accept these points and was with us. I said, "With all respect, that's not good enough. The president of Pakistan, President Musharraf, must agree to these, and my secretary will be calling in a couple of hours." The secretary called 1:30 or so Eastern time that day, about an hour and 15 or 20 minutes after we'd finished the meeting. President Musharraf agreed to all the conditions, without exception.

President Musharraf claimed that Armitage threatened to "bomb Pakistan back to the stone age" if help was not forthcoming. Armitage disputes that characterization. What is not in dispute is that, after the carnage of 9/11, America served notice to Pakistan.

Could the next president deliver such an ultimatum? Given the news today, would it be wise to do so?

Winning in Afghanistan

Writing in the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum wonders whether America would be willing to "pay the high cost of victory" in Afghanistan.

I say: It depends. If advocates of a prolonged Western nation-building effort would forcefully make the case for what security gains a victory would deliver. Would it impede terror cells in Europe? Would it diminish the allure of radical Islam around the world? We're being asked to pour a significant amount of resources into Afghanistan ostensibly on the grounds that doing so would bolster American security. Tell us what we'd win.

September 16, 2008

Talking to Iran

Five former Secretaries of State have urged the next administration to engage Iran.

It's always been a bit of a mystery to me why this has become such a contentious point. Even if you think the Iranians are incorrigible terrorists, you'll get far better information about them and their intentions if you have regular exchanges with them (as the U.S. did with the Soviets) than if you persist in walling them off. It may not alter the dynamic of the relationship - clearly Europe's engagement hasn't successfully moderated Iran's nuclear ambitions - but what's the harm?

September 15, 2008

Japan Leadership Race Not Much of a Race

Domestic politics in Japan are as dull as ever, it seems. Again, the ruling party has united around a candidate without much of a debate or much campaigning. But Iran may have just made the general election interesting.

Less than two weeks after Prime Minister Fukuda resigned, it's all but certain that Taro Aso, former foreign minister, will win the presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and with it the prime minister's office.

Aso has already locked up 50% of support. His nearest challenger, former defense minister Yuriko Koike, has barely over 8% - although she did pick up the backing of Junichiro Koizumi, the very popular former prime minister. It seems to have been too little, too late, however.

Campaigning has been tame; the only debate between candidates was a dud. Aso plans to form a 'unity' cabinet including all of his rivals for the party leadership. Fears (or hopes, depending on your perspective) of a backroom brawl and intraparty strife look likely to come to naught.

The candidates will continue to 'campaign,' traveling around the country as a group to deliver their stump speeches, but the real intent there seems to be to provide the LDP a chance to showcase its talent before the general election.

That general election might be a more riveting affair, though. The Prime Minister gets to call the elections in Japan, and Aso has made some comments implying that he'd put an election off until after some attempts to push economic bills through the legislature. The opposition party will not want to hand him legislative victories, but also won't want to be seen as obstructionist.

Meanwhile, Iran is telling anyone who will listen that Japan 'does not play a significant role in international and political affairs,' in an extremely nasty campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council. That's not likely to sit well with the very conservative Aso.

The two parties are divided over how Japan can best play an influential role internationally, a very contentious subject in Japan. Iran's insults might be playing directly into Aso's hand, providing him the perfect opportunity to demonstrate what his supposed toughness is good for. Or the chance to look tough might prove too tempting: Aso might overreach or say something stupid, and suddenly the opposition party would have a very real chance of winning power for the first time.

September 14, 2008

Canada : New Poll Predicts Conservative Majority

A new Canadian Press-Harris-Decima poll released Friday shows that the Tories are consolidating their support in most regions of Canada. According to this survey, the Conservative Party has a 41% support among likely voters, followed by the Liberal Party at 26% and the NDP at 14%. This is definitely a majority-forming support that Mr. Harper's party is seeking.

But most of the Tories' gains came out of the Liberal collapse in Ontario, as Bloc Québécois remains solidly ahead in Quebec with support from 35% of likely voters, followed by the Tories at 28%. The Liberals are most certainly out of the picture in Quebec, sagging at 17%.

With limited backing in Quebec, it's unlikely that Mr. Harper's majority would be handed to him by Quebec voters. If the Bloc is able to maintain its nationalist base, Ontario will most likely be the province that decides whether Mr. Harper's Tories are worthy of forming a majority government.

RealClearWorld Canadian Poll Averages

September 13, 2008

New Seat Projections in Canada

Greg Morrow's projection model, located at democraticSPACE.com, published a new seat projection based on the latest polls broken down regionally. The model used in these projections gave a pretty accurate prediction for the 2006 Canadian election. It did not do nearly as well in the Quebec 2007 election, however.

So democraticSPACE projects a Conservative minority government :

Conservative Party at 146; Liberal Party at 92; Bloc Québécois at 38; New Democratic Party at 30; Green Party at 0 (155 seats are required to form a majority).

New polling data should be available Monday. Stay tuned.

September 12, 2008

Silencing the Voice of America

This is infuriating:

...in a move that reflects shifts in U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors has decided that VOA's [the Voice of America] seven-hour Hindi-language radio service will end this month, after 53 years. VOA will also eliminate radio broadcasts in three Eastern European languages. Radio broadcasts in Russian went off the air in July.

The Board of Governors has decided that the Internet and television are better places to spend their limited funds, which is probably right. The real travesty here, though, is the size of their funds: $2 million, for all Hindi language programming.

India is a rapidly growing democracy that is home to over 1 billion people. It is one of the most geopolitically important countries on the planet, which is why the US government is bending over backwards to establish a partnership with the country on nuclear power and other matters.

As the article makes clear, the VOA service is marginal, at best: it gets an audience of roughly 8 million people. But those 8 million are without any other news source. And they can be relied on to spread what they hear on the radio throughout their communities and networks, providing an invaluable check on the state radio monopoly. (India is a democracy, but it's not always a nice one, and communal riots and massacres often go unreported on state airwaves.)

Preserving a cheap, well-regarded way to broadcast information and earn popular goodwill would seemingly be a no-brainer. But evidently it's not.

The decision isn't the fault of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent, government-sponsored institution that overseas VOA. Given only $2 million, they probably made the right call - television and the Internet are more important these days. But it's ridiculous that the funding was cut so low that the Board had to make the choice.

Hindi isn't the only service to have been cut. Russian, Serbian, and Ukrainian language broadcasts also got the axe. Funding is being diverted to Arabic language news and radio - a very good tool, certainly, but it's not much money relative to the benefits. It would cost a few extra million to safeguard radio broadcasts in all of these languages.

The thinking evidently is that, with the explosion in other media outlets and the end of the Cold War, a government subsidized news service delivered by short wave radio is no longer necessary.

Ask the Georgians how they feel about that: as luck would have it, Russian-language broadcasts by VOA went out just days before the Russians invaded. When Russia cut off TV and Internet service, a good chunk of the population lost all access to external news sources.

Russians themselves, of course, are now also without access to VOA broadcasts, leaving the airwaves to a domestic Russian media almost entirely controlled by Prime Minister Putin and his ex-KGB allies.

Short-wave radio broadcasts are an amazingly inexpensive way to disseminate news and commentary. There isn't any money in broadcasting news to people on the other side of the world too poor to own a TV, so the private sector won't do it - so there is an important role for government funding here. VOA, meanwhile, does very good work on a very short budget. It not only presents hard news, but also allows call-in commentary that, while a staple here in the West, is a relatively rare opportunity to speak to a wide audience in many other countries, even other democracies.

One of the biggest problems facing our country is our utter lack of credibility or respect from others abroad, and yet the US is unilaterally laying down an effective tool for building up just those qualities. One of the most important ongoing trends worldwide is still the fitful spread of the franchise and freedom of the press, and yet the US is missing an opportunity to ensure that newly empowered and future voters have access to information about the world.

Sometimes, it seems as if the US government is actually trying to make things more difficult. It really is amazing.

Unexpected Fact of the Day

Some animal experts estimate at least 3,000 tigers in the Lone Star State. That means more captive tigers live in Texas than prowl in the wild in India.

Evidently, there aren't actually any laws prohibiting owning, breeding, or selling most endangered animals in Texas, making it a cross-roads for international smuggling networks.

(H/T: Arts and Letters Daily)

September 11, 2008

Tories Aim for Majority; Quebec Race Competitive

New polling data came out Wednesday in Canada. Let's take a look at what these numbers mean.

First, the Globe and Mail released its "poll of polls." According to this average of national polls, the Conservative Party is ahead at 37%, followed by the Liberal Party at 26% and the NDP at 18%. These numbers should bode well for Mr. Harper, as most analysts agree that 37% of the popular vote means that a majority government is within reach for the Conservatives. To get a majority government, the Tories would need to win at least 155 of the 308 seats in the House.

In addition, according to Ekos' polling data, the Conservatives are also within reach of a majority government with 37% of likely voters' support, followed by Mr. Dion's Liberals at 26%. Ekos projects that the Tories will get one more seat than necessary - 156 - for absolute majority in parliament.

But Ekos's projection model has weaknesses, especially when it's broken down regionally. In Quebec, Ekos reports that the Bloc remains ahead with 27%, followed by the Tories at 25% and the Liberal Party at 22%. It projects that out of Quebec's 75 seats, the Bloc would retain 33 seats while the Conservatives and Liberals would get 20 and 21 seats, respectively.

But I really have trouble believing that the Liberals would get more seats than the Tories in Quebec. It just makes no sense: Mr. Dion is widely unpopular among Quebec's francophones who make up 80% of the population. Also, the Liberal Party's support is below its 2006 level, so I really don't see how they could win 10 new seats in Quebec.

Before the House was dissolved, the Bloc had an overwhelming majority of Quebec's seats (50), followed by the Liberals and the Tories at 12 each. There are only two ridings in which the Liberal Party could make gains in Quebec: Outremont (a historical Liberal stronghold now represented by Quebec's only NDP MP, Thomas Mulcair) and Papineau, a riding in which the incumbent Bloc MP is being challenged by the Liberals' Justin Trudeau, the son of former prime minister Pierre-Elliot Trudeau.

The Tories remain out of the picture in Montreal, where the contest is really between the Bloc and the Liberals. Outside Montreal, though, the struggle is between the Bloc and the Tories. Even if he would never dare say it publicly, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe hopes that the Liberal vote will not entirely collapse in Quebec.

Bloc strategists privately argue that if the Liberals remain around 20%, it will split the federalist vote between the Tories and the Liberals and therefor allow the Bloc to remain ahead. In any event, the race in Quebec remains higly competitive.

September 10, 2008

A Dirty, Dirty Campaign Starts in Canada

Canada's 39th legislature was dissolved by Governor General Michaëlle Jean (who is, under Canada's parliamentary monarchy, the representative of the Crown of England and therefor the head of state) just three days ago, but vicious, personal attacks have already come to pass. As Michel Auger, a senior political correspondent for Radio-Canada (the French CBC) stated Tuesday, it seems that this campaign will not be won on issues, but by a confrontation of very different personalities. Henceforth, personal attacks are bound to become a central part of the campaign.

Every party plays, to a certain extent, dirty politics. However, if a gold medal for personal attacks were to be awarded, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party would definitely deserve it. With a treasure chest far exceeding that of his Liberal nemesis Stéphane Dion, Mr. Harper outspent his opponent for a full year now by running ads that portray Mr. Dion as a weak, undecided leader who will raise taxes.

However, on Tuesday, Mr. Harper's attacks came home to roost. The Conservative Party produced a website in which we could see an animated bird dropping excrement on Mr. Dion's shoulder. This trashy attack gave Mr. Dion some momentum, and his indignation played well for the media; portraying Mr. Harper as a take-no-prisoners, blood-thirsty general.

This is exactly the kind of gaffe that the Conservative Party fears. In a campaign where the Liberals (federalist centrist), the NDP (federalist left-wing) and the Bloc (nationalist center-left) are all working hard to portray Mr. Harper as a clone of American president George W. Bush, this latest attack could certainly hurt the Conservatives in some crucial constituencies. Among them are Canada's urban women, who typically abhor such dirty politics.

Of course, it is much too early in the campaign to start making predictions on the effect of this hardball Conservative initiative. Mr. Harper's hubris has given his opponent, Mr. Dion, more ammunition to portray the prime minister as a cold-blooded, power-hungry man. Even the conservative-leaning National Post, a natural media ally for Mr. Harper, acknowledged that these kinds of attacks have gone too far.

Mr. Harper did act swiftly to remove the ad from the web site and offered his excuses (which Mr. Dion accepted), but for a party that has been running negative ads for about a year now, it may be too little, too late.

Japan: Another Election Worth Watching

Anyone getting tired of US campaign hijinks is strongly urged to cast their glances across the Pacific to Japan. Last week's resignation by the prime minister has set off a battle for the leadership of the ruling party (and hence the prime ministership) the like of which the country has rarely seen.

As of yesterday, six candidates had declared themselves to be in the race, which will be decided by legislators and local prefectural bosses. The race is generating enough excitement that some critics are arguing the whole process is being staged in order to grab attention.

Taro Aso, the very former* conservative foreign minister, appears likely to win. But he is being challenged by a cast of new up-and-comers, including the first woman to put herself forward for the office.

The leadership election will be held on September 22. The winner will be PM, but also face pressure to call a quick election. Japan's ruling party, the LDP, has governed almost without interruption for fifty years, but the country's political system is undergoing some staggering shifts.

In the weeks ahead, we'll try here to delve a little more deeply into what's going on. Despite being one of the world's largest economies, and one of Asia's oldest democracies, Japan has dropped out of the conversation for a while - maybe because its problems have been so run-of-the-mill. But there are interesting social, political, and economic shifts underway that may crystallize in these races.

*UPDATED: As Michael Auslin notes in the comments below, Aso is a former, not current, foreign minister.

September 9, 2008

Should Georgia Follow the Hezbollah Model?

Via Robert Farley, Greg Grant at DoD Buzz writes:

A defense analyst I spoke with, who advises American ground forces, said to rebuild the Georgian military along conventional lines might be the wrong approach. Instead he suggested a different force model, that of Hezbollah. What Hezbollah did so effectively, as was shown in the 2006 Lebanon war, was combine modern weaponry with a distributed infantry force that fought in guerrilla fashion. Fighting as distributed networks, Hezbollah rarely presented an inviting target for Israeli air and artillery attack, but their well trained tactical units were able to swarm at the point of attack of Israeli armored incursions and hit the Israelis hard with precision anti-tank weaponry.

Given that Russia doesn't seem to want to physically occupy the entirety of the country, this seems to be a pretty draconian fix. As Farley notes, such an approach may not serve the broader interests of the Georgian military establishment so well (not to mention Mikhail Saakashvili's stated aversion to beards). Nevertheless, it's clear that the Georgian military needs a more asymmetric approach to its conventionally superior neighbor.

Burn Me Once, Shame on You...

This should be good news:

At a televised news briefing with Medvedev, Sarkozy said Russian forces would withdraw from five checkpoints between the Black Sea port of Poti and the western city of Senaki within a week, and from all positions in other undisputed parts of Georgia within a month.

Except that, back on August 12, the two sides had already agreed to just that:
By 2 a.m. on Wednesday, Mr. Medvedev and his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili, had agreed on a plan that would withdraw troops to the positions they had occupied before the fighting broke out.

US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice flew to Tblisi to secure Georgia's signature to the original peace deal; afterward, Russian forces just held their positions anyway.

Let's hope the second agreement's the charm and the rest of Russia's troops actually pull out. If not, then either the Russians have a very strange and troubling opinion of the value of their own signature on something, or Medvedev is not only powerless to rein in the army but also unaware of or unconcerned with how limited his writ actually is. Neither of which would be good for anybody.

September 8, 2008

Poll: Conservatives Cruising in Canada

Guest post and translation provided by RCW Intern Marc Desnoyers

La Presse:

"Dans l’ensemble du Canada, le Parti conservateur détient une avance considérable de 18 points de pourcentage sur les libéraux de Stéphane Dion, qui stagnent à 25%. Le NPD et le Parti vert obtiennent respectivement 15% et 7% dans ce sondage, réalisé auprès de 1288 répondants – dont 450 au Québec et 450 en Ontario –, et précis à 2,7 points près, 19 fois sur 20.

Au Québec, le Bloc est toujours en tête, avec 35% des intentions de vote. Les conservateurs sont bons deuxièmes, à 30%. C’est la débâcle pour le Parti libéral, qui chute à 17%, son plus mauvais résultat depuis octobre 2007.

Mais c’est en Ontario que le chef conservateur fait le plus de gains. Par rapport au mois de février, les libéraux ont reculé de 43% à 31%, directement au profit des troupes de M. Harper, qui grimpent de 32% à 44%."

Translation: "In the whole of Canada, the Conservative Party, at 43%, is significantly ahead, by 18 points over Stéphane Dion's Liberals, which remain at 25%. The NDP (left-wing Federalist) and the Green Party respectively get 15% and 7% in this poll, which sampled 1,288 respondents, among them 450 in Quebec and 450 in Ontario. The margin of error is 2.7% with 95% confidence.

In Quebec, the Bloc remains ahead, with 35% of support among likely voters. The Conservatives are a solid second, at 30%. It's a debacle for the Liberal Party, its 17% supports is its worst showing since October 2007.

But it is in Ontario where the Conservative leader makes the most gains. Compared to last February, the Liberals' support has sagged from 43% to 31%, directly profiting Mr. Harper's troops, whose numbers rose from 32% to 44%."

Segma, the firm which produced this poll, projects that Stephen Harper's Conservatives could win 183 seats in the House, whilst only 155 are needed to get a majority. Under this scenario, the Conservatives would steal 5 seats from the Bloc in Quebec and more than 30 seats from the Liberals in Ontario.

September 7, 2008

Will the Real Kim Jong-Il Please Stand Up?

Startling news today from the Times of London:

Is Kim Jong-il for real? The question has baffled foreign intelligence agencies for years but now a veteran Japanese expert on North Korea says the “dear leader” is actually dead – and his role is played by a double.

The expert says Kim died of diabetes in 2003 and world leaders including Vladimir Putin of Russia and Hu Jintao of China have been negotiating with an impostor.

If true, it would be an interesting explanation for the dictator's erratic behavior. The expert alleges that a cabal of four senior NK officials actually run things through their stable of dopplegangers; if the minders clash, or the stand-ins are left marooned without instructions, some pretty strange stuff could happen.

I'm pretty skeptical. I don't know who Toshimitsu Shigemura (the above-named expert) is, and I have no idea how he could figure this out while the world's intelligence agencies failed to notice. A side-by-side shows what looks to me like the same guy, a little worse for wear in the later shot.

Still, North Korea would be basing its actions on at least one recent precedent. And given Kim Jong-Il's well-known love for American movies, it's an example he and his advisers were likely to be well aware of:

September 5, 2008

Doctrine Matters

After reading the Walt/Muravchik realist/neocon smack-down at the National Interest, Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy says we should "forget labels and sweeping doctrines, and do what works."

That's the rub. "What works" is in the eye of the bolder. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, this was U.S. policy working, at least according to neoconservatives. To some realists, it was an example of U.S. policy gone dreadfully astray.

Doing simply "what works" requires deciding on some basic definition of what it is that should work - which in turn requires shared goals and agreement on a common direction. But that's clearly not the case in the realist/neoconservative divide. One camp is bent on global hegemony, the other isn't.

The Authoritarian Middle Class

The usual assumption is that a growing middle class and democracy go together. Unfortunately, Thailand seems to be working to disprove that:

From her sensible trousers to her permed hair, Punyanuch Promsiriyat, 57, is the very image of a People Power revolutionary. Dictatorships all over the world have been brought down by people like her — respectable, middle-class citizens dedicated to democracy and justice. ... But this is a “people power” movement like few others. Its bête noire, Mr Samak, is a legitimately elected leader who was voted in just nine months ago.

Far from demanding more democracy, it is calling for a restriction of voting rights. Despite its claim to be a peaceful movement, this week the PAD's campaign turned deadly.

The Thai middle classes are rallying against politicians elected by the vast, poor majority that wants to take what the middle class has (or so the protesters think). The same dynamic can often by seen in China - those who have met with some success tend to support the government, and fear what the great unwashed masses would do if they could vote their own into power.

It's not a new dynamic - Aristotle worried about what would happen if the poor gained power through democracy too. Over the last couple hundred years, democracy has progressed along different lines that made it acceptable to the middle classes, leaving a link between growth and democracy in most people's minds. But it's possible that link is just circumstantial, and that in places like China and Thailand, the old contradictions between democracy and the non-poor are raising their ugly heads again.

Changing the Narrative in the Middle East

Former Clinton NSC officials Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon take to the pages of the New Republic to argue that John McCain doesn't understand the threat America faces from Islamic terrorism.

Deriding McCain's insistence that U.S. troops in the region do not inflame the jihadists, they write:

Above all, it ignores the motivational power of the jihadist "story"--the contention, made by Osama bin Laden and others, that the United States is a predatory power which seeks to occupy Muslim countries, destroy Islam, and steal the Middle East's oil wealth. Undermining that narrative, most counterterrorism analysts believe, must be a central part of the strategy against radical Islamism. Yet McCain's insistence that the U.S. military stay in Iraq for the long term does just the opposite.

Here's the thing, if you agree with that, what's Obama offering? To dismantle Central Command? To shutter our bases in Qatar and Kuwait? To severe our cooperation with the Saudis or Jordanians? To withdraw our protection of Israel? To renounce our interest in Middle East stability and the free flow of oil from the region?

What, exactly, is Obama's plan to "change the narrative?"

The article leads us inferentially to believe that Obama is superior because he would get American forces out of Iraq quicker than McCain. But by the author's own standards that move is obviously insufficient if the goal is to fundamentally change the "narrative" of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

In fact, I suspect that under either a President McCain or a President Obama, U.S. military involvement in the region will only deepen as Iran progresses toward a nuclear bomb. Under the aegis of containment, American support for the Sunni autocrats so reviled by al Qaeda will only deepen. The underlying political dynamic - the narrative, if you will - that sustains Islamic radicalism isn't going to be altered, especially by Obama, who, one assumes, prefers containment to bombardment.

September 4, 2008

Is Maliki Turning into a Strong Man?

Marc Lynch posts the argument from Gregory Gause of the University of Vermont that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is successfully positioning himself not as the head of a democratic government, but as your run-of-the-mill Middle Eastern strong man (albeit in a Shia variety).

A lot of the facts and analysis that Gause assembles could be debated, of course, but an interesting question arises: if, in fact, Maliki is steering the ship of state in Iraq toward some form of Shia authoritarianism, and that has the effect of creating a coherent, stable Iraq (south of the Kurdish Regional Government), would we accept this outcome? Could we stop it even if we wanted to?

A Bucket of Warm Spit

The Vice Presidency is a strange office. In the US, the #2 is formally useless; his (or her) only official duty is to cast ties at the Senate, and as far I'm aware no veep has broken with the president's instructions on that matter since 1800. Some VPs are included in policy decisions, and some are sidelined, but all depend on unofficial sway and the backing of the big guy in the Oval. Unless, of course, something goes wrong, and then the VP is suddenly the most powerful person in the world.

It's an odd quirk of our presidential system. We share it with a few others, mostly in Latin America and Africa, that based their constitutions on our own.

Most other democracies work under the 'Westminster' model, based on that of the UK, and rely on political parties themselves to pick the head of government. If one dies, another leader can be chosen pretty quickly. Some office-holder might be designated a caretaker, but their job is usually just to ensure the party meets to pick someone new. So the successor usually winds up being the second-most powerful person in the government, regardless of what office that person holds. In the UK, Gordon Brown was obviously heir apparent while he held down the chancellorship. In Japan, currently reeling from the resignation of its PM, there's a heated race underway within the party between the foreign minister and the defense minister.

Other presidential systems designate the holder of some other office - usually head of one of the houses of the legislature - as the number two. In France, for instance, the President of the Senate succeeds to the Presidency; a quick election follows. In South Africa, the President picks a Deputy President from the National Assembly, who has real executive authority.

There are good reasons for keeping the next-in-line in your country in a weakened state: it limits the possibility of contests over leadership, it makes the lines of authority clear, it ensures that a new president has campaigned and been elected (President Ford, who was appointed VP, notwithstanding), and it preserves the separation of powers. An understudy that can only act with the president's authority can't really get in the way.

But it's worth keeping in mind that most other countries in the world expect the heirs-apparent actually to do something while they're on-call in case number one meets with tragedy. The last week's hub-bub must look awfully strange from afar.

September 2, 2008

The New Realist Coalition

The Council on Foreign Relations' Leslie Gelb takes to the International Herald Tribune to argue that realists should ditch the GOP and forge a partnership with their fellow realists among the "Truman-Acheson" Democrats:

The two groups of realists should seek common ground on the issue of humanitarian intervention. Americans know they can't be true to themselves and do nothing about genocide. Failure to act against this particular evil corrupts society and inspires deep cynicism, something genuine conservatives always feared.

Now, I can in no way claim to speak for "realism" writ large (or writ small, for that matter), but this strikes me as quite a capitulation on behalf of a fairly dubious claim - that failing to act inspires "cynicism" and societal corruption. I don't recall American society experiencing an inordinate amount of corruption following our passivity in Rwanda. Nor does our society appear to be suffering unduly from our inability to halt the bloodshed in Congo, or Darfur, or Burma, or anywhere else where people are acting inhumanely.

That's glib, I know, but then look at the remedy Gelb proposes:

Yet it is foolhardy to try to tame the problem through nation building. Our experience, as in Bosnia, shows we have a good chance to stop or abate the violence through limited military actions like arming the victims and surgical air strikes.
It strikes me that any realism worth its salt would be very, very skeptical about dropping bombs on people without a solid national security rationale. Vague assertions of cynicism don't cut it.

Africa's Salvation

The Washington Post ran a story on Africa's growing middle class on Monday that captures forces that look to be transforming the continent:

Although the continent has always had a modest middle class made up mostly of government workers or others tied to the ruling elite, the middle ranks have begun to expand in recent years with private sector employees. They include secretaries, computer gurus, merchants and others who by virtue of education, geography or luck have benefited from economic growth of around 6 percent annually in such countries as Uganda, Ghana and Kenya, and around 8 percent in Rwanda. Increasingly, they are entrepreneurs such as Ruharo, who represents the wealthier end of the spectrum and whose company is an offshoot of the newly booming cellphone industry.

The article unfortunately dwells on the consumer aspect of the growth - that as many as 300 million Africans now buy shoes, and takeout, and DVDs. It seems a bit dismissive, maybe even patronizing ("just like us!" you can almost hear the reporter add).

But the trend that the writer, Stephanie McCrummen, identifies on the producing side is amazing, and could potentially transform the region. Without much notice, many countries in Africa are developing real, vibrant private sectors for the first time in history.

Central planning, protectionism, red tape, and aggressive bureaucratic intervention strangled much of Africa's potential for economic development soon after most of the continent gained independence. Robert Bates, maybe the leading US expert on African politics, has argued that the outsize role of the state probably contributed to state failure and the horrific violence that is most identified with the place.

Income to be made outside of the state has the potential to decrease the relative returns to taking over the government and lower the stakes in leadership struggles. It provides employment and opportunities to groups that would otherwise be shut out of governments controlled by other ethnic or tribal groups. It creates a powerful constituency for stable, helpful government. And, most importantly, it creates wealth far better than aid or governments can, helping to life people out of poverty.

Private sector growth in Africa is not a new idea, nor is it a panacea. And figuring out how to foster it is a lot more difficult than just taking away overly intrusive state controls. But a handful of countries in Africa have figured out a way to give it a kickstart, and it's starting to have an effect. The eventual impact on Africa could be enormous.

China as Counterweight to Russia

Much of the riot of commentary over the implications of Russia's new-found belligerence has drawn parallels with the rise of China, suggesting a "springtime for autocrats."

These worries miss one important point that was on display last week, though: Russia and China are probably rivals to each other more than either is to the US, recent events in Georgia notwithstanding. Hence the high-profile snub of Russia's actions delivered by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional grouping that brings together Russia and China with five Central Asian states.

China has plenty of reasons to be twitchy over a more active Russia. Its energy interests run counter to Russia's in Central Asia. China has long opposed the arguments that Russia is advancing to defend its actions in Georgia. Russian power in the Far East could hamper China's attempts to dominate, or at least lead, the region. And the two share a long history of conflict and competition.

The FT's Geoff Dwyer has made the argument that Russia could now be pushing China further into the arms of the West:

In the early 1960s, a swathe of western analysts missed the Sino-Soviet split because they confused a shared belief in Marxism-Leninism for a lock-step partnership. Just because the two countries are now pursuing forms of authoritarian capitalism does not mean they are automatic bedfellows. China has moved closer to Russia in recent years, but there are clear limits to the alliance that Washington could exploit.

But there is more room for the US and its allies to try to actively drive the two apart than Dwyer hints at, I think. The two have been an obstructionist duo at the UN for some time, working to rein in the more active impulses of the rest of the world on the Security Council. An active outreach to China that would secure more Chinese interests in return for quiet support for a tougher stance against Russia could go a long way towards bolstering the West's message and making it politically acceptable for even more states to sign on. Or even just implicitly reward China while increasing and dramatizing the costs of Russia's aggression.

A short list of possibilities: scotching the G8 and constituting a different group altogether, maybe a G11 with China, India, and Brazil; replacing EU-Russia and NATO-Russia partnership activities with ones including China; working to highlight China's role as donor and investor in Africa and Latin America; moving forward on plans to bring China into the International Energy Agency; supporting Asian regional organizations that would exclude Russia but highlight China.

China is working to be a "responsible stakeholder" internationally; Russia is demonstrating open contempt for the concept. There may be plenty of reasons not to move forward with any of the above. But finding more ways to formally include China in institutions and processes from which Russia is excluded might be worth bearing some costs that a few weeks ago made the above steps look too difficult.

« August 2008 | Blog Home Page | October 2008 »