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February 28, 2009

A Recipe For Staying

John Barry's analysis in Newsweek on President Obama's withdrawal announcement strikes me as a pitch-perfect summation of the conventional wisdom on the subject. Which is why statements like this are so troubling:

The December elections aren't a sure thing, which is why the continuing presence of U.S. troops is essential. A U.S. military presence is, and will be for some years to come, the ultimate guarantor that the factions within this new state have to settle their political differences by argument and compromise rather than firepower.

But that's simply not true. Violence exploded under the nose of nearly 130,000 U.S. troops during 2006. The most significant political development in Iraq was the decision by Sunni tribes to turn on al Qaeda in Iraq - a decision that predated the influx of "surge" forces. If Iraq's political factions decide to return to violence, then Iraq will become a very violent place again regardless of how many U.S. troops are in the country.

The current dynamic that Obama has put in place - and Barry lauds - surrenders the decision about the disposition of U.S. military forces to Iraq's various political actors. We are withdrawing but for the grace of their quiescence.

February 27, 2009

Obama's Iraq Straddle

President Obama aims to drawn down a sizable portion of U.S. combat forces in Iraq over the next 18 months. According to the New York Times, his plan has some bi-partisan buy-in:

Mr. McCain and other Republicans emerged from a meeting with Mr. Obama at the White House on Thursday evening reassured that the president’s withdrawal plan is responsible and reasonable. After securing assurances from Mr. Obama that he would reconsider his plans if violence increases, Mr. McCain and the Republicans expressed cautious support.

In other words, the decision on the disposition of the U.S. military is actually in the hands of Iraq's various political actors and not the U.S. Should the Iraqis return to violence, the U.S., according to Obama, will be compelled to stay.

This has been the essential conceptual muddle with Obama's position on Iraq all along. He says he wants to end the war but he won't disavow the regional interests that have made leaving Iraq seem so daunting. Hence the caveats about leaving "responsibly."

Obama's aides tell the New York Times that "the path is not towards any sort of a Korea model... the path is towards reducing, in a fairly substantial way, U.S. forces in 2010 and then down to what’s currently anticipated, down to zero, by the end of 2011.”

But how convincing is this pledge if it comes with the corollary that the withdrawal is predicated on the Iraqis playing nice?

As long as the security situation remains stable in Iraq, President Obama can skate by with this muddle. But should we face a return to violence on a larger scale (which is still possible given the country's history), his straddle becomes untenable. He will then need to tell the American people that his promise to end the war was actually subordinate to other Middle Eastern priorities or he can risk inciting a bi-partisan uproar and withdraw while Iraq burns.

Pakistan's Nukes Secure?

So reports Ricard Sale:

With Pakistan's political instability spreading, nervous concern has mounted over the fate of Islamabad's nuclear arsenal should Taliban sympathizers gain power within the Pakistan military, but under the terms of secret agreements, U.S. personnel have been stationed in Pakistan whose sole function is to guarantee and secure the safety of Islamabad's nuclear arsenal and keep it out of the hands of terrorists, according to several serving and former U.S. officials.

Some of the American technicians have had direct access to the nuclear weapons themselves, these sources said.

In any case, Pakistan's nukes are currently secure, in the opinion of several former and serving U.S. officials. "They are for now," said one.

This is reassuring, as far as it goes. But it sure would be nice if the nukes were secure because the state of Pakistan was secure.

The Global Proliferation Map

The Carnegie Endowment put together a map of global proliferation. See it here (pdf).

If you like maps, check out this map of Middle Eastern Empires through the ages or this one of the global Internet.

February 26, 2009

The U.S. in the Middle East

World Public Opinion's new survey of the Muslim world has some interesting observations:

A study of public opinion in predominantly Muslim countries reveals that very large majorities continue to renounce the use of attacks on civilians as a means of pursuing political goals. At the same time large majorities agree with al Qaeda's goal of pushing the United States to remove its military forces from all Muslim countries and substantial numbers, in some cases majorities, approve of attacks on US troops in Muslim countries....

Asked specifically about the US naval forces based in the Persian Gulf, there is widespread opposition across the Muslim world. Across eight Muslim publics on average, 66 percent said it was a bad idea; only 13 percent called it a good idea. Opposition is largest in Egypt (91%) and among the Palestinians (90%), but opposition is also large in America's NATO ally Turkey (77%).

Up until the mid 1990s and the rise of al Qaeda, the U.S. pretty much had a free hand in the region. Even if its policies were unpopular in the Middle East, it had the support of the region's autocrats and could safely overlook any roiling discontent on the "Arab street." Our regional interests trumped the meager costs of being unpopular.

Initially, it appeared as if 9/11 had changed this cost/benefit analysis significantly. You had President Bush acknowledging that U.S. policy in the Middle East had provoked its ire and Paul Wolfowitz explaining how U.S. military bases were inflaming Muslim sentiment. Much of President Bush's "freedom agenda" was premised on the conclusion that the current, U.S.-supported political order in the Middle East was fomenting radicalism.

Instead, what happened was a deepening of American military power in the Middle East while we simultaneously dismantled al Qaeda. So even as the U.S. became increasingly unpopular in the region, it successfully crippled the most deadly expression of that discontent. These tactical successes against al Qaeda have basically given Washington a pass on the difficult strategic question of whether it's in America's long-term interest to pursue policies in the Middle East that Washington itself admits generates radicalism.

Still, there is little chance that the U.S. will withdraw from the Middle East. Once the global economy recovers, which it will eventually, demand for oil will surge and supplies will tighten. Even though the U.S. consumes a fraction of the Persian Gulf's exports, its position as the Gulf's defender gives it key leverage over other oil-dependent nations such as China, a potential rival. Iran's nuclear program will only encourage the U.S. to strengthen its defense ties to Israel and the region's assorted despots and monarchs.

None of these developments imply that bases in the Middle East and an overall position of military supremacy in the region are necessary. But those bases and that supremacy are already in place, and like anything in Washington, sheer inertia has a way of constraining choices.

February 25, 2009

Elliott Abrams on the Mideast

I had the opportunity earlier today to sit in on a CFR-sponsored media call with former White House Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams. Currently a senior fellow with the Council, Abrams talked briefly on the elections in Israel, settlements, Iran's nuclear capabilities and Dennis Ross' position in the Obama White House.

Here are some of the takeaway points:

* Abrams expects the government forming process in Israel to go on for several weeks. Netanyahu understands the position he's in, and he has no desire to lead a Rightist government without Kadima and Labor.

* Don't expect the U.S. government to pressure Livni and Kadima. American administrations have been tied too often to political outcomes in the region, so it's unlikely that the Obama team will meddle in Israeli politics at this time.

* 2009 won't be the year for any kind of "final status" agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Abrams believes Israeli efforts would go much further if they improved the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank; close check points, help build up institutions and help them further improve upon economic conditions.

* A Palestinian unity government is unlikely, although the idea of a "technocratic" government - that is, one excluding both Hamas and the Fatah elements - has been floated.

* Abrams dismisses the popular argument that settlements in the West Bank have grown uncontrollably, and he doesn't see them being the primary obstacle to negotiations.

* A strike on Iran remains unlikely, but he would prefer that the Obama administration keep the threat of a strike on the negotiating table for leverage.

* Abrams called the situation on Dennis Ross a little peculiar, and said that the lack of clarity in Ross' position was for a couple of reasons. One was the "collapsing" of "available turf" to figures like George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke. The second problem may be the Obama administration's own uncertainty on a uniform Iran policy. Negotiating now, for instance, could empower current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. White House officials, according to Abrams, have remained ambiguous on Ross, stating that he will still likely travel and serve in some sort of "insider" envoy capacity.

MY THOUGHTS: Abrams, in my view, takes a rather nonchalant view of the impact Israeli settlements have had on the so-called peace process. The actual geography they consume, according to Abrams, hasn't expanded much in recent years. He does however note that there is a perceptual difference between settlers who commute to Tel Aviv and settlers with ideological motives for living beyond the wall. It's these settlers who are ganging up on, and in some cases even beating Palestinians. It's a bit myopic of Abrams to ignore the soft power implications of such incidents and demote it to a mere question of land taken and returned.

Abrams is equally casual when discussing a possible strike on Iran. By his estimate, an asymmetric response against American soldiers in the region would be unlikely because it would potentially place the Iranians in direct confrontation with the United States. But wouldn't an American air strike already constitute as a direct confrontation with the Americans? What would Tehran have to lose at this point? Isn't the point of asymmetric warfare, at least partly, to hide the handyman?

In Iran's case this is certainly true. It took President Clinton years to pin the Khobar Towers bombing on the Iranians, and even then the American response was unclear. The Iranians can hit the U.S. or Israel in several different countries, using any number of proxy organizations. You can count on this if Israel and/or Washington were to bomb Iran.

Venezuela's Interior Minister: "Cuba's Not Running Venezuela's Sigepol"

Last Saturday Ludmila Vinogradoff, writing from Caracas for Spain's El País, reported that

More than 40,000 Cubans are living in Venezuela, of which 30,000 are supposed "doctors", or more accurately, "paramedics that graduated after three years of training". The government in Havana bills Caracas for $18,000/month for each of them but pays the medics $500/month at the most, according to Venezuelan media.

Chávez has delivered the juiciest contracts to Cuban authorities. For the past two years Cubans manage all the registries for issuing IDs, property registries and document notarizing.

Never in Venezuela has a foreign country had as much access to so much national information. And now Chávez is having them supervise the police, that is, Cuba is creating the General Police System (Sistema General Policial), Sigepol, which will store all the records on all police functionaries."

Sigepol will go into use next April, starting with a dozen police districts. The story on Cuba's role in developing the Sigepol was first reported at El Universal and was picked up by international news services in Spain and Latin America.

On Tuesday Venezuelan Interior Minister Tarek el Aissami held a press conference denying that Cubans would be in charge of Sigepol. Assimi called the story a fabrication, "media manipulation...aimed at discrediting the excellent relationship between the two countries." The Miami Herald and Noticias 24 quoted el Aissami, who asserted that "Cuba's role was on a strictly technical and technological basis," and "the system will be developed only with Venezuelan personnel," while stating that Cuba was chosen because it has a police system

ranked by several international agencies as one of the most efficient in the continent.
The new police system was created last year by presidential decree in reaction to the 101,140 violent deaths of the past 10 years, 20% of which took place in the Caracas metropolitan area.

The Miami Herald states that

This is a crucial issue since the system will be used in regions controlled by the opposition, for official police business, whose police chiefs are required to comply with the approval of the Chavista government.
Here in the US, the Lugar report expects that
"Given current economic challenges, any revenue gained from economic engagement with the United States would likely be used for internal economic priorities, not international activism."
However, Cuba continues to play a high-profile role in international politics.

The Sigepol project is only the most recent example.

The Ayatollah's Juggling Act

This LA Times piece on the presidential race heating up in Iran is well worth the read, if for nothing else other than news of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad purchasing votes with $60 "Justice Shares."

But this all-important snippet especially caught my eye:

The early campaigning underscores the divisive and decisive nature of the June 12 presidential election, which may determine whether Iran and the United States achieve some kind of understanding on a variety of issues, including the Islamic Republic's controversial nuclear program.

Iran's political system combines elements of a democratic republic and a theocracy. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei oversees crucial matters of state, such as relations with the U.S., but has to contend with a dynamic political system and numerous centers of power, including think tanks, religious charities and the military. Candidates for public office must demonstrate fealty to the Islamic system, yet they compete ferociously.

"Whoever takes over will have a vote . . . in the decision-making process," said Mohammad Hassan Khani, a professor of political science at Imam Sadegh University in Tehran, the capital. "It matters who is going to be next president as far as the Iranian-American relationship is concerned. [But] to some extent it is not going to determine the future of the relationship because the decision is not his."

The political establishment is grouped into about half a dozen factions that include liberals like Khatami who call themselves reformists, conservatives who call themselves "principlists," and groups in between switching partners in a dance of shifting alliances.

It's crucial to remember that presidential elections in Iran are half charade and half substance. While the players in the show may be somewhat marginal, they often do represent a sample size of the ideological tug of war going on within the country's leadership base.

And Ayatollah Khamenei's support isn't necessarily static. Although he may line up closer with Ahmadinejad and his ilk ideologically speaking, he must preside over the regime under the auspices of infallibility.

A good example is the Pope and his relationship with the Holy See. While there is a clear hierarchy to the regime, the Pope must balance this relationship off of his various agencies and power centers in order to keep up proper appearances. Popes have reversed course on Catholic doctrine, enacted reforms, and subsequently overturned the reforms of their predecessors. In other words, the Supreme Leader can appear to waver, but he can never appear to be utterly clueless to the trends of the country. If he does, his role as the land's primary Jurist comes into question.

Khatami embarrassed and surprised Khamenei in 1997. It'll be interesting to see how that race impacts his support in 2009.

About Those Destabilizing Air Strikes (II)

The New York Times quotes the head of Pakistan's ISI as saying that U.S. military action is indeed destabilizing his country:

The Pakistani officials suggested that Al Qaeda was replenishing killed fighters and midlevel leaders with less experienced but more hard-core militants, who are considered more dangerous because they have fewer allegiances to local Pakistani tribes.

Al Qaeda was using sophisticated Web sites and sleeper cells across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia to enlist young fighters who were less patient or inclined to plan and carry out far-reaching global attacks and who had instead redirected their energies on more immediate targets and on fomenting insurgency in Pakistan, the officials said.

As mentioned earlier, this is the trade-off we appear to be making: risking longer term instability in Pakistan in exchange for destroying al Qaeda's ability to launch global attacks. It's a delicate, dangerous balancing act.

February 24, 2009

The Return of Rafsanjani

According to the Tehran based Parsine News Agency, Ayatollah Rafsanjani is preparing to embark next week on a seven day foreign trip. This is the longest foreign trip taken by any senior Iranian official. What is even more interesting is the destination: Iraq.

One of the main reasons behind the trip are the expected negotiations between Tehran and Washington. It is thought that Rafsanjani's trip will be used for consultations with Iran's allies there.

Whilst there, Rafsanjani is expected to outline Iran's position and to coordinate them with Iran's allies, whose influence is an important component in an array of bargaining chips which Tehran aims to present during its negotiations with Washington.

What is even more interesting is the fact that Supreme Leader Khamenei is dispatching Rafsanjani on this important mission, and not Ahmadinejad, nor any of his allies such as Saeed Jalili.

Can this be a sign that by excluding Ahmadinejad and his allies, Khamenei is already preparing Iran's foreign policy for his removal at the next elections? Or is this a sign that Khamenei is preparing to make Rafsanjani a major player in the all important US-Iran negotiations?

For now, the likeliest possibility is the latter. One should not forget that between all of Iran's senior politicians, when it comes to dealing with the US and the West, Rafsanjani is one of the most experienced. He was involved in the Iran-Contra affair. Furthermore, as president, he was responsible for approaching the West and getting Hezbollah to release American hostages. Last but not least, through his vast business empire, Rafsanjani and his sons have come to deal with Western officials and businessmen on numerous occasions, and thus have extensive contacts.

Such qualifications seem to make Rafsanjani an ideal contributor. Now that the “Shark” is too old to run for president, he is likely to embrace his new role with much enthusiasm.

Meir Javedanfar runs the Middle East Analyst Blog

The Lugar Report on Changing Cuba Policy

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, states in the Changing Cuba Policy - In the United States National Interest (pdf file) report dated February 23, 2009:

Economic sanctions are a legitimate tool of U.S. foreign policy, and they have sometimes achieved their aims, as in the case of apartheid in South Africa. After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of "bringing democracy to the Cuban people," while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further sacrifices from Cuba's impoverished population. The current U.S. policy has many passionate defenders, and their criticism of the Castro regime is justified. We must recognize, nevertheless, the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests.

The report, which I highly recommend you read, contains these findings:

  • * The Cuban regime is institutionalized.
  • * Positive developments are occurring in Cuba but they should not be mistaken for structural reform.
  • * Popular dissatisfaction with Cuba's economic situation is the regime's vulnerability.
  • * The regime appears to be open to some bilateral dialogue and co-operation.

The conclusion is that "progress could be attained by replacing conditionality with sequenced engagement, beginning with narrow areas of consensus that develop trust."

Here are the Recommendations, whose purpose would be "increased dialogue through appropriate channels, coupled with looser trade terms":

  • * "As an initial unilateral step, staff recommends fulfilling President Obama's campaign promise to repeal all restrictions on Cuban-American family travel and remittances before the Summit of the Americas" [in April], and "lifting travel restrictions on Cuban Interest Section personnel in Washington."
  • * The resumption of bilateral talks on drug interdiction and migration, and "undertake comprehensive counter-narcotics cooperation with Cuba, including the provision of needed equipment and technical assistance."
  • * Investments in alternative energy, where U.S. technology "could help ensure environmentally-sustainable development of Cuba's energy sector."
  • * Lifting agricultural trade requirements that cash payment be received by U.S. sellers prior to the shipment of goods.
  • * Reviewing the viability of authorizing private financing for medical sales, a review of the current "proper end-use monitoring" (which ensures that medical items be used for their intended purpose), and permit pharmaceutic imports from Cuba's biotechnology industry

Also in the Recommendations section, in the medium term, "reviewing dropping opposition to Cuban participation in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank", in the expectation that Cuba's membership in those institutions "would increase the government of Cuba's accountability to the international community and encourage free-market reforms consistent with U.S. commercial interests." If Cuba were to sign the Inter-American Democratic Charter, it might even become eligible for membership in the Organization of American States.

A number of issues arise when reading this report:

1. No dissidents or members of Cuba's pro-democracy movement were present during the U.S. officials' meetings. No thought was given to their absence, as far as I could ascertain. There is no mention in the report as to whether representative democracy in Cuba is a goal of U.S. policy.

2. The report does not specify what actions would represent "sequenced engagement", which could be interpreted to mean a give-and-take where the U.S. makes concessions dependent on Cuba's loosening its stranglehold on the people, or simply having the U.S. make an escalated series of concessions with nothing in return.

3. Cuba's state-monopoly economy is in ruins, and its decades-long billion-dollar debt with the Paris Club of creditor nations is now close to $30 billion. These are countries who have been trading with Cuba but are not getting paid. Any extension of credit by the U.S. or American businesses would be in the expectation that it would not be paid. Timing those concessions to an economic contraction as the U.S. is enduring now would be a mistake. The U.S. is Cuba's #5 trading partner, according to Cuban government figures.

4. Economic concessions will prolong the current oppressive regime's stay in power, particularly, as the report itself recognizes, that "popular dissatisfaction with Cuba's economic situation is the regime's vulnerability."

5. The report asumes that "Given current economic challenges, any revenue gained from economic engagement with the United States would likely be used for internal economic priorities, not international activism." The Cuban regime has spent the past half-century promoting international activism. It's not clear why the report writers assume they have stopped.

6. Among the conclusions, the report states that "Reform of U.S.-Cuban relations would also benefit our regional relations. Certain Latin American leaders, whose political appeal depends on the propagation of an array of anti-Washington grievances, would lose momentum as a centerpiece of these grievances is removed." If the authors of the report are thinking of Hugo Chavez (Cuba's big benefactor), they are mistaken. Chavez, in the wake of his most recent electoral victory, will ride the wave of success and propagandize the end of the embargo as another victory against "the empire," his favorite term for the U.S.

Making substantial concessions to the current regime in Cuba would also be perceived as a reward, while withholding the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia is seen as a punishment to our strongest ally in South America.

The embargo will end someday; however, ending the embargo without preconditions would be a mistake. Under the right conditions, changing Cuba policy will be in the United States national interest, but I remain unconvinced by the report's current proposals.

February 23, 2009

Welcome to The Compass

Starting today, we've rechristened this humble blog "The Compass" and given it a nice new logo. The changes won't stop there. In the weeks ahead we'll be adding more voices, more analysis and more cool features - not simply at The Compass but throughout RealClearWorld as well.

Stay tuned. Feedback is always welcome at info@realclearworld.com.

About Those Destabilizing Air Strikes

In the fall of 2008, we were treated to a number of serious warnings from folks like Andrew Bacevich and Daniel Larison regarding the Bush administration's air war in Pakistan. Later, Petraeus advisor and counter-insurgency guru David Kilcullen chimed in saying that such strikes were "totally counter-productive."

Yet there have been a number of revelations in the past few weeks that put these strikes in a new light. First, we learned from Sen. Feinstein that Predator missions are being flown out of a base inside Pakistan (so much for violations of sovereignty). Next, we learn that the U.S. has targeted the militant group Baitullah Mehsud at the behest of the Zardari government. Today we learn in the New York Times that the Pakistani military has been receiving covert training from the U.S. to create an elite counter-terrorism force.

Throughout all these revelations runs the persistent thread that the government in Pakistan, whatever it says publicly, is very much on board with America's military campaign on its territory. This puts critics of this campaign in the odd position of being more concerned about the stability of Pakistan than the actual government of Pakistan. And unlike the Musharraf regime, the current government has a degree of democratic legitimacy.

This doesn't make American military action inside Pakistan any less problematic. Zardari could be miscalculating and popular unrest over military action could very well bubble over. But it could be that Pakistan has decided that U.S. military action inside their country is the worst possible option - except for all the others.

Pakistan is a microcosm of a persistent balancing act between those willing to risk short-term insecurity in pursuit of longer term goals, and those unwilling to live with short-term insecurity for the prospect of longer term gain. Those who caution against military strikes inside Pakistan are willing, in essence, to let senior al Qaeda leaders live. They insist that the continued air strikes will ultimately destabilize Pakistan, and that the security issues surrounding a destabilized Pakistan would dwarf whatever threat these al Qaeda leaders pose. Others (including both the Bush and, apparently, the Obama administrations) err on the side of short term security on the notion that while we can't know for sure what Pakistan's trajectory will be, we do know for certain that select individuals pose a direct threat to the U.S.

And despite confident assertions on all sides, no one really knows where the right balance is.

Global Middle Class Loves Democracy

Pew Research reports that the higher one scales the income ladder, the more one cherishes democracy:

As economically developing countries grow prosperous, their middle classes understandably become more satisfied with their lives. But many of their basic values also appear to change. Over time, the values of the middle classes in emerging countries become more like those of the publics of advanced nations....

The study finds that in 13 middle-income nations from regions around the globe, people tend to hold different opinions about democracy and social issues once they reach a certain level of wealth. Compared with poorer people in emerging countries, members of the middle class assign more importance to democratic institutions and individual liberties, consider religion less central to their lives, hold more liberal social values and express more concern about the environment.

This suggests that any democracy promotion agenda should sideline the push to hold elections immediately and instead focus on elements to nurture and expand this global middle class - particularly now, as its ranks will no doubt be under stress by the recession.

Full results of the Pew study here (pdf).

February 22, 2009

Russia: Hyperventilating over the Economy

In a sign of how serious the ongoing financial crisis is in Russia, the daily "Izvestia" published an article urging the readers not to panic or be depressed from the grim news about the state of the Russian and global economy. The article featured prominent psychologists urging people not to get emotional, but rather seek to analyze the gloomy data in order to truly discern what this crisis means to them personally. "Try to understand to what extent you are going to be touched by these changes," writes one such expert. "As your colleagues or friends lose their jobs or have their salaries cut, try to anticipate major changes to your lifestyle and try to adapt right away. If you think your salary will be cut, try to seek a part-time job. Also, you should know your rights as a worker - try to find out what you are entitled to in these uncertain times."

While this particular advice may be well-intentioned, the rest of the article does not contribute to lowering the already-high blood pressure of an average Russian citizen - it lists a dozen executives who have recently committed suicides by various means due to the effect of the worsening Russian economy. If there is ever a silver lining - if it can be called that - amidst this gloomy economic data, it's the fact that Russian citizens lived almost the entire decade of the 1990s in a perpetual economic, social and even personal crisis. As Russia continued to experience terrible after-shocks form the collapse of the Soviet Union, its people had to adapt to conditions and circumstances that most Americans would reject outright as unacceptable. Therefore, today's Russian people are somewhat better prepared to weather the economic storm than their American counterparts, if only because they are used to prolonged instability and economic uncertainty.

As US President Obama announced that he will hold American mayors responsible for proper spending of the massive economic stimulus, Russian President Medvedev announced that he will fire governors who are incapable of performing their job. Medvedev specifically stated the ongoing economic crisis could not be used by the governors in their defense. "This is your moment of truth," said Medvedev in his address to the heads of the regions. "And I hope you understand that." At the same time, the Russian president called on the federal officials to pay better attention to the needs of the regions, making it clear that not just governors could be held responsible. This past week, Medvedev already fired 4 regional heads. "We have no right to relax," stated the president. "Our economic situation is complicated, and we have to save federal funds on all levels."

Meanwhile, official government data gives more grim news for the Russian economy. Elvira Nabiullina, Economic Development Minister, stated that the "situation is changing - but not for the better. Main problems are lack of credit, lowered foreign and domestic interest towards Russian products, unemployment and lowered personal incomes in the population." According to Nabiullina, Russian GDP contracted at 2.4% in January 2009 alone.

Nonetheless, Russian armed forces would not suffer even in the midst of the ongoing economic crisis. "There are key areas where we have no right to cut expenses," said President Medvedev, "and they include the new look of our military, the ongoing modernization, and the social improvements amongst the military cadres." One such important reform will be the salary increase amongst the junior and senior officers in the military, making an average pay equivalent to $3,375 per month. Russian officials hope that such monthly salary will return prestige to the military service, with said reforms slated to take place after 2012. However, the economic crisis could postpone such reforms till 2016.

Russian military exports could increase even more with this week's visit to Moscow by Mustafa Mohammed-Nadjar, Iranian Defense Minister, who reminded his Russian counterparts that Iran has a robust domestic defense industry with a defensive purpose. While stating that Iran has not attacked anyone over the past 30 years, the defense minister also expressed great interest in Russian advanced military technology. He drew attention to the fact that Iran and Russia have common threats and opportunities in the region, "and when it comes to certain questions, our positions and interests completely dovetail. We are always ready to utilize advanced military technologies and equipment - Russia has such capability and we intend to use it, as before."

Chinese Sphere: Russia Sinks Chinese Ship

While Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to China has grabbed the headlines of the mainstream media, Chinese netizens on the free-for-all discussion forums like Tianya have been abuzz with talk over the sinking of a Chinese cargo ship by the Russian Coast Guard near Vladivostok. About half of the crew of 16 are missing at sea. Russia claims the cargo vessel was smuggling items and refused to stop after Coast Guard ships fired warning shots. China’s foreign ministry has lodged protests with the Russian government and demanded an investigation.

The sinking has generated thousands of messages on the international relations section of the Tianya discussion forums. Most of them, understandably, seethe with rage, like this post which has been viewed over 15,000 times and received over 360 responses:

One can see the Russian frigate firing upon the Chinese cargo vessel from the video footage. At the moment when the ship was struck and causing shards to fly through the air, sounds of mocking laughter can be heard. One can see from the camera angle that the video was taken by a soldier on the Russian frigate. In another shot, besides the cameraman one can also see two other Russian frigates sailing in the waters. In other words, three armed Russian frigates had surrounded the cargo vessel. There was no way a cargo vessel could have broken their net and escaped, but the Russian frigates still fired 500 rounds – and the Russians even got a good laugh out of it. If this is not unacceptable, than what is?

Other posts like this one call for calm:

In the face of the Russian sinking of our cargo vessel, the Chinese government has been consistent in maintaining a calm attitude. Everyone complains about how China shows weakness when encountering international conflicts, but it is exactly this “weakness” that has given us a stable lifestyle and enabled the Chinese economy to develop rapidly.

Meanwhile, last Wednesday the Taiwanese government announced that with an 8% fall in GDP during the fourth quarter of 2008, the nation was officially in a state of recession. This was the largest ever single-quarter decline in GDP in Taiwan’s history. This also gives Taiwan the dubious distinction as one of the worst-performing industrial economies in the world according to The Economist.

An editorial in the Liberty Times, a leading pro-Taiwan independence newspaper, writes:

Every country has been hit by the global financial crisis. However, The Economist states that out of the 55 countries it tracks Taiwan has been hurt the most. Why is this? The reason is Taiwan’s economy relies heavily upon exports, and these exports and investments rely heavily upon China. Once exports to China steeply decline, Taiwan’s economy will sink into contraction. Last December’s exports to China dropped nearly 54%, resulting in the shocking 8.36% drop in GDP in the fourth quarter. January exports to China dropped nearly 59%, so we should not be surprised to see more depressing economic figures for the first quarter. … Taiwan still suffers from a China-dependence blood disease that other countries do not have to worry about.

Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou has been resolute in pressing ahead with signing a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with China, which would further liberalize trade and capital flows between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. This has generated controversy in Taiwan due to fears that not only would it increase Taiwan’s dependence on the Chinese economy, but that it would also send a signal to the world that the agreement is paving the path for political integration.

February 20, 2009

To Win Asia, Let Her Go

Aaron Friedberg says the U.S. is endanger of losing its predominant status in Asia because of Chinese defense advancements:

After nearly two decades of double digit increases in defense spending, China is beginning to acquire capabilities that could pose a serious challenge to our long-standing position as Asia's preponderant military power. Unless we respond in a prudent and timely fashion, we could find that our commitments to defend our friends and interests in the region are no long regarded as credible. Over time this could eat away at the foundations of our alliances and diminish our ability to deter conflict.

Friedberg's has been the conventional wisdom in Washington when it comes to the disposition of America's defenses. Like all conventional wisdom, it's high time to reexamine it. It's unnatural for the U.S. to be the predominant military power in Asia (see: map) and China's investment in her military capabilities is a natural reflection of this and her growing economy. Insofar as it's a "long-standing" U.S. position to be the dominant military power in Asia, it was one born of the Cold War imperative to deny the Soviet Union access to Asia's industrial capacity and out of a justified fear that a re-militarized Japan would go on another imperial rampage. It was, in other words, a means to an end - not an end of itself.

Both of the threats that propelled America's military dominance in Asia are gone. Yet it remains important that the balance of Asian power favors the kind of open, international system in which both America and Asia, have thrived. The real question is whether China poses a threat to that system akin to the Soviet Union. To date I think we can conclude that they are not a threat to world order, and let's credit the Bush administration and Robert Zoellick for working to make China a "stakeholder" in the system.

Still, there's uncertainty as to how China will behave as she accumulates even more power and so it's necessary to hedge.

But rather than focus on the unsustainable, unnatural, and undesirable goal of being the lone Asian hegemon, the U.S. should, as Michael Lind suggests, ensure that the combined weight of America and her Asian allies stays well ahead of any state that wishes to overturn the balance to our detriment.

As Elbridge Colby has observed, an essential component of this strategy is to incentivize our Asian allies to invest more in their own defenses. That's not done by continuing to divert more American tax dollars to the Pentagon, but by quietly stepping back and forcing our allies to shoulder more responsibility.

Ireland's Keyser Soze?

Well, kind of.

To Save Afghanistan


President Obama will send additional forces into Afghanistan with no clear strategic guidance as to what they're supposed to accomplish, other than to secure the population and wait for further orders.

On the broad question of what America's interests are in Afghanistan, I think the Center for a New American Security has a pretty good take:

U.S. interests in Afghanistan may be summarized as “two no’s”: there must be no sanctuary for terrorists with global reach in Afghanistan, and there must be no broader regional meltdown. Securing these objectives requires helping the Afghans to build a sustainable system of governance that can adequately ensure security for the Afghan people...

But as Benjamin Friedman at CATO observes:

A stable Afghanistan is neither necessary to US security nor obviously possible at reasonable cost, as I have periodically written. It is not evident that Al Qaeda types would again find haven in Afghanistan should we go. But assuming that they would, there remains an alternative to trying to overcome Afghanistan’s anarchic history. We could attack only the remaining jihadists, their allies, and insurgents who will not settle for local power. That would require only a small U.S. ground presence, airstrikes and local allies.
While I think Friedman's a bit blithe about the possibility of an al Qaeda restoration inside Afghanistan (the border isn't exactly secure) he's surely right about what is necessary to beat them down.

Consider the recent reporting regarding the C.I.A. assessment of al Qaeda in Pakistan: the group's leadership cadre is "decimated." This done by air via remotely piloted drones based out of Pakistan, according to the loose-lipped Sen. Diane Feinstein.

Photo: Scouts from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), pull overwatch during Operation Destined Strike while 2nd Platoon, Able Company searches a village below the Chowkay Valley in Kunar Province, Afghanistan Aug. 22. www.army.mil

February 19, 2009

Missing Stanford and His Destructive Path


Allen Stanford is missing.

The Texas-born banker, formerly No. 205 in Forbes's list of 400 Richest Americans, managed to scam hundreds of investors while keeping a very high profile. The resident of St. Croix and holder of dual US-Antigua citizenships supported cricket, golf and tennis tournaments and even managed to get knighted by the government of Antigua while reportedly being investigated for fifteen years by American authorities. In spite of those investigations, it wasn't until yesterday that a US District judge signed a temporary restraining order in Dallas federal court freezing the Stanford companies’ assets and property.

Bloomberg reports,

Stanford said on his company’s Web site that his firm was started more than 70 years ago by his grandfather. U.S. court records show that his offshore bank was formed in 1985 on the Caribbean island of Montserrat and moved to Antigua in 1990.

In 1999, Stanford Financial tried to take over Antiguan International Business Corp., which regulated offshore companies on the island, said Jonathan Winer, then a deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state.

State Department cables sent from the U.S. Embassy and provided to Bloomberg described a “power grab” and criticized the Stanford’s company’s hiring of U.S. consultants to revise Antigua’s offshore-banking rules.

‘Hired Guns’

“The high-powered legal and investigative hired guns from the U.S. are likely being tasked with cleansing the files to make sure there is nothing in them that could damage or implicate the American offshore banker,” one cable read, without mentioning Stanford by name.

The U.S. advised financial institutions to be suspicious of transactions with Antiguan banks, a notice lifted in August 2001 after the country took steps to fight money laundering. The alert didn’t specifically mention Stanford’s bank or any others.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Antiguan officials at that time dismissed allegations of conflict of interest and said that they were implementing world-class money-laundering regulations. Incidentally, the move to Antigua was precipitated by Allen Stanford losing his banker's license in Montserrat in the late 1990s.

Venezuela's Diario de la Economia (via Noticias 24) claims that Allen Stanford allegedly "wields absolute power in Antigua, where practically one quarter of the population works for his enterprises." It's impossible to guess whether this might affect the outcome of the upcoming March 12 elections in Antigua-Barbuda. Antiguan Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer and the governor of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB), Dwight Venner, had reassured investors on Tuesday that their money was safe while hundreds of clients lined up outside Bank of Antigua, making withdrawals for fear they might lose their money if US authorities shut down all of Stanford's companies. Venner stated,

there is no way, shape or form that any United States authorities can come on shore and seized the deposits of Antigua and Barbuda.
The Bank of Antigua is not an offshore institution, instead it is a domestic bank licensed under the Banking Act of Antigua and Barbuda and regulated by the ECCB. The Stanford International Bank, however, is an offshore bank registered in Antigua and Barbuda with international affiliates; those investors walked out empty-handed.

In Panama, La Prensa quoted Stanford Financial's administrative manager Carla Roggero assuring clients that their operations would not be affected by the fraud investigations. All the same, Stanford Bank (Panama) SA, an affiliate of Stanford Financial Group, was taken over by government regulators. La Prensa reported that clients will be allowed to withdraw funds and the bank’s assets will be placed under administrative control of the country’s bank superintendent.

In Colombia, banking authorities suspended all activities of the local brokerage unit of Stanford International Bank.

In Ecuador, government regulators are investigating the operations of two local units of Stanford Financial Group.

In Venezuela, it didn't take long for the government to take over the local Stanford Bank Venezuela. Last year Hugo Chavez had promised to expropriate any failed banks. Stanford Group Venezuela's spokesman Rocio Fernandez told the Wall Street Journal that

"Stanford is operating normally in Venezuela. Our commercial bank is not affiliated with Stanford in Antigua and remains completely solid."
In Mexico, the Stanford Fondos office is closed,
a note posted on a shuttered office door in the capital's wealthy Polanco neighborhood announced that all accounts "are temporarily frozen."
Latin American investors were attracted to Stanford investments as a way to safeguard their savings in dollar-denominated accounts. CBS News reports that the investigation involves 131 countries.

Allen Stanford's problems may run deeper than that,

But now the SEC's fraud charges may be the least of Stanford's worries. Federal authorities tell ABC News that the FBI and others have been investigating whether Stanford was involved in laundering drug money for Mexico's notorious Gulf Cartel.

Authorities tell ABC News that as part of the investigation, which has been ongoing since last year, Mexican authorities detained one of Stanford's private planes. According to officials, checks found inside the plane were believed to be connected to the Gulf cartel, reputed to be Mexico's most violent gang. Authorities say Stanford could potentially face criminal charges of money laundering and bribery of foreign officials.

Authorities say the SEC action against Stanford Tuesday may have complicated the federal drug investigation. The SEC had been prepared to move in earlier, but was asked to hold off because of the FBI's undercover investigation. But this week, when officials realized Stanford was moving huge amounts of cash out of his bank, they had no choice to move in, even if it jeopardized the drug money case.

While the investigation went on, Stanford contributed $150,000 to underwrite a convention-related forum and party put on by the National Democratic Institute last year.

Considering the hole he's dug himself in, it's not surprising Allen Stanford is missing. If he was involved in money laundering cartel moneys, SEC and FBI investigations are the least of his troubles.

February 18, 2009

Bomb North Korea?

Just as President Obama is readying an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, former State Department official Philip Zelikow suggests we open up a can of North Korean worms by interrupting their reportedly imminent long range missile test by bombing it on the launch pad. Such a move would not only squash their nascent and intolerable long-range missile threat, Zelikow said, but would also send a message to other would-be proliferators.

Of course, it's not all upside:

The downside, as in 2006, is the possibility of North Korean escalation against South Korea. The United States must consider its own security, the security of its Japanese ally, and the security of its South Korean ally. Ideally, all should arrive at a common understanding of what must be done to protect their long-term security.

In keeping with precedent, I suspect that Obama will err on the side of not re-starting the Korean War.

I wonder why Zelikow thinks that the South Koreans, who have been reluctant to pressure North Korea too hard lest the country destabilize, would nonetheless sign on to a U.S. bombing run which could easily result in the shelling of their capital (and do untold damage to an already battered global economy). Why run such a huge risk when we can tell the North, publicly and repeatedly, that any missile launched against the U.S. would result in their destruction?

But I think Zelikow's final sentence is the more telling. Ultimately, while there is broad agreement that the North should not possess nuclear weapons, there is a fundamental divergence between America and South Korea (and China) on North Korea. Both the Chinese and the South Koreans seem to put a higher premium on regime stability than they do on denuclearization. As crazy and dangerous as the Dear Leader is, he's the devil they all know, and steps that would plausibly lead to regime change (such as a blockade) never fly.

This is ultimately why South Korea and China have to take the lead on North Korea. It's their cities down range of artillery and it's their borders over which tens if not hundreds of thousands of refugees could come stampeding over.

February 16, 2009

Chavez, Now and Forever?


The results of yesterday's referendum on the Venzuelan constitution came as no surprise: 54.36% voted "Yes", eliminating term limits for all elected officials. Venezuela now becomes the only country in South America with no limits on re-election.

In the 24-hour period preceding the referendum, the government had expelled from the country EU parliament member Luis Herrero. The European Union parliament stated the expulsion “shows a lack of respect for democratic institutions.” People were lining up at the polls before dawn on Sunday. The polls opened at 6 a.m.. College students, who are the leading opposition groups, watched the polling places. Venezuelan bloggers liveblogged throughout the day.

Celebrating his victory from the balcony of the presidential palace, Hugo Chavez cried out, "Long live the Venezuelan revolution, long live Bolivarian socialism", broke into song, and read a letter from Fidel Castro saying "this is a victory of immeasurable magnitude." Chavez, who recently celebrated his 10th anniversary in power, also said it will take him another 10 years to fully bring about his Bolivarian revolution.

While the results mean that Chavez apparently wins indefinite re-elections, the disorganized and underfunded opposition managed to gather over 5 million votes. Al-Jazeera's Marianna Sanchez reported Chavez supporters as reluctant to have "a king" but still support him.

This morning Venezuelan government bonds dropped in reaction to the news. A Reuters analysis article (link in Spanish) forecasts further troubles in the economy due to the low price of oil, nationalization of private industry, and a possible official currency devaluation.

However, a collapse of the economy does not necessarily mean that Chavez will not be able to remain in power. This latest referendum's results, in the middle of an economic crisis, tell us that Chavez continues to consolidate power around himself.

February 15, 2009

Russia: Open Line of Communications

Taking his cues form the Obama administration's current efforts and from FDR's "fireside chats" on the radio during the Great Depression, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged to continuously update Russian citizens via TV about government efforts to combat current economic crisis. "It is important to tell the truth in our lives," said the head of state at the official announcement of this outreach, which should commence shortly and will be televised on all major Russian television stations. Medvedev is planning on meeting with chief anchors of each of the TV stations in order to talk about his government's efforts in a straightforward fashion.

" I am certain that the government must talk openly about the difficulties we are currently encountering and about solutions that are taken in order to overcome the crisis." Medvedev is convinced that such dialogue with the worried population of Russia should be held on a regular basis. The President also noted that Russia is hopeful about the "signals coming form the new White House administration, which is striving to cooperate on all current problems. We are counting on that."

Russian government remained satisfied by the work of the G8 group in finding solutions to the financial crisis, even though Russia was not actively participating in the final document that outlined efforts by the world's leading economic powers to combat the ongoing problems. "Russia is satisfied by the overall result," said Deputy Prime MInister Alexei Kudrin. "Of course, we would like the communication between Russia and other states to be much better, because the main discussion took place beyond the scope of this final document. This document reflects what we were able to compromise on." The key issues discussed by the G8 involved financial structure reforms, as well as reforms of the IMF and World Bank, such as increasing the resources of these institutions during the crisis.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered high praise to the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "She is an experienced politician, she has her own convictions and has a very strong team that is currently forming the the State Department," said Lavrov. "I think she will bring her style and her experience to the American foreign policy. We have already exchanged our points of view - by phone and on paper - and this exchange leads me to believe that she will, no doubt, serve the interest of the United States, but also taking into consideration the fact that such interests may benefit from a more equal and mutually-beneficial cooperation."

At the same time, Russian government and security experts remained critical of US President Obama's recent plans to reduce armaments, including nuclear weapons. Lieutenant-General Gennady Evstafiev (Ret.) of the External Intelligence Service (SVR), recently commented on the Russian view of such arms reductions to the daily "Izvestia." In particular, Evstafief noted a few issues that, in his opinion, are not getting due coverage by the White House. "Such deep reductions in Russian and American nuclear arsenals are impossible without involving other countries in the process. While such potential discussion may go well with France and the United Kingdom, questions still remain about the nuclear armament of China. Beijing's constantly growing nuclear arsenal is not limited by any international treaties, and does not allow for any transparency. Obviously, Russia and China are strategic partners, but the overall discussion on strategic nuclear armaments should not leave any questions."

General Evstafief also noted that any deep cuts in strategic nuclear armaments must be underpinned by a strong level of mutual trust between the two countries. "But currently, United States has not reversed any of its mistaken and destabilizing assumptions, such as NATO's advance to the east, placement of military infrastructure in eastern European countries, militarization of space and the Arctic, militarization of Ukraine and Georgia and the doctrine of offensive capability beyond the NATO zone." He further noted that "in order to move towards nuclear armament reductions, United States should show us and the entire world that it respects international stability and mutually-beneficial partnership. However, this hasn't happened yet."

Evstafiev also noted that in order for the nuclear armament discussion to truly have effect, US must be impartial and objective to the spread of nuclear technology in general. "America is very sensitive when it comes to Iran's nuclear potential, but basically looks the other way when it comes to Israel's, Pakistan's and now even India's nuclear arsenal, thus undercutting the International Non-Proliferation Treaty." The General also drew attention to America's "overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons - especially high tech. US is capable of concentrating massive offensive groups practically anywhere in the world, with support of a wide military infrastructure - which is getting closer and closer to Russia's borders. And now imagine how differently US may have behaved during Georgia's aggression against South Ossetia if it wasn't sure of the adequacy and guarantee of Russian nuclear response."

Underscoring Moscow's global reach in military exports, Russia and India recently agreed to jointly develop a fifth generation jet fighter. This announcement was made by Mikhail Pogosyan, Chief of "MiG" and "Sukhoi" aircraft design bureaus, and took place during the "Aero India-2009" international air show. For the first time, such joint fighter model will be fielded by both Indian and Russian air forces, and the first prototype of this plane is expected to fly this year. Previously, Soviet Union and later Russia supplied New Delhi with base export models that were a notch below those aircraft fielded by Soviet/Russian air force proper. Currently, India is a key customer of Russian avionics technology, including Su-30 multi-purpose combat fighter. Russia has been supplying India with military aircraft for several decades, while also remaining a steady seller of aircraft and air system to China - India's main competitor in Asia.

China: Cooperation on Climate Change?

Hillary Clinton gave a speech at the Asia Foundation last Friday to set the stage for her upcoming visits to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and China. This will be her first overseas trip as Secretary of State, and it is notable that she has chosen Asia as her destination. In her remarks, Clinton brought up climate change as one of the potential areas of cooperation between the U.S. and China:

We will work hard with the Chinese to create partnerships that promote cleaner energy sources, greater energy efficiency, technology transfers that can benefit both countries, and other strategies that simultaneously protect the environment and promote economic growth. While in Beijing, I will visit a clean thermal power plant built with GE and Chinese technology. It serves as an example of the kind of job-creating, bilateral, public-private collaboration that we need so much more of.

A commentary in the Southern Metropolis Daily, one of China’s leading commercial newspapers, also thinks this is a good idea:

The U.S. led the way in two technological revolutions. The first was with the atomic bomb, which revolutionized warfare. The next was with computer networks which revolutionized telecommunications. Everyone has witnessed how these revolutions have fundamentally changed the face of the world. Would it be possible for China to play a part in a revolution in the much discussed area of energy technology? This will only take place if there is deep cooperation between China and the U.S.

With regards to bearing responsibility for reducing global emissions, China obviously has its own circumstances, interests, and positions. The importance of the “Roadmap for U.S.-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change” lies in the realistic path it provides for achieving a win-win result through dialogue and negotiations. The roadmap emphasizes that technological revolution in the areas of energy and the environment not only requires the cooperation of our two countries, but also for the government, private enterprise, and the general public to work together. This point is particularly interesting for China. … China can continue its path of development as well as become a model of a low-carbon economy for the world. This is a goal worth pursuing.

The Bush administration did not place a high priority in addressing the climate change issue. When it rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, one of the main reasons cited was that developing nations like China were not required to make any reductions. Since then, the climate change community has been hoping that the largest emitters of the developed and developing world can work together to tackle the issue.

It appears that Secretary Clinton is taking the first step in this direction. She is bringing along special climate change envoy Todd Stern with her on this trip, so this may be her attempt to place her imprint on the U.S.-China relationship. Climate change would be a new front in this bilateral relationship that, up until recently, has largely revolved around trade, human rights, Taiwan, and North Korea. It will be interesting to see what effect adding climate change to the mix will have on the other issues.

February 14, 2009

Venezuela: At a Crossroads


While Venezuela prepares for another Constitutional referendum, the country is in turmoil.

Back in December 2007 Hugo Chavez held a referendum to change the Venezuelan constitution. The 69 amendments would have ended presidential term limits and centralized Chavez’s power, even when he already controlled the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, almost every state government and the entire federal bureaucracy. The changes were rejected by 51% of the voters. However, Chavez didn’t give up on his power consolidation goal. Last year he enacted 26 new laws by announcing initially only their title, not their content, and continued to push for ending presidential term limits. This Sunday, the country votes again on term limits.

In the period since the 2007 referendum, Chavez has continued to nationalize the private sector, including food production and distribution, steelmaking, cement companies, and the Banco de Venezuela. Oil revenues are mismanaged: A computer belonging to FARC members proved that Chavez had sent hundreds of millions of oil dollars to the Colombian terrorists, with which he had made common cause. The oil industry, on which the Venezuelan economy is more dependent now than when Chavez first took office, is behind on billions of dollars in payments to private oil contractors from Oklahoma to Belarus.

The business environment has been rated by The Economist as the world’s second-worst. The country’s official inflation rate of 31% is the highest out of the 82 world currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

During his years in office Chavez has forged increasingly strong ties with Iran. Last December Italian newspaper La Stampa (link in Italian) reported that Iran is going through Venezuela to dodge UN sanctions and use Venezuelan aircraft to ship missile parts to Syria. La Stampa reported that Venezuelan airline Conviasa transports computers and engine components from the Iranian industrial group Shahid Bagheri, which is involved in Iran's ballistic missile program. Iran Air initiated direct air service between Tehran, Damascus and Caracas at Chavez’s invitation. Western anti-terrorism officials are concerned that Hezbollah may be using Venezuela as a base for operations. Hezbollah activities may include kidnappings, extortion and drug trade.

Internally, the political opposition has few resources and no unified leadership (link in Spanish). Student demonstrators have been tear-gassed and fired at with rubber bullets by police. Chavez banned Lech Walesa from visiting the country and meeting with student leaders on Thursday. However, the opposition managed a large demonstration against the constitutional amendment last weekend, and met on Friday with EU delegates who are in Venezuela to observe the electoral process even when the delegates have not been granted official observer status.

The government’s propaganda for a YES vote is constant and everywhere as the referendum nears.

A regime under attack?
As H. L. Menken said,

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
Hugo Chavez is very adept at hobgoblin creation.

Last week three low-intensity explosions in Caracas – at a statue of George Washington, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Caracas, and a judicial building – created further insecurity, while Stratfor and other analysts were unable to ascertain who would have been behind the attacks.

Hugo Chavez consistently rants against the US in his hours-long radio and TV program Aló Presidente, rarely missing an opportunity to blame the CIA for creating mayhem or trying to oust him. He indulged some more during his celebration of his 10th anniversary in power.

On this week preceding the referendum, Chavez claimed an attempted coup against his palace by army troops in contact with "a soldier on the run in the United States," had been curtailed.

As a self-declared Communist, Chavez constantly rants against capitalism and "pitiyankis", pro-capitalist Venezuelans.

In addition to blaming the US and capitalism, Chavez has a long record of anti-Semitic, anti-Israel statements. On December 2005 Venezuelan The Devil’s Excrement translated Chavez’s televised rant,

The world is for all of us, then, but it so happens that a minority, the descendants of the same ones that crucified Christ, the descendants of the same ones that kicked Bolivar out of here and also crucified him in their own way over there in Santa Marta, in Colombia. A minority has taken possession all of the wealth of the world, a minority has taken ownership of all of the gold of the planet, of the silver, of the minerals, the waters, the good lands, oil, of the wealth then and have concentrated the wealth in a few hands
Chavez ignores history, since Simon Bolivar, when a fugitive from Spain took shelter with Jews, some of which later joined his independence uprising. But never mind that. Chavez’s own brand of Marxism is based on the theories espoused by Holocaust denier Norberto Ceresole, who believed that one of the greatest threats to the Chávez regime lay in Venezuela’s “Jewish financial mafia.” Government media propaganda on official TV station VTV regularly attacks Israel and Jews.

An anti-Semitic ad (which I translated at my blog), apparently paid for by the governor’s office of the State of Anzoategui ran in 2006 accusing Israel of genocide against the Palestinians. As it turns out, the ad ran on the same week that Chavez was awarded “The High Medallion of the Islamic Republic of Iran” during his state visit to that country.

Last month Venezuela broke relations with Israel for the second time, this time in response to Israel’s actions in Gaza. Bolivia did the same, and Bolivian president Evo Morales's announcement,

came shortly after he received a letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asking him to support an international agreement to resolve the Gaza crisis.
Anti-Semitic graffiti is appearing in Caracas. On January 24 a rabbi was beaten by attackers before being rescued by a group of taxi drivers.

Update on the Maripérez synagogue raid:
As I posted on RCW, on on Jan. 30, a group of men forced their way into the Tiferet Israel Sephardic Synagogue, staying until 3 a.m. They ransacked the temple, destroyed several Torahs and vandalized the offices. The same synagogue had been vandalized with graffiti last month, as was the Israeli Embassy.

Significantly, they stole databases with the names and addresses of Jewish families in Venezuela and also the many charities sponsored by the CAIV (Confederation of Israelite Associations of Venezuela).

This is particularly troubling : Daniel Debow translated a post allegedly written by a Bolivarian University professor at the pro-Chavez website Aporrea.org (the post has since been erased) inciting people

"To publicly challenge every Jew that you find in the street, shopping center or park to take a stand shouting at them slogans in favor of Palestine and against that abortion: Israel."
"Denounce publicly, with names and last names the members of powerful Jewish groups present in Venezuela"
There is very good reason to suspect that the reason behind the raid was to obtain the database, nothing was stolen except the hard drives from the computers.

Police have arrested 11 people, including seven police officers. Valentin Santana, leader of the pro-Chavez group La Piedrita, was blamed for conspiring in the attacks on the synagogue and the Apostolic Nunciature in Venezuela. Chavez claims that La Piedrita has been inflirtrated by the CIA.

There have been much rumors and speculation on this crime: Venezuelan journalist Patricia Poleo alleges that

The Metropolitan Police officers arrested for [allegedly] being responsible for the Mariperez synagogue attack are members of organizations directly under the management of Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami.
According to The Menges’ Americas Report,
Mr. El – Aissami is a Venezuelan national of Syrian descent who, before becoming Minster of Interior and Justice, occupied the position of Deputy Interior Minister for Public Security. His father, Carlos Aissami, is the head of the Venezuelan branch of the Iraqi Baath political party. Before the invasion of Iraq, he held a press conference in which he described himself as a Taliban and called Osama Bin Laden, “the great Mujahedeen, Sheik Osama bin Laden.” Tarek’s great-uncle Shibli el-Aissami was a prominent ideologist and assistant to the party’s secretary general in Baghdad during the Saddam Hussein regime.
But back to the Mariperez investigation: Al Aissami in turn said that one of the suspects is the former bodyguard of one of the Rabbis.

According to police information published by El Universal, the raid was planned by Yadira Torres, a woman detective at the homicide division of the Cicpc, and brought about when Edgar Alexander Cordero, an officer with the metropolitan police and former bodyguard asked the rabbi for a loan. The rabbi refused and Cordero decided to steal the money from the office safe. One of the two watchmen on duty, Víctor Eduardo Escalona Lovera, cut off the electricity and let them in. Police are searching for additional suspects.

Elías Farache, president of the Venezuelan Jewish Association, thanked the authorities for the “fast and effective” investigation. Farache rejected accusations that the Jewish community had perpetrated the vandalism at the synagogue in order to damage the government’s image.

In this charged atmosphere, the constitutional referendum is scheduled for next Sunday, February 15. According to the current constitution, Chavez’s term is scheduled to expire on 2013.

Last Tuesday’s headline? Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez says he might not take a ''no'' vote as the final word on his efforts to expand his time in office.

Fausta also blogs at Fausta's Blog

February 13, 2009

Bar Refaeli: Draft Dodger, IDF Recruiter

Sports Illustrated's vaunted swimsuit issue came out this week. Typically, it's greeted with mild protest, something about exploitation of women who make about eight figures. But this year, SI could not have picked a more politically controversial figure to grace its cover.

(In case your mailman swiped your copy)

The 2009 cover girl is Bar Refaeli, an Israeli Jewish supermodel also known for her courtship with Leonardo DiCaprio. But Refaeli got to where she is today by cunningly dodging the draft in Israel and now, serving as a recruiter for the IDF to atone for it.

Refaeli arranged a sham marriage to evade conscription (mandatory for almost everyone in Israel when one turns 18, male or female) and made no apologies for it:

I really wanted to serve in the IDF, but I don’t regret not enlisting, because it paid off big time. That’s just the way it is, celebrities have other needs. I hope my case has influenced the army.

Israel or Uganda, what difference does it make? It makes no difference to me. Why is it good to die for our country? What, isn’t it better to live in New York? Why should 18-year-old kids have to die? It’s dumb that people have to die so that I can live in Israel.

It seems capitalism caught up with Refaeli before the IDF did. After signing a $300,000 deal with the Fox clothing chain, she became a target of enraged Israeli parents who lost children serving their country. Under pressure, Fox made an arrangement so that Refaeli would "voluntarily" visit injured Israeli soldiers and encourage others to enlist.

Seems fair. You can live like Gilad Schalit or Bar Refaeli. Hey, celebrities have other needs.

February 12, 2009

Winning Iran, Losing Israel

David Sanger highlights a possible conundrum in the potential thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations:

But there is no question a new dynamic is afoot, one that seems likely to become even more complicated after today’s election in Israel is settled. If the government that emerges is even more determined to end the Iranian nuclear program by any means necessary, Mr. Obama may find himself trying to negotiate with one of America’s most determined adversaries while restraining one of its closest allies.

“I could draw you a scenario in which this new combination of players leads to the first real talks with Iran in three decades,” one of the key players on the issue for President Obama said last week, declining to speak on the record because the new administration has not even named its team, much less its strategy. “And I could draw you one in which the first big foreign crisis of the Obama presidency is a really nasty confrontation, either because the Israelis strike or because we won’t let them.”

This strikes me as a perfect rendering of Washington's famous admonition against "entangling alliances" - and it cuts both ways.

Ultimately, it would be easier for the U.S. to live with a nuclear Iran than it would be for Israel. The Iranian regime is a thorn in our side in Iraq and Afghanistan and a potential threat to the free transit of oil through the Persian Gulf (although one that I think is overblown), but there is no chance that the Iranians are going to destroy the fabric of American society. Hegemony in the Gulf looks a lot less imposing when oil is at $40 a barrel and the risks of a regional nuclear arms race - while real and frightening - could be mitigated. Hence, the downside risks of an American attack - as Robert Gates elucidated - are pretty steep compared to the payoff.

Not so with Israel. Even if you accept the argument that Iran is not going to launch a genocidal nuclear assault against the Jewish state, it's very easy to imagine them stepping up a campaign of conventional terrorism secured by a nuclear deterrent. So some kind of military action on the part of Israel would be warranted if all else fails.

Yet because of the nature of the relationship and because of the extensive presence of American power in the region, it's impossible for the U.S. and Israel to go their separate ways on this. It is difficult (perhaps impossible) for the Israelis to act on what they perceive as their best interests, and it is likewise impossible for the U.S. not to be seen as implicated in an Israeli decision.

Wouldn't both parties benefit from greater freedom of action?

February 11, 2009

Hugo Chavez Bans Lech Walesa


On Tuesday Nobel Prize winner Lech Walesa gave an interview to Noticias 24 where he spoke about his upcoming visit to Venezuela. My translation (emphasis added. If you use this translation, please link to this post. Thank you):

Q: In a few days you'll travel to Caracas at the invitation of Venezuelan civil society groups, who met you in Warsaw to discuss the failures of the State's rights and democracy in the South American country. What do you expect from this trip?

LW: During Poland's Communist era, when I traveled around the world to meet heads of state, presidents, royalty, no one could believe in the possibility of a peaceful transition in communist countries in a few years' time. And we managed to shed the Communist yoke without bloodshed. I believe that this spirit of freedom, with the same methods, will spread throughout the world. No one has invented a better system than democracy. And that is my message to the people I'll be meeting in Venezuela. I'm very interested in meeting students and NGO members. In Venezuela's case one can not talk about a democratic system administered by the [ruling] power. Venezuela's opposition is weak and divided internally, without powerful arguments with which to confront President Chavez. It needs our support.

Q. You tried to visit the country last year, but Caracas informed you that they could not guarantee your safety. In diplomatic terms that meant you were not welcome. Do you think the government will forbid your visit this time?

LW: The government explained that it was a security matter. I interpreted it as a lack of goodwill, since the message I would bring to Venezuela would not be convenient to Venezuelan authorities. At that time I said I would again try to visit Venezuela, and I hope this time I'll be able to meet with the Venezuelan youth and don't think that this time the Venezuelan government will put up the same lack of goodwill.

Unfortunately Walesa was wrong. Just this morning the headlines announced that Hugo Chavez banned Walesa from entering the country:
Chavez instructed authorities on Tuesday to ensure that Walesa does not enter Venezuela, which is preparing for a Feb. 15 referendum on a proposal to lift term limits for all elected officials.

Chavez made the comment after an interviewer suggested that Walesa had received a new invitation.

Chavez made his statement during an interview on state television:
"We have the obligation of making sure Venezuela's dignity is respected. (Walesa) can say that, wherever he feels like beyond Venezuela's borders, but here, within Venezuela, no, no," Chavez insisted.
He then instructed chancellor Nicolas Maduro to make sure Walesa does not enter Venezuela.

The Constitutional referendum on abolishing presidential term limits is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 15.

Fausta also blogs at Fausta's Blog

Conservatives as Liberals

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, what on Earth happened to the party of Eisenhower? Here is Christain Brose, formerly of Rice's State Department [via Andrew Sullivan]:

Furthermore, we should not allow resources to determine strategy, as this study suggests, which was one interpretation I heard for the administration's recent statements walking back U.S. goals: The economy's bad, and we have to do what we can. This gets it backwards. We should determine the optimal outcome we are confident we can accomplish, and then pay for it. After all, we still have a GDP of, what, $12 trillion? If our conception of strategic success is achievable, let's not hide behind tightening budgets.

What's fascinating to me is that Republicans would never accept this argument when it comes to domestic policy. If you said, we have a problem with the uninsured and we should be prepared to spend and do whatever is necessary to fix it, there would, I suspect, be a number of objections.

But when it comes to foreign policy, the GOP is all too ready to embrace fantasy policy making.

Brose's view was, of course, the view of the Kennedy administration and it led to a deadly debacle in Vietnam. It is - or at least, was -one of the bright lines that divided Republicans and Democrats on foreign policy. One side believed in the fantasy that resources are infinite and that policy makers should only focus on the ends. The other based policy in the reality of a world of limited resources. One side lived by credit, the other by cash in hand.

And the verdict that history has rendered on both approaches seems pretty obvious to me. Does anyone believe that the U.S. emerged from Vietnam stronger? Or that the blood and treasure we have currently "invested" in Iraq couldn't have been put to a more profitable use?

It's not yet clear if the two parties have flipped, because I'm not convinced the Democrats have purged themselves of their Kennedy-esque affinity for fantasy-based goal-setting. But it is absolutely clear that the GOP has done a 180 and it goes a long way in explaining why U.S. power has eroded so rapidly of late.

February 10, 2009

Israeli Elections Live Blog (Updated)

RealClearWorld will be providing live coverage tonight and all day tomorrow of Tuesday's Knesset elections in Israel.

Voting has already begun for Israeli military personnel dispatched on the front lines, and most polling stations will be opening Tuesday morning at 7:00 a.m. IST. The Jerusalem Post has a handy voter guide with basic polling information and election facts for all of you still undecided and uncertain Israeli voters.

Stay with us throughout today and tomorrow for all of the latest news on the day.

UPDATE (1:17 p.m. IST)


Election day has arrived in Israel. Most polls have now been open across the country for about six hours. There were reports of 'rioting' at one of the polling stations in the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm. The incident sounds rather minor, but it had been expected. Due to Israel's proportional structure, governmental tasks and positions get divvied out in reflection to a party's standing in the governing coalition - this includes election monitoring.

Problems arose when Arieh Eldad - sent to replace right-wing leader Baruch Marzel, who had once recommended the targeted killing of a left-wing Israeli leader - entered the city on behalf of the Central Election Committee to monitor polls.

Shmuel Rosner is running a live blog on the election. I couldn't agree with him more, incidentally, on the hype surrounding Lieberman as "kingmaker." Rosner also has a good read up at Commentary's blog on strategic voting.

It was apparently cold and rainy this morning, which, as we know here in the states, can affect voter turnout.

Also, check out Lionel Laurent's piece from yesterday on the absence of economic discussion in this campaign.

- Kevin Sullivan

UPDATE (2:05 p.m. IST)

Does anyone else see a degree of irony in Hamas waiting on election results to determine whether or not a Gaza truce will be feasible?

Isn't Israel called the unreasonable actor when they pick and choose their preferred Palestinian leadership in such fashion?

- Kevin

UPDATE (2:20 p.m. IST)

So much for voter apathy?

- Kevin

UPDATE (3:11 p.m. IST)

I must confess, I can't really make sense of this rather banal and unimaginative meme that appears to be emerging over Israel's alleged rightward "drift." We see it here, and we see it from prolific Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald.

In short, the argument goes as follows: The recent emergence of Avigdor Lieberman, and the reemergence of former prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, coupled with reports of voter apathy throughout the country, are indicators of one or two things in Israel, if not both. Either the country is increasingly jingoistic and nativist, or it is simply bored with its politics. Or we're witnessing both cases.

I'm sure there's some truth to the latter, but I've yet to see any substantive argument for why this might be the case. In the Time post linked above, Scott MacLeod argues that Israel needs more leaders of "vision" to reinvigorate the peace process. But he goes on to cite Golda Meir, who, among other things, once doubted the very etymological existence of the Palestinians.

How would Meir, were we to speculate, handle rocket attacks from Gaza today? Is it a stretch to assume she'd have done no differently than Olmert, Livni or Netanyahu?

With all due respect to MacLeod, I think this is empty rhetoric. And what precisely does "voting for peace" entail? We heard the same doom and gloom in 2001, when the hawkish Ariel Sharon assumed the prime minister's office. Yet Sharon made more progress towards disengagement in Gaza than many of his predecessors ever did. Ehud Olmert - the now repentant dove - brought the nation two wars in as many years.

There's no telling how events will unfold in respect to elected officials, and we mustn't run around screaming that the sky is falling every time a right-wing politician makes tough campaign pledges in Israel.

- Kevin

UPDATE (4:10 p.m. IST)

Apropos of what Kevin said above, here is Steve Clemons begging for Bibi:

In fact, the more irresponsible both sides are about their situation, the more achievable a "new equilibrium arrangement" may be -- because the US and other regional stakeholders simply can't afford for the recklessness, immaturity, and sheer stupidity of leadership on all sides of the conflict to continue.

Given that. Give us Netanyahu. Please.

His re-ascension will help Americans realize that the false choice approach the Bush administration has been taking in Israel-Palestine affairs was flawed -- and that Obama's team must change the game or face a serious rebuke from Middle East watchers in the US and around the world.

Wasn't this the same argument that the Bush administration used to justify elections among the Palestinians? That elections would "clarify" things?

- Greg Scoblete

UPDATE (4:33 p.m. IST)

Whoever becomes prime minister, they have a long to-do list.

- Greg

UPDATE (4:45 p.m. IST)

Media pundits love to attack polling without understanding the science and the attendant difficulties associated with it. To be sure, most election polls conducted in western democracies have proved to be remarkably accurate. The election in Israel will provide a test once more.

Most of the final polls gave Likud a 2- to 3-seat advantage over Kadima, which should allow Benjamin Netanyahu to become the next prime minister and form the new government. Further reading of the polls, as well as a few statements Bibi has made, the likelihood of a Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu-Labor coalition is fairly strong.

Even with a narrow victory, Likud is expected to win 25-27 seats. Combine that with Yisrael Beiteinu's expected pickup of about 18 seats, it still leaves them 15 seats or so short of a 61-seat majority in the Knesset. Bringing in Ehud Barak's Labor to the fold should fill that gap, and possibly eliminate the need to partner with too many other smaller political parties, particularly the ones with acute religious agendas.

More important, however, this coalition isolates Livni and Kadima, increasingly viewed as the common enemy by both Likud and Labor, themselves formerly fierce foes.

- Samuel Chi

UPDATE (4:50 p.m. IST)

AP has some video:

- Greg

UPDATE (6:34 p.m. IST)

The BBC rounds up Arab media reaction to the elections. Nothing terribly surprising.

- Greg

UPDATE (8:15 p.m. IST)

With all polls scheduled to close within two hours, the election outcome is very much in the air. What's known is that despite the bad weather, turnout has been better than expected, with 60% of the voters already cast their ballots.

Israeli election regulations prohibit exit poll data from being released until all polls are closed at 10 p.m. IST (3 p.m. EST).

The possibility exists that the party winning the most seats might not get to form the government - particularly if that party is Kadima. The president of Israel, Shimon Peres, decides who will have the best chance of putting together a coalition and that person will have 42 days to form a government.

By convention, the president usually chooses the party winning the most seats, but he's not bound by it. Particularly intriguing in this instance is that Peres was defeated by Netanyahu in a contentious election in 1996 for prime minister - but he may have no choice but to appoint Bibi to form the government as pre-election surveys suggest that he has more support from the MKs.

- Sam

UPDATE (8:57 p.m. IST)

While we anxiously wait for polls to close in Israel, my colleague Greg and I were making our own predictions and wondered if this race perhaps has a little Dewey-Truman '48 in it.

You have the tightening race towards the end, the, uh, eccentric (?) third-party candidate, and even the lack of truly up-to-date polling (due to Israeli election law, polling was prohibited past Friday).

Now we just need to get a steam-powered locomotive for Tzipi ...

- Kevin

UPDATE (9:50 p.m. IST)

Less than 10 minutes until polls close cross Israel. It looks as if Livni has pulled off a dramatic comeback. The question is: Will she have enough support in the Knesset to make her case to be the next prime minister?

Exit polling data will be available shortly.

- Sam

UPDATE (10:02 p.m. IST)

Israel's Channel 1 exit poll puts Kadima on 30 seats, Likud on 28 seats, Yisrael Beiteinu on 14 seats and Labor on 13 seats.

Channel 2 exit poll says 29 seats for Kadima, 27 for Likud, 15 for Yisrael Beiteinu, 13 for Labor and 10 for Shas.

- Sam

UPDATE (10:07 p.m. IST)

It appears that Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party has surged ahead to claim the most seats in the election. However, if the exit polls are to be believed, the right-wing bloc has enough seats to form the government, putting Benjamin Netanyahu on course to be the next prime minister.

A couple of other scenarios still exist: Livni may invite Bibi and possibly Labor to form a unity government, with Netanyahu second in command and Barak staying on as defense minister. Or, she may try to persuade Yisrael Beiteinu to join her, along with other left-wing parties, including Meretz.

Avigdor Lieberman is now clearly the king (or queen) maker. Whoever can get his ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu into the coalition should become the next Israeli PM.

- Sam

UPDATE (10:31 p.m. IST)

Per Sam's previous update, another thing to keep in mind is that the Israeli head of state, in this instance President Shimon Peres, can choose the Knesset member he deems best suited to build a coalition in the Knesset. He could choose Livni, and then give her time to pick off Lieberman, Shas and some of the other right-wing parties dependent on patronage and entitlements.

The right bloc certainly made gains overall today at the polls, but the government building process is an entirely different, backroom sort of process.

- Kevin

UPDATE (10:51 p.m. IST)

The exit poll results from all three Israeli television channels, 1, 2 and 10:

Source: Haaretz

Based on the exit polling numbers, it appears that the right bloc won about 64-65 seats whereas the left bloc won about 55-56 seats. Of course, this is when the deal-making starts as ideology gives way to power politics.

One other factor in play: Apparently ballots from Israel's frontline soldiers have not been part of the exit-poll data. How they voted may at the end tip the final count somewhat.

- Sam

We've Seen This Movie Before

President Ahmadinejad, no doubt scrambling to counter the emergence of Mohammad Khatami in the presidential race later this year, is now offering the United States a chance for ‘Dialogue With Respect’:

“The new U.S. administration has said that it wants change and it wants to hold talks with Iran,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said.

“It is clear that change should be fundamental, not tactical, and our people welcome real changes,” he said. “Our nation is ready to hold talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad went on to say that Iran could cooperate with the United States to uproot terrorism in the region. “The Iranian nation is the biggest victim of terrorism,” he said.

But he referred to former President Bush as one of reasons for insecurity in the region and said, “Bush and his allies should be tried and punished.”

“If you really want to uproot terrorism, let’s cooperate to find the initiators of the recent wars in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region, try them and punish them,” he said.

His comments seemed to move away from an earlier call by Mr. Ahmadinejad for the United States to apologize for actions in the relationship with Iran dating back 60 years.

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it's because we've seen this song and dance before - from Khatami. Coming off of his resounding electoral win in 1997, then President Khatami spoke rather boldly of a dialogue between Iran and the United States as a gradual means to thaw the two nations' icy relationship.

Khatami's message and platform were both ultimately undermined by hardliners in the Majlis, and despite efforts at rapprochement from the Clinton administration, relations remain just as icy today as ever. Following Khatami's overtures, Clinton eased visa restrictions, pushed for ILSA waivers so that trade between Europe and Iran could loosen up, and in 1999, even came within a hair of outright apologizing to the Iranians for the coup of '53.

This has been a routine hangup between the two nations. Notions of mutual respect and dialogue are great and all, but they need to be measurable. You have to be able to list out substantive gestures so that items may be traded off in tit-for-tat fashion. Without that, all you get is empty grandstanding and talk.

As I've said many times here in the past, both sides are to blame for the current diplomatic mess we're in. But of the two sides involved, the least serious of the two has almost always been the Iranians.

Forget ''dialogue." Show me action.

Israeli Elections: My Miserable Voting Experience

TEL AVIV, Israel - Voting day has always been exciting for me. It started when I was a kid in Iran. Our local Kebab Restaurant (Kababi Najafi) was run by a member of the local Islamic committee. On voting days, he turned it into a voting office. For us kids, it was a good chance to gather around and play football. On such occasions, there were far more of us so it was twice the fun. The reason for the added numbers was because the streets were closed, due to fear of car bombs.

So instead of playing football between passing cars on the street, which on many occasions caused death or maiming of children (I was run over three times and nearly died during my first experience), we played football without the fear of Tehran's drivers. To us they were far more scary and real than car bombs.

I lived in Iran until I was 14, which meant I was too young to vote. In 1987 we moved to England. During my 17 years there, I never voted. This was because I was either too young, or moving around too much between Universities. Also, on a personal level, I didn't feel connected to the political system. The UK is a wonderful country, but politically, I never felt that I belonged.

This all changed when I moved to Israel in 2004. Politically speaking, I felt very connected here. After having left Iran, this was the first place where I felt at home. This country is no paradise by any stretch of the imagination, however as an Iranian Jew, I was welcomed and treated as an equal. As a family we have never felt discriminated against, because of our background. Israel gave us opportunities to progress professionally and in terms of education. This made me feel both happy and guilty.

The guilt came from the fact that Israel's Ethiopian citizens have been left behind. In some cases, they still live in immigrant absorption centres, despite the fact that they have lived here for more than 10 years. Many Ethiopians have progressed, but many have also been left behind.

In the 2006 elections, Kadima, who had backed the Gaza withdrawal, was slated to win. I thought that the peace process had enough support, so I could afford the luxury of voting with my conscience. The party who I chose to vote for was called Atid Ekhad (one future).This despite the fact that Shaul Mofaz, a fellow Persian whose family are also from Esfahan, was running for Kadima.

To me, social justice was more important than the return of the Esfahani empire. Although that will always be the secret “agenda”. I remember teasing an Arab friend once. “Forget your fears of the so called Zionist conspiracy taking over from the Nile to Euphrates. Once we Esfahanis have it our way, we will take over from Zayande Rood (a famous river in Esfahan) to the shores of the Pacific ocean. They don't call Esfahan Nesfe Jahan (half the world) for nothing”.

Joking aside, for now Atid Ekhad was the party for me. Its stated goal was “bringing to Israel the remaining Jews in Ethiopia and strengthening integration efforts for the community”. Many of its members were Ethiopians.

On the 28th of March 2006, on the occasion of elections for the 17th Knesset of the State of Israel, I wasn't just walking to the ballot box, I was almost hopping and skipping. The excitement was wonderful. Here I was voting for the first time in my life, for a party that my conscience fully supported. As I was about to cast my vote, I even asked the voting supervisor to take a photo of the historic occasion. “You are a new immigrant, right?”, said the guy bemusedly. I guess he had seen it all before.

Atid Ekhad proved to be a failure. Only 14,500 people voted for them which meant that they could not even win one seat in the Knesset. I couldn't believe it. On the night when the results were announced, almost angrily, I asked an Ethiopian security guard “how could you guys let this happen?”. His reply which in a true Ethiopian manner was polite and in a calm voice was “we vote Likud. They are the ones who brought us out of Ethiopia. We are loyal to them”.

Friends had told me to vote with my brain, and that to vote for Atid Ekhad was a waste. But I refused to believe them. In this year's election, I was going to vote with my conscience again. This time, for a Green party called Green Movement Meimad (GMM). Their platform which called for increased protection of the environment, social justice, and full support for the peace process was exactly in line which my thinking.

However, all of a sudden, the source of my vote, turned from my heart, to my head. Instead of just using my political knowledge, I started applying geometry. I realized that GMM had little chance of winning a single seat. So then next best party was Labour. To do that, I had to turn 45 degrees to the right. It wasn't easy, but realistic. That's the end of it, I thought.

Then I heard Bibi and his talk of deposing Hamas. The Iraqi regime change experience was bad enough for the US. It would be absurd to let a leader who talks about a similar adventure come to power in Israel. Stopping him became my priority. This is when I realized that Ehud Barak (head of Labour party) had no chance of running against Netanyahu for the post of Prime Minister. So it was time to get the protractor out for the second time. I decided to turn 45 degrees to the right again, to Tzipi Livni. She was the best moderate choice who has a respectable chance of standing against Netantahu.

90 degrees away from my conscience, I went to cast my vote today. As I placed my vote in the ballot box, I broke into a sweat. Tzipi Livni is a far better politician than Bibi, but she was not my first choice. She was my third. And now my body had joined my heart in protesting. It goes to show, that even when you have a full range of choices, it doesn't mean that you pick the one you ideally want.

Unlike 2006, my voting experience today was a miserable one. I don't want to imagine how I will feel if Likud wins. I know how President Ahmadinejad will feel. He will be happy.

February 9, 2009

Can We "Helsinki" The Iranians?

Michael Leeden writes in the Wall Street Journal that any negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program must also include a demand that the government in Tehran dismantle itself:

The Obama administration wants to talk to the Iranians, and some reports suggest they have been talking for months. American negotiators should take every opportunity to call for respect for human rights -- on behalf of the labor leaders demanding that salaries be paid, women demanding equal rights, students asserting their freedom to criticize, and even dissident ayatollahs, such as Montazeri and Boroujedi, who have branded the regime as heretical. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would seem an ideal champion for these victims.

Above all, the U.S. must not make the mistake of limiting demands to the nuclear program. A free Iran must be the objective.

Given how much success past negotiations have had on the more limited issue of Iran's nuclear program, it strikes me that this, more far-reaching (and from the Mullahs' point of view, suicidal) condition is eminently reasonable.

That said, I take Leeden to mean that the U.S. should try to embed human rights conditions within its negotiating framework to ultimately undermine the regime from within, much as the Helsinki Accords provided Eastern Europeans with the moral ammo necessary to take down the Soviet Union.

This isn't necessarily a bad idea in general, but as I understand it, Helsinki occurred after there was already a long history of negotiations between the Soviet Union and the West, and after work was underway on nuclear arms control (SALT). There is no formal dialogue yet between Iran and the U.S. so wouldn't a more incremental approach serve us better?

Russian NIMBY

Last Thursday, the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting analysis of U.S.-Russian relations:

On Wednesday, Russia announced a financial rescue fund for a group of ex-Soviet allies and won their agreement to form a military rapid reaction force in the region that it said would match North Atlantic Treaty Organization standards. That came a day after Kyrgyzstan announced, at Russian urging, that it planned to evict the U.S. from the base it has used to ferry large numbers of American troops into Afghanistan. Russia said the base may house part of the planned new force instead.

The steps mark Russia's most aggressive push yet to counter a U.S. military presence in the region that it has long resented. They pose a challenge for the administration of President Barack Obama, which sees Afghanistan as its top foreign-policy priority and is preparing to double the size of the American military presence there.

Kyrgyzstan said the U.S. must leave the Manas Air Base, which American forces use to send troops and equipment to Afghanistan.

The developments also underscore the difficulties for Mr. Obama as he seeks to build a closer relationship with Moscow. Russia is signaling that it will be a tough defender of its interests, especially in its traditional backyard of the former Soviet Union.

It was always going to be difficult for the United States to sustain a posture wherein it defined "vital" interests across the globe (interests that entitled her to use military force to defend) but that afforded no other nation a similar prerogative. That doesn't mean we don't have vital interests across the globe, but it does mean that we're going to have to be far more accommodating to the interests of other rising powers. It will also mean that we should start heeding Nikolas Gvosdev's advice and start choosing our rhetoric more carefully.

I find it interesting that the first post Cold War great power challenge to the United States is coming (albeit in a very mild form) from Russia and not China. Recall that during the 1990s, when neoconservatives weren't worrying about the dire threat from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, they were warning about a possible standoff with China. Instead, the threats to U.S. security came from al Qaeda and the great power challenge is coming from Russia. 0-2.

February 8, 2009

Of Beef and Money in Uruguay

uruguaybeef1.jpgLast week I came across two interesting articles which at first sight only appear to have in common that they talk about Uruguay. Both relayed some promising news.

The first one, at The Economist, talks about how Uruguayan banks welcomed a 41% increase in deposits by non-residents in 2008.

As I mentioned in my January 11 post, when the pension nationalization law passed in Argentina last year ten bank-owned pension funds - worth over $26 billion in total - were taken over by the government. The reaction from the Argentinean people was felt immediately. Those who could took their money out of the country, and capital outflows reached 7% of GDP in 2008. A lot of that money came from Argentina.

The other article, on Uruguayan beef, was from Bloomberg. In 2006, Argentinean farmers turned away from beef, both in response to the rise in soybean and other commodity prices, but also because of export caps imposed as an anti-inflationary measure by then-president Nestor Kirchner - the current president's husband. However, not all farmers switched crops. Some farmers sold their holdings in Argentina and moved to Uruguay in search of lower taxes.

Like export-destined Argentinian cattle, Uruguayan cattle are raised free of antibiotics, grass fed high-quality grasses, alfalfa, lotus, and clovers, and are free of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease).

This report from the US Department of Agriculture contrasts Uruguay's reaction to that of Argentina during the 1999-2001 recession, explaining how the Uruguayan government allowed market conditions to drive the recovery of the beef sector. Uruguay also instituted a comprehensive national animal identification program aimed at animal disease control, quality beef production and marketing. This ensures that ranchers and producers were complying with sanitary requirements and also fights illegal smuggling.

As a result, Uruguay is now aggressively targeting foreign markets for their beef exports. Because of this, the beef farmers are poised to benefit from a drop in demand and new Korean government restrictions on US beef. It's not only the Koreans who want Uruguayan beef. According to Bloomberg, Uruguay is the only South American country allowed to export fresh beef to the US after the US banned fresh beef exports from Argentina and Brazil due to sanitary issues. Uruguayan beef is also in demand in Russia and the EU.

In contrast to the wave of recent nationalizations in Argentina, Venezuela and other countries, Uruguay now allows a third of its agricultural property to be owned by foreigners.

Foreign investors are buying: Brazil's Marfrig Frigorificos & Comercio de Alimentos SA, the world's fourth-biggest meat packer, bought four Uruguayan slaughterhouses last year. PGG Wrightson Ltd. of New Zealand and George Soros's Buenos Aires-based Adecoagro have bought prime land near Uruguay's western border with Argentina.

The competitive advantage over Argentina is based on a flat 25% tax on farmers' incomes, quality products, lack of price controls, policies that encourage foreign investment and no tariffs on farm exports. Uruguay's bureaucracy is small enough that, as Uruguayan farmer Alberto Gramont put it, "if you want to speak to a minister you just ring him up."

In prior years Uruguay renegotiated its foreign debt and avoided default, another factor in its favor. The government has no desire to take over private banking funds, pension or otherwise, either.

As such, the Uruguayan economy is better placed to weather the world economic downturn.

That is good news for the region.

Fausta also blogs at Fausta's Blog

Russia: Armies, Borders and Politics

Russian news this past week has been dominated by security-oriented content, starting with the ongoing discussions with the United States on reducing nuclear armaments. Vice-Premier Sergey Ivanov, representing the Russian side, stressed that when it comes to moving past nuclear-armaments agreement that expires at the end of 2009, his country would like a greater role for the United Nations, maintaining international security and stability and development of the strategy to combat emerging threats. Key issues for Russia at present are international agreement on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, prohibitions on nuclear weapons testing and prohibitions on chemical and biological armaments. Ivanov also stressed that Russia would like negotiating sides to agree on prohibition of placing nuclear weapons beyond the borders of US or Russia.

Russia's security in its near abroad got front page coverage when Alexander Golovin, Special Representative of the Russian President on issues of Demarcation of Borders with former Soviet states talked on determining Russian official border with "two newly created countries - Abkhazia and South Ossetia." Moscow held negotiations with Georgia on the status of Russian border in breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but "after Georgian aggression in August last year, both sides no longer meet. We are now preparing to hold such talks with Abkhazia and South Ossetia - as independent states, and as determined in our joint agreements on friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance. This process is at the initial stages - we are still forming official delegations (for such talks)."

The key issue here is that Russia is willing to treat both former Georgian provinces as independent states - not as parts of Georgia, or constituent republics of Russia or even official Russian territory. Such stance puts it directly in odds with the United States and her European allies that call for the respect of territorial integrity of Georgia, which would include such breakaway provinces as parts of Georgia proper. "Abkhazia and South Ossetia are two countries that are allies of Russia," said Golovin. "During Soviet period, there were administrative borders between Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic and Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in the Abkhazian and South Ossetian regions. Today, it is important for us to confirm such borders as official state borders between the Russian Federation, Republics of Abkhazia and Republic of South Ossetia."

Recently, Russia spearheaded the creation of the Collective Rapid Reaction Force made up of the militaries of the former Soviet countries that form the Commonwealth of Independent States. An analysis of such an alliance in daily "Izvestia" described such force with the potential to turn into "... a powerful military-political block. One just has to look at the map in order to see that countries making up such rapid reaction force - Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia - are essentially making up the rump Soviet Union. Even without Ukraine."

The analysis presented the strengths and benefits of such military alliance by country. "What do Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Uzbekistan have in common? They all have stable political regimes, which is very important in context of the ongoing global economic crisis. Russia and Kazakhstan have very strong economic footing - they have plenty of energy resources, most importantly oil and natural gas. This economic potential is enough for these two states - first of all Russia - to become the leading powers of this new block, bringing their allies to their (economic) level."

Other countries of this alliance bring major benefits as well - "Armenia should be considered as a strategic bastion of the Rapid Reaction Force in the South Caucasus region. Moreover, Yerevan can bring its partners other benefits- we must not forget how strong is the influence of Armenian diaspora in the United States, France and other Western countries. The opinion of such diaspora is not easy to ignore."

While Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have weak economies, small militaries and have recently be plagued by political instability, "... the time for color revolutions is over. the self-preservation instinct calls on people to consolidate, not to rock the boat. This instinct call on leaders of these countries to embrace their natural allies. For the United States, both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are important so long as America is engaged in the war in Afghanistan. But it will not stay there forever- sooner or later, the US and NATO will leave the region. And then Bishkek and Dushanbe will again turn into distant periphery for Washington and Brussels. But for Moscow and Alma-Ata these states will never become unimportant - and this is they key to the long life of this new military-political block. We as countries need each other, and are willing to risk in order to keep our partners safe and sound."

Meanwhile, President Dmitry Medvedev made a major step towards relaxing official rules for registration of political parties. Until now, in order to be considered an official party in the Russian Federation, such party had to have 50,000 members. Medvedev's proposal lowered that number to 45,000. Another clause in his proposal calls on parties to continuously renew the party leadership ranks, and to let go "of eternal leaders." The majority of Russian Duma deputies consider this only the beginning of party reforms - there are indicators that more steps in easing of official party rules will be undertaken.

"Further benchmarks will lower the number of party membership to just 40,000 people - in our opinion, it is the most optimal number," said Vladimir Pligin, Chairman of the Duma Committee on Constitutional Legislation. "These initiatives have one goal - to strengthen the political structure of our society. Through such parties, various population groups should take part in government work and in official decision-making process," said Andrey Isaev, Chairman of the Duma Committee on Social Politics.

Chinese Sphere: Wrinkles in Relations

The People’s Daily, the Chinese government’s official newspaper, published an interesting commentary titled, “Learn to Listen to Public Opinion from the Internet.” Penned by an associate professor at the Central Party School, the country’s premier institution for the training of future CCP cadres, it addresses the recent “human flesh search” phenomenon, how it has led to the downfall of certain government officials, and the attempts of one city to ban them:

The development of the Internet is not just an information revolution. It is also an essential part of the development process of political democracy. Through this important bridge to public opinion, the party and government can, with the help of the people, perfect the management mechanism of cadres, the disciplinary mechanism of party members, and the enforcement mechanisms of the judiciary.

Today, there are quite a few officials who are feeling more pressured, that it’s tough to be an official because there are countless eyeballs keeping close watch over them. If you are carrying out your duties responsibly, what do you have to be afraid of? Some people feel pressured because they cannot abuse their power and engage in under-the-table transactions any longer. Now there are many officials who have changed their behavior, become more disciplined, and do not dare to exceed their authority.

Is the Chinese government allowing the Internet to develop into a kind of civil society? Or is this an attempt by the central government to keep the local government in line?

While room for expression seems to be expanding in China, journalists in Hong Kong working beats in China are finding their activities coming under tighter restrictions. Ming Pao, the leading newspaper in Hong Kong, laments this recent development:

Today the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council announced the “Regulations for Hong Kong and Macao Journalists Reporting in the Mainland.” The key portion of those regulations is that journalists in the Mainland must carry and be ready to produce at all times a press pass issued by the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government on behalf of the All-China Journalists Association. This is a restrictive rule which only adds to the obstacles faced by Hong Kong and Macao reporters operating in China. This very clearly goes against the trend of the Mainland opening up. Also, there needs to be strengthened communication and increased understanding in order to speed up integration between the Mainland and Hong Kong and Macao. These new rules will most certainly hinder that vision from coming true.

The restrictions may be due to the Chinese government’s wariness over the abundance of sensitive political anniversaries this year, such as the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Incident.

The gloomy outlook for the Chinese economy has caused much worry in Taiwan where exports to China dropped nearly 40% last year. The Liberty Times, one of Taiwan’s leading newspapers, sounds an alarm over the island’s over-dependence upon its neighbor:

It can be said that in the face of the global financial tsunami, China is already drowning and is in no position to help others. This is not surprising. Recently China’s leader reiterated that China could only take care of itself and was not able to save the world. This statement clearly tells us that Taiwan’s economy cannot rely on China. It’s a dead end. Regretfully, President Ma, who continues to relax restrictions on investments in China, seems to be totally oblivious. ...

Wen Jiabao stated that it would be difficult for China to maintain an 8% GDP growth rate. Anyone who is sensitive towards the Chinese economy will easily detect the warning signs of deterioration in the Chinese economy from Wen’s remarks. At this present moment what the government should be doing is maintaining a safe distance from China.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has been expending a lot of political capital in efforts to reduce tensions with China through closer economic exchanges, which were largely supported, and scaling back efforts to increase Taiwan’s international space, which was much more controversial. Now that it appears that the economic links are not going to deliver the goods in the near term at least, the Ma administration has been trying to put a positive spin on its cross-strait policy. However, it will be hard-pressed to tout any accomplishments in enlarging Taiwan’s international space because there simply are none. Even when presented with an opportunity recently to re-establish diplomatic relations with Malawi, the Ma administration has chosen to decline out of unwillingness to displease China. With this kind of foreign policy, one wonders what occupies the time these days of Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

February 6, 2009

Interns for Spring/Summer 2009

RealClearWorld is now accepting applications for Spring and Summer interns. The position is part-time and unpaid.

This is a great opportunity for college students or young professionals interested in new media, journalism, foreign affairs and politics. New Media Associates will help with the daily aggregation process at RCW, as well as assisting in the growth and enhancement of some of our other features. A chance for young writers and academics to get their foot in the door as well. Location doesn't matter.

Please email a copy of your resume and cover letter here.

February 5, 2009

Some Fear Civilizational Collapse from Global Warming

Some interesting new data from Rasmussen Reports:

Nearly one-out-of-four voters (23%) say it is at least somewhat likely that global warming will destroy human civilization within the next century. Five percent (5%) say it’s very likely.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 66% say it’s not likely that civilization will be destroyed by the year 2100. That includes 27% who say it is not at all likely.

Republicans and unaffiliated voters strongly reject the notion that global warming will end human civilization, but Democrats are more evenly divided—38% think that disastrous outcome is likely while 46% disagree.

Frankly, I find it hard to believe that the 23 percent is genuine. I don't know about you, but if I felt that it was "somewhat likely" that all of human civilization was going to end within the next 100 years, I'd be living somewhat differently.

Got Nukes?

The Carnegie Endowment runs down the current state of the world's nuclear arsenals.

Here's the top line overview:
Russia: - ~14,000
U.S.: ~10,500
China: >125
France: 300
United Kingdom: ~160
Israel: ~80
India: ~50
Pakistan: ~60
North Korea: <10

Every once in a while you'll read some analyst or another proclaim that a nuclear free world is possible. Put me down on the pessimistic side of the ledger.

February 4, 2009

Chavez's 10th


Hugo Chavez celebrated the tenth anniversary of his rise to power by holding a summit of fellow-minded heads of state, and declaring a national holiday.

For the summit he played host to four presidents - Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Honduras's Rafael Zelaya, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Dominica's Roosevelt Skerrit and Cuban vice-president Jose Ramon Machado. It was officially a meeting of the Castro-Chavez ALBA, Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, which is meant to counter the US's economic influence in the region while advancing regional integration. The ALBA is an integral part of Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution and is funded mainly through Venezuela's oil revenues. Of course, there was a big outdoor rally at the tomb of Simon Bolivar.

The holiday was declared at a moment's notice, leaving many questioning its legality since the law requires that advance notice be published in the government gazette. Private firms who didn't comply with the holiday would be subject to fines.

While the celebration on Monday commemorated the day Chavez was sworn in for his first term, the celebration didn't end there. Yesterday Chavez celebrated the 17th anniversary of his failed 1992 coup.

The Jungle Hut has a collection of first-hand accounts of the 1992 coup, and some thoughts on the frail nature of liberty.

Chavez's current term runs until the end of 2012. He may not take "no" on the upcoming referendum on extending his term in office indefinitely.

Fausta also blogs at Fausta's Blog

Winning the War, Losing the Battle

Responding to reports that the CIA has "decimated" al Qaeda in Pakistan via repeated air assaults, Blake Hounshell says that before we take any victory laps, "native Pakistani and Afghan militants appear to be getting stronger, not weaker, just as Pakistani analysts have been warning for months." He concludes that we're winning the battle but losing the war.

While I think caution is certainly warranted, I think this is ultimately the wrong way to look at it.

We are never going to win the "war" if the war is defined as making the native Pashtun tribes astride the Durand Line come to accept a foreign military presence on their soil - particularly one that frequently drops bombs on and around them. Insisting on that objective will ensure America's defeat.

However, destroying the transnational terrorist organization inside Afghanistan and Pakistan is a crucial objective. And one that, if the reports are to be believed, we are achieving.

That means that once we have thoroughly decimated al Qaeda we should leave. We should leave before the war morphs still further from a battle against people intent on coming here to kill Americans, to a war against people who are fighting because we are over there. As we saw in Iraq with the Anbar Awakening, the two are not the same.

It's surprising how often you'll hear commentators complaining that we "abandoned" Afghanistan in the 1980s, as if anyone had a remotely plausible plan for building an Afghan state in the wake of the Soviet retreat. We didn't then. We don't now.

February 3, 2009

A Tale of Two Forums

Last week the World Financial Forum was held in Davos, Switzerland, and the World Social Forum was held in Benem, Brazil.

As expected, both forums are the opposite of each other, not only in the setting - the snowy Swiss setting stands in stark contrast with the humid, Amazonian setting of Belem - but in ideology as well.

The Latin American presidents attending Davos, Álvaro Uribe of Colombia and Felipe Calderón of Mexico, took the opportunity to promote their countries at the World Financial Forum. Both Uribe and Calderon lead countries that are fighting drug wars, and which are striving to diversify their economies by attracting foreign investors. Davos is the perfect setting for that. Additionally, policymakers from around the world meet there to exchange ideas, which, like it or not, affect the smaller countries' economies. It behooves the leaders of growing economies like Colombia and Mexico to be there, even in a year when the WFF was decidedly somber.

Both Uribe and Calderón highlighted their countries' aggressively implemented reforms that have significantly boosted foreign investment. Both Uribe and Calderón realize that their countries' economic future lies in world trade.

For the first time in three years, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva opted to attend the World Social Forum. Brazil spent $35 million in hosting the event, which was titled "Another World Is Possible," and because of its location near the mouth of the Amazon River had an ecological theme, in addition to the anti-globalization theme on which it was founded in 2001.


Paraguay's Fernando Lugo, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez joined Lula in a panel, "Dialogue on popular integration in our America," an anti-globalization discussion. The intentionally placed word "our," included in the title of the most publicized panel of the event, is a subtle reminder that this event is a public-relations junket for the world's Left. Chavez, as usual, vied for attention over Lula, the host.

The economies of Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela combined do not match the size of the Brazilian economy. Of course the forum provided them the opportunity to berate the US.

Lula, as head of the world's tenth largest economy, might have wanted to give a symbolic "slap at the bankers" and score points with his base constituency at home and with fellow Latin American socialists. However, his absence at Davos was a missed opportunity, in the words of Nick Chamie, global head of emerging-markets research at RBC Capital Markets,

to raise the profile of Brazil and its companies as they seek to refinance $64 billion in maturing foreign debt this year.
The end of the commodity boom adds more strain on the Brazilian economy which has come to a standstill.

In a nervous world financial environment, Lula's shunning of Davos was not a wise move.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at Fausta's Blog

Big Government Conservatism, Pentagon Edition

I'm always amused when I see self-styled conservatives appropriate the language of liberals when they want to bemoan funding increases "cuts" to the bureaucracy:

The Obama administration has given the Pentagon a $527 billion limit, excluding war costs, for its fiscal 2010 Defense budget, an Office of Management and Budget official said Monday.

If enacted, that would be about $14 billion more than the $513 billion allocated for fiscal 2009 (PL 110-329), including military construction funds, and it would match what the Bush administration estimated last year for the Pentagon in fiscal 2010.

But it sets up a potential conflict between the new administration and the Defense Department’s entrenched bureaucracy, which has remained largely intact through the presidential transition. Some Pentagon officials and congressional conservatives are already trying to portray the OMB number as a cut by comparing it with a $584 billion draft budget request compiled last fall by the Joint Chiefs of Staff for fiscal 2010.

And right on cue, Max Boot:

Yet at the same time that Obama and the Congressional Democrats are throwing money at their constituencies it appears that they are stiffing the most important government department–the Department of Defense. According to news reports, “The Obama administration has asked the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to cut the Pentagon’s budget request for the fiscal year 2010 by more than 10 percent — about $55 billion.”

It’s possible that the president will still overrule this directive from the Office of Management and Budget, which is said to be opposed by Secretary of Defense Gates, but if he doesn’t he could be doing terrible damage not only to our armed forces but also to his carefully cultivated image of moderation.

The U.S. could afford to slow the growth of the defense budget and still stay far ahead of potential great power competitors such as China or Russia by simply updating its strategy to reflect the realities of the 21st century. But Boot and company want the U.S. to maintain its antiquated Cold War posture, wage manpower intensive, colonial-style wars in the Middle East, and stare down China - budget be damned.

What ever happened to the party of Eisenhower?

[Hat tip: Noah Shactman]

Update: Robert Kagan musters a stronger argument in the Washington Post. But, again, it underscores the up-is-down nature of the defense debate. Here's Kagan:

A reduction in defense spending this year would unnerve American allies and undercut efforts to gain greater cooperation. There is already a sense around the world, fed by irresponsible pundits here at home, that the United States is in terminal decline. Many fear that the economic crisis will cause the United States to pull back from overseas commitments. The announcement of a defense cutback would be taken by the world as evidence that the American retreat has begun.

This would make it harder to press allies to do more. The Obama administration rightly plans to encourage European allies to increase defense capabilities so they can more equitably share the burden of global commitments. This will be a tough sell if the United States is cutting its own defense budget.

I think it's precisely the opposite. Our current allies are so militarily weak and so unable to contribute to ostensibly "coalition" efforts precisely because America has, for decades now, relieved them of the obligation to fund their own defense. (Indeed, Kagan has celebrated this dynamic and argued for it to continue well into the 21st century.) It is a classic case of dependency - the sort conservatives would typically bemoan but in the alternative universe of the Pentagon budget, seem to forget. (Just imagine the conservative response to the assertion that the way to get people off welfare and back to work was to give them even larger welfare payments.)

Kagan acknowledges that America's defense budget is as high as it is not because we're living in an era of unprecedented national danger, but because of America's overseas commitments. But it would be nice to start the debate not by demanding an ever larger share of my (and everyone else's) paycheck to underwrite those commitments, but with an argument about why those commitments are necessary in the first place, and why allies cannot take a larger share of the burden.

February 2, 2009

Russian Prognostications on the Dollar

For many months now, Russian private and public financial institutions have been trying to determine what will happen to the US dollar and the global economic regime it underpins. As the rubble swung to a new low following the collapse of the oil prices and as the dollar value keeps fluctuating, many in Russia are trying to figure out if the dollar will still remain the official currency for too long. Business daily "Fiansoviye Izvestia (Financial News) has recently published six possible scenarios about the fate of the American currency:

1. Most favorite "conspiratorial" scenario - United States will stop using the dollar in favor of an "Amero"- common unified currency of America, Canada and Mexico. The exchange rate of amero to dollar will be 1 to 10. All investments made with a dollar will lose most of their value.

2. The United States will print an entirely new "dollar," citing the concern that too many counterfeit dollars are in circulation. At the same time, it will refuse to accept dollars from beyond its borders, where the majority of dollar cash is circulated. Therefore, all cash in "people's mattresses" will become worthless.

3. America will stop printing a $100 banknote. The majority of such "Benjamins" are in global, not American, circulation.

4. America will announce a technical default. Many experts state that such is impossible for an economy of its size, because the American economy would lose much of the world's confidence. However, the United States changed the rules of the financial game many times before, thus becoming the principle global power in the process.

5. America will continue to print the dollars, causing greater inflation and the dollar's devaluation. The dollar will then crash, which will solve the problem of decades of borrowing cash from overseas.

6. The global financial system will be restructured entirely. Soon enough, many regional currencies will replace the dominant dollar. Some predict that within a decade there will be several such currencies, produced by countries united into economic and currency unions. The European Union has already started down this path, and there are similar deliberations among some Arab, Asian and Latin American states. Russia is currently looking at a plan to unite its rubble with currencies of other former Soviet states.

All Apologies

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants the Obama administration to apologize for "crimes" committed against Iran as prelude to any serious dialogue between the two countries.

The American people, however, don't seem to be feeling much contrition, as Rasmussen Reports offers the following polling data:

Just 11% of U.S. voters think America should apologize to Iran for “crimes” against the Islamic country – one of the prerequisites demanded by the Iranian president before he will agree to meet with President Barack Obama.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 73% oppose such an apology.

Personally I don't think an apology is in the cards, for a variety of reasons. First among them is a practical point: the Clinton administration already apologized to Iran. Twice. It didn't exactly usher in a golden age of good relations.

Watch the Kurds

Juan Cole says the early take away from Iraq's election was that parties backing a strong central government, and a unified Iraqi state, won. If Cole is correct, and the centralizers won the day, what does this mean for Kurdish ambitions?

(I think the mere fact that both Cole and the Nation's Robert Dreyfuss have not waxed overly pessimistic about the elections says something encouraging about the state of affairs in Iraq as neither can be accused of being boosters of the effort.)

February 1, 2009

Russia: Chicken legs and Russian economy

Russian news has focused on alleviating country's growing economic hardships and on trying to determine the future course of US-Russia relations.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent a major signal to the new American administration by stating at the Davos Economic Forum that a new chapter in US-Russia relations is only possible if Russia is removed from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment (JV). The Jackson-Vanick Amendment was passed by US Congress in the mid-1970s in order to limit and restrict trade with the USSR because of the way the communist superpower prohibited the emigration of Jews and other minorities. Following the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991 and the relaxation of all emigration laws- resulting in the outflow of millions of people to the West, Israel and America - all former Soviet states inherited the Jackson-Vanik Amendment in their bilateral relationship with the United States. Since 1992, Congress voted to remove the JV condition from practically all former Soviet Republics - except Russia. Ukraine was removed from the JV Amendment in 2006, Azerbaijan and other new American allies were removed in 2007 and 2008.

For Russia, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment is a political and personal - not economic - issue. Given the growing trade between the US and Russian Federation since 1992, every American president waived the JV clause every year in order to facilitate bilateral economic cooperation. But the US Congress refuses to graduate Russia from said Amendment, citing new reasons each year, including the need to protect US domestic poultry producers from unfair practices of their Russian competitors. At Davos, Putin spoke in no uncertain terms that the original conditions for this Amendment have long since expired: "Russia does not want an exclusive relationship with the world economic powers. We just want openness in return for openness. USSR no longer exists, and there is no restriction on Russian Jews' immigration overseas."

Putin's personal message to the Davos participants expressed years of frustration with the US Congress, when every year since the early 1990s, the Russian government and various groups and organizations arguing for greater US-Russia economic relationship were frustrated by yet another refusal to remove Russia from the JV Amendment. "When the US Congress yet again refused to remove Russia from the Jackson Vanik Amendment, citing the need to protect the market for the chicken wings, I got a letter from a powerful Israeli politician who told me that he did not spend time in Soviet jails because of poultry (possibly alluding to his time as a political prisoner in Soviet Union for his desire to leave the country), and it's not even clear what they are doing in their Congress," said Putin as the audience reacted in shock at his statement.

To further prop up the Russian economy, Prime Ministers of Russia and Belarus signed joint an anti-crisis plan. "This is a very good plan," said Belorussian Prime Minister Sergey Sidorski. "It will support the economies of our two countries, will not allow them to fall below the 2008 levels and will hopefully even allow for some growth." The plan was the main item of consideration at the meeting of Ministers of the "Unionzied State." Russia and Belarus signed the official charter in 1996 that called for a full union between the two countries, but the actual implementation and the eventual merger of the two states has been a very slow and arduous process, encountering resistance either from Moscow or from Minsk. (An important note - when then-President Putin announced that he would not run for his country's highest office in 2008, many in the international political establishment thought that he would be able to force the final union between the two countries and become the President of said new state).

In further deliberation about the fate of US-Russia relations, Viachelsav Nikonov, President of "Politica" Fund, cautioned against having too many expectations for the improvement in the way Moscow and Washington view each other. "United States remains the world's most powerful state despite the economic downturn. By the time Obama was inaugurated, two major crises resolved themselves - Israeli action in Gaza and Russia-Ukraine gas row. Nothing should have or could have cast a pall on the new President's first days in office." Nikonov cited a possible visit by President Obama to Russia in April of this year, but was not optimistic that there will be major shifts in US-Russia relations. "American foreign policy is geared towards US global domination. There are countries that interfere with that plan - whether they actually desire to do so or not. Obviously, Russia is one such country."

He also noted that the NATO eastward expansion plan that would incorporate Ukraine and Georgia was "hatched " by the administration of then-President Bill Clinton, whose former officials now fill the ranks of Obama's administration, including former first lady and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "That means both Ukraine and Georgia can remain areas of sharp geopolitical competition between America and Russia. Still, the overall competition between our countries may lessen also because Russia is not a priority for Obama's administration - the current economic crisis and the need to stabilize the Middle East are more important for the new American President."

Meanwhile, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev congratulated the winners of the prestigious global off-road auto race "Dakar" - the Russian team of KamAz auto manufacturers. Medvedev expressed his support for holding similar international auto races between Kazan (Russia) and Ashgabad (capital of Turkmenistan in Central Asia), traversing different terrain from forest to steppe to mountains to deserts. He also promised to personally conduct negotiations on this issue with presidents of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

China: Tough Economic Times Ahead

The Chinese world spent most of the past week celebrating the lunar new year and has started returning to the work of pushing the economy forward bit by bit. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao optimistically predicted that his nation's GDP growth would hit the magic 8% mark this year, popularly considered to be the rate China would need to reach in order to continue to provide employment for current and new workers.

Apart from doubts over the accuracy of officially reported statistics, there are indications that China's economy is being hit hard by the global financial crisis. Many Taiwanese businessmen originally posted to China have been recalled to Taiwan or laid off. Millions of migrant workers are also finding themselves without a job to return to after the new year.

Lan Weiwei, the deputy editor-in-chief of Southern Metropolis Weekly, shares on his widely read blog about his experience returning to his hometown for the new year:

This year's winter will probably be even longer than expected. Everybody wishes that it could be like previous years where after the fifth or sixth day of the Chinese new year they would be rushing back to the city to work. The situation this year is a lot different. Although the official day to start work this year has moved up a day earlier than previous years, it seems like people are not in such a hurry to get back to work. ... Before, there were people who were indispensable to the factories or companies they worked for. This year, they have become idle.

This is especially the case for my relatives and childhood friends who have been working in Guangdong. Most of them do not know whether they will have jobs this year. Some of them who worked at factories were told to return home and wait there until they received notification to go back to work. They realize, however, that the notification this year will arrive later than usual.

Venezuela: More Anti-Semitism

The End of Venezuela as I Know It posts,

I'm putting as a picture, a poster made by the White Hand (Student) movement for the campaign against the Amendment that it could allow Chavez or any other to be re-elected as president indefinitely. It says "They offer us living in peace but they can't control the violence of their groups?" I'm not publishing this poster today because of the NO campaign. I'm doing it because last night, a group of armed men entered a synagogue causing damages and leaving hate messages on the walls of the temple. I often feel confused about the ways the Revolution defines itself, specially when it comes to define the enemies.
Here's the poster:


The poster asks,

They offer us to live in peace, but they can't control their sympathizer's violence?
Indefinite re-election... Better NOT
The End of Venezuela's point is that the revolution needs new enemies, and the Jewish community is now becoming a scapegoat.

Noticias24 has photos of the vandalized synagogue:



Out. Die now.

YNet reports that the synagogue was vandalized late Friday night by armed assailants. Noticias 24 says that it was a group of as many as fifteen people who vandalized the synagogue. On January 21 and 22 the exterior of the synagogue had already been vandalized with graffiti.

It wasn't the first anti-Semitic graffitti to appear in Caracas.

Jews assassins terrorists

Jews I sh*t on your star

Last July I translated at my blog an anti-Israel ad that apparently was paid for by the governor’s office of the State of Anzoategui.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at Fausta's Blog

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