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December 31, 2008

The 2008 Numbers in Iraq & Afghanistan

AP has the details:

According to a tally by The Associated Press, at least 314 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq in 2008, down from 904 in the previous year. In all, at least 4,221 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the war began in 2003.

For Iraqis, the plunge was also marked: During 2008, at least 7,496 Iraqis died in war-related violence according to an AP count, including 6,068 civilians and 1,428 security personnel, down 60 percent from 2007...

...In Afghanistan, 151 U.S. soldiers died in 2008, compared with 111 in the previous year, according to an AP tally. The count recorded 1,160 civilians killed in insurgency-related violence, up from 875.

At least 625 U.S. soldiers have died because of the war in Afghanistan since the fighting began in 2001.

The AP count is based on figures from Afghan, U.S. and NATO officials.

The combined total of at least 465 U.S. deaths in both Iraq and Afghanistan for 2008 is the lowest combined total for both wars since 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Here's hoping for further improvements in 2009.

Public Opinion on Gaza War

Rasmussen Reports has some numbers:

Forty-four percent (44%) say Israel should have taken military action against the Palestinians, but 41% say it should have tried to find a diplomatic solution to the problems there, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Fifteen percent (15%) are undecided.

Fifty-five percent (55%) of adults, however, believe the Palestinians are to blame for the current situation in Gaza, while 13% point the finger at the Israelis. Nearly one-third (32%) aren’t sure.

The American public seems much more closely divided on this issue than I would have thought.

December 30, 2008

Who Is Hamas Targeting?

The end of the Gaza ceasefire brought an intensification of rocket fire by Hamas, and subsequent air strikes by Israel. A ground incursion into Gaza over the next few days is more than likely as Israel has already stated that this is an "all-out war." The Bush administration is urging Hamas to cease its rocket attacks if it wants peace, while France and the EU have condemned Israel's disproportionate use of force. And where are the Arab leaders? Same place as usual--no man's land.

But at the end of the day, what does Hamas really want to get out of this? I agree with those who believe that Israel's response has been heavy-handed as usual; with what seems to be a disregard for basic human rights. I can also understand why people feel the same way about Hamas firing rockets into Israeli territory. Hamas knows to expect severe retaliation from Israel, but at the same time Israel's reaction seemed premeditated.

Hamas' actions are legitimized by its supporters because of Israel's perceived inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people. Israel's supporters legitimize their behavior because of Hamas' and other Palestinian factions' desperate attacks on Israel's civilian population.

Which brings me back to my primary question: what does Hamas really hope to get out of this? Is Hamas really a spokesman for the Palestinian people? Granted, they were brought into power democratically, but that was also in retaliation to the failed policies of their previous government-not necessarily a vote to espouse their ideological basis. The fact is that Hamas has failed miserably in the Gaza Strip, and they still function more as a guerrilla group than an actual government. The West Bank is under the opposition control of Fatah, and this split is symbolic of the greater disconnect between what the Palestinians (and the larger Arab world) want and what they have received.

According to chief NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel, the Saudis and the Egyptians gave Israel a green-light on this offensive. Why? Because neither of these two governments want to see Hamas in power, and in my opinion rightfully so. When you have so contentious a conflict do you really want extremists/rejectionists running the show?

I highly doubt that Hamas will get a better cease-fire agreement, if that is what they are after. It is possible that they may influence the upcoming elections in Israel to get their preferred leader (Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu) over Labor's Ehud Barak who seems to be on his way to victory. Is this an effort on the part of Hamas to rally their people around them - which war tends to do - in order to compensate for their failed governance in Gaza? Does this have anything to do with the incoming Obama administration? It's hard to make that connection, but to stretch the theory is it possible that they are setting a precedent for the months to come to test how Obama will react to Hamas provocations? And how heavy a hand Obama will have in dealing with Israel's reaction? Maybe, though that might be a stretch. Does Hamas think that in some way this will unite Fatah with them in the common enemy that is Israel? Such an outcome us unlikely, as reports came out of the West Bank yesterday that Fatah's security services were firing on Palestinian's who were rallying in support of Hamas' actions.

Another post can deal with what Israel could possibly want to get out this. The analysis here may seem one-sided against what Hamas has done, but the aim here is not to corner them, but rather, to raise the question of how they are benefiting the Palestinian cause. It is one thing to blindly support a side, but if the plight of the Palestinians is to be dealt with fairly and justly, then Hamas does not seem to have the solutions.

Nor do I believe that world leaders have the confidence in them to come to the table ready to talk and mediate fairly. An honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is missing, but I don't think that Hamas will inspire any leaders to be fair. After all, Israel exists and nothing will change that fact. If Hamas do not believe in the nation's right to exist then what kind of a peace can they possibly negotiate?

Most people already have their loyalties with either party and have endless arguments to justify whatever means are employed by their preferred side, no matter how brutal or counter-productive. Getting into that argument is tedious, but what one can't argue is that there is a murky cycle of violence perpetuated by the worst elements on either side. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Well the egg hatched long ago and many eggs later, the only way to move forward is to shed one's principled loyalties, bite the bullet and realize that just because a party officially represents a people, it does not mean that they are doing what is in the best interest of their people. Rejectionists like Hamas have their absolutist ideologies in mind, not their people's interests.

Venezuela: 2008 in Review

The big news of the year in Latin America undoubtedly was the successful rescue operation carried out by the Colombian military, which released French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, Americans Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves, and eleven Colombian officers and NCOs. The success of this operation, which required near perfect execution by a military that only a few years ago could rarely be trusted, dealt a blow to Hugo Chavez’s dream of a Bolivarian empire in Latin America and changed the balance of power in the region away from Chavez. By year's end, Brazil also gained a much higher profile, stealing the limelight from Chavez by becoming a diplomatic power.

But let’s start in January:

The price of oil at the beginning of the year was $100 for Texas crude. In December 2007 Hugo Chavez had lost a referendum on amending the Venezuelan constitution which would have granted him unlimited terms and nearly unlimited powers. People were still using “Por que no te callas” ringtones in their cell phones. The best-selling ringtone used King Juan Carlos’s of Spain’s retort, and relations between Spain and Venezuela had become strained. At year's start, Chavez was proposing the rescue of three hostages, which was rumored to involve the payment of $500 million. The rescue did go through, but not as planned. The son of one of the women, who supposedly was going to be released at that time, not only had already been released, but was living in a Bogota orphanage.

On March 1, 2008, Colombia raided a FARC permanent encampment in Ecuador, killing its #2 man and 16 other FARC members. Chavez impulsively ordered, during one of his Alo, Presidente TV shows, that the Venezuelan army mobilize to the Colombian border and prepare for war. The Venezuelan army took its time, got tied up on the highway by a taxicab drivers’ strike, and nothing came of the threat.

The raid killed the FARC’s number two man, Raul Reyes, and the Colombian military seized three computers that belonged to him. The laptops revealed that

  • Chavez has direct links to the FARC, which go back a long time, including $50,000 the guerilla had given him while he was in prison after his failed 1992 coup.
  • 'Ivan Marquez', another member of the FARC secretariat, acknowledged Chavez's $300million contribution to the guerilla
  • Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, Venezuelan Minister of Interior and Justice, keeps permanent contact with the FARC and has arranged for meeting - according to correspondence dated October 8, 2007 - "without the knowledge of the Colombian government."
  • In an email sent to the highest FARC leader 'Manuel Marulanda' a.k.a. Tirofijo, two Secretariat members, 'Ivan Marquez' and 'Rodrigo Granda' mention ongoing FARC businesses in Venezuela. They mention oil quotas to be negotiated overseas and FARC investments in the country.
This Interpol report confirmed the authenticity of the information retrieved from the laptops. The FARC files also revealed the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs (EDA) supported the FARC.

In Bogota, Colombia’s National Defense Ministry seized 14 kilos of low-grade uranium belonging to the FARC, based on information revealed in the laptops. By late May, the FARC announced that their leader “Tirofijo” had died of a heart attack in March.

Colombia continued to progress in its fight against the FARC, but in the USA, Nancy Pelosi’s congress voted to delay indefinitely the vote on granting the Free Trade Agreement between Colombia and the US. Latin American media referred to this vote as the Chavez Rule, as

Free trade was what Chavez's enemy, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, considered his best weapon.

Also in March, former Bishop Fernando Lugo was elected president of Paraguay. Chavez, a big friend of Lugo, was rumored to have provided financial support to his campaign.

The rumor was not far-fetched, considering that US authorities caught Guido Antonini carrying $800,000 in a suitcase that Hugo Chavez was sending to Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s electoral campaign in Argentina. The case, named “Maletinazo” in the Latin American press, made the headlines all over Latin America. Five of the accused were tried in Florida and so far three have been pronounced guilty.

Democrat presidential hopeful and governor of New Mexico Bill Richards on visited Caracas in April to ask Chavez to intercede for three American hostages, Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes held by the FARC. Instead, the Colombian military, with the support of American technology and training, was able to rescue the three Americans in an operation comparable to Entebbe, along with twelve other high-value hostages, including the FARC’s most famous hostage of all, Ingrid Betancourt. Following her release, Betancourt left for France. She returned to South America in December, when she visited Chavez who she thanked for his part on her release, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Alan Garcia in Peru, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina, and Michelle Bachelet in Chile, but did not visit Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.

Hugo Chavez’s characteristic bluster did not abate during 2008, and on June 19 he threatened to cut the Venezuelan oil supply to the EU if the EU were to apply a new ruling on illegal immigration; he later backtracked. By the end July Chavez softened his approach, and patched his differences with King Juan Carlos of Spain. After the King told Hugo to shut up in November 2007, it took 10,000 barrels of oil/day at $100 ($25 under market price) for things to go back to chummy.

Chavez not only traveled to Spain in July, but also to Russia, who for a while has been proposing the creation of a natural gas OPEC-like cartel. During the Russia trip Chavez also discussed the purchase of $5 billion worth of military hardware to Venezuela, including 20 modern surface-to-air missile systems and three diesel submarines. Arrangements for joint Venezuela-Russia war games in the Caribbean were made during that visit, and the war games took place in November. While still on that trip, Russian ships arrived in Cuba in December for the first time since the Cold War. Russian president Medvedev visited Caracas this month at the start of the military exercises.

During 2008 Chavez also strengthened his ties with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah (as you read in my Real Clear World Blog post this week). Venezuela last week denied that Iran is using Venezuela to dodge UN sanctions and use Venezuelan aircraft to ship missile parts to Syria, as reported by Italian newspaper La Stampa.

While Colombia gains in the war on drugs and terrorism (including breaking up an African drug ring with Hezbollah ties), Venezuela is allowing the FARC to wield power in Venezuela. Internal security in Venezuela declines dramatically as kidnappings and murders increase tenfold, and Venezuela becomes the #1 port of departure for cocaine shipments.

Recently Chavez has increased pressure on the opposition and the main leader of the opposition is facing charges.

Earlier in 2008 Latin American economies as a whole enjoyed the boon in oil prices and commodities, but as the world financial crisis developed, only Chile is positioned to initiate countercyclical measures by having set aside a $21 billion special fund from copper revenues. During this economic crisis, Brazil's president Lula hosted the first Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development, calling for “prudence and political diplomacy" towards the upcoming Obama administration, a different tone from that of Chavez

The Venezuelan economy is hugely dependent on oil, which, as of the writing of this post, is trading at under $40/bb for Texas crude; Venezuelan oil trades at a lower price. At the same time, oil production continues to decline and the country’s oil imports have surged by 150 percent between the first quarter of 2007 and the same period this year.

Hugo Chavez continued to nationalize private enterprise in the country (from banks and the cement industry to food production and shopping malls), and the country is suffering from high inflation, high crime, food shortages, power outages, and capital and exchange controls. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s six-monthly business-environment index rated Venezuela as the second-worst place in the world to do business, sandwiched between Cuba and Angola at the very bottom of the list.

Coming up in 2009: another referendum on amending the constitution to allow indefinite presidential re-elections. Chavez said last week that if he doesn’t get this proposal, "I would begin to pack my bags, count my remaining months and years, and work intensely to prepare for ... whoever comes after me." According to the current constitution, his term would end in February 2013.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at faustasblog.com.

December 29, 2008

Does Israel Serve America's Interests?


In the course of an interesting back and forth between Matthew Yglesias and Jonathan Zasloff (starting here, then here, and here), Zasloff writes:

I would take the position that it is important enough for the United States to support liberal democratic Zionism even if it hurts us in other aspects of foreign policy, and they would argue that throwing Israel over the side might be regrettable, but it would be worth it. We could even have an honest debate about whether Israel's existence supports concrete, non-ideological American interests.
Leaving aside the loaded formulation, Zasloff is certainly raising the right question. But this begs another - what is the proper level of support? Right now, Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, with the fewest restrictions on its use. Do the "concrete, non-ideological" interests served by our relationship (to say nothing of the costs, which Zasloff himself alludes to) justify such unprecedented generosity? Does Israel's strategic importance to the U.S. trump that of, say, India?

One serious, sustained attempt to construct an argument that America's patronage of Israel serves her non-ideological interests is Martin Kramer's. The short version: it helps us sustain a "Pax Americana" over the Middle East.

Of course, if you don't think sustaining a "Pax Americana" over the Middle East is the proper use of American power, this is rather thin beer.

Photo by Hoyasmeg used under a Creative Commons license.

Hugo {Hearts} Hamas

Never to miss an opportunity to blame the USA while at the same time siding against Israel, Hugo Chavez has issued a statement condemming Israel's attack against Hamas. The official statement issued by the Venezuelan government's Ministry of the Exterior, dated Saturday, December 27, reads (my translation):

The United States government is the only government in the world that is complicit in this attack, and it's befuddling to hear its spokesman, Gordon Jhondroe, call for an end to attacks on Israel as a means to end violence in the region. This action could well be the "golden finishing touch" of the criminal administration that is ending its term, an agonizing order, filled with violence and known throughout the world for its repeated lack of respect towards human rights.

The inflammatory language of the statement comes as no surprise to anyone, considering how Chavez has referred to President Bush in the past, but also because Chavez has repeatedly fostered ties to enemies of Israel.

Just last November Chavez and Iran's Ahmadinejad (who has sworn the destruction of Israel) "boasted that they would defeat U. S. imperialism together".

Earlier this year the US Treasury Department designated a Venezuelan diplomat as a Hezbollah supporter and froze his assets in the US. According to the Jerusalem Post Venezuelan diplomat Ghazi Nasr al Din, former Charge d’ Affaires at the Venezuelan Embassy in Damascus and Director of Political Aspects at the Venezuelan Embassy in Lebanon, who is also president of a Caracas-based Shi’a Islamic Center, used his position to give financial assistance to Hezbollah. Along with Nasr al Din, the Treasury Department also designated Fawzi Kan'an as a Hezbollah supporter and stated that the Venezuelan government was "employing and providing safe harbor to Hizballah facilitators and fundraisers." Earlier in June, Venezuelan journalist Patricia Puleo had reported that Venezuelans of Arab ancestry are being recruited under the auspices of Tarek el Ayssami, Venezuela’s vice-Minister of the Interior, for combat training in Hezbollah camps in South Lebanon.


Back in 2006 Hezbollah posters in Beirut were thanking Chavez for his petition asking that Israel be "taken to court" for war crimes allegedly committed during the 34-day war with Lebanon.

In Hugo's mind, the enemies - Hamas, Hezbollah, or anyone else who serves his purpose - of his enemy are his friends.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at faustasblog.com.

December 28, 2008

Russia: 2008 in Review

The year 2008 proved to be a very turbulent one for Russia, both domestically and internationally. The year started of on a note of stability and assurance, as former President Vladimir Putin's hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, former CEO of Russian energy giant Gazprom, easily won presidential elections in March. The election was marked by its lack of any discernible competition from other Russian politicians, with the majority of the country determining that Medvedev's succession was a foregone conclusion. The election itself was a huge disappointment for numerous policy analysts worldwide who predicted that Putin would stay for a third term as President, either as the head of Russia or as head of the union between Russia and Belarus.

Following the election, the country was then witness to a remarkable political transformation as Putin became the Prime Minister in May - officially second in command of the country - leading the world to breathe a sigh of relief, so to speak, that he would still control the levers of power and continue his domestic and international agenda from prior years.

August is now regarded as the watershed moment in Russia's present and future approach to its "Near Abroad," states that used to make up the USSR. On August 7, Georgian forces shelled the positions in Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia (a strong pro-Russian region that broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s). Russian forces, already having a limited military presence in South Ossetia, responded with a full-scale invasion of the breakaway region and then Georgia proper. Russian military, backed by aircraft, tanks and armored vehicles, steamrolled over beleaguered Georgian forces and in days were mere miles away from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

This short war resulted in an embarrassment for the United States, since Georgia was one of the most pro-American and pro-Western countries of the former USSR, and Washington was unable to offer any tangible defense of its ally nor give it enough political-military support to stand ground against Moscow. Russian media and public watched as Georgia almost came undone as a country under the weight of the successful Russian military operation.

The aftermath of this war is still unfolding, as the United States, European Union, Georgia and Russia are trying to officially determine where to put the blame for this conflict. The most weighty outcome of this conflict was renewed pride and confidence of the Russian government and people in its armed forces, which conducted an orderly and successful large-scale operation - the first of its kind after the fall of the USSR in 1991. Another major outcome was the further straining of the US-Russia relationship to the point of the "New Cold War," as Washington sought new ways to counter the growing global perception that following the war against an American ally, Russia emerged as a powerful challenger to Washington-dominated global security arrangement.

Following a relative "confidence high" after a war against a small republic, Russian economy went into major shock as the global financial crisis first hit the credits needed to keep its economy going, and then led to the collapse of the oil prices to the lows not seen since the late 1990s. Practically all spheres of the Russian economy - from construction, agriculture, tourism to domestic industry - were affected in a matter of months. The collapse of the oil prices from $120 to roughly $40 per barrel led to the shortfall of billions of petro-dollars to the Russian coffers.

These factors have put the national currency under intense strain and triggered huge stock market losses and capital outflows. The conclusion drawn by the Russian political establishment from the crisis was that Russian economy was affected precisely because it was part of the global economy, and that if Russia wants to be a major global player, it needs to get used to and share the effects of world-wide economic stresses, if and when they occur. Nonetheless, Russian government promised far-reaching assistance to the affected sectors of the economy, pledging that Russia will thrive regardless of the global economic shocks.

Russian foreign policy continued through 2008 to showcase signs of confidence and resurgence. For the first time since the collapse of the USSR, Russian Navy sent its ships to America's backyard - Venezuela and Cuba. Russian government emphasized that such visits were symbolic in nature and the main reason Moscow was interested in Central and South America was economic in nature. Washington watched closely as the Russian flotilla visited Venezuela and then Cuba.

However, even as the Russian military prowess was on display in the capitals of two staunchly anti-American countries, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin both hoped that Russian-American relations will improve with the election of Senator Barack Obama as the next US President.

Not all news are bad in Russia as 2008 draws to a close and its economy is slowing down, leading to grim forecasts for the next year. For the second time in a decade, a Russian beauty won a global beauty pageant. On December 14, Ksenia Sukhinova, 21, won the Miss World title, proving that at least some stereotypes about Russia are true. Back in 2002, Russian Oksana Fedorova also won the Miss Universe title.

What can Russia expect in 2009 as it looks back at 2008? Perhaps retrospection on its role as a major global power - that its war against neighbors can lead to intense scrutiny from the rest of the world, that the global economics shock waves are felt very intensely by its economy that is still in the process of transition. For the last eight years, Russian people have given in on some freedoms in exchange for the growing economic stability. If Russian economy continues its nosedive into 2009, this population-government bargain can be annulled, with severe consequences for the entire country and major parts of the world. As the world security, financial and economic picture slowly starts to change as the country heads into 2009, this past year should be looked upon as the test run of the new Russia still trying to determine and define its role amongst equal and lesser powers.

China: 2008 in Review

In 2008, the world saw both impressive demonstrations of China’s rising power and capabilities as well as increasingly bolder and complex challenges to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) control over the nation.

In May, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the Sichuan Province that left over 87,000 people dead or missing. The central government went all out in its disaster response with Premier Wen Jiabao flying to the affected area to personally oversee relief efforts. Foreign observers praised the massive scale of the logistical operation and its overall effectiveness as well as the government’s openness in disseminating information and accepting foreign assistance.

The fact that one of the largest-scale Olympic games could still be held just three months after the earthquake struck further underlined the resilience and governance capabilities of the CCP. On August 8, the Beijing Olympics opened with a display of fireworks and choreographed performances whose mammoth scale took the breath of virtually the entire global audience. Combined with the eye-catching architectural designs of Olympic venues, the surprisingly successful effort to reduce air pollution in one of the most polluted cities in the world, and beating out the United States to capture the most gold medals while coming in a close second in the overall medal count, Chinese could hold their heads high and show the world that they had, indeed, arrived, and they were a force to be respected and reckoned with.

The period leading up to the Olympics were marred, however, by a Tibetan uprising that took place in March and attracted much attention from the foreign media. It was the largest display of anger and protest in 20 years against the government’s treatment of Tibetans that resulted in deadly riots. The government cracked down hard and closed off affected areas from foreign journalists. The tough response only served to inflame the passions of overseas Tibetans and other anti-CCP activists who managed to seriously disrupt what was supposed to be a triumphal round-the-world Olympic torch relay. The “attacks” on the sacred flame and perceived bias of Western media angered both Chinese citizens and overseas Chinese communities who interpreted these protests as an expression of foreigners’ desire to keep China from rising.

Not long after the heavily guarded Olympics drew to a successful close without serious incident, reports began to surface around the world that various dairy products imported from China were tainted with melamine, a chemical additive that can boost protein readings. Since July there had been reports that hospitals in China were admitting hundreds of infants who suffered serious kidney damage after being fed tainted milk powder. The melamine scandal exploded into global proportions in September once foreign governments started banning dairy products from China and firms such as Cadbury, Nestle, and Unilever initiated large-scale recalls. The scandal served to remind the world that in spite of China’s rapid modernization, it still suffered from deficits typical of developing countries such as an absence of comprehensive legal and regulatory mechanisms to ensure product safety. The scandal also highlighted, perhaps with cause for worry, just how deeply Chinese products penetrated into the daily lives of people around the world.

The industrial world started to reel from the effects of the U.S. financial crisis starting in late September. At first it was thought that the Chinese economy would be able to emerge largely unscathed and even eventually replace the U.S. as a top economic power, but statistics later on showed that exports, foreign direct investment, and industrial production had dropped drastically in November. Unemployment seemed to be rising and various economists projected that GDP growth in 2009 is likely to be lower than 8%, the level at which Chinese economists believe is necessary to support the current level of employment for its millions of current and new workers.

The financial crisis coincided with the government’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of its reform and opening policy which laid the foundation for China’s unprecedented double-digit economic growth in the following decades. Originally intended to remind the populace of the success of the CCP’s efforts in lifting millions out of poverty and transforming China into a major world power, it is now overshadowed by uncertainty over whether the crisis will threaten to erode the Chinese people’s hard-won economic achievements.

In November, the CCP made significant advances in its lifelong quest to annex Taiwan by sending an envoy to the island to sign a series of agreements with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to usher in direct air, shipping, and postal links between the two sides. News of the envoy’s visit was met, however, with thousands of protesters who feared the loss of Taiwan’s sovereignty, democratic system, and civil liberties.

In December, a group of over 300 Chinese citizens signed and publicly released Charter 08 which condemned the government’s authoritarian model of governance and development and called for the establishment of a democratic system of government and the protection of human rights. Amongst the signers were well-known intellectuals and dissidents including Liu Xiaobo, who was detained not long after the document’s release. The charter represents one of the most concerted and prominent attempts since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests by citizens in China to publicly voice dissatisfaction with the CCP government.

As 2008 draws to a close, the following passage from Charter 08 warns that the CCP’s model of authoritarian development is unsustainable and must either change drastically in 2009 or suffer the consequences:

“As the ruling elite continues with impunity to crush and to strip away the rights of citizens to freedom, to property, and to the pursuit of happiness, we see the powerless in our society—the vulnerable groups, the people who have been suppressed and monitored, who have suffered cruelty and even torture, and who have had no adequate avenues for their protests, no courts to hear their pleas—becoming more militant and raising the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions. The decline of the current system has reached the point where change is no longer optional. … Our political system continues to produce human rights disasters and social crises, thereby not only constricting China's own development but also limiting the progress of all of human civilization. This must change, truly it must. The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer.”

France: 2008 in Review

Interestingly enough, Le Monde published Saturday the top stories to forget in 2008. Here are the top five entries :

- Italian president Silvio Berlusconi's racist remarks
- Socialist "fraternity" according to former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal
- The presidential wedding between Mr. Sarkozy and Ms. Bruni
- Sarah Palin's campaign
- George W. Bush's accomplishments

As for the memorable ones, two stories made it to this analyst's list:

1. President Sarkozy's presidency of the European Union
2. Warfare within the Socialist party

In my opinion, these two stories connect together to bring about a leading narrative for this year in French politics: president Sarkozy is on cruise control. However slim his legislative agenda may be, nobody on the left, the center or the right has emerged to challenge his leadership. After almost two full years in office, Nicolas Sarkozy is definitely headed for reelection in three years. But let's review briefly these two stories to understand how and why.

1. President Sarkozy's presidency of the European Union

First, on the foreign policy front. The big story this year was undoubtedly Mr. Sarkozy's leadership during the August Georgian crisis. To many observers of international relations, the president of both France and the EU displayed more interest in solving this crisis than did American president George W. Bush. Of course, one could argue that the ongoing American presidential campaign somehow forced Bush not to take too firm a stand in order not to tie the hands of his successor. This point is valid.

However, one could not help but notice that Vladimir Putin and Dimitri Medvedev seemed more interested in hearing European proposals than American ones. This could be interpreted as a sign of weakening American influence over Caucasian affairs. But my guess is, it was probably more a sign of the declining influence of George W. Bush's presidency. Instead of dealing with the lame-duck American head of state, Russians saw more fit in dealing with Europeans under Mr. Sarkozy's leadership.

On the domestic front, two topics were on the EU's radar. The economic crisis and climate change. On the economic front, Mr. Sarkozy's biggest challenge was to counter the protectionist demons with whom many Europeans leaders flirted. The EU was able to coordinate some investments, but it was mostly the national governments of EU countries that intervened as they saw fit. On the economy, national governments remain much more important than any EU institution. Regarding climate change, an accord was reached in early December to pursue lower targets for CO2 emissions. Not much is new under the sun.

2. Warfare within the Socialist party

I won't do a review of all the drama that took place in 2008 within the French Socialist Party. I'll redirect you to three of my previous posts if you want to get a feel of what happened:

- Socialism in the 21st Century

- Whither the Socialists?

- Socialists Bent on Self-Destruction

How does this drama play into the 2008 narrative of French politics? To put it bluntly, a divided and bitter left is probably Mr. Sarkozy's nicest Christmas gift. But not only are the Socialists divided and bitter, but the woman who came out on top, Martine Aubry, comes from the left wing of the party. Facing an orthodox Socialist, Mr. Sarkozy will have no trouble making himself the reasonable, moderate leader that the French expect of their president. As many have observed before, it seems that the left is more bent on being righteous than on winning.

To support my point, I'll offer a quiz for our readers. How many French presidents, under the Fifth Republic (since 1958), came from the left? Only one, and his name was François Mitterand. How many from the right? De Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard D'Estaing, Chirac and Sarkozy make for five of them. Five against one. Do we see a pattern here?

In the end, all these stories play right into President Sarkozy's hand. 2008 was good for him, giving him visibility with the presidency of the EU and the near destruction of the main opposition party. On a lighter note, he also got married to a beautiful woman, Carla Bruni. What more could a French president ask for?

December 27, 2008

Winning Hearts and Minds with Viagra

Happy holidays to our readers!

American soldiers and C.I.A. agents in Afghanistan have spent the last seven years trying to unlock the secrets to winning the hearts and minds of Afghan tribal chiefs. According to an article in the Washington Post this morning, rejuvenating a chief's manhood, in the form of little blue pills could be an important tool for gaining allies. The Post reports that a C.I.A agent used Viagra to gain cooperation from a tribal chief who hitherto was not interested in helping the Americans out:

Take one of these. You'll love it," the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam. The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes - followed by a request for more pills.

American officials have been wary of using this technique, because of cultural and religious sensitivities, but have managed to employ it with frequent success. A lot of tribal chiefs have more than one wife and are usually of considerable age, why the American's didn't attempt this earlier is anyone's guess.

The Americans haven't been offering the pills to younger men, but then that begs the question, what will please the men of fighting age? A Nintendo Wii or a PS3 with Guitar Hero? Laptops so they can join naseeb.com - the Muslim world's answer to match.com.

Until the Taliban gets their hands on a shipment of the little blue pills the Americans seem to have found an unlikely advantage in the battle of hearts and minds. The unwillingness of the Taliban to sell what they may consider to be western decadence, may end up selling themselves short.

December 23, 2008

What Does a 21st Century Military Look Like?


This New York Times op-ed on how the incoming administration should pare back air and naval capabilities in favor of adding 90,000 ground troops has elicited a number of smart responses, from Wired's Noah Shactman and Commentary's Gordon Chang, among others.

I think Michael Cohen has the best take against such an idea:

First, the U.S Navy and Air Force represent this nation's most significant asymmetrical advantages; we have absolute control over the global commons (namely the air and the sea). Diminishing America's advantage in these two areas is quite simply a bad idea. But, taking funds from the Navy and the Air Force and using it to expand the ground force. That is a terrible, head-shakingly bad idea.

It is our large ground force that provides the most limited military advantage for the United States - and if anything, when deployed, can serve as a real liability to U.S. strategic interests. It is far more difficult and extraordinarily expensive to mobilize our ground forces (not to mention, quite difficult to get them out), they quickly become fair game for insurgents and guerrilla attacks (as we've seen in Iraq) and is a blunt instrument when scalpels are generally more effective in confronting the transnational and non-state challenges of the 21st century. Indeed our Navy and in particular our Air Force are often far better for dealing with these threats.

So much of the argument for boosting American ground forces seems to be wrapped up in the assumption that the U.S. needs to do more nation building. It seems to spring from the premise - mistaken, in my view - that what has led America astray in Afghanistan and Iraq has been our means, not our ends.

Looked at another way, the "failures" in Iraq and Afghanistan stemmed not from the original missions, which succeeded, but from the presumption that the U.S. was obligated to remain in these countries to "win the peace" by installing Western-approved political leaders and Western-approved political institutions. So now, corruption, sectarianism and authoritarianism in Iraq and Afghanistan are viewed as American failures, instead of standard operating procedure for Iraq and Afghanistan.

We face a genuinely thorny problem - particularly in Afghanistan, where al Qaeda and Taliban elements would no doubt flow back in as America withdraws. But the alternative - wage a costly, lengthy guerrilla war on behalf of a government that can't exert authority outside of the capital - won't actually protect us either. Radical Islam is an ideology. It is not bound by geography.

Photo by: Rob Shenk used under a Creative Commons license.

Sarko Goes to Rio

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is in Brazil, where he and European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso are being welcomed by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for the two-day EU-Brazil summit.

As I mentioned on Sunday, there are many summits held in Latin America throughout the year, but this one is remarkable for being Sarko's last summit as head of the EU, and also because of the proposed French technology transfer to help build South America's first nuclear propelled submarine. As the BBC reported,

With Brazil making extensive oil finds off its coast, the government here is becoming increasingly preoccupied with defending the country's coastal waters.
Last week Brazil set out a new defense plan to protect the Amazon, and the country's new oil reserves. Last February France had agreed to transfer technology so Brazil could build an attack submarine, helicopters and a French Rafale fighter plane. A previous proposal for sale of Russian fighter jets to Brazil was turned down by the Brazilians since it didn't involve technology transfer.

While Lula lobbies the EU for an end to ethanol tarifs, and seeks a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, the press is abuzz over Carla Bruni.

Ms. Bruni's visit to the Instituto Fernades de Figueira's Milk Bank, which provides malnourished newborns with breast milk that has been pasteurized and sterilized, and her scheduled visits to the Pavao-Pavaozinho favela and the Crianca Esperanca charity are headline news. The local media is not happy that only a few reporters and photographers have access to these. There's a lot of local interest on her since she's also scheduled a visit with her natural father, Italian businessman and Rio resident Maurizio Rommert, whose existence she discovered in 1996.

Bruni, who was named world ambassador for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria on December 1, was described by O Globo as "Sarkozi's lethal weapon."

Other Latin American media reporting on the visit include Noticias24, which didn't miss the opportunity to photograph sunbathers at Copacabana beach who were surprised to find a frigate on security detail across from the hotel where the Sarkozys are staying.


In more serious news related to the EU-Brazil summit, Sarko and Lula, today agreed take a common EU-Brazil position to the next G20 summit dealing with the global financial crisis.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at faustasblog.com.

Russia Prepares for Local Wars (and the US)

Following the August 2008 war in Georgia, which Russia considers its victory in its first major engagement of this century, Russian military has amped up its activity and preparedness schedule. Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov recently toured key military garrisons across the country, and following his trip made an official announcement that the armed forces must be prepared to engage in three local or regional conflicts.

The defense minister called for the creation of fast-acting, mobile Army and Navy units capable of quickly engaging in such conflicts. Military experts were in agreement that two such conflicts may erupt in the Caucasus region and Central Asia, while the third region was debated: the top two choices were the Far East (Korean peninsula) or the Black Sea (Crimean Peninsula, home to a sizable Russian minority and currently part of Ukraine).

Recently, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Nikolai Makarov spoke at the Military Academy of the need to continue Russian military rearmament, since the United States "... continues to surround us with military bases, and such bases can even appear in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. American military bases are all over the world, including Europe. If anyone thinks that the world situation will get better because a new administration will enter the White House, then he is sadly mistaken." Makarov stated that under such circumstances, Russia must place its hope in the strategic nuclear forces.

Echoing Makarov's concern, Leonid Ivashov, Vice President of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, stated: "America is actively implementing strategic plan "Anaconda" around Russia. Around the perimeter of our borders, there is a tightening loop of hostile military forces. At present, there are gaps - Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Regarding Kazakhstan, it seems this matter is already being addressed: in November of this year, Astana gave the Pentagon the use of two airports - for refueling and landing of military aircraft in emergency cases. But if you look at the map, it is obvious: From Alma-Ata (where one of the airfields is located), it is much closer to the Russian and Chinese borders than to Kabul."

December 22, 2008

Unmasking Che the Idol

National Book Award winner Carlos Eire, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and later the honor of having as my podcast guest, has an op-ed in Spanish in El Diario La Presa, La nostalgia del Che. Here's the article translated into English:


Che the Idol

For those of us who lived through the Cuban Revolution there are two Ches: the real one we knew, and the false idol venerated by millions on earth.

The real Che was a hypocrite who lived very comfortably in a mansion while he preached revolution and imprisoned, tortured, and murdered thousands of my fellow countrymen. Some of his victims were my relatives. This Che dismissed human rights as "archaic bourgeois details.” He also herded tens of thousands of Cubans into concentration camps. To top it all off, he didn't really help the poor and oppressed: instead he impoverished everyone, and set himself up as lord of all.

Che the idol is a totally different man: a noble crusader for justice, a sensitive idealist, even a martyr and saint. Ironically, Che the idol generates lots of cash for capitalists who imprint his image on all sorts of merchandise or make films about him.

How did Che the killer become Saint Che?

Because lies are often more attractive than the truth. We human beings have an innate need for heroes, prophets, and saviors, and since genuine ones are in short supply, we eagerly embrace those constructed for us.

Che has four different sorts of admirers: communists, anti-Americans, the poor, and the affluent. That he should be loved by the first three groups is no mystery: Anti-Americans and communists love Che because he is one of their own. The poor desperately need to believe in some redemption from their misery, even in a messianic figure. But why do the affluent need Saint Che? The answer is as simple as it is awful: because of bigotry.

Let's face it: If Che's affluent admirers really believed in his cause, they would move to Cuba, or become revolutionaries in their own country. But they don't, and that says a lot about them.

Saint Che allows white North Americans and Europeans to apply a horribly unacceptable standard of leadership to Latinos that they would never accept for themselves. Through their idolization, these admirers express their feelings of superiority while they delude themselves into thinking that they are in solidarity with the poor. Affluent Latin Americans who love Che, such as Benicio del Toro, the actor who portrays him and praises him are not racists, of course. But they are "useful idiots," as Lenin liked to say.

Any way you look at it, those who idolize Che are to be pitied or feared.

As Paul Berman said a few years ago when another movie sainting Che came out, "The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time."

Fausta Wertz also blogs at faustasblog.com.

What the World Thinks of China

Pew Research asked the question as part of omnibus study on global opinion of the U.S. during the Bush years.

According to Pew:

The rise of China has generated serious concerns in many countries. China's favorability ratings have fallen since 2002, particularly in Europe and its biggest neighbors - India, Japan, and Russia. China is already widely regarded as one of the world's top economic powers and is seen by many as likely to replace the United States as the world's dominant power.

Here's the chart to prove it:


Speaking of China, be sure to read Niall Ferguson on the geopolitical implications of "Chimerica."

Obama To Stay the Course in Iraq

The issue is a difficult one for Mr. Obama, whose campaign pledge to “end the war” ignited his supporters and helped catapult him into the White House. But as Mr. Obama has begun meeting with his new military advisers — the top two, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are holdovers from the Bush administration — it has become clear that his definition of ending the war means leaving behind many thousands of American troops. - Elisabeth Bumiller, New York Times.

The way Bumiller frames the issue makes it sound as if Obama has suddenly discovered some new facts which are forcing him to change his campaign pledge. But he hasn't:

Under the Obama-Biden plan, a residual force will remain in Iraq and in the region to conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions against al Qaeda in Iraq and to protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel. They will not build permanent bases in Iraq, but will continue efforts to train and support the Iraqi security forces as long as Iraqi leaders move toward political reconciliation and away from sectarianism.

That's from the campaign web site.

The truth is, Obama has never been as "anti-war" as his supporters or his critics asserted. He's basically hewing to the conventional wisdom on the issue.*

The more important question is - is that conventional wisdom correct?

*In case you're wondering what that conventional wisdom is, I point you to this U.S. Institute of Peace analysis. Its recommendations are derived from the working groups that originally supported the 2006 Iraq Study Group.

December 21, 2008

Chinese Sphere: Direct Connect Across the Strait

On December 15, Taiwan and China officially launched direct airline, shipping, and postal links between each side. Ever since 1949 when the Communists evicted the Nationalists from China, forcing them to set up a government-in-exile in Taiwan, the Taiwan Strait maintained a distinct bumpiness in a world that was going flat. Up until last Monday, all air and shipping activity between the two sides had to be routed through Hong Kong and Macau (air) or Okinawa (sea). The cutting out of the middleman, so to speak, will significantly reduce costs and travel times as a quick look at a map of the region would show.


The Southern Metropolis Daily, a commercial newspaper based in southern China, sees this as a positive development and looks forward to seeing the three links shorten not only the travel distance between the two sides of the Strait, but also the relational: “A change in the nature of economic activity will ultimately lead to a change in people’s hearts. Through closer interaction, there will be mutual understanding of each other’s thinking, a sharing of each other’s markets, and a sharing of common responsibilities. … Although differences still exist over politics, enhanced people-to-people contact can gradually temper the residual effects of ideology.”

In Taiwan, there is a guarded optimism. The Taiwan-based China Times writes, “Whether you are a cabinet official or industry titan, this is the time to think of the best way to make use of this rare historical opportunity and retool industrial competitive strategy. For example, government policymakers should think about how to take advantage of the mainland’s efforts to expand domestic consumption, how to attract Taiwanese businessmen to set up their operating headquarters in Taiwan, and how to develop Taiwan into an operational and logistics center. Now that the three links have been opened, strategies for addressing these issues should be developed without delay.”

Hong Kong stands to lose a significant amount of business from this further integration of China and Taiwan’s economies. Sing Tao, one of Hong Kong’s leading dailies, writes, “Hong Kong has already made plans early on for the opening of direct flights. Affected businesses have also prepared themselves to face this situation. However, the arrival of the financial crisis this year has made Hong Kong’s economic outlook even grimmer. During November, the peak pre-Christmas period for shipping companies, Chinese exports fell from their levels one year ago, the first drop in seven years. In addition to that, Hong Kong’s airport cargo shipping fell 18.7%. Passenger traffic fell 5.56%, the fourth consecutive declining month. Now that Taiwanese businessmen do not need to travel through Hong Kong with the three links in effect, the statistics for Hong Kong may get even worse.”

Russia: How the US Might Save Itself

Russian news is still dominated by discussion on how the United States will rescue its own economy - and what that means to Russia. Business daily Financial News published a panel discussion by Russia's leading economists who proposed very different solutions - from Indo-Pakistan war to confiscation of $100 bills from circulation.

One of the experts, Vladislav Inozemtsev, Director of Center for Post Industrial Research, put the blame for the global financial crisis at the feet of the United States, Arab countries and BRIC members (Brazil, Russia, India and China): "The main problem was that Americans over-consumed, while the rest of the world under-consumed. ... I don't think that this crisis was created on purpose - Americans followed their own policies, seeing that the rest of the world does not want anything in return."

He and one of his colleagues remained optimistic that US economy will recover. Inozemtsev is convinced that Americans will emerge from the current recession in 2009, while Alexei Golubovich, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Arbat Capital Management said that American economy can adapt very quickly to changing circumstances.

However, Igor Panarin, Professor of Diplomatic Academy at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is convinced that Americans cannot save themselves or their country from the crisis because of overall fear: "Fear is gripping the country, and with the crisis in the background, such situation can actually lead to civil war. ... President-elect Obama stated on Dec. 7, 2008, that in 2009, 41 states are going to have budget deficits. That means that nine "rich" states like Texas and California are going to have to "feed" the rest of the country. This is dangerous in crisis situation. I consider the US's chances of falling apart at 55%."

(Editor's note: Panarin's statements mirror internal political debate in the USSR on the eve of the breakup of the country. In 1991, Russian leadership, with Boris Yeltsin as the leader of the Russian Federation, no longer wanted to "feed" the rest of the country, as the Soviet economy slowed down considerably with the onset of economic reforms launched in 1986-1987. In Moscow's eyes, it was best to keep its economic resources to itself rather than to send them to Central Asia, the Caucasus or Baltic republics. Therefore, present Russian leadership tends to view the US through the prism of USSR right before December 1991, with one or several American states having predominant roles in the union, with the rest of the states being "fed" by either Texas, California or New York.)

Panarin further stated that in 2009, the dollar's crash is inevitable, "... but Americans are trying to stave that off any way they can. It is also possible that several powerful regional currencies will appear. East Asia will have its own; Middle East/South Asia will have dinar, to be used by Saudi Arabia, India and Iran. Russian rubble can also become a powerful regional currency - for that, we must make Eastern Europe buy our oil and natural gas and pay us in rubles."

Both Inozemtsev and Golubovich thought that a war between India and Pakistan can benefit the US economy, because "... just like Europe used to do, warring countries need weapons and financial credits, and such fighting historically weakened America's economic competitors."

France: Socialists Bent on Self-Destruction

Remember the nasty turn that the French Socialist Party leadership race took not more than a month ago? Reminder: after casting their ballots to make their choice between centre-left (and former presidential candidate) Ségolène Royal and leftist Martine Aubry, Socialists found out that the margin separating the winner from the loser was only 0.04%, and a legal battles over a few ballot boxes ensued.

In the end, it did not get as nasty as it could have. Royalists (supporters of Royal, that is, not monarchists!) showed some sense of party unity by pulling the plug on ongoing legal battles and accepting the verdict of PS militants who picked, albeit by a slim majority, Aubry as their leader.

However, this sense of party unity was doomed not to last long. The scars from the leadership race are still fresh and it is said that Ms. Royal, after having been her party's presidential candidate, cannot get herself to accept the fact that the Socialists have rejected her charismatic personality for a more left-leaning woman.

Now, how did these divisions play out in the latest Socialist drama?

First, remember that France is undergoing yet another battle between the government and students unions. Socialists, in recent years, have shown less and less interest for classic leftist organizations who rely on classic left-wing mobilization like street demonstrations, such as students unions. However, recently, the leftist wing of the party has tried to build back bridges with such organizations in order to help rebuild their party from its base. This leftist wing is identified to Aubry. Of course, centre-leftists identified to Royal disapprove of such moves. And, after the bitterness of the leadership race, it showed. How?

Julien Dray is a Socialist MP from Essone. He is identified with the left-wing of his party. This week, the Ministry of Finance got a warrant to search his office and his home. The warrant also allowed French police to search the offices and properties of left-wing organizations close to Dray such as SOS Racisme and FIDL (a students union). Of course, Mr. Dray claims his innocence as he is being accused of having received large sums of money from these two organizations. They also both deny any involvement in criminal activities.

Officially, the Socialist Party is offering no comment on the matter. But Le Monde reports that anonymous sources from within the PS have been quoted as saying that this affair has a smell of political retribution. Not formally charging anybody of doing anything wrong, of course, Le Monde concludes that the atmosphere within the PS is worse than ever.

Now, if supporters of Miss Royal leaked information incriminating Mr. Dray, it surely adds to the explosive ambiance that has become the norm in the PS. Both wings of the party will grow more and more suspicious of one another, hence seriously increasing the risk that these divisions will grow into a straight-out party split between centre-leftists and leftists.

President Sarkozy, who just recruited an ex-Socialist into his party, the UMP, must be delighted to watch this. Of course, the next presidential election will be held on 2012, so the Socialists have a shot at reuniting in order to defeat Sarkozy. But my guess is, we haven't heard the last of divisions and bitterness in the PS. And with François Bayrou's centrist party still being a player in the next few years, France could be headed for a big political realignment from its center to its left.

Latin America: Summits and Crisis

Leaders of Latin American countries met last Tuesday and Wednesday for the first Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development. Like political junkets everywhere, the leaders congregated at a resort area, this time at Costa do Sauípe in the Brazilian state of Bahia. Thirty-three countries, including Cuba, participated.

Latin American leaders hold a series of summits on various subjects throughout the year. In fact, Brazilian diplomat Marcos Azambuja expressed concern that “While the summit comes at a good time, it multiplies the already large number of integration schemes and exacerbates the proliferation of processes and summits. … Brazil is playing on too many fronts and it should simplify and concentrate its efforts.”

Like the Foro de Sao Paolo, the meeting didn’t include the US. Joshua Goodman of Bloomberg News examined the increasing influence of Russia and China in the region, especially when it comes to armaments. However, there are a number of things to bear in mind:

1. The participating countries used the forum to discuss regional issues affecting the numerous subregional blocs in Latin America and the Caribbean.

2. The region continues to meet in order to bring about bilateral free-trade agreements, a trend that has continued after the collapse of the Doha talks.

3. The region continues to be dependent on the export of natural resources, such as oil, which prices have plummeted. This was one of the issues discussed on the summit.

4. The meeting took place a day after Ecuador voluntarily defaulted on its debt. Part of that debt was contracted under the Reciprocal Payments and Credit System of the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI). Last month Brazil recalled its Ambassador to Ecuador when Ecuador said it was not going to pay $460 million owed to Brazil's national development bank, the BNDES. Relations between Brazil and Ecuador were strained also because of Ecuador’s lawsuit against Petrobras planned sale of a 40% stake in Block 18 to Inpex unit Teikoku Oil Ecuador. Ecuador dropped the suit the day the summit started.

5. Thomas Shannon, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, explained that

had discussed with Brazil and Mexico ways the meeting’s agenda could be used during the U.S.-backed Summit of the Americas, in April in Trinidad and Tobago.

6. Last but not least, the summit highlights the emergence of Brazil’s diplomatic leadership and influence in the region.

Mayra Pertossi, writing about the Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development at Venezuela’s Noticias24, reports that this global financial crisis found Latin America in relatively strong shape, because of the prior boon on oil prices and commodities. However, due to the plummeting prices the region braces itself for a rough 2009. Brazil and Mexico, the region’s strongest economies, won’t remain unaffected, but Argentina, Venezuela and Ecuador will probably be the hardest hit. Argentina faces $200 million in debt due in 2009.

Pertossi states that Chile is the only economy in the region positioned to initiate countercyclical measures. Due to the boom in copper prices, which accounts for 40% of the country’s exports, the Chilean government has set aside a $21 billion special fund, which according to Chilean Interior Minister Andrés Velasco, will finance the budget for the next ten years.

Mexico’s El Universal reported that Felipe Calderón proposed the creation of a regional alliance that would exclude the US, “an OAS without the USA.” Calderón rejected the creation of a multinational force to fight organized crime and the drug trade.

Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, also called for the creation of Organization of Latin American and Caribbean States.

France 24 highlighted Evo Morales’s ultimatum to the US demanding an end to the Cuba embargo, but

The summit's host, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, distanced himself from Morales's call.
Lula kept a more conciliatory tone and asked for “prudence and political diplomacy," and to wait until Obama is president.

The summit. while being one of many regional summits, foreshadows a number of challenges to the Obama presidency:

The demand to end the Cuban embargo;

Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela's stance on the war on drugs, which is tied to terrorism and crime, along with an arms buildup;

The possibility that Ecuador's default may signal a trend of defaults in the region;
And the impact of the financial downturn in Latin American economies.

In addition, Russia and China continue to increase their presence - Russian ships have landed in Cuba for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

We shall find out in April's Summit of the Americas how the Obama administration will start to face these challenges.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at faustasblog.com.

December 18, 2008

World Opinion on U.S. Military Bases in Gulf

World Public Opinion goes polling:

Asked whether the US having naval forces based in the Persian Gulf is a good idea or a bad idea, 14 of 20 nations say it is a bad idea, three say it is a good idea, and three are divided. On average across all publics polled, just 22 percent say it is a good idea for the US to have naval bases in the Gulf, while 52 percent say it is a bad idea.

Majorities opposing US naval bases in the Gulf are highest in the Middle East, led by Egypt (91%) and the Palestinian Territories (90%) and followed by Turkey (77%), Jordan (76%) and Azerbaijan (66%).

This via Marc Lynch who observes:

Even allowing for the problems with such opinion surveys, these numbers should be sobering -- especially as they track with lots of other surveys about regional views of American foreign policy. Americans generally believe that their military presence in the Gulf represents an "international public good", protecting energy supplies and global stability, and consider their military hegemony to be cushioned by "soft power" through which American leadership is perceived as benevolent and desirable. Most of the world's publics, especially Arab and Muslim publics, don't seem to agree. Public diplomacy -- and grand strategy -- need to take such findings a bit more seriously.

He also suggests that Middle Eastern states are shopping around for other strategic partnerships - with China, Russia and India - as they expect America's interest and commitment to the region to wane.

So, would it be a good or bad development to see other great power navies shoulder some of the burden in the Gulf?

Full results after the jump:


Full questionnaire here (pdf).

The Arrogance of Leaving Iraq

Responding to Eli Lake's intriguing article in the New Republic, Commentary's Abe Greenwald goes so far as to assert that if the Obama administration forswears semi-permanent bases in Kurdistan and elsewhere, it's a sign of American arrogance:

In the unlikely event that Barack Obama insists on rebuffing our Sunni and Kurdish partners, he would establish the U.S. as a nation that’s indifferent to, indeed disdainful of, strategic alliances. Far from being the gesture of a “humble” country, such a rejection would mark a policy tilt toward unprecedented American arrogance. Remember, we are supposed to return to working together with allies. Turning down friends - in the Muslim world no less - is no way to signal America’s hope for cooperation among “the community of nations.”

That's certainly a novel interpretation. I had long assumed that there were a multitude of ways the U.S. can cooperate with countries besides plopping down a sizable chunk of her combat power in the middle of an enormous ethnic powder keg. My mistake!

December 17, 2008

Piracy as Shark Attacks

Earlier this month, Foreign Policy posted its "Top Ten Worst Predictions of 2008." It was a good piece, but number three has been nagging at me:

“[In] reality the risks to maritime flows of oil are far smaller than is commonly assumed. First, tankers are much less vulnerable than conventional wisdom holds. Second, limited regional conflicts would be unlikely to seriously upset traffic, and terrorist attacks against shipping would have even less of an economic effect. Third, only a naval power of the United States’ strength could seriously disrupt oil shipments.” —Dennis Blair and Kenneth Lieberthal, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2007

On Nov. 15, 2008 a group of Somali pirates in inflatable rafts hijacked a Saudi oil tanker carrying 2 million barrels of crude in the Indian Ocean. The daring raid was part of a rash of attacks by Somali pirates, which have primarily occurred in the Gulf of Aden. Pirates operating in the waterway have hijacked more than 50 ships this year, up from only 13 in all of last year, according to the Piracy Reporting Center. The Gulf of Aden, where nearly 4 percent of the world’s oil demand passes every day, was not on the list of strategic “chokepoints” where oil shipments could potentially be disrupted that Blair and Lieberthal included in their essay, “Smooth Sailing: The World’s Shipping Lanes Are Safe.” Hopefully, Blair will show a bit more foresight if, as some expect, he is selected as Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence.

When I first read this, I wasn't particularly sold. After all, a one year jump in piracy doesn't tell us a whole lot. Certainly not enough to invalidate the Blair/Lieberthal thesis. Second, I filled up my gas tank yesterday, weeks after the oil in the Saudi tanker in question was taken off of the market. It cost $1.67 a gallon.

Now, Benjamin Friedman at CATO comes through with a more substantive analysis:

The big reason piracy has increased in this decade is probably because maritime trade itself grew - from 4 billion tons of cargo in 1990 to 7.4 billion tons in 2006, according to the International Maritime Organization. There are more targets. But piracy’s overall effect on trade remains small. One estimate of piracy’s annual cost is $16 billion a year. Some say even that estimate is far too high. Maritime commerce back in 2005 had a total value of $7.8 trillion. Note that even the hijacking of an oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden has not much slowed tanker traffic there.

He also notes that "according to statistics kept by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) piracy is not occurring at an unusual rate this year."

I say point Blair/Lieberthal. For now.

Pakistan: Turning Its Back on Terrorism

A new poll conducted by Gallup finds that a solid majority (60%) of Pakistanis think their government should take a tougher stance on ridding Pakistan of terrorist activities. A Terror Free Tomorrow Poll in August of 2007 found that Osama bin Laden had an approval rating of 46%, whereas President Musharraf only received a 38% approval rating in the same poll. In January of 2008 another poll from the same organization found that support for Bin Laden had fallen to 24% and backing of al-Qaeda fell to 18% from a previous 38%. Similarly, support for the Taliban had fallen by half from 38% to 19%.

The newest Gallup findings seem to support the trend found in these earlier polls and goes further with more detailed questioning. Not only do Pakistanis feel that the government needs to take a tougher approach, but nearly half (49%) say the government isn't doing enough.

Sympathy for the activities of al-Qaeda and the Taliban are most prevalent in the Northwest Frontier Province (N.W.F.P) and Balochistan province. Nearly half of respondents in both the N.W.F.P (46%) and Balochistan (48%) said they would like to see a tougher stance against terrorism. The numbers in Punjab and Sindh provinces were significantly larger at 76% and 57% respectively.

It should be noted that the Gallup Poll was conducted in October shortly after the Marriot bombing that took place in Islamabad. These findings will be welcomed from Pakistan's allies in the so-called 'war on terror' but will be most comforting for those within Pakistan's borders fighting extremism. The government can proceed with battling militants on Pakistan's soil with the confidence that a majority of the nation supports this war and that it is not just doing America's bidding. Not only will this make the government more confident in their actions, but it may help to garner confidence among the incoming Obama administration that they do in fact have a willing partner in Pakistan's civil society. Is this a sharp rebuke to the Bush-Musharraf partnership, a result of their alliance or a home-grown evolution?

UPDATE: Dawn News in Pakistan has reported that FBI interrogators have cleared Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, of being involved in the attacks. The FBI interrogated the sole survivor out of the Mumbai attackers, Ajmal Amir Kasab, for nine hours. The FBI concludes that Kasab is a Pakistani national, that he was trained by Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, the plan was hatched and training was provided within Pakistan, but the ISI had no involvement in the attacks. The US and the UK hope to use this interrogation as a way of pressuring Pakistan to let India interrogate suspects captured by Pakistani authorities.

Neoconservatives Dine on Chicken Kiev

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush told an audience in Ukraine to be mindful of nationalist tensions and dramatic change. The speech was pilloried on the right, with NY Times columnist William Safire memorably damning it as the "Chicken Kiev" speech. Bush's cardinal sin, in the eyes of his conservative detractors, was that he had aligned his prudent policy-making with prudent rhetoric.

Now, President George W. Bush is being scolded by neoconservative Max Boot for talking imprudently, but not following it up with enough reckless action:

Perhaps the most irksome characteristic of the Bush administration has been the Rio Grande-wide gap between rhetoric and action.

The president has consistently talked a good game when it comes to democracy promotion, stopping weapons proliferation and other important goals, but his actions have just as consistently fallen short. Inaction is defensible -- because there is always a good case to be made for caution in international affairs. But why then has his rhetoric been so incautious?

The basic contour of the problem is that neoconservative foreign policy making is fundamentally not serious. The yawning disconnect between its goals, and America's capabilities, resources and political will is enormous. And so its heroes must, by necessity, fall short.

Yet time and again, the inability of these heroes to deliver is never chalked up to the absurdity of the vision but to some political failing, moral cowardice or sabotage (usually by the dastardly State Department). That's why Ronald Reagan was pilloried by Norman Podhoretz for, of all things, his "Evil Empire" speech. Just like Boot today, Podhoretz decried the gap between Reagan's words and his actions.

The Indian Need for Soul Searching

Gordon Brown's opinion piece in the Times of India lavishes praise on India's handling of the Mumbai attacks and calls on the need for Pakistan to act. I take issue with a statement made in the beginning of his piece where he states that:

Britain is no stranger to terrorism. We have lived with it for many decades. But the attacks in November in Mumbai were as unprecedented as they were appalling. They struck at the business capital of the world's largest democracy, attempting to undermine India's huge achievement in delivering sustained economic growth and greater prosperity over the last 15 years.

Firstly, it is necessary to give Prime Minister Brown the benefit of the doubt, as he is not in a position to make statements that criticize the Indian government during this moment of grief for the Indian nation. In any case, this piece is emblematic of the vast media coverage this attack has been given in the western media. The notion that this attack was unprecedented is misguided at best. Somini Sengupta of the New York Times has covered South Asia extensively and said during an interview with NPR that India had been the victim of the most terrorist attacks last year after only Iraq. Just that statistic alone lays precedence for such an attack.

The point being made here is that while this matter is under investigation by the police in India, and by the media in general, very few people are looking inside India for answers. The terrorists have been facilitated, according to the Indian government and numerous western experts, by Pakistan's intelligence agency (the ISI). Hypothetically, if every attacker was in fact a Pakistani national, then it begs the question: why were their accomplices inside India willing to commit atrocities against their own state?

The answers to these questions can be found in the simmering religious, ethnic and class tensions within India that boil over every few years. In fact, the only reason given by the so-called Deccan Mujahideen after taking responsibility for the actions was that it was in retaliation for the massacres of thousands of Muslims inside India over the past decade. This is important because groups like the LeT can be dealt with inside Pakistan and their training camps can be shut down, but the grievances of the persecuted and the radicalizing of Indian youths within India can only be addressed by India.

The majority of the attacks that have taken place within India over the past year have been committed by the Indian Mujahideen and other such home-grown terror outfits. There is a glaring need to investigate the sources of this radicalization of Muslims within India and an even greater need to address the religious and ethnic tensions which are the catalysts behind radicalization. The religious tensions in India are some of the most under-reported conflicts in the world.

The training facilities in Pakistan can be shut-down, but unless the grievances of India's 150 million-plus Muslims' grievances are addressed, then there will always be those impressionable, unemployed and desperate youth looking for meaning through extremism. If they can't exploit Pakistan's lawless regions they will find the training elsewhere as long as the source of their tensions within India remain.

December 16, 2008

We Didn't Invade Iraq to Liberate Their Footwear

Several commentators have taken the shoe-throwing incident as some kind of symbol of America's progress in Iraq. See, they argue, in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, such behavior would be rewarded with torture and dismemberment.

Fair enough. But America never invaded Iraq so they can have the freedom to hurl footwear at visiting dignitaries. We invaded to prevent Saddam Hussein from passing weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda terrorists.

The arguments about the "messy" democracy taking root in Iraq are very much besides the point. Where is the evidence, for instance, that the opening of political dialogue in Iraq is making any of the jihadists in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Europe any less willing to harm Americans or Western interests?

Instead, as a consequence of our decision to invade and occupy the country, jihadists are "bleeding out" of Iraq with valuable urban and guerrilla warfare techniques, which they will pass on to a new generation of anti-Western terrorists.

A democratic Iraq would be a watershed in terms of human rights for the Iraqi people. But for such a development to justify the invasion, Iraq's democratic government would have to deliver national security gains commensurate with the costs to America in blood and treasure. A free press and flying footwear are good things. They won't prevent the next 9/11.

December 15, 2008

Liberals Couldn't Win It All in Quebec

Just a week ago, on December 8, Quebecers were called to the polls. They reelected PM Jean Charest, from the Liberal Party, for a third term. But what do these results mean? Let's take a look (63 seats are needed for a majority):

Liberals (centrist federalist): 66 seats (42.05%)
PQ (centre-left sovereigntist): 51 seats (35.15%)
ADQ (centre-right federalist): 7 seats (16.35%)
QS (far-left sovereigntist): 1 seat (3.79%)

At first glance, one could conclude that Mr. Charest won his bet. He was able to boost his party's popularity by 9% compared to the 2007 results. These numbers got him almost 20 new seats and of course, a majority government. Plain and simple: Mr. Charest won't have to barter for the support of either the PQ or the ADQ for the survival of his government, as was the case in the former minority government.

Anywhere else in the world, this would be called a victory. ... But here again, this is Quebec.

If you had been sitting in the ballroom where Liberals gathered to celebrate the results, you would have been able to hear mosquitoes fly (never mind the fact that mosquitoes are all dead come December). Up until the last moment, Mr. Charest's top operatives had hopes for 75 to 80 seats. They wanted not only a majority government, but a strong one to top it all off. The polls that came out in the last week of the campaign mostly suggested such a scenario. However, nobody in the Liberal Party saw the surge in support for the PQ in the last few days of the campaign. And it almost cost them their majority.

So despite having suffered a defeat, PQ officials read into the 2008 results some encouraging signs, even calling the defeat a "moral victory." Indeed, had you been sitting in the ballroom where PQ militants gathered to celebrate the results, you truly would have believed yourself to be sitting in the winning party's room. Some have called this enthusiasm a little bit hubristic, but none could deny that the PQ effectively stopped the slide in public support that it had been suffering since 1998.

That year, the PQ got 42.87% of public support, in 2003 it went down to 33.24% and it got to an historical low of 28.35% just last year, in 2007. At 35%, the PQ is back in business and it can certainly hope for a government mandate in 4 years. PQ militants did have reasons to celebrate last Monday.

But the main narrative of these results isn't the slim victory of the Liberals or the moral victory for the PQ; it is the hellish downward spiral in which the ADQ is plunged right now. At 16.35% in public support with 7 seats, the ADQ is in the exact opposite situation that the PQ is in. In 2007, the ADQ, under the leadership of Mario Dumont, got to an historical high of 31% of support, winning them 41 seats. Last Monday, the ADQ got only half of what it had in 2007. And Mr. Dumont, who was the most popular politician in Quebec a little bit less than 2 years ago, resigned in the face of these grim results.

What happened in just 18 months?

First, the image of a "one-man-show" stuck to the ADQ. The weakness of the ADQ team strongly contrasted with Mr. Dumont's apparent strength, therefore reinforcing the idea that as good as Mr. Dumont was, he was the sole player on his team. Second, Mr. Dumont's ability to channel public anger towards the government did not compute this time around. In 2007, the public rage over "reasonable accommodations" awarded to ethnic groups translated into growing popularity for Mr. Dumont and his party. This time around, voters did not have a ballot issue on which the ADQ was able to play.

Third, the issues that Mr. Dumont put forward in 2007 such as families and the defense of the Quebecer identity are now strongly attached to the PLQ and the PQ's electoral programs. Indeed, even Mr. Charest, the former leader of the Progressive-Conservative Party of Canada, was able to reinvent himself as a nationalist. Between a PQ that advocates for independence and a PLQ that is now playing the nationalist card, there simply was not that much room left for Mr. Dumont's grassroots nationalism.

Overall though, the ADQ's demise was caused more by ADQ supporters who stayed home last Monday than by the PQ or the PLQ stealing them away. Among those who voted for the ADQ in 2007 who did not repeat their gesture, about half chose the PLQ and half chose the PQ. My guess is, these nationalist voters who were hesitating between the PQ and the ADQ were mobilized to vote for the PQ as a nationalist response to the "separatist-bashing" and "Quebec-bashing" that unleashed its fury in western Canada in the last few weeks.

Mr. Harper will never acknowledge this, of course, but he may have been the PQ's strongest ally on December 8 by stirring up anti-Quebec feelings in the ROC (Rest of Canada).

December 14, 2008

Russia: Seeing Enemies all Around

Russian daily Izvestia ran an article on what it considered to be an anti-Russian film, "Soviet Story," shown on TV in Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine. According to Alexander Diyukov, president of Russian organization "Historical Memory," the film blames the USSR and Russia for Holodomor and ethnic genocide. "Holodomor" is a Ukrainian term for artificial famine imposed by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin on Ukraine and parts of USSR in the early 1930s, leading to as many as 10 million deaths across the country.

According to Diyukov, "demonization of our country (Russia) is the main purpose of the film which had EU Parliament backing, and Latvian authorities are actively pushing this film in their country and around the world." He further states that film creators are using a "large amount of falsified documents, with a mix of outright lies and manipulation in order to draw an analogy between the USSR with Nazi Germany and to show today's Russia as a neo-Nazi state." Diyukov authored a report in response to the film, titled "Soviet Story: Mechanism of Lies," which was sent to the State Duma and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Latvian authorities are playing a dangerous game by openly falsifying history," said Diyukov. "Latvian school children, after watching this film, will grow up hating our country. But hatred can only beget hatred in return." The article also quoted Vladimir Ivanov, head of Latvia Desk at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who said that "the film is similar to Goebbels' propaganda," alluding to the notorious Joseph Goebbels, head of Nazi Germany's propaganda machine.

This past week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin urged the creation of an "Anti-Crisis Center," which will have the authority of managing the effects of the global financial crisis in Russia. This special commission will have the responsibility to assist large industries and individual citizens, and will be headed by Igor Shuvalov, First Vice-Premier. The article points out that the first priority of the Russian government was to support its energy industry, heavy industry and banks, while the concerns of regular citizens were not immediately on the radar. The Center is slated to designate 100 billion rubles as credit to "strategically important" industries, and 200 billion rubles for the rest of the country.

Two distinct opinions were voiced about US strategic military plans, an issue that gets increasingly large amount of coverage in Russian media following US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Daily Dni.ru cites recent report by Washington-based Center for American Progress, which called for stopping the development of anti-missile shields in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Russia considers aimed at itself. The article highlights the argument that "strategic logic of said shield is in question because it needlessly provokes Russia." The articles further cites Congressman John Murtha, who said that American defense spending is expected to decrease in the coming years.

However, Russian military officials and experts do not wish to put much faith in such statements. General Leonid Ivashov, president of Russian Academy of Geopolitical Problems, was quoted by Izvestia saying that "the biggest danger for Russia and other countries is the attempt to construct a unipolar world. We are carefully monitoring what our so-called "strategic partners" in America are doing. United States has steadily increased its military budget over the last several decades, so that now it's the largest in the world. Its vast weapons modernization program is aimed at achieving technological superiority over all other world militaries. That is not done just to hunt Osama bin Laden. It looks like America is geared towards unleashing one big war, or many local wars around the world."

In light of such concerns, General Ivashov openly questioned why decisions regarding Russian Armed Forces are done by civilian leaders without any military background (alluding to current Defense Minister Serdyukov, who has business experience but did not serve in the armed forces), and why the Russian government is aiming at decreasing the ranks of officers and active duty soldiers by hundreds of thousands.

December 12, 2008

Can Faith Beat Terror?

Over at Pajamas Media, Elizabeth Scalia suggests that the West will only win the war on terror when Western diplomats start talking about faith:

We should consider that Islamic terrorism may not be defeatable, except on its own terms, on the battlefield of the supernatural.

To secularists and avowed agnostics who work to expunge all religious language from governments, that idea is anathema. I doubt it makes many Christians or Jews happy, either. But the war on terror is as much about ideas and ideals as about security and strategy. If one side’s ideas are mayhem in service to transcendence and the other side is thinking about meetings and signed papers, then secular Western diplomacy is boxing with one glove.

I'm not sure where any of this leaves us, in any practical sense. Western diplomats don't have access to "supernatural battlefields," as far as I can tell. And what kind of language, specifically, are they suppose to use? Is Scalia suggesting that we co-opt Islamic rhetoric and theology in our public diplomacy to discredit the radical elements within Islam? Is she suggesting that we use Christian or Jewish teachings to condemn Islamic violence?

And why would this language do what other counter-terrorism measures fail to do?

It's all very vague. More than that, it's ironic. The ability to make arguments rooted in reason and evidence and not theology and clerical fiat strikes me as one of the hallmarks of Western civilization. Indeed, it's what distinguishes us from our radical enemies.

December 11, 2008

Obama and a Global Meltdown

Marc Ambinder reports that there is a great deal of worry inside Team Obama about the state of the global economy:

It's quite unsettling to talk to members of Barack Obama's transition teams these days, especially those who are helping with the economics portfolio. Without going into details, the sense I get from them is that they are very worried that the economy will get a lot worse before it gets better....

...Where the discussion isn't going, at least in public, (or the PR level), is the possibility that the first foreign policy crisis the administration will face will be the complete economic collapse of a large, unstable nation. To be sure, Pakistan is nearly broke, and U.S. policy makers seem to be aware of that; but a worldwide demand crisis could lead to social unrest in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, Singapore, the Ukraine, Japan, Turkey or Egypt (which is facing an internal political crisis of epic proportions already). The U.S. won't have the resources to, say, engineer the rescue of the peso again, or intervene in Asia as in 1997.

To tie this into a post earlier in the week about the drastic decline in oil prices curbing the appetite for foreign adventurism in Moscow and Tehran, it strikes me that a similar dynamic may curtail Washington's global ambitions considerably.

Should the U.S. Place Israel Under the Umbrella?

According to Fox News, President-elect Obama is readying a "strategic pact" that would place Israel under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

I don't quite understand why this is necessary. As I understand it, the "nuclear umbrella" concept was anchored to a very clear strategic rationale during the Cold War. America was endangered by Soviet expansionism but couldn't station conventional forces everywhere. Simultaneously, the U.S. wanted to keep the number of nuclear nations low.

None of these dynamics are at play in the Middle East.

Israel has nuclear weapons. As I wrote in RCP earlier, if Iran is undeterrable, they're undeterrable whether it's American or Israeli bombs falling on Tehran. If they are deterrable, then Israel's nuclear arsenal of some 200 bombs deliverable by land, sea and air, should be amply sufficient.

As for proliferation, a strategic pact for Israel alone is worthless, unless we make a similar offer to every Arab state in the region (as Hillary Clinton acknowledged). I also don't see the strategic value. Iran is not poised to march on Tel Aviv, much less acquire any territory beyond its borders. Iran can be dangerous, but it's not powerful.

All this "strategic pact" would do is restrict U.S. options in the event of a crisis.

So why make the offer? Is there something I'm missing?

Rachman's World of Hurt

Earlier this week on the home page there was a piece by Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times on the prospects for a "world government." It was also picked up by Drudge and it set off a firestorm of emails to Rachman.

From these emails, Rachman draws some rather harsh conclusions about a cross-section of America. Having not read his inbox, I can't tell if they're fair or not. Some of the blog reaction has been rough, though.

In Rachman's defense, I read and understood his column to be, as he said, an "one the one hand, on the other hand" kind of analysis and not a Utopian paean to a global government.

The Horrors of North Korea

The Washington Post has the harrowing tale of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in a North Korean prison and later escaped to South Korea.

December 10, 2008

Clinton & The Middle East

Larisa Baste at the Washington Institute rounds up some of Hillary Clinton's statements and writings on the Middle East during the campaign.

This one jumped out at me:

April 16, 2008: "We should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel. . . . You can't go to the Saudis or the Kuwaitis or the UAE and others who have a legitimate concern about Iran and say, 'Well, don't acquire these weapons to defend yourself,' unless you're also willing to say, 'We will provide a deterrent backup and we will let the Iranians know that, yes, an attack on Israel would trigger massive retaliation, but so would an attack on those countries that are willing to go under this security umbrella and forswear their own nuclear ambitions.'"

Just imagine what the reaction would be if she had uttered these words on September 12, 2001. Has that much changed?

In Awe of Cuba

Henry Gomez says Obama should put the Castros "in their place."

He goes on to suggest that:

No, you won’t be reading many columns in the mainstream media espousing the unpopular view that it’s the totalitarian dictatorship 90 miles to our south that should change, must change, before the United States modifies its stance. But then again, by now we should expect no less from them than contempt for our country and total awe and respect for its enemies.

Well, here's an article from Mother Jones this week - granted, not the New York Times but still no bastion of conservatism - detailing Cuba's crack down on bloggers. I don't detect much awe.

December 8, 2008

The Implications of Cheap Oil

Over at the Washington Note, Brian Till wonders what impact softening oil prices will have on producing states:

The most pedestrian conclusion is to believe that struggling domestic spheres will lead to more reckless acts in the international sphere. That Iran and Russia, attempting to turn inner angst against an outer foe, will become all the more boisterous and rogue. But it's difficult to imagine these states taking more aggressive tacks then those that which they're already on. I wonder if we might, ironically, see the opposite: domestic aggression combined with a softening toward the international society.

This is a quibble, I know, but isn't the latter the conventional wisdom, not the former? Isn't the entire "energy independence" push animated by the principle that if we collapse the price of oil, the world's sundry petrol producing dictators will be undercut? Thomas Friedman's "First Law of Petropolitics" spells out this thinking pretty clearly.

The truly ironic and counter-intuitive development would see petrol tyrannies becoming more aggressive on the world stage as the source of their economic power eroded under their feet.

UPDATE: Moscow Times is reporting that Standard & Poors became the first ratings agency to downgrade Russia in a decade:

The ratings decision "is linked to the fall in the oil price and the likely appearance of current account and trade deficits next year. The weakening of the ruble and the situation with the exchange rate could have also played a part," said Yaroslav Lissovolik, chief strategist at Deutsche Bank.

It's difficult to see how Russia can sustain any long-term power projection in, say, Latin America, while its economy implodes.

Max Boot's Imperial Mission

Max Boot suggests that the real reason the world, or the West in particular, doesn't take strong action against ungovernable territory in Somalia and Pakistan is a "lack of will."

That's funny, because I thought the reason was: 1. Pakistan has nuclear weapons and might not take a wholesale violation of its sovereignty lightly; 2. the last time we tried to intervene in Somalia it ended poorly; 3. members of NATO are suffering from a major economic contraction that puts a strain on resources.

That's not to say that Boot is wrong to suggest that we need to think more creatively about how to mitigate the problems that stem from the world's ungovernable spaces. It's just that some 21st century "imperialism lite" is unrealistic, costly and unworkable.

December 7, 2008

Chinese Sphere: Pondering Place in New World

Amidst reports of the ongoing back-and-forth arguments that took place in the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue over the strength of the Chinese currency, an interesting news item surfaced in the Southern Metropolis Daily, one of China's leading commercial newspapers. In remarks to the paper, Major General Jin Yi'nan, the head of the PLA National Defense University's Institute of Strategy, advocated dispatching the Chinese Navy over to the Gulf of Aden to take care of the Somali pirates. Just last month the pirates hijacked of a Chinese fishing boat and took 15 Chinese hostages.

While Jin was quick to dispel "China threat" concerns, he made clear that the overall message of such a mission went beyond a simple piracy fighting action: "If the Chinese Navy were to rescue hostages and protect the passage of commercial vessels, it would in no way be an economic issue. Rather, it would be an issue of national image. In fact, sending out a naval group is not just to target the Somali pirates. The Chinese Navy would sail from Hainan, through the Malacca Straits, enter the Indian Ocean, draw near to the Red Sea, and take position in the Gulf of Aden. This would be a sign to the world that China will be resolute, determined, and capable of mobilizing its Navy to protect its maritime interests, regional security, and the safety of shipping lanes and passages. That is the most important point."

In a Ming Pao op-ed, convener of Hong Kong's Executive Council CY Leung ponders how Hong Kong can maintain a position of importance in China and the world: "We need to integrate two primary demands: the first is for foreign financial organizations to develop their business in mainland China; the second demand is for mainland China to develop its own sustainable domestic financial industry with the help of Hong Kong. If we are unable to meet both of these demands, the financial center of Hong Kong will lose its 'international' nature and become just like Shanghai. We will also lose our 'Chinese' nature and become just like Singapore. ... If we can carry out this project, we can secure the position of the next generation of Hong Kong residents as well Hong Kong's place in the country."

The closer that Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou tries to bring the country to China, the more his administration seems to take on facets of its authoritarian neighbor. Police treatment of protesters during the Chinese envoy's visit last month elicited notices from Freedom House, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and most recently Amnesty International, a dubious distinction that Taiwan has not had since the days when it was a martial law dictatorship. Now Ma has stated that it would not be in the "national interest" to welcome the Dalai Lama, who had expressed a desire to visit Taiwan in 2009. The Dalai Lama last visited Taiwan in 2001 when the current opposition Democratic Progressive Party was in power.

In an editorial, the Taiwan-based China Times writes, "Cross-Strait relations are, indeed, important to Taiwan, and everybody wishes for harmony between the two sides. However, cross-Strait relations should in no way be equated with the national interest. A free economy, democracy, human rights, and national stature are absolutely of greater importance. ... For a long time the message we have given to the international community was that Taiwan stood on the side of democracy, freedom, and human rights and faced suppression from Communist China. Every country, out of consideration for its 'national interest' and Chinese pressure, has sacrificed Taiwan.

"However, there are many international friends who are still concerned about Taiwan's plight. Now that we have rejected the Dalai Lama, have we not just shot ourselves in the foot? Moreover, if we ourselves are unable to withstand pressure from Communist China, how can we ask the international community to support Taiwan?"

Russia: Crisis Hits Real Estate Market

Russian media is proudly writing about the nation's anti-ship frigate Admiral Chabanenko sailing through the Panama Canal this weekend. Daily Dni.ru reported that Russian sailors will meet their Panamanian counterparts and engage them in soccer and volleyball matches. As reported by the Russian Embassy in Panama, "the friendly visit by the Russian frigate will raise the international standing of Panama as a naval power, and will demonstrate to the whole world that the Canal is truly neutral." The paper reported that last time Russian ships traversed the Canal was in 1944, when four Soviet submarines traveled from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean after undergoing repairs as part of the Allied war coalition.

The paper also commented on the Russian reaction to the US refusal to discuss President Medvedev's plan for Russian-European Security Cooperation initiative at the OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe) meeting taking place in Helsinki. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed discussing Medvedev's plan for an all-encompassing Euro-Atlantic security cooperation that would treat all members equally. Lavrov was quoted as saying that "the OSCE is not fulfilling its major obligation - guaranteeing equal security for all. The presence of certain OSCE missions in some countries is considered by these countries as inequality in itself. ... Currently, OSCE is not able to prevent conflicts, and does not react to the violation of its major principles." Lavrov also called for the investigation into OSCE observer's alleged knowledge of Georgian plans to attack its breakaway, pro-Russian province of South Ossetia in August 2008.

Daily Vremya Novostei is reporting on the Russian plans to build a natural gas pipeline to Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. The pipeline is to be completed in June-July 2009. The actual pipeline construction commenced in the spring 2007. Prior to the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, South Ossetia received its natural gas from Georgia, which itself was delivered from Russia.

The evidence that the global financial crisis is hitting Moscow was highlighted by the Business Daily Vzglyad report that the developers of the much-talked about, ultra-modern high-rise project called "Moscow City" - a series of high-rise commercial and residential properties on the Volga River overlooking older sections of downtown Moscow - are trying to sell off their properties at a loss. One of the main developers- Russian Mirax Group - must return 200 million euros (approximately $300 million) to Credit Suisse in February 2009, if it is unable to get refinancing from the Russian Vnesheconom Bank. The developer must follow that payment with an additional 65 million euros several months later. If the Russian bank will be able to issue credit to the developer, then Credit Suisse, the original lender, will get the "Federation Tower" - one of the the tallest buildings in the complex - as collateral, since all other projects advertised by this developer exit only on paper.

This is a stark turnaround in the fortunes of one of the "loudest" and most-advertised projects in Russia - altogether, "Moscow City" was supposed to be poster child of the resiliency and attractiveness of Moscow real estate market, judged as the most expensive in the world by leading industry indicators. "Moscow City" was planned as a state-of-the-art commercial and residential property complex - yet today, its value is deflating rapidly.

Another developer in the complex, "Russian Land Company"- whose assets were valued at nearly $10 billion before the global financial crisis - is stopping construction on the complex's signature project - "Tower Russia," a 612-meter (2,007-foot) skyscraper that was planned as the tallest building in Europe and second-tallest in the world. The developer cited the financial situation in Russia and the "state of the markets in general" as the reason for its decision. On December 5, Vzglyad reported that "Tower Russia" will be purchased by the British oil company "Sibir Energy" for half the cost.

Russian business experts commented on the drastic effects of the global financial crisis on the once-hot Russian real estate mega-projects: "The crisis greatly lessened the actual value of these projects- or rather, it showed how inflated those projects really were," stated analysts at ProServiceMarket. "The inability to attract additional credit is forcing the developers to shed their once-flaunted projects as ballast." "Vzglyad" concluded that the previous price tag of "Tower Russia" - valued at $2.5 billion - could in reality be nothing more than "smoke and mirrors," just like the value of many other major real estate projects around Moscow.

December 5, 2008

John Bolton: Iranian Bomb Inevitable

"Iran is going to get nuclear weapons...We have lost this race." That's the word from former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. Video here.

Sounds about right. Short of an ill-advised military adventure, a sudden and dramatic change of heart in Europe, Russia and China, or an act-of-God, Iran will be a nuclear power.

Have a good weekend!

December 4, 2008

The Map of the Global Internet


This isn't as cool as the map of Middle Eastern empires, but it's still an interesting look at the global Internet. More details here.

Obama's No Dove II

Before the election, folks like Daniel Larison and myself had pointed out what we took to be a fairly obvious point: despite his opposition to the Iraq war, Obama was not a "dove" or anything remotely resemble a left wing radical when it came to foreign policy (the hysteria of Ralph Peters notwithstanding).

This realization is now beginning to dawn on members of the anti-war left who are feeling a bit hood-winked by Obama's national security picks (see here too).

Now, it's one thing to feel that campaign promises are falling short. It's another to blame this on the dread influence of neoconservatism, which Robert Dreyfuss tries to do here:

A familiar coalition of hawks, hardliners, and neoconservatives expects Barack Obama's proposed talks with Iran to fail—and they're already proposing an escalating set of measures instead. Some are meant to occur alongside any future talks. These include steps to enhance coordination with Israel, tougher sanctions against Iran, and a region-wide military buildup of U.S. strike forces, including the prepositioning of military supplies within striking distance of that country.

Once the future negotiations break down, as they are convinced will happen, they propose that Washington quickly escalate to war-like measures, including a U.S. Navy-enforced embargo on Iranian fuel imports and a blockade of that country's oil exports.

Only, this isn't something that the neoconservatives are cooking up:

On June 4 of this year, for example, Sen. Obama said at a speech in Washington, D.C.: "We should work with Europe, Japan and the Gulf states to find every avenue outside the U.N. to isolate the Iranian regime -- from cutting off loan guarantees and expanding financial sanctions, to banning the export of refined petroleum to Iran."

He repeated this sentiment during the presidential candidates' debate on Oct. 7: "Iran right now imports gasoline . . . if we can prevent them from importing the gasoline that they need . . . that starts changing their cost-benefit analysis. That starts putting the squeeze on them."

December 2, 2008

Harper Reaps What He Sows

Canada is, well, in political turmoil, again. Not because of the Quebec general election, mind you, but because the conservative government that was elected just a little more than a month ago is about to be overthrown by an uneasy coalition formed by the Liberal Party (centre-left federalist), the New Democratic Party (leftist federalist) and the Bloc Québécois (centre-left sovereingtist).

How did we get here? First, keep in mind the results in terms of seats from the election last October (155 needed for a majority):

Tories: 143
Liberals: 77
Bloc: 49
NDP: 37

The Tories won, but they fell short of a majority, mostly because of the Bloc's strength in Quebec. After the election and during his inaugural address, Mr. Harper pledged that he would govern for all Canadians, regardless of their party affiliation. But last week, in his economic address, he did the exact opposite: he antagonized all three opposition parties by trying to cut off public funding for political parties, eliminating the right to strike for government employees and announcing a total of zero measures to meet the current economic crisis. At the moment he uttered these words, all three opposition parties made clear that they would never vote for such an economic plan, therefore vowing to overthrow the government.

How could Mr. Harper, known for his strategic sense, not have realized that all three opposition parties would league against him? My only guess is that Mr. Harper's arrogance made him overreach. He tried to push the opposition too hard, and the chickens came home to roost. Within a few hours, the Tories backed off on the most controversial part of their plan, the one regarding public financing for parties. But it was too little, too late.

The Liberals and the NDP leaders, Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton, quickly met and put on paper an agreement to form a coalition in the event that the Harper government would be overthrown by a vote of no-confidence. Now that this vote, which is going to take place on December 8 (the same date as the Quebec elections), will almost surely be lost by the conservatives, we know for sure that the days of the Harper government are numbered.

But in order for this deal to be sealed, Dion and Layton negotiated for the support of the Bloc Québécois and its leader Gilles Duceppe, who has pledged not to vote against the coalition government for a period of 8 months. The Bloc, a sovereigntist party, wants no part in the coalition but is willing to cut a deal in order to make gains for Quebec. Effectively, Mr. Duceppe will hold the balance of power in the Canadian House of Commons.

This has led to mass hysteria in some parts of Canada, as in the most conservative newspapers such as the National Post. Some have called this coalition a "Deal with the Separatist (Bloc) and Socialist (NDP) Devils".

But whatever grievances western reactionaries may have against the Bloc or the NDP, they cannot get around the fact that their champion, Mr. Harper, made his worst mistake ever by pushing the opposition too hard. They say that the Bloc should have no say in the government of Canada because they advocate for an independent Quebec.

Let me just remind them that this author's vote went to the Bloc last October and that my vote is just as good as their vote. As long as Quebecers pay taxes in Ottawa, we will have our say in the affairs of Canada. The Tories tried pandering to Quebec soft nationalist voters and it got them absolutely nowhere - they did not make any gains in Quebec. The Bloc got the vote of almost 40% of Quebecers and 50% of the votes of Quebec Francophones.

My word to the Tories who lash out at us evil separatists is: we cast our vote, we wanted the Bloc to represent us in a minority government. Deal with it.

Obviously, the reactionary ideologues who seem to have taken over the Conservative Party do not understand what a minority government means: it means the government must cut deals with the opposition in order to survive. Mr. Harper remarkably failed at this job, and for that he will be shown the door by the majority of the House of Commons. This is very good news for the 62% of Canadians (that includes 78% of Quebecers) who did not vote for Mr. Harper's right-wing agenda.

As an observer of American politics, you know what this situation reminds me of? I believe Mr. Harper overreached in the same way that Newt Gingrich did when he tried to have President Clinton impeached. It hurt the GOP brand just like Mr. Harper is now hurting the Tory brand in Canada.

Worries About Obama's Team: Susan Rice Edition

Blake Hounshell lists some "inchoate fears" regarding each member of Obama's national security team.

Interestingly, he leaves off Susan Rice. If I had to list my own ill-defined worries about Obama's team, Rice and her persistent calls to get the U.S. entangled in Sudan's civil war would be at the top of my list. I worry that Rice will fail to convince the United Nations or the European Union to send additional troops or helicopters to support the African Union's efforts in Darfur, but will convince President Obama to send U.S. resources into Darfur.

Now, I think that's a long shot. But while we're worrying about decisions not yet made, I thought I'd throw that out there.

December 1, 2008

What Conservatives Won't Learn From Mumbai

Many conservatives (see here, here, and here) were quick to offer sweeping lessons from the terror attacks in Mumbai. One curious omission to date - they're not praising the Indian government. Now, obviously, you can't praise their counter-terrorism policies, which have obviously failed. But what about this:

The top domestic security official resigned in disgrace on Sunday for the failure to thwart or quickly contain the horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai last week, as India’s government announced a raft of measures to bolster antiterrorism efforts and struggled to calibrate a response to what it views as Pakistani complicity.

The Indians suffer a catastrophic terrorist attack and government officials resign. The party of personal responsibility responds to a far more devastating terrorist attack on U.S. soil by rebuffing and dismissing efforts to investigate government failures and bestowing medals on those in charge of our national security apparatus.

UPDATE: More resignations:

Vilasrao Deshmukh, the chief minister of Maharashtra state, which includes Mumbai, submitted his resignation as an acknowledgement of security failings that allowed the attack to extend over three days, and the ruling Congress Party was expected to accept his offer to step down. Deputy chief minister R.R. Patil resigned earlier on Monday, while Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil had quit the day before.

Next Stop: Somalia

Via Daniel Koffler, Bill Kristol can solve the world's piracy problems in just a single paragraph:

And while [Bush is] at it, perhaps he could tell various admirals to stop moaning about how difficult it would be to deal with the pirates off the coast of Somalia (isn't keeping the shipping lanes open a core mission of the Navy?) and order the Navy to clobber them. If need be, the Marines would no doubt be glad to recapitulate their origins and join in by going ashore in Africa to destroy the pirates' safe havens.

Presumably after the Marines have come ashore and the safe havens are destroyed, Somalia will become a beacon of democracy that will transform North Africa by its example.

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